The DMZ

IMG_3616

So we were in South Korea, in the middle of one of N.Korea’s flare up’s and we damn well wanted to make sure we went to the DMZ. We rang our concierge to ask about tours, and they sent a lady up to our room armed with pamphlet upon pamphlet.

Her name was Candy Bang. We really liked Candy Bang, and for reasons other than her unreasonably cool name.

She recommended the cheaper tour ( a reflection on us? Haha probably…) but we were pretty unsure, so we said we had to think about it. The more expensive one was about $80 USD but you had access to the room where you can cross the line into (technically) North Korea, and the other one just kinda went around the edges I guess? We chose the more expensive one, because we figured it was a once in a lifetime thing, so we should make the most of it. And it was worth it. Every penny.

So we rang back Candy Bang, and gave her our passports and got super excited. The morning of the tour, we woke up early and got on a little bus, which took us to a hotel in the city, where we waited for a bit while a lady double checked our passports, and then we got on a bigger bus.

This is where we met our guide, who, for lack of memory, we will call Cute old jumper lady.  It was a little while out of Seoul, and she told us about the bridges that are set up to explode if North Korea invades by land.

The first time you could see North Kora was pretty exciting. Well, in real life it’s just bare hills across the way a bit but it felt exciting. The sleepy couple across the aisle from us disagreed, and showed it, by closing their little bus curtain pretty much right after that was pointed out to us.

What they missed, was the fact that there are no trees that you can see in North Korea. Just bare land. It’s interesting and weird and a little bit scary all at the same time, a bit like North Korea.

Our first stop was at  Imjingak, a park built to console those who lost people due to separation during the Korean War. It is also where the Freedom bridge lies, which was famous for being the place where POW’s and returning soldiers would cross the Imjin River from North Korea. There are a lot of memorial statues, and thousands of ribbons tied to fences from people mourning the loss of loved one’s stuck in North Korea, or just simply wishing the war would end.

This park was the first time we saw South Korean soldiers and their big, plastic counterparts. It was all very sad and very surreal.

IMG_3585 IMG_3584 IMG_3583 IMG_3582 IMG_3581 IMG_3575 IMG_3574

We then got back on the bus and ended up at a small café, and were given some Bibimbap. Each table was set up with a burner ( which we loved, because it was just like the ones I grew up camping with and which I made Ryan search NorCal for when we were going to Burning Man!)  Each burner had meat and noodles and there were side dishes of sauce and Kimchi and other excellent tasty things. Yummm.

IMG_3589

Next stop: the real deal, the DMZ.  We stopped right outside the official gates and were given lots of instructions. Severely, like our life depended on it. Cos, you know, it might.  We were not allowed to carry anything except one phone and/or one camera. A South Korean then soldier came on board, checked that we all had our passports, then a few minutes later an American soldier came on and checked our passport detail for detail against a list he had.

We were also given special tags. These were to let the North Koreans that would be watching us know that we were not big mean non-visitor types.

IMG_3591

We are then driven into the DMZ parking lot, we get off our bus, walked 2 by two into the little visitor centre and given an outline of more stuff we can and cannot do on the tour. And a contract to sign saying that we’re cool off suing anyone if we get, like shot and stuff.

The rules, were pretty simple: Don’t do anything stupid. Don’t go waving your arms, not pointing, not drastic or sudden movements, no yelling etc. Just go, look, come back. ok!

We were then given 4 minutes so that we could pee. Literally. And we all did- no-one wants an international peeing incident. Then it was on to one of their big green buses with cute old jumper lady still with us and the pretty jovial American Soldier from before joining us and off we went.

Exciting.

Jumper lady tells us that apparently there is more tanks here than usual, because of the current political situation, and other tours were not held in days previous because the risk was deemed too high. Yay?

We offloaded from the bus, told to walk two by two, which was fine, except this weird old german lady kept on trying to walk next to me and force Ryan ahead of me in a weird and grumpy fashion. I did not like that Lady. ( Fast forward an hour and she was complaining that she didn’t think the DMZ was going to be so ‘boring’. yeech.)

