- Day 1: Fly to Seoul
- Day 2: Itaewon and Korean BBQ
- Day 3: Rest
- Day 4: DMZ and JSA tour
- Day 5: Gyeoungbakgung Palace
- Day 6: War Memorial of Korea
- Day 7: Fly out
Dates: January 20-26, 2018
Between ongoing (and heightening) tensions with North Korea and the upcoming Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, there has been a lot of talk about South Korea over the past year or so. Admittedly, it was not one that sat high on my list of places I’d like to visit, but when planning the first month of our round-the-world honeymoon and seeing that we had some more time to spend in Asia, I asked Tim to look at a map and pick a place. He said, “How about Seoul?” I was excited by the idea, admittedly in part because I hoped to better understand its hermit neighbor in the north. After 6 days in Seoul, however, it was apparent that South Korea is so much more than its history and relationship with North Korea.
Seoul was a perfect fit in our route and (should have been) easy travel from our previous spot, Japan. If you aren’t aware of our travel issues getting to Seoul, you can read all about it in my Japan post here.
We arrived in Seoul after 1am on Saturday night (technically Sunday morning), but my friend from high school, Diane, and her wife Shayne still came to pick us up. They live in Seoul and we were staying with them during our visit. Since it was so late by the time we got to bed, we all slept in Sunday morning.
To start off our time in Seoul, we headed with them to brunch in an area called Itaewon, which is a popular area for food, drink and shopping. It didn’t take long to realize that Seoul is a food heaven. Our brunch came out on a tower – a crepe on the bottom, a quiche and eggs hollandaise in the middle and for dessert, French toast and fruit on top. It was a perfect solution to my chronic brunch dilemma deciding between savory and sweet.
Brunch turned into an impromptu bar crawl. We stopped by a brewery and an Irish pub, where I had my first South Korean beer, a delicious stout by Gorilla Brewing Company. Between the pub and dinner, we ventured into one of Seoul’s many character shops, where they sell stuffed animals, clothes and miscellanea covered in cutesy characters. This one was Line Friends, which are characters from a Japanese social media app similar to WhatsApp. As an aside, the characters on our subway cards (a little dog and a bunny) where from Kakao Friends, which are South Korean emoticon characters. The Line Friends store was wildly chaotic, with locals excitedly taking pictures with the larger-than-life stuffed bears and frogs. Apparently a new character was being released that afternoon in the retail portion of the store, and already people were lining up. It was like the Disney Store on steroids. Now, I’ll admit that I typically am not interested in hyper-consumerism, but the whimsical nature of these characters and the childlike joy of adult Koreans over them totally seduced me. These new animal “friends” were just so gosh darn cute!
After we’d had all we could handle of the store, we made our way to a Korean BBQ place for dinner. As it turns out, Korean BBQ is not at all what I thought it was, or what I had eaten previously from food trucks in the US. Proper Korean BBQ is a communal, messy and deliciously meaty affair. Diane and Shayne explained that are three different tiers of restaurants – one where you cook the meat and toppings yourself on a grill in the middle of the table, one where waitstaff get things going for you at the table but you still do some of the cooking and turning, and lastly, ones where they do all the cooking for you. We were at the first kind.
When we sat down, Diane immediately knew what to order. We each got an “all you can eat” meat option of pork and beef (for a mere 15,000 won each, which is less than $15 USD), and Diane ordered 4 bottles of Cass beer (a South Korean lager like Miller or Coors) and 2 bottles of soju (a Korean liquor that tasted somewhere between sake and vodka, and the strength of which is also between the two). When you have Korean BBQ, it turns out you also drink a lot.
The waitstaff brought over a plate full of raw meat, small bowls of toppings (a red pepper sauce, onions, garlic, rice, and sprouts), and plates of lettuce. They also started the grill. The rest was up to us. The workflow goes like this – put the meat on the grill, cook it, use scissors to cut it up, pick up pieces you want with your chop sticks and put them on a piece of lettuce, add your toppings, and eat. It gets messy but is oh so delicious. The fact that it’s in a lettuce wrap also makes you feel like maybe it’s not so unhealthy to eat so much red meat in one setting. I’ve always enjoyed places that make a production out of cooking and eating, so this was a great introduction to Korean food culture.
The next day was a laundry and writing day. We hadn’t had a “day off” from traveling around or doing activities since the start of our trip, so being able to relax all day and get stuff done was welcomed. That evening we did venture out to explore the neighborhood and find a bite to eat. We ended up at a taco and burrito place (Seoul has food from any culture you can imagine), and then walked around for a while. We found a night market, a park, an everything store, and the most charming bakery. Walking through the bakery and admiring the elaborate cakes in the window display, we knew we’d have to come back before the trip was up.
