Typed up: on ship to Long Beach
Posted from: Andy and Juliette's home in Newbury Park
Our flight to Seoul was as good as we've gotten used to. We ended up at the end of the immigration line, and this is the first time that our bags made it to the luggage carousel before we did. The airport was clean and organized. We had little trouble with the payphone calling our CouchSurfing host Paul.
After a comfortable bus ride through downtown Seoul we met up with him at a metro station. A short train ride later we were at his studio apartment. It was small but had everything including a laundry machine which we made good use of. Washing clothes in the sink gets a lot of dirt out, but our white (whitish at this point) sure get a lot whiter in a machine than when we wash them by hand.
Paul took us out for some great Korean barbecue. They brought us raw meat, which we cooked ourselves on a small hot plate in the center of the table. The meat was accompanied by a small bottle of Soju, the national Korean alcohol which is at least 40 proof. Afterward we visited a bar where we wrapped up with an OK beer. Meanwhile we were still impressed with cleanliness and the neon lights everywhere.
The next morning was spent learning how little English is spoken in Korea. To start off, as we were having some cereal for breakfast, Paul's landlady showed up wanting to show the apartment. Luckily the prospective tenant spoke enough English to indicate they just wanted to see the place for a few minutes. At lunch we walked into a small restaurant where I eventually just said OK to something the waitress told us in Korean. We got a very tasty kimchi and beef stew.
Fortunately many signs are in English as well as in Korean. Especially in the metro this made it quite easy to get around. In the afternoon we visited Inwangsan temple complex. The architecture looked Chinese with a twist. The brightly colored paint on the buildings were especially neat. I really enjoyed hiking up a bit to a quiet view of the city.
When Paul got home in the evening, he'd had a bit much to drink. In Korea, you drink when your elders or superiors drink. In fact, they will pour for you (you never pour for yourself) and not drinking is not even something that's considered. This must at least in part explain why South Korea consumes more alcohol per capita than any other country. Paul may be a western English teacher, but when his principal invites him for drinks, he goes. So we had an easy dinner whose main feature was some kind of savory pancake. 3 out of 3 South Korean meals so far had been excellent.
The following morning we got up early for a tour of the demilitarized zone. A lot of time was spent getting there. Bus from Seoul, transfer to an army bus, safety briefing where they repeated what they'd already told us on the bus, drove some more. Then we marched, in line 2 wide, into the small building that is on the border between North and South Korea. We were there maybe 20 minutes, taking pictures of the stoic South Korean soldiers, and enjoying the novelty of being "in" North Korea even though both sides of the room are identical.
Next we marched to a small observation tower, which was originally built by the South as a nice place to have meetings. It's built in the South though, and no North Koreans ever came. We couldn't see very much from there either. The most interesting thing were a group of businessmen from Singapore who wanted their pictures taken with the 2 Americans (us) on the tour.
We drove around a bit more through the DMZ, getting out of the bus once for a view of the building the 1953 peace was signed in, about a mile away. We also got out at the gift shop. The whole experience was kind of strange. There wasn't anything worth seeing there. The best sight was of some wild pheasants, which we'd never seen before. The reason for going on the tour was to be at a place where politics has utterly failed. But it was just a place, and we couldn't see the politics. We could feel them a little bit in the rules we were supposed to follow: no pointing, no carrying anything besides a camera out of its case, wear conservative clothing, and so on.
Just outside the DMZ was a different story. This is where most of South Korea's military might is massed, carefully hidden of course. All we saw were some anti-tank fortifications, which included some giant concrete blocks that could be dropped onto the road at the push of a button. No pictures were allowed at all, here.
In the afternoon we went on an extra tour of the 3rd tunnel. North Korea has dug up to 20 tunnels under the border, presumably to be used in case they want to invade the South. 4 of these tunnels have been found, and the 3rd one is open for visiting (but not photographing). We walked down, and to the end, and back up. There wasn't much to look at here either, although it was neat being in an underground tunnel dug through solid granite.
The rest of the afternoon we visited a few other places, but I was ready to go back. The most interesting was the train station. South Korea has built a large train station by the border which is virtually unused, but shows that they're ready when the border opens up again. Similarly, close by are some huge customs buildings to handle cargo going between the two countries. No cargo has even gone into or out of those buildings. When South Koreans talk about reunification it's not "if" but "when." Kind of the way we'd talk about warmer weather coming in summer.
Going on the DMZ tour was expensive, and I'm not overall convinced it was worth the money. But if we hadn't gone then we would have wondered what it would have been like, so overall I'm not unhappy that we went. Back in Seoul, we wandered a bit around downtown. We stopped at a coffee bar which had more emphasis on "bar" than on "coffee." Overall the emphasis was on high prices, and a dark slightly dingy atmosphere. On the menu was a USD 5 Budweiser, as well as several 3-bottle alcohol sets.
The next day we moved from Paul's small apartment to a motel around the corner. Motels started out as places where Koreans could come for "privacy" for a few hours. They still serve that function, but they're also used as cheap accommodation. For less than USD 40 we got a room with AC, a nice bed, refrigerator, TV, and a proper hot shower. Best of all, we didn't have to do any silly sign-in dance where they need passport photos, blood samples, and whatever else. Just hand over the money and take the key.
We stayed there for a few more nights while we explored the city a bit more. We visited a palace whose name I forget. It was almost entirely reconstructed so everything looked very new. The style was interesting, and the changing of the guard ceremony was fun as well. I prefer my castles made out of stone, though. We had late lunch at an Outback Steakhouse, which is huge here. We've seen more of them than of any western fast food chain.
We also visited a giant market area, which really meant a huge shopping district. To me a market means there are stalls, but here there were all buildings. It was big, but did not sell the kind of things I'm interested in. I did walk through a large electronics parts area but for whatever reason most of the stores were closed. Still, it was fun to watch a store full of heat sinks, and a store full of LEDs, etc.
This was not the consumer electronics market which was somewhere else and we did not visit. These gadgets are very common in Korea. On the metro, about 10% of the people are watching video or TV on a little hand-held device, and another 20% are listening to music. Internet cafes were everywhere, and their main purpose seemed to be for people to come and play video games. Video gaming is so popular that there was a separate TV channel dedicated to it, where I was reminded about college while watching some Starcraft battles.