Korea in the Autumn

When I realised Taiwan was again on the cards for 2010, I quickly had to make my mind up on any other destinations I would like to tag onto the trip.

Korea was my wildcard choice, just two hours flying time from Shanghai and wonderfully packed with mystery; being both a country I know precious little about, and somewhere I have never been before.

Once concession I must admit is that I had originally planned to split my accommodation between hotels and a traditional Hanook guesthouse experience (tea, sleeping on futons etc) but last minute panic to organise some accommodation meant that I’ve ended up in a rather glorious boutique hotel for all four nights. Substitute culture and history for modern art and ubiquitous wi-fi (not that that matters in Seoul, the most connected up city on earth, and bleeding with signal, even on the subway).

I arrived on Monday afternoon, but it barely left me time to explore the area in the evening after a long wait at customs and the bus ride from the station. Perhaps I am more out of my depth here than any other place I’ve been before, mainly on the grounds that I’m travelling alone and have no understanding of the language at all. For the life of me, I still can’t recall “annyeong hasayo” when I need it – much harder than the bi-sybalic Manderin “ni hao” or the simple Japanese “konichiwa”. And then of course, they use their own bespoke character set too, just to make things awkward.

I’m staying in the Itaewon district of Seoul (through chance rather than by planning) and it becomes instantly apparent when you arrive here that this place caters largely for the 30,000 US troops stationed just a stones throw away.

If until now, you are not at all familiar with Seoul; it’s geography, it’s history or it’s knife edge existence, you should probably know two key things. Firstly, that is that it is so close to the North Korean border that it’s within shelling distance; and secondly, for all intents and purposes, it is the key and gateway to the whole of South Korea.

This is probably why there are glass cabinets full of gas masks on the subways. Mercifully the usage instructions spare the usual anime cartoon style that is used wholesale to communicate any visual message across metropolitan Asia (I refer you to such gems as “The Ecstasy Family” – a Simpsons-esque group of cheerfully illustrated crack-addicts who hazily promote a trendy design shop in Taiwan, as just one example).

This titbit should not mislead you however. Inside this massive city, there is little noticeable paranoia – the situation has been roughly stable for some time now, and in fact Seoul has a considerable amount going for it. Impressive boulevards slice across sprawling market streets, and the various ends of the city centre are pinned down by the ancient palaces of the Josean-era kings – and this city feels every bit the modern Asian tiger that I was hoping it would be.

On my first full day, I wandered around this central area for a while before stumbling into a music video being shot on the main drag, then hooked right onto a side street for some lunch. It took about five minutes for me to establish how the restaurant worked, and similarly for the waitress to work out how to best deal with me, but I was eventually fed, and I had my first experience of gimchi – spicy fermented vegetables (cabbage or radish) which are a staple sidedish to every meal here.

The architecture is distinctly less Chinese in style than I had expected (reading up on it, there is little reason for it to have much connection) and often more handsome. I took my first full day to explore the UNESCO protected Changdeokgung temple in the super-clear but chilly four degree sunshine. This was a slight variation on my initial plan, to explore the larger and arguably more significant Gyeongbokgung temple complex, but I soon discovered it was closed on Tuesdays, much to my chagrin. But no regrets; the temple I replaced it with was thoroughly different to the others I’ve seen on this trip so far, and enhanced tenfold by the stunning autumn setting.

Everywhere here is now gold and amber in colour, as the trees are in full autumn attire. This made my trip up the slopes to Namsam even more spectacular; a glowing canopy of woodland spread out below the cable car gondola.

Standing to the south of the jumble of the city centre, this mountain and National Park rises steeply out of the neon and concrete. Atop it is the key modern attraction, the N Seoul Tower, but also the more ancient five-beacons that sit like stone beehives to the one side of the summit.

Up here is a fence covered in locked padlocks littered with lovers’ messages, and a pleasant open space, but I was really there to watch the sun go down over the city.

