Last year our friend Leah mentioned that she would be traveling to South Korea for work sometime in early 2014. A few of us threw out the idea of tagging along with her and at first I thought it was just a bit of wishful thinking until all of a sudden we were requesting time off and booking flights. !!!
We spent 4.5 days in Seoul this past February which was just enough time to visit the more popular tourist attractions and neighborhoods. English isn’t widely spoken in Seoul at all so we were lucky to be traveling with our friends Rob & Sebastian who acted as our tour guides (they both speak Korean and lived in Seoul for awhile after college) — they not only accompanied us everywhere but they translated for us too. We would have had an extremely hard time getting by without them — so grateful!
Also, the weather is typically in the 40s during this time of the year. I was so scared I would freeze (I’m a Californian, what can I say?) but it wasn’t bad at all. Seriously!
One place I definitely wanted to visit was the Korean demilitarized zone, which is the area that serves as a buffer between North & South Korea. The USO runs a tour that visits various points of interest in the DMZ but most importantly includes a stop within the Joint Security Area where you can actually step foot into North Korea. !!!
The tour starts at Camp Kim in Seoul where everyone checks in and boards the bus for the drive to the border.
The first stop was the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel, which is one of four known tunnels between North & South Korea (supposedly there are 20+ more that haven’t been found yet). The tunnel was built by the North Koreans in order to launch a surprise attack on Seoul. Their cover story is that they were digging for coal — they even went so far as to paint coal dust along the tunnel walls. Too bad geologically it’s not possible to find coal in this area and dynamite markings were found in the tunnel as well. Tourists can walk a portion of the way to see the barricades that were put up to block tunnel access. We went down to the tunnel but didn’t get very far before we decided to turn around. The space was TIGHT, the ceiling was LOW (thank goodness for the hard hats they made us wear) and it was HOT. Not to mention that on the way back we were faced with a steep incline. OH MAN. THAT WAS THE WORST. Sadly no photos are allowed in the tunnel.
Next up was Dorasan train station, which is the last stop on the rail line before North Korea.
In the past, goods were transported through this station and into the Kaesong region in North Korea. But in 2008, the North Korean government closed the border crossing due to political conflicts.
We were allowed to see the tracks after paying a few South Korean won to get a souvenir ticket.
Next we stopped at Camp Bonifas where we had to sign a release form acknowledging that we were entering hostile territory and there was a chance of injury or death due to enemy action. SO SCARY. After that, one of the soldiers presented a brief history of the JSA and the US’s involvement. So fascinating.
Finally we boarded special UN buses where we would be transported to the Joint Security Area, which is the portion of the DMZ where North & South Korean soldiers stand face to face. Along the way the soldiers would point out mine fields, electric fences, explosive sites, etc. OMG. We arrived at the Freedom House and were placed into two single file lines and were instructed to keep facing forward and not to make any sudden movements. !!! We walked through the back of the Freedom House and out onto Conference Row very quickly and were lead into the main Military Armistice Commission conference room.
Oh man, I WAS SO NERVOUS.
Inside the conference room, there are two South Korean soldiers standing guard.
We were allowed to take photos with them but had to maintain our distance.
The military demarcation line runs directly through the conference room and is marked by the concrete slab (North Korea is on the left). This means that on the north side of the conference room, we were technically in North Korea!
After about 10 minutes we were lead back to the Freedom House where we had a great view of the main North Korean building known as Panmungak.
While we stood on the steps, a North Korean soldier made an appearance outside of their building to observe us. CREEPY. We were given permission to take photos of anything in front of us but not behind or to the sides. Not sure why. It’s amazing to see the South Korean soldiers stand so still with absolutely no sign of emotion on their faces. In the above photo you can see that a couple of them are standing so that only half of their body is visible to the north and the other half is covered by the buildings. This is so that they can use hand signals to communicate with their fellow soldiers.
On the way back to Seoul, we stopped at a few other observation checkpoints and also got to see the Bridge of No Return as well.
All in all, it was an incredibly sobering experience. I’m glad I got the chance to visit but I do have mixed feelings. The entire time we were at the JSA I could absolutely feel the tension in the air. So for tourists like myself to “visit” and snap photos like it was your every other tourist attraction seemed strange somehow.
