UPDATED May 9, 2024

BY Michael Coo

IN Journey to the East

no comments

UPDATED May 9, 2024

BY Michael Coo

IN Journey to the East

no comments

The Seoul Of The City: My Return To Korea


The times, they are a-changing…” – Bob Dylan

I first visited Seoul, South Korea’s capital, 41 years ago. It was an unplanned stop-over. At the time I had no specific desire to visit Korea  but I had purchased the cheapest multi-stop ticket (remember those) to Australia that I could find and that turned out to be with Korean Airlines. One condition was that it required you to stay over in Seoul for 3 nights, although the airline would also cover the 3 nights in a hotel. I arrived just after the Soviet Union had shot down KAL007 so my plane was pretty empty as we were following the same flight path.

I don’t have any real recollection of my time here. The airline assigned a ‘guide’ to show me the sights but nothing stands out in my memories. The country was in turmoil, run by Army General/Dictator, Chun Doo-Hwan, the North Koreans were assassinating Korean politicians and kidnapping citizens, the population, led by students were agitating for democracy and the country’s economy was still struggling.

Fast forward to the present. My airline ticket certainly did not allow multiple stops (although Air Canada kindly added an unexpected night imprisoned in a Narita Airport hotel) and was not inexpensive. As we flew over the city in preparation for landing, I was struck by the incredible number of golf courses that dotted the landscape. I was met at the airport by my taxi driver who had brightly dyed orange hair and perfectly shaped eyebrows. He proceeded to drive me into Seoul in a pimped out taxi with a red leather ceiling and window trim, blue disco lights and Michael Bublé on in the background at about 150 km/hr. Things. I thought, have certainly changed.

Although it may not seem like it, our Journey to the East cycling tour, which begins in Seoul, is the only tour we run that takes place in a country still officially in a state of war. There is no peace treaty, only an ongoing ceasefire. The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ ) between North and South Korea is less than 60 km from Seoul and is the most heavily armed border on earth. You would never guess that from walking the vibrant, friendly, safe streets of this city. The only hint is that Google & Apple Maps refuse to provide directions between locations. Guess the North’s ‘Supreme Leader’, Kim Jong Un might use them to plan future invasion. For myself, it only reminded me just how dependent on technology I have become…

When I found out I would be coming to Korea, I immediately started researching interesting things (granted, not everyone will agree with my definition of interesting) to check out but quickly discovered that the pandemic affected South Korea dramatically and that many quirky sights and activities are no longer available. These include:

  • The brightly coloured ‘Peace train’ to the DMZ, which was eventually supposed to continue into North Korea.
  • PooPoo Land, a museum dedicated to human excrement, flatulence, and so much more.
  • Joint Security area which closed after U.S. Pvt. 2nd Class Travis King ran across the inter-Korean border at the JSA into North Korea in mid-July 2023 during a group tour (WTF – people defect to North Korea!?).

It turned out that my initial disappointment was brief. Seoul, it turned out was fantastic. I was only in the city for a couple of days but I would be happy to return any time. Why?

It is clean. Unbelievably so. I swear you could have eaten off the floor of the subway cars. Not one tiny piece of litter anywhere. No graffiti. No rotting food. No mystery stains. Despite the fact, that there appear to be, literally, no garbage or recycling bins in Seoul. Magically, there is also no litter. Quite the trick!

It is kind. One rider was walking in the rain on the streets of Seoul with his rain jacket on. Two women were walking in the opposite direction, each with an umbrella . One woman stopped, walked across the street and handed the rider her umbrella. He tried to return it to her but she simply returned to her friend and they continued walking together, now sharing an umbrella. I was on a crowded subway and at one stop a seat opened up and although there were many other riders standing, they all indicated I should take the seat (FYI – I’m old, but not that old).

It is cool. On the night of my arrival, I walked down to the riverside. It was a beautiful warm evening and hundreds, maybe thousands, of locals were hanging out on the shores of the river. They all had mats and tiny plastic furniture and were sitting chatting and eating, and listening to a variety of musicians. Regarding the eating, most of the food came from a 7-11 situated on a barge in the river. You line up, get your noodles in a bowl, return to your friends and family and then enjoy. I told you it was cool!

It is historic. Gyeongbokgung Palace is a must. The grounds are amazing but it is the people that make it remarkable. If you dress up in period costume, your entry fee is waived. There were so many Koreans there, clothed in outfits from the past, it was hard to believe. And it worked. They fit in with their surroundings, becoming part of the historic panorama. Speaking of history, the displays at the various buildings took pains to remind everyone of past Japanese misdeeds inflicted on Korea – fires, assassinations, invasions, looting, you name it!

It is green. There are many parks and re-imagined abandoned railway lines like the Gyeongui Line Forest Park but the crown jewel is the Cheong-Gye-Cheon. This paved over stream was uncovered and a wondrous 6 km natural space was created in the heart of Seoul. It features trees, wildlife, water features and art, including a stunning 192 m mural of  a Korean royal parade.

It is delicious. Authentic. Korean. BBQ.

Public art outside the Royal Palace

Despite my concerns, it is also quirky.

Canada, my home, was essentially created by railroads. Yet for over 40 years , governments have been talking about a high speed rail link between the county’s 2 largest cities – Montreal and Toronto. That is about the same distance as between Busan and Seoul. Upon my second return to Seoul, I will be taking a bullet train that will cover the distance in just over 2 hours…as opposed to the almost 6 hours it would take in Canada.

Changing times, indeed.


Journey to the East

While Korea and Japan are close neighbors, their lands and cultures are completely their own, and cycling across these countries one after the other...


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