Heart and Seoul: The Affordable Taste of Korea

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Its prices the lowest in years, this ancient land offers far more than you might imagine -- and yes, bargain shopping.

Just another loud, bustling afternoon in Seoul's hip downtown shopping district of Myong-dong. Gigglesome schoolgirls yak on designer cell phones as they stroll arm-in-arm down crowded lanes lined with clothes shops (goodness, so much black this season) and eateries -- both Western fast-food and local. One store blasts Korean-language hip-hop out onto the street, while down the block a Christian evangelist tries to compete by bellowing his spiel interspersed with slurred, off-key snatches of "Auld Lang Syne." Another guy's selling a boxful of adorable fuzzy pups (for pets, not lunch).

Amid all this sensory overload, suddenly a blotch of red and green zigs and zags through the throng: a woman in a traditional silk hanbok, Korea's answer to the kimono or the sari. Who knows what the deal is there? A bride late for her wedding picture? A gonged-out refugee from a folkloric troupe? No matter -- it's like glimpsing the ancient soul of the nation flitting silently through the noisy modern megalopolis.

Modern and mega certainly do describe this capital of 11 million -- yet unexpectedly dotting the glass, steel, and concrete sprawl are lovely tucked-away pockets of the "land of the morning calm," the Korea that was: palaces and gardens and marvelously atmospheric old neighborhoods. And beyond Seoul other gems await. Topping the list are Kyongju, the old imperial capital with a millennium's worth of awesome antiquities, and Cheju Island, a semitropical offshore haven with its own singular culture and feel. For a very different kind of history -- the Cold War -- there's nothing else in the world like the DMZ, where U.S. and South Korean troops still tensely guard against the still real menace of Stalinist North Korea (you can't go on your own; day tours from Seoul start at $40).

Many of the relatively few Americans who visit do so as a stopover on the way to "bigger fish" like China and Japan. But this particular minnow still manages to pack enough to see and experience to fill at least a couple of weeks. Its cuisine and culture are fascinating -- uniquely Korean forms whose flavor lies somewhere between Japanese and Chinese. The same could be said for its geography -- half of a peninsula hanging down from Manchuria -- and prices that, thanks to the Asian economic crisis that started in the summer of 1997, range from refreshingly affordable to downright amazing for Americans. The U.S. greenback just recently bought more than 1,175 won (everywhere abbreviated as W) compared to 890 in May 1997, which though not as high as a year ago still means a major boost in Yank buy power. Whether shopping for an extraordinary bargain in custom-tailored clothing, enjoying a deluxe hotel for less than $100 a night, or gorging on a 20-course dinner for under $12, this is the time to experience another, truly one-of-a-kind side of Asia.

SEOUL SEARCHING

The capital of it all is a souped-up mix of past, present, and future. But just as you think you're about to drown in canyons of steel, you stumble into oases like the gargantuan palace complex Gyeongbokgung (entry fee W1000, or 85¢), reminiscent of Peking's Forbidden City, or the smaller, even more gorgeous Changdeokgung ($1.96). Then, too, there are low-slung old quarters like Insa-dong, with its teahouses, crafts shops, and antiques stores, graced with sweeping pagoda-style tile roofs. Explore on your own using the very navigable subway system (60¢-70¢), or grab a bus tour ($27 for a half-day guided tour).

Traditional culture's also very much alive and kicking; don't miss one of the spectacular (sometimes downright acrobatic) performances of ancient court and folk music; ticket prices range from $17.50-$25.50 for the superb Chongdong Theater to just $6.80-$8.50 at the National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts. Jock-watchers might appreciate an exciting bout of traditional wrestling or a battle between the Samsung Lions and the Haitai Tigers for $5-$8.50 (baseball is a passion here as in Japan). Then of course there's that great American (and Korean) sport, shopping -- and Seoul boasts some world-class options at bargain-basement prices.

In choosing a base of operations for all this, you'll find a plentiful supply of budget-friendly lodgings. The Hamilton Hotel, a brick box on the foreigner-popular shopping and entertainment avenue of Itaewon, offers amenities including a pool and its own mall for a reasonable $99. Over in Myongdong, doubles with private bath at the Savoy start at $116 nightly, and nearby the Metro offers much the same for $68.

