2016, a year of travel in review

Reviewing 2016 is a bitter-sweet thing. There’s much that could (and has) been said about the last twelve months, but this is a travel blog and I’ll steer clear of geopolitics. I think of travel as a positive force, promoting understanding of places and cultures, and bringing people closer together. If 2017 is anything like its predecessor, promoting understanding is going to be important.

Viva la revolución, celebrating New Year in Cuba

Seeing Cuba before the death of Fidel Castro seemed to be the reason so many European’s were visiting Cuba at the start of 2016. That fear has now come true, with the world’s most famous politician bowing out in November. Cuba was a lot of fun, its people warm and friendly, what awaits them in an uncertain future remains to be seen.

Discovering Dutch castles

The Netherlands is not short on history, and historic towns with perfectly preserved medieval centres are seemingly everywhere. Castles, though, seem in short supply. I guess that’s down to a landscape without hills to build castles upon. Look hard enough though, and you can find a few beautiful castles dotted around the countryside.

Rome, a long weekend in the Eternal City

The Eternal City has over 3,000 years of human history and, as you walk the bustling and fascinating streets, much of it is on display. Attractions like the Vatican and Colosseum are ‘must sees’, but for my money this incredible city is best discovered by just wandering its neighbourhoods and eating the food.

Châteaux of the Loire Valley, France

The towns of Orleans and Tours are reason enough to visit this fantastically beautiful region of France, but surreal, fairytale  châteaux are the main reason people make the journey here. In the early morning light, the Château de Chenonceau is unmissable, but the history and stunning views of the Château de Chinon are even more impressive.

Back on the streets of Bangkok, Thailand

Squeezing in a couple of days to explore the sights, sounds and smells of Bangkok’s fascinating streets at the end of a working trip, brought me face-to-face with Khlong Toei, a food market with the power to amaze and churn your stomach simultaneously. Add a trip to Thonburi and a visit to some temples, and a weekend passes quickly.

The wonderful world of Hieronymus Bosch, Netherlands

The work of medieval Dutch artist, Hieronymus Bosch, is strange and sublime in equal measure. To mark the 500th year since his death, the small museum in his home town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch managed to bring most of his surviving works together for a blockbuster exhibition, and created a wonderful Bosch trail around the town.

Learning the méthode champenoise in Champagne

To truly understand the méthode champenoise you have to go underground into the the hundreds of kilometres of Épernay’s champagne houses. To fully understand where the fizzy stuff comes from, you have to explore the champagne routes that weave their way through the beautiful countryside between Reims and Troyes.

48 hours in Seoul, Korea

Exploring Seoul could take a lifetime. A visit to the Love Museum made me realise that understanding Korean culture could take several more. Seoul is a pulsating and friendly city that, from the moment you arrive to the moment you leave, seems to hold you in its grip. Explore ancient palaces by day and modern nightlife districts by night.

Bruges, the Venice of the North

A well-preserved medieval centre, beautiful canals and magnificent churches, makes Bruges just about as picturesque as it’s possible to get in Europe. It also happens to be home to some good museums and is the epicentre of Belgian beer culture. With over two million visitors annually, try to come outside the main tourist season.

Brisbane, Australia’s new world city

Brisbane came as a complete surprise. I arrived for a conference thinking I wouldn’t like it, and left thinking I might want to live there. The picturesque river front has an urban beach and a fun atmosphere, there are bohemian areas with microbreweries and great restaurants, and weather that cultivates a vibrant outdoor culture.

Spending a night on Whitehaven Beach, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, on Whitsunday Island in the middle of the Great barrier Reef, is perhaps the most exquisite strip of white sand anywhere in the world. The near-pure silica of the sand is matched only by the brilliant aquamarine blue of the water and a beautiful location amidst 73 other islands.

Exploring Granada’s fascinating Moorish history

Spain’s Andalusia region is filled with extraordinary historic towns and villages, but few can rival the sheer majesty of Granada and the former stronghold of Moorish Spain, the Alhambra. Throw in a beautiful old town filled with maze-like streets, and a tapas culture second to none, and Granada is a place to top any bucket list.

