The old modern Imperial City

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Dear Diary

After staying the night to then spend the day in Kuala Lumpur, we stayed another night on the plane to get to Seoul. Both Michael and I just can’t sleep on the plane and so we arrive tired but happy at the airport in the South Korean capital Seoul in the morning.

At least I was able to use the time on the plane to learn Korean writing. Even though it looks like Chinese, meaning it’s incomprehensible, the Korean script is an alphabet of syllables that can be learned quickly.

How do we get to South Korea? Michael decided to study “Korean Studies” in Berlin. To do this, of course, he has to learn Korean and what helps better than practice? When he calls me and asks: “Hey adventurer, don’t you want to come to Korea with me?” I just answer: “ok. When?” A few weeks later, in September 2013, it all started.

I’ve heard a lot about Couchsurfing and am fascinated by the idea of being able to stay with a local and see this country from their perspective. The experience in Kuala Lumpur the previous day wasn’t great, but it was a start.

We are allowed to stay at Jun’s place. Describing your accommodation as an apartment is an exaggeration. He has a room detached on top of a building that provides a home for him and his little dog. Accordingly, there is no couch for Michael and me, only the bare floor. But who cares, we’re young and so…



Why should we rest? Just because we’ve been through two nights and only been on the road? That’s no reason. We unload the luggage and set off with our host and his girlfriend Miki to explore the area.

First, of course, we’re going to strengthen ourselves. Jun takes us to a local restaurant and we order up and down what’s on the menu. It’s not just our enthusiasm for trying new things. That’s really how they do it in Korea. You order dishes only secondarily for yourself. Primarily there are only small portions of everything that are placed in the middle of the table and from which everyone can help themselves.

Of course, Jun also introduces us to the world of high-proof side dishes. Soju, the local clear rice liquor, belongs on the table. Then follows makgeolli, a milky drink made from malt, water and rice. Makgeolli has “only” 6-13% alcohol, but it’s so tasty that you don’t even notice how quickly it goes into your head. Cheongju is similar, only the clear variant.

We also learn that a bill is not shared, but traditionally always taken by the eldest at the table. I’m happy because that’s true of Michael. It looks like he’ll have to invite me everywhere on our trip.



The subway will take you straight to the highlight of Seoul’s monuments, the ancient GyeongbokgungImperial Palace, the “Palace of Radiant Bliss”. It is the first and largest of five palaces built in Joseon Dynasty Korea. The complex is huge, in those days people tended to build in width rather than in height. We photograph and pass through many gates and admire their multi-storey pagoda roofs.

We immediately notice that there are hardly any western tourists to be found. The other visitors seem to be locals and we are accordingly examined with curiosity.

We make every effort to draw attention to ourselves. On our trip I convince Michael to shoot his own music video for the currently popular South Korean song “Gangnam Style“, named after the business district of the same name in Seoul. All we have to do is embarrassingly dance this Gangnam Style in front of the camera in the most unusual places.







Korea is also the land of ginseng. One swears by the wrinkled root and ascribes almost magical abilities to it. Drink it, eat it, or rub it on your skin, it cures coughs, arthritis, cancer, cholera, just about every ailment that man has ever found a name for.

There are many shops and pharmacies that sell ginseng in various forms. Pickled and preserved in mason jars, in tablet form or as a tincture. Human life could be so much better if everyone used ginseng. I intend to compare health statistics across nations.



Even if the metropolis pulsates, small details are noticeable, which cause cracks in the ideal world in this modern consumer city. The border with North Korea is in sight and it is hard to imagine how many missiles from the neighboring country are probably pointing directly at the southern capital. Numerous incidents from the past are reminders of the realistic scenario of an attack from the north.

The metropolis would be the first to be directly affected. And so there are always markings in subway stations or other places underground that point to bunkers, or cupboards with relief supplies, such as gas masks.






Of course we also visit Gangnam when we dance to “Gangnam Style” and shoot our video about it.

We are spending a few days in Seoul and nothing can stop us from exploring. Nor that the floor we sleep on is cold and hard, and Jun’s dog overzealously licks our whole face at night, keeping us from sleeping.

Here comes the fourth day we start without sleep and the aftermath starts to get interesting. I can no longer judge whether someone spoke to me or whether I just thought so. Or if I said something to someone or just thought about it. It’s going to be spooky.



We let ourselves drift through the city and Jun pursue his work. He is an artist and also designs graffiti – legal ones. He gives us the tip to go up to the TV tower in the evening and see the city at night. It is indeed an amazing sight.

We end our time in the capital of South Korea in his favorite bar. The next goal is ahead of us: the border to hereditary enemy and brother, to hope and fear.



How to Read Korea
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