This is the journal of my 2009 visit to Korea and Japan.
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South of the Aleutian Islands : March 30, 2009
It's been mid-afternoon all day as I approach the International Date Line on this long flight across the Pacific, and I have a theory that on long flights, the pain doubles hourly and I'm getting really uncomfortable. The display says we've come 2916 miles from San Francisco and there are 2278 miles to go before Tokyo. The sound on the videos on this United flight is so bad that I am only barely able to distinguish between the two available versions of James Bond - the original and the Japanese dubbed version. It's lucky I have my magazines.
The Japanese woman beside me speaks English fluently but I learned early on that she is not chatty. After she became absorbed reading her U.S. gossip rags then I was relieved she didn't want to talk. I assume she has nothing interesting to say.
I'm on my way to visit my long-time friend Rob who works at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, Korea. I last visited him when he was posted to Douala, Cameroon. And, before that, Port-au-Prince, Haiti and Ottawa, Canada. This is his first time working in Asia and my first visit anyplace in Asia. My Cameroon travel journal was fairly unique - not many tourists ever go there; while there are huge numbers of visitors to Korea. So don't expect any unheard-of new insights about Korea from me but, still, I'll do my best.
The place that I really, really want to go is North Korea. I've long had a fascination - morbid fascination - with that bizarre country. Would that I could make a travel journal anywhere near as unique and fascinating as this video series about an American traveling around in North Korea. Unfortunately, their dictator is behaving even more insanely than usual recently and so there is no possibility of me going there. Except to the DMZ, where we plan to visit the first weekend after I arrive. So, I will -technically- be allowed to go inside of North Korea, but only by a few steps.
Of course, I probably would snicker at some ridiculous statement by the North Korean tour guide and be imprisoned, so I guess it's all right that I won't get my wish. Staggeringly insane stuff goes on in that country. I recommend these videos - 1 - 2 - 3 - with boundless enthusiasm.
South of Kamchatka, Russia - March 31, 2009
It's a few hours later + 24 hours because of the dateline. But still the same endless afternoon. I look up from reading my Scientific American article about drug resistant Tuberculosis to see a Japanese woman in the aisle wearing a surgical mask. I wonder if she's reading the same article as me?
Tokyo, Japan : March 31, 2009
As we near Japan, the map display begins to indicate some new locations for reference, besides Honolulu, which has been there all along. Now there's also Seoul, Manilla, Shanghai... I think I'm looking at Emporer Hirohito's pre-war shopping list.
And I'm in twice the pain that I was an hour ago.
At long last the 11+ hour flight ends and we arrive in Tokyo - without my getting any view of the city. I'm here for just a short time to change planes. They make me clear security again, I don't know why. I'm kind of dazed and get into trouble at the metal detector forgetting to hand over my belt. But at least I get to keep my shoes on. Later, I about stumble onto the wrong side of the moving walkway because, like the cars, traffic flow is reversed here from the USA.
I am tempted to buy a souvenir or some take-out sushi ("Your Last Chance!") but I don't want to be bothered to find an ATM and figure out how to use yen. Regardless, I'll be back in Japan in a couple weeks on a 4-day visit.
On takeoff to Seoul, I realize belatedly that I am seated on the wrong side of the plane and I miss getting a view of Mt. Fuji. That's disappointing. During the 2.5 hour flight we move at odd angles in such a way as to keep ourselves over land as much as possible and I wonder about that. Hasn't United perfected the water landing in case of emergency?
On approach to Korea I can see a few ships, probably laden with Hyundais. And then we then turn right to head up the Korean peninsula in the direction of Seoul. There is not much to see and it's dark now - dark for the first time for me all this long day.
Seoul, South Korea : Tuesday, March 31, 2009
With 25 million residents, the Seoul metropolitan area is the second biggest in the world. All of it wedged into the Northwest corner of the country, against the North Korean border and China's Yellow Sea. The Koreans built their major airport, called Inchon, out on an island away from the city. On approach, my view of the bridge is magnificent. We circle around to the far side of the airport before landing and the darkness to the north is bleak North Korea.
My arrival is uneventful. This airport really is magnificent. The Koreans know a thing or two about infrastructure. I am met by Rob and we drive into the city. Crossing the bridge, he gestures to the right, "That's where General MacArthur made his famous amphibious landing during the Korean War."
Bridge between Seoul and the Inchon international airport
The condition of the highway and the light rail system which runs along side it confirm what I already knew. Their infrastructure is generally in much better condition than ours.
The drivers - particularly the cab drivers and the motorcyclists... those leave quite a lot to be desired. Rob honed his aggressive driving skills among Africans and, earlier, among Egyptians and so he is no slouch. But he has surrendered here. Cabs cut us off at every possible opportunity and as we are stopped at a red light a motorcylist behind us drives over into the opposing lane and speeds across the intersection without so much as pausing to look in either direction. "I can't compete against that," Rob says.
Many of the high buildings and the bridges here feature decorative lights. It makes the city look festive. I look forward to exploring it - and making use of their brilliant subway system. Meanwhile, we make our way to the Yongsan Military Base where Rob lives. Just as Rob has expressed to me, it looks like a prison compound. He hates living here.
This base originally belonged to Imperial Japan. The USA took it over in 1945 after we invited the Japanese to go back home and we have been here ever since. Rob says that while the Koreans do appreciate the security that our military presence here provides, they would very much like to get back this land which has been foreign-owned for going on 100 years. Plans are for the operations on this base to be moved elsewhere and the land to be made into a huge park - Seoul's Central Park. But that won't happen for several more years. Rob's house here is nice on the inside - all full of art that he has collected from Haiti, Africa, Egpyt and elsewhere. On the outside, it looks military-drab. He has told me this house would all fit in the living room of his house in Cameroon but that's an exageration. Little more than half this house would fit in that room.
Dragon Hill Lodge on the Yongsam military base. Hotel, bars, restaurants and shopping for U.S. soldiers and diplomats.
We decide we need to go visit the commissary for provisions. Rob's diplomatic ID allows him to shop on base. I don't yet have my pass for the base so I shouldn't be here at all. The big PX is closed right now but there are shops inside of the Dragon Hill Lodge and this is a real nice place. Rob says the bars get wild and crazy, and it seems like most of the American soldiers I see are carrying 12-packs of beer so I'm not surprised.
