Published: April 30th 2012April 30th 2012
From the base.
I wasn’t sure if my 3-hour flight from Tokyo to Seoul would warrant any food, but apparently it was deserving of a full meal. Gotta love international flying. After landing at Incheon and going through immigration and customs, I called my friend, Brian, who I would be staying with, and told him I was on my way. But first I needed to stop at an ATM and withdraw some money. However, when asked how much I wanted to withdraw, I was not given any “Fast Cash” options, which are very useful when you haven’t researched the exchange rate of the currency you are about to withdraw. Luckily, there was a currency exchange right next to the ATM, and I was able to lean over and determine that it was a little over 1000 won per US dollar. Like Narita, Incheon airport is location about an hour outside of its respective major city. At first, the rates for taking the train into the city seemed about the same. The Narita Express costs 3110 yen, and the Airport Express costs about 3000 won. However, when normalized with the exchange rate you find that the Narita Express costs well over $30 while the Airport
Express costs less than $3! Not everything in Seoul would turn out to be 1/10th
of the price of Tokyo, but it’s definitely a cheaper city. Another very noticeable difference was the complete barrier between passengers waiting on the rail platform and the rails themselves. An all-glass floor-to-ceiling wall stood between me and the train as it pulled into the station. Automatic doors opened on the wall and the train once the train lined up the doors and stopped, allowing the passengers to enter and exit.
Though there were only a handful of stops in between, the train ride lasted a little over an hour. I switched lines and proceeded to Noksapyeong, where I would meet Brian. I met him just inside the exit, where I was introduced to his friends before walking back to his place in Haebangchon, a foreigner district near the center of Seoul. On the walk he pointed out the Seoul Tower, the highest point in Seoul due to its location at the top of a mountain. Sidewalks along the streets were largely hit-or-miss, but the traffic seemed pretty used to the occasional pedestrian leaking into the lanes. Of course, one of the first topics
of conversation was the differences between Korean culture and Japanese culture. Apparently the Koreans harbor a grudge against the Japanese for… destroying all of their history… and actively try to separate themselves in many ways, which are sometimes humorous. For example, Koreans still use chopsticks, but they prefer to use metal chopsticks instead of wooden or plastic, because its completely different. Also, Koreans restaurants still hand out moist towels to everyone before the meal, but they prefer cold towels instead of hot, because its completely different. I was told stories from fellow foreigners about how, according to Koreans, cherry blossoms actually came from Korea, the Japan Sea is actually called the East Sea, and some uninhabited island in the middle of the “East Sea” actually belongs to Korea. They were very surprised that after living in Tokyo for 3 months I had not heard about any of this.
Brian’s apartment was quite large compared to my Tokyo apartment. It actually had a separate bedroom, with a door. The biggest difference was in the bathroom. Instead of a separate partition, the shower head was right by the sink, and a drain was in the middle of the floor. A rotary
valve switched the water flow between the faucet above the sink and the shower head. That evening, after some good Korean barbecue, we went out to the bar scene. We hit a few different places and I met lots of different people, until I was handed a long island ice tea, and that was the end of my night. The next day I spent recovering, but it was raining out, so it was a good day to recover. We had a nice breakfast at the American Restaurant, which stayed true to its name. In fact, this restaurant even offered something I have never seen outside of the US, free refills! The rest of the day was filled with video games and downloaded sitcoms, which is exactly what I needed to nurse my hangover.
The next morning the rain had stopped, and I was ready to explore the city. I started my trek by hiking up the mountain to Seoul Tower. Surprisingly, it was only a couple miles from Brian’s place. A couple miles uphill, that is. The base of the tower was littered with tour busses, gift shops, and restaurants. The sign above the ticket window listed prices for
the observatory and… wait for it… the Teddy Bear Museum. The discounted combo ticket was tempting, but I opted for the observatory alone. The whole place kind of had this couples theme to it. I later noticed a fence completely covered in thousands of locks, each symbolizing an eternal romance (vomit
). The elevator ride up to the observatory included a ceiling video simulating a blast off into outer space. Once at the top, I was disappointed to see that the fog all but completely blocked the view of the city. However, I did get some pretty good shots of the cherry blossoms on the mountainside below. The observatory level yielded a 360-degree view of the city, with major cities printed on the windows marking the direction and the distance. One floor down from the observatory you could go into a bathroom and relieve yourself in front of a view of the city as well.
