Published: August 3rd 2006July 25th 2006
Seoul, South Korea
June 30, 2006 Sean:
As many of you know, I spent two years in the Land of the Morning Calm and retain many positive memories of my time here. Between the year spent teaching English to the nation’s school children and another year stationed near the DMZ with the US Army, I really enjoyed Korea and was excited about returning. I had also been chatting up the country for so long that the enthusiasm infected my lovely wife as well. So we are both eager to be landing here and look forward to spending a few weeks ‘splorin’ the peninsula.
The two things that I remember most were the food and the people. The wide array of dishes that are offered on just about every corner is varied, tasty, and fairly inexpensive. And the Koreans were always so friendly that all I had to do was open up a map and no less than four people would approach me offering assistance and, of course, a chance to practice their English.
Thankfully I’ve still got a bit of the language swimming around en mi cabeza
and can maneuver fairly easily (at least enough as a traveler
This canal used to run through the city until an ugly shanty town sprung up along it's banks just after the Korean War. To get rid of that unsightlyness, the government just paved over it, making it yet another wide boulevard running through the city. Then a few years back the city planners decided to tear away the road and get the canal running again along with a great pedestrian area that runs the entire length.
to get around) so our time here should be fairly painless, very interesting and also a good segue into the rest of Asia.
July 1, 2006 Shannon:
Sean told me before we arrived that he was pretty sure of two things: the food would be great and the people would be very friendly. So far, I haven’t been disappointed on either account. Having been in the country for less than 24 hours, we’ve already eaten some wonderful meals and been helped by at least a half-dozen people. As a traveler, that makes for a great introduction to a country.
Today we ventured to the War Memorial Museum, an astounding edifice in downtown Seoul. Very well put together, it traces the history of aggression on the Korean peninsula, focusing quite heavily on the Korean War (or Conflict, depending on your point of view). Sean:
Because so much of the history here has centered around conflict, the War Memorial Museum is a good place to learn about the forces that have shaped this culture. The peninsula’s location, sticking out from the Asian mainland almost right to Japan has meant that this little country has been between two
Symbolizing the reunification of the peninsula. Notice the massive size discrepancy between the larger "South" brother and his Northern sibling.
mighty powerhouses (China being the other) all throughout it’s history. Not surprisingly, the Japanese have used this patch of ground to launch the expansion of their empire into Asia since the beginning of time. The Koreans have fought valiantly against this but succumbed periodically to colonization - most recently from 1905 until 1945.
After the Japanese surrender was signed at the end of World War II, the Koreans were once again free from the bondage of their long time oppressors, but the peninsula was divided in half at the 38th parallel - with the US occupying the southern portion and Stalin taking care of business in the north. We wasted no time installing a democratic government in our portion and removed all troops by 1949. While the two huge superpowers of the day would never go to war with each other, it wouldn’t prevent them from letting others do their fighting for them and it was with this thought that the North Korean army launched its attack across the 38th parallel at 4am on June 25, 1950.
The UN was quick to sanction and call to action, but not before the Soviet-supported North Koreans had almost entirely taken
The UN Military Force was composed of 20 nations (16 that contributed troops and 4 that contributed other services). Of those, the US contributed 92% of the total number of soldiers.
over the peninsula. Enter General Macarthur and his victorious landing at Incheon. Eventually the US military (not to belittle the other countries that sent troops, but we comprised over 90% of the military personnel) pushed the invaders almost to the Chinese border. This is the point in the story where President Truman fires Macarthur for his outspoken views on what US policy should
be (it’s never wise to publicly tell your boss how to do his job): The good general wanted to keep pushing into China, but Truman only wanted to stop at the border. Either way, the Chinese Army threw all its might behind the North’s cause and then pushed us back down around the original border near the 38th parallel. This is roughly where we spent the next two years, losing and then regaining small bits of ground around the original line, while the pressed suits and brass encrusted uniforms talked, talked…and talked some more. Eventually, in 1953, a cease fire was signed and that’s where the situation stands to this day - the two countries technically still at war.
Since then the South has taken its place as one of the strongest economies in the world
A Low Budget Bomber
According to the museum, when the North attacked in 1950 with fighter planes, the South Korean Air Force could not match them. So instead they opted for this simple, yet effective approach.
while the North has wallowed deeper and deeper into not only recession but something akin to a return to the Bronze Age (don’t be fooled by their leader, Kim Jong Il’s pudginess, the people have been starving for quite some time).
All of this history is displayed using detailed dioramas, newsreel footage and actual military equipment in a massive building in the center of the city. Shannon:
It’s a good museum, well worth the modest entrance fee. And - after seeing how much of Europe was affected by Stalin and the division of lands following WWII - the events leading up to the Korean War were that much more real to me. I also learned a great deal about something that I had little knowledge about. We don’t seem to have as much discussion about the Korean War in America as we do about the ones that bracket it on either side - WWII and Vietnam. And except for M*A*S*H, which has been off the air for a good 20 years now, we don’t really have many reminders of it in pop culture. So I guess it isn’t that surprising that many Americans - including me - know
Their attire was beautiful. Too bad there was no cake, though.
very little about this country, despite the fact that we spent 3 years fighting a war on this land and still have 30,000 soldiers stationed here. I would recommend this museum to anyone visiting Seoul.
We also had an interesting bonus at the end - as we were exiting, we heard music and festivities going on, so we went to investigate. Apparently the War Memorial Museum also has a wedding pavilion (seems like an odd place to get married, but what do I know?) We arrived to see a ceremony taking place, with the bride and groom decked out in brightly-colored traditional Korean clothing. It was remarkable to see, as the wedding party was quite large - how could you not have the requisite four fan maidens and six scroll bearers? - and all were dressed in the time-honored finery. We watched from a polite distance for a bit and then moved on to satiate our hungry stomachs with some tasty food. (If there had been a wedding cake in plain sight, though, I’m sure Sean would have found a way to sit himself down and join the celebration…)
July 4, 2006 (Happy Birthday, USA!) Shannon:
Gyeongbokgung Palace Guards
A few of the hundreds dressed in traditional guard uniforms. Along with fake food, I am fascinated that there is also an industry for fake Asian beards.
