gyeongbokgung palace

First of all, I finished the book I started reading about North Korea, The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag. So good. So interesting. And thanks everyone for your other recommendations. I’m going to start watching some documentaries…but I had to get caught up on Grey’s Anatomy and Revenge. (Yes, a sad commentary on my priorities…)

So, my last two days in Korea involved visiting a palace, a museum, a shrine, some qt with a childhood friend, and lots of rain.

To being with, the palace. It was amazing. Especially the grounds. The only one I made it to was Gyeongbokgung, but it was awesome. I wandered around outside at first. There is so much around it including the National Folk Museum of Korea, which I absolutely loved, and a recreation of Korean villages in days gone by. I could have spent hours there if I’d had them. And it was free. Crazy, right?

It’s funny. I don’t really enjoy reading about history (unless it’s in historical fiction or memoir form…and there’s some drama involved), but seeing it? That’s a different story. Especially when it’s a history so different from my own.

And now, the photo tour with a few captions to go along.

Just cool looking.
These are statures of scholars and military officers, usually erected in from of the tombs of  important figures in order to spiritually guard them.

A rotary grinding mill which was used to thrash and mill grain and soften woven straw.

A cool waterwheel, but I love the mountain in the background, too.
A replica of a town at various points in modern history (20s-70s or so).

This was an entire sculpture garden with all of the signs of the Chinese Zodiac. The Dragon reminded me of an awesome Chinese New Year party my roommates and I threw back in college.

This video showed photos comparing past times and today. It was awesome.

The palace gardens. I could have stayed here forever. So beautiful.

The actual palace.
Palace guards. Loved their uniforms.
A sculpture guarding the palace. Dragon? Dog? Falkor?

korean food

Two weeks later… In case you thought this whole Asian experience is just fun and games, it’s not. I am here to work and work has been busy and I’ve been exhausted. So, back to Korea (which I can’t believe was two weeks ago)…

I became a huge fan of Korean food after having it all of two times in NYC, so I was super excited to actually go to Korea and try the food there. (If you ever make it to NYC…you know, since Korea might not be the top of your travel list, pay a visit to Koreatown. Worth it.)
I had a list of foods to try. Sadly I didn’t get to all of them. But I did try some I didn’t know about. Amazing. Enjoy!
Wood coals all ready to go for my delicious galbi. This place was recommended by one of my apps…it was amazing.
Meat cooking… I don’t think I could ever be a vegetarian.

And cooked. All the little dishes are various forms of vegetables, most pickled, including kimchi–a Korean specialty.
This was the display outside a “restaurant” where I did not eat. The vat in the back with the red soup in it was some sort of soup (duh)…and it just didn’t look super sanitary. I also found it funny that they cover their fake food in plastic wrap. I’m assuming it’s fake anyway…
While I’m all for street food, this assortment of meats and fish sitting out in the open (not especially cold) air for who knows how long didn’t work for me either. 

And then I came across fried dough with veggies and noodles inside (they had a bulgogi one, but they were out of it by that point in the evening). It was delicious. But since when is anything wrapped in dough and fried not delicious.
This is possibly my favorite street in Seoul (of the ones I was on). It’s this great little tourist trap with all sorts of shops, restaurants, and street vendors. I might have spent half of a day there.

The Korean version of ebelskiver filled with red bean paste. I didn’t have any (not a huge bean paste fan), but it was super fun to watch this woman work at lightening speed making them. 

These are little pillows made out of super fine threads of sugar (floss) and filled with nut mixture. The video below shows the people making them. Kind of fun.  I actually only had one of these after I got back (I bought some at the airport to take back to my coworkers) because I wasn’t super excited about eating them. But I should have been because they were good. And I bet they were even better fresh.

There were lots of waffle places around. Not sure why. But I finally broke down and had one because they just looked too good. And they were good! 

Yeah. More fried dough. This one was filled with a brown sugar and almond concoction. Koreans like to fry things.

Ginormous dumplings. Again with the frying.

Just in case you need to get your drink on without missing a beat. Yes, plastic bags. Keepin’ it classy Korean style.

Another little ebelskiver thing happening…only this one was automated. Super old school technology…and totally effective. 

