How to get from Seoul to Beijing without flying

How to get from Seoul to Beijing without flying

There are a few sensible options for getting from Seoul to Beijing without flying — several overnight ferries take you from Incheon, on the Seoul metro, to Chinese ports which connect to Beijing by high speed rail.  Seat 61 has information on a couple of routes, but there are tons of ferries you could conceivably use. Continue reading “How to get from Seoul to Beijing without flying”

Which DMZ tour?

Which DMZ tour?

For our trip to the Korean DMZ we chose the DMZ/JSA and third tunnel tour with Koridoor tours, who are run by the USO.  That’s USO as in the people who organise live entertainment and other social events for US troops and their families overseas.  And also DMZ tours.  Kind of weird.  Sadly, Bob Hope didn’t make an appearance on our tour.

The waiting room at the US base in Seoul where we met up at the start of the tour was a little slice of America though. Continue reading “Which DMZ tour?”

DMZ: Korea meets Korea

DMZ: Korea meets Korea

On our day out to the Korean DMZ we made the biggest mistake of our trip.  Worse than missing out on playing dress up at the Gangnam Tourist Information Centre.  Worse than eating whatever it was that made me sick enough to pass out on a Chinese night train.  Worse than losing six days of our Russian Visa.  Worse than accidentally ordering duck foetus in Vietnam.  Worse than cycling 20 kilometres into the Cambodian jungle in the dark, with no water, and finding the only river was too salty to drink.

Maybe not that last one.

The Korean DMZ is a two mile wide buffer between the two Koreas.  A heavily mined strip of land 35 miles north of Seoul, in reality the demilitarised zone is one of the most heavily militarised places in the world.  The perfect spot for a day trip then. Continue reading “DMZ: Korea meets Korea”

Should I visit North Korea?

Should I visit North Korea?

North Korea has long had a guilty allure for me — it brings up some squirming contradictions.  So intriguing: the ultimate foreign land, full of strangeness.  We’re all fascinated by it.  But then horrified: the famine, the camps, the death.

Under the rule of Kim Jong-Un, North Korea remains among the world’s most repressive countries. All basic freedoms have been severely restricted under the Kim family’s political dynasty. A 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry found that abuses in North Korea were without parallel in the contemporary world. They include extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions, and other sexual violence. North Korea operates secretive prison camps where perceived opponents of the government are sent to face torture and abuse, starvation rations, and forced labor. Fear of collective punishment is used to silence dissent. There is no independent media, functioning civil society, or religious freedom.  

Human Rights Watch

Often the global coverage of North Korea, or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as it’s more properly known, tends almost towards humour.  Oh look at those funny North Koreans, what will they get up to next?  You could argue laughter is a weapon, and both factual coverage and fictional portrayals of the Kims have certainly made them look pretty silly.   Continue reading “Should I visit North Korea?”

Seoul food and K-Pop (Gangnam style)

Seoul food and K-Pop (Gangnam style)

Seoul’s attractions aren’t all tinged with the peninsular’s recent fractious history.  There’s plenty of stuff to see that doesn’t have a Korean war story, or at least not one that’s made it onto an information board.  Exceedingly tall men pretending to guard the old imperial palace for example.

We happened upon the changing of the guard at Gyeongbokgung, a royal palace dating from the 14th century, and heck these guys were tall.  Maybe they had platforms on.  Actually, I wouldn’t put it past faux-guard recruitment to select the tallest, scariest looking applicants, a similar thing goes on with the for-real guards of the border with the North.  But more on that next time, I’ll try to not mention the war for now.

There are plenty of atmospheric backstreets to wander too, away from the pomp and ceremony, particularly to the south and east of the imperial palace.  As ever, in a way, the most interesting parts of the city are the everyday, lived in bits.  I find reading about the history of a place intriguing, but when you’re actually there walking about, the places where something extraordinary once happened are rarely as absorbing as the places where something ordinary is happening right now.

One of our favourite ways to see and feel the everyday beat of a place is to eat.  All of the foods.  Our best Seoul food experience was at Gwangjang market, a buzzing, loud, pleasingly gritty, covered market.  The centre of the market is packed with stalls serving up all sorts of Korean delights, to customers squashed together on benches along the many counters.  It’s particularly famous for its mung bean pancakes.  At last, a vegetarian Korean speciality!

The famed pancakes are on the left, and they were crispy, greasy perfection.  In the middle is pig foot.  Order one and they’ll chop it up for you and serve it with kimchi and dip.  I had seaweed wrapped vegetable rice rolls, which were fresh and tasty.  Sounds like sushi?  Don’t call it that in Korea (Japan’s not too popular here), it’s called gimbap, and it’s completely different (it’s not).

And if you tire of aimless wandering and streetfood grazing, there’s always Lotte World.

