Becky and Scott do Korea part 2 – Seoul
The following Friday was Buddha’s birthday weekend and a national holiday so we had a 3 day weekend. What better way to spend it than living it up in South Korea’s capital and my favourite place in the country, Seoul.
We caught the long train to Seoul on Thursday evening and waited around in the station for Ash who had to catch a later train because of dropping Betty at the pet sitter’s again! We met at about midnight. We were going to stay at Siloam jimjilbang again! I think Becky and Scott may have been a little anxious about getting sleep because we had lots planned for the next day and we hadn’t got much rest in a jimjilbang the week before! Luckily, Siloam is in a league of its own when it comes to sleeping areas. It’s definitely the best jimjilbang I’ve stayed in so far. There are separate quiet dark rooms with little individual bunks which allow for a perfect sleep! Well rested, we woke up the next morning to meet Claire who was staying in a hostel for the weekend.
Friday – Palaces, teahouses and Seoul cityscape views
Friday was a day jam-packed full of sights! First on the agenda was Gyeongbukgung palace, the most famous in Seoul. Because most people had the day off it was absolutely rammed and roasting hot (we are so English!), so it was pretty tiring walking around the grounds because it was huge. The really nice thing about the palace was the number of different sections to it. We would walk around a corner expecting a narrow passageway of traditional Korean architecture to find a lake and a gorgeous enormous building. I would say this is definitely a must-see sight in Seoul.
The palace is very close to two other spots on the sightseeing map, Bukchon and Insadong so it made sense to take Botty (Claire’s nickname for Scott and Becky) there. Bukchon is a hanok (traditional Korean house) village with lots of pretty buildings and shops. It was quite impressive to stand at the top of one of the many sloping streets and watch old Korea meet new, with traditional houses nestled tightly together in front of giant modern sky scrapers.
It was mid-afternoon by now and we were all feeling weary, but Insadong was close by and is an area famous for old style teahouses and Korean arts and crafts so we didn’t want to miss it. We walked for a short time and then found, hidden away down a back street (obviously I asked tourist Information for a map!) a wonderfully cool and cosy teahouse, where we all ordered different types of fruit teas. Ash’s was by far the tastiest! Slightly rejuvenated, Claire was heading off to her hostel for a rest but we had other plans.
Although we were really tired I felt that a trip to Seoul wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Namsan tower to watch the sun set over the city skyline. I obviously had some kind of romanticised image of what this would be like, because in reality it was CHAOS. We realised that we needed to hurry if we were going to make it before sunset, so we caught the subway and then walked at a fast pace to where we would catch the cable car and found the BIGGEST QUEUE EVER!!!!!! My heart sank. Ash and I had walked up the hill before (it’s quite an easy walk usually) and figured we could all make it if we hurried. Now I say that it’s an easy walk, but that is only if you go at a leisurely pace! It is still a blooming big hill! With time running out we had to run up the hill with no water. I’m sure Triathalon man Scott and naturally fit Ash were fine, but Becky and myself (Becky is much fitter than me!) were not happy! We got to the top and I was a sweaty, dehydrated, panting mess. To top it off at the top there were HUGE CROWDS EVERYWHERE! It was hardly the relaxing experience I’d had in mind, or experienced before! But nevertheless Becky, got some lovely photos of the skyline and we had a beer and some Oreos whilst watching a music and light show projected on to the tower.
Next we had to find a love motel to drop our luggage off. We went to Sincheon, which is close to Hongdae and has streets full of love motels. These motels are usually rented by the hour or the night for romantic liaisons, so it was difficult and expensive finding one that would put us up for two nights. Our rooms were lovely though! Ours had a bath in the corner and Scott and Becky’s had a tree in it! We were exhausted by the time our rooms were sorted, so quickly ate and then went to bed ready for an early start on Saturday.