When I get to bed, I've been up for just about exactly 24 hours (not counting naps on the plane). What a relief to stretch out and get some proper sleep.
Seoul : April 1, 2009
I have slept soundly through Korea's night so I'm on track to adjust quickly to the time change. Rob can have outside guests at his house on base, but my movements are strictly limited so long as I have no military ID. So that's the first objective of the day. All the diplomatic staff live close together here and so there is a morning shuttle. We catch it right outside the door and go in to Rob's office.
Rob's job involves purchases and service contracts, among other support services for the embassy. But he doesn't work in the embassy itself. It's on the base, adjacent to an outside street. He says this set of buildings have seen lots of upgrades over the years but, basically, his office is in a building once used to help administer the Japanese Empire. I think that's pretty cool.
In this fairly famous satellite image, South Korea is seen to light up at night. Meanwhile their poor cousins in North Korea fall into complete darkness. Only the capital at Pyongyang shows any sign of life.
I get my (first ever) U.S. military ID card and hang out all morning meeting several members of Rob's highly efficient Korean staff. They all speak perfect English. One of them expresses to me his expectation that the two Koreas will soon be unified, precipitated by some type of revolt in the North. He mentions the lessons learned from German re-unification and hopes that Korea will be up to the challenge. He says that preparations are in place. He also mentions that all Korean men serve two years in the military, followed by continued training in the reserves. They're ready here for more than just re-unification, but also for an invasion across the border only about 20 miles away.
At lunchtime, Rob explains to the staff that I have insisted that my first restaurant meal here must be my very most favorite Korean dish, Bibimbap, and asks for recommendations where to go. They try and explain the location (which includes our looking for the name of the restaurant written in the Korean alphabet) but it quickly becomes apparent that we will need hands-on assistance.
In the end, five members of the staff join us and it's a real nice outing. In all countries, in all cultures there is one constant. Rob's staff always loves him and they take good care of him.
It's just a short walk to the restaurant and it's really a very charming little place. Bibimbap is a collection of diverse ingredients arranged in a container together with rice. A fried egg goes on top and then you put gochujang sauce over top of everything and mix it up thoroughly. One variation, not available in Korean restaurants in the USA, is for the whole thing to be delivered to your table in a metal box wrapped in an elastic band. Open it up, add your spicy hot gochujang sauce to taste, seal it again, and shake vigorously. YUM! Normally, you just get it in a metal bowl and you stir it, you don't shake it.
There were other delicious things to go along with the main course. Altogether, it cost a grand total of 5000 Won each, or $3.66. And there is no tipping in this culture. What an amazing bargain.
Many restaurants have colorful bilingual displays like this. Even so, the displays don't do justice to the actual food.
On the way out the door, a staff member points out to me a photo of one unusual item on the menu. Silk worms. She expects that I will be completely surprised by this but, as it happens, just yesterday I was reading on the plane that it's considered an ideal food for astronauts on long space flights. She says her mother fed them to the family when she was young and Korea was extremely poor. Mom thought it best not to mention to the kids exactly what they were eating, not until years later...
After lunch Rob walks me around to the main entrance to the base where I can catch a cab to his house. The exterior wall of the base looks even more like a prison in daylight. He likes Korea very much but he is tempted to take a different post just to get away from this awful base. For some odd reason, he sometimes speaks of changing to the police state of Burma.
On base, here is a Starbucks, Quiznos, steak house... and there's plenty more nearby. All services provided in excellent English. American soldiers are surrounded by lots that's familiar from home.
The cab is at the PX. It's sort of a shopping center for soldiers, including everything from a big store that looks like a little Walmart, a place to be fitted for a new uniform, get a haircut, buy groceries, you name it. And a food court that you might find in any American shopping mall (Subway, Popeyes, Burger King, etc.). The cab ride costs me about $2.00 and I fall asleep just about immediately as soon as I arrive at the house.
I sleep longer than expected, considering that I had a full night's sleep upon arrival, and wake up to learn that we're going out to dinner. This will be something of an adventure because, between the four of us we probably know fewer than a dozen Korean words.
We drive into a district of Seoul, Itaewon, adjacent to the base that's packed with restaurants and bars. It's very lively here. It's mostly locals but it's also popular with soldiers and other expatriates. There is no legal parking, to speak of, but there are cars parked everyplace. We find an empty spot and leave the car - which has diplomatic plates, which ought to help. We end up at a Swiss restaurant, and I think that's something perfectly hilarious to find here.
Later, we walk to a nearby bar. A couple times, scantily-clad women emerge from doorways and beckon us inside. I guess they think we're soldiers on the prowl. One among us actually is a soldier, but none of us is feeling quite so adventurous as to accept the invitation to venture inside.
These streets seem to me sort of classically Asian. Narrow, winding, bursting with activity, and just menacing enough to be very intriguing without seeming actually to be especially dangerous. They tell me that MP's from the base patrol here often, looking for soldiers in trouble (trouble either of their own making or of somebody else's).
I was initially skeptical, but it does seem more and more as if it really is possible to get along here quite well with no knowledge of the language. Asian countries are not typically magnets for immigration (that's an understatement) but Korea now has 1 million foreign residents and most of them live in this city. So there is a lot of English in use.
We're going to travel around the country while I'm here so I'll soon see how well we can get along outside of Seoul. There is discussion of buying, renting, or borrowing a GPS system with display in English. It costs $300 to buy it. It sounds to me like money well spent.
Seoul : Thursday, April 2, 2009
It's not quite Spring yet here but we do lunch outside on the patio. Our view of the highway is okay but that prison wall is monstrous. I can well imagine that Koreans will weep with joy when this base closes, especially the nearby neighbors.
Rob has business this afternoon at the proper embassy downtown. Actually, I gather there are a number of downtowns here. The city just goes on and on. Along the way I get closer to the gigantic Seoul tower than I have been before. It's on top of a big hill - remember, Korea is very mountainous. They run a highway tunnel right through the middle of it. Everybody else pays a toll on the other side but we have diplomatic plates.
