South Korea – Seoul

Day 264: December 1, 2018

Our flight left Hanoi at 1:50 am for Seoul, South Korea. It was about a four hour flight. We arrived, exchanged some money, took out some more cash and bought a new SIM card. Then we walked to the train to take us in to Seoul from the airport. It was about an hour ride. Our Airbnb host had given us amazingly detailed notes on how to get to the apartment using the train system.

When we arrived at the Airbnb, we were too early to check in, but we were able to store our bags in the luggage room. We walked up the street to order some food for breakfast. I had sweet and sour chicken with a sliced up raw onion and Danny had noodles with a black bean sauce.

The street our Airbnb was on was in the middle of an area with tons of restaurants. We were worried at night it might be a party street, but it was mostly young professionals walking around.

Street our Airbnb was on

After breakfast we walked north to Gyeongbokgung Palace which was the royal palace of the Joseon dynasty (1392-1897). It was built in 1395. Much of the palace was destroyed by Japan during the 20th century.

Gyeongbokgung Palace

Next we walked to Bukchon Hanok, a traditional Korean village. It was the residential quarter of government officials and nobility during the Joseon dynasty. The narrow streets were very interesting. There were people with signs saying to keep quiet. It seems the residents have only allowed the continued tourism if it is less noisy.

Bukchon Hanok

We then went back up a walking street and entered a cat café. It was $12 to enter, but entry came with a beverage. There were lots of different looking cats: one with stubby legs and a long body, one huge one, one without hair (a Canadian sphinx), one grumpy faced, etc. There were even two adorable kittens: one orange and one black. How crazy is that!

Cat café

We sat in the cat café enjoying our time then realized we could check in to our Airbnb. We were both super exhausted. Our room was very tiny, but worked for the couple of days we were there. Prices for accommodations were fairly expensive.

We watched some Netflix then went down to a Korean BBQ restaurant for supper. We were rather disappointed. The meat was great, but the only sides were pickled vegetables.

Korean BBQ

After supper we went to Baskin Robbins to end our day on a better note. I love the vibe of Seoul. Out on the main street we passed one store a couple of times playing Christmas music. I just wanted to stand outside the store. It made me super homesick and excited to just be home already. The streets in Seoul aren’t very crowded. There is little to no traffic noise. You don’t have to fear for your life crossing the street like in Vietnam. It’s very chill so I think we will enjoy our time here. We returned to the Airbnb and watched some Netflix before an early morning tomorrow.

Day 265: December 2, 2018

We ate yogurt and cereal in our room then walked up the street to a popular nearby hotel for the pick up for our tour to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) of Korea. The hotel was all decked out in Christmas decorations.

Lotte Hotel

Seoul has a population of 10 million. The satellite communities have an additional population of 10 million. South Korea overall has a population of 50 million. The distance from Seoul to the DMZ is 50 km. Pyongyang is 200 km from the DMZ.

Our tour started at the Freedom Bridge where 12,773 prisoners of war were exchanged in 1953. On holidays, South Koreans with a North Korean background come to the bridge to pray for their ancestors. Ribbons tied to the surrounding fences are prayers for reunification. According to our guide, the younger generation seems less motivated to reunify because they see things as fine the way they are and they lack the connection to North Korean family.

Freedom Bridge

Next we went to Dorasan Station. In 2000, the South-North Joint Declaration was made by the two Koreas. They agreed to connect the railroad line between the two nations. The Trans Korean Railway would connect to the Trans Siberian Railway and the Trans Chinese Railway. In November, 2018, trains were sent north from South Korea to survey the railway.

Dorasan Station

Six million people had died in the Korean War by 1953. A ceasefire was signed, but the country is still at war. Our tour guide told us about some incidents in the continued fighting between North and South Korea. In 1968, 31 North Koreans came up the river and attacked the Blue House, the official residence of the South Korean President. In 1983, North Korea assassinated 17 South Korean politicians in Myanmar. In 2010, the North Koreans bombed an inhabited island in South Korea.