Fancy Dress in Bukchon Hanok Village

A trip around Bukchon Hanok Village is a peculiar experience. Everywhere I looked there seemed to be people, mainly young women, dressed in brightly coloured traditional Korean clothing being photographed in a variety of poses, in a variety of different locations. Around every corner individuals and groups were striking poses in doorways, alleyways and in front of historic buildings.

There are around 900 traditional houses, or hanok, in this area and it attracts a large number of tourists, domestic and foreign. The influx of tourists – over 600,000 foreign tourists alone each year – has resulted in lot of restaurants,  bars, tea houses and shops dotted throughout the area. It’s also resulted in numerous signs in different languages asking people to be quiet and considerate.

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

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Korean tourists flock here to have their photos taken in costumes that can be rented in numerous shops around the area. It’s a strangely Korean thing to do, with the hot spots for photography signposted around the area. I’m not sure I understand the whole fancy dress thing, but people were having a lot of fun.

As befits an area that nestles between two of Seoul’s most illustrious royal palaces, Bukchon Hanok Village has a long history that dates back more than 600 years. Its location close to the royal court meant it was originally an area for the nobility and high-ranking officials in the government. Today, it forms one of the few remaining areas of traditional wooden houses in Seoul.

There is a route that can be followed, but just wandering aimlessly around the narrow winding streets is just as satisfying. I know this because I started following the route and got hopelessly lost. Some houses are open to the public and you can get a glimpse into a traditional Korean home; some lanes lead to viewing points above the rooftops, from where you can see how they’re built around a central courtyard, the grey tiles forming a perfect pattern.

It’s a picturesque place that merges the old and the new, not always harmoniously, making it a fascinating area to wander around. The traditional building methods are perfect for coping with the extreme cold of Korean winters, and the heat of summer. They are also remarkably robust, designed to withstand earthquakes.

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

The day I visited there were plenty of tourists around, and the costume shops were doing a good trade. It was a hot day though, and walking up and down the area’s hills was hard going even without traditional clothing. After a couple of hours I ended my explorations, and my time in the city, drinking a Korean IPA at a cafe on the bustling Samcheong-gil, a street lined with restaurants and bars. It seemed a fitting end to a brilliant 48 hours in Seoul.

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Historic Seoul, Changdeokgung and Changgyeonggung Palaces

Amidst Seoul’s skyscrapers, business districts, high-tech industries, fashionable shopping and pulsating nightlife areas, the city’s streets hum with modernity in a way that’s hard to find in Europe. Spend even a short time here and you’d be forgiven for thinking that this is a city with its gaze fixed solely on the future. Yet Seoul has a surprising number of tranquil parks, historic temples and beautiful royal palaces, reflecting its more than 600-year history as the capital of Korea.

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changgyeonggung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changgyeonggung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changgyeonggung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changgyeonggung Palace, Seoul, Korea

The glorious, UNESCO World Heritage listed, Changdeokgung Palace, is generally considered the most important in Korea so, on my final day in the city, I set off to explore this wonderful place. Korean royal palaces are large, sprawling complexes that require time to explore. Thankfully the rain of the previous day had given way to blue skies, and I was able to walk through the expansive grounds concerned more about sunburn than getting soaked.

Constructed in the early 15th century, in line with the Korean architectural philosophy of the time, Changdeokgung was built to be in harmony with nature. It sits at the foot of Mount Baegaksan, one of the Guardian Mountains of Seoul, and the large grounds are beautifully landscaped. Walking through the main gate, which sits opposite a busy four-lane road, the tranquility of the palace is in sharp contrast to the surrounding city.

I’d expected it to be very busy – almost every historic site I’ve visited in Korea has had lots of tour groups – but, with the exception of some of the main buildings, I often found myself alone. In Seoul, that is not something you can say very often. I strolled through the complex, following the map I’d been given at the entrance, not realising that the site is home to two interconnected palaces: Changdeokgung and Changgyeonggung.

