Tuesday, April 26, 2011

SSB (Part 4)

Ah, the final leg of my Surprise spring break adventures. It's been a long 4 days, not at all a relaxing vacation, but a very fun and rewarding one nonetheless.

So what better way to go about ending my SSB than a quick trip up to North Korea. You read me right, I went to North Korea today!

As always, let's start at the beginning. In case you've never noticed, you're reading a blog entitled "Thoughts from the Thirty-Eighth Parallel." On the one hand, this title is misleading -- In Bucheon, I live much closer to the 37th parallel than to the 38th, but naming my blog "Thoughts from the Thirty-Seven and One-Half-th Parallel" seemed wrong. On the other hand, the 38th parallel has a much better ring to it and is of critical historic importance on the Korean peninsula. Having named my blog after such an important landmark, it was really only a matter of time before I went up north to see my blog's namesake for myself.

Now the only way to get into the DMZ (and to Panmunjom, where you can stand inside North Korea) is with an organized tour group. To be honest, I'm not the biggest fan of tour groups. Something about a certain time in New Zealand, on a sheep farm that happened to have once been part of a set for The Lord of the Rings. If you look to your left, you'll see a tree with a red ribbon tied in it, left from from the movie set. If you look to your right, you'll see a piece of white decaying plywood that was once a Hobbit hole. If you look to your left again, you'll see a tree Peter Jackson decided to completely disassemble and reassemble 5 feet away from its original location. And if you look down, you'll see that you're standing in sheep ddong. This is a working farm after all.

For the DMZ, however, I had no other choice than to just suck it up and pick a tour group. I chose to take a combined tour of both the DMZ area including the third tunnel, and the JSA (Joint Security Area, aka Panmunjom). Despite the cheesy touristy element of going with the tour group, it was an awesome experience, and I would definitely recommend it!

The first stop on our agenda was the 3rd tunnel, located within the CCZ (Civilian Control Zone) a mere 44 kilometers from Seoul. It's no secret that the North has been plotting ways to covertly and not-so-covertly attack the South since the war "ended" in 1953, and the tunnels are a perfect example. Tunnel 3 was discovered in 1978, lying 73 meters below ground and stretching 435 meters into the South Korean side of the DMZ. The tunnel was cramped, only about 2 meters tall and 2 meters wide, but had it been completed, it could have easily allowed an entire division of fully loaded enemy troops to cross into South Korea in about an hour. Which is a little bit unnerving. The South has only found 4 such tunnels to date, but there might be as many as 20 stretched across the 241 km long DMZ.

No photos were allowed inside the tunnel, and fearing that if I disobeyed their strict photography rules, they would get angry and throw my delinquent self over to the crazies up North, I decided to heed their warnings. To get down to the tunnel, we donned blue hard hats and rode down an extremely squished monorail train. The descent took about six minutes, and was very steep and lit by foreboding neon-green lights. At the bottom, we disembarked and walked to within 200 meters of the MDL (Military Demarcation Line, the actual border with the North). Even though it was blocked off by a 5 meter-thick concrete wall, it was eerie. When the North found out that the South had discovered the tunnel, they tried to quickly play it off like they were just mining for coal down there by painting black marks on the walls. Obviously not true. Given the tunnel design, layout, and dynamite marks in addition to the other tunnels also pointing in the general direction of Seoul, their motives were pretty clearly not about coal mining. Also the black paint rubbed off on your hands if you touched it. But good try.

After finishing up at the 3rd Tunnel, we headed to the Dora Observatory, a site where you can see past the DMZ into Gaesung City, the second-largest city in North Korea. Well, kinda. Even through the binoculars provided, it was hard to really see anything, it was so far away. What you could see, however, was Kijong-dong, more commonly known as Propaganda Village. Kijong-dong is a modern-looking village with grey and blue multi-floored buildings and lovely looking landscaping, but it's not real -- The north maintains it just for appearance's sake. If you look closely, most of the buildings don't even have windows! In addition to its fake buildings, Kijong-dong has a giant flagpole (the second tallest in the world, actually) proudly waving North Korea's flag 160 meters up in the air. It's really quite ridiculous.