In the past several days, we’ve been tackling some of the tourist sights of Seoul. This city has a mind boggling amount of museums: it seems there is one for just about everything imaginable. Thumbing through the tourist brochure “Seoul Museum-Art Gallery Guide” (not a bad sized little tome, let me tell you), I couldn’t believe the variety. There is everything from such heavyweights as the National Museum, right down to the obscure Tax Museum (seeking to “help people better understand the concept of taxation”), the Museum of Rice Cake and Kitchen Work (with “2,000 items in its collection in connection with traditional kitchen works and rice cakes”), the Lock Museum (to learn about the “scientific excellence and beauty of traditional Korean locks”), the Museum of Korean Straw and Plants Handicrafts (where “the curator devoted his whole life to the research on the culture surrounding straw and plant handicrafts, and to the teaching to the young generation the value of living with straw and plants”), the Customs Museum (“to let the people know the importance and necessity of customs service”), the Kimchi Field Museum (which “collects and exhibits the history of kimchi”), the Museum of Cosmetic History (“the largest cosmetic
museum in Korea…” - are there more?
- “exhibiting 5,000 make-up related items”), the Korean Magazine Museum (which “offers an opportunity to see the 100-year-old history of Korean magazines at a glance”) all the way down to the similar Press Museum (“established to help people understand and know the role of newspapers”). Wowszers. Coffee, anyone? Sean:
Because they co-hosted (with Japan) the World Cup in 2002, Korea has put quite a bit more emphasis on tourism than was evident when I was here last. And Seoul, of course, has seen the majority of that extra attention. The amount of tourism services and accessible sites available these days completely overshadows what once was.
The best example of this is the main palace complex of the kings of old called Gyeongbokgung. It was the physical embodiment of government on the peninsula for much of the nine hundred year reign of the Joseon Dynasty (the period that immediately preceded - and only ended because of - the Japanese occupation in 1910). When I last visited, it was a decent tourist stop but was shabby and worn with very little historical context or verbiage. Since then they’ve repainted all the buildings, installed
free English tour guides and even perform an elaborate guard changing ceremony every hour during the summer months. It’s quite an impressive event with at least a hundred soldiers dressed as they would have been at the height of the dynasty’s rule. Later, we even got to see the king himself wandering the grounds, seemingly lost in thought on the great issues affecting his kingdom (our tour guide told us that the life span of the kings was short due in large part to the stress associated with this weighty job. The scant physical activity and rich diet also sped up their route to the grave as well).
Many of the interiors have been plushly appointed, too, reflecting the king’s importance. The formal throne room is of course the showpiece, with his literal seat of power ornately colored and decorated. Shannon:
Gyeongbokgung is perhaps one of the best sights in Seoul, as the South Korean government has obviously put forth a lot of resources to make it a star attraction. It’s also quite a testament to the rebuilding of Korea after the Japanese occupations (which, among other things, sought to suppress any national pride by tearing down structures
important to the Korean people). 90% of the original buildings were once destroyed, but many have been rebuilt, so there is quite a bit to see, with more excavation and rebuilding still in progress. In addition to the main public ceremonial buildings, currently you can see the residential quarters of various members of the royal family, as well as the gardens and ponds. As is typical for this region of the world, the palace is not a single building, but rather a compound of many buildings arranged around various courtyards. With our tour taking us through the many different areas, passing from one sector to the succeeding ones, you get some idea that these palaces were not unlike small cities. And with the sweeping tiled roofs and elaborately painted eaves, it is all quite eye-catching. My only complaint was with the uncooperative weather - it’s the rainy season in this part of the world and the cloudy haze that has been hanging over Seoul since we arrived has obscured the surrounding mountains and makes for a perpetual grey backdrop to our photos. C’est la vie.
Included in the price of admission is entrance to the National Folk Museum, which
The Communists and Nazis had nothing on the brutality of the Japanese as occupiers. This is the place where the Korean political prisoners were tortured and eventually killed.
is located on the palace grounds. We’ve found that many of these types of museums can be quite dry, but I felt this one was fairly decent. My favorite exhibit was the one on traditional foods, with plastic representations and a whole exhibit devoted to making the ubiquitous national dish, kimchi
. Fake plastic food - I’m always amazed that there is a whole industry that revolves around it. You gotta love it.
July 5, 2006 Shannon:
Our time is flying by here in Korea. It’s been almost a week since we landed here, and we haven’t even left Seoul yet. We spent the week visiting markets (both traditional street markets and the huge electronics market called Techno Mart), parks, one of the smaller palace complexes and even a former prison - all of which have been very worthwhile.
The former prison, now called Seodaemun Prison & Independence Park, is worth a special note, though, for both the history it contains and the gory method with which it is told.
As we noted before, the Japanese have colonized Korea at various times throughout history. In the 16th Century, Japanese troops overran much of Korea, leading to
Geobukseon (Turtle Ship)
A recreation of Admiral Yi's famous ships.
the destruction of much of their cultural history and the indiscriminate killing of thousands. Enter a brilliant naval commander - Admiral Yi - who eventually drove the Japanese from the peninsula (twice) with his famous iron-clad warships (called turtle ships). (Note: this man is still regarded throughout the world as one of the preeminent naval commanders in history.) Unfortunately, Japan again set their sights on this small plot of land 300 years later as part of their grand plan to conquer China and enlarge their empire. In 1905 they again overran Korea but this time there was no counterpoint to stop them. The atrocities committed during this time are still widely remembered in the public consciousness and, by all accounts, it was a very traumatic time for the Koreans. Even after the fighting had subsided and Korea had become a colony, the Japanese used physical and psychological aggression to suppress the people - wiping out their cultural identity, exporting over 3 million people to work in Japan and China and forcing 100,000 women to work as “comfort women” to Japanese soldiers.
