Korea Stories: The Tour 😐

When I brought up the idea of going to Korea with my mom, to my mom, initially, the thought was to go see the Korea that my mom grew up in, see the place she called home, any sights and streets that she remembered from her childhood/upbringing, and maybe any restaurants that she might have remembered liking growing up.

It didn’t take long for my mom to dismiss all of that, stating that it had been 38 years, and there was little chance that pretty much anything of her past was still actually in existence.  I had a very 😐 face at this thought, but I understood.

Alternatively, my mom stated that she would, through a travel agent friend of hers, book us a tour package.  I expressed my concern and general disagreement with a tour package, because I typically prefer to not operate on itineraries and schedules, unless like, I’m getting paid to do so.  The freedom to explore and plan my own course is always preferable, but for whatever reason, my mom was insistent on a tour package.  The compromise was that we would have a few days before and after the tour itself to where we could explore Seoul on our own, which satiated my own want and need to explore and wander, so I agreed to do the tour group in the end.

So after four days in Seoul, we flew out to Jeju Island, the first stop on the tour.  I’ll be honest, I didn’t know much anything about Jeju; mythical gf was more knowledgeable about the place, based on the metric butt-ton of Korean dramas she watches, and it’s apparently the de facto romantic destination for Korean couples in them, but otherwise a tropical island getaway destination, often called “the Hawaii of Asia.”

One of my reservations about being in a tour group were confirmed immediately upon arrival: other people.  To cut to the chase, nobody on the tour group was anything other than nice, but there were some people who had less desirable personality traits than others, and in a group dynamic, such isn’t always a good thing.  One group were people that were apparently finicky eaters, balking about food at just about every single meal; um, it doesn’t take a genius to know what kinds of food you’re going to encounter in Korea.  One couple had a more elderly gentleman whom was just a tad bit on the frail side; aside from hurting himself, he apparently had a bad back and preferred to not dine at any “traditional” style restaurants where patrons sat on the floor.  Um, it’s Korea; dining while sitting on the floor sometimes happens here.

And then there was the couple that drew my ire more than anyone else; because whether they were astutely aware of it or not, the wife was self-centered, selfish and occasionally caused the entire group to deviate on her complaints.  I could go on about them, but I’ll just leave it at the fact that they stayed at a hotel different from the rest of the group but still made the driver go 20 minutes out of the way to gather them, and we changed restaurants at least twice because they didn’t like the available food options.

But that’s all I’ll say about the people.  Just assume that I kept my distance from the high-maintenance lady while judging her from afar, pursed my lips at anything I deemed selfish and time-wasting from the group, and mentally taking notes for things to write about when I had the chance.  Thankfully, the high-maintenance couple was only with us at Jeju, and nowhere else afterward.

People aside, Jeju was an interesting experience.  It was in fact a tropical island, where I got to experience the extremities of tropical weather.  When we got there, it was windy as hell, but subsequently not hot and unpleasant.  It was big news in Korea when it happened, but we also got nailed by a typhoon; combined with the continuing jet lag, it was a harrowing experience waking up at 3:30 a.m. with wind screaming, the entire hotel swaying, rain pelting the balcony door, and the power going out.  Maybe I was too tired to be concerned, but I was pretty calm throughout the entire meteorological ordeal.  But the fortunate thing was that the typhoon’s brunt was throughout the a.m. hours, and by the time the group reconvened, it was sunny, beautiful, and unfortunately hot, for the duration of the time in Jeju.

Jeju is filled with all sorts of chintzy themed museums and kind of roadside attraction shows, ostensibly so that tourists can have a wide variety of things to look at and watch while there.  But I tend to shy away from things I can see anywhere else in the world, in favor of the things I cannot, like sights and scenery.  Truly, Jeju has a lot of great sights and paths, and when I wasn’t being driven miserable by 400 other Koreans trying to conduct their own photo shoots, I can look back at the photos that I took myself and be reminded of a lot of the beautiful scenery of the island.

Two things stand out the most about Jeju for me: getting to eat Jeju black pig, a local delicacy, not without a lot of arguing with the tour guide to actually take us to a place that served it, even if it came out of our own pockets.  It was like heartier pork belly, but with a good flavor nonetheless.  There was also a particular road in Jeju called Tokkaebi Road, in which “tokkaebi” is Korean for goblin, troll or ogre, in fairy tales.  Tokkaebi Road is an optical illusion, where the road appears to be an uphill incline, but is somehow actually a downhill slope.  The tour guide put the bus in neutral and let the vehicle roll, ostensibly uphill.  All while passing tourists on the roadside, pouring liquid on the asphalt to watch it roll uphill.

After Jeju, it was back to the mainland, where we would stop in Busan.  I thought that we would actually spend some time in Busan, like we did in Jeju, but apparently the whole rest of the tour would be these completely packed schedules, hitting up six cities and towns over the span of the next three days.