We walked through a building, down some steps, and saw the South Korean soldiers for the first time, clenched fists, sunglassed, arms at a ready, like, really ready. IMG_3614

 

We were then lead into the meeting room, where North and South Korea have joint meetings, sometimes. There is a table in the middle of the room that is split in half, closest side is South Korean, farthest is North Korean, and behind it is a door to North Korea. This door is now guarded by a South Korean Soldier, as previously North Koreans had used it as an opportunity to snatch tourists.

You can see Cute Old Jumper Lady in the first picture here!

IMG_3592 IMG_3602 IMG_3600 IMG_3599 IMG_3596 IMG_3595 IMG_3594 IMG_3593

Sorry for the fuzziness of the fist pictures! It was, to be honest, a little nerve-wracking  and also felt really intrusive to be standing there taking photos of this guy and his fists. The last photo here is out the window, where you can see the rocks is the South Korean side, and the cement the North Korean.

We were only given a few minutes in the room, before heading out, again two by two back onto the steps. We were then allowed to take photos of the North Korean Building. This is where two things happened. Well, they happened in my brain.

1. Ryan tried to take a bunch of photos of me, which is cool, I obviously would want a picture of me standing in front of North Korea, but I couldn’t work out what expression i should have on my face. Surely i shouldn’t be smiling? But then if I just looked really sad that would be weird.  So I ended up with this:

IMG_3611

 

Weird confused Conor.

The other thing that happened was scared the bejesus out of me. Seriously. So I had this idea in my head that someone official had said that the North Koreans weren’t allowed to change the direction that they were looking if they could be seen by us.

If you look realllly closely in the above photo you can see a North Korean soldier standing in front of his building, almost directly above the middle South Korean soldier. I was looking at him. He was looking sideways. As i was looking at him he turned his head and looked at us, or rather, what i felt like, directly at me. Then he looked back to the side for a few seconds, then verrrry slowly put his hand down and picked up a small to medium sized, shaped, black object.

A gun, is what my eyes told me.

Nope! Just binoculars! How hilarious. I am so grateful that my disbelief that something bad would really happen stopped me from acting out what i thought was actually happening. Thanks, brain, suck on it eyes.

Here’s some more pics.

IMG_3616 IMG_3615 IMG_3613 IMG_3607 IMG_3606

The funny thing about the South Korean soldiers in that situation at least, was that they were solid, un-moving, ready to attack. The American soldier though? Laughing, making jokes, swinging his hands back and forth, walking around. I believe I may have even heard a whistle.

Also interesting to note is that the South Korean soldiers are there as part of their two year mandatory military duty, and are paid as such… as in not much- whereas the American soldiers are there as part of their job, and they get (apparently) really good danger money.

We were then put back on our bus, and drove back past the massive North Korean Flag that was built as some kind of weird flagpole war and used to be the the bigges in the world. It’s now only the third biggest, sorry North Korea.

We also passed the Propaganda village and the freedom Village. Both extraordinarily interesting places.

The Propaganda village, also known as Kijong-Dong, and within North Korea, The Peace Village, was built in the fifties and is believed to be a completley fake village to let the world know that North Korea can built most excellent villages and also to encourage South Koreans to defect to the North.

Freedom Village is the only village within the DMZ, it has around 200 residents who are direct descendants of the people who owned the land before the Korean War. These people are farmers, there is a strict curfew they must adhere to, and they must spend at least 240 nights in the village.

Cute Old Jumper lady said that they are apparently constantly in danger of being grabbed by North Koreans, that the produce they grow is some of the best in South Korea, and that they make about $80,000 USD a year, tax free. Worth it?

There were points ont he way back when cut old jumper lady would tell us that we were not allowed to take photos, and people sneakily took photos, but what was funny, and slightly annoying is that the American soldier later told us that we could have, and he had no idea why she said that.

