Special Report on South Korea: Open welcome cloaks country's riven hist ory

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If its past was anything to go by, South Korea would by rights be a very sour and ragged country: one of the most striking things about Koreans is how open and unembittered they manage to be, despite one of the nastiest histories in East Asia.

Hemmed in and scrapped over by powerful neighbours, in two thousand years the peninsula has suffered five foreign occupations and 900 separate invasions, including four wars in the last century alone. Korea has been stomped on by Mongols and Manchus, stripped of its art treasures and language by the Japanese, and divided for fifty years by the superpower conflict.

For all this, the country has clung onto its distinctive Confucian culture, its good humour, and a unique and ferocious cuisine.

Korea is never going to become a popular western holiday destination - but several fascinating weeks can be spent here, especially by those prepared to strike out from the big cities into the mountainous, non-tourist infested countryside.

Compared to its mighty neighbours, Korea is an easy country to travel around and to get along with: less frustrating and chaotic than China, less formal and expensive than Japan.

Domestic flights and fast clean trains connect the main cities; a super- express, similar to Japan's bullet trains, will eventually join Seoul to the principal port, Pusan.

Accommodation varies from up market international chain hotels to traditional inns called yogwan, where you shed your shoes, and sleep on matresses in rooms coal-heated through flues beneath the floor.

Kimchi - raw vegetables pickled in a pungent garlic brew, which, along with rice, forms the staple of Korean cuisine - takes some getting used to, but there's no escaping it.

It's tempting to draw a European parallel: if the Japanese are like the British - an island nation of up-tight tea-drinkers - then Koreans are the Latins of Asia: quick-tempered, passionate, garlic-eating.

Korea is a mountainous peninsula, but a compact one, and you're never more than a few hours drive from rocky hiking trails and National Parks.

The highest of South Korea's peaks is on Cheju-do, a resort island, 85 miles off the south coast, rich in legends and traces of the indigenous shamanistic religion.

Kyongju, the old capital of the 900-year-long Silla Dynasty, contains the greatest concentration of Buddhist temples and monasteries, many of them still under excavation.

But most journeys begin in Seoul, one of the fastest mushrooming cities in Asia.

Batted about between the armies of the North and South during the Korean war, the capital is now home to nearly a quarter of all Koreans, with residential new towns sprawling along its approaches.

A rush hour journey across Seoul is a lesson in the fearful economic growth that's both enriching and choking urban Korea: a multi-lane bedlam of jammed motor cars - but home-grown cars, Hyundais and Daewoos, not the Japanese imports of a decade ago.

The heart of Seoul, where hotels, the railway station and the business communitiy are concentrated, is surprisingly restful.

Modern architecture is the standard Asian glass and concrete, but the city is overlooked by dramatic rocky crags (you can visit them in a day trip - there are 16th century fortresses and carved Buddhas up there in the hills), and elegant parks, museums, and palaces.

The most impressive buildings, like Seoul Railway Station, are early 20th century relics of the loathed Japanese occupation.

Only this month, the old headquarters of the Japanese colonial government were blown up in a public display of national self-assertion. The past may be buried, but it isn't yet dead.

Richard Lloyd Parry is the author of the Cadogan Guide to Japan.

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