Seoul wasn’t exactly a city I have been dying to visit. I really just spent time here because I had to connect to Mongolia. I did get a good feel for the city and found it to have some similarities to other Asian cities—Tokyo, Beijing, Bangkok—and many differences. The people seem to be more friendly than Tokyo and aren’t afraid to let you see them looking at you, unlike Tokyo. It was a bit polluted, but nothing like Beijing. During my time there it rained every other day and on sunny days the haze was quite thick.
I visited a few museums, The War Museum, The Korean National Museum, Palace Museum and Folk Museum. I enjoyed that areas that showcased Korean costume and everyday object from the past, but the National Museum took four hours to rush through and had a lot of similar objects. I was interested to see the metal movable type exhibit there, but it gets a bit redundant after a while, especially when you can’t read any of the characters. The War Museum seemed promising, as it may have been even larger than The National Museum but a lot of the space was taken up by monuments to soldiers and busts of famous generals. I assumed the museum would focus on The Korean War but it covered all wars Korea has ever been in from feudal times up until the present. In the end, even with English displays, I learned more about The Korean War on the DMZ tour. War buffs would enjoy it, especially the massive display of vehicles and equipment outside including a B52 bomber you can walk through.
On one sunny day I did walk all the way to the top of the hill where Seoul Tower stands. It’s basically a communication tower that has a few levels of restaurants and observation decks. The climb took me over an hour and I was covered in sweat at the top. I felt a bit disgusting walking around the deck next to Korean girls in their summer dresses all cute and sweat-free. I did pay the 7,000 won to get into the observation deck and see panoramic views of Seoul. Luckily it wasn’t too cloudy and I was able to get a better grasp of just of large and sprawling Seoul really is.
The night of Korea’s first World Cup match the city was abuzz and everyone was wearing red “fighting Korea” t-shirts. I wasn’t going to go out but decided at the last minute that I might regret it and headed down to City Hall. The area was already swarming with people before game time and I had trouble getting too far away from the subway exit. Pushing in I was able to get about a football stadium length from the main stage and screens and was quickly smashed between the crowd and a van. Vendors were selling light up red horn headbands and almost everyone had them on. A large stage was set up in one area where a rock band played before the game started. There are already a number of giant screen mounted on buildings in the area and the city had set up even more for the event. Teenagers were climbing on top of any vehicles parked including the portable toilets. At some point the crowd had shattered the glass elevator leading up from the subway, I assume when trying to climb to the top to see over the crowds. For a crowd so large (in the many thousands) where beer was being sold it was relatively calm and orderly. Korea beat Togo 2-1, I believe and when the game ended I jumped back on the subway and was at my hostel in about 15 minutes.
My second to last day in Seoul was very rainy and windy and after visiting The National Museum I ventured over to the Yongsan electronics market. Although I probably already have way too many electronics on this trip I wanted to pick up a portable hard drive that takes compact flash cards. My computer is over four years old and has a very small hard drive. With a portable drive I could download and backup CF cards (my photos) without needing my computer. It will also be good when I don’t have access to electricity but am still taking a lot of photos because the battery should last a long time. The model I was researching back home is made by a Korean company and I thought I could get it here. In the end, that model is obsolete and I got a different, smaller, lighter model. The price was only about $50-75 less than I would have paid back home, but that’s still quite a big difference. Hard drives that take memory cards aren’t marketed in the US, so I would have had to import it from Korea anyway. It was a big investment but should be helpful without adding any significant weight or space to my pack.
In the six full days I had in Seoul I did see a lot and did enjoy exploring yet another Asian city. I do think the temples, palaces and historic tourist sites are much better in Japan, but Japan did burn all of Korea’s historic buildings down so that’s not surprising. In the end I’m glad I spent some time in Seoul, but Mongolia is really where this trip starts for me.
