Busan - Gamcheon Culture Village

Gamcheon Culture Village, Busan

Gamcheon Culture Village, dubbed as the "Machu Picchu of Korea" is a must in Busan that consists of houses built in staircase-fashion on the foothills of a coastal mountain.

How to get there? From the Toseong-dong metro station take exit 8, cross the street and walk to the bus stop in front of the hospital. Catch minibus 2 or 2-2 (₩900, 10 minutes) up the hill.
The history behind these artsy streets, today filled with colourful murals, cozy cafés, cool stores and millions of selfie opportunities goes back to the Korea War. As explained in our post, Busan was the last stronghold of South Korea during the first phase of the war, implying that millions of refugees fled to Busan forcing the Government to hurriedly build houses piled on top of each other on the few available spaces, like this hillside.

With the rise of industrialization, Gamcheon reached almost 30,000 inhabitants, but afterward most of its population moved to other cities and the population fell to 8,000. The few left were aging rapidly, one quarter being over 65, Many of the colorful houses were abandoned. The area lacked basic infrastructure (running water, sewer system) and gave it a rundown look, in danger of disappearing over the time.

In 2010, the local Government in collaboration with urban planners, artists and the residents, had the idea of regenerating the area and attracting tourism, opting for a sustainable development that would respect its unique character and artistic value.

The government made a major effort to improve the infrastructures (retaining walls, running water and sewage system, street paving, parking areas, etc). Meanwhile, artists and residents focused on repairing the homes of the elderly with low incomes, renovating abandoned houses and turning into new things worth visiting like museums, art galleries where cultural and educational activities could be housed.

New village businesses were also stimulated (think of shops, cafés, restaurants, galleries, crafts workshops, hotels) simply because commercial activities create jobs and generate income for the residents, part of which goes back into the community in different ways: distribution of food, organization of festivals and events, reparation of houses, etc. The government also supported the enhancement of the residents’ capacity and self-management, by offering courses in several areas, like business management, sales techniques or crafts.

Volunteers were trained to give guided tours of the village and stimulate the curiosity and creativity of children in this unique area through the “Growing through Art” initiative.

The numerous color tones of the homes, the more than 40 works of art exhibited in the village, the craft shops, the art galleries and cafés, together with the programming of different cultural festivals and the participation of the residents in the revitalization, care and promotion of the village, gave it a unique appeal that resulted in 1.5M visitors in 2015.

Gamcheon is the blueprint on how citizen efforts and Governmental actions can be synergised to execute dramatic change, from a poor marginalized area into a cultural, dynamic village full of life.

While our pictures are not fair when it comes to the beauty of the actual colors - it was already dark when we made it there... I feel thankful about having a chance to wander through the streets without hordes of Chinese tourists armed with selfie sticks.

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Busan - Beomeosa Temple

Beomeosa temple, Busan

Beomeosa Temple「범어사」is a Buddhist temple located on Mt. Geumjeongsan in Busan. Established in 678, it is considered one of the three major temples in southeast Korea. However, the superb scenery of a temple built atop the mountain and the hidden gems called "hermitages" set it apart from anything else we've seen in Korea.

How to get there? First take the Busan subway (1) to Beomeosa station, take exit 1 and walk to the stop of bus 90 which will take you to the nearby entrance of Beomeosa Temple.

The first thing you see from is the main temple entrance, called Iljumun Gate, which is very impressive but also quite similar to anything else you have seen in Seoul. The really cool stuff is hidden in the forest, but not impossible to find. When you see this main gate, just IGNORE IT and continue to walk right towards the hermitage, leaving Beomeosa Temple to your left. There will be signs that read「청련암」which means Chungryunam or Blue Lotus Hermitage, just follow them to hit the jackpot.

This unique enclave is impressive yet quiet. I doubt many foreigners manage to make it there, to be honest. But the walk is well worth it, I had never seen so many bronze statues together, laid out in such a harmonious way, guarding the golden Buddha on the top. On the sides, we can see some halls dedicated to the practice of Seonmudo, a traditional martial art.

