Sunday, January 12, 2020

Korea Fall 2019 - Part 6 Insadong and Seoul Station

Named the cultural street of Seoul, Insa-dong was a place I looked forward to visiting. They had many souvenirs and art supplies for sale. Most of the street is car-free so it was rather nice to walk freely. 

A lot of the souvenir shops there sold the same items..., chopsticks and spoon sets, small pouches and wallets, magnets and keychains, hair accessories, small trinkets, and more. Once in a while you will see a more specialized store selling nicer but more expensive stuff like silk.

Korean themed silk neckties

I visited a few art supply stores and bought a few fans. Some were made in Korea and a lot of them were made in China. They sold similar brushes and other tools as the ones I came across in Shanghai.

On this street we had separated so we could freely look at any items we want to buy. A lot of us were tired and had chosen to sit and wait at Starbucks. I was walking around with Miss Kiki for a while but by the time we reached the Ssamziegil mall she reached her limit and started asking to sit. In the end, I didn't get to see inside the mall and we went straight to Starbucks to join the others.

Miss Kiki saw hairpins in the stores and decided she wanted one, but couldn't decide which. We ended up not buying it that day but returned to Insadong on a different day for a quick purchase.

That evening we went to Lotte Mart at Seoul Station and had our dinner in the area.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Korea Fall 2019 - Part 5 De-militarized Zone DMZ

At one point in our lives I'm sure we've all heard of the Korean war, of how just overnight a country got divided into two, families and friends torn apart, how one opened up and the other closed the doors. I'm not ashamed to say that my latest reminder of this war was the world-famous K-drama Descendants of the Sun :D

For this Korean trip, my friend suggested that we participate in a De-militarized Zone tour and I agreed. I decided that it would be a great opportunity for Miss Kiki to get exposure to not-so-far-back history and learn more about the world. 

There are usually two types of tours you can book to visit the DMZ. One is an easier course that doesn't actually visit the Joint Security Area (JSA)/Panmumjeon. The tour that visits the JSA requires more time, have higher risks, and I decided that it wasn't something I would want to go to with a child.

We booked a group tour on a bus via Klook. We were picked up by an almost empty bus and then we were brought to another spot and then we had to wait for a while. Another bus arrived and they ushered us to the other bus that was already quite full. It seemed like they packed two groups into the bus, one with a Chinese speaking guide and our group had the English speaking guide.

The tour was quite informative. Our guide explained how the war broke out and how the people have high hopes that in the future they will be reunited. She also told us a story about the founder of Hyundai, who was born in the area that is now part of North Korea. He had sold one of his father's cow to go to Seoul and eventually after he became successful he built a bridge connecting the south and the north, and during the opening of the bridge he sent 1001 cows over to the north. 1000 for the country and 1 to pay his father back. I'm sure that is a shortened and simplified version of the story, but memorable regardless.

Our first stop was the Imjingak Park. This park commemorates the families that were separated because of the war. Here they have an altar where people come to perform rituals for their families in the north on certain holidays. It was cool feeling to have been there just a few days after such holiday. Aside from the altar, there were a few other things on display in the park. We saw a locomotive with real bullet holes on it, as well as colourful ribbons people tied on the fence, representing their hopes, dreams, and prayers.

We didn't get as much time as we would've liked to see all the things they had on display. It's unfortunate but that's the down side of going with a group tour. We got back into the bus and went to our next stop: Dora Observatory.

We alighted from the bus at the Dora Observatory parking lot, and we had to climb up the inclined smooth road to reach the observatory building. The group went together but my dad fell behind. It was quite a steep hike up after all. We eventually joined the group but I had missed some of the explanations. Miss Kiki told us later on that the North and the South had at one point competed in who had the highest flag pole. After a few times of back and forth, North Korea ended up with the tallest flagpole in the world and had held that title for about two decades. The flagpoles can be seen from the observatory and is quite clear with the binoculars. We were lucky that we had a clear sky that day. We were told that it doesn't happen very often.

The site after Dora Observatory was the Third Tunnel. A North Korean who escaped to the south had given information that North Korea was building infiltration tunnels, but he didn't know exactly where they were. Only an approximate area. Having received the information the South Korean government planted hundreds of water pipes in the area and they had found several tunnels when the water pipes bursted. The third infiltration tunnel was the closest and easiest one to reach.

Picture-taking was not allowed inside the tunnel. Miss Kiki and I and my friend went all the way in. My sister went about halfway in and turned around. My parents didn't even try and they stayed behind in the waiting area. That was a good call.

The tunnel entrance was smooth but steep. The entrance was built by South Korea to reach the tunnel. Once we reached the tunnel it became a lot more difficult to move around, especially for tall tourists. Miss Kiki was excited and she tirelessly walked all the way in and back. Believe me, it was not an easy hike!

In the waiting area there was a souvenir shop where you can buy North Korea liquor as well as a few other items. We bought the liquor but it tasted so bad!

Our last stop for the tour was the Dorasan Station. Thousands of people donated money to have this station and track built, with their hops that it is not the last station but is the first station to the north. They had a gate in the station that said "To Pyongyang" but of course it's not currently running. 

After Dorasan Station we were dropped off in Seoul by City Hall. It was past lunch time and we were starving! We walked around and found that a lot of the stores were closed. Luckily a BBQ restaurant is open and we had some more meat there. Here we tried Bokbunjajoo the black raspberry wine. It was sweet and delicious!

Please stay tuned for the next post!