Everyone in Korea, including most non-American travelers kept talking about The World Cup. People in my hostel were staying up all hours to watch their home country’s match. I don’t like soccer, but I do like baseball and I had heard that Korea was very into baseball, just like Japan. Once I figured out where games were played I decided to go. There are at least 3 home teams in Seoul, and the Doosan Bears happened to be in town.
After a relaxed day of sightseeing and a trip to the post office I made my way on the subway out to the old Olympic Park. In addition to the large stadium, gymnasium and facilities there is a baseball stadium. The subways in Seoul are very clearly marked in English, including which stop is next so you can easily figure out which train to take. In fact, the subway here is much easier to navigate than Chicago’s El. I wish they would ask someone with a solid design background to redesign the signage, or at least add some!
After about 45 minutes on the subway I exited at the “sports complex” stop and headed up the “baseball stadium” exit—pretty simple. Along the stairs were old ladies selling what looked like California rolls and dried squid. I was surprised, assuming you were allowed to bring this food inside. With my 6,000 won ticket I headed inside and was even more surprised to see small KFC, Burger King and convenience stores along corridor. In fact, I saw at least three Burger Kings in the stadium. Not only does this stadium allow outside vendors, but the prices are the same as on the street! Food in Korea isn’t cheap, and fast food prices are comparable to the US, but back home food and merchandise in stadiums is always overpriced and controlled by the stadium.
Korean baseball teams are always sponsored (or perhaps owned, it wasn’t clear), by a company. The Bears are sponsored by Doosan, and most people cheer for “Doosan” not “Bears.” The stadium is apparently still owned by the city because two teams share it as their “home field.” Because of this the few Bears signs are temporary and hung sparingly around the stadium. Perhaps this plays into why the stadium has such a different attitude toward vendors.
I had no idea what my ticket said but when I emerged into the stadium I saw that it didn’t matter—the stadium was empty. There were a few hundred fans, mostly on the opposite side. I made my way over to the cheering section where a stage was built for three cheerleaders. A man lead everyone on with white gloves and a whistle. Sometimes he would start cheers and sometimes direct when to be quiet. Other times he spoke in a hushed wedding singer-type voice to the crowd. The two female cheerleaders in white two piece uniforms, gloves and legwarmers spent most of their time dancing rather poorly.
Fans were very excited, but appeared to watch the male cheerleader more than the game. In fact, in that section it was difficult to see some areas of the field. Each team had one Western player. The Bears had a white pitcher (whose name was still listed in Korean letters) and the opposing team had a really fat first baseman. The Bears did quite well, scoring their first 5 runs early on. In fact, the other team didn’t score until the last few innings.
Throughout the game women walked the aisles selling dried squid, crackers and cans of beer. A few men with keg backpacks walked the aisles pouring cups of Cass beer from a spout. Personally I found Cass beer equivalent to something you would get at a ball game or college bar. OB brand seems to be a bit better. Bad beer aside, I’m glad I went to the game and saw the similarities and differences. The game is played pretty similar as back home, but the fans are quite different and certainly less drunk than in the US.
Unfortunately, one of the first things many people think of when they hear “Korea” is the Korean War. It was before I was born and before Vietnam, but the demilitarized zone (DMZ) along the 38th parallel is a constant reminder that Korea is a broken country. When researching for my trip I was surprised to find that tours of the DMZ are conducted daily—10 a day to the JSA neutral zone, and many more to the surrounding areas. I booked a tour in advance with the Korean branch of the USO because I wanted the full experience of stepping on North Korean soil. Although the USO tour lasts most of the day and costs more than others ($42), I am confidant that it was worthwhile. Other people who took the cheap, whistlestop tours weren’t allowed into the sensitive areas the USO went.
