The second weekend that Mom and Dad were here, we decided to go to Seoul. We took the express bus from Geoje Island on Friday morning. I had bought the bus tickets the day before and was really nervous about whether they were for the right bus, whether we would get on the right bus, etc. But of course, everything worked out fine, and we were soon comfortably ensconced on the bus reading and sleeping. My parents' visit coincided with a lot of exciting news in South Korea: first, the former president's suicide and then the nuclear test and missile tests by North Korea. On the bus ride, we watched the funeral for the president, which was taking place in Seoul as we headed there. The funeral was televised for all of the five-hour bus trip, and we watched hordes and hordes of people with yellow visors and balloons wait along the route of the president's funeral. We saw speeches and a special traditional dance. The bus stopped once at a large rest area where we had a chance to relieve ourselves and get some snacks, but we weren't sure how long the stop was for, so we got back on the bus right away and didn't linger very long.
Once in Seoul we were able to quickly find the subway station and make our way into the downtown area to find our hotel. Little did we know that our hotel was essentially right next to the funeral route and only a few blocks from a small square where a lot of the funeral ceremony had taken place. When we emerged from the subway, we saw all of the yellow balloons and banners that we had seen on TV, although fortunately we timed things well enough that most of the crowds had dispersed. We headed down the street toward the hotel. Just a block or so outside of the subway station, we got a huge surprise: the sidewalk was halfway covered with hordes of fully uniformed, helmeted, weapon- and shield-bearing riot cops. Apparently they were expecting protests by supporters of the ex-president, who were angry about a corruption probe by the current government. They believed the probe was what drove the ex-president to his suicide. We were completely overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of police, as well as by the big riot wagons nearby, covered in wire mesh and with water cannons mounted on top. The police presence in Seoul for the whole weekend was truly impressive, but we barely saw anything of the protesters: just a few banners and some chanting and shouting in the distance as we walked back to the hotel one afternoon. I'm sure that the police were pleased to keep interested spectators at a distance.
Finally at the hotel, we took a break and made a plan to get some food and do some shopping in the evening. We looked for a little deli listed in my Lonely Planet, but we had no luck finding it, so we picked up some sandwiches at a nearby coffeeshop and then enjoyed ice cream served up by the super-friendly employees of the Coldstone Creamery. After filling our engines, we headed back to Insadong, the artsy and touristy area Keegan and I had visited on our last trip to Seoul. Mom and Dad enjoyed buying a few more souvenirs and gifts for their friends, and I found a beautiful bead and string necklace at an embroidery shop.
We had dinner at a very quaint Korean restaurant, where we all sweated and steamed our way through spicy Korean dishes. Dad was a real champ. We turned in rather early because we had an early start scheduled for the following morning, when we had booked a trip to the DMZ (the DeMilitarized Zone between North and South Korea).
The DMZ trip left from the Lotte hotel at 8:30 in the morning. We had a quick breakfast at Starbucks and then headed to the hotel, where we paid for our tickets and loaded onto a very lavishly decorated tour bus. The other people on the tour were mostly young students from all over the world who were spending a semester in Korea. There was also a professional photographer from Australia, a Korean man and his Korean-American son, and a few other tourists. Our tour guide spoke very good English and did a great job. As we headed north from Seoul, we drove along the Han River, and the guide pointed out barbed wire and watchtowers meant to prevent any incursion from the north on the river. Eventually, we could see North Korea on the opposite side of the river. The mountains of the north were distinguishable because they are all denuded of trees. The poor people living in southern North Korea still use the trees for fuel, so the mountains are bare and red instead of green with trees.
Our first stop was a bewilderingly brief break at a flower festival in Paju, one of the northernmost cities in South Korea. We saw a Korean brass band dressed in colorful plaid uniforms and then saw beautiful fields full of poppies and other wildflowers.
