Monday, August 12, 2013

Korea # 25 Highlights after Traveling in Korea

With this post I’m closing out the Korea section of my blog after 30 days there as a student and tourist in July, 2013.  I’ve posted ten more times than I intended because I found Korea fascination, and I got to see a lot of it.  Here are a few highlights for those traveling there for the first time.

Weather—The sun shone only twice in any duration and it was just as well.  Humidity is in the 80’s most days in July and adding sun makes walking tourist sites a real exercise. Get inside at mid day. I lost five pounds while eating anything I wanted.  It rained heavily two days but otherwise a small umbrella was sufficient.

Getting Around—Korea is as negotiable as any country in the world.  Incheon was selected as the world’s best airport last year and flights within the country are frequent and seem less costly than in the U. S.  Its train system is extensive, including a bullet train between Seoul and Busan.  Seoul has the world’s longest subway system and five other cities have subways as well, pretty amazing.  The bus system worked extremely well getting down to Jeonju and a couple of hundred miles across the peninsula.  Intra-city bus systems far exceed those of the United States, of course.  Freeways are extensive and less crowded, it appeared, because of mass transportation.

Habitation and Green Zones—Koreans live in high rise apartments.  I don’t have the statistics but it is everywhere apparent that housing has been intentionally concentrated and planned.   Korean cities and suburbs are surrounded by or incorporate green zones.  This is less so in Seoul yet it has recaptured riparian lands along the Han River for parks, green zones and planned development.  One subway stop and you can be in the country.  Drive 75 miles south from Incheon Airport and you can simultaneously see high rises and crops growing in the field or in greenhouses almost the entire way.  That’s a lot of high rises, a lot of greenhouses and a lot of farming.

In the middle of Seoul is a future Central Park; at least that’s what locals expect.  However if it ever becomes one it should be named after the current dictator of North Korea because this “park” is still occupied by the U. S. military.  It will likely be given up only when Kim Sun someday makes peace, would be my guess, and that probably won’t be soon.

Eating—Summer is rich with fresh produce.  Classic Korean cooking has main dishes, of course, and up to a dozen small side dishes, all served at once.  Urban Koreans eat out a lot both because they can afford it and because preparing a meal Korean-style is very labor intensive.  So restaurants are plentiful and of good quality.  French pastries are a big deal and very well done in several chains, the most widely available being Paris Baguettes.  Korea is serious coffee country with 19,000 international franchised coffee shops such as Starbucks in Seoul alone, plus unknown thousands of independents.  Cold and hot canned coffee of great variety is sold out of vending machines which are in much greater supply on street corners than in the U. S.

I ate well in a university cafeteria: rice, a rich soup, vegetables and kimchee at every meal.  One cafeteria offered a full meal and then all the ruffage you could eat: several kinds of lettuce, sesame and beet leaves and Napa cabbage.  Deserts are not served and the drink is water, another reason I lost weight. I am not a foodie but I am told Korean cuisine in Korea is a favorite among those who are.

Franchise food such as KFC and Baskin and Robbins has come to Korea in recent years in a big way.  Koreans are extremely slim people, male and female, and I wrote that the country must have a collective Body Mass Index below 20; however that was before I went to Seoul.   For whatever reason, people looked to be larger and taller in Seoul.  

I am told Korea does not import fresh fruits and vegetables in winter as does the U. S. so winter will be a different eating experience.  Fermented foods are a Korean specialty and were once a necessity to get through the winter.

There is no tipping in Korea for any service.

History—The 75 years prior to the end of the Korean War in l953 were the worst in Korea’s history.  We have little or no appreciation of richness of Korea and Korean culture over the prior centuries. 

Japan occupied Korea from 1910 to 1945 and the U. S. administered it as if it were a province of Japan until 1948.  It was then cut it loose in a way that could justly be said to have invited the Korean War.  Taking North and South Korea as one country, Korea has had its present boundary at the Yalu River since the mid-7th century.  In other words, it was an independent country, ruled in three distinct eras and dynasties, for 1350 years. 

Buddhism arrived in the 5th Century, followed by Confucianism three centuries later and both continue to exert strong influences.  A quarter of the population considers itself Buddhist, 21 percent Christian and 46 percent say they have no religion.  However there are still 30,000 Shamans in Korea. 

Miracle on the Han—In 1970, Korea had a per-capita GDP of $79, lower than most countries in Africa.  It is today the 11th ranked economy in the world and the Bank of Asian Development estimates that in the year 2050, only the United States will have a higher per-capita GDP, and that by only a little.  It did so through top-down planning and a public-private strategy which promoted and protected a few companies while imitating and copying their way to success.  Samsung is the world’s number one IT company , smart phone producer, smart phone profit-maker and chip-maker.  We know about the success of Hyndai and Kia.  Korea is the world’s shipbuilder and number five in the processing of petroleum.  It is the most digital culture in the world today.  Yet it was broke and largely illiterate in 1970, an amazing transformation.

With 25.5 million people, Seoul is the second largest metropolis in the world, following Tokyo.  Half of Korea’s population lives there and is constitutes the #4 metropolitan economy in the world.   It is distinctly different from the rest of Korea and recognized as such, not always with admiration. 

Koreans are concerned that the flip side of its success at imitation and of its education system is a lack of creativity which, it is argued, will enable others to imitate Korea and eventually see the sunset of the dominance of its major companies.  The Bank of Asian Development seems to disagree. 

Rural Korea and the Landscape—Korea is not a spectacular country which is one reason it ranks 34th in world tourism.  But it is consistently pleasing and attractive.  Three-fourths of the country is mountainous and 65 percent is forest.  The 2018 Winter Olympics will be held there.  How Korea has retained so much cropland and rural beauty has been a fascinating and unexpected subject of this blog.  However accomplished, rural Korea is looked up to as an example by many countries and Korea’s foreign assistance program connects other countries with its rural success, with particular attention to those countries which fought for it survival in the Korean War.

Buddhist temples can be found throughout rural Korea and the countryside is sprinkled with graves and small monuments to ancestors.

Medicine—Korea has universal health care with the patient paying about 10 percent.  However doctors and nurses continue to move to the U. S. where they can make a great deal more.  The exceptions are those disciplines where Korea has become a mecca for medical tourism, particularly cosmetic surgery and the treatment of liver disease.  It is said that one-fifth of Korean women have had plastic surgery which means the percentage is much higher among young people.  Alcoholism is a problem in Korea, which gave it a head start on liver transplants and treatment.  Obesity certain is not a problem, at least not yet.  Traveling in Korea and then returning to the U. S. is still a shock of the huge, no matter how many times one has experienced it.

Education--The Pearson Company of Great Britain, which claims to be the world’s greatest private educational company, recently ranked Korea as having the second best educational system in the world, after Finland.  One reason is that three out of four Korean students have a tutor of some kind and tutors outnumber public school teachers, according to an August 3 article in the Wall Street Journal. 

The Shadow of North Korea—We cannot think of South Korea without immediately thinking of North Korea.  Everyday South Koreans profess not to be worried about it yet politicians are judged by how well they address the other half of their country.  I was told that young men who serve a required two years in the military “train under a mountain.”  The South tries to make itself as able to survive a North Korean attack as possible, which has to be a factor in having such a vast subway system.  There is an underground Korea as there is an underground Iran and a command center deep in the granite of Colorado.   

The DMZ has become a big tourist site as well as a biological reserve.  The 60 years of tension South Korea has experienced since the end of the Korean War in 1953 could lead any people to fatigue, insensitivity or escapism.  What has happened seems to have been precisely the opposite.  





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