These are a sort of ice-cream cone. They had them hanging here and then you waited in line to have one filled with soft-serve. I also didn’t try this (there’s only so much a girl can eat in a day), but they looked awesome.

Bibimpap. Recommended by several people and a first for me. It’s this rice and veggie concoction that comes in this iron bowl, still sizzling.

the dmz

Writing this is a little daunting. I’m not sure how to describe the experience I had going to the Demilitarized Zone. It wasn’t overly emotional or anything. But it was strange. I’ve never been that close to war in my life. Thankfully. So very thankfully. And it’s not like the horrible attacks that happened just last week, which I can’t begin to fathom either. But it is still a war zone and it was a life changing experience, just the same.

To be honest, I’ve always been fascinated by the Cold War. Not interested, per se, but fascinated. There’s a big difference. When I went to Berlin for the first time not so many years ago, I had a similar experience. The thought of locking people into a country just fascinates me. I don’t really understand it. I try because it’s my nature to want to understand what possesses people to do such things. I find people in general fascinating. I love figuring out why they do what they do. But the stuff that the Cold War was made of I cannot even begin to understand. Try as I might.

Back to not being interested. I don’t really care about the facts and figures so much. The dates of attacks? The military strategies? Not my thing. What fascinates me is the indomitability of the human spirit, the deception of a few evil people and the desire for power so great that one would do horrible, unthinkable things to get it. Or to get the illusion of it, because let’s be honest, it’s not real power. Real power comes from respect and love, not fear.

In any case, when I made the decision to visit Korea, I hadn’t even thought about the DMZ. I didn’t even know you could visit it. I’d seen pictures and videos on TV, but I didn’t realize it was a tourist attraction. And I’m not really sure what motivates everyone to go there. But I know what my motivation was. I wanted to see North Korea. I wanted to actually see the land behind the barbed wire fences. And see it, I did. And it was pretty eerie.

Prior to going there, I also started reading a book, a memoir, written by a survivor of a North Korean “re-education” camp (aka concentration camp) called The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag and it has been a very good read. It also made the visit that much more effective, I think. And unlike visiting Berlin, a place that no longer has concentration camps, looking over into North Korea I could imagine the people who are still experiencing such awful things and it was powerful.

Okay, enough of that. I will now give you a tour in photos because that’s how I roll. I’m going to apologize in advance for the poor quality of a number of them. I might have accidentally taken some unauthorized photos along the way. Also, I have no time to edit pictures these days (other than the occasional crop), so these are all straight from my camera.

It’s hard to see, but on the other side of the river is a propaganda village. Essentially, a fake village that was built in order to encourage defectors back in the days following the Korean War (or the fighting part…the war is still technically happening). 
These mountains in North Korea used to be covered with tall trees. Our tour guide told us that most of the trees near the borders are cut down in order  to make it harder for would be escapees to hide in them. 

An old train that used to run throughout Korea before there was a North and South, damaged during the war and now a monument in Imjingak near the Bridge of Freedom, where it is reported that POWs were exchanged during the war.

The bridge…and how sad that this river just goes to waste because it sits in the DMZ. 

Before we went into the Third Infiltration Tunnel (aka the Third Tunnel of Aggression), we watched this super creepy, propaganda filled (the South is guilty of it to) film. It was slightly traumatizing.

The tunnel down to the tunnel…a 300+ meter hike down…and back up.

A photo that accidentally ended up on my iPhone. The tunnel was creepy and made for the average Korean (aka short people…no offense to my Korean friends) 
Kijong-dong is a city just inside North Korean (another accidental photo). The former propaganda village now houses factory workers as there is a factory that exists there supported by South Korea.
A better shot with my real camera from behind the yellow line (where I could take pictures)…I had to hold my camera up and shoot blind though, so it still isn’t fantastic.

This train station has been built in anticipation of the reunification of Korea. It is the last train stop before North Korea and will beginning of the link that will connect Korea to Europe. 

if san francisco and paris had an asian love child

Her name would be Seoul. And I would love her as much as I love San Francisco and Paris.