We were dropped off at the shop, which was a mix of a eclectic souvenirs and a bunch of stuff that was made in the Khesong joint production facility. This faicility has both South and North Korean workers in it and had just the week before been shut down by North Korea. 

We bought some North Korean bank notes, small souvenirs and, obviously, some North Korean Brandy.

koreabrandy

And then that was it. We drove back, eavesdropping on some Aussie kid who was talking about his visit to San Francisco, and the awful bored lady complaining a lot. Even though it seems like we just kinda sat on a bus a lot then walked two by two a bit we were exhausted afterward. 

Good thing we only had to get the subway back to our hotel, grab our bags,  catch the subway back to the city centre and walk around for 2 hours trying to find our new hotel…

This was our last night in South Korea, but we will be back. Definitely.  We both fell head over heels in love with Seoul. We will be back.

Next up: Back to Cali! & Coachella!

 

South Korea

IMG_3355

About 3 nights before we were due to fly to Seoul, South Korea, the Supreme Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un advised tourists in Seoul to evacuate. I was fiiiine about going to Seoul before that point, but that little mini barely there threat under the guise of advice was pretty scary. Let’s just say it gave me pause.

I’ve been to a few places where people use the word brave ( or stupid) to describe, but I’ve only been afraid twice before. I didn’t want to be afraid this time either, and wasn’t really, but I almost was. What if this time was the time I got involved in a nuclear war?

Eh. Don’t worry about it. That was the message both Ryan and my innards ended up giving me, and I went with it, all the way to South Korea.

And Thank God. It was wonderful.

We actually flew in about a half an hour before John Kerry ( Secretary of state for those playing at home…) but were less concerned with this than by the fact that I was entering my 50th Country.

Getting past immigration has never felt this good!! I felt amazing. Ryan helped by screaming “50 countries!” and giving me a massive bear hug! Got a few looks…

There was a amazingly welcome 10 degree temperature drop,  the air felt clean and crisp, and people were all pretty and wearing jackets…  We got on a bus and it felt fancier than the plane we were just in. We felt great about South Korea right from the get go.

I had chosen this hotel, and it had pretty huge expectations to live up to for the both of us- The Sheraton Seoul D Cube City Hotel.

sheraton

Wheesh.

Ranked #1 out of 379 hotels on tripadvisor. Amazing hotel. The only small downside to this hotel was the pool area, which was small and weird honestly, but everything else was grade A++.

When we first got there we rushed upstairs for the platinum club check in cos, well, we were celebrating and we wanted to do it in style/for free… and the 2 hours of free food and drinks was ending in like 10 minutes.

So Ryan checked us in, and I got us drinks and food. Lots of both. Classy.

IMG_3503

We had a triangle squishy room for the first two nights, which was pretty awesome, and a bottle of wine to welcome us in, also very awesome.

The views were spectacular. We were on the 40th floor, and we felt like we could see everything.

Seoul from this angle looked like a strange future city, mixed with a little bit of old Asia- huge buildings everywhere you look, all off white, some quite dirty, both for business and lot and lots of apartment buildings. Almost all the buildings had helipads. Seoul is huge.

IMG_3506

The hotel is actually situated on top of a shopping centre, and after indulging in some wine, we headed downstairs to see what Seoul was all about.

It, apparently was about this;

IMG_3324

And, that’s about it.

Not really!

We were in Seoul for 5 nights, but it went really, really quickly.

Our highlights were:

Ryan surprised me on our second night  ( our 18 month anniversary) by organizing for the staff to have a bottle of wine and some of my favourite cheeses put into our room whilst we were out… and he doesn’t even like smushy cheese!! Really romantic and special.

IMG_3327

The hotel itself, where the service was impeccable. We would get greeted by name, nothing was too much trouble, they would try to make our lives the best lives we could have whilst in their care.  Which leads us to:

The people in general. From what we experienced from the everyday people on the street in Seoul, the excellent customer service is really just an extension of that. We would get waves, people saying hello, people making us take their seats in the subway if we had our backpacks on, people asking us where we were going to make sure we knew the way, asking us where we were from.