Seodaemun Prison was constructed by the Japanese ostensibly to punish criminals, but in actual practice was used for
A Tribute to the Independence Fighters
Honoring the sacrifices of those who fought for Korean independence against the Japanese.
the detention and torture of dissenters, mostly independence fighters (men and women alike). Though there weren’t many English captions, the historical photos pretty much spoke for themselves (a photo of a man with half of his head beat to a pulp - blown up to giant proportions - is hard to misconstrue). Down in the basement of the administration building they also recreated the cells used to torture prisoners. Where other museums might just show you the rooms as visual evidence, the South Koreans went one step beyond and actually have animatronic dummies mimicking the torture processes - with tape recorded screams as accompaniment. With fake blood all over the walls, it’s a bit gory indeed. After that cheerful display, you can also visit the cell blocks, the work buildings and the execution building.
Visiting the prison helps a bit to understand the Korean/Japanese relations today. As both countries are forward-looking world economies, they’ve moved beyond the past enough to have very constructive relations, but some degree of animosity over the most recent occupation still lurks below the surface. Lingering bitterness aside, the Koreans don’t trust their neighbors to the east. This was evident in their reaction to the
Hammering Man - The Seoul Years
Very surprising to come upon this statue in Seoul. Anyone from Seattle should recognize this...
test-firing of missiles by the North Koreans this week. While a good part of the world is worried about containing dictator Kim Jong Il and condemning his actions, the South Koreans are devoting much of their press to reproaching the Japanese reaction to it. They are worried that any build-up of the Japanese military - even for defense - will not bode well for them in the future (as it never has in the past). It highlights this interesting perspective - far from perceiving the North as their primary threat, they see the greater danger coming from across the Sea of Japan (called the East Sea by the Koreans). Not exactly the same perceptions we have.
It has also highlighted what an uncomfortable position the South Koreans are in politically. In the past years, they’ve openly moved to strengthen their ties with the North (the division of the peninsula split families, as well as separating a region that shares a common heritage). Both sides have spoken of a reunification of the country sometime in the future - though the economic disparity between the two just keeps getting worse by the day, making the reunification of Germany look positively easy
Mad Drumming Skills
An impromptu performance we witnessed as we strolled the streets of Insadong one evening.
by comparison. But with Kim Jong Il, isolated and continuing to provoke matters on the world stage, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun is forced into the difficult position of trying to facilitate a solution while not alienating nor condoning the actions of his northern counterpart. We will have to wait and see how successful this tight-wire act will be…
While there’s plenty more to do here in the nation’s capital, we’re heading south tomorrow with the aim of visiting one of Sean’s old friends in Jeonju and then continuing on somewhat of a loop around the southern part of the peninsula, hitting Busan (where Sean taught English) along the way. We’ll be back in Seoul towards the end of our stay, though, so there’s still time for us to hit that Taxation Museum and the Straw Plants Museum that I’m sure you’re dying to know more about. Never fear, we won’t skip the good stuff.
Cheonju, South Korea
July 7, 2006 Shannon:
Having left Seoul, we traveled a bit south to the town of Cheonju to visit one of the South Korea’s national parks. Unfortunately, the weather has been miserable, pelting us with rain and wind
so we decided against the hiking opportunities, opting instead to bum around town. It turns out that the sightseeing opportunities are rather limited in this town, but that may have been a blessing in disguise, as it took us almost a full day to find an ATM that would accept foreign cards. It’s a good thing we started looking before we were completely out of cash. Now, fully armed again with dinero, we will be traveling further south tomorrow to meet up with one of Sean’s old friends.
Some thoughts on my impressions of Korea so far: Even though it’s a bit dirty outside, the interiors of most Korean homes and businesses are much cleaner than we’ve seen elsewhere. Koreans have a tradition of taking off their shoes indoors and generally provide a place to leave them at the door. You then typically step up onto a raised floor which is heated from below - very comfortable in the winter months, I’m sure. At many restaurants (not all though) you sit on cushions at low tables. Because this practice is so much a part of Korean culture, they keep their floors meticulously clean. We’ve been to some pretty dirty
Chunks of chicken, vegetables and chewy rice cakes in a spicy chili sauce. The meat and vegetables are cooked at the table. After you eat it, they come with rice and mix it with the left-over sauce for a second course. This is my favorite Korean meal.
parts of the world already, so pristine linoleum floors are something worth mentioning. (In the interest of balanced reporting, though, I should mention that quality construction is not
yet the norm in this country. I’ve seen many, many instances of things installed a bit half-assed, as we would say. It appears that the going thought is that if you just wallpaper over it, or cover it up with linoleum, it disappears. In one extreme example of this, in our hostel in Seoul they appeared to run linoleum over a hole in the floor in our room - every time I used the restroom I stepped on it and each time thought my foot was going to go through. But poor construction is definitely the norm in much of the world, so the South Koreans certainly don’t have the market cornered on this.)