After coming back down, I hiked down the other side of the mountain to see more of the city. Lots of large buildings with some very interesting architecture stood around the city center. I noticed a massive flow of people through a entrance of what
One of two Starbucks in the world with "Starbucks" written in a different alphabet. The other one is also in Seoul.
looked like a marketplace. Upon investigation, I saw miniature flags of nations hanging in many rows overhead. The market was filled with little shops leaking their merchandise into the street. Lots of clothes, souvenirs, cameras, knock-offs, and food vendors were packed tightly into this area of about 4 or 5 square blocks. Many of the buyers seemed to be locals, but it’s pretty hard for me to tell the difference sometimes. Part of this marketplace was underground. There I found quite a few shops selling records of American music made back during vinyl’s hay-day. After taking some pictures of the surrounding architecture, statues, and fountains, I decided to head back. That evening Brian took me to Insadong, a lively tourism district of Seoul. Lots of upscale shopping lined these streets with some landmark statues and palaces nearby. The Han river was bordered by a concrete wall, presumably for flood protection, but allowing people to walk along sidewalks on either side right next to the river during low flow. Lots of people gathered on this sidewalk, treating it as a park. Near the end of the river was a long stretch of boulevard surrounding a broad pathway upon which sat statues
Littered with bullet holes, it is now a symbol of the Korean War and ongoing conflict.
of Admiral Yi Sun Shin, who commanded the turtle ships that defeated the Japanese, and King Sejon, who created the Korean alphabet.
The next day I took a tour of the Demilitarized Zone, the area immediately surrounding the border between North and South Korea. I boarded a tour bus where a native Korean gave her introduction on the ride to the DMZ. According to her, in 5000 years of history, Korea has never attacked any other nation, but merely defended itself from attacking nations. Of course, this included a recount of the vicious Japanese take-over, and was capped by the statement, “So the next time you hear someone call it the Japan Sea, tell them that’s wrong. It’s the East Sea.” Our first stop was at Imjingak Park, just outside the DMZ. The park included an amusement park, some memorials, and a view of Freedom Bridge, which led to the DMZ. We switched busses, then headed to the first checkpoint before entering the DMZ. Everyone pulled out their passport as the South Korean Soldier boarded the bus and went down the aisle. However, no one’s passport was inspected too closely, and we were in the DMZ in no time.
Stones of Peace Wall
"This sculpture is made from stones collected from battlefields all over the world that have witnessed the suffering and grief of war."
Once inside the DMZ, we stopped for a tour of the Third Tunnel. This was a tunnel that was dug by the South Koreans to intercept a tunnel in-the-making by North Korea in an attempt to create a pathway for a sneak attack on Seoul. It was called the Third Tunnel because it was the third of four tunnels created in this fashion. But according to the North Koreans, this was just another failed attempt at finding a coal mine. Who knows how many more searches for coal are in the making. We boarded a monorail, which was more like a roller coaster in that it was nothing more than bench seats attached to wheels, that took us down to the tunnel. It descended at about a 20-degree angle through a tunnel dug by the South Koreans to intercept the North Korean tunnel. The South Korean tunnel was just barely wide enough to fit the monorail and its passengers. I was facing backward, like half the people riding, and did not trust the tunnel width. I found myself leaning inward most of the time to avoid the rock wall hitting my head. It was about a 10-minute ride, then
Daeseong-dong and Kijong-dong viewing area
You are not allowed to take photographs while standing across the yellow line... lame.
the monorail leveled out at the bottom. We then started walking down the tunnel that the North Koreans dug. I immediately realized why everyone was forced to wear helmets. The ceiling was much less than 6 feet off the ground in most places, and I thought, “This is definitely a tunnel built for an Asian army.” The statistics they gave claimed that 30,000 soldiers could come through this tunnel in an hour. We walked the whole length of the tunnel, down about a quarter mile, and at the end was the first of three barriers. On the way back I became jealous of the 5-foot man in front of me, who was casually strolling down the tunnel, unaffected by the low ceiling.
