Korea is the name of a peninsula that is separated into two countries, North and South, by the historical events we collectively know as the Korean War.
Korean culture is influenced a lot from Chinese, Japanese and partly American cultures. Big cities are densely populated concrete jungles but rural areas are greener and nicer. Korea has lots of mountains, hills, lakes and rivers. It experiences four seasons.
Korean alphabet is called “hanbul”. The language belongs to Ural-Altaic family like Japanese, Finnish, Mongolian and Turkish.
Many people in big cities of Korea can speak English, particularly the younger generation. Therefore, it is easy to communicate and enjoy more in big cities. However, some of the taxi drivers cannot speak English or any other foreign language. Therefore, it is better to use Google maps or similar wherever possible or record the detailed addresses of your hotel or where you are planning to go in Korean characters in advance. Besides, you may carry a small Korean booklet with you to look up basic sentences.
Korea is a safe place and enjoyable country to visit for travelers, despite the language barrier. Korea is a fast developing country. You can see developments everywhere.
Koreans mostly use local products. Most of the taxis and cars are Hyundai; mobile phones, computers and tablets are Samsung; cosmetics are LaNeige, Missha, Faceshop.
There are many huge local department stores where you can find many different local and foreign products. By the way, Busan has literally the biggest department store in the world, Lotte building.
The thing that I realized about Korea is that they also follow the traditional Japanese improvement model “Kaizen” in business. Some local companies, chaebols like LG, Kia, Hyundai and Samsung are very big and create high value in Korean economy and social life. Government supports the innovations and production in technology & science. Therefore, Korea is growing faster and faster. Women play a big role in production and service sectors. Especially the middle aged women dedicate their lives to their families and the society. They generally work hard in shops, eateries, malls etc. These aunties are called “ajummas”, they make their hairs permanently curly to not spend a lot of time on their look.
Looking good is an obsession in Korea. People, women and men, love cosmetics and hair care products a lot. You can see many girls/boys dealing with their make up on the way, subways or even when they are waiting for the green light. To me almost all of the Korean girls look like each other, with pale white skin and strait hair with occasional use of excessive cosmetics. You can see high-storey aesthetic surgery hospitals in Seoul. There are advertisements even in subway for aesthetics packages with discounts. I learned that around 60% of the women have aesthetic surgery. This is crazy, isn’t it? Young women generally double their eye lids or reduce their chin by aesthetic surgery.
Most of the new generation men also use BB creams and lipsticks, light coloured hairs and some even use ladylike handbags. They may be influenced from the fashion of K-pop singers. That fashion style makes a visit to Korea quite special. :) The only thing that I did not like about Korean people is their throat cleaning and spitting habit. Even though many people explain that it is a cultural fact, to me such ugly behaviour cannot be just explained away by a reference to the culture; it is just not acceptable.
The transportation is easy in Korea. KTX (Korean high speed train) is very convenient, affordable and go almost every major city/town in the country.
Seoul metro is very convenient and the lines are linked to each other in many stations. Still, changing the lines takes time; sometimes you may need to walk for more than 5 minutes. Even though Seoul is a fast city, the elevators in subway stations are very long and move slowly.
T-money card is very convenient. You can top-up it in convenience stores like 7Eleven (This is worth of a special post because 7Eleven is literally everywhere in Asia) and use it in metro, taxis, convenience stores found all over the country. Taxis are not expensive, all has GPS and meters, so you may also use it when it is required.
Korean food is healthy and delicious. Kimchi is the most characteristic food/ingredient in Korean cuisine. It is something like olive oil for Mediterranean cuisine. It is similar to pickled cabbage, which is prepared from different kinds of vegetables like cabbage, chilies, leak, shallots etc. It is consumed as it is as side dish or used as an ingredient to prepare soups, rice and dishes with meat/chicken.
Rice is also very important in Korean cuisine. It is served steamed, fried or used to produce noodles and wines. There is no significant difference between what people have for breakfast and for lunch/dinner. Koreans eat fish/chicken, rice and kimchi almost for every meal. This is not something we do or enjoy. It was not easy to have breakfast in a traditional place for us. Therefore, we generally went to the cafes for breakfast to drink some tea and eat some bread/savories. In Korea there are lots of cafes or café chains like Paris Baguette, Caffe Bene, Toms ‘N Toms and Starbucks almost everywhere.
You can find many different pastries but most of them are good only for those who have sweet-tooth. The pastries in cafes and shops were spongy and sweet, even the spicy and cheesy ones were partly sweet but not salty. This was pretty unusual for us. In traditional teahouses you may taste different types of brewed teas and they are quite tasty.
Street food is very delicious, cheap and big enough to fill your stomach. You can find many nice dishes, pastries, deserts on a street when you are hungry.
Most of the traditional Korean food is very delicious too. We loved doenjang soup, bibimbap, pajeon cake, bulgogi and off course Korean barbecue a lot.
Koreans consume a lot of alcohol. They have good beer and rice wine. We did not like soju that much but liked makgeolli. It contains around 14% alcohol but has a soft taste. So beware that it is quite easy to drink until you are sort of drunk.