Photography was allowed at this point, but only kind of...

North Korea. See???

After unsuccessfully taking pictures at the Dora Observatory, we got back onto the bus and headed over to the Dorasan Station. Now I love train stations as much as the next person, but this stop was completely unnecessary. Yes, it's true that it's the northern-most train station in South Korea, and yes, it's true it links up with Pyeongyang. But until reunification happens, it's really just an empty train station used occasionally for moving the handful of South Korean employees working up North across the border. Not really a worthwhile twenty minutes of my life.

After Dorasan Station, we crossed back out of the CCZ and had lunch at Imjingak, a tiny village nearby the DMZ. What I found amusing about Imjingak was that there was a tiny amusement park situated in the parking lot. The crazies up North may have built a fake village, but we apparently built a fake amusement park... who knows.

After lunch, we switched onto a different bus and headed out to the good stuff -- Panmunjom. As one of the tenses places in the world, a militarized zone where soldiers of warring nations stand watching each other every moment of every day, we had a set of VERY strict rules to follow. For one, we had a dress code and a restriction on cameras with zoom capability over 90mm. We were forbidden to talk to any of the military personnel from either side, and we were instructed not to point or make any gestures whatsoever. We were herded like ducklings in a two-person across single file line, and we were told exactly when we could take pictures (for one minute increments tops) and exactly what directions we could photograph. Even our release form we signed after a short 15-minute briefing about the history of Panmunjom started, "The visit to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom will entail entry into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action..."


We walked through the front building of the complex and went inside the MAC Conference Room, where all the meetings between the United Nations and North Korean officials take place. In this small blue room crowded with chairs, tables, and tourists, I got to walk across the MDL (marked by a set of microphones on the main conference table) and into North Korea!

The main conference table. This soldier is standing in both North and South Korea.

I'm in North Korea! A little anti-climactic, I know...

After maybe three minutes of frantic picture taking and walking in and out of North Korea, we were herded outside to the steps of the main South Korean building at Panmunjom. There, we were told that there were North Korean officers watching us from the building directly in front of us. Again, we were given maybe one minute to take pictures, facing only directly forward or to our left or right side.

It WAS a tour group, of course I had a Swedish guy in my picture too...

If you look hard, the cement line lying horizontally between the two buildings marks the MDL. Really cool.

After our one minute was up, we were herded back out of the complex and onto our bus. As we drove away from Panmunjom, we stopped and were instructed to take pictures of the Bridge of No Return, the only bus photographs we were allowed to take anywhere near the grounds of the DMZ.

Stunning, I know.

Soon we were out of the DMZ, and allowed to gesture and take pictures freely again. Whew. The whole day was an extremely intense experience, but so awesome! Completely worthwhile! In my day to day life in Bucheon, I think about our conflict with the North approximately never, but seeing firsthand how tense the border really is, is just eye-opening. Panmunjom is such a historically fascinating place, seriously, if you're in Korea, GO!

And with that excursion, I completed my 4-day SSB. My legs are sore, my puppy has been walked, I have some terrific new pictures, and I feel more culturally aware than I was even last week. All in all successful surprise spring break.

- Christine -

Monday, April 25, 2011

SSB (Part 3)

So here we are, Day 3 of my Surprise Spring Break, and my first day off that technically counts as a day off. To review, Day 1 was busy, Day 2 was relaxing, and Day 3 involved me climbing yet another mountain.

I have this theory about hiking, a theory that is remarkably similar to my theory about running. Hiking cussing hurts! There's a very good reason humankind invented the escalator! We have this innate desire to go to the top of things and look down, but you have to be absolutely crazy to actually climb up one of those said things! Kind of like running, it's ingrained in us that we want to go places quickly, but that, my friends, is precisely why we invented the bicycle (and then the car, train, airplane, subway, bus, jet, rocket, etc). Humans are smart like that. But these inventions of ours, these escalators and cars, well they're all fine and dandy, but they're just not the same as doing it on your own. They're not nearly as rewarding. There's no sense of accomplishment when you reach the top of an escalator. So here's my theory;

NA = Need for accomplishment
AC = Absolutely crazy
H = Hiking

NA + AC = H


NA = H - AC (aka You won't climb up the whole damn mountain, for goodness sakes your legs hurt, what a stupid idea!)


