To keep the good times rolling, I went to South Korea over the Winter Break (the Winter break here runs from January 20- February 9 because of Chinese New Year) for 9 days! Some posts will be shorter than others due to unforeseen circumstances….
Day 1 (arrival):
A bright and beautiful day, comfortable temperatures, excellent airline service (seriously, Asian airlines could teach American airlines a thing or two about not cutting when it comes to customer service and comfort). A wonderful landing in Seoul with it’s brisk weather…. Abruptly followed by me emptying the contents of my stomach on one of the Seoul subway platforms.
|Gas masks available in the subways in case of an attack by a certain country|
Out of commission due to stomach flu.
Feeling slightly better, but a little weak (and having 0 appetite), we headed off to check out the more traditional sights of Korea. We visited two palaces: one was the main palace and the other was more of a vacation/retreat-to-in-case-of-emergency palace with a “secret” garden (called so because only the king, queen, and any special guests they allowed in could enter the garden). Because of Chinese New Year, all admissions were free and there were even some special events going on.
|Rooms in the "Retreat Palace"|
|More of "Retreat Palace"|
|Frozen pond, pavilion, and island that they would strand scholars on if they couldn't come up with a poem in the time it took them to float out to the island in a boat (all in the Secret Garden of the Retreat Palace)|
|At Main Palace... Changing of the Guards ceremony|
|Intricate details of some of the paneling in the palaces (can you find the bat? Bats were supposed to bring good luck and fortune in Korean culture)|
|Intricate gold dragon fixture on the ceiling of throne room in Main Palace|
A lot of Korean women (and tiny girls) wore their traditional Hanbok (traditional Korean dress) in public as part of celebrating the New Year and it was beautiful to see the different colors and styles… even on the subway. Pink seemed to be an overwhelmingly popular color.
We also tried to check out a Korean night market, but it was all shut down because of the Chinese New Year. Actually, a lot of things were shut down because of the New Year. Some restaurants were still open (and our hostel owner supplied us with an overwhelming amount of ramen and other snacks), so we weren’t going to starve. But after the New Year was over, we realized just how much of the Seoul nightlife we had been missing because of it.
Out of commission due to my boyfriend’s contraction of my stomach flu. Needless to say I got to watch a lot of movies that day.
Find Eat Your Kimchi Day! So in case you don’t know, I follow some bloggers known as Eat Your Kimchi who are a Canadian couple living in Seoul. They blog about Korean music, culture, living abroad as foreigners, and are just plain hysterical. Anyway…. I really wanted to find their studio, especially since Google maps showed it was so close to where we were staying. And success!
I didn’t get to meet them unfortunately, nor did I get to go inside the studio (1- it didn’t look like anyone was home, 2- I couldn’t find an entrance, and 3- my creepiness was only gonna go so far). But it was still cool to see where the magic happens.
We tried to go to this REALLY cool café, but we didn’t find it. As it turned out, they had moved locations, and the address I had was the old location. Luckily we had success the next day (so I won’t tell you what the café was just yet).
One of the big stops on our agenda was the Korea War Memorial/Museum. I never knew much about the Korean war and it’s not something we cover thoroughly in any US History class I’ve ever taken, so it was really interesting to learn more about what caused it, why many thought it was necessary to get involved, and the impact the war still has on the Korean peninsula today.
|Memorial outside of the Museum|
After I finished writing this blog post I realized I was missing a day. Or maybe I'm putting too many events on one day... hmmmm.... I was sick people, ok? Anywho... at one point we went to Namsan/Seoul Tower. Check out the view of Seoul!
Many dreams came true this day. First, we found the Coffee Prince Shop. For those of you who don’t know, I watch some Korean dramas/tv shows. My favorite one is called Coffee Prince and, in case you couldn’t tell, quite a bit of the store takes place around this coffee shop called Coffee Prince (the concept of the coffee shop in the show is that all the waiters are handsome guys, so hence the “prince”). Once filming was done, they turned the location they had outfitted into a coffee shop for filming purposes into a real coffee shop which follows the same theme from the show… all “handsome” male waiters and baristas. It was a really cool/bizarre, just like walking around in the show (since it was the actual location for filming). Slightly overpriced coffee though.
We also checked out this pretty cool "river" in Seoul. Not sure how natural it is as you can see from the pictures. And in case you were wondering how to find it, just look for the big unicorn horn.
So… remember that REALLY cool café I was talking about earlier? We finally found it! Welcome ladies and gentleman to the Bau House.
Yes, it is a café full of dogs. You can bring your dog there to socialize with other dogs or just walk in to enjoy spending time surrounded by beautiful fluffiness. You are required to buy at least one drink, but that was by no means a problem. They had a smaller area for people who had smaller dogs/felt more comfortable around small dogs and then a huge area for everyone else. I saw some of the biggest dogs that I’ve seen since arriving in Asia at this café and it was awesome. Most of the people there were just there to play with dogs (not many people brought their own). The staff there was great too. Super on top of cleaning up any accidents going on and keeping the dogs under control. They also seemed very close with all the dogs. As it turned out, the café (or maybe the café owner?) owns about 10+ dogs (they gave us a little flyer with all their pictures, names, and ages) that “work” there. Talk about an awesome life! They get to lounge around where they want (literally, anywhere they want. I’ve never seen so many dogs climbing on tables before), get fed treats all day, have someone throw a ball for them all day, and get petted as much as they want (this one dog came right up to me when I sat down and just wanted to have her tummy rubbed. As soon as I stopped to take a break, she got up and walked right over to someone else to get petted). Many people in Asia seem to gravitate towards smaller dogs as their personal pets, but many of the dogs at the Bau House were huge (a couple tiny ones though). So in my heart of hearts, I dream that these dogs were adopted/taken in off the streets and brought to the Bau House as their loving home.