Emerging at the other side of the hill, it's a world of difference. Manhattan East, err, Far East.
I have the distinct impression that Koreans are acutely aware of how they built this country up from nothing at all and they're extremely proud of their achievements. Following the war, they were hungry and poor and sick; their entire country utterly ruined by war. Now look at them!
As we arrive at the embassy Rob points out the adjacent building, which is sort of its twin. It used to be that USAID was located next door. USAID was big and the embassy was small, but now as Korea has grown strong the embassy has grown huge. And USAID is long gone and their building taken over by the Koreans.
The embassy is nothing much, really. It was built in the mid-fifties and it looks out of place here. A new buidling is planned, over near the military base. What's funny is when this was built it was far and away the most modern and impressive building in all of Korea. Now it's a relic.
Something else funny is that the small and unimportant country of Cameroon has a beautiful, modern U.S. embassy while this very important country has only this.
We go through the familiar process of having Rob's ID and the car inspected at the gate. They open the hood and trunk and look underneath using mirrors. We are approved. Inside, I hand over my shiny new military ID to the U.S. Marine and I get a clip-on pass permitting me to be inside. First stop, the health clinic.
In passing, perhaps I should mention that the outer areas of the embassy are guarded by a local contractor who employs Koreans. They take care of the walls, the gates, the parking lot, and the areas where American and foreign civilians come to do regular civilian business (visas, passports, etc.). The serious business takes place in the much more secure area which you can only get to if and when a U.S. Marine lets you in past the blast doors.
And then there is yet another layer of security deeper inside here, but Rob has no business in those secret areas today. I was inside the super-secure area in the embassy in Cameroon. I have no idea what secrets we have from the Cameroonians but I have no doubt that the secrets they keep in this building must be extremely interesting. Reports from spies inside North Korea?
The U.S. Embassy is this plain old brownish-pinkish building. USAID used to be housed in the building beyond it. There is some major construction going on out front.
A one-handed Korean craftsmen at work in front of the King's Palace. One of his many works on display is below.
Wood carved calligraphy. Fantastic.
The nurse is a Korean woman who mentions her entire family lives has immigrated to the USA. She's the only one left. I ask how many Korean-Americans there are now, and she only knows there are over 100,000 in Chicago alone. Korea and the USA will have close ties forever.
I thought he was a Korean Samurai. Turns out, he's Admiral Yi Sun-Sin who fought Japanese invaders 400+ years ago.
Someone else we meet has heard of my visit in advance. She asks about the case of Obama Inauguration commemorative coffee mugs that I carried with me, and she's anxious to get hers. Rob has forgotten to carry them with us and she is disappointed. President Obama is extremely popular in the Foreign Service (and also among Koreans).
I have a couple hours to kill on my own so I go for a walk outside. I am carrying my new Korean cell phone, and Rob will phone me when he's ready to leave here. He points me in the direction of the Gyeongbok Palace a few blocks away. I am unsupervised in Korea for the very first time.
My first stop is a really fantastic monument nearby, in the middle of the broad avenue at the front of the embassy. He looks like a Korean samurai warrior. I think nobody would mess with that guy so he looks like an emblem of national pride and strength. There is nothing in English. I better ask about him. Behind him is another mountain. And someplace over there is the Blue House, the Korean White House.
I snap more photos of the city and now I'm thinking it's more Chicago than Manhattan. But no less impressive.
The old palace grounds are smack in the middle of downtown. Korean kings ruled from here for centuries.
Approaching the entrance to the palace, along the outer wall, are these carved wood plaques. Very beautiful. With his work arranged to either side of him, the artist is working away and some people pause to watch. It looks extremely difficult. He's carving individual Korean letters. What's more, he has only one good hand.
At the palace gate I pay 1000 Won to enter, about 75 cents. Inside the high walls its mostly open area, like a park, With various structures scattered around the grounds. The place was originally built about 1400. The Japanese wrecked it when they conquered Korea in about 1600. The Koreans rebuilt it about 140 years ago. The Japanese wrecked it again after they reconquered Korea in 1910. Japan has long tried to crush Koreans' sense of national identity but Koreans have endured maintaining their unique culture.
As I complete my circuit of the palace grounds, I begin hearing lots of strange noises from just outside the wall. Nearing the main gate, I realize there is some type of ceremony being performed here. It includes about 50 men in colorful costumes. Traditional music, traditional costumes, and even traditional weapons. It looks like most everybody is carrying an instrument either of war or of music. There are conch shell horns, bows and arrows, swords, drums, flutes, flags.
Narration is being provided over a loudspeaker, in Korean. Every once in a while, a far briefer explanation is offered in English. It's the changing of the guard. The process is apparently quite complex. I take lots of photos until my batteries run out. What to do now? I go around the corner and find a shop which displays AA batteries in the window. The shop is about the size of a hallway coat closet, with a tiny window in front. I wave a dead battery at the elderly woman inside and indicate "2" and she nods and tells me, very haltingly, "three five hundred won." That went well.
I hurry back and take more photos as the ceremony wraps up. In the end, the guards on duty are wearing a different color of costume than before and the Korean audience members are getting in touch with their history by posing for photos standing next to the guards. It was a good show.
Now I realize that my phone has rung during all of this noise and commotion, and I missed Rob's call. I call him back and... the phone doesn't work. I've got a recorded message in Korean informing me of something, after which I am disconnected. This is not good. I redial several times. Same result. I begin walking back to the embassy, but my jet lag requires me to stop for a boost at a convenience store. This could get tricky.
I pick out what looks like a bottle of chilled green tea. Not a word of English on it. Happily, just at that moment, two teenage girls appear nearby. "Excuse me," holding out the bottle, "is that green tea?" They seem happy to be of help to me. "Yes. Green tea." Maybe I can get by here unsupervised, after all?
When I arrive back at the embassy, I present my military ID to the guards at the pedestrian gate and I explain that I am to meet somebody who is inside. They say, well, why don't you phone him and tell him you're here? I say, well, I can't get my phone to work. I ask them several times if they would please make the call for me. Eventually, they take away my (forbidden) phone and camera. and send me on ahead to the lobby where they say I can get some help.
