08/19/2017 - 08/20/2017
Yesterday was sort of a wash, tour-wise. We worked late and so I didn't get to go anywhere. But, I noticed a few interesting things about the culture here.
The traffic to work was worse than on a week day. Our local contact suggested that people might be going on vacation (like summer Friday night beach traffic in the USA.)
Rockapella led me astray. Because Carmen put the "soul" in South Korea, I've been pronouncing "Seoul" incorrectly my whole life, as in the song. In Korean, the syllables are "Se" and "oul" (with the l being the same as an r, but that's a different story). Technically, this is exactly how it's spelled in English, but it never occurred to me to pronounce it Se-o-ul, with all of the vowels being distinct sounds (but still running together quickly). My childhood was a lie!
I figured out why the gowning rooms at work are separated by gender- you have the option to remove your street clothes and put on little "silk pajamas" uner the bunny suit.
One cool thing I noticed about Korean food packaging- where it indicates the volume/weight of the product, it also indicates the Calories in the packaging. You don't have to check fine print or do math about how many servings are in there. Just BOOM- 300 mL 200 kCal and done. I think every country should adopt this.
Even on Saturday night, when you'd think food spots would be open late, the food court at the mall attached to the hotel closed by 9.
That's just about when I got home from work. The shops were all packing up food for people to take home, and weren't making anything new. As a result, I have to say that I'm not impressed with Korean Italian food.
However, I can also say that it is possible to make the rice noodle things in an electric tea kettle. (For today's breakfast, I made soup made from "spicy tofu sauce" in a bag and a package of those noodles that I grabbed from a grocery store.)
I met the tour guide at 7:30 in the lobby and got on the bus to pick up the other tourists. On the way north, she gave us a quick explanation of the history and our plans for the day.
Basically, pre-WW2, the Japanese had conquered Korea. After the WW2, the USSR influenced the peninsula north of the 38th parallel and the USA south of it, but in theory the country was sort of unified with different governments and liberated from Japan. Then, the northerners tried taking all of the land, but eventually the US and other countries helped the south. Things went back and forth, with China hopping into the fray until an armistice between China, the USSR, USA and North Korean governments were signed.
The South Koreans didn't participate and so the demarcation line + 2km in each direction (aka the demilitarized zone or DMZ) is controlled by the USA and not so much the South Koreans. They aren't allowed military there, so military police stand guard. Somehow that doesn't count.
Today we are going to the DMZ only, not the joint security area- the place where the "not soldiers" from the 2 groups of military police face each other.
Our first stop is Imjingak park. The park features a bunch of monuments to the folks who died in the wars, as well as a "freedom bridge" where families got reunited. It also has a Popeyes amongst the plethora of food stands and gift shops. Oh, and of course a carnival-style amusement park. The amusement park was closed, maybe because it's pretty rainy, but I would think that it detracts a bit from the somberness of the rest of the park.
Not today, but sometimes from this park, they periodically release balloons with propaganda flyers attached, have annual ceremonies for the defectors, and ceremonies for unified families. Per the guide, both sides balloon over propaganda leaflets, and South Koreans who turn the leaflets into the police get a small reward.
At other border points, propaganda is blasted on big speaker systems. The north talks about how great their dictator is and the south blasts k-pop music for the soldiers to enjoy.
The drive to the next site had us cross through a checkpoint that required passports, but it wasn't a border. Had we continued 200 more km straight, we would have been in Pyongyang. We turned right.
As we traveled, the guide told us stories of famous defectors. She also told us about the draft policies- about 2 years of required service for the south, 5-10 years for the north. She kept us entertained.
Next stop was the 3rd infiltration tunnel. This tunnel was made by the north while trying to invade the south. The engineer defected and reported it to the south. The hunted it down, dug it up, and turned it into a tourist attraction.