Quite a fun anecdote happened to us there. As we were walking downstairs on the way out, a lady came running to invite us to eat bibimbap. On one side, we were somewhat hungry and exhausted (it as 4PM and we had not eaten anything for lunch) but on the other it was too late for lunch. So we politely thank her and left. Then, she came back running trying to hold us - when she arrived we realised she was bringing a bag with some food "korean rice cake" she said and gave two of these blocks to us. It didn't taste much - beyond plain rice of course - but proved quite filling, as we shared one and didn't feel hungry until more than 5 hours later... The korean name for the rice cake is tteok「떡」and is the basis of local favourites like tteok-bokki, favourite dish of a good friend, which one could call the Korean macaroni.

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Busan - Geumjeongsanseong Fortress

Geumjeongsanseong Fortress, Busan

Geumjeongsanseong Fortress is located on the peak of Mt. Geumjeongsan (801.5m) in Busan. Its 17km long wall made it once the largest fortress in Korea. Now, only 4km remain from the original. While the exact time of construction is not recorded, it is believed to come from the Three Kingdoms Era - earlier than 668 - when Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla dynasties were fighting against each other. The present fortress was built in 1703, after the Japanese Invasion of Korea from 1592~1598 to prepare for any further invasions from Japan.

While you expect to visit some kind of castle, the environment you find after getting out of the cable car is actually a forest, quite a lovely walk in the nature as long as you come prepared for it. The views from the cable car as well as the wall thickness are impressive, but if you are tight on time you could just skip this and focus on Beomeosa Temple, which together with the beach and other things was the real highlight of Busan.

The good thing is that both Geumjeongsanseong & Beomeosa are located in the same subway line, rather close to each other, so you can combine both visits easily. Since the fortress is southern - and we were coming from the south - we started from there, but as said, it could have been done the other way around too... Up to you!
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Busan - Canvas Hostel

Canvas Hostel, Haeundae Beach, Busan
It's never easy to find a good, affordable, well-located hotel when you book with few days in advance, specially during the high summer season. Luckily, we got a spot in CANVAS Hostel [WEB] so we are here to tell you.

Managed by a group of cool young hipsters from Busan, Canvas smells of modern design. With ample rooms - in fact much larger than our temporary home in Seoul - large common areas and free breakfast (toast, coffee and olive oil available) this is a perfect base for a flash weekend in Busan.  It is also possible to stay in shared rooms, but we are a bit tool old for that!

Walking distance from Haeundae Beach, close to the main bus lines to take you to all tourist highlights as well as the main train station (to go back to Seoul), CANVAS is a really convenient, classy and advisable spot. During the last day, you can keep your luggage in dedicated lockers.

Definitely a keeper! Make sure to secure it for your visit to Busan!

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Busan - Haeundae Beach

Haeundae Beach, Busan

Haeundae is the largest and most popular beach in Korea, located in Busan a city in the south which is very advisable for a weekend out of Seoul.  Think of a Miami-like skyline, with much more affordable places to stay and eat, wrapped by a boardwalk with plenty of cool views. The perfect way to kick-start the weekend. In the night, the sand is covered by small groups of teenagers who put music and dance to the environment, very much Hongdae-style.

Haeundae es la playa más famosa de Korea, situada en Busan - la segunda ciudad más grande del país - tiene un skyline comparable al de South beach en Miami, pero con hoteles y restaurantes mucho más asequibles en los alrededores. Dar un paseo por sus alrededores es la manera perfecta de comenzar el finde en esta excitante ciudad. Busan huele a vacaciones y ofrece múltiples contrastes, de lo más tradicional - templos y fortalezas en las montañas - a lo más chabacano - esos adolescentes con sueños de K-Pop que amenizan la noche cantando y bailando en la arena, como vimos en Hongdae.

Drones allowed, show some love to our little video!!

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Seoul - DMZ visit

visit to the border between North Korea and South Korea
They are standing in this direction, always keeping their eyes in the enemy

Despite having been to Seoul 5 times before summer 2017, I had never gotten a chance to visit the demilitarised zone (DMZ) between South and North Korea. Located ironically close to Seoul (you can read this post to learn why) it is quite a unique experience that you can only get access to by joining a guided tour. We are against guided anything but since this was the only option, we ended up joining COSMOJIN tour which is not cheap, but has a very good guide with deep historical knowledge who makes the bus rides quite interesting.

Regardless of tour company, just make sure that whichever tour you pick includes a visit to the JSA (Joint Security Area) which is jointly managed by the UN and North Korea military personnel. For us, the powerpoint presentation and chat with the soldiers was absolutely the best.