I paid an additional entrance fee and set off through some woods to a pleasant lake before entering the grand square outside Changgyeonggung Palace. This area had far fewer people, and was more beautifully landscaped. A group of school children had just swept through in front of me, making lots of noise. As they left, silence descended and I had the whole place to myself. It was rather magical.

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

There is a lot of history bound up in these two palaces, home to generations of Korean royalty. As you wander through the courtyards and peer into the wooden living quarters, it’s possible to feel a sense of the lives lived inside this a city within a city. The palaces haven’t always been so peaceful, they were repeatedly damaged by invading armies and, being constructed from wood, were vulnerable to fire.

The palaces burned to the ground during the Japanese invasion in 1592, but were rebuilt faithful to the original in 1609. Which was just in time for them to burn to the ground again in 1623. Changdeokgung remained a royal palace and seat of government well into the 19th century; while Changgyeonggung was home to the Emperor Yunghui, Korea’s last emperor. Deposed by the Japanese invasion and occupation of 1910, he lived here until his death in 1926.

Changgyeonggung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changgyeonggung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

As well as the royal palaces, there is Huwon or the “Secret Garden”, which can be visited only as part of a tour. The tour takes 90 minutes and I simply didn’t have time to do that and visit Bukchon Hanok Village before heading to the airport. I skipped the tour and wandered back through Changdeokgung on my way back into the city.

Fish Tales at Noryangjin fish market

Seoul’s largest and oldest seafood market, Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market, is an extraordinary place. Amongst its avenues and stalls it’s possible to find a barely imaginable range of seafood: giant crabs are dwarfed by enormous squid, huge mounds of prawns sit alongside sea cucumbers. Rays, lobster, giant mussels, clams, snails, scallops, sea urchins and an array of fish varieties beyond my knowledge, spread out as far as the eye can see.

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

The market opened in 1927 and moved to its current location at Noryangjin in 1971. Earlier this year a brand new version of the market was opened next door to the old market amidst controversy and protests, and not just because it cost $455 million to build. Six months after the new building opened, hundreds of the original stall holders are still holding out in the old building amongst accusations of harassment.

Sadly, the writing is on the wall. The remaining stall holders are under pressure to move, and the restaurants that once cooked fish fresh from the market for visitors have all gone. The old building has far more character, the new facilities are better appointed and more hygienic, with rents to match. A redevelopment of the old market is planned, which will forever change the culture of the area.

Until the inevitable steam roller of modernity extinguishes the history of the old market, the main problem for tourists is knowing which Noryangjin to visit, and whether it’s worth going to both.

I arrived at the old market first and, after spending an entertaining hour or so wandering around the stalls, decided I’d probably seen enough fish for one day. Defying the reality of modern life, I skipped the new building. Stall holders in the old building were very friendly and, when asked, were more than happy for me to take photos. Several proudly posed with their fishy friends. It was a fun atmosphere.

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

In a city that is moving at a breakneck pace towards the future, it seems a shame that one of the connections to its past will be lost. It also means the end of a truly working class area of the city, the future of which is likely to be expensive apartments, boutique shops and over-priced coffee houses. Maybe, like in the Steve Earle song, Down Here Below, the stench of fish will remain:

“I saw Joe Mitchell’s ghost on a downtown ‘A’ train
He just rides on forever now that the Fulton fish market’s shut down
He said ‘they ain’t never gonna get that smell out of the water
I don’t give a damn how much of that new money they burn’.”

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Sexing it up at Seoul’s Love Museum

Korea is a fairly conservative country, definitely not a society that is particularly open about sex or sexuality. That seems a little strange given the amount of sexualised advertising you find across Seoul – not to mention K-Pop starlets – but it might explain the strange phenomenon that is the Love Museum. It’s such an odd experience, I’m not even sure where to start, except to say that I went with an open mind and left very confused.

If you’re easily offended, probably best to turn over now…

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

The museum describes itself as “a sex themed interactive attraction, that offers visitors to explore the subject of sex in a light and enjoyable manner”. Advising would-be visitors that while they can take photos and touch the ‘exhibits’, having actual sex inside the museum is not permitted. That warning doesn’t stop a lot of simulated sex from happening, but I suppose you have to draw the line somewhere.

