Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Seoul: Day 3

It was a relatively slow start for us on Sunday. We’d been up by 6:00 AM the two previous days, and felt that an additional three hours were a luxury we’d take advantage of. After rolling ourselves out of bed, a quick shower, and cup of coffee, we were on the streets of Seoul once again.

Our first stop of the day was Gyeongdong Market, which is a labyrinth of a street market where vendors specialize in fruit, spices, roots, and medicinal herbs. It was a extraordinarily colorful walk through stalls of flowers, dried fruit and cooking essentials. The strong scent of licorice dominated the herb stalls, and a whole side alley was dedicated to garlic. Old women were lined up under little shelters peeling away, a gathering hill of garlic at their feet. It was beautiful sight. After a few purchases, we wandered a bit, Alex carefully escorting me past the sidewalks lined with dog meat sales. Very obvious carcasses sprawled out on tables. This area of the market was draped in tarps to avoid the controversy.

Like most of our trips, we decided an unnecessarily long walk was in order, so we made our way to the Nam-san. Nam-san is the famous local mountain that historically was the southern border of the city. Well, the city’s grown a bit, so now Nam-san squats in the center offering views of the ever-expanding landscape. Apparently, due to the clear skies, Nam-san was on everyone’s to do list. The crowds grew thicker as we made our way toward the mountain’s main attraction, a cable car ride to Seoul Tower. After Alex assessed our wait, we decided to move on because views are nice, but not 3-hours-nice. We could see plenty where we stood, and it looked like a city.

The rest of the day was spent enjoying the weather, and trying to shake my shopping bug. Alex survived 2 markets and a mall, and I only managed one purchase. By the time the day was finished we were tired of walking, tired of crowds, tired of Seoul . . . it was time to go home.

Seoul Weekend

Seoul: Saturday Night

@ Geckos
Flickr Meet!
click on photo for larger view

I met Stephen, far left, through Flickr.com - the website where you view a2's pics. He's lived in Seoul for 3 years, and we met on Saturday night to spin yarns over our experiences living in Korea. He also introduced us to Lucy, and Neal and Jenny (middle). We enjoyed the luxury of an evening with cocktails, easy conversation (no translation required), and were none too surprised to discover how different our experiences are from those of Seoulites. It was a nice night under a clearning sky with a manhattan in hand.

Thursday, May 11, 2006


Torrential yet shy of monsoon, that’s where I’d place the rain we awoke to. If it were a Saturday morning in Gwangju, we could laze in bed with books and hot coffee. Alas, we had plans, and those plans required us to be up at 6:00 AM regardless of foreseeable misery.

The drinks we’d enjoyed the previous night at Woodstock were reminding us that we had enjoyed drinks the previous night at Woodstock, so Alex went off in search of water and carbs to kick start our day while I poured (no pun intended) over maps and guidebooks. Our tour company picked us up from the hotel, and by 8:00 we began our bouncy journey into the countryside cradling the 38th parallel.

DMZ- No Road, No TrackThe first stop on the tour is the farthest north one can travel in the western corridor before requiring military permission, Imjin-gak Park. The Imjin River, which borders North Korea a few miles to the west, winds peacefully around the small park though draped with nets to discourage underwater infiltrations by spies and assassins. The pain of separation is palpable here in the family graffiti that climbs a barbed-wire fence at the end of the Freedom Bridge. Remnants of war linger beside present efforts for reunification. Next to a newly built train bridge, which abruptly ends at the opposite shore, stand the cement support pillars of a vehicular bridge bombed during the conflict. The barbed wire and netting, the bridge’s end and bridges bombed, and the young soldiers standing post with their K1 rifles were hefty reminders that all is not said and done here. Not by a long shot.

After clearing a checkpoint where an armed soldier enters the bus to check every passport, the bus driver had his skills tested on a bridge scattered with roadblocks. As the bus wove back and forth the vegetation grew taller and taller, and it was here we learned that no one enters the brush. Hundreds of thousands of landmines were scattered by aircraft through the entire area as a protective provision, and now undisturbed they occasionally kill ormaim a passing deer while in the past farmers had died. We saw explosives arches built over roads to be detonated should a Northern advance commence, and it was here, under the thick bamboo growth that national pain and pride coexist in the beaded sweat of South Korean military police. Many of the enlisted consider it a great honor to serve in the DMZ, some even moved to tears. While the world at the mention of North Korea has visions of oppression and evil, the South sees the suffering of countrymen and families. The dividing lines are not simply an ideology they are an actuality that keep mothers from their children, brothers from brothers, husbands from wives.

