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Published: August 18th 2015
After being in South Korea for longer then what I expected, I left Seoul yesterday and already I'm missing the place. I was only in the city for 8 days but by god I packed in a lot and not just during the day, hangovers were not planned! Arriving from Jeju Island I had heard so much about Seoul from westerners that lived there. Around South Korea while I was there it seemed to be the holiday season and I met a few people who were working as English teachers and there seemed to be lots of them. Seoul was the place to be they all said with so much to do, see, eat and drink! I booked the hostel for one night online as usual, just in case it turned out to be nothing like the reviews had said and fortunately everything I had read were true. The owner was a South Korean who had travelled throughout Europe and he tended to attract the backpackers. It was homely, clean and safe and was in Itaewon which is the foreigners side of Seoul. You could tell due to every single type of international restaurants in the area and obviously bars as well.
The day I arrived it was raining heavily and knew there was no way I was going out in that, so spent the first day drying out and sat on the sofa with my feet up chilling, while watching lots of K pop on the TV. I had 3 things on a bucket list to do in Seoul and I sort of achieved them all. Number one was to go to the border to North Korea which was achieved on the third day with a tour organised by the hostel. The tour itself was a guided tour with only 3 westerners and our own guide along with some Japanese sharing the bus with their own tour guide. The trip was split into 3 parts, a recently built observation tower where you could see into North Korea, however the weather was bad and foggy so no sights were seen, although the guide tried to point to things that we couldn't see and explaining what towns and farms that were. However with us was a North Korean defector who had left her country about 10 years previously and we had the opportunity to listen to her story and ask any questions that we had. She was a married woman in North Korea and worked as an architect while her husband was a professor. During the 90's the economy collapsed and all their savings was virtually worthless, so she decided to leave for her daughters sake and future. For 3 years she planned on leaving with help from an Uncle in China who gave her money to help. In all this time she didn't tell her husband as he would have reported her straightaway to the authorities. It was explained that females are more likely to try and escape North Korea's regime more then the men as they are conservative and likely to be working for some government department anyway. So after 3 years her and her daughter travelled to the border and bribed the border guard with US $3000. Once in China she had to get through to the Vietnamese border without getting caught as the Chinese have an agreement that any North Koreans caught are sent straight back to their home country. Once in Vietnam she was allowed to go safely, as Vietnam has a secret ish deal with South Korea that they will send the defectors their way. All this took her 6 months to do and she has no regrets about leaving her husband even though she feels a little guilty. I asked her if she had been in touch with him since arriving and she replied that she had and it was to find out how he was, but this was after about 3 years and it had to be done in secret through her uncle in China. She found out that the authorities on realising that she had disappeared, sacked him from his job and is now working in a lowly paid factory job. It was fascinating and horrifying to find out that everything that we hear in the west of life in North Korea is absolutely true. The leaders are treated like gods and that its more of a brain washing cult then a country. One of the things that you got from both the defector and the tour guide is that they both wanted Unity, the thought of a united Korea is something strong amongst a lot of South Koreans. The observation tower itself is situated on the last train track that leads into the North which has since fallen into ruin but still stands as a monument of such as the last way into the North.
From there we went to the Joint Security Area (JSA), the only place in Korea where North and South Korean soldiers share the same area, although there is a dividing line that neither can cross as this is officially the 2 country's border. On the line is several buildings where both sides will conduct any business in the presence of the UN. Standing in front of the border line, I could see across at the military buildings of the North, several soldiers were on duty looking across as seemingly they always do. It was eerie and strange knowing that the guys I was looking at were in actual North Korea. We were given a talk on what was across the border and a bit of the history of the buildings and then we were allowed into the main building where countless meetings have been held, where people have been traded and sent through from both countries. It was nothing flash, there was nothing to state the importance of the building but in the centre was a table that had 3 microphones which were in line with the border. We were allowed too walk around freely and thats when I realised I was standing in North Korea. I might not have been talking to North Koreans or looking at the museums and the North Koreans would not have had a clue that I was there either but who cares.... I was standing in North Korea! It was a surreal moment and standing trying to look out the windows to see if anyone from the North could see me was a waste of time as they were standing out of sight. Things you're told for the trip is not to wave, make gestures or become animated with the North guards as they would take this as a sign of aggression, scary stuff, we were also told that the dress for the trip was to be smart casual as in no ripped jeans, shorts, flip flops as the North Koreans would take pictures of us and use this as properganda in their country stating 'look at these westerners, they are so poor that their jeans are falling apart, or they can't afford shoes so they have only flip flops'. The whole day was totally interesting and I suppose like a lot of my trip so far it was an education. Bucket list number 1 done!