Still definitely a check off my travel bucket list.
On to other sights!
Hanging out at Insadong. The main street has a great mix of souvenir shops, art galleries and local designer handicrafts.
There was even these fun digital screens where you could take photos. Here’s our Selfie!
A view of N Seoul Tower from the front of our hotel, the Westin Chosun.
We took the cable car up to the tower and then an elevator up to the observatory.
There’s a great view of the city from the top.
Sadly it was overcast the day we visited so we could barely see the Han River which flows through Seoul.
It was pretty tourist-y but I’m a sucker so I loved it.
We didn’t spend much time in Gangnam but I managed to get my picture taken with the sign!
We ended up visiting the Gyeongbokgung Palace twice. The first day we visited it was closed. ARGH! So we tried again on our last full day. Above is the Gwanghwamun gate which is the main (and largest) gate.
In front of Heungnyemun gate (or the second inner gate).
We got to see the changing of the guard!
From the palace we walked over to the Bukchon Hanok Village, a village with traditional homes (“hanoks”) that have been restored and now operate as guesthouses, restaurants, tea houses.
The streets here are super narrow. And steep!
We managed to see quite a bit in 5 days but of course there’s never enough time. If we ever find ourselves back in Seoul, I still have a few more “things to do” on my list — day trip to Busan and/or Nami Island, visit the Cheonggyecheon Stream and the War Memorial of Korea, and more shopping & eating. 🙂
Speaking of food… I LOVE Korean food so I was in total foodie heaven.
Ok ok, Starbucks isn’t Korean but this is a cherry blossom latte! It was milkier than a traditional latte with white chocolate shavings on top. I miss it.
Our friend Sebastian celebrated his birthday during our trip. We had a really yummy budae jjigae (Korean army base stew) for his birthday dinner. It had hot dogs, spam, ramen, rice cakes, tofu, kimchi, vegetables and a bunch of spices. It’s obviously not healthy but damn it’s so good. Total comfort food.
After dinner we hung out at a place called Ho Bar. LOL. So amazing to celebrate with him in Korea!
Traditional lunch with a variety of dishes and a seafood pancake that Rob & Sebastian ordered because they know I love it. So spoiled!
It’s not pictured here but our meal came with a fermented fish. So it’s basically rotten. But that’s not the worst part. It actually tastes good for a second. Then all of a sudden you’re hit with an intense ammonia smell that feels like it’s overwhelming your nose. NOT A GOOD FEELING. I seriously thought I was going to faint it was such a strange out of body experience. And all this happens in less than a minute. We asked the waitress to take it away and she poked fun at us for not being able to eat it. I guess we’re WIMPS?!
Of course we had Korean barbecue. WOW. This was BOMBDOTCOM. Or something. Whatever, it was AMAZING. When we first entered, we found HUGE plastic bags at each seat. I looked around and saw that everyone was using them to put their jackets, sweaters, purses — basically anything you want to keep from smelling like smoke and meat. Such a great idea.
AND they also had THE BEST kimchi jjigae (stew) that I’ve ever had.
Snacking on a twist potato. Nom nom nom.
More snacking! This time on bungeoppang, which is a pastry filled with red bean paste. SO GOOD. We got these a few times from street vendors.
Koreans like to drink. So Rob & Rob got into the spirit one night and got super giddy drunk. Evidence…
Rob busting out tae kwon do.
Randomly deciding to make instant ramen.
On our last day I arranged for all of us to take a beginning cooking class at O’ngo Food. Rob & Sebastian are already good cooks so I appreciated that they humored me. 🙂
Our ingredients. We made soft tofu soup and seafood pancake.
I absolutely love seafood pancake. I’m a terrible cook but mine wasn’t half bad! Rob made this for me when we arrived back home because I was going through Korean food withdrawal.
We had so much fun!
After we finished cooking our dishes, we sat down to enjoy our meal and were treated to a super yummy citrus ice cream for dessert. Mmmm. Definitely one of my favorite experiences.
This was truly a trip of a lifetime. To have friends with us to share the experience made it that much more awesome. Where do we go next?! 🙂
For more pics, check our Flickr here.