Seoul searching…

Hello Everybody!

I know it’s been a few weeks and you may have thought I was languishing in sleepy Okinawa. Well, in some respects I have been, but there has much that needed to be done in terms of my job, so I’ve been sticking close to home.

However, my wandering feet could not be held fast anymore and I found a sweet little deal to Korea and the DMZ. How can I resist this lovely flower Korea?

old and new flag
Sungnyemun Gate

I took the last of my comp time that I earned last year, packed my little Patagonia backpack, hopped on my scooter and headed to Naha. This was my first trip to Seoul and  while I truly enjoyed Busan last year, I knew that Seoul was much bigger and more cosmopolitan.

Getting through customs in Busan was very quick, maybe five minutes maximum. Incheon airport took me about 15, that’s not too bad though. All I could think of was all those M*A*S*H episodes I had seen through the years, the names of the places I would be visiting. I found an airport bus that delivered me to my hotel and I was ready to just relax and see some of the sights on foot.

Pictured above is the “Sungnyemun Gate is Korea’s National Treasure No. 1, and its unofficial name is Namdaemun Gate. Sungnyemun Gate is the largest castle gate stone structure with an arched entrance in the middle. There’s a column on top of a platform, raising the roof, distinguishing the upper stories and lower stories of the building. A passageway for traffic is located at the east and west ends of the gate.”

I wanted to find my rendezvous point for the tour in the morning since I had to be there before 8 a.m.  I am not a big fan of tours or tour packages, but the only way to see the DMZ was to purchase one. I decided to put my asocial tendencies aside for one day and just go for it.

statues with shinsegae
Juxtaposition – style meets substance on a street in Seoul.

Well, I have to tell you. I cannot read Kanji, but I can read hiragana and katakana in Japan. I’ve gotten so used to looking up and seeing kanji interspersed, I can usually figure things out. Not so in Korea. Their writing is very pretty with all the little circles but I know nothing at all…I could not find my destination point. I gave it up as a hopeless job and decided to enjoy the night, get some pictures and look for the place in the morning.

street scene shop
I thought this guy was asleep until this other guy walked up…he was just sitting there motionless for several minutes.
namdaemun market
Namdaemun Market

I enjoy my prowls at night. There is something restless in me that drives me out walking at twilight. At home, here in Okinawa, I will suddenly have the urge and hours fly by as I am exploring some new back street near my house or just thinking my thoughts as the sea murmurs its secrets to me. In my traveling, these walks are almost compulsive. So I took  in some of the sights, ended up walking through the Namdaemun Market and was surrounded by ginseng suspended  in glass jars, knock-off Michael Kors bags, tee-shirts, smart phone cases and some exotic looking street vendor food.

The next morning I went out in search of Hotel President, where the tour started and I got hopelessly lost. I decided to give up and get a cab, a personal defeat, I love maps and finding my way around, but this was not happening. So for the princely sum of about three dollars, the cab delivered me to the hotel and and I got settled in and ready to go.

Our tour guide, Soojin, I know that because she spelled it for us and said her name about four thousand times, was energetic and talkative. The ride to the DMZ was about an hour and a half  with traffic and she only stopped talking to give the poor Japanese lady a chance to give her speech. All I could think was, I’d love to have Soojin in session, I would not have to do any work at all!

Not to get too political, though there was plenty of that and propaganda too, it’s kind of unsafe right now in this part of the world. Little Kim in North Korea has sent a few missiles over Okinawa and Japan since I’ve been here. The Japanese government is beginning to lose their sense of humor about the whole shooting missiles towards them and it feels a little tense these days. There are rumors around that the DMZ  tours could come to an end. It felt important to go now and to see this, it was also important for me personally.

My uncle, Leonard Provost, joined the Army to send money home to his family, as did many young men of that generation from poor communities. My mother said he sent that money home faithfully and kept very little for himself, so that his little brothers and sisters could have a coat for the cold North Country winters and ease the burden for his parents, just a little. He was a soldier in the Korean War. Leonard was captured, was part of the Tiger’s Death March, was a prisoner of war and finally forfeited his life in this land. I wanted to honor him, see this land where he lived and died, and gain understanding.

fake village blue
The jewel of North Korea…attempts to lure South Koreans to defect.

Our first stop of the tour was the Dorosan Observatory to view the village Kijong-Dong that North Korea erected to lure the South Koreans over. There was so much pollution, it was hard to see, but it is supposed to look like a lovely thriving community. It is a fraudulent village, just buildings with no people. It reminded me of when they attempted to put these fronts on the projects in New York City to make the abandoned buildings look better. Then there was the music…

One of the people on the tour said this music competition reminded him of a worst case ever of sibling rivalry. I thought that summed it up pretty well.

Soojin did not let us linger, on the bus and to the next stop…Tunnel 3. What about Tunnel 1 and 2? Okay, this is the one we have access to. So as you all know, the Korean War ended in 1953 with a signing of the Armistice at Panmunjom, which basically said North Koreans, you stick to your side of the 38th parallel and South Koreans, you stay on your side. There is a 2 km zone on each side that is the demilitarized zone. None shall pass as a bridge keeper would say.

