(warning: this is a long post)
as i mentioned briefly in my last post, david and i suddenly found ourselves with a few extra days of vacation at the end of february. with most of our resources spent on our recent mega-vacation to australia, we decided to keep it in the country and head north to seoul. we’ve spent a little time up there before and have enjoyed it, but figured that the second largest city on the planet deserved more of our attention than just a weekend here and there. we left on wednesday the 22nd and got home late on sunday, and we loved every minute. seoul is all the good things about korea rolled up into one beautiful, ingeniously organized city (with a handful of western flare thrown in for all us homesick expats). here’s a day-by-day breakdown of our trip.
arrived to the plex hotel in jamsil and were happy with all it had to offer. the biggest perks were the free snacks/drinks in the lobby and the bathtub with jacuzzi jets (bathtubs are hard to come by). it was also situated in a happenin’ little neighborhood close to the green subway line, which basically took us anywhere we wanted to go.
we walked towards lotte world and mall in search of thai food, but when we got there the restaurant was closed. in our hunger and desperation, we agreed to eat at a nearby TGIFriday’s (i know, i know) but in its defense, we had a startlingly good mexican dish, complete with guacamole and sour cream and cheese galore.
we got locked in a stairwell for a short amount of time. then, on our walk back to the hotel, david found a scarf. (off to an exciting start, right?)
walked to starbucks and got properly caffeinated. got some pastries at a nearby bakery. hopped the subway and was dropped down in the center of seoul. our goal of the day was to explore and find the big markets and famous points of interest. like proper tourists, we were armed with 2 maps and my ipod. we covered a lot of ground.
started by slipping into a shopping frenzy in myeongdong market. here, there were dozens of western shopping stores. i dragged david in H & M, the Gap, and practically started salivating at the sight of Forever 21. i loved it, and i don’t think david minded too much. we ate a decent lunch at kraze burger.
next, we walked to namdaemun market, a much more traditional market with a maze of streets and alleyways. david found a pair of hiking pants here for 12 bucks.
we searched in vain for sungneymun, the largest city gate in korea from the joseun dynasty, and when we did finally locate it, we realized it was under a building, being reconstructed from a recent fire.
late afternoon found us paying a dollar to walk around inside the deoksugung palace grounds, shivering and taking lots of photos as we explored building after building.
as the sun set, we found the cheonggyecheon stream, a lovely riverwalk through the middle of the city.
our last destination of the day was to find some tried and true mexican. it took a little searching, but we were blissful to find taco rico, a hole-in-the-wall who’s chef was actually from mexico. i know in the states this is no big find, but imagine a mexican guy in korea. and a chef, no less! we were happy.
this day was unforgettable.
we had booked a tour to the DMZ and panmunjom. we left early, getting mcdonald’s for breakfast and checking at the lotte hotel by 9:30 AM. on our tourbus, there were mostly japanese, with only a small group of us english-speakers, so we got a lot of one-on-one attention and information from our tour guide.
sidenote: a quick little history lesson: the dmz is short for the ‘demilitarized zone,’ a truce-line drawn during armistice negotiations in 1953 between north and south korea, and a place that is still technically the frontline in an unresolved war. the zone itself is basically a no-man’s land, with barbed wire fences and guard posts at regular intervals all along the line.
panmunjom is the joint security area (JSA) within the dmz – the only place where mutually agreed upon contact between the UN and north korean military representatives takes place. it is open to authorized visitors on organized tours only (we had to present our passports twice), and straddles the dmz line. it is the only point of contact for day-to-day negotiations between the 2 sides. this is one of the few places in the country where you can glimpse the “forbidden north,” and the only place in the country where you can actually (very quickly and very tensely) cross the border itself into north korea.
we started at odusan unification observatory, where lots of relics about north korea were kept. we watched an intense video bordering on propaganda, and here we glimpsed our first views into north korea. across the river, we saw the collapsed apartment buildings the north had erected in an effort to look developed and modern; the facade couldn’t be kept up because no people actually lived in the buildings and as a result, they had rapidly deteriorated.
here is where the most poignant part of the tour happened for me: we had a few moments to talk to a north korean defector. a young, unassuming woman stood before us in a mock-up of a korean classroom. our tour guide would translate our questions and her answers. this woman who stood in front of us had endured so much, and was so incomprehensibly brave to flee a country who had fed her lies, starved her, and kept her brainwashed almost her entire life. when she ran, she ran first through china, where she was forced to marry, then into cambodia, and finally over to the safety of south korea.
