Sunday, 6 February 2011

Seoul sojourn

Thanks to Lunar New Year - which isn't even a holiday I've really been aware of in the past - we got three days off work this past week, and decided to take advantage of this fact to gad about in Seoul for a while. We took the bus early on Wednesday morning, arrived in Seoul three hours and fifty minutes later, and did quite a lot of things. This is going to be a long post, so get yourself ready.

The first thing we did, after dropping our stuff off at the hotel, was head to Craftworks Taphouse in Itaewon for lunch. The Taphouse had been recommended to us as a place which served draft ale, so Tom in particular was very keen. We were tired and hungry after the journey, and desperate for some interaction with native English speakers, so were completely unashamed to go there and eat cheeseburgers.

After a while, we decided to head for the Seoul Museum of History, accessible via Gwanghwamun subway station. On leaving the station, we saw this:

We headed a bit closer...

And found a statue of King Sejong, commonly called the "Great King." In the fifteenth century, he invented Hangul, the Korean alphabet, which is (in my experience, which involves Japanese, Chinese and now Korean) the easiest writing system in the Far East.

Behind this statue, doors were set into the plinth, and you could head into and under the statue to a museum all about Sejong. We found this by the front door:

 Christmas tree = Lunar New Year. Sure, okay.

We saw a Korean musical instrument.

And this was an astronomical model of some sort. The fairy lights above were arranged in constellations, and you could press buttons to show which constellations were visible in which seasons. Below that was a large bowl decorated with drawings of gods and so on.

There was a camera machine. Tom enjoyed it.

This says "Scientific and sonic 'Hangeul', a  symbol of Korea. Hangeul: the only letter system capable of expressing all sounds of the world." To which I respond, "bollocks." (Yes, that's how strongly I feel about this issue.) "There's no F in Korean. My name is transliterated as "Peu-ren-che-seu-ka." Bloody liars.

After a while wandering around the museum, we remembered our original goal and walked further down the road to the Seoul Museum of History. On the way, we saw a giant statue of a woman using some sort of hammer. I liked this very much.

There was a map engraved on the ground in front of the museum.


Unfortunately the museum was closed, so we headed over to Namsan Tower. You wouldn't believe it looking at this photo, but by this time it was getting quite dark, and I'd read that there was a light show at the tower every night and that Seoul from above, in the dark, was a view worth seeing.

We took the subway to the nearest station, and then followed the most ridiculous - and dangerous - directions to get to the cable car. Directions I'd printed off from a Seoul tourism website made us go along narrow roads with no pavement or lighting, and sent us teetering up steep slopes covered in snow, ice and water. (Although it was quite warm, especially on Wednesday and Thursday, it's clearly been freezing in Seoul for ages, and there were heaps of snow everywhere.) I was absolutely terrified, and by the time we'd been up and down Namsan and back to the train station, neither of us could stop our legs from shaking.

Turns out that I don't like cable cars. There were at least twenty people crammed into a tiny box with no seats, which happened to be dangling from a washing line as it ascended a mountain. All I could think was "this is what horror movies are made of."

At the top of Namsan Mountain, we sat for a while - I calmed down and psyched myself up for the journey back - and took some pictures.

The light show was cancelled due to the cold, oddly, so we took a picture of Seoul-by-night - kind of foggy - and went back down.

And then we went back to Itaewon and had Taco Bell for dinner. It's shameful, I know.

Thursday morning started even earlier than Wednesday - we woke up at 6.40 for our DMZ tour. The DMZ is a roughly four-kilometre wide bar of land that stretches two kilometres out on each side of the North-South Korean border, and is heavily guarded on both sides.

At that time in the morning, the tour guide was for too exuberant for my liking, and completely overestimated the amount of traffic there was going to be on New Year's morning, making us wait outside a hotel for the other people on the tour for about twenty minutes. (Later on, she underestimated the amount of traffic. Good going.)

The DMZ is about an hour north of central Seoul, along the Han and Imjin rivers, both of which were almost entirely frozen over. 'Tank traps' were pointed out - now these things are weird. Big concrete structures like bridges were built over the road, and are loaded with dynamite so that if North Korea invades, the South Koreans can blow these up, blocking the major routes into Seoul and hopefully destroying some North Koreans into the bargain. This was the first of a few incidents that morning which seemed to conflict with the South Korean insistence that they do want to reunite.

Anyway, we drove along the Imjin river, which is lined with barbed wire fences. At its narrowest point, the river is just 465 metres across, and the surrounding areas go mostly unguarded, so people have been known to swim across the river.

Our first port of call was Freedom Bridge, which I'm pretty sure was a replica (I can't remember though!).

Ribbons expressing hopes for reunification are tied to the barbed wire fence along this section of the DMZ.

The view of the DMZ. It was disappointingly misty.

Freedom Bridge, possibly (probably?) a replica. Tom admitted quietly to me that he'd played a Playstation game where he had to blow up a bridge that looked exactly like this one.

