Seoul (Part Eight)

In May, 2012 I went to Asia on the “Three-Countries-Three-Weeks-Three-Kids” tour. The first stop on this once-in-a-lifetime trip was Shanghai, followed by Seoul. Day One in Seoul, we made our way to the Gyeongokgung Palace museum with all of its attendant palace buildings from various eras. On Day Two, following a somber morning looking at  the War History Museum, we went to a baseball gameDay Three we went on an all-day trip to one of the creepiest places I’ve ever been, the DMZ that divides North and South Korea.

After seeing the UN buildings in Panmunjoem, it was time for lunch. Our bus went to a roadside stop that looks like it’s there strictly to service all of the tour buses going to the DMZ. A Stuckeys this was not! There was a war memorial monument, a small temple (much like the third picture down here), the equivalent of truck stop mini-market & souvenir shop all rolled into one (not a classy joint!), and a couple of packed restaurants.

This was the point where I could here my mother in my head, like a character out of a Chevy Chase movie, saying, “No way I’m going in there and eating that!” So, of course, I went in and ate. As I’ve mentioned a couple of times in these travelogues, when travelling overseas I will never eat at a conventional Western food place (McDonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut, whatever) unless for some reason it’s the only option and I’m about to drop from hunger. I can eat that at home, if I’m in Rome, I’m going to eat like the Romanians!

IMG_0537_smallAt a Korean restaurant, you often cook your own food at the table. (I also saw this in Shanghai.) Two to a table, we had a butane burner & skillet with a bunch of beef and onions, with a whole selection of other peppers and stuff to either stew along with the beef or to eat separately. I’m told that this dish is “bulgogi” and it’s very common and popular in Korea.

It was fantastic! Go find a Korean restaurant and have bulgogi!

And try the kimchi. All I knew of kimchi was what I had learned from old “M*A*S*H” episodes, where it was described as fermented sauerkraut, often fermented in earthen jugs that were buried for days and weeks to ripen. It sounded disgusting. But when in Kaesong… I’m here to tell you, kimchi was a wonderful surprise. I’ve even started buying it back at home from time to time, when I can find it.

IMG_0552_smallAfter lunch we went to the DMZ Pavilion at Paju. There’s a line of tourists waiting to get their picture taken in front of this, like they were at Disneyland or the Grand Canyon. (Yes, I did it too.)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere are sculptures about the reunification of the two Koreas that everyone hopes will eventually come.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is also the site of “The Third Tunnel Of Aggression,” a place where in 1978 the South Koreans caught the North Koreans digging long tunnels from their side of the border into South Korea. You grab a hard hat and head down a really, REALLY steep tunnel that’s wet and slippery. OSHA would love this place!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe tunnels were wide enough for a whole division of 10,000 troops to move through in an hour. (It may not look like it here, because the shoring material  and other equipment keep the tourists on a narrow course in the middle.) The North Koreans tried to claim that the tunnels had been built by the South Koreans to invade the North, but that was pretty obviously not the case. Then the North Koreans tried to claim that they were coal mines. The South Koreans pointed out that there was no coal anywhere nearby, but the tunnel walls had been painted black to look like coal.

I’m not sure that the North Koreans ever had a response for that, other than “Unt uuhh! Liar, liar, pants on fire!”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOf course, what they don’t warn you of before you go down, is that after walking 400 or 500 feet underground in that really steep tunnel to get in, you now have to walk back up it in order to get out. It’s quite the little climb. Emptying out into a gift shop, of course.

IMG_0564_smallNear the Third Tunnel Of Aggression (I love that name!) is the Dora Observation point. From here you can look across the DMZ into North Korea. It’s easy to see North Korean troop sites, towns, and a large city that was built there purely for propaganda and show. (No one actually lives there.)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhat you can NOT do at the Dora Observatory is take pictures — if you’re on the far side of that yellow line. Yeah, they really, REALLY mean it, and they’ve got guys with guns to convince you they’re serious. If you’re caught, they’ll take your camera and you’ll never see it again, period. Or worse.

The reason is because they don’t want to give out any intelligence to the North Koreans. There’s a large wall at the edge of the cliff with those big observation binoculars. From in back of the yellow line, the only pictures you can take would be of North Korea off in the distance. Get any closer and take pictures over the wall looking down, and you’ll be taking pictures of South Korean military positions and roads. Then you go on the internet (like me!) and post them, not realizing that you just gave the North Koreans free tactical information if they ever do decide to invade.

Yet another reminder that this truly is not Disneyland or the Grand Canyon.

IMG_0611_smallAfter a long day, we headed back to Seoul, watching the rice paddies on the South Korean side of the Han River and the mountains and fortifications on the distant North Korean side.

We also got harangued all the way back about some jewelry store that had the best this and the finest that. We weren’t completely surprised to find that our bus didn’t go back to the hotel where we had been picked up that morning, but back to this magical, special jewelry store for a visit. They would take us back to the hotel after everyone had used this unique opportunity to go buy something. Our guide was probably joking about the bus not leaving until everyone actually HAD bought something. Probably. We didn’t have a car waiting or anything, so we just went hunting for a subway station and bailed.  Gotta love mass transit!

The next morning I was off to Inchon International to finish my stay in Korea. (The transit through Inchon, if you’ll remember, is why I couldn’t donate blood for a whole year, despite the fact that I was never outside or anyplace where where I could have been exposed to malaria.) Inchon is a lovely airport and I saw my first Airbus 380 there as we were taxiing out.

Two countries and two kids down, one to go.

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