For the last eight weeks, I have been living in a suburb of Seoul, at the Academy of Korean Studies where my wife has come for 12 weeks as a Senior Fellow. I have tagged along for a much-needed break from the myriad foolishnesses of India.
The Academy is pushed back up into a little forest that nestles on the shoulder of a hill full of trees, a small lake and a running stream. And now that spring is here, the trees are full of flowers - cherry blossoms (white and pink), azalea, magnolia and forsythia - the day temperature is around 20 degrees centigrade, the sky is blue and clear, and the birds have come back after the long winter break.
It doesn’t get much better than this - especially since instead of paying for the privilege to be here, it is my wife who is getting paid to live here and conduct her research.
The Academy is not unique. Pretty much all of Korea - barring Seoul, which looks like New York - is exactly like this: low-slung hills, thin forests of softwood, lots of streams and water bodies.
We have travelled a lot in the last three weeks, and discovered that the country is like this all over and uniformly beautiful. It just doesn’t matter where you go, including Jeju Island, which is like a large donut with the difference that instead of a hole in the middle it has a volcano. Dormant, I should add. Here you get seedless oranges the size of walnuts - and you eat them with the skin.
The landscape and scenery are surreally serene. Even the sea is well-behaved, lapping about like a tame Labrador rather than banging about like a crazy Pomeranian.
There are inexpensive, and clean places to stay everywhere, and you can get a double room for $100 per day. Transport is incredibly cheap and efficient. The bullet train costs only $100 for a round trip of 600 kilometres from Seoul to Busan and back. Air fares for a journey of 500 kilometres are around $100.
The cities are clean, the water is pure, the soju (liquor) is purer, and the people are nice… it is a great place to be in for a short stay.
What an idea, Seonsaengnim
So, daily, we ask ourselves: Why don’t more tourists come from India to Korea? It costs just Rs 42,000 on Jet Airways via Hong Kong. A single entry visa is just Rs 5,000 and relatively easy to get. Unlike some horridly racist Western countries, which seek the story of your life, details of your financial status, your income-tax returns, your educational degrees. A country like Greece, which is going bust, has the nerve to ask people from southern cities like Chennai to make a personal appearance at its embassy in Delhi - for the privilege of boosting their tourism revenue.
Having discussed it at length with many people, I have the following explanation to offer: Korea has done nothing in India to dispel the impression about its cuisine. The result is that even the travel agencies, which organise group tours to Europe at exorbitant prices, have not bothered much with Korea. I’d be surprised if they have even the slightest idea of Korean cuisine.
Hence, my unsolicited advice to the Korean government - change the image of Korean food in India and tourism from India will begin to boom as the prejudice against Korean food fades.
The kimchi and “how many dogs have you eaten?” jokes that are routinely asked by Indian friends have now worn thin. The truth is that Korean food, though predominantly non-vegetarian, is amazingly healthy. It hardly uses any oil and comprises leaves and high-protein seaweed - what a variety, Sirjee! - along with meat and sticky rice. With vegetarianism increasing, even Iyengars from Srirangam and Patels from Bhaurch can not just survive but eat well too in this country. And to make Indians triply happy, there is a Korean paste version of the Tamil gun-powder.
It is called kochujang , and as long it is there the Americans had better watch out - North Korea will never run out of rocket fuel.
The tourist’s guide
Where to go
It’s always better to plan your trip in advance so that you don’t waste time figuring out things after arrival. The best time to visit Korea is from April to September. The websites provide adequate information and the tourist infrastructure is superbly organised. The best place for getting information is the Korea Tourism Office.
Jeju Island ($50 from Seoul by air) is a must for its beauty. Kyoungju in the South-Eastern part of South Korea is another place worth a trip. It is dotted with Buddhist temples in unique Korean style architecture. The main attraction is an 8th century cave temple with the statue of Buddha looking out at the sea. Temple stays are also an experience in themselves for those interested in spending a couple of days in the mountains. The large number of mountains and hills mean that the sporty types can go hiking on the many beautiful mountains. Scuba diving or swimming in the sea, fishing, cycling, skiing or skating is also possible.
Last but not least, you can take a guided tour up to the North Korean border at Panmunjom — it is quite an experience.
What to buy
Since airline weight allowance is a problem, look for traditional stuff like ceramic pottery vases, incense burners, tea-sets, lacquer-ware boxes, and scrolls. They are stunning and delicately made.
Ginseng is another thing to carry back and it comes in various forms and sizes. Then there are different teas: black, red, varieties of green tea, hibiscus, camomile, omija, bamboo leaf — and my favourite, ‘Yuja cha’, the citron tea. If you pour a bit of soju on it, the experience is very uplifting for the soul.
Then there are Korean cosmetics and creams. I was told by someone who is a veteran in this field that the Koreans have truly mastered the art of combining natural ingredients and the technology to make these effective and well worth the price.