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Published: June 21st 2016
I’ve come to South Korea having done little in the way of research. Seoul has been wonderful surprise. Once again, I'm reminded of how Eurocentric my education was and how much I've missed as a result.
After years of visiting cities in China, Seoul seems cleaner, better organized and the locals seem calmer.
Most of what you see in Seoul is relatively new. It was almost completely destroyed during the Korean War, when the North Koreans quickly took over Seoul after invading the South. Driving the North out destroyed the City which had already suffered considerably from the 35 year Japanese occupation before the beginning of WWII.
Even many of the historic sights are actually new. The Japanese destroyed many long before the beginning of WWII. Most have been rebuilt from scratch over the years since the war. This has been a way for Koreans to reassert their history and culture after so many years of occupation.
I’m staying at Sophia Guesthouse here in Seoul, which is in a 150 year old traditional home in an area near Bukchon Hanok Village. This whole area somehow survived all the battles of the past. Now refurbished, Bukchon and the
The Seoul equivalent to NYC's High Line
area around the Sophia has become a retail, dining and gallery area. It is a perfect location, close to the main sights and with plenty of activity.
A few highlights of the visit so far:
• Cheonggyecheon, a stream that has been resurrected through the center of the business district. Not very busy during a hot day, but it's a popular place on a summer night.
• A visit to the DMZ and JSA (Joint Security Area), which I debated doing up until the last minute. It ended up being more interesting than expected.
The tour included a North Korean tunnel dug through granite at some point, presumably for another invasion of the South. It is one of four found, each progressively more advanced, dug through granite and able to accommodate 2000 soldiers an hour, running 5,200 feet long and 240 feet below ground. The smart South Koreans invested considerable money digging a 300 meter long tunnel to it so tourists could access it easily. So, the North Koreans did all the work, but the South Koreans have benefited. There are no photos allowed. The rationale is that photos would tell the North
In the DMZ
Train station that was originally planned to be on a line linking North and South Korea now sits mainly unused except by 2 daily tourist trains.
too much. Strange, since the North Koreans dug it, so likely know a lot about it already. Maybe the South just doesn’t want the North to understand the tourism opportunity they’re missing.
The DMZ has now been in place for 70 years. There are two towns in the area, one South Korean; another North Korean. According to the South, the North Korean town is nothing but a bunch of unoccupied buildings painted to appear to be occupied. From one lookout, we were able to hear the propaganda the North blasts from the town to try to entice the few Southerners living in the DMZ to defect. Over the years, the governments have fought a battle of flagpoles in the towns seeing who could build the tallest one. At this point, the North is the winner. Brilliant high level diplomacy!
The highlight of the tour was a stop at the JSA, led by American servicemen who likely appreciate the break the boredom. You look across at the North, just a few feet away. The last incident at or near the JSA was in 1984, when a Soviet tourist ran across the line to defect. Yet guards on either side
continue to stand around looking at each other and the tourists that visit both sides regularly but at different times of the day.
• The night markets that pop up throughout the City with plenty of street food and people watching.
• A visit to a 5 floor Korean Bath near Seoul Station, Siloam Sauna. For about $10 you can hang around as long as you want, sampling the various baths, including charcoal and jade baths, a waterfall shower for a shoulder massage, and a full floor of various saunas or fomentation rooms that offer a range of supposed therapeutic values. Then there's the karaoke room, TV room, gym, game room and a full floor of bunk beds in rooms for men, women and snorers. I could go on and on. I was there on a Thursday night and it was relatively empty. I understand the place is packed on weekends, including families during weekend days.
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