A few months in Seoul during covid-19

When the covid-19 pandemic started, I was in Taiwan which was pretty much the best place to be. The government there didn’t wait for China or the WHO to confirm human-to-human transmission, and immediately started screening inbound passengers from China and asked everyone to wear masks, practise good hygiene, and avoid crowds where possible. It was also one of the fastest to apply border controls, and has generally done an excellent job so far of controlling the virus – it was mind-boggling watching places like the UK and US so badly screwing up their own responses.

I was hoping to ride the pandemic out in Taipei, and I was initially allowed to overstay for 10 weeks beyond the end of my tourist stamp (see here about life in Taipei during the pandemic). Unfortunately that wasn’t extended and I had no way to stay longer, so I had to either go back to the UK or go to the one other place near Taiwan that would let me in, which was Korea.

Korea’s response hadn’t been quite as fast and effective as Taiwan’s, and it suffered the first major outbreak outside China – however, after the bad start they got their shit together and even managed to be the only major economy to keep their border open without also letting a ton of imported cases in and losing control of the virus. This was achieved by setting up an extremely strict quarantine system for everyone arriving in Korea – either at home for citizens and residents, or in government-managed facilities for temporary visitors (at visitors’ own expense). This was my quarantine room in Incheon:

Korea did bar entry to many nationalities as a reciprocal response, as those countries had first barred entry to Koreans during the early months of the pandemic. This didn’t apply to Brits though so I was able to go there, and as the UK government was clearly not doing a good job Korea seemed like the best option – except I could only stay 90 days total and would have to spend the first 14 doing an expensive quarantine stint. The hope was that by the end of 90 days, Taiwan might have set up some similar system by which I’d be able to go back there and avoid the UK.

That turned out not to be the case, so once my 90 days in Korea were up I did end up coming back to England, where I’m writing this now and where I guess I’m stuck until things start getting somewhat back to normal in the hopefully not-too-distant future. So the Korea plan turned out to be a waste of money really, but it was worth a try and (quarantine aside) Seoul was still a good place to spend a few months catching up with friends, eating & drinking, and doing some hiking.

You can read my detailed account of the quarantine experience here, and the rest of this post is just to share a bit of what I did after that.

Honestly, that first day after quarantine it just felt amazing to be outdoors breathing air that hadn’t come through ducts, even though the weather was shit. Actually the weather was awful for weeks, raining cats & dogs a lot of the time and leading to severe flooding in parts of the city – if you’ve seen Parasite you’ll recall a key scene in the film where torrential rain leads to their apartment flooding, and that does sometimes happen in rainy season.

Dude having a smoke and a drink during a downpour at the convenience store opposite my airbnb:

Was much better once rainy season ended:

And life continued largely as normal in most of the city, albeit with everyone wearing masks everywhere and things definitely being a bit quieter than usual. This was especially obvious in tourists areas like Myeongdong which was an absolute ghost town compared to usual, and also the normally heaving nightlife was subdued as clubs had been closed following mini-outbreaks and a lot of people were avoiding bars. Itaewon in particular was badly affected (I’m guessing a bunch of bars & clubs there won’t survive the pandemic), and Gangnam & Hongdae were pretty quiet too.

This was at the top of Namsan, where there’d normally be a sea of tourists jostling for elbow room:

Great views as usual though:

After that hike up Namsan I realised I’d made the comedy error of forgetting both to top up my subway pass or to bring any other cash or card with me, so then spent an hour and a half walking back to my airbnb on the other side of the river and up & down over a couple more small mountains. Which I didn’t mind at all, as it’s always interesting to walk through residential areas of a city you might normally never see, and it was a nice evening too. Snapped this (of the skyscrapers on Yeouido island) from the bridge over the Han:

This spell in Seoul was also a good opportunity to update and add to my Seoul hiking pages, including my favourite route up Gwanaksan again:

These weird Star Trek trees have sprouted outside Sadang Station (near Gwanaksan) since my last visit:

I also did several hikes on the ridge along the southern edge of Bukhansan National Park to check the best trails and put together this hiking route. Great terrain and views up there:

Couple of random neighbourhood shots displaying leisure time priorities in Korea:

I’ve written plenty on this blog about all the great hiking in the mountains around the city, but another really neat thing about Seoul is there are lots of smaller hills here & there which have been left as islands of real forest within the concrete forest. If you live near one of them you can go and stretch your legs in natural surroundings without even having to take the metro anywhere, and some of these parks are connected together by bridges so you can string them together for a longer walk. I went for a wander from Express Bus Terminal Station down to Naebang through a couple of these parks, connected by this pedestrian bridge over a major road:

While these mini forests are no substitute for the real thing, they’re a pretty cool feature to have right there in the middle of such a high density urban environment.

It wasn’t all plain sailing in Seoul while I was there – almost half of my time in the city coincided with a 6-week partial lockdown, with all the bars shut, most cafes shut, and a 9pm curfew for restaurants. This obviously wasn’t great, but everything else stayed open so it wasn’t awful either – but what was especially noteworthy was that they did this in response to having over 100 cases per day in Seoul, with the intention of getting it back down below that threshold, and it worked. Meanwhile the UK was spiking to thousands of cases a day due to everyone relaxing after the end of the first lockdown there, but the government was just dithering on, pretending the shit wasn’t massively hitting the fan again, and not responding until far too late (again). It was infuriating being in a country taking pro-active and effective measures while watching the UK blundering into a disaster, and that was the situation in which I found myself heading back to England.

The contrast between the arrival at Seoul-Incheon Airport and the arrival at London Heathrow was staggering, and it was immediately obvious to me why Korea was doing a pretty good containment job and the UK had totally failed to. But that’s a rant for another post…

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