Monday, September 13, 2010

South Korea - Seoul

Time to take a few minutes and blog about our experiences in South Korea which mostly took place in Seoul. This entry will not be as long as the New Zealand entry since we only spent 4 full days here versus weeks in our previous two stops. I'll start by saying that Seoul definitely isn't New Zealand. Seoul itself is one of the largest cities in the world. They city itself has around 10.4 million all in roughly the same size of Nashville, TN my hometown which only has a population of 626,000 per Wikipedia. Needless to say it can feel a little crowded although that gives it some of its uniqueness. We only saw a portion of the city in our four full days but saw countless small alleys that seem to go on forever as we walked around the city. We saw a large fish market called the Noryangjin Seafood Market as well as the Namdaemun Market and walked down Insadong which is large long street market. However, the activity that we did that was the highlight for me was our tour of the DMZ that separates South Korea and North Korea.

I will have to admit that when we were planning for our trip the number one reason I put down South Korea on my list was because I wanted to visit the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone). I am somewhat of a history buff especially Cold War history. The Korean War, the DMZ that followed, and all of the events that have transpired over the years made it a place I would like to visit at least once. On Friday I got my wish. We arranged a tour through the USO. The tour was an all day event that began with us having to report to the USO office at Camp Kim by 7:10 am. When we started our journey that morning we actually walked to the wrong subway station in the morning but luckily I researched the subway routes including what exit to walk out of the day before. This helped us get there on time. We actually ended up arriving early enough to run down to a mini-market down the street before the tour began to pick up some breakfast even though it turned out to be sandwiches and some type of chips. The tour began with our bus departing at 7:30 am for a 90 minute bus ride up to the North Korean border. Our first stop was the JSA (Joint Security Area). One of the very noticeable things that we saw on the way up was that as we drove along the main river that flows down and through Seoul was that the river's shoreline is fenced off with barb wire and there were numerous watch post and bunkers. Some of the bunkers were staffed with armed soldiers. We found out later that in the late 1960's the North Koreans sent down about 30 some commandos down the river went it froze during the winter to assasignate the president of South Korea. Ever since this incident they fenced off the river and have stationed armed soldiers around the clock for almost 30 years.

The first stop on our tour as I mentioned was the JSA. This was the neatest part of the tour by far. We first had to drive past a check point and then had to have armed US Army M.P.s check our ID's and ride on our bus until we got to the briefing area. At the briefing area we saw a brief presentation by one of the M.P.s regarding what we would see there and what the rules were such as not making any gestures towards the North Korean soldiers and that there were areas and items that we weren't allowed to take pictures of. We also had to sign a declaration basically saying that the US, Korea, and the UN were not liable if something bad happened to us. We then changed buses and drove to the Camp Bonifas area. There we departed the buses and walked in a line two at at time into the blue conference room building area that marks the boundary between North and South Korea. It is where negotiations take place and as also been the site of some armed exchanges over the last 50 years. I knew as part of our tour that we would get to go to this area but I didn't know until we arrived that we would actually get to walk into these buildings. We were able to go in and walk over to the North Korean side. While we were inside which only lasted for a few minutes there were South Korean ROK soldiers stationed inside. There were also South Korean soldiers outside facing the North Korea in the half exposed position. There are armed soldiers stationed at the location 24 hours a day 365 days of the year for almost 60 years now. After the stop at Camp Bonifas we drove by but didn't get out due to the weather and the sight where the infamous ax murder incident took place in the 1970s as well as the Bridge of No Return where prisoners of war where exchanged after the Korean War. Many North Korean soldiers chose note to be repatriated back to North Korea after the war. For me it was pretty neat but at the same time quite a tense place to visit considering the number of armed soldiers and mines that are very close to this location. We also got to see a glimpse of the propaganda village in North Korea and the world's largest flag pole that the North Koreans build in order to one up a flag pole built by South Korea. One other note was that we actually got to see a North Korean soldier. He was staring at us from a building across the border where the blue UN conference room buildings are located.

We made three additional stops on our tour but due to the weather they weren't as enjoyable as they might as been. We stopped at the Dora Observatory which is the tallest spot in the Camp Bonifas area where on a clear day you can see 17 km into North Korea. We also stopped at one of the tunnels that the North Koreans dug to smuggle troops in if they ever invaded. Our last stop was at a train station built to link the rail networks of South and North which will hopefully be a station that will allow for regular visits to the North in the future. President Bush helped open the station back in 2002.