If you're really looking to stretch that won, consider a yogwan (sometimes translated as "inn," sometimes as "motel"). Comparable to the European pension, they range from disgusting fleabags run by shady characters to simple but well-maintained family establishments. The Korean National Tourism Organization can provide a list of budget inns, but two winners in the charming old Insa-dong area are clean, right off the main street, and offer a night in a double room with bath, A/C, phone, and TV for $21. The Han Hung Jang is run by friendly Shin Kyu Park and her son and (English-speaking) daughter-in-law, while several doors down Kyong Guk Kim operates the Kwan Hoon Jang with his wife and son -- and they'll also feed you for about $3 a meal.

CAPTIVATING GYEONGJU

Not to be confused with other similarly named places like Kwangju, this eastern city is a national treasure well worth at least an overnighter from Seoul. Yes, it's now got high-rises, a commercialized downtown, and a resort district at Pomun Lake jammed with hotels and an amusement park. But Gyeongju is also home to two of Asia's most magnificent ancient monuments, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The eighth-century seated Buddha at Seokguram Grotto ($2.50) is awe-inspiring, as is the nearby sixth-century Bulguksa temple ($2.50), where you can (discreetly) watch real Buddhist monks and nuns going about their devotions. Other must-sees include huge mounds housing royal tombs, the Gyeongju National Museum with its 11-foot-tall "Divine Bell," and compounds where residents have added a fridge here and a TV there to a lifestyle otherwise little changed in centuries. You can see it all on a bus tour ($47 with a local outfit, including lunch, or $250 overnight from Seoul, including meals and hotel), or rent a car for $42 per day.

A good lodging choice downtown is the salmon-colored yogwan Bomun Shillajang, where a double runs $21 a night. If you're feeling adventurous, blow an additional $8.25 on an ondul, a traditional Korean-style room where you have to take off your shoes to walk on the floor (covered with thick paper, oiled and varnished) and your bed is a futon on the same; practically every hotel in the country offers ondul rooms, but caveat dormitor: make sure your back is up to the experience. Most Gyeongju hotels are out at Pomun Lake, a $6.75 taxi ride from downtown or 35¢ to 60¢ by public bus. The Samgwang Grace has modern, pleasant, and comfy doubles with baths and amenities for $42 (plus all meals served for $5 to $8.30 each), but right up the road at the Swiss Rosen, $68 will buy you something similar in a much snazzier designer hotel. No, there's nothing particularly Swiss about the place (they just liked the name), but it's a beaut for the bucks.

The Koreans like to think of this 42-by-24-mile isle (also referred to as Jeju-do) as their very own Hawaii. Well, the palm trees are imported, but they do have several things in common: impressive scenery, volcanic origins, a balmy climet (Jeju's average year-round temperature is 60 degrees), and an ancient, separate language and cultural tradition. Or to compare with Japan, if Seoul is the Tokyo of Korea and imperial Gyeongju the Kyoto, then Jeju's not unlike Okinawa. It's a vacation and honeymoon getaway mostly for Koreans and Japanese, but one that hasn't yet been paved over.

Apart from loads of natural beauty (lovely waterfalls, lava formations including the world's longest lava tube, South Korea's highest peak), there's plenty of evidence of the Mongol-influenced local culture to explore. Burial mounds encircled by walls of lava rocks dot the hillsides. Mysterious harubang-ancient humanoid statues pop up all over the place (originals, copies, and images on everything from buses to harubang-shaped phone booths). Groups of distinctive, white-garbed women divers plumb the coasts for sea critters. Old-style mud-and-thatch houses can still be seen right in the main towns; the rest are in the touristy but still lived-in village of Songup and the Colonial Williamsburg-style Jeju Folk Village (for an entry fee of $3.40 a great visit). And don't forget the botanical, from one of Asia's largest gardens to the Bunjae Artpia ($6), an impressive one-of-a-kind park filled with 2,000 bonsai trees. You can rent a car for$48 a day(the roads are quite good); take a daylong tourist association bus tour for $27; or even book a package from Seoul (a typical two-nighter might cost around $170, including air, hotel, and daily breakfast).

Naturally, there's no shortage of hotels and restaurants, and the exchange rate translates into great bang for your buck even at top-end spots. But budget options are pretty good, too, especially in the capital, Jeju-Shi. The blue-and-white, three-year-old City Hotel is a stylish choice where a double goes for $42.50. Just down the hill, the also newish Hotel Jeju Core offers comparable rooms and amenities (plus a slightly better location closer to downtown) for $33 per double.