The museum has several theme areas, including Fun and Sexy, Femme Fatale, Erotic Garden, Dream House and Sexy in Life. It’s a bit like being inside an erotic Roy Lichtenstein painting that found its way into a ‘Hill’s Angels’ sketch on the Benny Hill Show, while taking experimental drugs. It really is that weird.

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Weird, definitely, but visitors to the Trickeye Love Museum have a lot of fun. There seems to be something liberating about being given ‘permission’ to loosen inhibitions and make a lot of smutty jokes. People are more than willing to throw themselves into the 3D scenes that create optical illusions, and which are perfect for selfies and sharing on social media.

Men and women pose between pairs of enormous breasts, lean through a window to cup the breast of an undressing woman, sit on the lap of an aroused Superman, become part of an erotic painting, and simulate sex in the kitchen. I’m not sure anyone is learning much about sex, but they are certainly expressing something about human sexuality. The message seems to be that people enjoy light-hearted titillation.

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

The museum is found amongst a crush of streets in the youthful Seogyo-dong neighbourhood, close to Hongik University. It’s an area worth exploring, full of fabulous traditional Korean restaurants with low prices, trendy craft beer bars and lots of shopping opportunities. At night this becomes prime clubbing territory and on a Sunday morning there were a few bleary-eyed casualties from the previous night.

The streets were crowded the day I was there, despite the fact that it was raining heavily, and the lively atmosphere of the streets was replicated in the Love Museum. If you want to participate in one of Seoul’s odder experiences, this is the place to come. As the museum itself says, “There is no reason to be shy here!”

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

The Kimchi Express, 48 hours in Seoul

It was the traditional breakfast of thick rice soup with dried shrimp, roasted seaweed, pickled garlic, raw onion and beef with sliced raw chilli peppers, that was the first clue that I was somewhere that most definitely was no longer Kansas. This assault on my tastebuds so early in the morning was proof that, after 11 unpleasant hours in the air, I was finally in Seoul.

It’s barely possible to scratch the surface of Seoul in 48 hours. Especially when it’s pouring down with rain for the first 24 hours and jet lag is doing peculiar things to your sense of reality. This city of over ten million people is packed with fascinating areas to explore, and I’ve wanted to visit ever since my first trip to Korea last year. I was on my way to Australia so breaking the journey, even for 48 hours, seemed like a good idea.

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

There was a time when tourism largely ignored Seoul, the northerly capital of the southern, democratic half of the Korean Peninsular. That’s changing rapidly as rumours of the delights of the city leak out to the wider world. Last year over 16 million foreign tourists visited. That number seems likely to keep rising as Korean culture grows in popularity and travellers relate their tales of this fun, cultured and friendly city.

I arrived at Incheon International Airport in the middle of the afternoon. It’s an efficient airport and I was quickly on a train towards Seoul Station, the main railway hub in the city. A confusing transit to another line involved a long underground walk but I eventually got a metro train to my final destination, Jongno-ju, a youthful and vibrant area that mixes culture and nightlife in equal measures.

I was staying amongst a maze of small streets that are home to lots of restaurants, bars and Love Hotels. Although it sounds a bit dubious, it’s perfectly normal to stay in Love Hotels. Mine was brilliant. Hotel The Designers has individually themed suites, taking inspiration from anything from the night sky to children’s stories. I ended up staying in the Alice in Wonderland suite and, with the jet lag, I felt like I’d slipped down the rabbit hole.

I’d have happily collapsed onto the bed and slept for a few hours but, with only two days at my disposal, I decided to hit the streets and explore my new neighbourhood. Besides, it was Saturday night, the Mad Hatter was giving me a hard stare, and Alice was nowhere to be seen. It turned out Alice was in the shower, but I only discovered that the following morning.

On the streets, night had fallen and the world seemed to be bathed in neon light. Everywhere was busy with people enjoying a Saturday night out, and everything was a disconcerting mix of the ultra-modern and traditional. As I wandered around in a bit of a daze, I bumped into two university students who wanted to practice their English. We had a drink and they gave me some good suggestions for things to do and places not to miss.