In the same sense, however, the threat is real and the south under no circumstance will allow for reunification under dictatorship. South Korean understanding, appreciation and use of democracy has been a re-education for this American girl, I can tell you that. Based on my experiences, observations, and study here, I can tell you that should war come to this peninsula, again, that the seas on all sides will run red. It would be like nothing the world has ever seen, and I would be proud to fight alongside them.

The third infiltration tunnel was discovered in 1974 as it entered the southern half of the DMZ. Should the tunnel have reached completion, a point just north of Seoul, an estimated 30,000 armed men per hour could have made their way into the capitol. As we descended the 73 meters below ground, the air became dank and musty. The faint sound of trickling water echoed off the encroaching walls, and our hardhats scraped the ceiling’s jagged rocks. On all sides, controlled blasts had inched the tunnel forward, and those points were now outlined in yellow spray paint. About a third of a mile into the tunnel a military guardpost ends your excursion because you are now standing almost directly below the actual demarcation line.

There are many interesting details about the tunnel from the angle it was dug at, to the painted walls and the north’s insistence that it was dug by the south. If these details are of interest, leave me a comment and I’ll elaborate further.

After the tunnel we were taken to the Dora Observation Post, where you can view North Korea and snaps some photos if you like (from one step behind a specified line, of course, this is a military installation). Our final stop was the Dorasan Train Station, where one day the south hopes to extend it’s tracks through the north and become a transcontinental railway. It’s an interesting yet touristy stop, but Alex and I did get our passports stamped to prove we’d come so far.

Maybe one day we’ll return and take that train to Pyeongyang, but for now I'd settle for some dry socks and a little peace.


photographs of tunnel and soldier staredown courtesy of Korean tourism pages.

Seoul: Day 1

We couldn’t have asked for shittier weather, the clouds gathering overhead as our bus pulled into the terminal. Initially, we hadn’t noticed the disappearing sun as we were still in shock after seeing a Walmart. We hadn’t slept too much the night before, and were doped up on caffeine, but if I was going to hallucinate I’d hope it to be more imaginative than a Walmart. Because while I respect bargain-shopping, I cannot respect an institution that will sell guns, but allows its pharmacists to refuse birth control prescriptions (both presumably based on religious beliefs). Anyway, that’s a tangent for another time.

Meanwhile, back in Seoul . . . a2 had rediscovered that some subways still have more than one track, and navigated to our first stop. Our hotel was pretty disappointing on first glance, not that hotels in Korea are prized for appearance. You’ll be consistently disappointed if looking for a shiny, welcoming exterior. Generally, however, we don’t see mold on the ceilings, and lobbies lack that special smell that comes from an attendant not showering for a few days. Beggars can’t be choosers, though. A lesson I was taught early in life, so for the price it was tolerable.

We had limited sunshine, and one thing on our agenda. Well, two things if you count the rumble in our bellies. Off we went onto the sidewalks of Seoul in search of grub. One thing that you never have to search for in the city of Gwangju is a restaurant. The state of Jeollanamdo, in fact, is known for its food and love of. We often joke that no one here has heard of a business plan (ahem, nerdy joke), because the same restaurants open next to one another, sometimes in stretches of 4 or more. If you want samgyopsal, one block will have at least three options. We’ve been known to stand out front to “eenie-meenie-minie-moe”. Not kidding.

In Seoul we hadn’t seen a kimbap house for blocks, and were beginning to get nervous. In a city of how many million? you’d think there’d be one every 5 feet. We finally found a nice little Guk-Su place, and filled our bellies with fish, kimchi, and noodles. Now for some culture.

A few blocks walk more and a wall enclosing some of the largest trees we’ve seen in Korea loomed before us. This must be the place, Changgyeong-gung (“Palace of Bright Rejoicing”). Built in 1104 during the Goryeo Dynasty, Changgyeong-gung was a summer palace. That’s right screw your summer home. Korean Kings, specifically Sukjong, knew how to live. The more unique attributes of my summer palace include Ockcheon-gyo (“Jade Stream Bridge”), which is a stone bridge built in 1483. It’s twin-supports and beast carvings are interesting enough, but it’s also the oldest bridge of this type in the city. The palace is also aligned east-west which is the orientation of the Goryeo Dynasty, while all other palaces in Seoul favor the Joseon orientation of north-south. Too much info???

