Published: October 15th 2006July 13th 2006
Quite possibly the most overrused title for visitors to Seoul, yet I feel this title perfectly describes my experience in Korea. My 'soul' was rejuvenated a) because I got a break from the monotony of my job (all July and August I sit at my desk and do NOTHING- good way to spend my time...thank god for sudoku!) and b) I met up with some old friends from Berkeley, which was a nice slice of home. Given the short time I was alloted for summer vacation, it was a quick trip into Seoul and the DMZ, then back to Japan.
The organization of the trip itself is noteworthy. My friend Naomi , a fellow Cal alum, is living in Tokyo and her and I were planning an escape from Japan. A month earlier than our estimated date of departure, another fellow Cal alum and best friend Taz, emails me and says he wants to come to Japan. I wrote back saying "Wanna come to South Korea?" Before he knew it he was booking his flight to Japan AND Korea. The 4th of our crew was fellow Hiroshima JET Jen, who indeed added to the fun of our adventure.
The largest of the temples in Seoul
and I met at Incheon Int'l Airport and headed to Seoul. We easily found our hostel, Seoul Backpackers (highly rated in the lonely planet, yet found it adequate) where their dog was also named "Keishii" or the equivalent in Korean. It took me a day to figure out they were calling on the dog, and were not making passes at me :-). We dropped our stuff off in our respective dorms and headed out to explore our little neighborhood, Insadong. It is famous for its numerous tea houses and Bohemian atmosphere. We wandered the main road and cobblestone streets checking out the tiny shops. Both famished, we were more than ready to indulge in the Korean BBQ. I am quite the fan of Korean food in Japan, so I was soooo ready to taste it straight from the motherland. One restaurant had these incredible dumplings in the window and a fair amount of people inside, so we decided this was the lucky restaurant. We were a bit confused with the menu and manners, but that is the fun of traveling. The chopsticks in Korea are all metal- as if the wood ones weren't hard enough to master! They say that
Our first meal
Korean food = hmmmmm!
the chopsticks are metal so that in the good old days when emperors were trying to poison each other, they could tell because their chopsticks would tarnish if the food was laden with poison. In addition they brought out a ton of kimchi. I myself am not a fan of the spicy pickled cabbage, yet Taz did indulge. Kimchi outside of Korea is rather spicy, but NOTHING compared to the spiciness of the kimchi in Korea! Next arrived our burner where we had our meat and vegetables doused in oil, sizziling. It wasn't necessarily the BBQ we expected, but it did taste good! We did also get an order of the INCREDIBLE dumplings and a Korean pancake- a feast for kings!
Post dinner we wandered south just to see what was around. We found ourselves in the a huge shopping area, Myeongdong, with all types of stores- many foreign imported stores intermixed with some local stores. They also had tons of street stalls selling everything from fake watches, belts, socks and even seven jeans. The best was when we stumbled upon the Korean version of Abercrombie and Fitch. We were even MORE excited when we found CAL gear! We
Our mouths were watering!