AC = H - NA (aka You won't climb up the whole damn mountain because, meh, it's just another mountain with no concession stand at the top. No noodle bowls? What's the point...)

None of this really matters, however, because I was crazy enough to spend my whole Day 3 hiking Bukhansan Mountain, the tallest mountain in Seoul. Even worse, I decided to try out the highest peak out of all of them, Baegundae peak which stands 836.5 meters tall. My legs are still crying just thinking about it.

It started out pretty enough. For the first 45 minutes or so, my trail gently sloped upwards with the tricking of a nearby stream at my side. I passed several temples and shrines tucked into the side of the mountains, and if you stopped to listen, you could hear the faint beating of a temple drum somewhere off in the distance. It was a gorgeous mountain.

But then something changed. The trail got steeper, and not wanting to break my new camera, I put it away for a while. By the time I got it back out, however, my trail had turned into this.

That's right, it's not even a real trail anymore. You're walking up a sloped granite slab, pulling yourself up by these steel cables bolted into the rocks. Felt just great...

If it could be any consolation, at least the view was great...

The top! I can see it!

Proof I made it. It was SO windy!

Go figure I finally get pictures of myself on the day I didn't bother showering...

Really cool though, I suppose it was worth it :)

At the very bottom I found a temple, and per usual, loved the lanterns...

So there you have it, I spent all day hiking and hated myself the whole time I was doing it, but oh man. Little old out-of-shape me just climbed a really hard mountain and survived! I feel awesome!

Stay tuned for Day 4! It'll be a good one, promise...

- Christine -

SSB (Part 2)

Happy Easter from the ROK!

As you know, today was Day 2 of my Surprise Spring Break adventure. I accomplished many things and went many places on Day 1, but ohmygosh was I exhausted! For Day 2, I decided to keep it simple and just take Kimchi for a walk in Seonyudo Park, in the Southwestern part of Seoul.

Seonyudo Park spans an entire island in the Han river. What's cool is that this island used to be a water treatment facility, and in a perfect example of urban renewal, the existing facilities have been transformed into a beautifully serene park in the middle of busy Seoul. The open water basins have been turned into water gardens. The walls and water towers are now carpeted with ivy. The main treatment building has been converted into an art gallery. And even a set of poles once used underwater are now beautifully teeming with foliage. Seonyudo Park is definitely a little bit inconvenient for those of us relying completely on public transportation, but it was just gorgeous! I would go back in a heartbeat!

The Furball, looking much furrier now :)

Before trying to jump into the water gardens...

A little bit chilly, but so lovely!

After Seonyudo Park, we headed over to the Yeoido area and had dinner with Zooms per our usual Sunday tradition. We went to a restaurant called "Chicken and Beer" and had, you guessed it, chicken and beer. Delicious. Perfect Easter dinner.

And of course, because it was Easter I HAD to decorate eggs. I didn't have dye at my disposal, however, so I had to get creative... Thank you Crayola!

- Christine -

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Surprise Spring Break (Part 1)

My school may not believe in giving me a Christmas break, but somehow I scored a surprise spring break out of them! Assa!

Here’s how it all happened. As a part of my contract, I have seven total “days off” for the twelve-month duration of my employment. I say “days off” in quotation marks because it’s not like I can just take a day off here or there like a normal day off, no no no. These “days off” are always scheduled and rescheduled months in advance. As in I’ve gone five months between “days off” before. Kind of annoying really…

But then I lucked out. I found out Thursday that this year’s summer break, usually a four-day holiday in mid-summer, got scheduled to start on July 28. As in EXACTLY one day after my contract ends on July 27. Whomp whomp scheduling. As such, my school still owed me four days off at some point, and I decided to take two of them now, making this a four-day weekend and surprise spring break (hereafter SSB… you know how I like my acronyms).

