South Korea led to big changes in my travels and my life. One month turned into two; nomadic bouncing between cities every few days turned into a base in one city, Seoul; time spent planning and traveling turned into reading, running, learning a university course, and falling in love. My time in South Korea was exciting, enriching, delicious (Korean BBQ!), fun, and very happy.
How it all started
I arrived in Busan after taking the six hour ferry from Fukuoka. I noticed the cultural difference as soon as I boarded the public bus. I expect an easy, smooth ride into city, as would be normal in Japan. Instead, I almost fell face first onto the ground as the bus driver floored the gas pedal before I got a chance to hold on. I needed both of my hands to stabilize myself as the bus zoomed around town slamming on the gas and breaks. Looking out the window, I could see Busan was well built up, lively, and clean much like the cities in Japan.
After two busses, I made it to my hostel, Pusan, which was situated in a beautiful high rise apartment on a small peninsula overlooking the city which was about 30 minutes away. I was extremely happy when I first walked in, greeted immediately by the American hostess working there and then saying “hi” to the other ‘western’ travelers at the hostel. In Japan, I didn’t meet many other backpackers like myself, and most of the hostels were cold and somewhat uninviting. As a result, I spent much of my time to myself thinking about life. Coming to Korea, I was ready to be social again and meet people.
I put my bags down, grabbed some food, and sat on the couch, introducing myself and getting to know everyone. Soon after, I played Starcraft with a traveler, a PC game I played growing up which is also the national sport of South Korea. One traveler organized a movie for us called “Old Boy”, a very popular Korean movie. Korea has a very popular and talented movie industry and pop culture (Gangnam Style, now the most viewed video on Youtube is Korean!).
Towards the end of the movie, I noticed a pretty girl walk in from the corner of my eye and sit down next to me.
“Oh, this is old boy. I really enjoyed this movie”, she said. The movie, which was streaming started buffering, and did not recover. I immediately turned my attention to the girl and introduced myself. Her name was Hanna. She was half Korean, from Seattle and teaching English Math in Seoul, visiting Busan for the weekend. Hanna asked us if we wanted to see a temple by the sea the next day; a bunch of us agreed.
Over the next two days, I spent most of my time in deep conversations with Hanna talking about traveling, our childhoods, and philosophy. Frequently, we would burst into hysterical laughter while the rest of the group would look at each other confused. It was clear we were on a different wavelength. We even found ourselves getting accidentally lost from group serendipitously on multiple occasions. We visited the beautiful beaches of Busan, the famous fish market, and then celebrated Hanna’s birthday downtown starting with a delicious Korean barbecue.
After the first day, I knew I was interested in Hanna. After two days, I developed strong feelings for her and didn’t want to see her leave to go back to teaching in Seoul. I followed the next day, understanding that I needed to get to know her better as well as explore South Korea’s capital.
I spent as much time as I could with Hanna. I came up with every excuse: “let’s get food”, “let’s go to a theme park”, “let’s see Wicked, the musical”, “let’s go running”, “let’s go to a bookstore?” After about a week, Hanna knowing that I enjoyed running, mentioned there was a marathon along the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea the next month. I said, “let’s sign up!”, and we started training.
After about two weeks, Hanna and I went for a training run near her school. At the end of the run, we ran to a cemetery on a hill overlooking the countryside. As we stood wet, sweaty, and stinky in the cemetery, in the rain, I asked Hanna to be my girlfriend. She said “yes”.
I decided to stay an extra month in Seoul to be with Hanna, and I rented a cheap, studio apartment in Sinchon, which is in the middle of several universities. I now had more time and stability now that I was in one place. I took advantage of it by training for the marathon with Hanna, starting a running Meetup group (a spinoff of my Runsploring group in San Francisco), enrolling in a 10-week Standford University Machine Learning course on Coursera, and reading.
Hanna and I had one month to train. It had been six months since I ran a half-marathon, with no training in between. Hanna hadn’t ever run a half or full marathon. A normal half or full marathon training plan can easily take four to six months. It seemed like an impossible feat for us to pull something like this off.
Having some experience, I knew about a technique that involved running and walking that had allowed runners to go further distances. I also knew that we really only had about three weeks of training because the last ‘taper’ week is necessary for muscle recovery. I put together an aggressive training plan that involved distance runs along with speed training and hills. We’d need to build muscle and then run well below our normal pace during the marathon if we’d want to finish.
On race day, Hanna and I were pumped. We were full of energy and further excited by the pre-race festivities in Gyeonggi. Some girls came on stage and led the crowd through some stretches before dancing to Gangnam style, which everyone danced to. We were a little nervous, but mostly excited to get started.
We lined up and there was a countdown… 3…2…1… go! We were off to a running start! About three minutes later, I said “time to walk”. We were so pumped and full of energy that it was painful to walk, especially with everyone passing us. But this was our strategy; run three minutes and then walk a minute, the whole 26.2 miles. It seemed like everyone passed us in the beginning.
As we approached the halfway point, we started passing people. It happened more and more frequently as the race went on. I started to feel cramps in my calves coming on after the halfway point and walked more frequently. I pushed on, but I thought I was in trouble. Miles 18 to 23 were quite a struggle for me physically and mentally as I considered stopping because of my calves. I pushed on.
The same was not true for Hanna. For most of the race, Hanna wanted to go faster. I thought by the end of the race, she would fade and be happy that we weren’t. The opposite happened. With about 3k left, Hanna decided to run on ahead and see how fast she could go. I continued at a slow and steady pace.
With my head and body dehydrated, lacking energy, and numb, I crossed the finish line at 4:44 and hugged Hanna; she had crossed finished at 4:36. We proceeded as zombies, hobbling and moaning from bus to train back to the city. We had three words in our vocabulary, “foooood, waaaaater, sleeeeeep”. We consumed large amounts of food and drink in our path before collapsing and sleeping.
Outside of Seoul
Though I spent most of my time in Seoul, Hanna and I took side trips. We ventured off to the self-governed South Korean island of Jeju, where we climbed Korea’s highest mountain, Hallasan. We also explored the famous Love Park, which features statues in passionate sexual positions.
Right next to Seoul, we hiked Bukhansan and some other small hills in the city. South Korea has a big hiking culture among the youth, middle aged, and elderly. Along most of the trails, you can even find workout equipment with ajumas (Korean term for middle-aged lady) using them.
I visited Hanna’s relatives in Daejeon. They were extremely hospitable and included me in the Korean holiday ritual of Chuseok.
More recently, we took a trip to Seoraksan, Korea’s most famous national park and hiking area. It was absolutely beautiful.
After six months of travel, changing pace and having some stability was nice. I was able to get to know the South Korean culture, history, and food in much greater depth than other countries. After two months, I really look highly on South Korea. It has beautiful landscapes, wonderfully delicious food, safe and clean cities, the people are very nice and hard-working, and it has an awesome pop culture and movie industry.
Apparently I’m not the only ‘westerner’ to notice these things. I met people from the US, Canada, UK, Australia, and New Zealand who started teaching English in South Korea, which you can do with a college degree. Some of them decided to stay and had been there for 5 or more years.
Changing pace also allowed me to reflect on my past experiences and prepare myself for the rest of my travels. My next stop, China.
When I first considered South Korea, I didn’t think much of it, I didn’t know much about it. Have you ever considered a trip to South Korea? Would you ever consider it?