The Demilitarised Zone
A few weeks previously we had booked places on a full DMZ tour and had to be at USO Camp Kim by 8am. We were feeling really excited and nervous about the tour because North Korea had been in the world media a lot and tensions between South and North had increased. The tour was split in to four sections:
The third tunnel – The 3rd tunnel is a tunnel 52km from Seoul that was built by North Korea and discovered on October 17, 1978. Other similar tunnels have been found along the border. Approximately 10,000 soldiers can move through this tunnel in 1 hour. When the tunnel was discovered, North Koreans insisted that it was made by South Koreans to invade North Korea! It was really cold and damp as we walked in to the tunnel. After maybe 100m it was sealed off, but we could feel how claustrophobic the space was. We had laughed about wearing construction helmets to go in but most of us banged our heads at least once!
Mt. Dora Observation platform – This is close to the 3rd tunnel. Tour groups all hustled around telescopes to get a glimpse of the North Korean propaganda village and Gaesong business complex. It felt strange looking through the eye of the telescope and seeing this place that is so alien to South Korea yet so close.
Dorasan Station – Located 30 meters from the South Korean boundary fence, Dora Mountain Train Station is the northernmost train station in South Korea. Obviously, apart from coach tours the station doesn’t deal with too many arrivals. We bought a ticket to go on to the platform and had our photos taken underneath the sign and with the solitary South Korean soldier on guard there.
JSA (Joint Security Area) – This was the highlight of the tour and is the most famous part of the DMZ. The Joint Security Area is the only area where the North and South Korean military stand face to face and was the most nervewrecking part of the tour. Before entering the JSA we were given a presentation by the US army, there they warned us not to wave or point or use sudden movements when we got to the main area. You could cut the atmosphere with a knife as we walked out on to the steps in front of the borderline. Because tensions were high at that time we weren’t allowed to go in to the bunker which sat across the borderline, but were able to take pictures.
On the steps on the North Korean side of the border there was a soldier stood looking at us through binoculars which was really intimidating. At one point someone in our group made a sudden arm movement and some soldiers came over and warned them to stop! Finally something happened that helped to ease the tension. Bizarrely, a bright yellow steam roller began driving forwards and backwards across the top of the steps on the North Korean side, which was pretty funny!
After this we were taken on the coach to another viewing platform where we could see the North Korean propaganda village more clearly. Most of the tower blocks looked like shells and there are never lights at night, apparently not unusual in NK but our tour guide told us that they don’t think it’s properly inhabited. People do work on the farms there though, we could see people in the fields and even someone cycling along the road!
Once the DMZ tour was over the coach took us back to central Seoul and we went to the Bauhaus dog café in Hapjeong. Dog cafes are a very unique part of Korean culture. You arrive, buy a drink and some dog treats and then pet LOADS of dogs! We had a beer there and played with the dogs for a little while before going back to our motel to change and get ready for the evening’s festivities.
Av’in it large in Hongdae
It decided to start torrential raining just as we left our motel to meet Claire and our other friends Keir and Emily (who were in Seoul for a gig) for dinner. We were also meeting Seulgi and Julia, Becky’s Korean friends who had homestayed with her parents. After dinner we went to a macheolli bar, drank lots of rice wine and then walked around for ages until we found another bar. After a while Keir, Emily and Claire went back to their hostels but the rest of us stayed out. The next stop was a luxury noraebang where we made boozy slushes with soju in them. After that we were pretty pissed and in the mood for silly dancing so went to a club called I love KPOP and got even more drunk, danced around like crazy and had a great time! Not sure I would ever be able to find it again thought which is a shame!
When we left the club it was daybreak and in true Korean style we went to a 24 hour Gamjatang restaurant and ate delicious pork spine soup before returning to our motel for about 4 hours sleep.
We had to check out of the motel at midday and although feeling pretty rough and tired we managed to get back to Hongdae to look around, get some funny photos taken and eat before saying our farewells to Becky and Scott. They still had four days of travelling around but we wouldn’t be seeing them again. I’d not thought about this fact until the last minute and as they sped away in their taxi I felt really sad. We had the BEST time with them visiting! I hope that when we’re teaching in South East Asia we can do it all over again!
Thanks again for some of the pics guys!