Blending the future and the past: a trip to South Korea.

Hello everyone! Before I can post anything from this new school year, I have to finish off the stories from last year. I did this by taking a trip to South Korea with Izzie.

Before I even flew to China I had booked my return flight home, panicked that I’d booked it for before my contract ended and then rebooked it for the start of July. When the school told us that teaching for us would end 10 days before the end of the contract, I felt a mixture of happiness that I would have enough time to say goodbye to everyone, and annoyance that I’d forked out money to change my flight when that was unnecessary. As a result I was determined to use the end of my time in the East productively, and tagged along on Izzie’s pre-booked trip to Korea.

After having some emotional goodbyes with the students and the teachers who weren’t returning for a second year, I was happy to escape the bugs and pollution of Shijiazhuang for another trip to Beijing before setting off for the airport the following day. Izzie and I were on separate flights, and naturally mine was delayed a couple of hours so by the time Izzie got there, I was still on the tarmac in China. Eventually we were reunited in Seoul and decided that we were long overdue the famous Korean bbq, supplemented of course by some beer. Since we had absolutely no idea what the exchange rate was between Korea and China and were scared to look at the state of the pound (this was the day the news came in on the referendum), we decided to just go with what was recommended and had a great time using metal chopsticks and having deliciously barbequed meat. In terms of the beer, we went to a place and decided to do the traditional ‘point blindly and hope for the best’ method of ordering. I’m still not sure what I pointed at but it ended up that we both got 4 half pints of various beers to taste and from then on we could just point at the one we wanted another of. An unexpected difficulty arose when one of the beers had been poured terribly and the barrel clearly needed changing so Izzie had to mime and hand gesture the staff to pour another, better one!

We’d decided in advance that our main aims for the trip were to avoid early starts if possible,  to drink plenty of coffee and beer, and to shop until we dropped. With this in mind we had a relaxing morning showering and using the nearby cafe’s wifi to plan our day. After setting out and buying Izzie a new outfit (the plane had left without her luggage), we went to all the different beauty shops and I proceeded to spent a lot of money on all the different products on offer. While I had budgeted to splurge and spend the money I’d saved, it was still painful to part with it. Lunch that day was at one of the Hello Kitty cafe’s – an explosion of pink, cats and cuteness all in one room. Izzie had found her home and I was happy to be eating!

Seoul is rightfully known for its shopping districts and malls, some of which are underground. We didn’t intend to check out the underground malls – we just got trapped in a seemingly never-ending circle of paintings, dvds, K-Pop memorabilia and the same bike with huge wheels which let us know that we had, once again, walked in a circle. How did we get lost? We thought we recognised where we were and were looking for the underground station so headed underground. Clearly that was a huge mistake as we literally spent close to an hour following signs which led us nowhere, popping back up to the surface to get our bearings and descending once more into oblivion. When we found the underground station after giving up hope on the mall having correct signs, it turns out it was about a 5 minute walk up the road… Still, it was certainly an adventure!

After finding the underground station we headed to a different shopping area of Seoul. This one we christened ‘Sock Central’ since it had so many stalls with cute socks on. Since they were quite cheap between the two of us we bought a heap! It was this part of town where we bought clothes and checked out the Korean fashion. Generally shopping in Korean vintagey type shops was great – while nothing really fitted me or was my style, I had a great time people watching and Izzie was over the moon! As well as the numerous sock stands, it was getting towards tea time so the street food stands were out. Naturally we decided that we hadn’t experienced Korea unless we had street food, so it was time to try Korean meat on a stick! Although I asked for it without spice, as is usual for Asia it still had a kick but was delicious. The main issue was how messy it was! As everyone who knows me knows, I’m an incredibly messy eater as it is, so eating something covered in sauce was never going to end well – my Converse now have a small splodge to remind me of this trip.

Since we only had 3 full days in Seoul we made the most of them, and on the first evening headed to Gangnam to explore and find yet more food. Gangnam reminded me so much of Oxford Street in London, especially since we got there around 6ish when everyone was finished with work so it was packed. When we eventually ordered food, it turns out that the place we’d chosen didn’t have individual meals but sharing plates. Inadvertently therefore, we’d ordered enough food for at least 4 people – and we weren’t that hungry! It did taste good though so it wasn’t a huge loss. After food we headed  back to the hostel since we had our only early start the next day – a 7am wake up for a trip to the DMZ.

