DMZ, Deoksugung Palace

We have been here for less than three days and are already tired out of our minds. Maybe it is the jetlag, maybe it is the thousands and thousands of steps we take every day or all the commotion all around us all the time. Either way, we are seeing tons of things and I have already started to feel that the days left are not enough.

Today we had to get up early because a bus picked us up at 7:30 and took us to the DMZ, the Demilitarized Zone. The border. The war since June 25th 1950 is still very active since they didn’t sign a peace treaty, but they maintain the peace by cease fire and at least the South Koreans are hopeful of a united future. During the Korean war the North pushed down the South so they only had the area around Busan. But then the south pushed back and got the country back. Now, there is a 4km DMZ, 2km on each side where you can only go by a tour. In this zone on the South Korean side, 200 families live. They follow rules, like they have to be in te zone 260 days every year and follow the curfew 6:30pm to 6:30am. But there are benefits as well, they don’t pay any taxes at all and they don’t have to serve in the military at all. The rest of South Korea does, or at least the male population, for 21 months due to the still ongoing war. In North Korea women have to do 7 years and men 10. Or perhaps it was 10 and 13. Our guide was super sweet but really hard to understand sometimes.

Along the highway toward the border, there were barbed wire fences and military outposts. Before this climate change, the water froze and North Koreans could just walk over.

Our first stop was at a Memorial site (I think), right outside the DMZ.

Then we went to the Third Infiltration Tunnel, which was very close to the actual border, we realized later on. We walked down a tunnel that the South Koreans had built to get down there, and then walked along the 260m long tunnel, 73m below the surface. The ceiling was so low that I had to duck most of the time. Lucky short people! It was tough walking that far, bent over. It was wet, all rock, but really cool. At the end of the tunnel (in total it was 1600m, but most of it was on the Northern side and we only had access to 260m), there was a blockade with a window in it, looking through it you could see the second blockade and through that window the third blockade which was on actual North Korean ground. Scary close! No phones or bags were allowed down there and absolutely no photography, so no pictures from the tunnel today. Didn’t seem worth it to risk it, haha!

The next stop was the Dora Observatory where we could see the DMZ on the North Korea side. It was foggy, but not as bad as yesterday apparently and we did actually see something. At first we didn’t really understand what we saw. But the barbed fences in the middle, going almost straight from us north, was the actual border. Right on the right side of the fence was the entrance to the Third Infiltration Tunnel, we then realized we were really close to the border, scary stuff! On the left side of the fence, there was nothing. Absolutely nothing, except a fake propaganda village straight above the tunnel entrance. The North and South had a competition on who could have the tallest flag pole and raised it a little all the time. Eventually North Korea won and got a record in Guinnes World Records. We saw it fairly clearly, but it was hard to see on the pictures. A while back, there was a girl who managed to get away from her group and actually pass the border. She was instantly shot to death. I wonder from where, they didn’t have any visible outposts, or basically anything on their side.

South Korea from the Dora Observatory.
The other side where the border is like an S. To the right of the barbed fence, in the middle where there are buildings, is the tunnel entrance.
The proganda village right under the “G” in the word propaganda. Or at least right  under the G is the huge flag pole and to the right of the pole is the city.


Right above the left-most buses in this picture, can the flag pole be seen.
Dora Observatory and our guide, Yeoni Jin in front.

We learned about defectors on the way back. Around 1 000 each year, and only 10% survives. Most go north and try to cross the border to China and then go directly down to Thailand where the Thai won’t send them back directly like Vietnam. A year ago there was a guy who managed to drive across the border, he was shot, but dragged himself across and was rescued by South. This was all over the news last November. When he was in the hospital the doctors found out that he was full of worms. Even the military are starved and in extremely bad health! Anyway, there was no real reason for him to cross the border from the JSA (Joint Security Area, where the presidents met up until recently when it became only a tourist attraction) because that was apparently THE place to be. Only high-ranked and trusted soldiers were stationed there. So many didn’t really understand why he would risk his “good” life and crossing the border. It turned out that he was drunk and had driven South. It is forbidden to drink in the North and maybe he was facing a death penalty anyway? Don’t know if it is true, but the tour guide said it and it felt like it was something fun to post here.

The defectors coming to South Korea are tried and when it is determined that they are not spies, they get benefits, like free housing for 5 years and a mentor to help them adjust to the rich life of a South Korean. Not too bad.

The both countries also speak the same language, although the North has some extra words and a very thick accent.

Fun facts are fun :).

Another quick stop was at the Dorasan Station where hopeful South Koreans donated money to build this station in hope of a united Korea one day. The rail is connected, but no trains go North from here, only South and for tourists.

