Asia South Korea

The World’s Only Demilitarized Zone

The DMZ is a fascinating place. The history of the Korean peninsula and the geopolitical situation there now remain unique around the world, and I was so looking forward to getting a chance to see more of it for myself. I got picked up from Seoul pretty early – obviously, the border is highly regulated, and so my understanding is that there’s a system where you go from Seoul to a park near the DMZ border, then the guide goes and picks up timed tickets and then from there you can get back on the bus at the specific time they give you.

The park where you start out is mostly memorials and information, including some photos and a shot up train that used to run between the Koreas. We had quite a while there while we waited for our logistics to be sorted out.

From there, you take a bus to the Demilitarized Zone. We started with a movie about the whole concept, which is where the title of the post comes from – they talked about how this is the only demilitarized zone in the world, kind of as if it was a flex, which was interesting. Then we were allowed to go into the 3rd infiltration tunnel, which was one of the cooler parts of the whole experience. We all put on hard hats and headed down, where you can walk through the tunnel basically up until North Korean territory. We weren’t allowed to take pictures in the tunnel, but you can take a picture with mannequins of soldiers.

It is a weird tourist destination – sort of like how I had a hard time with Amsterdam making weed and prostitution ~touristy~, there was an element of this that felt very strange. After the infiltration tunnel, you go to the observatory, where you can go to the roof and look through binoculars into North Korea. It’s apparently their third largest city, according to what they told us.

When I was there, it was shortly after that idiot American soldier defected, so the Joint Security Area was closed. It was kind of a bummer because I think that would have been interesting to see, but apparently it gets shut down a lot at any hint of concern so this was probably the more normal version of the tour.

The observatory had a lot of artwork in the lobby about the effects of the separation between North and South Korea, which was pretty interesting to observe. It’s always strange when people don’t cross a border but a border crosses them – my own family experienced that in Central Europe in the early 20th century, but it would be so strange to be in a place that got divided as starkly as North and South Korea for so long.

All in all, a fascinating experience, and something I was glad to get the chance to do while I was in Korea this time. The DMZ is unlike anywhere else.

Asia South Korea

More Than A Stopover in Seoul

I first visited Seoul on a stopover coming back from China in January 2019. There are a lot of great things to say about China, but it was also pretty tough in some ways, and I remember being unbelievably excited that places in Seoul would take my foreign credit card. I had told myself that I would return at some point, because I could tell that I needed more than 24 hours to explore the city, and it ended up working with my flight path for this trip! I was so happy to get the chance to take more time in Seoul, which remains one of my favorite places in East Asia. I got an Airbnb near the Mapo train station, and it had cool views both during the day and at night.

One of the fun things since the last time I’ve been in Seoul is that I’ve gotten more interested in Korean media. I still haven’t watched any K dramas yet (I know, I need to!) but I did see Parasite in the theater, became mildly obsessed with it, and have been working my way through Bong Joon-ho’s entire filmography. So I was super excited to come across this view of the river.

Yes, that is the monster from The Host (2006). Not the Stephanie Meyer one. Look it up and join me in this rabbit hole. Not too far away is the Korean version of Denmark’s Little Mermaid, and she’s even smaller this time.

I also did a couple things that I found overrated – I went to the top of N Seoul Tower, which had cool views of the city but otherwise felt a little touristy, and went to the bookstore at COEX mall, which was cool to see but obviously I wasn’t the only one who went to go take pictures so it wasn’t exactly my optimal bookstore experience (which is walking through in a fugue state and picking up every book with a cool cover to see if the plot looks interesting).

My favorite thing in Seoul is still just wandering. Especially given my next destination on this trip is not a good place to just walk aimlessly (more on this later), so I was truly savoring it in Seoul. I love getting lost in a place and then trying to figure it out. At one point, I was trying to meet a friend for lunch and I ended up on some sort of pathway, and then had to try to figure out how to get back on a normal street again.

I also love in the East Asian cities how the temples are built seamlessly into ultra modern parts of cities – I still think about that photo I took in Beijing with the temple with the Old Navy sign in the background. I had a fun time trying for some artsy shots in Seoul as well.

One of the other things I was most excited about was getting the chance to do a day trip to the DMZ! I would have loved to go last time but I didn’t have time. The next post will be focused on my experience there before I left the Korean peninsula for my next country and 5th continent.

Asia South Korea

A Stopover in Seoul

You know my biggest regret about my visit to Seoul?  That I had such a short time there.  I loved it immediately.  I took a red-eye from Chengdu and landed at about 5 a.m.  The flight over was amazing, actually, they gave us full meal service despite the fact that we were only in the air for about three hours.  When the stewardess asked me if I wanted food, I assumed it was that overpriced snack food they sell on American flights of that length.  When I saw a bunch of people eating dinner, I asked the girl next to me if it was free.  She said yes but gave me that “wow, you’re such a dumb American” look.

After I stored my luggage in the airport, I headed into the city!  It was amazing to not need to carry around luggage while I was there.  There was a slight wrinkle in getting transportation, because it turns out that you can only pay for their metro in cash.  Which wouldn’t have been an issue at all if it hadn’t been for the limit placed on my debit card back when I was sorting out the issues with my bank in China.  I managed to get $20 out of an ATM and celebrated like I was a broke college student.  For everything else, I had the wonderful experience of having my credit cards work again.

My first stop was a Korean bathhouse.  It was similar to the one I went to in Osaka, which made it less awkward because I actually knew what I was doing.  I spent a lot of time in the one with massaging jets, got some sleep, took a shower, charged my phone, and got to the point where I felt like a real person again.  Getting into a new country at 5 a.m. does make things more interesting.

Once I had gotten refreshed at the spa, I headed over to the Korean War Memorial.  It was free, which is always a nice bonus, and it was fascinating.  They had tons of information about the Korean War, but beyond that, there were exhibits about Korea through the ages and military technology.  Romy tells me there’s an even area where they talk about the “comfort women” problem from their invasion of Japan, although I didn’t see that part.

From there, I went to check in to my hanok.  I went back and forth over staying in a hotel or staying in the traditional homestay-style place that I found online and went with the latter, which was a great choice.  It was the home of a nice Korean woman who lent me slippers and made me tea, and I slept on a mattress pad on a heated floor.  In recovering from my sleepless night on the plane, I slept very well that night.  But before I went to sleep, I took a quick tour of my neighborhood and headed to Changgyeongung Palace.  It was a much more extensive palace complex than I expected.  I had dinner in the area and walked around the neighborhood until I was exhausted.

The next morning, I went to the Trick-eye Museum.  In hindsight, going there as a solo traveler was not my best move, because it is much better if someone can take pictures of you.  It wasn’t exactly what I thought it would be.  But!  It was absolutely worth it, because the neighborhood was really cool and I got to spend the rest of the day exploring it.

My favorite find was the Harry Potter café.  It had sections for the Great Hall, the dormitories, the common rooms, and a wizard café, and they had robes that people could try on.  I spent more than I’d care to admit to get a butterbeer and Harry Potter birthday cake, as pictured above.  I absolutely loved it!

A few other notes from South Korea: (1) They have heated seats on their metro!  Which means they might even beat Japan on the metro front. (2) I met so many South Koreans, as they were very friendly and would start talking to me in English.  Several of them asked me if I was living in Korea – do they not get tourists?  Was I just not there in tourist season?  Either way, I’ve decided that if I did want to move to East Asia, I would pick Seoul. (3) I want to go back already.  At least it’s a good stopover back to the US.  Next time, I’d like to take one of the tours of the demilitarized zone, and I’d like to get down to Busan as well.  As always, there are so many places to travel and so little time and money.