Seoul for sale

The quality of Korea's manufacturing and the strength of the U.S. dollar make for some incredible Seoul savings, especially leather and clothing for both sexes. Check out hip Myong-dong and the Nam Dae Mun street markets; for top-quality custom-made duds (how about $225 for an entire men's suit?), look up the better tailors in the Itaewon shopping/entertainment district.

Korea counseling

All calls to South Korea need to be preceded by 011-82, then the area code minus the initial zero. There's a 13-hour time difference from the U.S. East Coast, 10 hours from the West Coast. For general information, contact the Korean National Tourism Organization (with branches in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York): 800/868-7567; knto.or.kr. In Seoul, 10 Da-dong, Chung-gu; 02/757-0086, fax 02/777-0102.

Getting there

Six airlines have service from the U.S., including nonstops on KAL (800/438-5000; koreanair.com) and Asiana (800/227-4262; asiana.co.kr); others include United and Northwest. Current consolidator and online fares can be as low as $700 from the East Coast, $500 from the West.

Getting around

Intercity ground transport is reasonably priced. The trip from Seoul to Gyeongju, for example, takes about four to four-and-a-half hours, with one-way bus fares starting at $13.40 and train at $24.40. The one-hour flight to the nearest airport, at Busan (an hour's drive from Gyeongju), costs $53 each way. Flying is the only practical way to get to Jeju Island from Seoul; it also takes an hour and costs about $63 one-way. Vouchers for the Korea Rail Pass can be purchased in the U.S, through America Tour Consulting (212/643-0766, ustravel.co.kr); a three-day pass good for travel on any train in the country costs $47.

Lodging leads

Korea Hotel Reservations Center (in U.S., 800/251-4848, fax 914/426-7338; khrc.com). Korean Youth Hostel Association (02/725-3031, fax 02/725-3113). LABO homestay programs (02/817-4625; fax 02/813-7047; labostay.or.kr). Korea Budget Inns Reservation Center (02/757-0086; fax 02/777-0102; knto.or.kr), Korea Lodging Reservation Center (ktell.com)

Seoul hotels (area code 02)

Hamilton Hotel (119-25 Itaewon-Dong, Yong San-Ku. 794-0171; fax 795-0457). Han Hung Jang Yogwan (99 Kwanhoon-Dong, Jongro-Ku. 734-4265) Kwan Hoon Jang Yogwan (95 Kwanhoon-Dong, Jongro-Ku. 732-1682). Metro Hotel (199-33, Eulchi-Ro, 2-Ka, Choong-Ku. 752-1112; fax 757-4411). Hotel Savoy (23-1, 1-Ka, Chumgmu-Ro, Choong-Ku. 776-2641; fax 755-7669; savoy.co.kr).

Seoul restaurants

Morangak (corner of Chungmuro and Fashion Streets, Myongdong. 777-2343). Myongdong Kyoja (25 Myongdong 2-ga. 776-5348). Myongdong Chigae (off Myongdong 2-ga. 752-6800). Sok Jung (193-1 Insa-dong, Chongnogu. 734-0916).

Gyeongju hotels (area code 0561)

Bomun Shillajang (243-5 Hwangoh-dong, downtown. 749-6622). Swiss Rosen Hotel (242-19 Shinpyong-dong, Pomun Lake. 748-4848; fax 748-0094). Samgwang Grace Hotel (242-14 Shinpyong-dong, Pomun Lake. 745-0404; fax 745-0409).

Gyeongju restaurants

Chang-u-dong (89 Nodong-dong, downtown. 772-2692). Won Pung (Hwangnam-dong, near downtown. 772-8630).

Jeju hotels (area code 064)

Hotel Cheju Core (304-13 Yon-dong, Cheju-Shi. 744-6600; fax 747-7001). City Hotel (306-13 Yon-dong, Cheju-Shi. 749-1851; fax 744-8945). Lions Hotel (803 Sogwi-dong, downtown Sogwipo. 762-4141; fax 733-3617). Hotel Napoli (587-3 Sogwi-dong, downtown Sogwipo. 733-4701; fax 733-4802).

Jeju restaurants

Gin Go Gae (319-23 Sogwi-dong, downtown Sogwipo (opposite Hotel Top. 733-5089). Jin Ju (313-10 Sogwi-dong, downtown Sogwipo. 762-5158).

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