are talking hats with the Cal logo and shirts with Oski! We could tell they were imposters bc of the red trim on one of Taz's shirts....:-). After that we wandered back to the hostel and met up with Naomi! Day 2
Today we did the touristy thing in Korea. We got the hop-on hop-off bus. We toured the War Memorial of Korea (learned all about the wars in Korea and saw some bad ass planes and tanks) Jogyesa Temple (different colors than the ones in Japan yet similar style), the foreigner/army region (scored a sevens skirt for 20 bucks!), took a tour of Gyeongbokgung and caught the changing of the guard (stunning!), went to the Seoul Tower during sunset (great views of the city)...all in all got a good taste of the city. Tonight we also met up with Jen and headed out to meet up with Ben, another Cal grad, was in the same frat as Taz, and now worked for the State Department at the Korean Embassy. He showed us a good time at a bar where we witnessed an extremeley drunk American take off his shirt and swing from the poles...wowsers. DMZ
My favorite part of the trip was definitely going to the Demilitarized Zone, better known as the DMZ. Going to the DMZ was like nothing else I have ever experienced on a trip. I didn't even know what I was really getting into before signing up for the tour, except that it was cool and worth shelling out the $50 to go. We arrive at the South Korean border of the DMZ where our U.S. military guide greeted us. The moment we stepped into the briefing room I realized these guys meant business. Here I was, thinking I was going on a safe tour, expected it to be somewhat touristy, and comparable to say, the cave tour we went on in Thailand. Before I knew it I was signing my name stating that if I was hurt in the line of action or killed, the USO was not responsible. I was entering a war zone. This was cool! Today I went in as the stupid uninformed America, sad to admit but true. In addition to signing our lives away to the USO, photos were forbidden, I wasn't allowed to take an extra liability form home for my scrapbook,
The store that mimmicks Abercrombie and Fitch...and has Cal gear! Almost home for me! haha
we were restricted on what we could wear, told where we could look, point, told don't go anywhere, and all instructions to prevent us from possibly dying. Man, this was a completely different experience than I expected! We had a 20 minute very rapid history of the DMZ explaining how Korea was divided post WWII, they were fighting over the border for years, and finally came to the 38th parallel to separate the two countries. The DMZ was created as a safe area where both countries could meet along the 38th parallel. Yet over the pat 50 years it has been anything but an area of peace- there have been shootings, deaths, massacres, beatings- the North and South didn't seem to have a record of liking each other! Again, as that dumb American, I had no idea about the severity and intensity of the DMZ and was enthralled by all the information and craziness ahead of us.
It was a dark, muggy rainy day, which just added to the intensity of our tour. We crossed into the heart of the DMZ, yet not before passing miles of landmines, barbed wires, thick cement walls, sniper towers, and any other
sort of scary barricade preventing people from sneaking across enemy lines. We next went into the safe house right along the border of North and South Korea. At the doorway and along the safe house table were some bad-ass taekwando South Korean guards. We are talking the ready-to-attack stance, intimidating aviators and hard helmet, and we were told highly skilled in numerous martial arts. These non-moving soldiers put the British soldiers to shame in terms of intimidation. I wasn't so tempted to go up and try to make this guy flinch by doing so silly/sexy pose in front of him. Of course, leave it to Naomi and I to 'test out' the intensity of the South Korean Guards. Due to the large group in the house and numerous people gathering around the right side of the table (guard-free), being tiny girls we decided to sneak around the left end of the table (guard there). As Naomi lightly brushed the table to squeeze by the guard, he immediately punches the air and kicks his foot out, nearly missing Naomi as she jumps back in terror bumping into me. We learned the hard way that you DO NOT go on the left
Every country, in every language. They even have their own special Korean BBQ rendition!
side of the table. It was pretty scary! The rest of our group was glad it was us, and not them, yet rather exhilarated to see the guards in action. Glad to know we were there to entertain. In the safe house we stepped into North Korea! Woowoo! A few photos with the guards and we were escorted back to the main building. It was a torrential downpour. Our guide pointed out the North Korean side. You could see North Korean guards watching us from sniper towers and from the main building across the way. No pointing, no starring, no laughing- basically slow movements and low voices- yet photos were allowed! Here we were, in the middle of a warpath, taking photos! Ridiculous! Next we toured more of the DMZ, and the USO guide scared us more, informing us of the constant instability of the area. A week before our trip North Korea set off some missiles. The rest of the world looked at it as a threat. Our guide said it was like the 4th of July- (missile = fireworks) because everyday is that intense and no need to freak out more because of some missiles launched. My blood
Beautiful ornate temple with vibrant colors
was definitely pumping by the end of the morning.