Once back at the surface, we watched a video on 20th
century Korean history, then proceeded to Dorasan train station. This is a station which has no traffic, but promises to be one of the terminal stations on the Trans-Siberian Railway. The South Korean government built the train station around the turn of the millennium as a peace offering to North Korea. North Korea is free to build a connecting railway to Dorasan Station whenever the government
Sadly, it does not actually go to Pyongyang.
is ready. Inside, the station is complete with an information counter, a map of the Trans-Siberian Railway with Dorasan as a terminal station. Through a glass wall you can see an empty security checkpoint with enough stations to handle a small airport. With Dorasan Station behind us, it was time for a yakiniku lunch. Yakiniku is a traditional Korean style of barbecue where a small grill is place in the middle of your table, and meat is cooked with onions on top. When the meat is cooked, you grab a lettuce leaf, put some meat and vegetables on it along with any number of other toppings, like kim-chi, bean sprouts, chopped squid, just to name a few. Then you wrap it all up in the lettuce leaf and eat it. I would say that it’s like a small burrito, but I’ve learned that cultures are easily offended when you compare their native food to someone else’s food. So let me be clear, it’s not at all like a small burrito.
After lunch, it was finally time to visit the border. The first checkpoint was at Camp Bonifas, where we switched busses once again to a military bus this time.
Joint Security Area
And the North Korean soldiers appear!
We watched a short video explaining the rules while touring the Joint Security Area, the only area where North and South Korea meet for discussion. We were assigned a UN soldier to guide us, while another UN soldier drove the bus. Both of the UN soldiers were American, which was comforting because I was the only American on this particular tour. Before boarding the bus, we were asked to leave our phone and anything else that would not fit in our pockets, except for a camera. During the journey toward Panmunjom, we were instructed not to take any pictures out of the bus windows. We drove past the village of Daeseong-dong, a South Korean village of military restriction, and could see the village Kijong-dong, an uninhabited propaganda village in North Korea, across the border. The bus pulled into the South Korean side of Panmunjom, and we walked into the Freedom Building. On the other side of the Freedom Building, we could see three light blue buildings barely bigger than sheds standing in a row, with a concrete bar running on the ground between them at about the midpoint of each building.
Though the border was mostly represented by fences,
North Korean Soldier
Up close and personal. Ok, this was actually taken through a window.
in this area the concrete bar, which stood about 6 inches off the ground, was the only thing separating you from North Korea. UN soldiers stood guard in fixed positions complete with aviator sunglasses. We lined up to take photos, and were told to take photos while only looking directly ahead. No pictures in any direction other than straight ahead were allowed. Shortly after we started taking pictures, about 15 North Korean soldiers came out of nowhere and walked right up to the border. Then, they started taking pictures of each other at the border, probably to capture us in the background. At this time the tour guide and the UN escort immediately cautioned us not to talk, wave at, or make any gestures toward the North Korean soldiers, but we were allowed to take all the pictures of them we wanted. After a few minutes, and with the North Korean soldiers still present, we entered one of the light blue buildings. There were about 20 people on this tour, and the building was just barely big enough to fit everyone while still leaving room to walk around. A UN guard stood in front of the door to North Korea,
UN Door Guard
The door behind him leads to North Korea.
complete with aviators, arms to the side, closed fists. We didn’t need to be told not to try to walk past him, but our escort felt the need to say so anyway. Here we could see the North Korean soldiers out the windows of the building only about 5 feet away. At one point, a North Korean soldier walked right up to the window to look inside, then took a picture before walking away. From there we were led out of the light blue building, through Freedom building, and back onto the military bus. On the ride back, we stopped to see the memorial of a South Korean soldier who died in a firing exchange initiated when a soviet citizen defected in 1984, and the Bridge of No Return. Then it was time for the long ride back to Seoul.
For my last night in Seoul, I joined Brian out in Itaewan for some beer and ribs. There we met up with his friend Katrina, a teacher from West Virginia. We talked about life in Asia, and joked about the 80s music videos being played at the bar. Then Katrina and I took on the guys running the pool
table all night. They were pretty good, but we managed to beat them 1 out of 3. On the walk back we stopped for some kebab from a street vendor, the only way to properly enjoy kebob. Seoul is a very technologically advanced, yet very reasonably priced city. Though the DMZ felt very touristy at some points, going to the border definitely gave me an impression that this really was a war zone. The North Korean soldier looking in the window at us was definitely a tense moment for everyone, although the UN guards didn’t twitch. I hope I get more opportunities to explore this city, and seeing how close it is to Japan, I definitely think I will.