Lotte World is Korea’s answer to Disney World, except really small, on an island in a river in the middle of the city, and under the flag of a multinational conglomerate better known for its supermarkets and chocolate.  Having a Lotte as a good friend, we were particularly excited to see this.

These pictures just skim the surface of the Lotte related fun available in Seoul.  There’s the Lotte department store, the Charlotte theatre, Lottemarts for your grocery shopping, Lotte chocolate to snack on, and for your fast food needs, Lotteria.  (Try the mozzarella burger, it’s literally a burger sized piece of breaded mozzarella in a bun, with burger toppings, including cheese.  Seriously.)

If you fancy papering a wall of your house with pictures of stuff that says Lotte on it, Lotte, you know where to find us.

And then there’s Gangnam, Seoul’s wealthiest district.

You may be familiar with the popular music title Gangnam Style, or at least the horse riding dance that goes with it.  Here is a potted summary, courtesy of Wikipedia.

The phrase “Gangnam Style” is a Korean neologism that refers to a lifestyle associated with the Gangnam District of Seoul.  The song and its accompanying music video went viral in August 2012 and have influenced popular culture worldwide since then.  By the end of 2012, the song had topped the music charts of more than 30 countries including Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Spain, and the United Kingdom. As the song continued to rapidly gain popularity and ubiquity, its signature dance moves were attempted by many notable political leaders such as the British Prime Minister David Cameron, U.S. President Barack Obama, and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who hailed it as a “force for world peace”. On May 7, 2013, at a bilateral meeting with South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye at the White House, U.S. President Barack Obama cited the success of “Gangnam Style” as an example of how people around the world are being “swept up” by the Korean Wave of culture.

K-Pop (modern Korean pop music) does seem to be slowly but surely taking over the world: its hyper-upbeat, hairgelled tones have already conquered most of Asia.

So, we couldn’t miss the opportunity to visit Gangnam.

What we did miss, because we didn’t know about it, was the Gangnam Tourist Information Centre.  Sounds dull, right?

Wrong.

Turns out you can play K-Pop dress up there, with props, and sets.  Sets!  Our friend and fellow travel blogger Emma visited the Tourist Information Centre a few days before we were in Seoul.  Read her take on it, but in short this is what we missed:

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Oppa Gagnam style.

Gutted.

So, oblivious to the fancy dress opportunities at our fingertips, we just gave Gangnam a flying visit.  In other words, we went, we saw, it rained, we left.  In summary, there are a lot of shiny tall buildings.  On our five minute walk we passed a man begging, knelt prostrate with his forehead to the floor, as seems to be customary in Korea.  50 metres further on was a very expensive, very empty steak restaurant blasting It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year out to the street.  Getting back onto the subway with us was a family with a six or seven year old girl wearing a pink Harvard jumper.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised.  The song is essentially a piss take of the Gangnam lifestyle of conspicuous consumption, and the copycat spending of people who aspire to that lifestyle without the income (or more likely trust fund) to support it.  I read an illuminating article about the subtext of Gangnam Style, which quotes a Korean joke about women who live off instant noodles so that they can be seen drinking hideously overpriced coffee at Starbucks.  Hence the boast in the song that goes something like ‘I drink my coffee in one gulp, while it’s still boiling hot.’

Who knew doing the horse dance had so much meaning?

Actually, eating instant noodles doesn’t have the same ‘slumming it’ connotation in Asia as in Europe, it’s more like having a sandwich.  We had instant noodles for lunch our first day in Seoul, eating standing up at the 7/11 noodle making counter.  A very authentic Korean lunch.  Mine were pizza flavour though, because (surprise surprise) none of the Korean flavours are vegetarian.  Over the course of this trip my reluctance to eat instant noodles has utterly dissolved, in fact I’m eating some as an afternoon snack as I type.

But still, eating them every day, for Starbucks?  It’s not even good coffee.

Cold winds on high walls: a walk in Seoul

Cold winds on high walls: a walk in Seoul

I stood trapped, trying to look nonchalantly unconcerned as the strains of Für Elise got louder and louder, attracting a swelling crowd of gawping Korean subway users to my plight.  To pass the time, I affected a consuming interest in the safety poster on the pillar next to me.  Which was in Korean, obviously.

I’d accidentally double tapped my ticket on the exit gate, rendering me stuck inside the barriers.  Subway stations in Seoul are grand, sleek and shiny but rather soulless (baboom) spaces, generally completely devoid of staff.  The only thing for it then, was to press the help button.

Don’t press the help button.

The ticket gate will rip into a spirited rendition of Für Elise, which will get louder and louder (or was this my imagination?) as you wait helplessly for a staff member to stroll the several miles from the nearest manned gate.  People will stare at you.  Your husband, who has managed to exit the ticket barrier without mishap, will slink off to laugh at you from a safe distance.  Help will seem a long, long time coming.