Ryan had to pee one night whilst we were walking around the streets, and he decided the subway was the best place to go, ( it was really late at night). When he got down into the subway, he discovered that the toilets were behind the closed barriers, but a homeless guy who was down there immediately leapt up and pushed the emergency button to open the barriers for him.

When we were eating a meal in a little street market, a homeless man came up and asked us for change ( we think…), before we really understood what was happening, a guy from a table across the way had jumped up and was walking the man away. He came back and apologized to us and told us that he really hopes that we are having a good time in his country.

In the same market, we were eating an amazing meal, and our table was quite close to another table with two guys. One of their phones started ringing, and it was the singer Psy’s latest song. Ryan sang the last part of the song, and the guys turned to us- “You know Psy????!” they were so amazed and impressed.

Right afterwards they received a meal which is quite famous in South Korea, and one that I’d been dying/dreading tasting. It’s an Octopus, taken alive out of water, dropped onto a hot grill, quickly chopped up with a hatchet into tiny pieces,  and then given to you on a plate. Still moving. Still moving for about 10 minutes.

These guys made sure that we had some.It looks like this:

octopus

Except moving. That bits important.

The club  in the hotel was awesome. Two hours of free drinks, great, but also 2 hours of amazing and culturally relevant food. We sat in there a couple of nights and were watching the big screen tv at one end which was spouting forth all kinds of scary stuff from N. Korea. That felt pretty strange,  pretty abstract.

Some of the food:

IMG_3556

One night we met an English couple who were there for the dude’s work ( engineer in the gas industry I think?). We started talking with them and I got all excited about making friends, just like I was in a hostel, until Ryan and the dude went together to get some more drinks, and I asked the lady about the shopping trip she had evidently done today.

Fast forward to her asking me what my favourite brand of luxury watches were and how obviously I knew that I should never spend less than $1000 on a FAKE handbag. Waaaaaay out of my depth in that conversation.

We went to Gangnam, late one night, last minute, just cos we knew that we had to! It was pretty cool, lots of really hip bars and clubs ad stuff.

IMG_3393 IMG_3398

Took photos in front of the sign, obviously.

IMG_3382 IMG_3381

 

Insadong was a nice suburb, lots of little stores.

IMG_3552

The Subway was amazing. Quick and easy and everyone seemed happy although every single person on there would normally be on their Samsung.

IMG_3419

I saw one iPhone and silently cheered that person on. There was a little song that came on at each station which was super jingly and got in your head- in a good way.

IMG_3415

We went to Dongaemun and Namdaemun, both big markets, both situated near the old gates to the city. Namdaemun was where we ate the still-moving octopus, and was a big area full of open street markets.

IMG_3333

Dongdaemun  was massive and had shopping centres attached to the open markets which had stores that sold only one thing- hats, ties, scarves etc. Nearby was a part of the Cheonggyecheon stream, which is park of recent urban renewal, and used to be covered by a highway. It’s now a place where people take romantic walks, performances are given, etc. It’s a really pretty stream right through the middle of Seoul.

 

IMG_3337 IMG_3338IMG_3334

 

It was near here that we stumbled across and amazing little food market where the ladies doing the cooking got us to sit down and eat this amazing pancake stuff ( we’re not 100% but we think they were Bindaetteok) and to die for Dumplings ( Mandu).

The men sitting next to us taught us how to dink Soju ( clear and colorless korean spirit)  and Makgeolli. The first is drunk neat and teh second out of a bowl. Makgeolli might just be Ryan’s favourite new drink- easy to drink, kinda tastes like a cross of sprite and milk.

The atmosphere here was so fantastic. Busy, smoky, really yummy smells, drunk business men stumblimg past. Loud, cramped. Wonderful. This was the first time we had had Kimchi as well. Admittedly, not a favourite. Sorry!