The day is common for almost all tours, goes  as follows:
  1. Early (7AM) pick-up at the hotel followed by 1h bus ride
  2. Visit to Pamunjon, where the JSA is located.
  3. Including powerpoint presentation from US Army soldiers, visit to the actual frontier, buildings where reunification talks took place as well as other sad events, like the axe murder incident in 1976.
  4. Visit to Dora Observatory
  5. Where you can catch a glimpse of North Korea and propaganda villages located right in the DMZ, where both sides fight for the tallest flag pole - currently North Korea's is winning - and broadcast propaganda messages day long.
  6. Lunch
  7. Visit to Jangdan station
  8. A rusty steam locomotive train which was destroyed by the Americans during the war, to prevent it from falling in the wrong hands, is kept as a symbol of the tragic history of the divided peninsula.
  9. Visit to North Korea Infiltration tunnels
  10. Turns out that North Korea built in the 70s several long tunnels under the DMZ with the objective of attacking Seoul.
  11. Visit to Dorasan Station
  12. Built with great hopes of reunification, it had a railway connecting the Kaesong Industrial Zone in the North with the South until 2008, when the dream to connect all the way from Seoul through China to Europe vanished.
  13. 1h ride back to Seoul
  14. (tourist trap) visit to Ginseng Factory
This visit, combined with a visit to The War Memorial of Korea [WEB] which is free of charge and located in Itaweon, is really worthwhile if you are interested in the history of the peninsula. If you are really interested in the topic, we recommend you watching:
- The Interview - quite an ironic view of the situation in the North
- JSA - a movie that the president of South Korea gave to the president of the North, to stress the hope for reunification.

Pese a haber estado en Seoul unas 5 veces antes del verano de 2017, nunca había tenido oportunidad de visitar la zona desmilitarizada (DMZ) entre el Norte y el Sur. Dado que está situada irónicamente cerca de Seúl (puedes leer este post para saber por qué), es una experiencia única que resulta fácil combinar con una semana en la ciudad, siempre y cuando estés dispuesto a unirte a un tour guiado, que es la única forma de ir. En general, no nos gustan las cosas guiadas (a excepción del buceo) pero como no quedaba otra, nos decantamos por COSMOJIN donde al menos el guía sabía de lo que hablaba y amenizaba bastante el viaje en bus.

Independientemente de la compañía, simplemente te recomendamos asegurar que el tour incluya una visita a la JSA (Joint Security Area), donde soldados de ambos lados residen para mantener la paz. Irónicamente, la zona desmilitarizada tiene esta base con muchísimos soldados.

El plan del día es el siguiente:
  1. Recogida en el hotel (7AM) seguida de una hora en bus
  2. Visita a Pamunjon, donde está la JSA.
  3. El tour comienza con una presentación donde los soldados Americanos explican la historia de la base, seguido de una visita a la frontera y los edificios donde las charlas de reunificación tuvieron lugar - sin mucho éxito - así como otros incidentes e.g. asesinato con hacha en 1976.
  4. Visita al mirador Dora
  5. Desde allí puedes echar un vistazo a Korea del Norte y los pueblos propaganda situados en medio de los 4km de zona desmilitarizada, en los que ambos lados luchan por tener la bandera más alta - Korea del Norte va ganando, como muestra la foto inferior - y transmiten propaganda a todo volumen el día entero.
  6. Lunch
  7. Visita a la estación Jangdan
  8. Nunca pensé que un tren podría contener tanta historia. En la estación Jangdan, una serie de paneles cuentan la historia del pobre tren de vapor que espera en la estación, oxidado y destruido a balazos aliados - con el objetivo de que no cayera en manos del enemigo - como símbolo de la tragedia de la guerra y la subsecuente división de la península.
  9. Visita a los túneles de infiltración de Korea del Norte
  10. Aunque no estén permitidas las fotos, la visita al tercer túnel de infiltración que fue descubierto en 1978, desvela los planes ocultos que el Norte tenía de atacar Seúl usando fuerzas que cruzaran la frontera bajo tierra.
  11. Visita a la estación Dorasan 
  12. Una estación que hasta 2008 funcionaba, llevando a trabajadores materiales del Sur a fábricas del Norte en el distrito industrial de Kaesong y volviendo con materiales finalizados, está hoy en día completamente vacía.
  13. Bus de vuelta a Seoul
  14. (trama turística) Visita a la fábrica de Ginseng

Este tour, combinado con una visita al The War Memorial of Korea [WEB] que es gratuito y está en Itaweon, el centro de Seoul, merece la pena si te interesa la historia de la Península. Estos temas de guerra son bastante adictivos y si te quedas con ganas de más, hay dos películas que merece la pena ver:
The Interview - una visión irónica de la vida en el Norte
- JSA - una película antigua que trascendió hasta niveles presidenciales, el presidente del Sur le dio una copia al del Norte.