Well, that’s all well and good as long as everyone is playing fair. North Korea, it was discovered had created at least four tunnels wide enough to pass soldiers and weapons through, into the DMZ. South Korea was not amused. North Korea said, it was just coal mining…we didn’t know where we were…and they smudged coal along the walls of the these granite walls. We went down in there and were warned not to bump up against the sides because we could get coal on our jackets.

soldiers out
One of the photo displays at the tunnels. We were not allowed to take pictures inside. There was a fake tunnel entrance that you could take a photo of. I liked this photo.
Making friends wherever I go…

Next we headed off to Dorasan Station. It is a train station that is built to go North Korea. The hope is that one day they will be reunified and this station is fully operational. Soojin said it is the dream of the future.

first station
The train station for the future…this is the sign inside. It is the hope of reunification, it’s quite a lovely sentiment, I think.

After her own little march, we stopped off at a restaurant for some local food. We were instructed in how to eat it and let loose to enjoy. As our professor told us in Social Psychology class at good old Hudson Valley Community College (go Vikings!) you tend to become friends with people you sit next to. I ate with people I was sitting close to on the bus, including a very nice young man from Ohio was studying finance in China. It was a pleasure to ride with him and hear about his own adventures.

lunch korean style
Lunch – you take the lettuce leaf, fill it with beef and rice and garlic and all sorts of pickled goodness..of course there is always kimchi!

Soojin rounded us up, put us back on the bus and we made our way to the Bridge of No Return. After the war, there was a massive prisoner exchange, once the decision was made as to which side you were going to, you could never return to the other side, hence the name. This is also the site of the the famous ‘Axe Murder Incident’ of 1976.  Here is a link to the picture of the event.

US attempted to cut down a poplar tree obstructing visibility of the bridge which led to a battle with North Korean forces that left Capt. Arthur Bonifas and Lt. Mark Barrett dead.

flag at the bridge
Love and peace sent across the border to relatives and love ones separated at the Bridge of No Return.
exchange bridge
The Bridge of No Return…this is where prisoners were exchanged. Once you made the decision which side you were on, you could never return to the other side.
wire and ribbon
Ribbons and  barbed wire….
a gathering of relatives
A monument to all the families separated by the DMZ…family members can come here on their Thanksgiving to remember and honor relatives and ancestors.
stare down
The perpetual cease fire…no resolution in sight.

And finally we moved on to the Joint Security Area, we were accompanied by a US Army soldier who gave us a briefing and had to accompany us throughout our time there.  There are rules there such as: photos could only be taken when they said, our passports were checked five times through out the course of the trip, no gestures, verbal or non-verbal communications with the North Korean guards. Dress code, no faded jeans, no skirts above the ankles, no tee-shirts with funny sayings or cartoon characters. Pretty much be on your best behavior, don’t do anything that could provoke a reaction. It felt a little tense, I was thinking the North Koreans would be right next to us. But as you see in the photo, he is way up at the top of the stairs. The South Koreans stand in a TaeKwonDo stance for two hours at a time and do not move until they are relieved. Basically, they get paid to stand there and give the stink eye to the North Koreans.

We were escorted to the Armistice Room which is a very small building with the table inside an the flag of the UN sitting in the middle. The actual flag that was on the table at the signing in 1953 is housed somewhere else, but it is very wonderful to be in that room where so much history took place. I asked the Army guide if I could sit down, he smiled and said no. I did have my photos taken with two very large and intimidating South Korean soldiers.

another table at panmunjom
Armistice table

We were allowed just a few minutes, again we were put back on the bus and were allowed about 10 minutes in the souvenir shop. Yes the JSA has it’s own souvenir shop…will wonders never cease?

We handed in our badges, showed our passports one more time and lumbered back toward Seoul where there were two political protests going on near the hotel. At that point we were deposited by the subway station and left to our own devices.

Now I have to say, public transportation is not very accessible when you live in rural upstate New York, but I have learned to navigate my way through the underground of quite a few cities over the years.  As usual, the trains here were well marked and a joy to ride. I got off at Seoul Station, a few blocks from my hotel.

I liked it so much I decided to take it to the airport the next day.  As I made my way toward the station there were shops that had part of their inventory in the store and some displayed on the streets. I passed one men’s dress shoes shop where the shoes were neatly lined up in a grand fashion outside the store. As I passed, the rich earthy smell of leather filled the air…it was a memory I carry with me.

royal procession
A royal escort…I don’t know who they were but it reminded me of Shurijo when the Ryukyu King makes an appearance.

When I got to the airport, I had a royal escort as I made my way back to my gate and to my love, my Okinawa.

So, my parting thought for this week is to give some thought and remember those who made the sacrifice in Korea, not just Americans, but everyone who died during this conflict. When I arrived in Busan last year a cab driver asked me if I remembered the Korean War. I told him, that I was not born at the time, but I did know about it and told him about my uncle. He thanked me and my uncle. He said you Americans came in and helped us fight for freedom.  It made me appreciate what we sometimes take for granted.

Have a good week everyone…I’ll write soon!