i don’t need to recount all the questions and all the answers, but there was a moment after i asked her my question, when she replied, looking right into my eyes. as she spoke, i felt the power she held in her spirit, i felt all the weary roads she had walked, i felt the determination with which she hoped to convey the truth to us, and i felt a brief, electric connection. we were as different as two people could be, but i knew what she was communicating to me was something that could be understood from one woman to another. and it’s true, when her answer was translated, what she was essentially saying was that now she finally had the freedom to be a woman, and to enjoy being a woman. it was a moment that brought tears to my eyes.
next, we traveled to imjingak park, a place that was originally built to console people from both sides who could not return to their friends or family because of the war. here, we saw an old train riddled with bullet holes from the korean war. we also saw hundreds of ribbons tied to the barbed wire fences – symbols of the hopes and prayers for reunification. before this visit, i hadn’t given much thought to all the families forever separated by the war. there was also a set of new train tracks – the only line that links the north to the south. we saw the freedom bridge, unification pond, various other monuments i can’t recall the names of, and an oddly placed amusement park.
after this, we at a yummy bulgogi lunch, then we were off to the heavily guarded JSA. we showed our passports, we stopped at various checkpoints and enjoyed the uninhabited views of the dmz – a place that has strangely turned into a sort of untouched wildlife sanctuary. we even got to see dozens of red-crowned cranes, rare graceful asian birds. once at the JSA we got debriefed, and had to sign papers agreeing that if anything happened to us, no one would sue.
then, they put us into 2 organized lines, and brought us into the “house a freedom” – a majestic building constructed with the hopes of hosting family reunions, something that has not yet occurred in the building. from here we walked right out to the line dividing the north and south. military personnel were everywhere as we entered into one of the blue buildings. inside the building, we were able to walk over to north korea’s side (something that would result in death if we had not been authorized to do so) where we stood and snapped photos for a few jittery moments.
back outside, we stood and stared into north korea, while they stared right back. one north korean soldier kept examining us through his binoculars, while other DPRK soldiers stood on a nearby roof, snapping photos together. it was surreal, the way the 2 sides just seemed to stand there, glaring at each other, not 30 feet apart. and they’ve been doing this for over 50 years.
we toured the area a little more – saw the site of the axe murders, saw the south korean lines of defense (barbed wire, tank walls, and even bombs built into bridges), saw glimpses of the 2 villages that are allowed to live within the dmz (and north korea’s absurdly oversized flag pole on their side’s “peace” village, aka propoganda village), then we were back into seoul by early evening. the whole day would have to be described as one of those “once in a lifetime” experiences.
dinner was thai food, a wander through lotte world, then a little nightcap with some coldstone ice cream (sooooo good).
this was another day full of walking and exploring. we started out at gyeongbokgung palace, a huge beautiful area with buildings that were first constructed in 1394. it was the largest palace from the joseon dynasty days. we got to watch the changing of the guard, and we also met up with adam and angie here.
as we were heading towards the national folk museum of korea, we were stopped by a local tv station who wanted to interview us in order to teach english to the masses. it was pretty funny watching each of us take turns talking about a different given topic (david got microwaves. i got vaccinations. fun fun!). our segments are supposed to air in late march, so who knows, maybe we’ll get famous.
next, lunch at an awesome indian place. then, down to the national museum of korea. a majestic, flagship of a museum. i learned more about korea’s history while inside this museum than i have learned in the past 6 months. it was impressive, but all that reading and absorbing information wore us out.
dinner was at a iraqi restaurant in itaewon, where we met up with a huge crew of gwangju teachers who came up for the weekend. it was fun to catch up a bit with them.
our last day, we didn’t have a ton of time, so david and i ventured over to the famous dongdaemun market where we were overwhelmed at the amount of clothing stores and kiosks. miles and miles and miles. it’s apparently korea’s large retail and wholesale shopping district. we didn’t last long.
we ended our time at the korea war memorial museum. this was a fascinating, comprehensive museum. outside there were monuments dedicated to different wars korea has been through, along with dozens of airplanes, tanks, and missiles on display. inside were many more artifacts, videos, and displays. i really liked our time at this museum. good way to end the trip. we grabbed some pho and fried rice before hopping a late bus home to gwangju.
pictures will soon follow, congrats if you actually made it to the end of this novel-sized post :)