The short tours leave late in the morning, but I had to get up around 5:45am to make it across Seoul on the subway to the USO offices across from one of the many US Army bases in the area. Two buses (about 90 people) headed North around 7:30am, being briefed by our volunteer tour guide along the way. The river we followed was completely enclosed in barbed wire and dotted with manned guard posts watching North. The highway, “freedom Highway” was built for unification. It’s sad really, so many things in South Korea—customs checkpoints, roads, buildings, train stations—were built for when the country is eventually reunited. The facilities stand empty in the meantime, only visited by tourists
After an hour driving North we were stopped and boarded by a ROK (S. Korean army soldier) who checked our passports. We continued through guarded areas until we reached the entrance to Camp Bonifas, where we got off the bus and stood in line to be checked again by ROK soldiers. Until very recently Camp Bonifas was heavily populated by US soldiers. Many have now pulled out after political pressure from the Koreans and only about 40 US soldiers remain. The soldiers up there are on special assignment, meeting more stringent requirements than other Korean-based US soldiers, but quite a few of them spend their days giving tours. The soldier assigned to our bus was from Southern California and only had one more month until he was discharged. As a sniper for the Rangers he was assigned to Iraq and Afghanistan twice, Somalia and finally Korea. He was ready to go home and spent any downtime discussing sports results and the glory of In & Out burgers
Before traveling by bus to the JSA zone we were briefed by another US soldier who was from Iowa and spoke in a comically loud “shout” much different than our soldier’s laid back California tone. The briefing and slide show we were given was the most concise but informative description of the history of the war and the current situation I have heard. It contained much less information and visuals than the War Museum in Seoul, but was exactly what I needed. When Japan, who had been occupying Korea until about 1945 , was forced to pull out the US came into the South to police the area and the Russians came into the North. Each country encouraged their own form of political system on the area they occupied, which is why North Korea became Communist. After two different governing bodies were formed the Korea war ensued, each side trying to take over the other to form one Korea. The US had the most soldiers supporting the South, although many other countries were involved including Ethiopia. China sent a lot of troops to help the North, especially once the South had pushed the North all the way back to the Chinese border.
Eventually, when a cease fire was agreed upon both groups were told to pull back 2km from their last position. That left a 4km demilitarized zone in which neither the North or South had control. The area is now heavily forested and quite beautiful. A zone was created along the border, within the DMZ, where talks could take place. Each side has a number of buildings scattered throughout the zone, side by side. Because of this North and South Korean soldiers will come face to face with each other as well as US and other foreign soldiers. Armed soldiers are required to wear armbands, which all ROK and US soldiers do, but the North has stopped following that rule. On the Southern side a large, new building was built by the owner of Hyundi as a meeting point for families divided by the war. The building has never been used for this purpose because North Korea forbids it’s citizens from technically crossing into South Korea. They have built a hotel in North Korea where families can meet under special circumstances instead
Photography was forbidden between the camp and the DMZ/special JSA zone, as you would assume. But it was encouraged within the zone and the lookout points, to the point of posing with ROK soldiers. Along the way our soldier pointed out the defense points, including large, semi-sized cement blocks in the air wired to collapse and block the road in case North Korea advances. Fences line much of the area, not only with barbed wire but with rocks inserted into the Southern side of the fence. The allows soldiers on patrol to see if any fence had been tampered with, as the rocks would fall out into the Southern side and onto a neatly raked area of sand
Once we arrived in the JSA zone we formed two lines and entered the new building and walked out onto the steps facing North Korea. We were told to wander on the steps and take photos as we wished, but not to step off the steps, point or make any unusual gestures. I certainly couldn’t do a cartwheel for fear of being photographed and used in propaganda materials by North Korea. Across the small road was a line of buildings owned by either side and a large building being worked on by North Korea. It seems that every improvement made by the South is them mimicked by the North, as they always want to have the tallest building or biggest flag. After 5 minutes we were lined up again and marched across a two lane road and into the middle building, shared by both sides. A ROK soldier stood halfway behind each building, watching the North intensely. They did not speak and stood in a modified Tae Kwon Do position, with wide legs, arms somewhat outstretched at their sides in fists and mouth turned down in a scowl. Large mirrored aviator glasses finished off their look, which is intended to intimidate the Northern soldiers and keep from showing any emotion