Back on the bus, we headed into the militarized zone around the DMZ. At the checkpoint, a Korean soldier with just a few days left of his compulsory military service checked all of our passports and gave us the go-ahead. Inside the militarized zone, we had a quick succession of stops. First, we went to an observation point where we could look out over the DMZ and into North Korea. They had those pay-to-look binoculars set up so that we could really see pretty far. The guide pointed out when we stopped that we were not allowed to take pictures from the observation point. We could only take pictures in the parking lot (of what?) and then from behind a yellow line about 5 meters behind the edge of the observation deck. At this point, the Australian photographer pitched a fit about how he wanted to take pictures, while the rest of us looked on in horror and exasperation. There's one on every tour. Anyway, we were impressed with the view into the forbidden north. Through the binoculars, I could see some rice farmers, carrying on with their daily tasks perhaps unaware that their lives were being scrutinized by curious foreigners.
Our next stop was at the Third Tunnel, where we donned silly helmets and rode a monorail into a tunnel dug by the North Koreans into South Korea.
The guide carefully presented several points of evidence that prove that the tunnel was constructed from the North into the South. Apparently, the North Koreans claim that the tunnel is an abandoned coal mine, and they smeared charcoal on the walls of the tunnel to back up their story. Unfortunately for them, it was easy to see through that ruse because there aren't any natural coal deposits in the area of the tunnel. Also, the tunnel slants towards the north, as it should if it were built from the north and its builders wanted water to drain out of the tunnel as they dug. Finally, the blast marks from the dynamite inside indicate which direction the people who blasted the tunnel were coming from. You guessed it: the north. Inside the cold, damp tunnel, we soon saw the reason for the helmets. The ceiling of the tunnel was very low and rough, with lots of rocky outcroppings. So our tour of the tunnel was conducted all hunched over and uncomfortable. But it was eerie and impressive to be down there and to see all of the fortifications that keep anyone from entering South Korea through the tunnel now.
After the tunnel we watched on odd film giving some of the history of the DMZ and the tunnel. I say that the film was odd because it ended with a presentation of the beautiful peace park at the old DMZ, now that North and South Korea are reunited. Of course everyone hopes for such a resolution, but it was jarring to see it presented as fact in this movie, complete with a joyous little Korean girl romping after butterflies in the ex-DMZ. After the movie, it was back on the bus to visit another site where high hopes for reunification are evident: Dorasan Station, the last train station on the line in South Korea. The station is huge, modern, and totally empty. There are a few trains arriving there from Seoul each day, although it's hard to see why anyone would want to go to Dorasan Station except for the novelty of a train station with no purpose. There were big posters in the station showing how a trans-Korean rail line could connect with other transcontinental railroads to allow passengers to travel all the way from Korea to Europe by train. I would love to be able to take a trip like that someday. Imagine all the cool places you'd see!
After a stop for lunch in a traditional Korean restaurant outside the militarized zone (bulgogi for the carnivores, bi-bim-bap for me) we headed to a park called Imjingak. The park is the site of the Bridge of Freedom, which was used for an exchange of prisoners of war after the Korean War. Our guide told us that many Korean families will visit the park on Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving) to perform ceremonies to honor their ancestors and families who they can no longer see because Korea is divided. There was an observation deck where you could look across the river into North Korea and, oddly enough, an amusement park. We took a few pictures, but mostly we were eager to get to the main event of the tour: the trip inside the DMZ to the Joint Security Area, manned by the UN and the North Koreans.
Before we could get to the JSA, there were a few more hoops to jump through. We had to show our passports to a surly young American soldier with a southern accent. Then we sat through a "briefing" on the history of the JSA that was painfully disorganized. In the "briefing" room we had to sign a waiver stating that we were entering a hostile area, that the UN couldn't be held responsible for what would happen, etc. We were also instructed to "not point, make gestures, or expressions which could be used by the North Korean side as propaganda material against the United Nations Command." While we didn't feel unsafe at any point on the tour and knew that they would never allow tourists in if things were really bad, we were definitely aware that the North Korean side is totally unpredictable and not known for restraint or reasonableness.