This train had been bombed by the North Koreans as the South Koreans drove it over the border during the 1950-53 war. It had also been shot over 1,020 times. It wasn't found and recovered until the twenty-first century, when POSCO (ha!) helped restore it by getting rid of the rust. It was put on display, and every five minutes plays a train whistle noise. Tom hated it.

Stones are placed in the DMZ fence at roughly head and knee height, and painted different colours on each side, as a quick way for patrolling guards to check whether the fence has been broken.

This sign says "Do not come close or take pictures."

A building commemorating the South Korean hope of reunification. The teardrop is crying. I think it's pretty cool.

I'm confused as to how you can have a Declaration of Unification when the countries aren't united...

Just to prove we were really there!

Then we went on to a museum where we saw an absolutely shocking video about the DMZ. It was littered with American-style propaganda, and reminded us strongly of the video we saw at Pearl Harbour (written by Tom, not me), which would have left a more innocent person than us convinced that America had done nothing wrong.

This was the introduction to the underground tunnels dug by the North Koreans for the purposes of invasion, and amongst other things, it showed clearly that the tunnels did get all the way to Seoul. In fact, the closest one found finished fifty-two kilometres away from the capital. The video also talked about how the DMZ is like a wildlife reserve, and actually said that one of the animals who lives there is "that living natural fossil: the goat." Understandably we are both still laughing at that.

There was a scaled model of the DMZ and surrounding areas with flashing lights delineating the DMZ area. Although Tom took a few pictures of this, half of them were taken while the flashing lights were off, and the other half are blurry.

You see what I mean!

Another DMZ sign, this one opposite the entrance to the Third Tunnel. We were't allowed to take pictures, for some reason, but we did go underground and about half a kilometre along the tunnel, up to where a blockade had been built on the South Korean side. The tunnel was apparently meant to be big enough for thirty thousand North Korean soldiers to pass through it into the South in an hour, although we could barely believe that - the tunnel was really short. We were practically bent double as we went through it. Highly uncomfortable.

It was in the tunnel particularly that Tom and I both felt our inner cynics wrestling to be let out. Neither of us had ever even considered the possibility that the four discovered 'invasion' tunnels were anything other than what they seemed to be, but the tour guide's (and the museum's) insistence that we could prove that they were invasion tunnels, and that the North Koreans were lying when they said the tunnels were dug by the South, and so on and so forth... everything was so biased that it just seemed suspicious. Furthermore, the general attitude of the place was far from convincing: half of what we heard was "we want to be one country again!" and the other half was "those bastard, sneaking, lying, dangerous North Koreans." I couldn't understand how that hostility was meant to go with that teardrop and 'Declaration of Unification' above.

Also, the southern DMZ border used to go further south than the tunnel entrance, but the border was moved to allow tourists into the tunnel. I bet the North Koreans were happy about that.

Yes, that's exactly what it looks like.

The next place we went was right on the edge of the DMZ. Apparently on a clear day you could see cities and flags in North Korea. However, you couldn't take photos beyond this photo line, which was a couple of metres away from the wall itself.

Also, Thursday was not a clear day. We might as well have been standing in front of a screen. Tom stood on the photo line and jumped to take this picture.

There was a souvenir shop at this place, where I found a DMZ long-sleeved t-shirt for just 15,000W (about 7.50 pounds). I was entranced with the inappropriateness of it, so this happened...

Tom was telling me to look serious, like I was defending the border. It was tough not to stop giggling.


Then we went to Dorasan train station, which was built when it looked like the Koreas were going to agree on allowing a train line to run from the South through the North. Western Europe would have been accessible by train, and the journey would have taken nine days. Sadly in 2008 the North Koreans shot a South Korean tourist who wandered away from her guide, and plans were halted. I was disappointed.

After that we went to a shop which sold both South and North Korean goods, and we were the only people on the ten-person tour who weren't that interested. Most of the stuff there we could get in Home Plus anyway, and the North Korean stuff was really quite expensive.

After that, we drove back to Seoul through a lot of traffic to go to - for some unfathomable reason - an amethyst shop. Clearly the tour guide company had a deal with this place, but it was just really annoying after a long morning, particularly as we only had a limited time in Seoul. There wasn't even any pretence on how amethyst related to the DMZ, so pretty much everyone on the tour bus went into the shop, walked through it as quickly as possible, and went back to the bus.

We were dropped off in Myeongdong, a fairly busy shopping district, and went for lunch at California Pizza Kitchen where we got a free glass of wine and I had a pear and gorgonzola pizza with caramelized onions and rocket. It was amazing. Then we wandered through Myeongdong, and I bought a pretty dress, and Tom (finally) got some football boots. We've been to more than a dozen shops and this was the first place to have any shoes at all in his size. He's still complaining about the price, three days later, but to be honest I was just relieved to not have to visit any more sport shoe stores.

Following that, we made our way to Hanok Village. This is an area of Seoul to which five houses, built in the 'old style' in various places, have been transplanted, and a 'traditional village' has been set up around them. On Lunar New Year, it was pretty busy.