DMZ tour! Actually, we got an email the night before that said, “Due to unforeseen circumstances, the tour for tomorrow will be canceled….” NO!!!!!!!... “because there will be negotiations about reunions between North and South Korean families who were separated by the war.” Oh. Well I guess that’s ok \^-^/ Luckily, we were able to be rescheduled for the next day. Instead we went to…
Lotte World! What is Lotte World you may ask? Only the world’s largest in door theme park! They had roller coasters, theme rides, spinning cups, hot dogs, funny cakes, roast corn (wait, what? Ya roasted corn is a pretty popular snack food in Asia), ice cream, funny ears, etc. And a trade mark greeting/parting wave of double hand jazz hands. Need I say more?
|They even had an outdoor section full of rides and awesomeness.|
|South Korean soldiers standing guard at the blue houses|
DMZ tour! For those of you who don’t know, DMZ stands for Demilitarized Zone. Which is ironic because it’s heavily armed, constructed with military strategies in mind, and full of military personnel on both sides of the line. This was an amazing experience, and I highly recommend it for any travelers to Korea. What I didn’t learn about the Korean War at the museum, I learned here. Plus more about what’s going on there today. We got to see the Line of Demarcation, North Korea’s Propaganda Town, and a whole bunch of other cool things. I even stood in North Korea for about 5 minutes (one of the buildings used for negotiations that is under the control of the United Nations crosses the boarder into North Korea… so no need to panic).
Now for fun facts:
· The North and South are technically still are war, and you can truly still feel the tension along the line.
· North and South Korea even still have petty competitions. Examples:
|View of North Korea's building and the tiny addition to make it taller|
o When South Korea built a building in view of the boarder to North Korea, North Korea had to respond in kind and add an additional structure on top of their building to make it taller than the one the South Koreans built.
o When South Korea put up a flag pole (~100 meters tall) in view of North Korea that was taller than the North’s flag pole, the North once again responded by putting up a new flag pole substantially taller (~160 meters tall?) and with a flag that has a dry weight of ~600 lbs. So in other words, the North Korean’s flag is huge, but hardly ever flies unless a serious amount of wind is blowing. And they have to take it down in inclement weather conditions because it’s own weight could cause it collapse. Our US Military security escort/tour guides also mentioned something about a $1,000,000 reward (not sure if that’s American dollars or Korean won) to anyone who can bring a piece of that North Korean flag back to South Korea. Not sure who’s funding that competition though.
|The super tall North Korean flag pole and heavy flag|
o There was once a meeting between the North and South that lasted 11 hours straight because no one wanted to get up to use the bathroom in fear of looking “weak” to the opposing side. Now there is a rule that there is a mandatory break every 2 or 2.5 hours (?) during meetings.
· The South Korean soldiers stationed directly at the North Korean boarder are hand selected from the Korean military. They have to be above a certain height (in order to look more intimidating), have a certain physical athletic ability, and be black belts in Taekwondo. Their uniform is also chosen to make them look more intimidating towards North Korea, and their stance they have to hold adds to that as well.
· There have been multiple skirmishes over the years between North Korean soldiers and UN soldiers in the past that have led to several deaths on both sides. From what the stories said about the incidents, North Korean soldiers were always starting it.
· At the Bridge of No Return, the POWs from both sides were allowed to choose which side of the line they wanted to end up on, but after they made their decision they could not go back (hence the name). Many of the UN Forces’ POWs opted to stay in South Korea (1- because they had been forced to fight in the first place, 2- many were Chinese and didn’t want to go back to China, and 3- North Korea executed many of it’s returning POWs because they shouldn’t have gotten caught in the first place and might have told the enemy secrets.
· We weren’t allowed to take pictures of certain areas of the South Korean side of the line for security reasons. We could see things from our vantage point that the North Koreans couldn’t. If those pictures were put on the internet, the North Koreans could piece them together and use for their advantage in case of an attack.
|Bridge of No Return|
|Site of Ax-Murder Incident|
|Kick-butt South Korean solider (standing on North Korean side) as described in blog post.|
There’s probably lots more I could say on the visit, but I don’t wanna make this post any longer than it is. If you have any questions, shoot me an email or comment on this post and I’d be happy to talk to you about it!
|Conference table for North and South negotiations. Everyone else is standing on South Korean side. (which means we're in North Korea)|
Fly home. Early.
Seoul was fantastic, and is truly an incredible city. The subway was clean and efficient, the food was great, and it’s easy to get around without knowing any Korean. And it was cold. Which was a relief from the 80 degrees in December which has been Taiwan’s weather (although not everyday, but you get my point). Much to my own surprise, now that I’m back in Taiwan, it feels like I’m returning home. Kinda weird to be “coming home” when it’s still a foreign country. Maybe it’s not so foreign anymore!