Dispatch, South Korea: A country like no other

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Travel Weekly's Michelle Baran is visiting South Korea. Her third and final dispatch follows.

SEOUL, South Korea — Sitting to dinner with two representatives from the Korean Tourist Office at a steakhouse in Seoul, I thought I was making a very clever comment when I told them that after four days touring the country, I had come to the extremely astute conclusion that South Korea reminded me more of Japan than of China.

My comment was greeted with blank stares and awkward silence. I desperately tried to recover. “Not that it’s necessarily like either one,” I backtracked.

It dawned on me, after it was already too late and the words had spilled out of my ignorant mouth, that South Korea doesn’t want to be seen as more or less similar to any of its Asian neighbors. South Korea is just South Korea.

As a half-Pole, I thought to myself, ‘Wow, what I just said would be the equivalent of someone telling me that Poland is more like Russia than Germany.’

I cringed.

And in my attempt to overcompensate for my unenlightened observation, I started to list all the things that make South Korea so unique.

First off, the mountainous peninsula is in and of itself a distinctive backdrop to extremely photogenic tree-peppered landscapes and seascapes, as well as to a plethora of temples and cultural sites that would take weeks to properly explore.

The cuisine, a rich medley of seafood stews and barbequed meats, armies of side dishes and a million variations of noodles and rice, is unlike the cuisines of nearby Asian nations. There’s richness from the sauces and meats, and lightness from the fresh vegetables and salads.

For a country that has been demolished and rebuilt countless times (and perhaps because of that), South Korea has managed to maintain a strong cultural identity. So strong, in fact, that much of it is exported to other countries, in the form of Korean movies and television dramas as well as K-Pop, popular Korean music.

South Korea is also clearly on the rise, building its economy with massive global companies like Samsung, LG and Hyundai leading the way, as well as its infrastructure, with plans for everything from new resorts to improved rail transport. Having experienced the new high-speed KTX train from Gyeongju to Seoul, I can say it is comparable to Europe’s high-speed rail networks.

So when I get back home and people ask me what South Korea was like, I am not going to say what Asian country it reminds me of. Because it doesn’t. South Korea has it’s own thing.

Click to read Michelle Baran's first and second South Korea dispatches and to view photos and video.

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