With a few days to look around Seuol we did our best to see some of the main sights and some of the more diverse sight too.
The first stop was a short metro ride out to Gyeingbokgong Palace. Seoul has 5 palaces, we weren’t intending to visit them all, but this one was a good introduction. We timed our arrival well, we had a little time to see the changing of the guards (photo) before being taken on a guided tour. Our guide was excellent. She really showed an interest in everything about the palace and gave me the impression that she was more of an historian than just a guide. The place was massive. As we entered I told Christine that it reminded me of the Forbidden City in Beijing, but it seems I wasn’t the only one to think that, our guide told us that the Japanese also thought the same thing as they arrive to burn the place down. Style and colour wise it was all very similar to the temples we have visited, it just differed greatly in use. Afterwards a short walk took us past the Ministry of Unification, now someone has a tough job there, and onto a Christian church that would have looked more in place in Italy than in the centre of Seoul. We ate at a nice little restaurant before heading into a supermarket to buy dessert of ice cream. A voice from behind said “Hello, remember me?” Amazingly it was the Japanese cyclist we had met as we were going into Hiroshima. At the time he had told us he was heading home, but it seems he didn’t stay there too long, either that or he took a wrong turning.
We checked out the Martyrs Memorial, renovated and reopened just a few days ago. This is where the Koreans dried to snuff out Christianity by killing all the Christians. Across the road was the Missionaries Cemetery, one stone reading “I would rather be buried in Korea than in Westminster Abbey”. An art museum was next, the Leeum Samsung Museum, the most expensive art museum in town. It was better for the building and the way it displayed things rather than the objects themselves.
After a day of no palaces we checked out the Changdeokgang Palace, another guided tour but oh so different. Our guide was about as boring as you could wish to be, it rubbed off on the people she was showing around. I was just thinking “These palaces are all the same, I am not sure I can stomach another” when Christine chipped in with “This is soooo boring, I don’t think we should visit any more palaces”. They are massive places and very impressive, but here you can get “palaced out”. We called in at Seodamun Prison. Christine loves her history, so being idle I will copy odd bit from her blog:
I have done so much interesting sightseeing lately that I cannot spare you another lesson in Korean history - it is just too fascinating.
Chapter 1: It is all the Japanese's fault or Seodamun Prison in Seoul: Korea became a Japanese protectorate in 1905 and a colony in 1910 and the Japanese who had only very recently been "awakened" themselves by the Americans modernized Korea within years. Modern textile, steel and chemical industries emerged along with new railroads, highways and ports. By 1940 the Japanese owned 40% of the land and there were 700,000 Japanese living and working in Korea. This modernization left Korea much more developed in 1945 than for example Vietnam under the French, but Korea had to pay a high price for that: Japan tried to destroy the Korean sense of national identity. Koreans were forced to change their names and not speak Korean. Millions of Koreans were used as "mobile human fodder" for the Japanese doing forced labour in Japanese mines or forced into prostitution as "comfort women" for Japanese soldiers in WW II. Any resistance was brutally suppressed and this is where the Seodamun Prison comes in. The Japanese built this prison in the early 1900s and it was soon filled to the brim with male and female Korean resistance fighters who were brutally tortured and executed. The prison has been restored with a lot of effort and after visiting it I could understand very well why the Koreans still dislike the Japanese. Koreans love life-size models in their museums and therefore this prison is full of torture exhibits with a lot of fake blood and piercing screams - definitely not for the faint of heart....
Back to me: We headed for the Coex Mall, just a mall really but inside it was an unusual museum the likes of which are unlikely to be found outside Korea. This was a Kimchi Museum. It pickled stuff, mainly cabbage with fish juice….hmmm, delicious! The Koreans love it and it is very unusual not to have a small pile of it served with every meal, breakfast included. In case you hadn’t had enough during meals, you even got to sample more of the stuff on the way through.