Korean’s enjoy a night out, especially one involving a lot of alcohol, and the Jongno-ju district is a hotspot of nightlife. The whole place is crammed with bars that are open late and buzz with humanity having fun. I found my way to a brewpub – a bit of a craze in Seoul – where I sampled Korean sausages washed down with craft beer. Delicious. Refreshed, I headed back out onto the streets to take the pulse of downtown Seoul.

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

The pace of life here is ferocious and, as I wandered aimlessly amidst the partying chaos, the night was flying past. I popped into another craft beer pub and, while sipping a Korean porter, realised it was 2am. The jet lag suddenly kicked in. I managed a small snack from a street stall near the hotel before happily slipping into unconciousness in Wonderland.

Culture preserved, Yangdong Village

Yangdong is a fabulous traditional Korean village, set amidst a wooded landscape of rolling hills that make it picture-postcard-perfect. Yangdong is a beautiful, peaceful and historic place, yet I can’t shake the feeling that something isn’t quite right. It doesn’t seem real, too quiet, a little too sanitised. It isn’t particularly touristy, the opposite in fact, but this doesn’t prevent it feeling more like an open air theme park than a working village.

People do live in the majority of the houses in the village – some are open to the public and inhabitant free – but as a designated cultural preservation area it has essentially been preserved in aspic for the edification of visitors. Having seen modern rural Korea from a bus window this is no bad thing, but it does make for a strange experience.

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

The village was founded in the 14th Century and is one of the two most historic ‘clan villages’ in Korea. My guidebook claimed it was difficult to reach, and with limited time I nearly didn’t go. Not for the first time in my life, I’m glad I ignored my guidebook. I got a bus near Gueongju train station which took me straight to the village entrance in 40 minutes. Nothing could have been easier. Did the Lonely Planet bother to visit?

I got a map with my entrance ticket, this turned out to be like all other Korean tourist maps: the woeful lack of scale not nearly compensated for by pretty pictures. It did have place names in Latin script, which I was grateful for; unfortunately all the village signposts were in Korean script. Like two competing technologies, map and signposts were totally incompatible. This left me to do my favourite thing, wander aimlessly, up muddy trails and into woods, without any idea where I was or where I was going.

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

This information seemed worth putting in a guidebook, mine just kept going on about a restaurant where you could get duck stew. Fine if you can find it, but that didn’t seem likely under the circumstances. I decided to let the Gods of Korean Tourist Maps take me wherever they saw fit. I ended up walking miles, but eventually landed in the heart of the ancient village. I never did get to try duck stew though.

There are 160 houses in the village, many over 200 years old, built to a traditional pattern across the hillsides. Houses come in two categories: those with stone walls and thatched roofs were where common folk lived; large houses with wooden frames and slate roofs belonged to aristocrats. One of the largest aristocratic buildings contains a gigantic jar that was once used for storing grain. It’s so huge that it doesn’t fit through the doors, the building it sits in was constructed around it. That’s one way of making sure no one steals your jar.

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

The entire village is designed to fit into a rigid Confucian social system that dominated Korea for centuries; houses are situated to distinguish status and wealth, house size was strictly controlled to further establish a family’s position in society. All village life would have been governed by Confucian rules, which covered everything from the political, to the social, to the economic and the religious.

I don’t know much about Confucianism. Once, at a conference, a Korean academic said it was a major contributing factor to a preference for boys over girls. It’s not well known, but in the 1990s a massive distortion in birth rates between girls and boys existed in Korea. This situation is common in other countries, China and India especially, but thanks to government action the problem in Korea was addressed and reversed. I can now add Confucian village planning to my limited knowledge of this ancient belief system.

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

The tranquility and mountainous location make it a remarkably lovely place to stroll, although I started to get a little concerned by the fact that I hardly saw another human being. Where were all the people? Perhaps they were indoors cooking duck stew for tourists with the Lonely Planet guide? I’d seen photos of people wearing traditional clothing on market day, but the village seemed deserted the day I was there. I saw only two old people gardening, a collection of dogs and a small group of Korean tourists. Spooky.