A short cement block runs along the actual border, halfway through all of the buildings. Inside were posted North Korean soldiers for our protection and many chairs and tables where talks are conducted. On the main table are microphones which are monitored 24 hours a day by both sides. They must spend a lot of time translating tours. Surprisingly, North Korea also runs tours to the building, but only a few times a month. Tourists posed with the ROK soldiers, although they did not move or speak. We left the building after about 5 minutes, instructed not to look back toward North Korea. In all of my time in the zone I only saw one North Korea soldier who was standing under a guard post on the Northeast side of the zone
We continued on to a Southern guard post where you could see North Korea’s “Propaganda Village.” When the armistice was put in place it was agreed that each side would be allowed one village within the DMZ. The South’s village is very prosperous, with every family farming 17 acres of rice fields and earning around $82,000 a year. Villagers must be born in the village or direct descendants. Men cannot marry into a family, but women can. The Northern city was named “Propaganda Village” by the US because for a long time speakers blasted propaganda at the Southern village, encouraging them to cross over. Of course, the promises are empty because that village is not technically a village at all. As far as the South can tell no one lives in the village and caretakers enter sporadically to tend to the buildings and raise or lower the flag. Propaganda Village features a gigantic flagpole, which has been enlarged over the years to ensure it is always taller than the flag pole in the Southern village. The flag is supposedly the largest flag in the world, weighing around 600 lbs dry
After our excellent tour by the Ranger from California we were dropped off back at Camp Bonifas and boarded our USO buses to drive to lunch. I met an interesting girl from Detroit who was visiting her aunt and we talked over BBQ beef and vegetables. At least the birds flying around inside waited until after we were done eating to shit on us. The tour continued on to the 4th tunnel discovered in South Korea, built by the North. It was incredibly far underground, and luckily discovered with intelligence from a Northern defector. The North went as far as to paint the walls black and claim it was a coal mine and not an infiltration tunnel.
Our last stop on the way back to Seoul was at a newly built train station which is meant to connect the North and South. As with anything built in the hopes of reunification it was sad to see the hopes of Korea waiting for the North to come around. The track has been laid but a practice run of the train scheduled last week was unexplainably cancelled at the last minute by North Korea. Commuter trains run a few times a day to the station, mostly filled with tourists. The pristine sign above the doors to the tracks read “To Pyongyang” in the hopes that someday it will be true.
All of Seoul is abuzz today, running about in red t-shirts in anticipation of South Korea’s World Cup game tonight. Like most Americans, I don’t follow soccer, even at the World Cup level. I did, however, finally figure out that Korea’s baseball league is still playing during the World Cup and hope to catch a game tomorrow night. There is a team here in Seoul sponsored by Hyundai called “The Unicorns.” As much as I would love to go to a Unicorns game, the team’s website is not in English so I can’t figure out if they’re home or away this week. The Bears, on the other hand, had it’s information translated enough for me to figure out that they’re playing at 6:30 tomorrow.
After a full day spent at the DMZ with North Korea, climbing up and down infiltration tunnels built by the N. Koreans I may not muster enough energy to make my way to City Hall in downtown Seoul, where a huge crowd has already gathered to watch the game.
I woke up at 8am with a reasonable 8 hours of sleep behind me and no jet lag. Although I am a bit sleepy as I type this, it’s nothing like the jet lag I used to experience when I first started traveling. I find the best way to beat jet lag is to act according to the time zone you’re flying to as soon as possible. If it’s three in the afternoon at your destination you shouldn’t be sleeping on the plane. Because my efforts to sleep according to Seoul time were thwarted by a 12-year old I went the other route—stay awake as long as you can so that you will definitely be tired when you arrive. Of course, this only works when you’re arriving at night, but it worked for me.
