My visit to Seoul began as a somewhat misadventure. It started out fine – I managed to find and board the correct high-speed train from the airport to Seoul Central Station. And things were looking pretty good until my roller bag/backpack (weighs 45 pounds), and my two-day packs each weighing about 15 pounds managed to unbalance me at the worst possible time.
About 15 steps up the escalator as I was looking at the map on my iPhone and not focusing on the escalator my bags shifted backward and I along with the three bags went tumbling back down the escalator backward landing upside down on my big bag on my back with my feet in the air. Fortunately, a young 20 something girl and her mother came to my rescue and helped me up, helped me chase down my hat and phone which had flown halfway across the station, and helped me collect myself.
Fortunately, no broken bones just some nasty scrapes and bruises to both my body and ego. The young girl tried in vain to convince me to go to the hospital to check for injuries but I was having none of that. So back on the escalator I went – a little more focused this time thinking that the worst was behind me. Not quite, the Seoul Station is huge and is both the train station and subway station. My train was on one side of the station and my hotel was on the other and there are 12 or more exits out of the maze that dumps you onto different streets.
I spent another hour trudging from one exit to another dragging my bags and bruised and battered body cursing the Korean engineer who designed this tangled mess of tunnels, dead ends, and halls that double back on themselves. Ultimately, I found my way out and earned my piece of cheese and checked into my hotel. And from that point forward my Seoul adventure improved.
On my first day in Korea, I booked a tour (the only way to visit unless you are the President) of the DMZ between North and South Korea. The drive to the DMZ is less than an hour at speed limit – makes you wonder how fast North Korean tanks and troops could reach Seoul without the United States presence as a deterrent.
Once at the DMZ our schedule included visits to Imjingak Park to see the Freedom Bridge, a walk deep into the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel, DMZ Exhibition Hall, the Dora Observatory for a (not so clear) view into North Korea, and Dorasan Train Station.
Imjingak Park is your typical tourist trap containing a few statues, some large photos and historical descriptions on the walls, a few museum-quality historical pieces and lots of souvenir shops, cafes, small grocery stores, and restrooms. But everyone must stop here to get their tickets/passes and proffer passports for further passage to the Observation Area, 3rd Infiltration Tunnel, and Dorasan Train Station.
From the Dora Observatory, you can look across and into North Korea and on a clear day and see Gaeseong, Songakasan, Kim Il-Sung Statue, and Geumamgol(Cooperation Farm), and a very tall North Korean Flag. Unfortunately, I was not there on a clear day. It was overcast and foggy. I could barely see the mountain that has a North Korean observation post atop it. I could not see the statue of Kim or much of anything else except the Cooperation farm.
I could see the very huge North Korean Flag Pole. The North Koreans originally built it as the tallest flagpole in the world to intimidate the South. Of course, both countries were run by men and the leader of the south couldn’t come up short in a phallic measuring contest so he had his pole erected 10 meters taller than Kim’s. Which as you might guess, inspired North Korea to grow their staff a little bigger. I don’t remember which side gave up first but eventually the flag measuring completion ended peacefully.
While at the Observatory we watched a very moving video on the war, America’s sacrifices in blood and treasure to protect the South Koreans, the truce and the construction of the DMZ. There were also many large photographs and commentary about the war and America’s contributions displayed on the walls throughout the building.
Next stop after the Dora Observatory was the 3rd Underground Infiltration Tunnel. This tunnel stretches over 1.6 kilometers and is 2 meters high by 2 meters wide built along with at least two others in complete secrecy right under the South Korean and United States Army’s feet. The tunnel could flood as many as 30,000 rabid zombie North Korean troops an hour into South Korea. And though the guidebook claims the tunnel is 2 meters tall that is total bullshit.
Fortunately, the tour of the tunnel requires a hard hat but still I had to bend at the waist at a 45-degree angle and walk in a crouch for the entire 3.2 kilometer walk roundtrip into the tunnel and still banged my head on the uneven ceiling at least 100 times. And what was the payoff for following the dark, damp, claustrophobic midget tunnel to its conclusion? A steel door with a small opening about one foot by 6 inches you could yell obscenities at Little Rocket Man into if you wished.
The last stop on the tour was an ultramodern train station to nowhere. The station has been built in preparation for reunification. Once opened the plan is to link South Korea by train with North Korea, China, Russia and even Europe. Very ambitious considering the leaders of the two countries are still having phallic symbol measuring contests.
Once back in Seoul I visited the Deoksugung Palace (became the Royal Residence in 1575). I arrived just in time to see the Palace Changing of the Guard. I’ve included plenty of photos of both this palace, the Gyeongbokgung Palace (established in 1395) and the Sungnyemun City Gate (built in 1396) and Changing of the Guard Ceremonies. And as you might predict the ancient buildings are beautiful and the lavish gardens are immaculate. However, the people visiting the Palaces are the show stoppers.
Deoksugung Palace (became the Royal Residence in 1575)
Gyeongbokgung Palace (established in 1395)
I was fortunate to be in Seoul for their Independence Day so many of their local tourists were dressed up in rented period costumes. I’ve also posted many photos of pretty young ladies dressed in their period costumes.
Sungnyemun City Gate (built in 1396)
One odd moment as the South Koreans celebrated their Independence Day was when all the sudden the band switched gears and some Korean dude began singing our patriotic songs. It was a very nice gesture but hearing the Battle Hymn of the Republic, and America the Beautiful sounds a little different coming from a guy with a thick Korean accent and a crappy sound system.
Two of my favorite moments in Seoul was a wonderful Korean Barb B Que Steak at the famous Maple Tree House Restaurant followed by an evening listening to Jazz at the appropriately named “All That Jazz” Club. In addition to the Maple tree dinner I enjoyed street food at the Namdaemun Market, and a couple of lunches as I wandered around Bukchon Hanok Village.
The Bukchon Hanok Village is a traditional Korean Village surrounded by busy modern Seoul. The village is wedged between Gyeongbokgung Palace/Folk Museum, Changdeok Palace and the Jongmyo Royal Shrine. The traditional village has hundreds of hanok (600 year old traditional houses) that have been converted into trendy stores, cafes, tea houses, and cultural centers. And seeing all the women dressed in dresses from centuries ago added to the charm of the old cobblestone hanok lined streets, lanes and alleys.
Bukchon Hanok Village
Gyeongbokgung Palace/Folk Museum
The only other places I visited were the Jogyesa Temple and Jongmyo Shrine and photos of both are attached.
My next stop was a flight to Jeju Island but that is a blog for another day.