Another thing that I like about Korea is the food, as we mentioned before. Most dishes are centered around some form of rice or noodles and vegetables, as you would expect, but the many different flavor combinations made with peppers and spices can make the same ingredients taste completely different in another dish. As a bonus, all
Thinly sliced, marinated beef cooked at your table. Probably Korea's national dish and for very good reason. The endless supply of side dishes helps as well.
meals seem to be served with a variety of side dishes, each unique, tasty and never the same twice. You don’t order them, they just come with the meal and - unlike many places in the Middle East - never show up as extras on your bill. Thus, while you may have only ordered one entree, you will still end up with 4 or 5 small dishes on the table, giving you a chance to try many different things. In addition, all restaurants have a water cooler - and occasionally a coffee machine - where you can quench your thirst for free. Add to that the fact that many restaurants hand you moist washcloths before the meal, will gladly refill your side dishes as much as you like, and occasionally top off your meal with yogurt drinks served in tiny little plastic bottles and you can see why I think most restaurants go a bit beyond the average level of service elsewhere. It doesn’t change your life, but it does make you feel like you get a lot of value for your money. Sean:
Another thing the Koreans seem to do very well are hotels. They are cheap, clean
and everywhere. For $30 you can find yourself in a nice room with a television/VCR, ensuite bathroom, cold and hot (very hot) drinking water, disposable toothbrushes and condoms. The last on that list usually comes in a pack of two and is always prominently displayed on the nightstand. It seems that these motels double as rendezvous locations for couples lacking a place to be alone. Seeing as how most people live at home before they get married and with the usual three generations residing under one roof, the quarters of each family is probably a bit cramped. Heck, the whole country is a bit cramped, so you can’t blame a couple for wishing to spend a few hours away from the prying eyes of society and their families (there’s always a price at the hotel for a “three hour block of time”). These places don’t ask questions, only take cash, and are so numerous that no one has to frequent the same one twice in a lifetime. But I should stress that they’re not seedy - the quality is comparable to a mid-range hotel back home. After paying $50/night to stay in a decent hostel in Prague, only forking over
This is a great time of year to see them in bloom, but with all the rain many of them were pretty beat up.
$30 for a nice hotel room is a godsend (the cheapest we paid on our adventures across the USA, fleeing Hurricane Katrina
was $35 - it was pretty nasty and located in a very sketchy part of Jackson, Mississippi) so who cares if, here, they are called “love hotels” by the locals.
Jeonju, South Korea
July 9, 2006 Sean:
A couple of years back I was messing about on the internet, googling old friends (one of the many intriguing facets of the internet age) and found an old high school buddy living in Korea. Scott’s and my first job was working together restocking “gut trucks” for a mom and pop company when we were fifteen, making the princely sum of $2.00 per hour. Fast forward a few years and we find Scott gainfully employed as an English teacher here in South Korea - and he’s been happily doing it for four years - so when Shannon and I knew we’d be visiting, we made it a point to head to his town.
We spent the weekend in Jeonju, chatting with Scott about old times and updating ourselves on each others lives. Not only is he
Pungnammun Gate, Jeonju
A rare sighting of blue skies.
a great guy (really warm hearted and friendly) but he also arranged a free apartment for us (extra kudos - thanks to Scott and the friend who kindly let us use it). Scott showed us around many of the local tourist sites, which included quite a few temples (naturally) and an historic area filled with old fashioned Korean houses. These are exactly what you’d imagine them to look like with dramatically flaring clay tiled roofs, little paper-doored rooms, and a whole family sized pile of shoes stacked outside. They were the main mode of living up until most people moved to the cities and were pushed into the concrete high rises that dot the landscape today.
Meeting up with Scott and hearing all the gory details of the expatriate life, we got to commiserating a little about many of the negative aspects I seemed to have glossed over these many years since. It doesn’t take long, no matter where you live, for the novelty of residing in a foreign country to wear off and for life to become routine. Life is life no matter where you’re at. After the exoticness of living in Korea wore off, I was left
King Sejong (1397-1450)
It was his brilliance that invented the extremely logical Korean language.
with just a daily life in a foreign culture that I knew I’d never be able to participate in fully. I would’ve always been an outsider. This would be true for any expat in any culture, but I experienced it here so that’s where my tale takes us.
The decreased sense of personal space (even when there’s plenty of room, it’s almost as if Koreans can’t handle being more than a foot from another human being) and the pushy people (old grandmas have vicious elbows - the better to knock you out of the way to make sure they get ahead in a line) are both examples of the frustrations that befall the foreigner on the peninsula. Probably the most difficult aspect of life here, for me, was being “on display” whenever I left my apartment. Every woman under 40 would giggle uncontrollably whenever my gaze happened upon them and little children had no compunction in jumping in front of me, shouting “hello” all the time. At first it was interesting, then it became odd, until finally it devolved into just plain irritating. I never understood this and thankfully today the people don’t openly gawk the way they used
A basic roll filled with egg, ham, radish, carrot and celery. Super cheap and served everywhere. I liked the spicy kimchi variety.
to, but I still can’t fathom the fact that my presence was so endlessly fascinating.
We’ve spent a lot of time this past year traveling to places where we’ve quite obviously stood out from the crowd - this is par for the course if you want to experience disparate cultures and see countries far from home - but when I was walking to and from work each day, often times I yearned for anonymity. I didn’t mind being different, but being an object of enthrallment on a daily basis got very old, very quickly.
Yet this was the price I paid for the experience - and it’s all a part of the entire package both positive and negative. The plusses were that the pay was good and I did get to experience Korea in a way that many never will. It’s very different from home and truly an assault on the senses; strong flavors, strong smells and there are people everywhere
(with about one-sixth the population the States it only occupies about one-100th the land area. That’s like shoe horning the entire populations of California and New York into the state of Indiana).
And now that I’m
Maybe you can't tell, but what appears to be light mist in the picture actually is the torrential downpour we were caught in. Looks better in the picture than it felt coming down on us.
only a short-term visitor, I don’t have to focus on the things that annoyed me. I can instead enjoy the cultural aspects that really make this country special like the food and the friendly people - from this vantage they aren’t intrusive and rude but gregariously friendly and unfailingly helpful.