Knowing the exact day I would leave, I paid for all seven nights in the hostel and received the last night free. At 17,000 won a night ($18.50) I was glad to get a free night thrown in. That rate is cheaper than in Japan, but still much more than the $1-5 I was used to paying for my own room in SE Asia during Phase 1. My dorm room consists of three bunk beds (six beds), a couch and a bathroom. A private bathroom for each dorm turned out not to be as good as you’d think. It means that there’s only one toilet, sink and shower for six people to share and because it’s attached to the room it’s quite loud. I waited for two people to finish getting ready before I could jump in the shower and make my way down for free breakfast. I’m still in my American habits and had to eat four pieces of toast for breakfast. I felt like a pig, but I knew that two pieces (two buttered, two with jam) wouldn’t be enough. Besides Butter and strawberry jam there was also a fruit cocktail mixture and a strange tunafish concoction with corn mixed in. I don’t think I would eat that, even if it had been refrigerated.
With six days to explore Seoul I took my time leaving the hostel. By the time I was ready it had started to thunder and lightening so I decided to bring my coat—the same coat I had been cursing only 24 hours earlier. That turned out to be a good idea as it rained on and off (more on than off) for the rest of the day. I made my way by foot to The Museum of History, but ended up taking too many right turns and ended up at Gyeongbokgung Palace. I blame the creepy soccer player statues and talking soccer ball monuments I passed for messing with my navigation.
It turned out to be fine, because The Folk Museum is on the grounds of Gyeongbokgung Palace and I’m a big fan of museums. Because it started to pour right before the 1:30 Free English Tour I decided to wait out the storm in the museum. Unfortunately, I had to walk all the way around the palace walls to enter the museum and my huge hood didn’t keep the front of my legs from becoming completely soaked. I dripped through the exhibits, mainly focusing on the costume section where I found some really interesting hats.
The rain hadn’t let up by three but I decided to show up for the next English tour anyway. A small group of us followed our incredibly polite guide around the grounds and I learned that the Queen in represented by the moon and the King by the sun. The architecture, especially the paintings on the support beams, reminds me of Nikko, Japan’s temples. This observation was met with little enthusiasm, as I learned that Japan has been pretty nasty to Korea in the past, including burning down that very palace.
After the tour I breezed through The Palace Museum and headed out to get some dinner. It was early and no one was eating so it was hard to tell where a good place would be. In typical fashion, I headed to 7-11 and picked up some instant noodles and a diet coke. On the way back to the hostel I passed by a French style bakery and picked up a cheese croissant to give my dinner some substance. Most of the hostel’s guests are huddled in the kitchen waiting for The World Cup’s second day to start. I think I’ll go to bed early instead.
Having a year to plan this trip, you would think I’d be organized but I wasn’t. Leaving on Thursday was hard—I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing, that I wasn’t ready to go. Leaving for my last trip was easier and more exciting. I had never been to Asia before or traveled continuously for more than six weeks. This time I knew what to expect and let my experience cloud any excitement I had built up. This time I also had to pack up most of my belongings in case my mom gets her house ready to sell. I’ve lived in the house for 27 years and had amazing amounts of junk to sort through.
With all of the time I had I didn’t start packing until a few days before leaving. Finishing up my projects for school took longer than I’d anticipated and I had trouble imagining how I would fit hundreds of books, CDs, DVDs, art materials and shoes into a few boxes. In-between my packing and procrastinating I managed to get about five inches cut off of my hair, get horribly sunburned at a Cubs game and order one last Chicago style hot dog.
