Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Seoul in Seven Days! (Days 3 and 4)

When we last left our hero and heroins, they were had mysteriously found themselves in an Anam self-bar after having previously over-consumed at a soju tent in Dongdaemun. The eventually found their ways back to their sleeping quarters for the night and, hung over and disoriented, they embarked...

Day Three: Old and Dusty, but Not Crusty

Today was the big touristy day where we set about exploring the palaces and cultural landmarks of Seoul. We started out at Gyeongbukgung Palace.

It was really interesting to see people who have never been in Asia/ Seoul react to the layout of the city. They were so shocked to see these ancient buildings smack dab in one of Seoul's largest financial districts and how, once inside, you can completely forget that you're actually in one of the largest cities in the world. I think I take this city's layout for granted too much and should realy embrace the quiet spaces more.

Gyeongbukgung is huge, so it took us a while to see all (... ok, most) of it. By the end we were starving, so I took them to one of the Korean version of a greasy spoon diner: Kimbap Cheonguk.

I cannot tell you the number of times this sign has saved my life
We ordered all of the different types of bibimbap they had as well as some kimbap, for good measure. I had to run off to work, so I left them at the gates of Changdeokgung Palace.

Changdeokgung is by far the most beautiful palace in Seoul. Why Gyeongbukgung is MASSIVE Changdeokgung is smaller and has more attention paid to the landscaping. I am so happy that they managed to get into the Secret Garden at the back of the palace. Typically you have to reserve a spot on a tour, but it was open to just general visitors on the day they went.

After they finished at Changdeokgung they wandered around to find Bukchon, a small neighborhood completely filled with traditional style houses. Based on this picture, I think they found the entrance to it...

But they must have made a wrong turn because they wound up back in Samcheongdong.

That night is was time for an extra-cultural experience: Noryangjin Fish Market! This is an amazing place where you get to experience the joy of picking the animals you want to die! Seriously, you walk up to a tank full of still swimming fish, still crawling crabs, or still wiggling octopus, point at the ones you want, and then they kill them, take them to a restaurant, and within minutes you're eating!

They also got to meet two of my favorite people: Keith and Marius. I needed some people who could speak Korean for me and I also needed people to be extra awesome, these two fit the position PERFECTLY!

That guy's butt wasn't with us.
We filled our bellies with still live octopus and only recently dead fish and crabs (the blue crabs are in season and they were DELICIOUS!) as well as the obligatory beer and soju. Thomas and I might have gotten into a long drunken discussion about our family politics, Keith might have had to answer a lot of Korean culture questions, and Marius definitely had to answer some "black man in Korea" questions, but a good time was surely had by all!

Day 4: I'll De-Militarize YOUR Zone!

Once again hung over, we convened the next morning at the ass-crack of dawn for our voyage to the DMZ and, for a few minutes, North Korean soil. We took the USO DMZ tour and I would honestly recommend it. You get to see a lot of stuff and it's pretty well organized.

Our first stop was the JSA: Joint Security Area. This is the only area where North and South Korea technically touch, the rest completely separated by the DMZ no-man's land. The American military soldiers assigned to our tour group were an incredible group of guys. They were super laid-back, willing to answer any and all questions, and understood how little the rest of the world knows just how insane their station is. Here's an excerpt of my favorite moment from the tour:

Tourist: "Have people ever tried to defect from North Korea to the South inside the JSA?"
Soldier: "Yeah, it's happened, and it's normally really intense, because the North soldiers will fight to keep them from crossing."
Tourist: "What do you guys do if someone defects from the South to the North here?"
Soldier: "... let them!"

That gray building is North Korea, the line where gravel turns to concrete is the official border.
In this photo Amanda and I are technically standing in North Korea with a South Korean soldier. The South Korean soldiers in the JSA always look BAD ASS.
After the JSA we went on to Dorasan Station. A few years ago, there was an agreement made between North and South Korea to build a railroad connecting the two countries at only one location. This railroad would have eventually connected South Korea to Russia and China and, therefore, the rest of Asia. Needless to say, North Korea, being the asshats they tend to be, waited until construction was complete to say that they would only permit the railroad to ferry people from South Korea to work at a factory in North Korea. It's only use for this purpose today, but the station is still constructed to handle international travel and a large number of people, though the train only runs twice and only for a handful of people.

After stopping for lunch (at a truck stop at the entrance to the only highway connecting North and South Korea, also built to handle massive numbers of people, also only being utilized by a handful) we moved on to the DMZ observation building. This was pretty breathtaking, but kinda sucked because we weren't allowed to take pictures other than in a "photo zone"that had a very limited view of the actual DMZ. You could, however, look through binoculars and see the North Korean "Propaganda Village" (a ghost town in the DMZ where North Korean propaganda is occasionally blasted over loud speakers) and the largest flagpole in the world (in North Korea, the flag is the size of a football field, it was built so that the South Koreans could never build a flag pole taller than theirs), and the wasteland that is North Korea (all of the trees on the mountains in North Korea have been cut down because they have limited access to fossil fuels).

Last stop was the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel. This was the weirdest part of the tour by far. The 3rd Infiltration Tunnel is one of 5 (I think) tunnels that were discovered running under the DMZ from North Korea. The NK Army was trying to dig tunnels to send infantry and even tanks all the way from the border to Seoul. The museum for the 3rd Tunnel was all about how the DMZ is... alive? How it's a nature preserve and is a symbol of hope for the Korean people... strange. The tunnel was creepy as hell. You can see where the NK soldiers had put dynamite and the very end of it looks like a torture chamber from Saw, it's all full of barbed wire and traps.

The day we did the DMZ was the same day as the first game of the World Series. Thomas was freaking out not being able to watch it live, so we found a bar in Haebangchon (HBC) where they were willing to go through the hoops of getting the game on. My good friends Bonny, Sunny, and Benji (sounds like characters from a children's book!) hung out with us and it was a really fun time, but we were exhausted and had to call it a night early.

I'm sorry that these are taking to long to put out! It's a lot of info!

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