It was great catching up with Scott and after he calls it quits next year, we look forward to his return to the States and continuing our re-found friendship.
July 11, 2006 Sean:
Today’s trip out to the Boseong tea plantation was a bit of a let down as the skies opened up and let loose a biblical torrent, thwarting our plans to frolic amongst the rows of ordered bushes that will soon become a “cuppa” (Well…“let down” is a bit strong because even the worst day traveling is still an adventure). It poured and poured so hard that my umbrella couldn’t even keep up. There was a steady river of rainwater cascading down the shaft, soaking my hand and my sleeve. Sigh…they don’t make three dollar umbrellas in China the way they used to.
The plantation was also very short on information - nothing
Long before it's colored and fired, this artisan delicately carves out the designs by hand. Amazing work.
about the growing, cultivating, or processing of the world’s favorite hot social drink (we learned a ton about coffee at the plantations in Guatemala so that’s what we were looking for here). What they lacked in literature they made up in gift shops, though, so we browsed and drank a few cups before heading back into the torrent to the bus station and finally to our hotel room and lots of towels.
July 12, 2006 Shannon:
Today we took a trip out to the Gangjin Celadon Museum to see how the ceramic that Korea is famous for is made. Celadon, as we learned, is similar to porcelain (except that it has more iron in the clay and glaze) and has a wide range of styles. Perhaps the most common style that you see in Korea is the etched celadon, where shallow patterns are cut into the clay and filled with different colors before firing. Gangjin is one of the traditional areas known for celadon (they have been making it there for over 1,000 years) and once had as many as 188 kilns. Evidently Gangjin is also distinctive for another reason: the celadon they produce here has no
ice crackles (most celadon has tiny crackles in the glaze because the soil and glazes are just a little mismatched; this is not the case in Gangjin, where the pieces are prized for their smoothness).
The museum is the centerpiece of the Korean Celadon Village. Aside from the museum, which explains the production process, you can also visit the workshops and see the process in action (we learned that it takes 24 stages and approximately 70 days to make one piece). The village as a whole isn’t exactly a spell-binding experience, and was completely devoid of other tourists, but seeing the artisans in action was interesting. The workshops have people working on pieces through each stage of the process, so you get a pretty good idea of how each is made. I felt sorry for the people managing the nearby shops, though - if our visit was any indication, they probably don’t see much business.
July 13, 2006 Shannon:
After traveling from Gwangju to Busan today and then settling into another motel (this one with an amazing 52” TV screen), we ventured into Sean’s old neighborhood to see what has changed in the decade since he’s
Fried dough filled with cinnamon and sugar. My favorite street snack. The only downside is that when they're right off the griddle, the filling is molten and it'll linger on your lips like napalm if you're not careful.
Dongnae, like many other neighborhoods in South Korea, is packed to the gills with all manner of businesses, markets, restaurants and shops. Sean recognized enough to navigate fairly easily to the school or hagwan
he used to teach at. It took a bit more work to find his old apartment, but we did find it down a side alley eventually. Along the way we even passed by the market where Sean purchased Buckley - the turtle that once had been destined for someone’s dinner before becoming a companion instead. Sean:
Even though the school I taught at is still there, not much in the neighborhood has remained the same in the intervening decade since my valiant (quixotic?) attempt at educating the “youth in Asia” ended. Many of the shops I frequented on my daily rounds seeking sustenance and all other manner of knick-knacks are no longer there. Ten years is a bit of time, to be sure. It also didn’t help that the bottom completely dropped out of the Korean economy sometime in late 1997 (I must admit that I was stationed here with the Army during the famous currency devaluation and being in the employ
I'd walk through this little street as part of my daily commute.
of the US government meant that my paycheck became, locally, 2 ½ times more valuable. Needless to say, you couldn’t walk five feet in any of the markets without tripping over a G.I. with his wallet out).
The streets are still laid out the same, but not much else reminded me of the home I comfortably made here amidst the winding, narrow alleys and throngs of busy people. The restaurant where we English teachers communed each evening after classes is now a lingerie shop and the place where I flirted with the old lady selling tasty street snacks has been taken over by woman selling beondegi (cooked silkworm larvae - I tried one once and just the memory of it gracing my lips, still to this day, makes me throw up a little in my mouth). Even the site of my first meal on the peninsula, a Big Mac at the uber-ubiquitous Golden Arches, was no longer an international chain restaurant but a hair salon. If that isn’t a clear sign that “You Can Never Go Home Again”, I don’t know what is.
But it was a fun walk down memory lane, especially because Shannon was beside me
asking all about it. With each step the recollections and details of my existence returned in full color. We constantly wrote to each other back then (using that new-fangled thing called the “internet”. We were able to send “electronic mail” to each other) so she remembers many of the things I conveyed in my missives and retains a general sense of “yours truly”, circa 1995-1996 (Not my best years, but I like to think that I’ve only gotten better with age. And as evidenced by her close proximity, she must have seen some hidden, future promise. I was never the brightest bulb on the tree, but I know I’ve made at least one right decision in my life).
We then made our way downtown to the main market areas near the port. This was - and still seems to be - the
place to hang out in the city with a multitude of movie theaters and coffee shop/bars on every corner. It was all nice, but culturally, Busan isn’t Seoul. Shannon:
Busan definitely has less to offer the tourist and is more representative of a typical South Korean city. When we had arrived in Seoul, I really wasn’t
Bibimbap is one of the most common dishes in Korea. Dolsot denotes the special bowl that it is served in, which is heated until it is super hot. A bunch of vegetables, rice, some chili sauce and an egg are then added. You stir it fast when it hits your table to cook the egg.
that surprised at how “western” it all looked - as the capital, I had kind of expected it. But after traveling through many other regional cities, I realize that I had been expecting that the high-rises would disappear and things to get a lot more “rustic” once we left Seoul. Not that I thought every South Korean outside the capital was going to be out in the fields planting rice, but I hadn’t been expecting Timberland stores and a Baskin Robbins on every other corner, either. The reality is that the rice fields are still there, but the majority of people now live in the urban centers. This means that you pass row upon row upon row of identical high-rise apartment blocks as you approach any city, and that shopping malls and The Body Shop type chain stores are an integral part of their society.