On the way back to Seoul, we stopped at the Korean Ginseng Center. Ginseng is a root that has magical properties according to Koreans. I’m sure it is good, but not 300 USD good for a 9 month supply. I’ve never tried, so I am not missing anything. The root is as best after 6 years, and the government of South Korea takes all the 6 year ginseng for South Korea. The younger ones are exported.

Ginseng 1 year old to 6 years old.

Lunch was included at a restaurant in the city at the end. Beef stew that was very sweet and good. Mom and I talked to a Mexican guy and an American girl who sat at our table. The girl was from San Diego, what are the odds?

The rest of the afternoon was spent in Deoksugung Palace. We wanted to see the changing of the guard, but due to the dusty air today, it was canceled. But we got to see beautiful trees again and some traditional Korean buildings. These were also from the beginning of the 1900’s. Even if basically all the palaces were destroyed in the Korean war, they were rebuilt, but from what I understand, most of them are from the early 20th century. I think I read somewhere that at least one was reconstructed several times from a palace originally built in 1300-something. I want to see that one. If I don’t misremember architecture history 101 from Cal Poly, Asian architecture didn’t really change that much, they were very conservative with their buildings. And culture.  

We then quickly met up with Felix at the War Memorial of Korea. Unfortunately the museom closed 30 minutes after we got there, and we had a Korean walking behind us, making noises to hurry us up and almost kicked us out 15 minutes before closing. Too bad, it would have been interesting to learn more about it. It was free admission, so maybe another day if we have time?

A quick stroll through Myeong-Dong again to have some street food for dinner. I then felt adventurous and bought a bottle of something Korean. One sip was all it took for me to go back in the store and get a Coke, haha! At least I tried and got a cool bottle.

Namsan Park, Namsangol Hanok Village, Seoul Lantern Festival

19 000 steps has resulted in many beautiful pictures. But they are not as pretty as the real thing was, obviously. We did three things today. Namsan Park (where N Seoul Tower stands on top of the peak), Namsangol Hanok Village (a village down below the park with old traditional Korean buildings) and Seoul’s 10th anniversary Lantern Festival.

NAMSAN PARK

Today was very smoggy, so we decided not to go up in the N Seoul Tower today, it would have been a waste of time and money because we wouldn’t be able to see anything. So we just walked around the park among the amazingly and unbeliavable trees. How can trees even have that color??


Many stairs to walk up to the tower.
There is a cable car going all the way up. But where’s the fun in that?
N Seoul Tower at the top of the mountain.
Locks of love. Ridiculously many.
We managed to catch these guys ceremoniously lighting one of the beacons.
These trees were insane!! Nature is not supposed to be that intense! I couldn’t stop looking at them, or taking pictures of them for that matter.
No filters, I promise!
We quickly checked out the N Seoul Tower Plaza where they showed off some amazing 3D screens and other cool stuff. Lots of restaurants. We picked a Japanese one and it was so delicious!
Not all trees are beautiful. Fall is here too.
There are so many outdoor gyms here!
The National Theater of Korea. Very ugly from the backside.

Some branches even contained both red and green leaves!
Or this tree that looked like a stop sign.
A very old, and special in some way that I can’t remember, archery field. That distance was looong.
We found a squirrel! Does that bring good luck? 

We walked in the red clay containing far-infrared radiation that cleanses toxins and is supposed to be good for blood circulation. Our feet weren’t as tired after when we put on our shoes again. But that could have been because of the ice cold foot shower we took.

 

NAMSANGOL HANOK VILLAGE

This village consisted of several homes from the early 1900s. Most of them were moved there from other places in the city and one was constructed anew because the original was to frail to move. Although they had constructed it very detailed and even made the ground as uneven as in the original spot. There, in that park, was also the Time Capsule that the city of Seoul buried in 1994, on its 600th birthday, leaving instructions for the inhabitants living of Seoul on its 1000th anniversary to open. It was a huge monument that contained 600 papers describing Korea’s history.


While we were in the village, all the phones of everyone there started beeping. Security alert: extreme! it said. And the rest only in Korean. Thank Google for the camera function in Translate. Apparently the smog will be really bad tomorrow. Felix told us yesterday that most of the smog actually comes from China, but still, all the cars with even numbers at the end of their registration will have to leave it at home tomorrow. We also used this app to learn what other signs said, for example, there was one in the park asking us to not pick up acorns, but to leave them to the squirrels. They are nice to animal life here. In Namsan Park they had similar signs but for stray cats living there. They fed them and everything.
Koreans way back were short.