I had such a wonderful experience in South Korea. Before I get into it, because this is going to be a serious undertaking and will require multiple posts, I need to share with you that I have never in my life had any desire to visit Korea. Ever. But then I moved to Japan and it’s just a two hour flight across the Sea of Japan (had no idea that’s what it was called until right now). And then a friend of mine from childhood moved their. And, I don’t know, it just seemed like a fun thing to do.

So I booked a plane ticket for my first long weekend. Then I rebooked it when I realized that I had to be there super early Saturday in order to take a tour of the DMZ. I was planning on arriving Saturday morning to save myself from spending money on one more night in a hotel…instead I ended up spending a small fortune changing my ticket. But there was no way I was going to visit Seoul and not go to the DMZ because I knew I was only going to go there once, so I needed to do it all!

How wrong I was. I will definitely be back.

Maybe it’s because the only other Asian country I’ve been to is Japan. Maybe it’s because I had really low expectations. Maybe it’s because I hadn’t really been out of Tokyo since I got here. Whatever it was, I fell in love with Seoul.

Here’s the thing about going to foreign countries by yourself for the first time, especially when you don’t speak the language. It’s scary. At least for me. I don’t ever want anyone reading this to think that I just do these things and it’s the easiest thing in the world. Up until I got on the plane…no, to the hotel in Seoul…I was wondering what on earth possessed me to fly, alone, to a country where I had never been and didn’t speak the language and wouldn’t have an iPhone (at least not with any service) to help me out. And no where does a 5’8″ blond haired, green eyed girl traveling alone feel more foreign than in Asia on a flight between two Asian countries.

In transit to my hotel on the Limousine Bus, I got really stressed. (I probably should have taken a taxi, but I’m equal parts crazy and stubborn and I am a firm believer in cheap transportation). The bus driver didn’t understand me. I showed him the address (in roman letters) and it was clear he only understood part of it. (No idea why I didn’t pull the map out at that point.) When I finally did pull it out was when he was instructing me that it was time for me to get off and my pride (it’s an issue) made me just hop off without asking or pointing to see if I was really in the right place.

As it turns out, I wasn’t. I wandered around for about 10 minutes before it was clear that where I was was nowhere on my printed out google map. And it was a Friday night in Gangnam (which is where I was…as I would find out later) and there wasn’t an empty taxi to be found. So, I did what anyone who’s lived in a big city would do (I think). I wandered down a big street until I found a subway station and figured out where I was and where I needed to go. Turns out I was just one stop from my hotel, so I hopped on the subway, figured out exactly which exit I needed and found my hotel. My very nice, very clean, very happy hotel.

Now that the stressful part was over, I was starting to really like this place. (Yes, a hotel will do that to me.) And then I got to my upgraded room on the top floor (20th) and looked out my window upon this incredible view. Like was becoming love. You can tell a lot from a skyline.

I fell into bed completely exhausted.

On Saturday, when I got back from the DMZ tour (a post of its own), I wandered around for a while, enjoying the city and having no real plan. I randomly saw this changing of the guard performance at one of the palaces.

Then I used my little iPhone app (iTour Seoul – I recommend it) to find a good place for lunch. Unfortunately the map in the app only works when you’re online, so there was a little more wandering involved since the directions are pretty basic, but it ended up being a great restaurant, so totally worth it!

Galbi, delicious Korean BBQ ribs, with kimchi and all the fixins. 

After lunch, I decided to head toward N. Seoul Tower, at the top of Namsam Park. I had had no intention of climbing up the mountain, but without a map (don’t ask…I have no idea what I was thinking) and no sense of where I was, the tower itself was my only real point of reference, so up the mountain I went. And I’m so glad I did. I wandered through this little folk village (tourist attraction) first and happened upon a Tae Kwon Do concert (did you know that they are called concerts?) which just made me smile. (It’s a little long…)

And now, an onslaught of photos. This was the path up the mountain and the view from the top. I think you’ll understand how I fell in love with this place. Enjoy the photos. More to come…

The view…already half way up to it.
A cool tunnel
Along the way

I couldn’t resist

Up, up, up…
And up some more..
Looking back down to see how far I’d come
A lookout point…half way there
So green
Almost there
A yuzu smoothie at the top
Locks of Love