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Seoul - City Hall

Seoul City Hall

En Seúl, hasta visitar el ayuntamiento conlleva algo de confusión. Llegas a una plaza muy grande y al fondo, hay un edificio renacentista que tiene toda la pinta de ayuntamiento. Pero al entrar, descubres que es la biblioteca?

Resulta que el edificio histórico fue construido durante la ocupación Japonesa y sirvió como Ayuntamiento de 1945 a 2012, cuando se terminó el edificio de cristal. El Ayuntamiento se movió al edificio nuevo y el antiguo, quedó instaurado como biblioteca de la ciudad.

Si os interesa la arquitectura, merece la pena dar una vuelta antes de entrar en Deoksugung, que está justo al lado.

The visit to the city hall is a confusing one, like everything else in the city. Behind a large grassy square used for various events along with a fountain that is safe for kids to play while beating the summer heat, the first thing to meet the eye is a Renaissance-style stone building. Which is actually not the city hall, but just a library?

This old building was built in 1925, during the Japanese occupation of Korea. It is an example of Imperial Crown Style architecture, and served as city hall from Korea's liberation in 1945, until construction of the glass building. Hence, the old building - now used to house the Seoul Metropolitan Library, is located right in front of the current modern Seoul City Hall building.

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Seoul - Deoksugung 덕수궁

Deoksukung palace, Seoul
Deoksugung is the only palace in Seoul that can be visited at night and also the only one where Korean style buildings sit alongside a series of western style buildings. While it started in 1400s, the western style buildings were adding around 1900s. Very cool sight with long opening hours which is also included in the combination ticket.

Deoksugung es el único palacio donde los edificios Koreanos se alternan con edificios de estilo occidental. Aunque el palacio comenzara en 1400, los edificios occidentales fueron añadidos 500 años después. Además, se puede visitar de noche y está situado junto al Ayuntamiento, lo que hace muy fácil encajarlo con cualquier plan que cruce por el centro neurálgico de la ciudad. No es demasiado grande, pero está lleno de encanto al tratarse de un camino empedrado que serpentea entre vegetación y edificios de diferentes épocas.
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Seoul - Namdaemun Market

Namdaemun is the largest and oldest market in Korea. It started in 1414 as a marketplace managed by the government. The name comes from the south city gate, now located at an intersection metres away from the market entrance. If Dongdaemun offers the ultimate fashion shopping, Namdaemun does the work with food and supplements like ginseng. Specially street food, like pork knuckles, dim sum and hotteok (호떡), a filled-then-fried pancake for which people queue like crazy.

Namdaemun es el mercado más grande y más antiguo de Korea, que comenzó en 1414 como un mercado controlado por la dinastía Joseon. El nombre viene de la puerta sur de la ciudad - nam es sur, daemun es puerta - que hoy en día ocupa una intersección rodeada de carreteras y algo alejada de la entrada del mercado. Si Dongdaemun es el sitio perfecto para comprar ropa, Namdaemun es el sitio perfecto donde familiarizarte con el street food Koreano, especialmente el hotteok (호떡). Una especie de tortitas rellenas y fritas por las que la gente está dispuesta a esperar un buen rato!
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Seoul - N Seoul Tower

N Seoul Tower, Seoul

If you got kids or a taste for views, N Seoul Tower is the place for you. Bit of Asian Tourist Trap - reminds of the cable car to Maokong in Taipei or Ocean Park in Hong Kong - it offers a nice walk provided the weather is suited for it - we both walked when coming to Seoul in winter but opted for the cable car given the high temperature and humidity.

Once you exit the cable car, love locks alternate with breathtaking views of Seoul. As you approach the tower entrance, a show of acrobats and martial arts entertains the tourists. On the way down, a lush vegetation surrounds the road which winds back to the mountain base. While the tower rises 497m above sea level, thanks to its privileged location at the top of mount Namsan, it's only 236m high.