I explain myself yet again, this time to the guard in the lobby. He makes two longish phone calls in Korean, where I hear Rob's name and his department (GSO) mentioned repeatedly. Finally, he dials Rob's number and passes me the phone. Rob will be down in a few minutes. That certainly was more difficult than it ought to have been.
We drive around downtown a little more, including passing by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade which appears to be housed together with the Ministry of Unification - the people responsible for figuring out what to do about North Korea and with North Koreans.
Back at the base, we stop at the cell phone shop and we figure out that somebody forgot to actually apply any minutes to this phone. It could receive calls free, but outgoing calls cost minutes. I'm happy to know that it's not my fault I couldn't get the phone to work.
Here is an example of small dishes, the banchan, always served alongside the main dish at a Korean meal. At the 9 o'clock position is the bright orange kimchi.
Dinner tonight is going to be Bulgogi, another Korean favorite. This restaurant has some private dining rooms which are semi-traditional. Traditionally, the table should be low with everybody seated on mats on the floor around it. Here you have a big open space in the floor under the low table where you can dangle your feet below. I think it's hilarious. Korean culture-lite. We choose a normal Western-style booth.
Korean meals are always served with a large number of little dishes of nibblies. I nibble on one that looks like a thickly-sliced raddish. It turns out to be garlic. I think my head might explode. I am sure that I will not soon forget this experience, and I hope I remember to be more careful. I have no idea what garlic was doing on the table, btw. Never encountered that before!
And here is where I must make mention of kimchi. It's usually a spicy pickled cabbage. No meal is complete without it. Even breakfast. And they've been eating it here for about 3000 years! Says Wikipedia, "Kimchi is so ubiquitous that the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI) developed space kimchi to accompany the first Korean astronaut to the Russian-manned space ship Soyuz." I love kimchi.
Friday, April 3, 2009 : Seoul
Koreobamamania? I didn't take the best photo here, but it is more clear if you click it for the large version. All the young people in this bus ad are wearing shirts that advocate various sorts of Change!
One reason we stopped at the health clinic yesterday was so that somebody there would help me to make an appointment to get a new prescription for my glasses. Supposedly, they have quite an impressive assembly-line style system here. Cheap and efficient. I'm past-due for that and Rob convinced me this was something that I should experience here. So, this morning I'm off to my Korean optometrist appointment. In Cameroon, I visited a dentist, and this is a little less odd than that.
...and it really was extremely efficient and embarrasingly inexpensive. $20 for a thorough eye exam and a new prescription.
After that, a friend and I wander for about 3 hours in a district called Insadong, well known for arts and crafts and popular with tourists. I take many, many pictures. At lunchtime, I am intrigued by a "Korean porridge" restaurant, which is something I've never heard of before. All porridge all the time, it seems. It's a tiny place upstairs with only about 6 tables and porridge turns out to be the most perfect thing for lunch. I can hardly express how much I am loving Korean cuisine.
From our table, I notice a huge poster across the street, well above street level, which is President Obama's smiling face and a lot of Korean text. No English, but there is a date 2009-1-21 so I think it's a message of congratulations on being innaugurated. It's so nice to have a president that the world admires.
We do some more window shopping. Some things are quite expensive, hundreds of dollars - and quite small, easily pocketable. And yet if there is any concern about shoplifting, it's not noticeable. I think they must have very little street crime here.
And here are some more scenes from Insadong. The first photo is of a Korean Starbucks, then a typical Korean restaurant on one of the side streets. And some cute kids. The district is a must-see for all tourists in Seoul. Just say 'Insadong' to any cab driver.
On the way back to the car, we pass an extensive sidewalk display by Amnesty International. Volunteers are talking to people about human rights abuses in Burma and in Africa. This is an unremarkable scene in the USA or Canada or Western Europe, and it didn't even occur to me to take a photo but a few minutes later I realize that this is very significant here. Thirty years ago, South Korea had a military dictatorship. Fifty years ago, they could not even feed themselves. Now that they are both free and prosperous, they have begun to take an interest in helping other people to find their own way to freedom.
All of our overseas national reconstruction projects should turn out so well.
Saturday April 4, 2009 : Panmunjeom, North Korea
Today we're going to North Korea! But only just. We're going to the DMZ where we'll get to see actual bonafide soldiers of the Korean People's Army and we'll be able to step into the territory of North Korea. It will be my 16th country. Would that I could get a visa stamp, but no such luck. My first concern is to make certain that my clothes conform to the DMZ dress code.
We have bought tickets on the USO bus tour. It's about 8 hours. We meet our bus at the USO Club right here on the base and meet our Korean tour guide. I strain to understand him but the best I can get is about 50% of the words. Pretty soon, I stop straining and my understanding drops nearer 25%.
My first surprise of this day-trip is the way that Seoul just goes on and on. The city seems to be comprised of countless thousands of skyscrapers. It looks like most Koreans live in these residential towers, which are often collected into sets of 10 or 20 matched sets of immense buildings. It's a mountainous country and level ground is valuable so they don't waste much of it on single family homes.
My next surprise is that just as soon as we're outside the main part of the city, traveling on a superhighway alongside the wide Han River, we begin seeing a high riverside fence topped by razor wire and punctuated by many, many guard towers, though only about a quarter of the towers are currently occupied by soldiers with binoculars. The border here runs through the middle of the river and enemy commando units have come across this border before.
A sampling of guard towers. I don't know, but I think there must be thousands of these across the the length of this most dangerous border in the world. The first photo above shows a guard booth located right underneath a highway exit ramp, which strikes me as having an extra element of bizarreness. The second photo shows how it's actually two fences with a tiny roadway in between. The third photo is from late in the day on our way back in to Seoul. I think the large version, when you click it, is very beautiful, in its way.
This is the structure where we were not allowed to enter, but if you click this image then you can read the inscription on a monument that explains something about the significance of this place.
Our first stop is a lookout point where we get our first good look at the border. We're in a large structure on a hilltop on a kind of platform. There are telescopes we can use if we put 500 Won in the slot.
What's really very strange is there's a yellow painted line well back from the wall. Cameras may not be used beyond this point so we're able to get photos only of distant North Korean hilltops.
