In an effort not to think too much about impending decisions, it’s time to tell you about my latest trip! This weekend, Nuria, Aaron, and I took a little jaunt over to Seoul. The trip itself was remarkably easy – we caught a plane from Niigata Airport after work on Friday, were picked up by a tour guide at Incheon airport and found ourselves in Seoul by 10 pm that night. Nuria spotted a random restaurant where we basically pointed at something on the menu and ended up with a seven-course Korean-style meal for about $15 each. Amazing.
Anyway, Saturday was the bulk of our activity. We started with a half-day tour of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea. We had a very enthusiastic English-speaking guide who shooed us from place to place on our bus tour, starting with Imjingak “Park” (which actually has amusement park rides, strangely enough), where we saw a few monuments including the Freedom Bridge. This bridge was a focal point of worldwide attention during the Korean War and was officially opened on February 16, 1952, becoming a a major link between the truce site of Panmunjom and Seoul.
Then we went through an ID check and ventured over Unification Bridge to check out Dorason Station, a train station that has already been built to link together North and South Korea. We got our passports stamped, grabbed a few pictures and then headed to the 3rd Tunnel. The 3rd Tunnel was discovered in October 1978. The 1.635 kilometer-long tunnel was evidently designed for a surprise attack on Seoul and actually penetrates the southern limit line set by the truce. We actually got to go down in the tunnel – but no pictures were allowed, not surprisingly. The final major stop was Dora Observatory, where we could actually see North Korea in the distance and the two villages set up in the DMZ, Daesong and Gijong. Again, good pictures were tough to get. But this gives you an idea.
It was a little funny to me that such a serious place has become such a huge tourist attraction. Little cartoon militia characters decorated many of the stops on the tour and I saw more Americans there than I have since I left Seattle. But what a great experience. Anyway, we got back to Seoul and started off with lunch at Outback Steak House, of all places. Aaron and I were astonished by the number of American restaurants that Seoul boasted – far more than Tokyo, from what we could tell. After eating, we saw a couple of the royal palaces, Deoksugung (the “Palace of Virtuous Longevity”) and Gyeongbokgung (the “Palace of Shining Happiness”). The architecture was reminiscent of pictures I’ve seen of China – quite different in feel from Japan. It was fun just walking around and soaking in the scenery.
The last stop on the itinerary were the markets, Namdaemun and Dongdaemun, both of which are marked by huge gates that used to surround the Seoul fortress. Namdaemun was originally built in 1398 and has been renovated a number of times; it’s designated as Korea’s National Treasure No.1. The shopping was fun, although we didn’t do too much of it (probably for the best).
Finally, we met up with one of Aaron’s friends for some yummy Indian food and wandering around the nightlife scene of Itaewon, a district that has sprung up to cater to the American soldiers stationed at the nearby Yongsan military base. Good times.
Sunday started off with a rather ill-chosen mandatory trip to a kimchi shop (kimchi isn’t particularly settling as a breakfast food). We redeemed ourselves with some Burger King at the airport though and a few too many stops at the duty-free shops (at least for me). We were back in Niigata by early evening, which was great, since I definitely needed the rest. All in all, a great trip. I only wish I had had more time to explore. There are so many things I would’ve liked to see. But what I saw, I totally loved.