Finally we were back on the bus into the JSA, where we were able to stand in a conference room used for meetings between the two sides and actually cross over the border into the North Korean side of the JSA. Obviously we were still in the DMZ, but technically, we could say that we were in North Korea. South Korean soldiers stood in the room with us as still as statues with their fists clenched, and we were allowed to get our pictures taken with them.
It was bizarre and a little creepy. Near the conference room was an elevated pavilion where we could stand and take pictures of the North Korean side of the JSA and of the North Korean "propaganda village" inside the DMZ. I got chills down my spine when I looked at the largest building on the North Korean side and saw a North Korean soldier looking at us through binoculars.
We learned in the pavilion that it is very, very hard not to point when standing in an observation tower looking at an interesting view. So there were lots of quick slaps at people's arms and hisses of "Don't point!" I'm sure the North Koreans were heartily amused at how silly we all looked trying to avoid being fodder for their propaganda. We stopped at one more observation point where we could look out over the beautiful unpopulated land of the DMZ, and we took a lot of pictures of the huge (300 kg) flag at the North Korean propaganda village. The propaganda village is so called because it is built to represent North Korea's presence in the DMZ, but no one actually lives there. The flag is so large because North Korea took great pains to be sure that it was larger than the one in the South Korean DMZ village. Yes, they really are that petty. On our way out of the DMZ, we saw a huge flock of beautiful white cranes nesting in some trees along the road.
On our way back from the DMZ, we were all exhausted, so we didn't do much in the evening. We decided that we would like to spend Sunday exploring one of the historic palaces near our hotel, so we turned in early and got thoroughly rested.
After breakfast on Sunday morning, we headed to the nearby Gyeongbokgung Palace for some sightseeing and picture taking. We spent several hours wandering around the palace grounds and took hundreds of pictures on our four cameras.
The palace was beautiful and colorful, and at the front gate there was a free English guidebook that gave lots of interesting information about the many palace buildings. In the queen's quarters, one of the palace docents evidently took a liking to me and gave me a tutorial about how the floor heating and ventilation worked in the queen's quarters. On the back side of the palace complex is the road that leads past the Blue House, the residence of the Korean president.
The Michalik family at the Blue House
We were happy to have the chance to see that, too. On the way out of the palace, we stopped for lunch in the palace museum and had some odd old-fashioned palace food. All of our dishes came wrapped in giant steamed lotus leaves. I had a glutinous rice mixed with nuts and other grains, Mom had rice pasta, and Keegan and Dad had some dumplings filled with meat. Definitely something new for all of us!
After the palace, we stopped back at the hotel for a rest before heading out again to an Italian restaurant for a celebratory dinner for my birthday. The Italian restaurant had a really nice atmosphere, and everyone was happy to take a break from Korean food after our weird lunch. We enjoyed our dinner thoroughly, and Keegan presented me with an absolutely beautiful watch, which I had asked for as a special 30th birthday gift. Overall, it was a wonderful birthday.
By this time, my parents' visit was definitely winding down. Monday we spent most of the day traveling back to Geoje Island and looking at pictures from our trip. On Tuesday I had promised my parents a rest day, but we ended up doing a little souvenir shopping and sightseeing on the island. I showed them our bike route around Chilcheondo Island, and they picked up some souvenirs at the little shop in Okpo. We also marveled at the Okpo outdoor market and picked up a few things for our ratatouille dinner.
Wednesday morning, Keegan took my parents to work to show them around a bit, and I went to my Korean class and desperately tried to remember the vocabulary I had forgotten during our little vacation. In the afternoon, we took the ferry to Busan and showed my parents safely to their hotel. The ferry ride home from Busan could have been a time of sad reflection on how quickly the visit had passed, or satisfaction over what fun we'd all had together. But instead it was mostly an exercise in restraint, as we tried not to vomit on the tumultuous ride. Suffice it to say that late May/early June is not a good time for ferry travel here on Geoje Island. Our regret and satisfaction at the end of the visit waited until we were at home, passed out on the couch after a very interesting, adventurous two weeks.