In South Korea, every male is required to participate in mandatory military service at 19 years of age. If he goes to university the military service can be postponed. At 29 year old he must do service or go to jail. According to our guide, in North Korea, every male has compulsory military service at 16 years old for 10 years. Our guides in North Korea had told us that military service was completely voluntary.

Our next stop was the Dora Observatory where we saw across to North Korea. There was a complete lack of trees on the North Korean side which we hadn’t noticed when we were on that side. An industrial complex built by South Korea within North Korea could be seen from the observatory. It used North Korean labour and South Korean raw materials.

View into North Korea from the Dora Observatory

Korea has a multi party system with two major political parties: Liberal and Conservative. When the Conservatives are in power there is a poor relationship with the North Koreans. When the Liberals are in power there is a focus on reconciliation. The current party in power is the Liberals which have been bringing forward many steps to better relations.

Next we went to the “Third Tunnel”. Defectors have been interrogated and advised there are more than 20 tunnels from North Korea heading towards Seoul. Only four tunnels have been discovered. The one we visited was found in 1978 and was 70 m deep.

The climb down through the tourist trail to the tunnel was 350 m long. At the bottom we were in the original tunnel and able to walk 265 m along it. At the end there were three blockades to block the North Koreans. The distance from the third blockade to the military demarcation line was an additional 170 m. The tunnel is 1200 m in the North and 435 m in the South.

Sadly, we were unable to visit the Joint Security Area (JSA) where the two sides have buildings facing each other. A joint effort was underway to remove land mines from the area while we were visiting so the JSA was closed off. There are more than one million land mines spread across the DMZ.

We also read on the news later that day that a North Korean soldier had defected and crossed the DMZ into South Korea the previous day. Around 30,000 North Koreans have defected to the South since the ceasefire.

We returned to Seoul to a ginseng centre then were dropped off at City Hall. From there we walked to Namdaemun Market which we thought had street food, but it was mostly clothes and household items. We walked a bit further to Myeongdong Market where there was street food and tons of cosmetic stores. We had mandu (dumplings), a chocolate ball smashed with a hammer, pajeon (Korean pancake) with beef and vegetables, hotteok (Korean donuts) filled with cinnamon, sugar and sunflower seeds and gyeran-bbang (egg bread).

Danny smashing the chocolate ball with a hammer

We walked around the area quite a lot checking out the different shops. After we walked back to the Airbnb then went up the street to a Mexican food restaurant for supper. It was very yummy.

After supper we went across the street to a bar. We asked if there were karaoke rooms inside and they replied, “Yes.” We were charged a $10 per person cover charge which we assumed would cover the karaoke. We were wrong.

In the private karaoke room, the server tried to explain the pricing. His English wasn’t great and our Korean is non-existent. We eventually figured out that we had to buy a certain set of drinks then the room was free. We ended up paying an additional $30 for two beers, a bottle of Soju (Korean alcohol) and a plate of nachos. We then got the room for one hour. It was becoming an expensive night!

The karaoke system was started, but I had no idea how to use the machine and the key pad was in Korean. I tried pressing every button possible to switch the song, but couldn’t make it work. Eventually, I went out to grab the server and he explained the three basic buttons.

Figuring out the Korean karaoke system

Then Danny and I rocked out! There was a pretty good selection of English pop songs. We almost wished we had paid for two hours by the time it was done because we were having such a good time.

Karaokeing

After karaoke, we went to a Virtual Reality (VR) café we had seen the day before. We paid for 30 minutes only because they were closing in less than an hour. The first game was Skyfall where you ride up an elevator then walk off a plank and fall. That was the whole game, but it was pretty adrenaline pumping. We tried another game, but Danny couldn’t get his to work. I played by myself while he tried a different game. Before we knew it our 30 minutes was up. We left and returned to the Airbnb to sleep.