South Korea is - depending on the statistics you use - anywhere from the 5th to the 11th largest economy in the world. In terms of purchasing power parity (PPP), it ranks solidly in the middle of most European countries - a bit lower than Greece but higher than Portugal. I really had no idea
The Man...The Myth...The Legend!
Seriously...I'm not going to hell for that am I?
of this until I looked it up, but it fits with what I’ve seen as we’ve traveled through the country. South Korea is an economic powerhouse, that’s for sure.
July 15, 2006 Shannon:
One thing that this country has in spades is temples. Our guidebook lists almost 60 and I’m sure that there are even more that didn’t make the cut because they were too remote. You could easily spend weeks traveling around the country just visiting some of the major ones, but in order to avoid “Roman ruin” fatigue, we decided to narrow our scope to a few choice ones.
means “temple”) is located just outside Busan and seemed worthy of a few hours. After leaving the subway station, we hopped on a bus for the 15 minute ride up the side of a small mountain (70% of land in South Korea is made up of these mountainous regions - meaning most people live in the other 30% - talk about population density!). Away from the bustle of the city, the temple is very serene. Buddhism was introduced to Korea from China in the 4th century AD, was adopted by the ruling class
Don't Mess with Buddha!
He's one of the four heavenly kings that protects buddha - among other, more mundane chores like "curing ailments". And if he doesn't scare you, remember that he commands an army of supernatural beings as well. So Beware!
and eventually spread throughout the peninsula. Far from being just a religious site, however, the temples also served as military fortresses - the monks were trained in warfare, among other things. For this reason, many of the temples were destroyed during Korea’s history of invasions and conquests. A further blow was dealt when, under the Joseon dynasty (founded in 1392), many of the temples languished as Confucianism gained popularity and replaced Buddhism as the ruling ideology. Fortunately, many of these have been rebuilt and restored to their original condition.
The layout of Beomeosa seems typical of many Korean temples - you enter through the first gate, a colorfully painted portal that is the demarcation point for the entrance to the temple compound. Next you pass through a second gate, where 4 gigantic wooden figures are located. These are the Four Heavenly Kings, each symbolically representing both a compass direction and a season of the year. Each leads an army of supernatural beings that help them to keep demons at bay, and each performs a function: protect the world; punish evil and encourage enlightenment; protect the place where Buddha’s teachings are expounded; and relieve suffering in the world. Each carries
different things in their hands and generally are depicted crushing some sort of demon creature beneath their feet. (They were also my favorite part - their size, imagery and colorful painting make them very photogenic). After this, you pass into the first of many courtyards. The temples are not merely one shrine, but a whole compound of various buildings serving many purposes. Some are shrines, where gold Buddhas sit regally in contemplation before the devotees who come to pray here. Other buildings serve as living quarters for the monks, or as pavilions containing enormous bells and gongs. As it is an active temple, the private areas were off-limits to visitors, but we could look into the many shrine buildings through their various doors. Some were large enough to accommodate dozens of worshippers, others only big enough to fit a few adherents. Most contained at least one gold Buddha, sometimes as many as three, while others had hundreds of tiny Buddha figurines lining the walls with a single white light at his feet. All were colorfully painted with designs on every surface - walls, ceilings, rafters - and paper lanterns were hung from the ceilings. With sparkling clean floors from which
to worship, incense wafting through the air and an attentive Buddha patiently waiting, they seem like a good place to contemplate otherworldly things.
Gyeongju, South Korea
July 17, 2006 Shannon:
As we read in an article in the Korea Herald today, Korea is getting devastated by the torrential rain that has pummeled this small country for the past several days. Already 25 people have been killed and many thousands more have been left homeless. We sure know how to pick the right time to visit a country, don’t we?
We’ve moved on from Busan to this other town a bit to the north. Due to the weather, though, we didn’t feel much like venturing very far today, so we remained close to our guesthouse in the old quarter. We’re staying in a traditional Korean house (called a hanok), which seems like a nice change from the motels we’ve been staying in. From what we’ve seen so far, a traditional Korean house isn’t just one building, but several smaller buildings arranged around a central courtyard. Most seem to have large overhangs created by the sweeping tiled roofs and small rooms that open to the courtyard. Paper-backed wooden
Tombs of Ancient Kings
These ancient Silla tombs dot the countryside everywhere around Gyeongju.
doors slide open to reveal the rooms and you leave your shoes outside before stepping in. Our room has traditional ondol
floors (raised floors that are heated from below) and features a yo
sleeping mattress (a thin cushion laid directly on the floor). The rain has been steadily pelting the roof tiles above us, but it is very cozy and warm inside. Taking a break from our normal sightseeing “duties”, we’ve spent much of the day reading and catching up on lost sleep.
We did venture out to see one sight, which is conveniently located a block away. Tumuli Park contains the burial mounds of 23 royal members of the Silla dynasty (pre AD 935). What you see today are huge earthen mounds, covered in grass and set in a lovely little park. Much less sexy than the Pyramids in Egypt, these were nevertheless more successful at evading tomb raiders. The basic construction of the tombs was very simple: the coffin with the person being buried was placed inside a wooden structure, which itself was located in a wide open space. Inside this small building, along with the coffin, is where the King’s treasures were placed. Once the enclosure
was sealed, the structure was then heaped with stones, creating a mound. This was then encased with clay (for waterproofing) and then covered in dirt. The mounds are quite massive, sometimes reaching 75 feet tall and 150 feet in diameter. Due to the way they were constructed, anyone wanting to rob the tomb could not simply dig a tunnel (as the tunnel would keep collapsing from the weight of the material above). The only way to reach the burial chamber would be to dismantle the mound from above, thus attracting a whole lot of attention. For this reason, these tombs have been found intact by archaeologists.