One thing I didn’t do until Wednesday night was pack my backpack. Over the past week a large pile of items began to form next to my pack. Watching it grow, I knew it wouldn’t all fit. Instead of tackling the problem I avoided it, waiting until less than 24 hours before my flight to pack my bag. After my sleeping bag and coat went in the bottom I knew I was in trouble—those two items took up 1/3rd of my pack! I was looking forward to my nice down sleeping bag for the Mongolian nights but it was the most obvious choice, it had to go. Surely without the sleeping bag I would have plenty of room, I kidded myself. But still, it was full. At the last moment I took out my extra novel, extra pens and a few more toiletries.
I’m not quite sure what’s making my bag so full. I don’t remember having such a full bag on my first trip until the end, when I was bringing home lots of souvenirs. I am taking a new camera, but it only adds one small cord and a charger to my pack. Perhaps I brought more toiletries than usual, but after my bad burn at the Cubs game I decided to bring two bottles of sunscreen so I wouldn’t feel the need to ration it. I might have an extra shirt or two, but nothing big— the extra space they take is worth not having to find clothes that fit me in Asia. I’m also bringing more socks this time, as my thin socks wore through in one week of walking around Japan at the start of Phase 1.
I did manage to get my bag closed, but once I got to the airport my suspicions were confirmed—I am not weak, my pack just weighs 35.5 lbs! That’s not including my cameras or laptop, so once I’m carrying all of my bags the load is closer to 45 lbs. Some of the things will be used, like the granola bars or peanut butter, but I’m at a loss of what else to leave behind. I may reevaluate my packing before heading to Mongolia and see what I can do to save my back.
With 35.5 lbs checked in I headed for my plane thinking it would be an easy 12 hours. After 30 hour bus rides in China I’m a pro at long distance travel, or so I thought. The 12 hours to Tokyo couldn’t have gone slower. I was seated next to a 12 year old boy leaving on an exchange program. It was his first ride on a plane and at first the questions and excitement were endearing until he started insisting I look on his TV screen to see where we were flying over. After explaining three times that, from my angle, I couldn’t see his screen I gave up and nodded when he looked at me and pointed. When that didn’t stop I tried to look engrossed in the movie I was watching. Apparently he thought Tristan and Isolde was as boring as I did because he proceeded to poke my in the side until I would agree that we were flying over a mighty big lake. Once he started poking me to tell me it was his bed time in America I was about to snap. I told to go to sleep or not go to sleep, it was up to him, but to please let me sleep.
By the time I sat down on my connecting flight to Seoul I could barely muster any witty banter for the US serviceman seated next to me. According to him, and all of the other US military I’ve observed so far, anywhere is better than Seoul. If I had been more awake I would have asked if he’d rather be in Iraq, but I didn’t have the energy. Finally I told him if he hated the military so much he should get a new job. Even though he only had a desk position I was very concerned that someone with so few comprehension skills and somewhat lacking intelligence would be in the US military.
Thankfully, I got through immigrations and baggage quickly enough to catch the last bus to Seoul around 10pm. The bus cost 8,000 won ($8.50) compared to a taxi, which would set me back anywhere between $50,000 and 80,000 won ($53–84). Armed with a map and my hostel reservations, I walked up to Seoul Backpackers around 11:15 and fell to sleep by 12.
Today is the day! In a few hours I get on a plane in Chicago and fly to Seoul with a brief plane change in Tokyo. I will arrive in Seoul around 7am Friday cst. Of course, it will be time to go to bed there so I have to plan my plane sleeping well. Because I am a complete procrastinator I was up until 4am sewing pockets into shorts, packing and getting ready. This morning I had to make the hard decision to leave my sleeping bag at home. It was taking up 1/4th my bag. After taking that out I was still tight for space—I’m not used to packing for cold climates. If I didn’t need a jacket my packing would be in a much better state. I got rid of one novel but the real space culprit is toiletries and medicine. Although I have resported to using bar soap for my hair in the past I’d prefer not to rely on it so the shampoo and conditioner stay.
Its a beaituful morning in Chicago, everyone enjoy it while I’m cooped up in a plane for the better part of a day. I’ll check in when I get settled in Seoul.