Even if you do manage to exit the barriers in the manner of a person possessing basic barrier exit skills, getting out of a Seoul subway station is not easy.  Look at the places.

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Perfectly clear.

When I eventually freed myself, we stepped out into the crisp cold sunshine and began to walk.  Seoul is a dense modern city, packed with skyscrapers and expressways, but amongst them sit scraps of the past.  One of these was our path for the day: the city wall.

In the 14th century a 20 km wall was built to encircle Seoul, controlling traffic in and out, and sealing the city shut at night.  These days the city surrounds the wall, and not much of the original stonework remains.  But several sections have been restored over the years, and now a walking route completes the whole circuit.

Frankly, we couldn’t be bothered to walk 20 km, so we set our sights on the northern half of the loop.  We began climbing through a low rise residential neighbourhood, then on up the wall itself as it rose on a ridge above the city.

Baby faced guards, dressed all in black, loitered in groups at short intervals along the wall, outnumbering hikers considerably.  Signs warned us not to point our cameras in the direction of the Blue House, the president’s palace, which dominated the foreground.

The history of this wall isn’t all ancient.  In January 1968 it was the site of the first shots fired in an incident known as the Blue House raid.

It was January the 21st, midwinter.  Three days before the largest campaign of the Vietnam war kicked off, 18 months after North Korea lost to Portugal in the quarter final of the World Cup, held in Liverpool.

A unit of 31 hand picked officers from the North was sent to assassinate the president of South Korea.  They made it from the border and as far as the city wall, well inside Seoul, before being confronted.

Being outnumbered by uniformed guards adds an edge to otherwise serene hiking.  The wall follows the ridges of four rocky, tree spattered hills.  A tiny sliver of nature amidst panoramic city views.  After a quietly tense hour or two on the chilly, wind whipped ridge, we were forced back down into the city by a break in the wall.  Following the trail at ground level, we found ourselves at a checkpoint.  Here, near the president’s palace, the wall is near complete, reconstructed to provide extra security after the events of 1968.

Entry to the wall section directly behind the palace is strictly controlled.  Passports are required, and registration.  The day we arrived they weren’t allowing entry at all.  But to be honest, we’d had enough of this rather unsettling walking already.

Our pleasant stroll in Seoul turned out to be an introduction to the obvious presence of the sometimes quiet, but still ongoing conflict between the Koreas.  This slight sense of unease, the barbed wire suggestion of impending doom, is not something we noticed further south.  But here, 35 miles from the border, you can feel it.

As we started downhill back to the centre of town, we came to a monument to police officers killed during the raid.

IMG_8395

Choi Gyushek, the local police chief commemorated in the statue, was on the lookout for North Korean infiltrators that night.

Camped on their journey south, the soldiers from the North had been happened on by four teenagers.  The soldiers had orders to kill and bury any civilians they met, but they didn’t.  Perhaps because the ground was frozen too hard to dig a grave.  Perhaps not.  Either way they let the boys go, after an ad-hoc lecture on the virtues of communism.  The boys went straight to the police.

So Choi Gyushek had been warned.  When the North Koreans tried to pass his checkpoint disguised as soldiers of the South, he got suspicious.  So they shot and killed him, the first casualty of the raid.

26 South Koreans were killed in the fighting, which spread from the checkpoint as the North Koreans scattered, then fled.  A bus full of civilians were caught in the crossfire.  Several days later, four Americans were killed in the DMZ trying to prevent the remains of the unit from returning to North Korea.  One North Korean officer made it back, the rest were killed or committed suicide, except one.

Kim Shin-Jo was the only officer captured.  He defected, and then he found god.  Back in North Korea his family were murdered for his defection.  In 2010, still living in South Korea, he became a human rights advisor to the government.

But it gets stranger.

The South decided to launch a revenge mission.  Their unit of assassins too, would have 31 members, but they wouldn’t be elite officers.  They’d be civilians, recruited for financial reward.  The chosen 31 were held prisoner on an uninhabited island off the west coast and subjected to such intense training that seven of them died in the process.  Then the mission was called off.

In 1971 the survivors of the training overcame their guards, made their way to the mainland, and hijacked a bus, which was then stopped by the army.

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The army approach the hijacked bus.*

All but four of the unit members were killed in the struggle, or committed suicide.  The remaining four were sentenced to death, and executed in 1972.

But it goes on.  In 2003 a film based on the events was released, called Silmido after the island where the unit trained.  The box office takings of Silmido topped 30 million US dollars in Korea alone.  Only two years after this was a government investigation into the incident initiated, the bodies of the unit members, who had been buried in secret, located, and their families officially informed of their deaths.  In 2010 the families won a case for compensation, which totalled less than 250,000 US dollars.

Funny place, Korea.


*Image from populargusts.