The center required us to watch a very militaristic video before entering. The first part played angry march music in the background while some American spoke quickly about how the evil North Korean agressors started the war, then continued to try to invade and break the peace treaty. Four tunnels have been found so far, and we are at the third one. Then, the video suddenly becomes a pastoral nature show. Because the DMZ is left alone, nature thrives there and it is a de-facto bird sanctuary.
We put on requred helmets (not cleaned between sweaty tourists), and descended a steep access tunnel to get to the infiltration tunnel. At the entrance, they've preserved and highlighted the holes prepared for dynamite to expand the tunnel. Here, the tunnel shrinks a bit. It's still wide enough for 2+ people to pass, but if you're my height, you appreciate the stinky helmet. Supposedly 30,000 soldiers could have passed through in an hour, but they'd have to be shorter than me or they'd have to duck.
The prize at the end of the tunnel is a window in a wall. Through it, you can see another wall with a window in it. It's a bit anti-climactic, but those walls are 2 of the 3 preventing North Korea from using the tunnel in an invasion. We were only a few hundred meters from the actual border.
The climb back up is steep, so even though I took it slow, I was sweaty gross by the top. I wished I had brought a bandanna to towel off with. Fortunately, the souvenir shop was plenty happy to sell me an overpriced one. And so I buy my first souvenir.
It's wet and rainy today, but the tiny parks and gardens at each location are still quite pretty. I can only imagine how stunning they are in the sunshine. Of course, it wasn't a tranquil park. The South Koreans were blasting k-pop at the North Koreans at that moment, and it was reasonably loud.
On our way to the next stop, our guide explained what we were going to see over the border. We'd see an industrial complex that shut down about a year ago. Before that, the South Koreans provided technical knowledge (about 800 employees) and raw materials. The North Koreans provided land and cheap labor (14,000 employees receiving a $120/mo salary, but half goes to taxes and they get paid in goods, not cash). The north also used their connections with China to transport goods for cheap export.
We'd see a propaganda village.
We'd see a huge flag pole with a big North Korean flag. The story behind this is that the south put up a big flag pole with a big flag. The north had to top them with one 20 m taller. The south put up one 20 m taller. This continued for a while until North Korea put up a flag weighing over 400 pounds.
You can see most of this with your bare eyes from the observation point. But, it is worth the 50 cents to use the binoculars to see it all clearer. The rain had let up, so we had decent visibility, but there was still some remaining fog blurring some areas.
One thing I really enjoyed about this particular tour is that we had great timing. We kept arriving just before all of the other groups. We had each site somewhat to ourselves for about 5 minutes, and then the same half dozen buses arrive and flood the location with tourists.
I felt the drastic difference most at Dorasan station. The train station seemed abandoned when we walked in. By the time we left, it was bustling as any normal train station would be.
This station is the end of one of the lines from Seoul. In theory, the train could keep going to Pyongyang. But it doesn't yet cross the border. All the signage shows such hope that one day this will be fully operational and shows such a longing for reunification.
In theory, you could just skip the guide and take the train from Seoul to here on your own. But I don't advise that. First, the guide added quite a bit that I wouldn't have gotten on my own. Second, it might be a safety issue to walk between the sites. Apparently there are still active land mines left over from the war. Occasionally farmers in the area lose limbs tending to their plots.
The last tour stop in the DMZ is the "unification village." This is not a joint security area. This is a propaganda village in theory, but for us it is actually just a souvenir shop. I wanderded a bit in the 5 minutes we had there, and saw down some of the side roads. Their choice of decoration surprised me. Metal cutouts of soldiers at battle lined the streets.
On the return bus ride, the guide shared some Korean music with us and gave us a chance to relax. She apologized for the next stop, but apparently the tour is cheap because the Ginseng center sponsors it.