Apparently some 2012 surveys ranked the N Seoul Tower as the number one tourist attraction, but I am really surprised by that. Given the huge amount of history and coolness in other places, do you really vote for this?

Si vas con niños o te encantan las vistas, no puedes perderte una visita a N Seoul Tower. Es un poco trampa turística pero a la vez ofrece un paseo agradable al subir y bajar de la montaña, especialmente cuando el clima es algo más fresco. En verano, os recomendamos subir en el cable car y bajar andando, como hicimos nosotros.

Al llegar, encuentras millones de candados de enamorados que se alternan con vistas de la ciudad. Según Enrique - yo no había pisado esto desde 2010, cuando compré un llavero que todavía sigo usando, los shows de artes marciales y acrobacias son parte del entorno, entreteniendo a los turistas que pueden quedar algo decepcionados pues la torre sólo levanta 236m del suelo - pero 497m sobre el mar, al estar construida sobre un monte.

Un poco como la Tokyo Tower, es un símbolo de la ciudad que se ilumina de noche, dándole color la orilla del río Han. Aún así, me sorprende que en 2012 saliera elegida como atracción turística número 1 en Seúl. En mi humilde opinión hay muchos otros barrios, templos, palacios y museos, que merece mucho más la pena visitar.

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Seoul - Namsangol Hanok Village

Namsangol Hanok village, N Seoul Tower, Seoul
The third and last hanok village to visit in Seoul is Namsangol Village, located right at the base of Namsan mountain, North of river Han. Here, the recreations are superb and make it possible to catch a feeling of how it was life more than 500 years ago.

During Saturday night, there is a night market where people dress like in the 1890s which is well worth a visit -  we missed it as it did not fit with our agenda at all - but anyway... What strikes me the most about hanok is the extent to which this architecture is smart, specially when it comes to heating, called ondol「온돌」and consisting of underground pipes which would channel the heat out of the kitchen - as you can see in below pictures was located out of the home, to prevent undesired fumes from entering the rooms - and ensure warm floors during the entire winter.

El tercer y último barrio Hanok que visitamos se llama Namsangol y está situado en la base de la montaña Namsan, que corona la N Seoul Tower. Ofrece una oportunidad excelente de entender cómo se vivía en aquella época, pues las recreaciones son muy realistas.

Los sábados por la tarde-noche hay un mercado tradicional ambientado en 1890, donde puedes experimentar la música, comida y cultura de aquel entonces mientras paseas por las casas. Muy recomendable si os encaja con el plan del día. En la época Joseon, se conocía como el país de las hadas y estaba considerado una de las áreas más bonitas de Seúl.

Nuestra recomendación, salvo que seas un auténtico freak de los templos y palacios, es elegir uno de los tres barrios hanok que os hemos presentado (Bukchon, Ikseong-dong o Namsangol) y visitarlo. Cada uno tiene sus ventajas (Bukchon es más grande y encaja bien con la visita a los palacios, Ikseong-dong es perfecto para ir de compras y a tomar algo, Namsangol ofrece un viaje en el tiempo) simplemente optad por el que más os llame o mejor encaje con el plan de viaje.
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Seoul - Hipster Hongdae

Hipster Hongdae pedestrian street, Seoul

Located between universities, Hongdae is a young neighbourhood where you can shop, dance and watch K-pop beating around every corner.

The perfect Saturday afternoon plan starts with a walk along the calm Gyeongui park and ends exploring the Honda pedestrian street where you can see groups of teens dancing and singing K-Pop anthems. The streets are filled with little streets where you can find cool designs at bargain prices. Towards the end of it, bars and restaurants pop along the way in case you have energy left to burn the night there.

It was not so easy to find, so I leave you the tourist map - nearest station is Hongik University.

Situado entre universidades, Hongdae es un barrio joven donde te cruzas con la esencia del K-pop a cada paso que das. El planazo de Sábado tarde comienza con un paseo por el parque Gyeongui, donde las parejas ven atardecer y los amigos pasean sus toy poodles. Al caer la noche del Sábado, la calle peatonal de Hongdae se convierte en un hervidero de gente bailando y cantando, rodeados de fans, tiendas de ropa con auténticos chollos. Hay mucha gente, pero es entretenido. Al final, los bares y restaurantes hacen entrada, para aquellos con energías suficientes como para quemar la noche Koreana.

Os dejo un mapa, porque la calle peatonal no es fácil de encontrar - la estación más cercana es Hongik University.
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