The next morning we were up early for one of the most adventurous activities of our trip yet – a day tour to the Demilitarized Zone and Joint Security Area at the North and South Korea border. They call it “demilitarized” but it’s actually the most heavily guarded border in the world, with ROK (Republic of Korea) and US military troops guarding South Korea’s border, and North Korean soldiers standing just feet away.
Visiting this area is generally safe, but the consequences, should something go awry, are significant. Every day tourists are brought to the DMZ, which is the 4km wide span of land stretching from coast to coast of the Korean peninsula. This is not a place where people live outside of military, but there is one small farming community on the South Korean side that is permitted to stay there as long as a direct family member was there before the DMZ was established. These individuals must meet a curfew every day and have to enter and exit through a checkpoint. I can only imagine what kind of life that is…
When touring the DMZ, guides bring visitors to a couple of different sights, all of which are controlled by the military. This means that if the military says the sights are closed for tourists, then they are closed. As a result of heavy snow the night before, this was the case when our bus arrived that Tuesday morning after driving an hour outside of Seoul. We were told to wait at the visitor center for a while, which is an interesting place in and of itself. Apparently during the summer it’s a resort. There is even an amusement park right beside it. It’s honestly quite eerie to see the colorful rides closed down and covered in snow within the border of one of the most dangerous places on earth.
After some confusion figuring out rescheduling options, our guides were then informed that, just kidding, it’s open today after all. We were so glad, because this was a place we really wanted to see. And already it was an experience unlike any we’d been on before as tourists.
The first stop we made upon leaving the visitor center was to Dorasan Train Station. Previously, this train station brought people to and from North Korea. Today, it still runs to Seoul 4 times daily, but does not run north. Mostly, the station is a symbol of hope for reunification, something that we saw time and again is desperately desired by the South. Once unified, the information boards proudly announce, this train station will be the launching point for a grand inter-continental rail system connecting all the way to Europe. For now, the sign above the departures stating, “To Pyongyang” is merely wishful optimism.
Leaving the train station we then went to the Third Infiltration Tunnel. In the 1970s, the South Koreans discovered that the North had been creating underground tunnels using dynamite to create a coordinated attack on Seoul from multiple directions. The North claims that they are merely coal mines, but there is no evidence of this being the case within the tunnels. Four tunnels in total have been uncovered, but there are potentially others. What surprised me most in learning about all of this was the number of times North Korea has aggressed against the South with seemingly little repercussion. We learned during this tour that the Korean War of the 1950s actually isn’t over, it’s merely in an armistice. Our guide said that essentially, all they have done is press the “pause” button. With the many armistice violations on behalf of the North, it’s surprising to me that the war has not broken out again.
At the Third Tunnel, you can actually go down into it. You start by walking down a steep slope that was made for tourists to access the tunnel that the North Koreans made. This part of the tunnel is smooth and tall, so you’re able to stand fully. You can tell right away when you get to the original tunnels, because the ceiling is so low you must squat and the walls are jagged from dynamite explosions.
After the tunnels, we made another stop, which I thought was the most interesting one of the morning, to the Dora Observation Deck. It’s from here that you can see straight into North Korea. The Kaesong Industrial Complex stands tall and modern-looking. Indeed, this is where South and North Korea actually work together on business ventures. Notably, there is a Hyundai factory there. Beside the industrial complex is the town that the North calls the “Peace Village” and the South the “Propaganda Village”. Allegedly, very few, if anyone lives there, though North Korea claims it’s a thriving community. Surveillance from the South, however, has shown that the lights in the “homes” turn off and on automatically at set times during the day, and that most of the buildings are empty concrete shells, without even any rooms inside. While people in civilian clothing walk around the village, sweeping the streets and bustling about, it is believed that these are military in disguise. Aside from the illusion the village attempts to create, the main reason it is called the “propaganda” village is that there are anti-Western messages blared through loudspeakers, accompanied by patriot music. It’s been said these announcements run up to 20 hours per day, and can sometimes be heard from the observatory. Looking through the binoculars into the cities was a surreal experience, knowing that just a few kilometers away (a distance I could run in less than a half hour), life operates in a completely different way, and that, most likely, this was as close as I may ever come to seeing a glimpse into North Korean civilian life.
Our next stop was lunch, a welcome pause in the day. We had a delicious hot pot stew and traditional cold appetizers (coleslaw, a plate of chilled sweet shredded beef, and a scoop of cold pumpkin).
After lunch was the most exciting – and unsettling – part of the tour: visiting the Joint Security Area, or JSA. This is the closest thing you could consider a border crossing station, as I imagine in a different situation this is what it would be used for. It’s a shared space (hence, joint) between North and South Korea, where both have a strong military presence, constantly on guard to ensure one doesn’t act against the other. This is the area where I’m shocked they let tourists come at all.