I took my time, then headed to the top of the tower where I got into a great spot for taking photographs, and was able to capture the quivering red disc as it dropped out of view behind the mountains. I hadn’t appreciated how quickly the city below would react. Within seconds the spread of the city below transformed from a silver-pink acropolis into a labyrinth of snaking fluorescent traffic streams and neon matchbox-buildings.

Once darked-out, I headed back to Itaewon. I’ve mentioned the subway already, but for the sake of slightly more detail, it’s very simple to use and navigate. Most fares are around £0.75, of which £0.25 is refundable on the basis that you return your travel card at the end of your journey. I’ve been flitting around on it with no problem, and like most other transport systems in the world, I’m inclined to compare it to the Tube, which is tiny and less-phone riddled by comparison.

However, I didn’t need it this morning.

I was called at 7:43am by the front desk of the hotel. “Good morning Mr Higgs, your guide is waiting in reception.”

Setting aside that I had been called a full seven minutes before the planned meeting time, I was pleased to discover that I wasn’t late, and Kelly (our tour guide) was running a little early (lest I remind you last time I was called by hotel reception in Asia to tell me that if I wasn’t checked-out in 15 minutes, I’d be charged for another night).

Today was to be the highlight of my trip to Korea so far, and all likelihood, in totality. Today I got right up-close to North Korea.

Another confession to make here is that this wasn’t the trip I had wanted. There are two parts to a visit to the De-militarised Zone (DMZ), and unfortunately, the best of the two had sold out by the time I was able to book.

This second, more-exciting part actually involves stepping inside the blue UN building right in the middle of the no man’s land and taking a step over into the chilly communist half of the Korean Peninsular. For those able to do it, you must dress smartly, keep a straight face, forgo photographs, and sign a waiver to agree that you won’t get angry in the event that you get shot if things turn sour. Apart from these minor caveats, it’s a opportunity that should be seized with both hands if you are presented with the option.

Ultimately however, I was left only with the first part of the tour, which turned out to be really good anyway. The rules are a lot less strict, and not being from a country on a list of banned citizens, we were loaded onto a coach for the great schlep to the world’s frostiest border.

As you might expect, the decor is mostly barbed wire, fortifications and landmine warning tags along the edge of the great Han river which separates North from South in places. In 1953, when an armistice was signed after three years of almost forgotten bloodshed (a shame because the UK lost the second most troops out of the supporting nations) and a rough line was drawn across the 38th parallel, along which the two countries still remain divided.

Not that this suited either side particularly. Both still long for re-unification, but when the ideologies differ so greatly, 60 years on it still seems a distant possibility. North Korea had a plan to speed it all up though, and between the mid-1970s and 1990, South Korea discovered four manmade tunnels below the DMZ, stretching out in the direction of Seoul.

North Korea decried them as something the South had fabricated to sully their good name, but also claimed some were coal mines. This was all well and good, except for the distinct lack of coal, something which became apparent when the black paint began to peel off the walls. Nice try though.

We got to descend the Third Tunnel (as it known); the whole experience is quite eerie, from the exploratory bore-holes right up to the CCTV-watched “final blockage” (they installed three between this point and the border). Everything you are told is of course very South-centric, especially the wonderful seven minute video you get treated to, but the highlight is definitely getting the opportunity to observe Kim Jong-il’s realm first hand.

They are quite strict about photography here, but the observatory has been built sufficiently high to get a good view over the border, and the young South Korean conscripts are far more willing to pose for a photo with the tourists than perhaps you might expect.

If you want to understand how absurd the whole standoff is, there are a number of great examples of the level of one-up-manship these two nations practice.

A good one is the size of the flag poles in the two closest villages to the respective borders, which lie just 1800m apart. For a protracted period, each flag pole and flag was replaced with an alarming regularity and with ever increasing size until the South realised it was all getting a bit silly and just gave up. For the record, the two flag poles are now mounted on top of what could now only reasonably be compared in size and structure to super-sized electricity pylons.