I think the highlight for both of us was the day trip to the DMZ. This is the Demilitarized zone, and covers the length of the border between the north and the south, stretching 2kms each side making it 4km wide. Over to Christine:
Chapter 4: The daily war at the border or the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone): A definite highlight of our travels in Korea was a trip to the DMZ. The way these tours are conducted are very telling. First of all only foreigners are allowed into the DMZ itself. You have to take a tour and even have to obey a dress code: No jeans, sandals, provocative T-shirts and no 'Gangster look'. You even have to change buses to get into the JSA (Joint Security Area) itself, which is shared by Southerners, Northerners and the peacekeeping nations. In the DMZ the war goes on a little bit every day giving the whole area an eerie feeling. We were told not to communicate at all with the Northern soldiers, even if they show us a middle finger.... The Southerners all wear sunglasses (so they can avoid direct eye contact if they end up in a staring contest with their neighbours), stand around in a sort of aggressive Taekwando position (looks more frightening) and have ball bearings in their trouser seams (their tingling makes them sound more in number than they actually are). And the Northerners are not short of provocative actions: In 1978 they brutally killed two American soldiers who wanted to prune a tree in the JSA (it was blocking their sight)- with an axe, later known as the axe murder incident. They erected a flag post in their propaganda village close to the border and when the Southerners built an even higher flag post, they responded with an even bigger one. Right now we are at 100 m in the South and 165 m in the North (with a 35 m long flag!). In order to infiltrate or even attack the South they built various tunnels under the border, one of which tourists can visit. When the tunnel was discovered, they claimed it was an old coal mine - but unfortunately this area consists of granite and there is no coal whatsoever. The most 'hilarious' accident however took place pretty recently in the joint conference room in the JSA where you can actually cross 2 meters into North Korea - the room is literally built on the border (photo). On the Southern room side flags of the UN nations participating in the Korean War were displayed until the visit of President Bush. What had happened? During the visit two North Korean soldiers tore down the American and South Korean flag to clean their shoes and blow their nose with it..... Now the South has substituted the flags with plastic plaques...
And back to me: As we rode out on the bus we were given very specific instructions, my favourite of which was “DO NOT take any photographs unless you are told to do so!”….you will enjoy yourself! We swapped buses and were taken to Camp Boniface. There we passed the most dangerous golf course in the world, it had mine fields all around which I guess were put there to stop any disputes on whether your shot is out of bounds or not. The mines have since been removed and the course is still used, though there is only one hole. Once back it fitted in well that we should visit the War Memorial Museum, especially as it was just across the road. Christine:
Chapter 2: The Korean War or the Korean War Memorial Museum: We should have been warned: This museum would be big. But it was not big, it is huge! It took us 3 hours to work our way through learning everything we always wanted to know about the Korean War and did not dare to ask. In fact we learnt more than we ever wanted to know and were totally knackered afterwards. To sum it up this is what happened: After 1945 Korea was divided into a Communist North and Capitalist South with the goal to have joint elections soon . Only that this never happened. By 1949 both the Soviets and the Americans had withdrawn their troops. North Korea's Kim Il Sung launched a surprise attack on South Korea on 25 of June, 1950, when the border was almost unguarded: The South Korean troops had been dispatched to help the farmers during rice planting season... The North Korean army swept over the South and occupied almost the whole Korean peninsula. For the first time in history the UN authorized a military intervention and asked its members for military help which came mostly from the Americans. And this is when General Douglas Mac Arthur enters the world stage again at the tender age of 70. He is extremely successful and turns the war around with his famous Incheon landing. Unfortunately, the Chinese did not like that and entered the war on the North Korean side. For 3 years the war is waging back and forth and Seoul alone changes hands four times. Soon both sides realised that no one could win this war but truce talks took 2 years until an armistice was finally signed in 1953. The South Korean government never signed this armistice as they did not want the war to end without re-unification. After 3 years and 1 one month of war and 4 million people had died, North and South Korea were divided more or less at the same demarcation line as in 1945....
Time was running out for us. I packed Christine off to do a bit more sight seeing whilst I stopped around and just packed. Guess what? There is more from Christine (I am being very lay today!):
The end is near or I am going to have a break
Tomorrow I will fly back (home?) to Germany. I could say "the end is near", but I do not want to look at it like that. Sounds too final and this will not be a final return for me.
I have travelled much longer than I had ever anticipated mostly due to the fact that I have met John and we got sidetracked a lot just having too much fun. I had planned to be back by mid-May and now it will be mid-September. I had never planned to cycle in New Zealand. I wanted to cycle 1 or 2 months in Japan and it turned out to be 3 months. I never even thought of going to Korea. But I had a wonderful time. And I would do the exact same thing again...
In fact I enjoyed it so much that I can't stop it. Also the US$ exchange rate is just too good to be missed - I just have to go to the US again. Probably the Florida Trail and the Arizona Trail will be next and I will fly to Miami around Christmas. So flying back to Germany is not the end of the trip, but just a break. A holiday from a holiday so to speak.
The hardest part is parting from John. For the last 7 months we have been together 24/7 - sometimes arguing, but mostly having a great time. He will fly on to San Francisco to finish his cycle trip around the world. I do hope to meet him again some time - we have a lot of ideas for future trips.
So tomorrow a wonderful chapter of this trip will end, but I am already looking forward to the next one.