The process for getting into this area is a long one. Weeks before this day we had to send copies of our passports to the tour operator to get authorization to come here. Once there, our passports were checked numerous times by ROK and US soldiers before being escorted by a US soldier into an auditorium. Once there, we each had to sign a statement saying that we acknowledge we are entering a “hostile area” and that there is a “possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action.” Yikes. After a briefing where we were given specific instructions on how to behave (don’t make faces or gestures at North Korean soldiers, don’t talk to them, walk single file, don’t say anything offensive as the whole place is wired, etc.), we were escorted to a row of three blue buildings, which are conference rooms used during any meetings or talks between the two sides. Behind these buildings is the North Korea visitors welcome center, and all around the premises are watch towers. Our military escort informed us that the area is under constant surveillance, and even gestured to a building just to our right where a North Korean soldier watches tourists come and go from this area. To our left was the tree where a defecting North Korean soldier was shot 5 times just this past November (2017) before escaping fully into South Korea, and collapsing on the ground where US and ROK soldiers rescued him.
We then got to go into one of the conference rooms. The border divides the room and the central table in half, so on one side, you are standing in North Korea, and the other side, South Korea. There is a blue door behind a ROK soldier that we are instructed not to go near. If you leave through that door, you’re in North Korea, and no one can help you.
Being in this room was a very eerie experience, and standing on the North Korean side, thinking again about how this may be as close as I ever get, was surreal.
Seeing this part of the world is not something I would classify as “fun”; however, it was incredibly fascinating and something I would recommend to anyone visiting Seoul to do. I still don’t understand why tourists are permitted there, with it being such a precarious place, but I’m glad I had the opportunity to go and see firsthand the tension that makes international news almost daily.
That evening back in Seoul we were pretty exhausted, so we just grabbed food at 711 to heat up back at the apartment.
On Wednesday it was bitterly cold outside (12 degrees Fahrenheit), but Tim and I still ventured out to explore the city more. We started at the Gyeongbokgung Palace, a royal palace where at 10am and 2pm every day you can see a historical reenactment of the changing of the guards, a ceremony that has taken place since the 1400s. It’s a vibrant procession, with colorful costumes, flags and music. There was a strong primal energy to it, creating a feeling of getting ready to go to war. It honestly felt like a scene from Game of Thrones (if the show had an Asian nation in it).
Coming to this ceremony is an event for the locals as well as tourists. Countless local women were there in rented hanbok costumes – beautiful, full skirts paired with loose blouses. The fabrics and colors were gorgeous on the ones we saw. How they could bare the cold that day, I have no idea.
After the ceremony, we attempted to tour the palace grounds, but it was not long before we couldn’t handle the cold anymore. We retreated to a 711 nearby and huddled with several Koreans sipping hot drinks to warm up before braving the cold again. Before heading back to the apartment, we stopped by Jogyesa Buddhist Temple and the neighboring traditional Buchon Hanok Village, which is unique for its one-story level homes in the traditional Korean style. It was too cold outside to really appreciate either fully, however.
That night we got dinner with Diane and Shayne at a restaurant in the nearby mall. It was a place neither of them had been before, and it ended up being a decent buffet of Korean food. I ate way too much tempura.
The next day, our last in Seoul, Tim and I did one last load of laundry and then ventured out to the War Memorial of Korea. This museum had some of the most advanced and interesting multi-media exhibits I’ve ever seen in a history museum. We started with the exhibits on the Korean War. A student volunteer served as our guide. It was her first time giving a tour and she was so nervous! She did a fine job and we tried to go easy on her with questions. Hopefully by the time this posts she’ll be feeling like a pro.
After learning more about the Korean War we visited the other exhibits, which told the story of war on the Korean peninsula from prehistoric times leading all the way up to the Korean War. We learned that the peninsula has changed hands many times throughout history. They were most recently invaded by Japan in the early 1900s – I had no idea!
That night we went out with Diane and Shayne and some of their friends for one last Korean BBQ, this time at a place where the staff cooks the meat for you, so everyone can just sit back and focus on eating. Tim and I saw ox tongue on the menu, and feeling adventurous, decided order a portion of that. It definitely looked tongue-y when it came out raw on the plate, but cooked up into a pretty normal (if chewy) meat. It was surprisingly not bad at all!
The next day Tim and I took the bus to the Seoul Airport (the right airport this time!), bound for our next destination – Hong Kong – which we learned is actually not its own country. Turns out we were headed back to China after all…
Hear me and other experts discuss what it’s like to travel in South Korea
Read more: The Ultimate One Week Itinerary for Seoul