One of the reasons you are required to dress up for access to the Joint Security Area (alas the bit I missed out on) is so that the North is not fed any material to use as propaganda. Not that they needed to wait for a Westerner to turn up in a mini-skirt – Koreans aren’t allowed on the tours anyway – but when those north of the border realised the closest Southern village was a model of respectability, they setup their own ‘propaganda village’ and so every morning before the tourists arrive at the observatory, they bus in a load of fresh-faced comrade kiddywinks to play outside for the duration, then bus them all back out at the end of the day once the last of the coaches have departed.

It’s all quite surreal.

As you might guess, I’ve become somewhat fascinated by it all. Another interesting thing indelibly marked into my memory today will be the relieved expressions of the three stranded Americans who were reunited with our tour party after the coach left without them. Only after the military policeman pointed out there were less passports shown to him than the manifest indicated did the tour guide have a quick panic attack, turn the bus around, and make a hasty and highly apologetic beeline back to the compound to pick them up.

In someways this was a bit of a shame, as some of the comments these strandees decided to share later in the day would have been better kept to themselves.

The final stop of the day was Dorasan train station. A bizarrely empty terminus branded “the first stop towards the North”, it was opened by President Bush in 2002 with much fanfare and the expectation that it might aggravate regular train travel into the mysterious North, into the continent and beyond. However, the plug was pulled almost immediately after it opened, and to date, only one passenger train has ever departed it.

As a consequence, it may now well represent the largest ratio of empty public space to gift shop in the country.

And for the moment, that is all. I have another day here, but unless the DPRK (Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea) decides to popup another tunnel surprise in the next 24 hours, I think the best of my Korea trip has passed. It’s been really good though, and I certainly will be doing some more reading up on it all when I get back. 

Update:

I didn’t manage to post the above yesterday, so have tacked on this addendum. This morning I took it easy, but headed out at 11am to explore the markets and sunken river that flows through the city centre.

A few years ago this was just a dirty stream, but a clean up operation saw it sunken a few metres below street level, lined with cream stone to create a walkway, and planted with rushes and grasses.

It was great, much better than I had expected, and is remarkably quiet considering two major roads flank it at building level. Cleverly, they have installed a number of stones and artworks to the centre of this flowing body of water, and the sound of it rushing into these obstacles breaks up the city noise much further still.

On a number of occasions people have engaged me in conversations as I’ve walked through the city since I’ve been here. One guy stopped me to point out two large fish he had spotted in the stream (he walks along it every day during his lunch break), and an immaculately dressed elderly gentlemen started a conversation with me on the subway, amongst various other encounters I’ve had. People are very friendly and obliging here on the whole, something which the guidebook had already stressed would be an impression that I would struggle to evade.

I was also glad to dive out of the path of the stream at one point. It had been an effort to see what was going on in the streets I was passing, and by sheer coincidence I ended up at one of the markets I had been hoping to explore.

I’ve previously done markets in Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, China and Nepal, but nowhere have I had so much fun browsing as here. I only wish I had had more time and a budget to burn on clothes, as the choice here is both refreshing and of a really good quality. I’m also glad I checked this place out because the much hyped Insadong-gil part of the city was somewhat of a letdown for me.

I can’t really convey what makes the shopping here better than elsewhere – perhaps the stall owners give you more room to breathe than at other markets I have experienced, whilst the quality remains extremely high and the selection unimaginably vast. My only concern was the lack of changing rooms, as I’ve already discovered that my UK size here fits my collar, but practically nothing else – Asians seem to be somewhat more slightly built than me!

Tomorrow I start my return home. I will have fond memories of this trip, and most definitely Korea which has really warmed on me in the past couple of days, apart from the food, of which I still can’t say I’m a great fan of. One brief rule of thumb; if it smells sweet and looks sweet, it probably isn’t sweet. I’ve tried enough street food to understand it probably has fish in it. Likewise, with one “western” dish, I was served olive oil, balsamic vinegar and bread, but the latter was so sugary it could have been a cake. Tip: expect anything.

I wonder where I will end up next year.