Bucket list number 2 was a strange one. Korea has a lot of strange things to visit from Hello Kitty museum in Jeju to a sheep cafe in Seoul and I first head of the cafe whilst in Japan and for some reason it fascinated me that while you have a cup of coffee with a slice of cake they have sheep randomly walking around. So the day after visiting the JSA, thats where I headed and even though the directions given on the web said it was difficult to find, I found it. Disappointment followed quickly when I entered and found that the only sheep in their was stuffed toys and pictures of them on the walls! I ordered a coffee and asked the owner where they all were? He explained that the sheep found the weather too hot and that they were at home and once it started getting cooler then they would come back. Seriously? It was too hot for sheep? The cafe was air conditioned, they could have been sheared and allowed me to have me taking selfies with them. The owner was interested how I had heard about the place and was bemused when I said it was listed under Seoul's weirdest cafes, as he didn't find it weird at all. Heading back to the hostel I found out that there were dog cafes which is a step down from a sheep one so the next day I ventured to one and was taken aback to how many Koreans were in the place. Basically you order your drink and food, and there are about 25 dogs roaming round the cafe, some big some small and if you buy them some food they will come up to you and thats it. For Koreans who have small housing, a lot of them aren't allowed pets, so this is there way of interacting with animals and they love it. There are a few dog cafes dotted around the city and the one I went to is seemingly one of the best. So although not a sheep cafe, it was still an animal cafe..... bucket list number 2.
Bucket number 3 was another strange one. One of the most famous South Koreans is Psy and his song Gangham Style. Gangnam is a district of Seoul which is basically the posh part of the city. Built for the 1988 Olympics as part of a redevelopment programme it has got bigger with more expensive buildings, shops and restaurants. I wanted to go there and do the Gangnam Style dance and get it on camera. The day I went was a bank holiday and there was hardly any one around with everything closed, so I found it difficult and a little bit embarrassing that I even thought I would do it. However I did find a monument/dedication to the song in the way of a stage and a life size caricature of Psy along with the words of the song going across the top in big bright colourful letters. There were a few people standing there on the stage pressing a button which started the song off and then get the moves going while their friend took a picture. laughing all the way. I, on the other hand, stopped a complete stranger and asked if he would take my picture and as I got on the stage he asked if I wanted to do the dance and would capture it, but I refused with my hands in my pocket and did my usual pose. It was a sort of bucket list number 3 and i was happy ish.
The remaining of the time was taken up with getting all the guys in the hostel, drinking with them and going out during the day to random parts of Seoul. Some good friends were made and I think that made my time in Seoul one of the best in months. During the last weekend was the 70th anniversary of Liberation Day when the Japanese finally left the country. The celebrations were massive where the county got together as one in remembrance of how 'nasty' the Japanese were and seeing the history over the previous few weeks I could understand why it was still important to them. The centre of Seoul had one of the biggest free concerts I've seen with lots of 'famous' K pop bands and on my last day me and the hungover gang had a walk to the river to take in a river cruise and there were thousands of people all with tents chilling out and doing their own celebrations. Ii should have been my last day, but the owner of the hostel decided that he wanted to have a farewell party for me which went on till 4 in the morning. My alarm was set for half 7 which I slept through and when I did eventually woke up there was a lot of laughter from the others, not from me! But again the owner came to the rescue and rebooked it for a small fee which would have been more expensive if I had done it. So my last last day was spent walking round the Palace in a more hungover state then the day before. That night I was on water and an early night was taken, although i would have stayed longer in Seoul and Korea I knew that I had to go on. Taiwan was next!
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