This didn’t sit too well with me, especially since I was really pining to visit the League of Legends pop-up store, since we were actually in Busan.  After some determined research, it turned out that transportation between Busan, and the next stop on the tour was relatively cheap, so I made the executive decision to skip the tour group for a day, and do my own thing.

Which was fine by me, since in the end, I was able to visit the League store, explore Busan on my own, and make my own way to Gyeongju, where I did a little more of my own exploration and sightseeing, before getting rained on and meeting back up with my mom and the tour group at the night’s hotel.  Busan is definitely a more blue-collar city than Seoul is, but still a major city nonetheless, with pretty vibrant commercial areas, efficient mass transit and of course, tons of shopping.  So it was a pretty stark contrast ending up in Gyeongju later on, which is way smaller, no tall buildings, lots of historic buildings and architecture, but still manages to have a prevalent shopping district full of brand name stores.

And after another short night and early wake-up call, it was back on the road again.  The first stop was Pohang, a port city once built on the fishing industry, then switched to steel, polluting itself to third-class, before its current state of revitalization.  We didn’t really stick around long enough for me to make much more of the place and, then we ended up in think was Uljin, which I referred to as Crabtown; another port town that was entirely reliant on the crab business.  I only remember seeing rows of restaurants, with the proprietors hanging outside, trying to hail and bowing at passing cars, to get people to dine at their restaurants.  Although we had a seafood lunch there, again, we didn’t stick around long enough to really explore or see any of the place.

We stopped in Pyeongchang, a place I had never heard about before.  This is unfortunately a common occurrence for me with lots of Korean towns and cities.  But Pyeongchang is apparently a big deal, because they’re the hosts for the 2018 Winter Olympics, another thing that completely went over my head.  An interesting thing happened when we got to Pyeongchang – it was suddenly cold.  Being a mountainous town, fall quickly caught up to us, and it was refreshingly brisk when we all poured out of our tour van.  We stopped long enough to have dinner and stand at the base of what will ultimately be the 2018 Olympic ski jump ramp, before we were back on the road again, ending the night in Sokcho, a raucous town also revolving around the crab business, as our hotel was in the middle of no joke, 20 crab establishments.  But again, it was another late arrival with an early departure scheduled.  Notice a trend here?

The final stop on the tour before returning to Seoul was Seorak Mountain, the third-tallest mountain in South Korea.  It was fun scrambling to the summit of the mountain and trying my best to take deep breaths of fresh mountain air, but there were just so many other fucking people all trying to do nothing but take a billion selfies up there, that it grew exasperating after a while and I just wanted to leave.

The drive back to Seoul took longer than expected due to what apparently is normal Seoul city traffic, but by the time we were settled back in, I just wanted to sit back, relax and take a vacation from the vacation within the vacation.

My mom and I talked about it a few times, but ultimately she agreed with me that a tour group wasn’t that great when it comes to actually relaxing, and that if she could go back in time, she probably wouldn’t have done it this way.  It probably would have been less costly of a trip, and there would have undoubtedly been way more time to unwind and relax, even if we didn’t see so much of Korea in the process.

One of the things that I found interesting about the entire tour was the fact that although they may have scrimped on stuff like sightseeing and restaurants, one thing they didn’t shortchange us on was hotels.  From Jeju all the way to Sokcho, every hotel we stayed at were pretty nice; the irony was that aside from Jeju, every single one was a late arrival and we had absurdly early wake-up calls.  Seriously, what kind of vacation entails having to wake up at 7, 7 and 5:30 a.m.?? 😐

Something that cannot go without mention was the mainland tour guide’s driving.  The guy himself was a really nice guy who was pretty engaging and entertaining to the group, but I will have to say that he was probably the worst driver on the face of the planet’s entire history.  Take every negative stereotype about bad Asian drivers, and crank it up to twelve.  The guy routinely drove under the speed limit, stabbed at the brakes for no apparent reasons, and was susceptible to driving fatigue, which whenever it happened, resulted in some weaving and swerving.  By the time we reached Seoul, I was mentally going ballistic as his stop-and-go driving was pushing me to the brink of puking all over the place.

However, in spite of all of my complaints, I will concede that without a tour group, there is little chance that I would have seen as much of South Korea as I ultimately did.  And when I think about to the places seen on the tour group as a whole, I do feel a sense of gratefulness at having seen as much of it as I did, because if I were left to my own devices, I probably would  have stayed in Seoul for a week, and maybe a neighboring city or district just outside of it.

That being said, if in the future, the idea of a tour group comes up again, I’ll probably shoot it down.  Unless it’s solely with a group of friends, and there’s full transparency of the schedule, and a fairly assured guarantee that there will be plenty of time for R&R as well as some leisurely destination shopping, there’s no way I want to do a completely slammed hit-and-run style tour group like this one ever again.

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