notes from the korean peninsula
(Feb 06) I post this offering because it relates to travel to a place I would never have dreamed of travelling to as little as a year ago. And to add to the strangeness, I chose to travel there on the spur of the moment. I had taken many a spontaneous trip before but none ever so far a field. My most recent short break to Korea has certainly had less focus on extreme sports than my last overseas holiday although I did manage to venture into hostile territory.
...I stayed at a rather palatial residence which was very comfortable indeed. To say I had my own "wing" would not be far from the truth - an impressive suite with a bedroom about four times the size of my own place, separate dressing room and ensuite, with views over a small garden and parts of the city underneath Seoul Tower. Very nice indeed. To add flavour to the location, the residence is near many Hostess Bars on a street otherwise known as Hookers' Hill. There's a significant US Army presence in Korea so these bars are well frequented by military men and other international visitors seeking "comfort". Celebrious surrounds.
A highlight of my holiday was a day trip to the demilitarised zone (DMZ). The DMZ is a four kilometre wide stretch of land that runs the breadth of the country and separates North and South Korea. Spent some time in Panmunjeom village (55km north of Seoul) which, while US soldiers escorted us, was rather scary (this 'neutral' facility is located on the cease-fire line established at the end of the Korean War and where peace talks are still held to this day). There is nowhere where you can get so close to North Korean soldiers without being arrested or shot and the tension is palpable. I actually stood on North Korean soil during this visit. The village itself is the site for several chilling incidents that have occurred since 1953 including murders that almost led to another world war and the area has high wire barbed fences, landmines, anti-tank obstacles, and watchtowers.
As a precursor to my departure, I spoke of my "Operation Phoenix"…Here's the explanation of what the ranting was about. The DMZ itself, in the absence of any human contact, has become an incredible wildlife sanctuary - hence my coining the phrase "phoenix" which "rises from the ashes". Unfortunately a thick fog prevented viewing of this sanctuary on the day itself, but I did manage to see the odd pheasant that had braved crossing landmine infested hills to venture within sight of the south border. Not quite the "Alias style" covert operation implied by my pre-visit comments but visiting the sanctuary as a wildlife enthusiast was interesting.
To round out the exposure to North Korean issues during my stay, I also watched a documentary called "A State of Mind" about two gymnasts at the "Mass Games". While my viewing was distracted by messy long blonde locks of a tanned French dude sitting in front of me (oui oui), I found the film very thought-provoking - it left me wondering whether a lack of free will is truly de‑humanising. The circumstances in North Korea are sheer madness.
The rest of my time was spent shopping in a plethora of markets that filled the city alleys of Seoul (finding accessory heaven there) and a 14 storey department store, eating copious amounts of Korean food, and touring key sites such as Gyeongokgung Palace and the Korean War Memorial.
Cultural highlights of the trip were:
(1) "Polite" society - without a doubt, Koreans are generous in their willingness to assist even when language is a barrier. I was overwhelmed by the unsolicited offers of assistance when it looked like I didn't quite know what I was doing (which was a lot of the time). The first Korean word I learned was thank you.
(2) "Clean" society - I have never seen such a clean subway and clean city streets! Not a single scrap of rubbish or graffiti anywhere. The trains were so clean, they gleamed. Absolutely no chance of a bomb being left on one of these trains - it is a very safe city in which to travel. And the trains run on time (always). If cleanliness is next to godliness, the Koreans and God are joined at the hip. It was remarkable.
(3) "Blade-runner" society - cute toys, electronics, modern high-rises and giant video screens on city streets juxtaposed against monuments several hundred years old. The sort of place where videogame geeks are treated like rockstars! The voice-overs at the train stations were so melodic and soothing - the stuff for a good brainwashing. All very surreal.
(4) "Look at me" society - this self-consciousness came notably in two very different forms. First, the attention paid to looking good. I have never seen so many mirrors (including in subway stations) and people using them. Mirror, mirror, on the wall.... Second, protests are quite common (so much so that Riot police stand-by the ready in several parts of the city) but not just any sort of protest - Koreans are quite comfortable in optimizing being heard and seen through self-mutiliation (yes, chopping off fingers, setting themselves on fire and one person recently accidentally stabbed himself to death in a protest).
(5) "Healthy" society - talk about food for the soul. Korean food is delicious - tasty and nutritious and rather good value. One of the best meals I had (which included a seafood soup, BBQ pork strips, a large selection of side dishes, rice, and soju (Korean firewater!) was only 4000 won (about $7). My personal favourite was Hotteok (rice pancakes with cinnamon and honey paste). I didn't try any ppeondaegi (roasted silkworm larvae), which, along with squid jerky, is sold on many street corners. The latter is the equivalent of popcorn at the cinemas - I'd like to supersize my squid please. Also on offer was raw octopus - apparently you can feel the tentacle suckers in your throat as you swallow and some people have choked when the critters try to make their way back out in a desperate bid for freedom. Of the local beers I tried, Hite is an excellent lager and Cass beer is also rather good.
On a final note, despite excellent English signage, a decided lack of foreigners, and the best subway system on which I have ever traveled, not knowing the language did make it a little difficult as a destination. The Koreans treat foreigners as a bit of a novelty (as I discovered on a suburban train in Busan) but Australians are liked. The coach of the Korean soccer team that made the quarter finals in the last World Cup was an Australian and there is still goodwill flowing from that. I was treated very well when I explained I was "ho-ju" (my phonetic spelling of the word for Australian). I suggest, if you decide to travel to Korea, bring a selection of small trinkets (such as kangaroo pins) to give as gifts as you will get small gifts given to you (and it is polite to provide a small gift in return).