I guess they're afraid the Commies will mistake cameras for weapons? I can only guess. If the guide explained the policy then I it must have been during one of those long stretches when I had no idea what he was saying.
There's something more that's normally available inside the building, some type of presentation. But they're hosting a special group from the Vatican today so... we get bumped. Bummer.
It was from this outpost that American and South Korean forces defended Seoul against invading Chinese "volunteers."
This is the view of North Korea from our first stop. You can almost see the distant hilltops. Big deal. And being downwind of China's factories does not help matters.
Back on the bus, we are taken to lunch. I am struck by how many fences there are around here. All of them topped with razor wire. Often on both sides of the road, and pointing every which way. I don't suppose the fences are here to deter a full-scale invasion but they sure would slow down a small assault team. And they'd leave behind lots of signs of their passage, in the form of cut fences.
Ginseng is grown in these fields covered by blue and black sheets. I don't know why.
We also pass lots of fields where ginseng is being grown. Something about the soil in this region is very conducive to growing Korea's signature health supplement.
Next stop, an invasion tunnel. North Korea has dug 4 tunnels. That is, there are four invasion tunnels which are known. The one we're visiting is the #3 tunnel, which has been made into a tourist attraction.
Here is where you pick up your helmet and then proceed ahead, down the the sloping South Korean tunnel to reach the North's invasion tunnel. No photos allowed, so this one has been lifted from Wikipedia.
First, we watch a brief multi-media presentation in English. For some reason, it looks like clumsy propaganda. From the comments I hear around us, nobody is much impressed. Somebody should tell the Koreans to commission something more sophisticated.
Then we wander among some exhibits which have multi-lingual displays describing the history of the DMZ, assorted thwarted commando assaults against the South, and the efforts by South Koreans and others to induce the North Koreans to behave sensibly. We learn that this tunnel would have permitted up to 30,000 invaders to pass in just the first hour. Serious business. This side of the border, this tunnel branches in 3 directions which might have allowed invaders to appear suddenly in diverse locations.
We are required to place our cameras and bags into lockers which, again, is very strange. I think the North Koreans know what their own invasion tunnels look like without needing to rely upon tourist photos.
We collect our yellow hard-hats and enter the tunnel, which is perfectly smooth and round, and sloped at 11 degrees. This is actually the tunnel to the tunnel. The South Koreans brought in a machine to bore a route for tourists to use to reach the North Koreans' tunnel. Right at the bottom of this first class tunnel (350 meters long) is one end of the North's tunnel. Their tunnel is rough and only 2 meters both vertically and horizontally. We can see exactly where they stopped their digging and, turns out, they were not digging at all but, rather, using dynamite. They'd already drilled holes in the rock to insert the next round of dynamite when their work here was discovered and halted.
We listen to our guide describe... something, in his broken English. Something about how the North tried to pretend it was an old coal mine, but there's no coal around here. And then they said if it was an invasion tunnel then it must have been built by the South, but the dynamite holes point the wrong way.
Then he makes a joke that what the North built actually turns out to be not a coal mine but a "gold mine," because it's so popular with tourists. The guide thinks this joke is so precious that he repeats it.
We follow the tunnel some distance North. Now I know why we needed hardhats. Underfed Northerners are not tall. Americans must stoop and I hit my head on the very uneven surface countless times. Our guide shows us the fake coal which coats the wall and was intended to fool somebody.
At the end is a barrier which, happily, is padlocked from the Southern side. The North spent years building this tunnel and the only use to which it's ever been put is as a tourist attraction for the South.
At least we're safe down here from the missile test, which is expected at any time.
The climb back up is fairly exhausting but nobody in our group has a heart attack. Finally, now it's time to go to the actual DMZ facility - the Joint Security Area - where the North and South face one another directly. Along the way, in Camp Bonifas, we pass a facility which houses the Rapid Reaction Force (RRF) and we're told they're able to respond to an incident up at the border area within 60-90 seconds. Rapid, indeed.
We also pass "the world's most dangerous golf course," which is comprised of only one hole and is surrounded on three sides by mine fields.
These South Korean soldiers almost don't even look real. This particular photo I took as our bus was exiting this area. I found that Wikipedia had an inferior photo of the same scene from 2001 so I put my own photo there in its place.
The bus brings us to a U.S. Army facility, Camp Bonifas, where the apt slogan is, "In Front of Them All." We are met by our military escort and guide, Sgt. Walker and, although this is advertised as a demilitarized zone, he is carrying a pistol. It doesn't count, I guess.
Each of us is required to show our passport. That done, our bus drives onto the base. We go first to a small theater where we are given a release to sign. In case there is a bad incident involving North Koreans then we agree that the U.S. Army shall be held blameless.
Then our sergeant gives us a detailed slideshow presentation, including all about the notorious ax-murder incident and about a Soviet defector who in 1984 was on a tour group from the North when he made a mad dash to freedom in the South. The North began shooting at him and soldiers of the South shot back. In the end, 4 soldiers lay dead. The defection was otherwise successful.
Outside, we get into a U.S. Army bus driven by a U.S. soldier and away we go. Facing the border is a beautiful building, Freedom House, which was intended to be used by families divided by the border to meet one another. It turns out the North never did allow anybody to come here, out of fear of defection, so the building has never been used for its intended purpose.
Authentic North Korean Soldier!
We enter the building and go up a set of marble steps and out onto a wide platform... and opposite us is North Korea. It's surreal. At the far side is a North Korean building that's every bit as nice as this building and one North Korean military officer is looking at us through oversize binoculars. On the near side are South Korean officers facing him, two of them partly behind the conference room which provides them cover. This is just fantastic!
Our sergeant explains what we're seeing. The blue buildings belong to the United Nations. The silver buildings are North Korean. At one time this whole broad area was shared but that ended following the defection incident. Now each side keeps to its own side - except inside of the few buildings that straddle the line. He says we're under surveillance and we are forbidden to make any sort of gestures or to communicate with soldiers of the opposing side in any way.