In addition to our DMZ tour we spent the rest of the time exploring the city. As I mentioned earlier we saw multiple markets. We also purchased a palace pass and visit three palaces and a shrine. The palaces where somewhat neat if not similar. The palaces have been or currently being restored. Some were built as far back as the 14th century but have been burned down (usually by the Japanese) or neglected and have been rebuilt in the 19th and 20th centuries. We also visited the National Museum of Korea which was very large but nice and free!

We also ate at some local non touristy restaurants. This was sometimes a challenge as the people working there spoke very little English and some of the places did not have menus in English either. On two occasions I didn't know really what we ate. At two of the places either the owner or another worker brought us forks and demonstrated how we should eat our food.

As far as negatives were concerned there really only a few that stood out. One was the weather. It was nice that it is was warm (high's in the mid to upper 70's) compared to what we came from in New Zealand but it also rained every day we were in town except in the afternoon on our last full day and during the morning of our last day. They even had a Typhoon come through a few days before we arrived that caused some damage. We got drenched more than once and learned a lesson from the locals in that they primarily carry umbrellas instead of wearing rain gear like we did. It rained so hard it soaked thru my REI jacket. I did wear my water proof pants after the first day which helped although I was much hotter wearing them over my pants. Another negative was the lack of English. It made it a little rough sometimes to communicate. The subway system was pretty good since it had English instructions to buy tickets as well as signs in English and announcements on the trains in English. At the restaurants it was kind of difficult for me. I guess another negative is that I felt a little tired and run down on our next to last day in Seoul. We've down a lot exploring over the last 6 weeks plus these last four day included a lot of walking around that was made a little challenging with the language issues. We actually came back in today a little early and spent most of the evening relaxing. I also maybe be coming down with a cold and took a antihistamine today for the first time on our trip. We also decided to take advantage of Alethea's Priority Pass and went to the airport early where we can get some food including free alcohol and internet access for a couple hours while relaxing in a very comfortable environment while we catch up on various items. I actually feel pretty well relaxed now and am ready for our next country!

That pretty much sums up Korea. Monday the 13th is a travel day for us. The next stop on our journey is Japan. We actually had to alter our plans a little bit. Instead of flying into Tokyo we are flying into Hiroshima. We were going to fly standby on Delta but the seat availability wasn't looking too good. We will start out in Hiroshima and work our way east and north through Kyoto and eventually up to Tokyo where we'll end up before flying over to China. Hope everyone is doing well.

Link to South Korea pictures:

Daily Log:

Wednesday 9/8
Traveled 13 hours to fly from Christchurch, New Zealand to Seoul, SK
Staying at Seoul Hostel ( ) – private bath, free internet, water not clean enough to drink, had to insert water filters.

Thursday 9/9
Purchased pass for palaces for $10,000 won. Roamed around for a hour Changdeokgung Palace then took 2 hour Secret garden tour.
Walked around Seoul and got absolutely drenched. Discuss umbrellas versus rain gear.
Went to travel office to inquire about flights to Tokyo.
Booked DMZ tour

Friday 9/10
Took DMZ tour
Rode Seoul Subway
Found USO at Camp Kim – had to there by 7:10 am.
DMZ Tour (included stops at JSA, Camp Bonifas, Dora Observatory, 3rd Tunnel, & Dorosan Train Stations)
Dinner at Korean restaurant where they spoke no english just pointed at pictures, cook\owner cut our fish for us and brought us a fork after watching us try to eat with chopsticks
Pretty much rained the whole day.

Saturday 9/11
Noryangjin Seafood Market
National Museum of Korea
Namdaemun Market
Seoul Plaza
Deoksugung Palace

Sunday 9/12
Spent morning doing trip planning for Japan
Gyeongbokgung Palace
Took it easy in hostel room.

Monday 9/13
Jongmyo Shrine
Bus to airport.
Mailed package to Amy's girls (just notating so we know how long it takes to get to the US)
Enjoyed the hospitality of the Asiana Airlines Business Class Lounge
Flight to Hirishima, Japan

Blog entry covered 9/8 to 9/13