As my SSB was a, well, surprise (hence the first S), I didn’t have the time or money to plan a super-awesome spontaneous trip to Laos or something (although never you fear, such plans are in the works) and instead, I opted to hang around Seoul and catch up on my touristy things here. And what an agenda of touristy things I’ve made up for myself! It just gets better and better over the next four days, so stay tuned!

Now without further ado, Day 1 of my SSB.

I started out my touristy adventures in the Southeast area of Seoul at Bongeunsa Temple in Samseong. Compared to the Yongmasan temple I stumbled into last weekend, Bongeunsa was huge -- as in formerly the largest temple in Seoul, huge! It was the main temple of the Korean Zen sect of Buddhism for almost 400 years, until the 1930's when a fire took out many of the buildings. Oh yeah, and the Korean war too. It's since undergone extensive renovations and repairs, and is just so beautiful and relaxing to walk around!

Like Yongmasan, Bongeunsa was preparing itself for the upcoming Buddha’s Birthday celebration on May 10th by decorating the temple grounds with lanterns…

Lots and lots of lanterns!

Just wow! If you’re looking to delve into Korean temple-going, late April would be the perfect time to start!

Like last time, I took the new camera and spent a lot of time fiddling around with AV mode... and forgot to take pictures of the important things like, say, any of the actual temples. Besides this one. Kind of. I'm sorry, I'm sorry...

GIANT Buddha statue -- literally 23 meters tall! Just awe-inspiring.

Looking out over Seoul.

What I love about Korean Buddhist temples is that they’re so intricate and ornately adorned and that even the most minute of details has symbolic meaning. I’ll try to write more about some of these in the future, I think they’re fantastic!

So Bongeunsa, check. My original plan was to head over to Banpo Hangang Park next to see this (Google picture, not mine)...

However, it was only maybe 3:30, and let's be honest, rainbow fountain bridges look best at night. So finding myself in Samseong with a couple hours to kill, I decided to head into the nearby COEX shopping mall/exhibit hall/convention center/aquarium/much more and visit the kimchi museum. That's right, there's a kimchi museum. (Like lowercase "k" kimchi, not the other capital "K" version.)

Oh dear. To put it mildly, COEX was crowded, confusing, congested, and not an all together pleasant experience. There's no reason I should ever need a pull-out map to get around a mall. To make matters worse, the kimchi museum was located one floor below all the chaos that was the ground floor, and only one special escalator hidden near the mysterious "Square 3" could take me there. It was an ordeal, to say the least.

But I persevered and eventually found the fabled kimchi museum. Such a hype. Everything I've heard about the kimchi museum told me you'd learn a lot, yada yada, and most importantly get to sample all sorts of kimchi. Which would have been awesome, had there been more than four flavors total, one of which is readily served at every Korean restaurant I've ever been to. Furthermore, the information was lacking, and even reading every word of the English translations, I was done in a half hour.

In conclusion, COEX was completely overwhelming. If I never end up going back, I'd probably be ok with that. I grabbed a much needed recovery latte, and headed for my final destination of the day, the rainbow fountain bridge at Banpo Hangang Park.

Now, I don't fully understand why, but for some reason, Korea doesn't seem to be in a hurry to get it's famous water features turned on in the spring. Last weekend, the waterfall. This weekend, the Guinness World Record holding Banpo Bridge. Sad sad.

Luckily, the Banpo Hangang Park itself was pretty and I got to catch a Han River sunset...

Now I just need an excuse to go back in, say, July when Korea will have hopefully gotten the water turned on. Seriously.

So SSB Day 1. Whew. Way more than I initially intended to do, but I'm glad I did it. Even though I can't feel my feet...

Stay tuned for SSB Day 2!

- Christine -

Spoiler alert, the furball's coming along :)