Sgt. Walker repeatedly describes the good guys as ROK solders (pronouncing it ROCK). Republic of Korea. The bad guys he refers to as KPA. Korean People's Army. We are allowed to photograph the KPA soldiers all we want. As it happens, only one of them is in view. I can't help wondering what goes through his mind watching well-fed tourists all day through his binoculars while in his own country people die of starvation. Sometimes, even by the millions.
Our sergeant explains that the peculiar stance of the two ROK soldiers is in order that they can keep an eye on the KPA soldiers and also quickly duck behind the building for cover if necessary. I wonder, doesn't their vision go all screwy with one eye looking in the distance and the other facing a wall only a few inches away? But it also does seem to prove an extreme seriousness of intent on the part of the ROK so I guess it's okay.
After a while, we form two parallel lines and we enter one of the blue conference rooms. In the middle of the room is a conference table placed sideways so that the two delegations can sit facing one another, with additional seating behind each table. There are windows all along each of the two long walls, and against one of those, beside the conference table, is a ROK soldier.
Sgt. Walker explains that this is a "modified Tai Kwon Do stance," and, together with the menacing dark glasses, is intended to be intimidating. He further advises that we should pass into North Korea around the table on the side opposite the ROK soldier and not try to squeeze between the soldier and the table. I am much too intimidated by him even to contemplate doing otherwise.
After some brief comments concerning past conferences, the eagerly anticipated moment arrives. We walk into North Korea.
In this mockup, you can see the JSA, with the U.N. on the near side. We left our bus in front of that main building, Freedom House, and walked through it to the actual border beyond, facing North Korea's primary building, seen here at the back. Later, our bus circled around the back, from right to left, on the way to the Bridge of No Return. Click for large version.
It's very extremely cool. Lots of people even have themselves photographed standing next to the ROK soldier who is standing with his back to the door that opens onto North Korea. It appears to be entirely okay to make use of this guy as a photo prop but our sergeant has advised us in no uncertain terms that we "will not be permitted to reach that far door." And I believe him.
This is the moment we had been anxiously looking forward to and we are not disappointed. It's a fantastic place.
1) In the Joint Security Area at the DMZ, an earlier group leaves the meeting room just before we enter. 2) Inside the meeting room, Sgt. Walker describes the room. Behind him is a ROK soldier watching for any signs of trouble. 3) A second ROK solder guards the back door, which opens into North Korea. 4) Light-colored sand is North. Dark-colored gravel is South. 5) The nearer silver building is a conference room controlled by North Korea and the one in back is their primary building here. 6) This is our group going down the steps to the front door to return to our bus (the north and south faces of the building are on different levels).
We return back through the building to our bus and we stop at another lookout point where we're afforded a good view of North Korea. As good as can be with all the Chinese air pollution. From here we can see the counterpart to the RRF, what our sergeant calls the Slow Reaction Force on account of they don't have any vehicles.
We can also see a South Korean flag on a very high pole (100 meters). The North responded by placing their flag on a pole 160 meters high - the tallest flagpole in the world. There is a lot of that type of one-upmanship going on around here.
Nearby is the Bridge of No Return. POW's from both sides were let loose here and they could cross the bridge, or not. But whichever side they chose as their destination they could never change their mind. Hence the nickname. That's our next destination when we reboard the bus. This bridge is also where James Bond got himself prisoner-exchanged in Die Another Day.
But when we reach the bridge, we are not allowed to get out of the bus. We're told that the last time any non-fictional people crossed this bridge was the crew of the Pueblo over 40 years ago.
There is a monument here dedicated to one of the soldiers ax-murdered here, it's on the site of the offending tree that needed trimming - because it obstructed a view between two ROK guard posts. Following the murder was Operation Paul Bunyan, which was an extreme show of force including lots of soldiers on hand. There were jets circling nearby and an aircraft carrier group just off the coast. And thousands of soldiers in the USA were packed and ready to be transferred to Korea at a moment's notice in case of any further trouble. This time there was no trouble at all. "The most expensive tree-trimming in history," says Sgt. Walker.
1) This is a view of the Bridge of No Return. The U.N. guard post next to it had become partly obscured from this post by a poplar tree. Two U.S. soldiers were killed at that location in the Ax Murder Incident. 2) Right about where you see the middle green tree in the first photo is this plaque honoring Capt. Bonifas who was killed here. 3) The Bridge of No Return. 4) This is our best view view of Propaganda Village in North Korea and its enormous flagpole. 5) A monument recognizing the nations who sent forces to fight in the Korean War. 6) ...and their flags.
As on the way in, we are not allowed to take any photos of the DMZ beyond what the North Koreans can see for themselves from their side of the border. On the way back to Camp Bonifas, we get a good look at the tank barrier on both sides of the road and which looks to be very formidable. The road itself has a device which can be dropped by use of exposives and will block tanks from passing there, as well. Fences and razor wire remain omnipresent. I don't dare sneak a photo here because Sgt. Walker is facing me from two rows up and he's still got a gun.
There are also about 1 million landmines along this border. As a consequence of the unique circumstances of this swath of land, it has become about the safest place in the world for wildlife. It's the unsafest place for people but endangered birds and animals are flourishing.
Funniest Evil Dictator Ever
We get off the bus at the gift shop and I buy some North Korean money, and a few other souvenirs. It was a very good day. On the way back to Seoul I continue to be amazed at the immensity of the city. There's a traffic jam on the highway, even though it's Saturday evening. Rob says that lots of Koreans work 6 days a week. Of course they do. I am not surprised. Our driver takes us onto main avenue - one which provides an express lane for buses - and I get to see some more of Seoul's numerous downtowns along the way.
This warning page from the South Korean security service appears when I try to have a look at North Korea's home page. Anywhere outside the ROK you can reach the real web site.
Back at the house, I look up North Korea's official web site. I have visited their ridiculous official homepage before. Now I find that it's blocked from here by the South Korean government. These guys really need to relax. The ROK government here behaves almost as if there really were an actual PR contest going on between the two governments. As if any sane person in all the world might consider that the North has anything of any value to offer to anybody.
As Sgt. Walker said to us, they can't even produce enough food to keep their people alive. He predicts they will collapse soon. He further predicts that they will not start another war on their way down.
"They're crazy. But they're not THAT crazy."