I understand why she apologized now that I've seen the center. The first part is somewhat interesting. They show you what the plant looks like at various ages and explain about its production and growth. But they speak very quickly, whisk you through, and don't leave space for questions. I wanted to know more about how they cook with it, but we were rushed on. Then the lady started explaining all the health benefits- promotes digestion, is great against diabetes, cleans the spleen, cures cancer, etc. While I suspect most of that is garbage, I would have loved to hear about any studies that have said it's not. But she just moved on to why Korean Ginseng is better than all other ginsengs. The whole time she was speaking, it wasn't even enough time for me to read all of the displays on the wall and take it in. It was seriously fast, to the point where I felt rushed and unsatisfied with the learning part.
Then, they whisked us into one of several back room shops and closed the door. A guy gave a several minute infomercial explaining which product (syrup, powder, fresh, honeyed, capsules, etc) was good for which ailments. He wasn't speaking so fast. He wasn't rushing as much.
They gave us samples of some sort of liquid made from the syrup and put some powder in it. It tasted pretty horrible. It was very root-ey. It almost tasted like drinking beet juice with the sugar removed. Of course, they gave us plenty of time to buy. And then we went through their souvenir shop which contained some more ginseng products, as well as regular grocery products with a huge markup. It could have been done so much better, but it just left a bad taste. The whole stop wasn't more than 5 minutes, so it didn't detract from the tour, but it is the last thing we're all going to remember of the tour.
They dropped us off downtown in a great location for me to start my explorations. We landed right next to city hall, which is just steps away from Deoksugung Palace. At 2pm they do a changing of the guard ceremony, and it was 5 minutes until then.
But I didn't see any guards. So I asked the ticket seller, who picked up a sign that says they cancelled it due to the weather. But, since the weather was improving, they might still do the 3:30 one, she said.
I looked around for food to eat while I waited, and spied a restaurant boasting Chicago pizza. I didn't know how much I craved pizza until I saw that. So I walked over. But the first floor had a Korean restaurant with really good looking pictures of food, some words in English, but Korean people eating. I decided on that.
I ordered my first bibimbap! And then they brought me a bowl of soup and some sides- the same pickled daikon and kimchi that they give you everywhere. Ok, I thought. This is a good lunch. And then they brought more. They brouht a huge bowl of bibimbap to go with the other items. All of this was something like $5!
Knowing there was no way I could eat it all, I didn't try, but I did try a bit of everything. The bibimbap is a bowl of rice with some sauce in the middle and a whole bunch of vegetables and then a fried egg on top. My sauce was spicy and delicious. My vegetables included lettuce, bean sprouts, and fiddlehead fern, amongst other things. I don't think I had ever eater the fern before, and I can't say I'd really choose to eat it again, but it was worth trying.
After lunch, I went into the palace grounds to see what there was to see. The rain had stopped and it was quite pleasant outisde. The first part is very similar to the other palace I saw the other day. The second part had a bunch of more modern stone buildings whose architecture reminds me of DC museums. It had nicer grounds than the other palace, but if you're just going for architecture, you really don't need to go to both palaces- they're similar enough.
I still had plenty of time before the ceremony, so I decided to check out some festival thing I saw up the road on our way in. It turned out to be a celebration of the upcoming olympics. I got my picture taken with the mascots. Some people waited in long lines to try out VR or carnival versions of some of the sports. And a lot of people were there holding protest signs and getting people to sign a petition in support of the ferry sinking victims. Overall, it was a lively scene and excitement was in the air.
I walked back to the palace, only to find out they cancelled the last ceremony as well, even though the rain had stopped and things were drying up. Instead, I headed towards the Rice Cake Museum.
On the way, I found a huge bookstore, and picked up some Korean food cookbooks. Based on how busy that place was, people here aren't using Amazon and must read a lot.
I finally found the Rice Cake Museum in the Korean Food building. It is 2 1-room floors of shellacked or fake rice cakes. There are some signs in English explaining some of the cultural significance of rice cakes, but not much on how they're made. There weren't even samples! I was pretty disappointed with this museum.
It had been raining most of the day and I my feet had been wet for hours, so when I got back to the hotel, I wasn't in the mood to go back out. Dinner consisted of the other half of the teapot full of sauce and noodles. I promise I'll eat something else exciting tomorrow!