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

I headed out of the village towards the bus stop wondering what everyone who lived in the village did for a living. There were very few tourist-related retail opportunities, and apart from some low level agriculture there seemed to be very little economic activity, or activity of any kind. It seemed fitting that my last day in Korea ended with this mystery.

Bulguksa, celestial land of the Buddha

In the whole of Korea the government has recognised just 317 National Treasures, cultural assets of the highest artistic and historic importance. It’s no surprise that the ancient Silla dynasty capital of Gyeongju is home to a significant number of them; more surprising is that seven National Treasures can be found in one place, the 8th Century Buddhist temple of Bulguksa, itself one of the most important temples in Korea. For good measure, Bulguksa is on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

16km southeast of Gyeongju, Bulguksa Temple sits on the lower slopes of Mount Toham, a 750m high mountain that, during the Silla era, was one of the country’s guardian mountains. Site of important religious ceremonies, it’s no surprise that it’s home to a 1300 year-old temple. Time was short so I took a taxi, which dropped me off in a car park at the entrance. I paid the 4000 won (€3.20) entry fee and quickly found myself walking up a tree-lined avenue towards the Temple complex.

The complex comprises numerous exquisitely carved and painted wooden buildings, built on stone terraces set around interconnected courtyards. Arriving at the traditional entrance is a little like arriving outside the walls of a fort, the temple complex rising up in front of you. The tourist entrance is around the side of the courtyard housing the Daeungjeon (Hall of Great Enlightenment); but the traditional entrance was up one of two flights of stairs, the Blue Cloud Bridge and the White Cloud Bridge. Both have 33 steps representing the 33 stages of enlightenment.

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Inside the courtyard is the Hall of Great Enlightenment and two stone pagodas – Seokgatap (Pagoda of Sakyamuni) and Dabotap (Pagoda of Bountiful Treasures) – both listed as National Treasures. Sadly, only Dabotap was visible while Seokgatap undergoes restoration following damage caused by an earthquake. This isn’t the first time Seokgatap has needed repairs. In 1966 some would-be thieves, believing the pagoda to contain treasures, attempted to blow it up using explosives.

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

They were right, the interior of the pagoda contained anient Buddhist relics and what some claim to be the oldest known documents printed using a wooden block. Chased off by the monks before they could steal anything, the contents of the pagoda were declared a National Treasure in 1967.

There were plenty of other visitors, but wander away from the main sights and you can find little pockets of solitude, although these get regularly interrupted as tour groups make their way through the complex. After I’d finished strolling amongst the temple buildings, I made my way back towards the bus stop. Walking along the paths through the picturesque landscaped grounds, I reflected upon what it must be like here without all the noise from tourism. Beautiful and serene, I’d bet.

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

The glories of ancient Gyeongju

I was staying in the heart of ancient Gyeongju, right next to Tumuli Park, home to a large group of Silla dynasty tombs, and only a short walk from lots of things my guidebook recommended I make the effort to see. After being cooped up by rain for a day and a half, I was eager to walk around and get a sense of the place. Even then, there is only so much walking you can do. The sights of Gyeongju are spread out, and now the sun was shining it was ferociously hot. You can hire bikes, but a cab seemed a better option for the more distant sites.

I started my investigations amongst the ancient tombs of lovely Tumuli Park. Some of these giant mounds of earth date back over 1700 years, and the park is home to Cheonmachong, the country’s only excavated tomb that is open to the public. Cheonmachong translates as “Heavenly Horse Tomb”, from the horse-related artefacts found during the excavations. Over twelve thousand artefacts were discovered in the tomb, some on display, making the occupant a person of significance.