I also ran across this hilarious web page: Six Reasons why North Korea is the Funniest Evil Dictatorship Ever
Sunday, April 5, 2009 : Bullet Train
We're on Korea's Bullet Train down to the Southern end of Korea, Busan. Rob's got a meeting at the U.S. Consulate there tomorrow morning and I'm going along for the ride. We'll be back tomorrow afternoon.
The train moves at speeds above 300kph (186mph and the current speed is displayed for us on a TV screen) and it's perfectly smooth and quiet. People living in advanced countries sure have it made. I hope the USA will become advanced soon.
We are barely on our way when we learn that the North has launched its missile.
As our bullet train approached, I took a photo of this young lady who stands at the bottom of the steps in her high heels offering assistance to passengers.
All along the way I am constantly amazed at how carefully the Koreans make use of available space. It's a densely populated and mountainous country. And yet they manage to produce a surplus of food here. And so it follows naturally that one sees 20-story high rises right next to farms. And I often see spall spaces between two hills where a small patch of ground no bigger than an ordinary living room has been leveled and made into a tiny field. Other fields are tiered, several medium size fields in a row each a little lower than the next.
The interior of the train is perfectly all right, but nothing very special. We are traveling the longest possible route within the country (Northeast to Southwest corners) and it only takes 3 hours. So it does not need to be particularly comfortable. It's also very cheap at about $30 each, so I have no complaints. The announcements are bilingual with, typically, longer Korean announcements followed by the briefer synopsis in English.
Somebody rolls a snack car through here about every 45 minutes, offering coffee, juice, and some food. They're also selling Internet cards for just 1000 Won for half an hour (75 cents), and you just scratch them to reveal a username/password combination that will let you get wireless high speed Internet access even inside the numerous tunnels.
There's a security guard patrolling the train from end to end. The most interesting thing is that every time any of these three enter or leave our car they always bow to us. I am quite certain that nobody working for Amtrak has ever bowed to me.
This is an official photo of Busan at the time of the 2005 APEC Conference. The bridge is in the far background. Now I'm curious, what does one do with such a spectacular building? What besides a gathering of world leaders is worthy of so much spectacularness?
Sunday April 5, 2009 : Busan, Korea
Busan is amazing. Somehow, I had expected a grimy industrial port city. The port does, indeed, seem to go on for miles. But the city is so surprisingly beautiful. It's Korea's second largest city and it's got building construction going on everywhere you look, adding to the thousands of skyscrapers they've already got.
It makes one wonder what South Korea will look like if and when they finally get finished building it!
We inadvertently got the luxury cab from the train to the hotel. It cost about an extra 10,000 Won and it was worth it. The back seats of the Hyundai recline and you can stretch out your feet. Oddest of all, there's a TV screen. Rob says he often sees people driving and watching TV at the same time. They're super-civilized in so many ways here but basic good driving habits are going to need some more time to develop.
We are settled in at The Westin Chosun Hotel on the beach. It's got the beach on one side and a really lovely park on the other. It's on what used to be a tiny island until they filled in the slight gap to the mainland. From our room our view encompasses some of the park, a small part of the city and the beautiful Gwangan Bridge, which seems to be a source of very considerable pride here.
For lunch we end up at TGI Fridays. I'm not quite sure how that happened. The clientele here seems to be mostly Koreans with children and I can't help thinking the parents are trying to acclimate their children to American culture in order to help them along the way toward English fluency and help prepare them to attend UCLA. We enjoy a nice view of the beach.
Later, we walk through the park and it turns out to be everything that you might expect from a park in the Orient. All is beautiful and peaceful. The cherry blossoms are about at their peak here in the south and there are lots of couples walking together here, both young and old. We travel in a circle and at the outside edge is an elegant round conference center which was the site of the 2005 APEC meeting. This was an excellent choice of venues.
Korean graffiti above. Nobody's perfect, I guess. Below, a woman walking her dog with a big mask over her face and a huge sun visor. I see that here often and it looks very bizarre.
Below, this woman on the subway has placed her bag on the rack above, even though she is right beside an exit door. And then she closes her eyes! How long would that bag stay in place in a USA subway, I wonder?
Back in the hotel bar we enjoy a glass of wine overlooking the beach. Suddenly, we remember that our room gives us access to the VIP room on the top floor (eat and drink for free). And the view is better upstairs. There's also CNN coverage about the missile launch. We end up in conversation there with some Americans. It's been another real nice day in Korea.
April 6, 2009 : Busan, South Korea
In the morning, Rob's off to his meeting at the U.S Consulate (actually, it's something less important than a consulate. Whatever.) A friend and I walk to the subway station and along the way we are met by lots of schoolgirls smiling and laughing and anxious to show off their mastery of English. "Good Morning!" "How are you today?" It's really very charming. And the city is just as beautiful. It reminds me of San Francisco - a port city, lots of hills, and a fabulous bridge. Except that everything here is cleaner and newer than San Francisco.
The fact that it's so clean is even more surprising given the nearly total absence of trash cans. Rob says public trash cans tend to attract household garbage because people pay a lot for home trash removal. So you have to carry your various wrappers and cups and things with you for a long time before you're lucky enough to find a place to get rid of them. And, even so, Koreans don't litter. Amazing.
Above, this woman appears to be praying and bowing to this stone tortoise while, below, another woman does her one better by praying, bowing and also circling this stone pagoda.
You buy a subway ticket from a bilingual dispenser and the price differs according to however many 'regions' you will pass through. We're going to a Buddhist temple. We don't understand about regions. We pay for a single region and jump aboard. As expected, the train is clean, quiet, orderly. Everybody is texting or reading. No bad behavior of any sort. One woman opposite us gets a cell phone call and she practically whispers behind her hand, careful to avoid bothering anybody.
And maybe the most surprising thing is the storage rack above the seats. People stow their bags above them. Can you imagine a New Yorker allowing their things to be out of their sight? I hardly think so.
I'm a little confounded by the peculiar practice Koreans have of walking on the left, even though they drive on the right. This would be bad enough but they make matters worse by being inconsistent about it. [They are working to correct the Korean pedestrian situation, I learn later.]
At our destination, our tickets are rejected and the gate won't open. It's just like the Washington DC subway. We take it to the added-money machine and it asks for another 300 Won, and we're on our way. No problem.