You could pay to do certain activities, one of which was dressing up in the traditional Korean costume, hanbok. I desperately wanted to do it but was a bit scared, so we just took pictures of the people who weren't as cowardly as us.

Happily, there were those put-your-face-in-the-cardboard-cut-out things near the entrance, so I as good as got to 'wear' hanbok anyway.

You can see here that we definitely did go to Adidas and buy Tom some boots.

By this point on Thursday we were really tired, and it was about 5pm, so we went back to the hotel and watched some Korean TV for a while. Both of us were highly amused by a show in which a group of people had to sing a song together and if anyone messed up their lines, all of them were blown in the face. We also watched the second half of Die Hard 4 before heading back to Craftworks Taphouse for dinner. It's worth mentioning that I was given the largest slice of Red Velvet cake in the world - it was honestly the size of two large slices - and ate it all. Tom was shocked, and (I like to think) impressed.

Friday morning we spent at Gyeongbukgung Palace. We'd hoped to go on a cruise down the Han, which looked quite cheap, but given that the river had been frozen over the day before we didn't bother seeing if the boats were running.

As we arrived, we witnessed the changing of the guard outside. We spent such a long time at the palace that this was the first of three such ceremonies we saw!

The palace was bloody huge. Courtyard after courtyard, building after building.

Towards the back of the complex was a Folk Museum, with activities and things in honour of the New Year. There was also a miniature replica of a mid-twentieth-century Korean village, complete with a tram and tram driver.

Then we followed noise to a traditional Korean music show.

The music just sounded fun - all the instruments were percussion as well, which was almost hard to believe from listening to it. It sounded far more musical than drums normally do. (Sorry, Jack.) We spoke to a Korean man who said that NANTA, the show we were going to see later that day, was based on this traditional percussion style, which made me even more excited for the show.

Our next stop was the palace museum just outside Gyeongbukgung.

Friday was really cold, so this was more of an excuse to get inside than to actually find out about royal Korean life, but this sign amused me. It's a list of instructions for the Crown Prince, which run along the lines of "be filial, study hard, listen to your subjects" and so on until number ten: "Control yourself when you are alone!"

Any guesses as to what this is?

If you guessed the commemorative jar to hold the Crown Prince's placenta... you guessed right!

Obviously not his placenta. I'm not entirely sure how to phrase it to make it clear.

Once we left Gyeongbukgung Palace, we wandered down Gwanghwamun Square and I had my picture taken with a cycling polar bear in the "Green Photo Zone."

Then we found a stream and Tom played on the stepping stones.

In the afternoon we had planned to go to the Seoul World Cup Stadium, where there was meant to be a Carrefour - the French supermarket - which sold cheese. This was going to be the absolute high point of the trip, and the part I was (honestly) most looking forward to.

When we arrived at the stadium, the Carrefour had been taken over by Home Plus. It was unbelievably busy, and we were very disappointed. That said, we did manage to get a small block each of blue cheese (Bleu d'Auvergne to be precise) and mild cheddar. And then we raced back to the hotel, changed and went to NANTA.

Oh, and on the way, Tom took a sneaky picture of a gas mask cupboard in a subway station. They were all over the place, along with screens playing videos on what to do in case of a poison gas attack. Kind of scary at first, but you get used to it soon enough - better than the alternative, I suppose!

Anyway, after getting severely lost on the way to NANTA and being the last people to the theatre, we saw an amazing percussion show. I can't recommend it highly enough. The basic idea of the story is that three chefs have to prepare a wedding banquet in the next eighty minutes, and the restaurant manager's incompetent nephew is helping them out. There are some stunning stunts, and audience participation, and tricks with food, and my word the actors get sweaty! It's advertised as "non-verbal," but before the show a message was projected on to a screen (things like "turn your cell phone off" and "if you're in the toilet, come back now!") in Korean, English, Chinese and Japanese. There's some talking during the show, but it's either done in multiple languages or acted out as well ("six o'clock!" with six fingers held up, and pointing at a clock). We giggled through half of it, and gasped in awe at the rest. I've heard that it's around the world as well, so you don't have to come all the way to Korea to see it! Here's a Youtube clip (the performance starts about 0:48 seconds in and only lasts for about a minute).

After NANTA we had curry at an Arabian restaurant, had a drink at TGI Friday, wrote down everything that we'd done (which was very good of us, because we had trouble remembering what we'd done that day without talking it through, so I'm very grateful to have that piece of paper next to me now).

On Saturday morning we went to Jongmyo Shrine right by our hotel.

This picture is supposed to be turned ninety degrees to the left, but it looks much better this way.

This is where the kings of Korea are all buried, or cremated, or commemorated or something.

And this is where all the men who were posthumously declared king are. I have no idea how that works. How do you declare a dead person king? I'm confused.

So that was our trip to Seoul. It's taken me about twenty hours to write this super-long post - on and off, of course, I have slept. And showered, and made apple and blue cheese soup (mmmmm), and watched The King's Speech (highly recommended, by the way). Hope you enjoyed it!

1 comment:

  1. Fabulous. Can't wait to explore Seoul now! xxx Mum