Day 266: December 3, 2018

We slept in a bit and watched some Netflix. When we finally got out of bed, we walked across the street to a bibimbap restaurant for lunch. Bibimbap is rice topped with sautéed vegetables, chili pepper, soy sauce or soybean paste. Meat or egg are then usually added on top. This was one of our favourite Korean meals.

Bibimbap

After we took the train to the west part of the city to go to the Racoon Café. We were both pretty excited. We ordered drinks then sat outside the racoon room to watch as we couldn’t bring our drinks inside.

As we watched our opinion on our visit slowly changed. The raccoons seemed significantly overweight and not happy about being there. We had thought they would be more domesticated and enjoy the company of humans. They seemed to just be looking to escape. We decided it wasn’t our thing and left.

We walked up the street to the Trick Eye Museum, which has 3D optical illusions set up for Instagramming. We enjoyed walking through although there were a few more people than we would have liked.

Trick Eye Museum

Next we went to the Ice Museum which was an ice house built inside a giant freezer. There was even a slide.

Ice Museum

After we went to the Love Museum which was an adult version of the Trick Eye Museum. It was less busy, but the pictures were maybe not appropriate for this blog.

On our way to the train, we stopped at a stand selling poutine. It was pouring rain so we stood under an overhang and ate. It was a much better poutine than the one we had in Thailand or the cheesy fries we had in Cambodia.

Poutine in the rain

We returned to the Airbnb, watched some Netflix then walked south to a restaurant near Myeongdong Market that was suggested to us by a friend. We had the bulgogi which is thin, marinated slices of beef or pork that is grilled. Traditionally, the meat was reserved for nobility. It was very delicious.

Bulgogi

After supper we walked around the market a bit then made our way back to the Airbnb to sleep.

Day 267: December 4, 2018

The excitement of going home just keeps building. I’ve found I need to put it to the back of my head or I just start vibrating. We are getting so close! I almost don’t remember the last 266 days. The start of our trip feels forever ago and I wonder if it was all a dream. Am I still in the dream? Will home feel like reality again?

Danny went for a run and I went to Starbucks to catch up on blogging. There are so many Starbucks here! Danny met me after his run and we went upstairs to a pizza place for lunch.

After we went up the nearby walking street to do some tourist shopping. On our way back to the Airbnb we stopped at another cat café. We played with the cats for over an hour and a half. Then we chilled in the Airbnb until we were hungry.

Cat café

We walked up the street looking for a cheesy rice dish we had seen on signs. We found a place, but it didn’t end up being as amazing as it looked. Korean restaurants really like cooking food at the table.

Ready for cheesy rice

After we got ice cream and sat on the second floor looking out over the street. We watched a truck promoting the bar we had gone to a few nights previously doing laps around the streets. Danny started announcing it like a race and I timed the amount of time to do a lap. We were also watching a lady handing out pamphlets. She was targeting couples, but we still don’t know what she was selling because when we left an hour later to go to sleep she didn’t approach us.

Day 268: December 5, 2018

I woke up fairly early and couldn’t sleep any longer due to excitement about going home. Danny called his parents then we packed our bags and put them in the luggage storage. We went down the street and got Taco Bell for lunch as not many restaurants were open at 11:00 am. After lunch we picked up our bags and took the train to the airport. We had to wait about an hour then we were able to drop off our bags. On the other side we found a place with salads for lunch. Vegetables were a bit hard to find in Seoul, along with fruit. All of their vegetables were pickled.

I called my parents while we waited to board. The Air Canada plane wasn’t as large as I thought it would be and there were many empty seats including the one beside us. Our flight was a bit delayed leaving, but only by about 15 minutes.

We are so excited to be heading back home. It all feels a bit unreal. We aren’t sure how we will fit into life back in Canada after being away for 268 days. I’m most looking forward to all of those hugs that I will receive from the people I love.

M

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