The temple is way up high so we take a bus for 1000 Won. So many things here are priced in 1000 Won increments. And there's none of that silly 1995 Won, or whatever. Round numbers always. Besides the faithful, our bus carries a large number of people who clearly are going hiking in the mountains. The mountains rise well above the temple and they're using that merely as their starting point.
The Beomeosa Temple is interesting, I suppose. I'm not really into it. I never visited a Buddhist temple before and I don't think I was missing much. We see somebody praying before a stone tortoise. Then she stepps back and bows to it, then steps forward again and resumes her prayers. Oh good grief. Later, we see a woman dressed all in gray who prays to a stone pagoda, walks around it clockwise, prays some more, walks around it again, prays some more. Whatever.
There are lots more people going into rooms to pray to statues of Buddha, that's more common. You can also buy some sort of tile with your own special message written on it. The only one I see that I can relate to looks to have been placed by members of the U.S. Air Force whose un-Buddhist sentiment is, "Friends of South Korea. Come to fight. Come to win. Since 1950."
It's time to go to City Hall to meet Rob. The mini-Consulate is near there. Along the way, during the portions of the subway ride which are above ground, I look closely at high rise apartments and I notice drying laundry hanging in front of so many windows. Interesting. It seems to be the normal way to dry clothes here.
This was a short ride but we still crossed a line at some point, and the subway wants another 200 Won from each of us. It's 15 cents. We ought to have erred on the side of caution and overpaid in the first place but now here we are and there is no machine for us at this subway exit. An elderly attendant tries to help us but she doesn't speak any English. She gestures for us to wait and she hurries to find somebody younger. He speaks English and takes a 1000 Won from us and comes back with the right tickets and our change. He's very helpful.
Upstairs we find the city hall but we can't find the Consulate. Maybe everybody knows where it is? Let's ask somebody. We pick a middle aged woman and her daughter. They're TOO helpful. They're not local and they don't know but they insist on making a phone call to somebody who might be able to help. I feel silly now for causing such a fuss. "I don't know. Ask somebody else" - that would have been an entirely legitimate, appropriate and polite-enough answer, I think. The person that they phone doesn't know either. We don't dare ask anybody else. After a while, we find the right building on our own.
It's high security for such an insignicant office. An airport-style metal detector and two uniformed guards. Three Korean members of the office staff escort us to lunch and we go to a relatively traditional Korean restaurant with seating on pillows on the floor. I would have preferred conventional seating but.... when in Rome....
One of the staff is a young intern and we are very impressed by her English which is practically without accent. She was only in the USA for a month, on some sort of exchange program sponsored by the Korean and American governments, so it's all the more surprising that her English is so perfect. And I'm surprised that the Korean government feels the need for its people to feel even closer to the USA given how very many of them, about 1.5 million, have already immigrated there.
Our train ride back to Seoul is uneventful.
Tuesday, April 7, 2009 : Seoul, Korea
It's another birthday passed outside the country. Five years ago it was South Africa. Rob takes me to lunch at that same terrific place where I had my first lunch here a week ago. My birthday lunch is Bibimbap, of course! It won't be long now before the Korean Spring reaches up here to the capital. The weather is perfectly Spring-like only we're still waiting for actual greenery to appear.
Seoul, Wednesday, April 8, 2009
I ride with Rob to the Embassy downtown and then walk around a while in the area. There's a street called Cheonggyecheon, but Rob just calls it the Water Street. They took a natural stream and incorporated it into the city. It's a good deal lower than street level and it's surprising how much quieter it is down here.
Saturday, April, 11, 2009 : Seoul, Korea
I have been busy working on web sites and also reformatting my computer, with not much time for touring, journaling and photographing. We're driving back to Busan on Thursday, and will take a boat over to Japan for a few days, followed by driving tour of Korea. I'll have LOTS of new things to write about and many more pictures. Stay tuned.
Monday, April 13, 2009 : Seoul Tower
After Rob got off work we decided to make a dash up to Seoul Tower before it gets dark. It's not far. We pass right by the parking lot where the poor civilians leave their cars to walk a long distance uphill to the tower. Diplomatic plates are ever-so handy. We park among the buses much higher up, but refrain from pushing our luck by driving all the way to the tower.
For some mysterious reason, "You'll see...," we go inside a tiny convenience store and buy a tiny padlock before walking up to the the tower. Around the base is a platform that's fenced along the side, and attached to the fence are millions of little padlocks. They have Korean writing on them. I guess you sort of make a wish and then between the magical properties of the lock and the altitude, your wish is supposed to come true? Anyway, we find a tiny gap and add our lock to the crowd of them.
The view is real good from here but we pay a few won to go up the elevator to the observation deck for a panoramic view of the entire city. Spectacular.
You put a padlock on the fence next to the tower. Something good is supposed to happen as a result of doing this but I didn't catch what exactly. Every window on the observation deck reports the number of kilometers in that direction to one or more far away places.
I think I never took a photo of a mens room before (not even that infamous one at the Minneapolis airport) but this one is just so very special...
Seoul : April 15, 2009
Rob has some people over for dinner tonight. A teacher who's been living here for 1.5 years teaching English to high school students and someone who works at the embassy. The highlight of the evening is Rob's story about being evacuated from Port-au-Prince, Haiti as President Aristide's government fell and Rob dodging bullets on his way to the airport. Far too much excitement.
The teacher said that it's a common joke how newcomers arrive here and go for weeks thinking this is the most marvelous country ever (I'm in that stage now) and then they get exasperated by certain oddities of the Korean culture and come to feel they can barely tolerate living here one more day. And then they swing back to loving the place for a while until pretty soon they settle down and find it a comfortable place to live, only not Eden. The teacher has been through all the stages and now he plans to sign up for a third year of teaching. And he loves the cuisine. Mostly.
I learned that Korean law requires every school in the country to have on its staff at least one native English speaker, one who also has a college degree. Korea is serious about becoming bilingual. The standard teaching job comes with a free apartment, plus $500/week tax free.
We have the GPS and we're driving to Busan in the morning. Our boat to Japan leaves is the following morning.