Now just a brief word about our hostel. I wasn’t a huge fan of the room since they had no plugs available for the top bunks and the light above me had no working switch so was on all night. The very first thing we did was book a DMZ tour and when we booked we’d been warned that the pick up would leave without us if we weren’t outside at the right time so I was outside at least 15 minutes before the time. We’d booked through a really chill Korean guy who worked there, but it turns out he didn’t actually book us on, so the time came and went with no pick up. When the guy came outside for a cigarette he told us that we must have missed it. I was genuinely so mad all I could do is walk to the end of the drive and sit down and be angry until the reception opened an hour and a half later and I could try and sort it out. Izzie joined me one I’d calmed down slightly and my mood improved once a random taxi driver gave us some newspapers to read and sit on. When the reception finally opened I went in expecting to have to yell and get really angry, but the girl on duty, Jessica, sorted it out straight away and booked us on the afternoon (more expensive) tour, and made it so we didn’t have to pay more.

When we were eventually on our way, our tour group was led by an incredible guide called George who on the drive up gave us a history of the DMZ and why it was created as well as answering any questions about Korea that we had. The one major thing I noticed was how the second we were outside Seoul, everything suddenly got very serious – barbed wire and guards on the riverbank and the sort. When you’re in the centre of the city you forget entirely the history of Korea and just think you’re in a completely safe place. This is in such sharp contrast to outside of the city where there’s a stark reminder of the current situation in Korea.

Our first stop was a place which told us more about the history of the area and the various attempts at unification which have happened throughout the years. It was a beautiful day to be outside and walking around, and it was really interesting to learn something new. After lunch we headed as part of a bigger group to the actual DMZ. On the way up George pointed out more interesting sights, such as the landmine signs everywhere and the lack of trees on the North Korean side of the border. We headed first to the train station which was built at a time where relations between the 2 Korea’s was better, but it was never used since by the time it was complete relations had deteriorated once more. Here we got stamps from the area and took classic Chinese pictures.

The actual DMZ was super creepy. The area has become a sort of nature preserve since it’s too dangerous for humans to go onto. Past the 4 mile line are 2 propaganda towns, and we were lucky (?) enough to hear North Korean propaganda being blasted from loudspeakers. As well as propaganda towns, there was also an actual North Korean city. Although I looked through the binoculars, I couldn’t see any people. George provided context for a lot of the structures we saw and facts about the towns. Apparently the South Korean town is actually populated! The North Korean one isn’t though, but the North Korean’s have tried to convince them that it is.

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Our final stop was the infiltration tunnels. These are tunnels which were dug from the North Korean side after the Korean War had finished in preparation. We were actually allowed to walk down one which got worringly close to Seoul before being discovered. Since it was underground it was a steep walk down and back up again – we decided that that was our exercise for the week! We also got to see a really weird film about the history of the infiltration tunnels and the Korean War which was clearly made from the South Korean perspective and almost seemed like a trailer for Hollywood’s next summer blockbuster! After taking some more pictures it was time to head back to Seoul, where we spent another couple of hours shopping and sitting in a pub and people watching. It was here where we saw the best thing ever – a dog sat at a table like a human being! I genuinely could not stop laughing but you’ll have to take my word for it as I didn’t have the chance to take a photo.

The next day was our last full one and we had another wonderfully lazy morning before heading to an area of Seoul which had traditional architecture and people walking around in national dress. It was really nice to just have a bit of an explore and get lost on purpose as well as see what Korea used to be like. Our lazy morning worked in our favour as all the opening times were after 10 so we didn’t miss out on anything. For the last night we decided to treat ourselves and went for a fancyish meal before watching what was supposed to be a great water and light show off of a bridge. I say supposed to be because it was a huge anti-climax and looked naff! It was nice however to wander around the waterfront park at night and just chat. Then, once again, we got lost trying to find the underground so wandered the streets of Korea before returning to the hostel and packing – the next day I was going back to China and Izzie was venturing to Japan.

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If you’ve made it this far into the post congratulations!! To sum up South Korea in a few sentences is hard, but it really is a blend between the traditional past and the military/ technological present. I can’t wait to go back.

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