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Seoul - Off the beaten track

Old man in traditional clothes


The Buddhist temple of Bongwonsa dates back to the late 9th century. It was destroyed during the Korean War and has been subsequently rebuilt. It is now the headquarters of the Taego sect of Korean Buddhism. This is an interesting sect, insofar as it allows its monks to marry; a vestige of the Japanese administration and a controversial issue among Korean Buddhists.

Bukhansan National Park

Autumn (September-November) is the best season for visiting Bukhansan, which is only an hour's drive north of Seoul. The hiking is excellent, and you get magnificent views of the surrounding countryside, although Seoul is more than likely to be shrouded in smog. The fortress, Bukhansanseong, and the walls surrounding it, were built in the park during the Baekje dynasty but the present walls date from the time of the Joseon king, Sukjong, who rebuilt the battlements in the 16th century following invasions from China. Sections of the wall were destroyed during the Korean War but have since been restored.

Mt Dobongsan is a rugged peak dominating the northern part of the park, and there is excellent hiking on marked trails throughout the area. In the south, Mt Baekundae is the highest mountain in the park at 836m (2740ft), and it adjoins two others: Mt Insubong and Mt Mangyeongdae. There are several popular hikes in the vicinity, and a couple of rustic retreats sell noodles and soft drinks along the way at reasonable prices.

Hordes of hikers getting away from it all in Seoul have made the trails blindingly obvious, so there's little chance of getting lost anywhere in the park. Plenty of buses ply the road between Seoul and the main park entrances.


Panmunjeom was just a small farming community before it became the focus of continuing peace negotiations between North and South. Technically, the Korean War never ended, making the ceasefire since 1953's Armistice Treaty (which Seoul never signed) the longest in history. The so-called 'demilitarised zone', or DMZ, is hardly demilitarised today, with two armies bristling with weapons glaring at each other across a stretch of mined, electrified and barbed-wired no-man's land.

The attractions don't amount to much, and include a conference room with the demarcation line running down the centre of the table, the Freedom Bridge and the Bridge of No Return (depending on which way you're going and where your politics lie), as well as a few touristy sights like Freedom House. Perhaps the point of making the trip is not so much to see these places as to breathe in the almost palpable tension of a front line in a continuing cold war.

You can only reach Panmunjeom by joining a tour group. Your Korean guide will take you to Camp Bonifas, where you can play slot machines, presumably to boost the army's coffers. An American soldier briefs the tourists, puts on a short slide show and accompanies the group to the Joint Security Area of Panmunjeom, as Korean nationals are forbidden entry. The tours are popular, so you'll probably have to book ahead in Seoul.

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