That afternoon we were led by a South Korean guide to tour the under ground tunnels dug by the North Koreans attempting to come into South Korea. We watched this video about how North and South Korea were going to be reunited soon and the technologies they were developing would make them one of the top economies in the future. The video was riddled with cheesy music, crying children, happy children, smiles, sunsets- propaganda if I had ever seen it. It was such a change in atmosphere from the morning tour. After the video we hiked below ground to walk the tunnels. I have NEVER gotten claustrophobic- but in the tunnel I was feeling a little sick! It was amazing/scary to think that North Korea built these tunnels and were unnoticed for so long. They think that there are still tunnels underground along the 38th parallel that haven’t been found yet. After our long trek up and some blue weird-tasting ice cream with sparkles, we loaded back up on the bus headed for Seoul.
That night we headed over to the shopping area to get dinner and
Naomi and I hanging out
indulge in something Seoul is famous for: the 24-hour 10 story department stores in Dongdeamun Market. Korean- hard to read and hard to pronounce. I just called it the Ding Dong Market. We stopped along the way to test out some of the street food. We heard it was cheap, edible, and thought we would give it a go. After our meal, I would say to bypass the street food, as we ended up with some weird congealed/fat/skin/I don't know what it was, and some chicken concoction. The dumplings were good, and the kimchee pancake was decent, yet I don't really like kimchee so that constituted a minor problem. We wandered the streets meandering between streets selling fake EVERYTHING. It was cheap, but not as cheap as everyone said it would be. Next we ventured into one of the shopping towers- completely overwhelmed by everything. We thought we would spend an hour or two in one building and then move to the next. We were there for 4 hours! All 4 of us were having way too much fun shopping for clothes and accessories. It might not have been real, but it was pretty darn nice and relatively cheap. That
Yeah, I can't read that at all.
was one thing that did surprise me about Korea. It was not as cheap as I thought it was going to be. Around 1 am we called it a night, leaving the hundreds of others to shop till dawn. We made out like bandits: Taz scored some new shirts, Jen got a new pair of shoes, Naomi got a cute new shirt, yet I was the big spender with a dress, hat, 3 shirts, and a skirt. We dared not attempt shopping tower 2! Day 3
Unfortunately our last day in Korea was terrible weather. As hardcore travelers, we ventured out sightseeing regardless. We went to the Seodamun Prison and learned more about how Korea has been tortured/in control of another country for most of its existence! Then we went to the Korean Folk Village. That afternoon we wandered to the area where Taz and I went shopping the first night. All the stalls were gone because of the rain. We went to the area with the Namdaemun outdoor market, only to discover that it is closed on Sundays. Apparently we didn't get the memo! Then, worse news, we found out the electronic market was closed that
War Memorial of Korea
Hanging out on the big tanks before going inside
one Sunday for the entire month! What timing! Still, we wandered the stalls that were out, thought about buying that fake Gucci wallet, yet decided we could haggle a better deal in China. Naomi informed us of the popular Korean movie stars (big deals in Japan) so we all bought socks with their faces on them, and a pair of socks rocking the Korean flag. For a dollar a pair, it was hard to turn down.
To start off the night Taz, Jen, and I decided to go to the Korean House and experience some traditional dancing and singing. After, we headed over to the foreigner district to meet up with Ben again. We went to dinner at Burger King. Since I have lived in Japan for so long, I had no qualms about eating dinner at Burger King. Cheap, greasy, wonderful comfort food. I NEVER eat Burger King in America, but I never eat McDonalds either and now it's my guilty pleasure (and cheap!) in Japan. The rest of the night was spent dodging sketchy guys hitting on Naomi, drinking, and dancing. If its one thing Taz and I have fun doing, it is dancing! Early the next
day Jen and I headed back to Hiroshima, Taz and Naomi to Tokyo, and then Taz was heading back to SF.
The trip was so much fun. A quick break from Japan- being in a new country and around friends from home. I was amazed by the parallels between Japan and Korea due to Japan's occupation of Korea for such a long time. Yet, some things were clearly different- the way people acted, the cultural dancing was different, the clothes, the language (duh) and their temples/buidlings were unique in their own way. After the DMZ tour, the bombs, and now the recent nuclear testing, I doubt North and South Korea will be united any time soon. I learned don't mess with those Korean guards or they will karate chop your face off! Good memories, good food, and a whole lot of Korean beef in my belly!
There are more photos below