Silla Tombs, Tumuli Park, Gyeongju, Korea

Silla Tombs, Tumuli Park, Gyeongju, Korea

Silla Tombs, Tumuli Park, Gyeongju, Korea

Silla Tombs, Tumuli Park, Gyeongju, Korea

Silla Tombs, Tumuli Park, Gyeongju, Korea

Silla Tombs, Tumuli Park, Gyeongju, Korea

Silla Tombs, Tumuli Park, Gyeongju, Korea

Silla Tombs, Tumuli Park, Gyeongju, Korea

Interior of Cheonmachong Tomb, Tumuli Park, Gyeongju, Korea

Interior of Cheonmachong Tomb, Tumuli Park, Gyeongju, Korea

Most of the tombs are Silla royalty, but some are military commanders and other notables; double-humped tombs are likely the resting place of a king and a queen. There is a fee to get into Tumuli Park, and the landscaped grounds are worth a visit, but you can get up close and personal with other Silla tombs that are dotted around the centre of Gyeongju without paying.

Nearby stands another incredible Silla dynasty monument, the Cheomseongdae, or “star gazing platform”. This 9 metre high stone observatory has stood on this ground since the mid-7th Century and is the oldest surviving observatory in East Asia. The surrounding landscape is dotted with more Silla tombs and a walk through the landscaped Wolseong Park, once home to a mighty fortress, brought me to a small village of traditional houses close to the river.

Gyeongju, Korea

Gyeongju, Korea

Silla Tombs, Gyeongju, Korea

Silla Tombs, Gyeongju, Korea

Traditional bridge, Gyeongju, Korea

Traditional bridge, Gyeongju, Korea

Gyeongju, Korea

Gyeongju, Korea

Cheomseongdae, Gyeongju, Korea

Cheomseongdae, Gyeongju, Korea

After a late lunch, I found a cab and drove out to Bunhwangsa, literally and wonderfully meaning “Fragrant Emperor Temple”. Built in the 7th Century during the reign of Queen Seondeok, the 27th ruler of the Silla dynasty, it sits on the edge of a field planted with bright yellow rapeseed on the outskirts of the modern town.

Bunhwangsa temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bunhwangsa temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bunhwangsa temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bunhwangsa temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bunhwangsa temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bunhwangsa temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bunhwangsa temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bunhwangsa temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bunhwangsa temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bunhwangsa temple, Gyeongju, Korea

The temple was surrounded by hundreds of colourful lanterns. It was a dramatic sight and made what would otherwise have been a fairly disappointing visit a lot more interesting. The size of the car park implies plenty of tour buses make the journey here, but I was lucky enough to have the temple to myself. This, it turned out, was a double-edged sword. The temple is a little isolated and, now late afternoon, there wasn’t a taxi to be found anywhere. I had to walk back to town.

Anapji Pond, Gyeongju, Korea

Anapji Pond, Gyeongju, Korea

Anapji Pond, Gyeongju, Korea

Anapji Pond, Gyeongju, Korea

Anapji Pond, Gyeongju, Korea

Anapji Pond, Gyeongju, Korea

Anapji Pond, Gyeongju, Korea

Anapji Pond, Gyeongju, Korea

After an exhausting day, I planned to go back to the guesthouse and rest, but a local student, keen to try his English, persuaded me that Anapji Pond was too beautiful to miss. It took another 30 minutes to walk there but he was right, it was beautiful, as befits a former royal pleasure garden. It was also packed with large groups of overexcited schoolchildren, and I barely escaped being trampled by a group of marauding seven year-olds. What, I asked myself, were they doing here at this time of night? On my school trips we were all safely locked away for the night, while the teachers were in the nearest pub.

Washed up in Gyeongju

I hadn’t packed for rain. This proved embarrassing when I arrived in Gyeongju, a place that the Korean Tourism Board calls a ‘museum without walls’. It doesn’t have a roof either, and it was pouring with rain. I’d never given this much thought, but to fully appreciate an ‘open air museum’ you need dry weather. I needed a Plan B. Unfortunately, Gyeongju was my Plan B. I’d left the hill village of Haeinsa hoping to escape the rain. I travelled to Daegu and then further east to Gyeongju. The rain accompanied me the whole way.