 

Seoul’s 10th anniversary Lantern Festival

This was such a cute festival! There is a road in Seoul, Cheonggyecheon, that they redid in 2005. A river has always been there and used by the people, but it turned bad, unsanitary and with non-permanent buildings and such, so they made it all better and wow, it is so pretty there! I don’t know what it looked like before, but it is really pretty now. Cars are on normal level, and you have to walk down stairs to get to the water. Nice sidewalks on both sides, trees and lights and it felt very safe to go under the big car bridges. Such a pretty place. The lanterns were put in the water and there were so many of them. One part was about history and tradition, one was about dreams and passions and one about the future.Cheonggyecheon


This, is something that really confuses me. Asians don’t take pictures of things, they take pictures of themselves infront of things. Always making weird things. At one point in the Namsan Park, I got angry looks at me for walking, but seriously, three people were standing on one side of the road, each holding leaves, with their partner standing on the other side of the road taking the picture. What is the deal? What’s the purpose of always being the center of a photo? Why take a photo in front of a pretty lantern? The light from the lantern will make the person invisible and you can’t see the lantern. So why? It must be a cultural thing, but I have never really thought about it until now, when everyone is Asian.
Christmas decorations outside a Lotte Department Store. Oh, that’s another weird thing that I don’t really understand and honestly finds a bit creepy. There is this company, Lotte, which basically owns half the city. Buildings, stores, food distributions. It’s scary. They control everything. They are not as big as Samsung, but Samsung is global, Lotte is only Korean.
This is the street (Myeong-Dong) we walked along yesterday, during daylight. A completely street during the night. Stands selling food, millions and millions of people. I got a honey rice pancake as dessert. Real yummy!

First day in Seoul: Myeong-Dong & Korean BBQ

This has been such a long day. Traveling with the timezones is the worst. Especially since it is almost impossible to sleep on the airplane. I have basically been awake sinve 4am on Sunday (it is now 1pm Monday in Sweden, 9pm here in South Korea).

We had a layover in Paris, had breakfast and took off 4 hours later. The flight to Seoul was 10h, but went by surprisingly fast. I watched two movies, read a lot and tried to sleep, not sure if I was successful or not.

8am, local time, we arrived and everything went really smoothly since then. Koreans generally don’t speak English very well, so I guess that’s why all their signs are translated to English? It is very easy to know where to go, just follow the signs, which are also better than pretty much anywhere I have ever been.

We took a bus from the airport to the hotel, or actually it is a hostel, Starria Hostel. But mom and I have our own room, our own bathroom and they serve breakfast, so it doesn’t really feel like a hostel. Oh, the bathroom… It is like they put a shower in the room inside glass walls and installed a sink and a toilet inside it. I haven’t tried it yet, but it feels like a very bad solution. Everything will be wet!

Today was all about coming here, no plans, just doing what we felt like. While waiting for check-in at 2pm, we walked around in Myeong-Dong, a big shopping district right where we are staying. So loud, so many people, even on a normal Monday. I have had a constant headache today, probably because of lack of sleep, so all the noises were more annoying than interesting. We had lunch and we learned that this country is not cheap. But good food though! We have a long list of recommendations from back home.

Once we checked in, we decided to take a nap, 2 hours of sleep was heavenly before meeting up with my brother. We took a taxi to where he is living, in Sichon, where we had Korean BBQ. 1kg of pork, barbecued right on our table. No carbs (which Felix told us Koreans barely eat, I guess they do LCHF), kimchi and other salads on the side. Small portions of it put inside a lettuce leaf called Ssam. They are only available here in Korea, no export because the Koreans need them all for this wrap-dish. One-bite-sized to not spill. Apparently it is very romantic to prepare on of these and give to your partner.

Felix also showed us what to drink with this. Somaek (abbreviation of Soju and maekju) is a shot of Soju, a traditional Korean clean alcoholic beverage that kind of reminds me of a weaker type of Vodka, made of rice, and beer. I tried it, and it wasn’t as bad as beer itself, but I was way too tired and had too much headache to drink the whole thing.

He told us many interesting things, like for example that 98% of everyone in Seoul are Koreans (no wonder I felt really out of place, we barely saw any other people today). The rest I think I alraedy forgot. I am tired :). Even with a hard bed, I think I will sleep like a rock tonight.
I think we might not have been allowed to fly over North Korea.


Myeong-Dong cathedral. Did you know that South Korea is a mostly Christian country?
This is probably the prettiest tree I will ever see in my whole life!
Fall is really here and I can’t wait to go to parks and see more of these beautiful colors.
The street we live on. RIght above the Namsan park and N Seoul Tower.
The shower with installed toilet and sink.
I honestly want to see what this looks like during rush hour. I will most likely hate myself if I ever go and see it.