 

IMG_3354 IMG_3353 IMG_3352 IMG_3351 IMG_3350 IMG_3349 IMG_3348 IMG_3347 IMG_3346 IMG_3345 IMG_3344

 

 

We went to an orchid festival, which turned out just to be an almost empty island with some orchid’s on it.. still very pretty- see-

IMG_3455 IMG_3452 IMG_3450

We went to city hall and to the main city strip near all the embassies and were surprised by how many cops there were standing around- Ryan asked one of them if it was for something specific, and the cop answered that it was normal, so that people would feel safe.

IMG_3367 IMG_3364 IMG_3363 IMG_3361 IMG_3360

We also got dressed up like Koreans here.

IMG_3535 IMG_3539

Our favourite suburb overall, I think was Hongdae- the student area. We went at a pretty non descript time, like a Wednesday afternoon or something, and it was super bustling, there was markets lining the sides of the road, loads of unique and different bars, café’s restaurants, and people everywhere. And a Hello Kitty cafe.

IMG_3464 IMG_3465 IMG_3462

We got some Bobba Tea, I bought a badass bright pink jumper, we passed a Hello Kitty Café, and we found a Cat Café. So awesome.

IMG_3502

You walk in, take your shoes off, buy an (overpriced, yes) drink, which they make in another room,  and you sit down and pat cats. Lots of cats The biggest and healthiest cats I’ve ever seen in my entire life. All kinds. There were rules, so you couldn’t pick any cats up or wake them if they were sleeping, or make them do anything that they weren’t already doing, basically. I reallllly wanted to pick one up and cuddle, but hey what’re you going to do. I was satisfied with patting the inquisitive ones that came up to say hi to us.

IMG_3497 IMG_3495 IMG_3494 IMG_3491 IMG_3490 IMG_3480 IMG_3479 IMG_3478 IMG_3477 IMG_3476

We had planned to come back to Hongdae later at night to hit up some bars, cos we thought that the atmosphere would be amazing, but we never made it. Next time for sure!!

We stayed right in the city for our last night, as we had run out of points ( saddest of sad faces) and needed to be staying somewhere with an easy link to the airport for our flight out the next morning. This hotel was incredibly hard to find, and kudos to Ryan for putting up with my grumpy and tired impatience at this apparently non-existent hotel. I think if I was by myself I would have given up and slept at the airport for the night!

Some more photos from Seoul:

IMG_3632 IMG_3631 IMG_3630 IMG_3628IMG_3623IMG_3530IMG_3523 IMG_3522IMG_3508IMG_3461 IMG_3456IMG_3422 IMG_3421

Next: DMZ Tour.

 

 

The thing about flying…

IMG_8225

Saddened to be leaving Thailand, relaxed and happy to be going back to KL, and a little anxious about our impending visit to South Korea, we jumped on a plane back to Malaysia.

I used to love flying, and still do love most of it, but some things can get a little old after a few flights. her’s my list of what irritates me about flying;

* Really loud, confused or stupid people in airports.

* Having to climb over people or wake people up when you have to pee.

*The increasingly terrifying take off. I am getting more and more scared the more I fly. I have probably been on an estimated 150 or so flights and until the last 20 or so I wasn’t particularly bothered. Now, I am. Terrified, actually. It sucks.

Put in a more positive light, these are the things I LOVE about flying;

*The magic of it all

*Airport and plane food ( call me crazy, I know)

*That feeling when you’ve gotten through security and there is (usually) no barrier where you are now and where you will be soon.

*Airport people watching

* Airport security guys who are smiley, and also those who make it fun. Usually by making fun of us, but in a nice way.

*Bitching about people who take too much carry on luggage

*Reading about the place where you’re flying to on the plane

*The excitement of it all

*Free alcoholic beverages on some flights. Yay.

*Lastly, the magazines. I freakin LOVE the magazines.

 

Whats your favourite/most hated part of flying?