To make matters worse, I arrived in Gyeongju not only without rain gear but without having booked a hotel. Is there a more miserable, and avoidable, travelling experience than having to walk the streets adjacent to a bus station looking for a hotel in the pouring rain? I decided there wasn’t and took a taxi to the only hotel listed in my guidebook that sounded like it was worth staying in.

Street art, Gyeongju, Korea

Street art, Gyeongju, Korea

Street art, Gyeongju, Korea

Street art, Gyeongju, Korea

Street art, Gyeongju, Korea

Street art, Gyeongju, Korea

On this rainy day I finally got lucky. The Sa Rang Chae Guesthouse is not really a hotel, it is far, far better: a traditional Korean guesthouse of wooden buildings set around a courtyard. The owners speak English, and are friendly and helpful; so much so that I don’t hold it against them that they made me stay in a room the size of a prison cell, with a share bathroom and only a thin mattress between me and the heated floor. This, it turns out, is a traditional Korean bedroom and I was fortunate to get the last one. I slept miraculously well inside it.

Sa Rang Chae Guesthouse, Gyeongju, Korea

Sa Rang Chae Guesthouse, Gyeongju, Korea

Sa Rang Chae Guesthouse, Gyeongju, Korea

Sa Rang Chae Guesthouse, Gyeongju, Korea

Sa Rang Chae Guesthouse, Gyeongju, Korea

Sa Rang Chae Guesthouse, Gyeongju, Korea

Sa Rang Chae Guesthouse, Gyeongju, Korea

Sa Rang Chae Guesthouse, Gyeongju, Korea

Check-in consisted of agreeing the price and getting past two enormous and friendly dogs. Safely inside my 2m x 2m room I reassessed my situation: it hadn’t yet stopped raining, nor did it look like doing so, but I was dry and had somewhere to sleep. All-in-all I figured I was winning the battle of wills against the weather. Sooner or later it would have to stop raining, and if the weather wanted to play the long game, then I had a good book.

Lunch, Gyeongju, Korea

Lunch, Gyeongju, Korea

Lunch, Gyeongju, Korea

Lunch, Gyeongju, Korea

It rained consistently for the next 20 hours. I borrowed an umbrella from the owners of the Sa Rang Chae and made a dash into town to have some food and stock up on a few essentials. OK, beer and snacks. A good book, beer, snacks and a 2m x 2m room. I was invincible. The weather was surely going to throw in its hand any time now.

Traditional Korean homes, Gyeongju, Korea

Traditional Korean homes, Gyeongju, Korea

Traditional Korean homes, Gyeongju, Korea

Traditional Korean homes, Gyeongju, Korea

Traditional Korean homes, Gyeongju, Korea

Traditional Korean homes, Gyeongju, Korea

Traditional Korean homes, Gyeongju, Korea

Traditional Korean homes, Gyeongju, Korea

When it finally stopped raining over 24 hours after I first arrived, I had cabin fever. I’d never understood what that phrase meant until now, to compensate I hit the streets like a man possessed. I needed exercise, fresh air and to see something, anything, of one of the most famous and historic cities in the whole of Korea.

Gyeongju, the ancient capital of the Silla dynasty, dates to around 57BC. Some 700 years later the Silla eventually conquered the whole of the Korean peninsular and Gyeongju became the capital of a new nation. The city peaked at a population of more than a million people, and was the political, cultural and religious nerve centre of the country. It went into rapid decline following the collapse of the Silla dynasty, and was largely ignored until the 1970s when it reclaimed its premier place in Korea’s cultural life.

Cheomseongdae, 7th Century astronomical tower, Gyeongju, Korea

Cheomseongdae, 7th Century astronomical tower, Gyeongju, Korea

A happy pig, Gyeongju, Korea

A happy pig, Gyeongju, Korea

Snack shopping, Gyeongju, Korea

Snack shopping, Gyeongju, Korea

Street art, Gyeongju, Korea

Street art, Gyeongju, Korea

This history has bequeathed the city a wealth of treasures, including several listed by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites, that no other Korean city can match. I had two days before my flight from Daegu, the weather was forecast to be dry and sunny, it was time to explore…