A bit of Seoul searching
At the gate of the royal palace, a small child has his picture taken with the stony-faced guard. The cheeky boy tugs at the guard's red, yellow and blue uniform. Will the guard ignore him? Or slice him in two with his sword? No, the guard grins just long enough for the picture to be taken, then resumes his distant glare.
This scene at Seoul's Changdeokgung palace illustrates what it's like to be a tourist in South Korea. At first, much seems strange, even forbidding, but get past the austere exterior and pretty soon you'll make friends.
The complex of old wooden palaces crowned with curved, tiled roofs, is artfully set among lotus ponds and gingko and acer trees which screen it from the skyscrapers of modern Seoul to the south.
At the nearby Bukchon cultural centre, traditional houses have been grouped to give visitors an idea of how life used to be in Korea. In the garden, pottery and stone jars contain kimchi - the fermented cabbage for which every family has its own recipe.
Both national dish and cure-all, kimchi takes some getting used to, but if you book a homestay here, try it for breakfast. Sleeping on the floor is still normal in South Korea, even in new high-rise flats. This is not as tough as it sounds, as the floors are heated from beneath. Modern hotels often have a few "traditional" rooms for those who request them.
For such a big city, with a population of around 11 million, Seoul is easy to negotiate. The underground is efficient and cheap, whizzing us to Insadong market where you can buy any trinket from handmade paper, embroidery and pottery to cloisonne, lacquer ware and papier mache boxes.
It's crammed with locals, street performers and stallholders who will paint a scroll while you wait. There are many markets of course. If you want a digital camera, a leather jacket or a few T-shirts, Namdaemun, near the spectacular Sungpyemum or South Gate, is a good choice. Prices in general are very reasonable; the highest value note in Korea is 10,000 won, about pound;5.
The food is not at all frightening - apart from the kimchi. At lunchtime, all-you-can eat buffets include a pint of lager for about pound;6, while the revolving restaurant at the top of the 236-metre high Seoul tower offers a suave, modern menu with fantastic views. Everywhere else you'll find bibimbap (rice with vegetables and beef), bulgogi (table-top barbecues) and bubbling hotpots to dip into, fondue-style.
After kimchi, Korea's other favourite medicine is ginseng. Morning commuters buy ginseng drinks from station stalls, much as we'd buy a coffee, to give them a fillip before starting work.
We see the Korean zest for life at the fish market when we arrive in the port of Busan. Among tanks of hairy crabs, sea slugs and a myriad of other fish and crustaceans, the traders swap jokes and insults. Perhaps they are warming up for an evening at a karaoke bar. Koreans throw themselves into their karaoke, and buses and coaches carry signs banning it on board, for fear yodelling passengers might cause a traffic accident.
We make more friends at the city of Gyeongju, formerly seat of the Joseon royal dynasty, and now known as a "museum without walls". Every time we stop in front of a display case of exquisite jade or filigree gold we are mobbed by giggling, raucous schoolchildren eager to try out their English.
Korea has a quieter, more reflective side. On a hill above Busan we join pilgrims for a night in a Buddhist temple. The monks and helpers have yet to modify their programme for westerners, and the harsh way I am told to eat everything on my plate, drink the water I washed it with, and genuflect repeatedly, stirs rebellion rather than enlightenment.
Walking meditation under a feather-curl moon to the sound of furious drumming almost makes it worthwhile, as does sleeping on a toasty warm floor.
We soothe our aches next evening at a traditional Korean bath house near our hotel, owned, as is so much of Korea, by the car giant Hyundai. We dip in and out of warm and hot pools, scented with ginseng or green tea, winding up with a massage, all for about pound;1 for 40 minutes.
More sobering than any temple stay is a visit to the demilitarised zone, or DMZ, reputedly the most heavily armed area in the world. About 90 minutes'
drive from Seoul, you can look across the Imjin river at South Korea's mysterious other half.
About 10 million families still have at least one relative in the north, where the Cold War shows little sign of thawing. They come here to pin heart-breaking messages and prayers to the barbed wire and to dream of a day when they can be reunited.
Cultural Tours offers an eight-day journey to Korea visiting Seoul, Gyeongju and the DMZ . It includes flights, transfers, a high-speed train trip, accommodation and an English-speaking guide, from pound;1,063 per person. Details on 020 7636 7906; www.culturaltours.co.uk. More information: www.tour2korea.com