They are all over the city, by the way, not just in this park, but here they have some information on the construction and the chance to step inside one that was excavated and then reconstructed. Various gold objects and other treasures are showcased inside (reproductions, I’m sure) to show you a representative sample of what these rulers needed in their afterlife.
We also went to a nice restaurant around the corner from where we are staying for a traditional dinner. For 12,000 Won (about $12) we were served an amazing spread
One of the UNESCO World Heritage sites in South Korea.
of different dishes - 14 in all, not including rice and soup. It was a good way to try a lot of different things, some of which I really liked and some that were not as good (note: little bony fish covered in sauce are still just little bony fish). But as usual, they serve you such a variety of things that you’re bound to find things you enjoy.
July 19, 2006 Shannon:
If we wait until it stops raining, we’re never going to see anything in this country…
With that in mind, we set off yesterday with umbrellas in hand to see a few more of South Korea’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Bulguksa was our first stop and without a doubt the better of the two we ventured to. Originally built in 528 it is described as being the “crowning glory” of Silla temple architecture. It was still intact when the Japanese invaded the Korean peninsula in 1593, but unfortunately it wasn’t when they left. Happily for us, it was rebuilt to the original construction.
Being such a rainy day, we were at least happy that the place seemed fairly quiet and low-key. Or
at least it was until a whole regiment of ROK (Republic of Korea) army soldiers showed up to do a little sightseeing of their own. Perhaps regiment is the wrong word, as it might denote that they were somehow orderly and disciplined. I don’t want to impugn their character - and they certainly weren’t hooligans or degenerates - but running around giggling and making cutsie little heart symbols as they posed for endless photographs doesn’t exactly scream “lean, mean killing machines”. Obviously these were not Korea’s first line of defense against the North.
Not withstanding our fellow sightseers, we spent a few very enjoyable hours walking around the site. As with a few other temples we’ve seen, parts of it could use a new coat of paint, but the architecture and setting were top-notch. It was definitely one of the better things we had seen in the country.
I wish I could give such a good recommendation to our second attraction, Seokguram Grotto, another UNESCO World Heritage site. Set even higher on the surrounding hills than Bulguksa, and overlooking the East Sea, an enormous granite Buddha gazes out of a cave towards Japan. Our guidebook explains that he
My theory is that these were military academy freshmen on a well deserved break from their stressful schooling.
God, I hope so.
is surrounded by over three-dozen guardians and lesser deities, all supposedly masterpieces. Which sounds great, except that after paying a tidy sum, we found that not only could we not get anywhere near him because of a protective glass wall at the front of the grotto, but that you could barely get a glimpse of the other figures behind him. Oh, and no photos allowed, if you please. But feel free to purchase our
nice photo for five dollars down in the giftshop. I don’t want to sound bitter, but I was disappointed. No doubt, it was a superb Buddha, at least what I could see from afar. And I don’t mind not being able to approach him, if that is what is needed for conservation. And if you tell me that it steals Buddha’s soul, or is offensive for religious reasons, I’m more than happy to refrain from taking pictures. But don’t try to sell me a $5 photo of your own later.
As we spent exactly the same amount to get into Bulguksa, which has much more to see (20 minutes at Seokguram is all it takes to walk out to see Buddha, gaze upon his visage
Military Demarcation Line
These signs are strung the entire length of the border at 10 foot intervals to delineate the two countries.
behind glass and walk back out) and is a much better value in my opinion, I would tell others to give the grotto a pass.
Today was spent seeing some of the sights located within Gyeongju itself. Viewed individually, none would rock the charts as “amazing”, but there are enough of them in a short distance to cobble together a pretty interesting day. Sort of like the city itself: Gyeongju doesn’t knock your socks off with its beauty, and pressed for specifics I couldn’t adequately describe the secrets of its charm, but it’s a really enjoyable place to spend a few days.
Seoul, South Korea
July 22, 2006 (Happy Anniversary to us. Numero Ocho!) Sean:
Yesterday we went to North Korea. Now that I’ve got your attention I’ll qualify that by explaining the circumstances that led to the few minutes we spent basking in the glow of Kim Jong Il’s Great Worker’s Paradise.
The tour inside the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) - the most heavily defended border in the world - is the most popular attraction in South Korea and a few companies can organize a tour, but the least expensive (and probably the best) one is
The North Korean Guards in Action
I felt honored that they were checking us out so thoroughly.
through the USO, located near the main US Army post in downtown Seoul. It’s so popular that they’ve never had to cancel a tour because of limited participation (even during the bitter winters).
Setting out early for the hour and a half ride up north (it’s only 26 miles as the crow flies, but the mountainous terrain prohibits a direct roadway), the first stop was to Camp Bonifas, the ROK military installation (we’ve still got a few troops stationed there but we are largely removing US servicemen from the border areas as the South Koreans take over those areas of responsibility). We were greeted by a US Army sergeant who gave us a briefing that covered the history and creation of this border and also went over a few rules that we would be subjected to while inside.
The cease fire order that both sides signed on July 27, 1953, stipulated that all military personnel (on both sides) would retreat exactly two kilometers from their last point of enemy contact. This four kilometer wide expanse now stretches coast to coast, separating the two Koreas. (Side note: As very few people are allowed within this area, it has reverted
This is the first paragraph of the waiver we have to sign before going inside the DMZ. My favorite line is the last one that states that they won't be held accountable if we get injured because of a hostile enemy act.
to an unintentional nature preserve hosting an amazing population of migrating cranes, a few previously thought extinct animals and an abundance of wildly growing flora. So, except for the land mines, that’s not too shabby).