Folk Music & Dancea2 made the rounds to see the one of the thrones used by the last King of Korea, and to enjoy the vast (and I do mean vast) gardens enclosed within the walls. Peaceful by today’s standards, it was undoubtedly a paradise during the height of its use. A wonderful escape from the haste of modern Korea, we were also treated to traditional performances including court dances and folk drumming/dancing. It was a great afternoon, and we succeeded in staving off the rain for the time being.

We capped off our first day in Seoul with meal of hummus, falafel, tabbouleh, and a bottle of wine. Oh the things we’d taken for granted. Hummus never tasted so good! Afterwards we ventured into a bar named “Woodstock” which wore a pretty convincing 60’s face, and entertained with live musicians doing their best blues impressions. Ross would love this joint. After a few cocktails, we made our way back to the hotel just as the rain began to moisten the pavement.

Changgyeong-gung Photographs

Thursday, May 4, 2006

weekend recap . . . weekend preview

Being landlocked is a challenge. I think, speaking as a Michigander, there is truly something in the water. My family rarely travels where open expanses of water cannot be seen. It has an unshakeable need to be near water and to feel the weather coming off the waves; it’s an unfathomable connection with the nature of water. I know I’m a child of the Pecott/Neumann families, but I am also part Lake Michigan. As I was saying, Gwangju has been difficult.

drying eels Last weekend, Alex and I took a two hour bus to the coastal fishing city of Mokpo (목포). Mt. Yudal (유달산) rises humbly to the west of the old city. The old section still bustles with the fishing trade, creatures of all variety hung like angels from fences and wooden blanks, or laid flat on fishing nets to be preserved by the sun and salt. If they can catch it, they can dry it, or cut it fresh for your immediate consumption. What’s your pleasure? The main market is a crowd of purveyors and buyers, the only immediate difference being the wading boots. While outside of the markets, the harborside street is a wash of drying carcasses, fishing nets, boots, gloves, and stern, weathered faces. It isn’t glamorous, but it's certainly alive (except for the fish).

Gatbawi Rocks Further to the east a new city is cropping up beside its own humble Mt. Ibansan (이반산). It’s still Mokpo, but the more modern and touristy side, complete with a boardwalk, it’s own shopping centers, and special parks to accomadate the flood of families moving into recently built apartments. Close to many attractions, including its cultural area of museums and the famed Gatbawi Rocks, it’s a cleaner version of the hard life lived in the markets only a few miles away. The boardwalk was beautiful and the streets wide, yet it lacked the character of the old city.

Alex and I stayed our night in a hotel near the international ferry terminals and dried fish markets. We spent our first day taking in the Maritime Museum, and walking the town. The following day we managed to hike a great deal of Mt. Yudal to catch the horizon full of cargo ships and Admiral Yi’s munitions island. It was a short trip, but the part of me that is Lake Michigan felt revived.

Highlight: Drinking a Budweiser in a bar called the Texas Moon while subjecting the Koreans to Flogging Molly’s “Drunken Lullabies”. The Budweiser was for Ross. The music was for Justin.
Midlight: Realizing that our minute Korean skills are actually making it easier to travel.
Lowlight: Deciding to take the train instead of the bus home. Saying it sucked is an understatement.

This coming weekend, we leave for our first visit to Seoul. On the agenda: Changdeok-gung (창덕궁 "Palace of Illustrious Virtue"), built from 1405-1412 then burned to the ground by the Japanese only to be reconstructed to its former glory by 1610. The last Korean royal family member died here in 1989. It’s extremely private and includes a 78-acre woodland on its grounds. We will also visit Gyeongbok-gung (경복궁 "Palace of Shining Happiness") which shares a similar history with Changdeok-gung (built, burned, rebuilt). Most structures on these grounds, which sit next to Korea’s Blue House, are relatively new and not nearly as beguiling as those of Changdeok-gung. Still, we’re told, it’s worth the visit.

Saturday (Alex’s Birthday!!!) we will be touring the DMZ, 3rd infiltration tunnel, and other war-related places along the 38th parallel. We’ll possibly spend some time at the War Memorial Museum, as well. Beyond these certainities, we have kept our schedule open to meet with friends, and choose our own adventure.

click on the scary scarecrow for more Mokpo pics