It’s a marvelous thing to feel a cold breeze after six months in Southeast Asia. The idyllic warm and sunny paradise vacations soon become a burden for most backpackers that will travel for more than the regular two/three week holidays. The snow, in my case, was very welcome.

South Korea was to me an unknown box full of surprises, a vague assort of ideas in my head. It was, I don’t know, expectation of weird and incomprehensible encounters. From Bangkok to Seoul, a six hour flight, the temperatures dropped from 35ºC to 0ºC. It was refreshing. Until now I didn’t realize that you can actually miss winter even when you’re hopping through tropical islands.

I think there are few countries that can lure you like South Korea can. It’s still not a mass tourist destination, although tourist facilities and accessibility are top-notch. They are ready, but most of the Western world hasn’t realized it yet. The greatest thing about South Korea and its capital, Seoul, is that it still has the capability to surprise you. There are few modern cities that will do that nowadays, since everything has been normalized through layers and layers of globalization.

My first sight of Seoul was unique, since I just landed in time to see the old stone palaces under a soft shower of snow. Snow! How cool is that? The mixture of old and new, under the flakes, made me realize how great my stay was gonna be. And it was.

Fast and convenient –and expensive but not so much as European capital, the States or the neighbouring Japan–, Seoul could be presented as one of the great megalopolis of the 21st century. As all big cities, it revolves around curious sights, food delights and shopping frenzy. Not as most big cities, it boasts of more than 25 million inhabitants in its urban area.

South Korea is, besides this globalization, very unique and almost completely homogeneous. This means that all population identifies as ethnically korean, with few foreigners living in the country. Still, if compared to Japan, English is more common amongst the citizens, who are also rather shy. They do have curiosity for languages, since a lot of them tried their best Hola’s when they knew where I came from.

Seoul’s skyline can boast of beautiful contrasts. The colourfulness of the imperial temples (most of them rebuilt after bombings and wars) and the greens of the public parks give room to breathe in between the skyscrapers and the overcrowded walls full of neon lights. Against all odds, feeling stuffed in this metropolis can be avoided when observing the efficiency, punctuality and immaculate appearance of all public services.

The spotless streets though, offer another ration of opposites in a few meters. The Gwanjedung Market, the citiy main street food hub, is a mess of fresh seafood pilling in the tiny stalls, flies gathering around the bright lights and the neighbours feet removing the dirt all around. The food there, needless to say, looks nasty but is as delicious and definitely more authentic than any ordinary restaurant.

Another unmissable trait of Koreans is their passion for technology. It seems to me that in every country I travel, people is even more focused only at what happens in their smartphone. The geekiness also provides room for the slot machines and funny prizes scams all around. It’s a good way to spend an hour or two, just looking at locals trying their luck to get a giant teddy bear for their sweethearts.

If I would put a snag to my first Korean experience it would be that I didn’t have more time to explore outside the big city. And five days for the big one weren’t that much at all. I’m probably missing some great insights, but it reflects how hectic my visit was. I got a sense of all that was promised, but still failed to grasp what so great about this country. I don’t truly know, but the beaches and mountains look utterly promising too, so I’ll keep them on my bucket list!

P.S. Absolutely fell in love with South Korea’s cuisine. Very unique and with little to envy to neighbouring and famed Japan.