When inside the DMZ, we were sternly warned against pointing or gesturing at the North Korean guards and/or otherwise behaving poorly as we would be watched and videotaped the entire time by the opposing team. It seems that “Westerners Gone Wild” would be a great propaganda tool, showcasing our “decadent” society, and so by conducting ourselves without reproach, we would deny them any satisfaction (as well as the royalties from said video). We had to sign release forms stating that we would abide by these regulations - our signatures also absolved the United Nations Command Military from liability should we become caught in any crossfire…Yikes!
After the briefing and then a quick bus trip, we were now in between the concertina-wired fence line and headed to the actual border between North and South. This one spot inside the DMZ - known as the Joint Security Area - is the only place where both sides face each other (steely eyed and unflinchingly) on a
daily basis and where the buildings used for high and low level communications are held. These one-story rectangular edifices are fairly unremarkable except for the fact that they are exactly bisected by the border. After a few minutes spent taking pictures across the expanse of land that the two countries share, we were allowed inside one of them and as we ventured to the far end, we were informed we were now across the border and in North Korea. Wow…though I must say I didn’t experience the magic of being part of the great collective and so was in no hurry to remain behind.
The entire experience inside the JSA was quite surreal. Our tour guide was very relaxed (he gives this tour daily), but it’s still a very serious situation and not a place to crack jokes or toss up a jaunty wave to the other side. And it’s not everywhere you can actually see the enemy you may someday wind up in an altercation with.
After lunch, our tour took us to Infiltration Tunnel #3, one of the four discovered
underground passageways dug by the North (and extending into South Korea soil) to facilitate a southern
What's With the Goofy Look?
I'm honored that they would include Mark Sptiz in their Hall of Glory, memorializing some of the greatest olympic athletes, but couldn't they have found a more flattering pose?
attack. Pretty creepy considering the fourth one was only exposed in 1990. Hopefully Kim Jong Il hasn’t decided to build any more. There was nothing too special about walking deep within the earth to see the handiwork of North Korean miners, but the visit emphasized the gravity of the current state of affairs in this region of the world.
July 23, 2006 Sean:
In 1988 Seoul hosted the 24th Modern Summer Olympics and still boasts a huge park dedicated to these two weeks of international cooperation and competition. Scott came up and spent the day with us meandering around the museum they’ve got on the site. The museum itself was impressive and much, much better than what was here when I visited back in 1998. Shannon:
It wouldn’t change your life or anything, but seeing the museum was worthwhile. (To be honest, though, I have to admit that - personally - I thought it paled in comparison to visiting the US Olympic Committee Headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colorado. We lived there for 3 years and took just about everyone who visited to see the training grounds for the summer-sport athletes. The “proud-to-be-an-American/we-are-the-greatest-nation-of-all-time” film they show as
an introduction - with all the American superstars of Olympics past - just gets you pumped up with national pride.) That aside, I did learn some interesting facts from our visit:
• According to the museum, the most famous wrestler of ancient times was a chap named Milron. Known for his incredible strength, one day he attempted to demonstrate it by dislodging a wedge that was stuck in a tree. Unfortunately he got trapped in the process and was devoured by wild animals that night.
• When the Olympic Games were revived in modern times, they followed the ancient tradition of lasting over 5 months. This was not changed to the current duration of 15-18 days until the Los Angeles Olympics of 1932.
• The St. Louis Olympics (1904) were not well attended by other nations due to poor transportation options to this once hard to reach American outpost. For this reason, 411 of the 496 athletes were American (the next highest representation was from Canada, which fielded 41 participants). Not surprisingly, the Americans were awarded 87% of all the medals in contention.
• The London Olympics, held in 1948, were attended by 15 nations. Germany, Italy and Japan
were not among them, as they had not been invited due to lingering animosity over their responsibility for WWII. Sean:
From Olympic park it was off to another one of Seoul’s really neat, free tourist attractions. Seoul Nori-Madang is a covered, outdoor theater area showcasing Korean cultural performances on most weekends during the summer. Two shows are performed each day, and they vary by weekend. The first act, we were told by one of the hosts, is Intangible Cultural Asset Number 15 and seemed to be a mythological story concerning a tiger, two large dogs, an old medicine man and lots of dancers. Nothing but it’s ranking amongst the other Intangible Cultural Assets was in English, so we could only surmise the plot, story line and lessons to be learned about their culture. But it is great to see them holding tight to those things that are uniquely Korean and sponsoring these free shows for residents and tourists alike. Local customs and traditions are one of the first casualties of globalization so we thoroughly enjoy these types of performances that remind us how far from Kansas we truly are.
The second act was a lengthy drumming ensemble that,
truth be told, got a little long in the tooth, but was nevertheless entertaining. These twenty or so people marched around and banged along for a good 50 minutes (without a break). The only real black marks on this troupe were the two little brass tinny drums that after awhile only served to grate on all three of us. A short rendition of “nails on a blackboard” would’ve been welcomed by the end to counteract the lengthy onslaught to our higher ranges of hearing.
Yellow Sea, China
July 25, 2006 Sean:
Sigh…Our time on the island of South Korea (technically you can only get there by air or sea) has come to a close and we’re now headed for China by ferry (After a quick reconnoiter through the various decks, the vessel seems fairly seaworthy and with the added bonus of our cabin being a couple of levels above the main deck, we should be all right - obviously if you’re reading this, then…well, you get the picture).
It’s always a bit wistful to say goodbye to another country. While they’re not home, they become at least a bit known
and launching ourselves, yet again, into the great beyond always brings excitement - sometimes good, sometimes bad, but never boring.