South Korea: Seoul and the DMZ

IMG_7968After a few days on our own in Busan and the Gangnam area Megan and I set off to accomplish two very important missions: find her a Korean music store and get in a bit more cosmetic shopping before David joined us. We found a music store a few blocks from our hotel and got lost in the mall for a few hours. Around lunch we headed down toward the Han river to Garosu-gil a cute little street with lots of shops and restaurants. We had a delicious lunch, got in a little shopping and were soon joined by David.

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Matching phone covers became a must during our travels.
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Never seen this before, gas supply lines hanging from the ceiling?

Next we traveled to the heart of the city for our planned evening activity. In our travels we Found Sungnyemun gate and an amazing Korean BBQ restaurant. This gate was the south gate of Seoul originally built in 1398. The walls on either side of the gate were torn down in the early 1900s by the Japanese. It had to be taken apart, repaired, and reassembled following the Korean War due to the damage it sustained.

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Sungnyemun Gate

IMG_8005As for the Korean BBQ, amazing as always. David was particularly pleased with himself that he remembered to order the ingredients for Somaek as described to us by one of my Korean co-workers. Generally it’s about a 50/50 mix of soju and beer, though the ratio itself is not hard and fast since you make your own at your table! They even had these handy glasses to let us know precisely how much trouble we were getting ourselves into. The type of beer and soju used can vary by personal preference though Cass and Hite are the more popular Korean Beers to use. Everyone in this particular restaurant had one specific preference, so we guessed the reason they tried to give us the “other brand” was to make sure they didn’t run out of the more popular option. We ended up trying them both for good measure though!

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Note the metal chopsticks that are prevalent throughout Korea. More on that later…
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In this restaurant 2 of the 8 tables had foreigners, but only one didn’t have the makings for somaek (soju and beer). David was incredibly pleased that table was not ours.

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Our evening activity was a tour aptly named “the dark side of Seoul” as it took us all over the city focusing on some of the gorier highlights of South Korean history. We wandered past the US embassy, some historical palaces and temples, and meandered down a lot of little alleys which are currently home to some really neat trendy little bars and eateries. Their past of course was much more gruesome as explained by our resident historian, a Canadian man who had spent the better part of the last 20 years living and working in South Korea. He told us why metal chopsticks are standard in Korea these days. Apparently the trend may have come from early royalty who used to use silver chopsticks to avoid assassination attempts by poison. Whatever they intended to be poisoned by supposedly reacted with the silver to discolor it and alert the wary eater that their food was not to be eaten. Our guide also spoke openly about his political opinions, saying the US military presence was doing more harm than good (antagonizing the North) and in his opinion an unified Korean peninsula is not possible anymore. This discussion was a different story than we had gotten in Busan, but nevertheless an appropriate introduction to the tour we had organized for the next day.

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This Church is said to be haunted by the ghost of one of the nuns who died here.
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We ended along the Cheonggyecheon stream where there happened to be a lot of lanterns all light up for the upcoming celebration of Buddha’s birthday.

JSA/DMZ

We had originally booked a full day tour that would take us to the JSA (Joint Security Area) as well as the DMZ (Demilitarized zone). The JSA is the only place you can simultaneously set foot in North and South Korea and, due to a North Korean holiday and subsequent military display, it was unfortunately closed for the duration of our stay. We were informed of this shortly after we boarded the tour bus, so we were only able to experience the DMZ portion of the tour. This did leave us some extra time after the tour to visit the Korean War Museum and grab some more delicious foods, but we would have preferred to see the JSA.

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South Korean soldiers actively monitoring the DMZ, a two mile wide stretch of land between the two countries.
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Bridge of Freedom: Formerly used for trading POWs at the end of the war, it currently serves as a memorial for families who were separated by the war.

Both sides have speakers from which they play propaganda recordings (the North) and Korean music (the South). Take a listen below!

We also got to walk through the 3rd tunnel (of 4 that have been found). There was no photo taking allowed presumably due to the large amount of traffic and small diameter of the tunnel itself. It’s nothing terribly outstanding by itself, but when one considers its length and size for what it was, a pathway of invasion into seoul, the prospects become much more daunting. To protect the unknowing tourists who walk through the tunnel they have reinforced it with several layers of concrete walls between the available walking area and the North Korean border which are supposedly capable of suppressing any blast that could be expected from the North. The South discovered the tunnel in the late 1970s due to seismic activity that was detected when one of the explosives (used to create the tunnel) went off.

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The North first tried to deny the tunnel saying it was a coal mine and even tried to blame the origin of the tunnel on the south. It is clear from the direction the explosives were laid in the rock that the only logical direction of the tunneling was from the North. The tunnel itself ended just 32 miles away from Seoul, well into the DMZ, and was considered to be the biggest threat of invasion from the North that has been discovered thus far. It is widely believed that other tunnels exist, though no more have been found since 1990. It should also be noted that these tunnels were found with the help of defectors from the North. Who knows what could have happened if they had not been found…

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We had the opportunity to look across the border through binoculars and see the propaganda village and small outlines of people working what little farm land they have close to the border. Despite David’s smile in this photo we all felt a little uncomfortable about the scenes we witnessed here.

Our final stop was to the rail station that one day hopes to run between the two countries. It is a symbol of hope for those wishing for a reunified Korean peninsula. While trains have officially crossed the border in recent memory, I am not sure how frequent an occurrence this is.

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Due to the JSA being closed, this was the closest we got to the North Korean border in our travels.

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Our lunch was excellent and the trip to the Korean War Museum was worth the time. I will not go into all the historical details of this war because it would both take up too much space and be thoroughly exhausting. Suffice to say that this war is definitely not over and the armistice agreement to create the dividing line (DMZ) at the 38th parallel was only the tip of the iceberg…

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Memorial outside the war museum.

Before heading to the airport on her final day Megan was able to join us for a lunch time cooking class where we learned how to make japchae, bulgogi, and some interesting Korean pancakes. This was definitely a top three cooking class experience for us along with the two Thai cooking classes in Chiang Mai and Bangkok.

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Everything was really well laid out and recipes were easy to follow, though we have had a hard time finding Asian pear juice or green plum juice since returning to the USA…
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Learning about homemade kimchi.
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Enjoying our creations.
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Delicious!

Our last full day in Seoul David and I opted to explore Gyeongbokgung, the royal palace of the Joseon dynasty. We happened to be visiting during the Royal culture festival period, so there were many additional exhibits and demonstrations to go along with the normal sites. The architecture itself reminded me faintly of China, though I was surprised by how much green we encountered (vs the Chinese favored red).

 

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This may have been a ceremonial opening of the gate or something along these lines. There was a long parade of musicians and warriors that went by and we didin’t quite catch the significance.

One of the main attractions within was in memory of Empress (Queen) Myeongseong to commemorate the opening of Gonnyeonghap’s (a royal private residence) interior to the public. In 1895 she was said to have been assassinated in her room here by Japanese intruders in retaliation for the King’s request that the Japanese leave the Korean peninsula.

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Much more natural looking than the painted buildings.
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Some of the displays inside Gonnyeonghap.
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Just as it was common to see women dressed in traditional Kimono in special locations in Japan, here one can also find women clad in the traditional Hanbok.
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Taking a seat after all our walking.

Finally, we ended our trip with some market food and an impromptu (to us) lantern parade!

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So pleased with himself.
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The woman who served us an assortment of sausages, liver (we think), stuffed pasta, and other assorted foods.

 

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Oh good, we found the dessert!
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Lantern Parade!

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