Over the weekend, Zach and I ventured up to Seoul to explore the capital of South Korea. We had a blast navigating the subway system to check out a palace, a secret garden, the North Seoul Tower at Sunset, as well as a street market. We stayed at a hotel on the Army Installation in town, Yongsan, and fully understand why the Korean government wants that land back. It is prime time real estate right in the city, and I have to say I’m a bit jealous of anyone stationed there because it was too easy to get around Seoul from there.
When we first found out we were moving to Korea, I knew one of the first trips I wanted to make was to the DMZ. I will confess, I knew hardly anything about the area, or how it came to be, so I was really anxious to get there and to learn how the two Koreas got to the point of needing the DMZ. You cannot just go to the DMZ, as it is heavily regulated, so the only way is to book a tour. Because of the American holiday weekend, the Joint Security Area (JSA) was not open to the public, but we were able to see the peace park, a tunnel North Korea dug with the idea to invade South Korea, an observation area where you can see North Korea, and the last train stop in South Korea before the DMZ. Obviously, I have been paying attention to the news over the past few months leading up to the move in regards to North Korea and hopes of a peace treaty. I don’t know if a peace treaty will come anytime soon, but I do know that I was absolutely blown away by what I saw and what I learned during this trip. Here are a few take aways from the trip:
- From our hotel in Seoul, it took us about an hour by bus to get to the area in the DMZ we were touring. At one point of the bus ride, we were within 800 meters of North Korea. About 20 minutes into the trip, I started noticing barbed wire and outposts every few hundred meters along the highway. During the bus ride where we could see North Korea on the other side of the river, our tour guide pointed out a village, which she explained is a propaganda village. No one lives there. Its all for “show” to boast of the great lives that are led on the other side of the river. From what South Korea has learned from defectors, life in North Korea is nothing like the propaganda village that is visible to South Korea along the highway; instead most live in very poor conditions. (Below is a lookout post along the highway and a picture of the propaganda village we saw from the highway).
- The DMZ is somewhat of a tourist trap. All the stops on our tour had souvenir shops and the peace park even has an amusement park for the kids. It was such a weird vibe for such a somber place. Most of the visitors while we were there were Korean, and you got a sense of hope that one day soon there will be a unification of both Koreas. That is the goal and all of what I hear about in the Korean news. Approximately 54,000 families were separated during the Korean War in the 1950’s, and time is running out for those families to be reunited as father time is taking his claim. A few weeks ago there was a family reunion event held in North Korea for families from both sides to spend a few days together for the first time since the 1950s, and most likely the last time they will see each other unless reunification happens. The local channels televised the event, and I couldn’t hold it together for more than a few minutes. Its heartbreaking and gut wrenching to watch. I dare you not to cry looking at this article. So after seeing the coverage of the reunions, I found it weird that the DMZ is sort of a tourist trap. But, there were so many signs of hope as well. And that was beautiful to see.
- Over the years, South Korea has discovered 4 tunnels in which North Korea has dug, in what can be assumed to be avenues to be used to invade South Korea. North Korea obviously denies this, saying those tunnels were for mining, but South Korea knows about these tunnels from defectors and there is no sign of coal in any of the tunnels found. This to me was the most mind blowing part of our tour. Unfortunately, we were unable to take pictures, but we went 73 meters into the Earth (my Fitbit told me it was 27 floors down). The tunnel we toured could hold 30,000 troops and artillery could pass through. It was absolutely insane. And a visual of just how crazy North Korea and their leadership is. Although 4 of these tunnels are known about, from information gathered, it is believed there are up to 20 such tunnels that are not found yet. 20! Its kind of terrifying to think about after actually being inside one of those tunnels.
- Though many feel hopeful that a peace accord is on the horizon between the two Koreas, I have to say I don’t feel that optimistic after seeing what I saw from the DMZ. Its hard to explain, but Kim Jong-un has set a course that will be hard to go back from for North Korea. The two Koreas could not be more different, and you could see those differences with your naked eye. Though on the same peninsula, the mountains in North Korea look different than those in South Korea. Our tour guide explained that this is because Kim Jong-un has trees removed from the mountains on his side of the DMZ so it is easier to spot defectors (you can see the barren spots in the pictures below) Driving to the observation area, you could see all the areas surrounding the road with caution signs, as the area is still heavy with land mines. Of all the land mines on the South Korean side, only 35% have been removed so far. Like I said, it was very weird seeing an amusement park and signs warning of land mines within a minute drive of each other.
- From the observation deck, you can see North Korea as long as its not a hazy day. I was able to see the UN compound on the boarder, another propaganda town in the distance, the barren mountains, along with the crazy flag pole war going on between the two countries. South Korea installed a large flag on the edge of its boarder, and in response, Kim Jong-un installed the largest flag pole in the world at the time. Its now the 4th largest, but our tour guide joked that she wouldn’t be surprised if he made it taller to go along with his ego. (You can see the South Korean flag in the picture above in the right side of the picture, the North Korean flag is washed out by the background unfortunately). In the picture below, you can see the power lines on the left start out looking white, and then turn to a more metal color once the line travels to North Korea. A few years ago South Korea was supplying North Korea with electricity, but has since stopped. But the powerlines was just another visual of the firm line drawn in the sand, on top of the barbed wire that runs along the boarder.
- South Koreans do not travel to North Korea because they will be shot on sight, and North Koreans have to find ways to defect other than the actual boarder most of the time. South Korea does accept refugees and they are offered money and assistance to restart their life in South Korea, however, there is fear that these refugees are spies and that has been the case in the past with some. I was recommended a documentary, called Seoul Train, that explains the harrowing journey for defectors who have to go by way of China to get to South Korea. Because China plays nice with North Korea, defectors are not granted asylum and are sent back if caught in China. Its tricky business and there is an underground railroad of sorts to help these individuals who are brave enough to attempt it.
- The last stop we made on the tour was the last train stop in South Korea on the way to North Korea. The railroad between the two countries is complete, however, until there is unification, only goods are on the trains that run between the two countries. From what I understand, those trains are not running right now because of North Korea’s continued nuclear activity. We were able to buy wine from North Korea at one of the souvenir shops, and was told that it came into South Korea by way of said train, but I’m not sure I believe it or not. Like I said, total tourist trap, but we couldn’t pass up the opportunity, fake or not, to buy wine from North Korea. Outside of the train station is a huge plaque (picture below), with all the names of companies from South Korea that have donated money to help with the goal of reunification. The train station itself is a clear symbol of the hope South Koreans hold for reunification, and the plaque just reinforces this hope. The infrastructure is there, the hope is there, South Korea is just waiting for North Korea to denuclearize for once and for all. But unfortunately, the matter at hand is so very complicated and not that cut and dry. Though reunification is on the minds of everyone, only time will tell if that happens in our lifetime.
This week I am taking a two day course through the local university on South Korea, so I look forward to sharing what I learn once completed. Check you guys next week!
So far I have painted a really rosy picture of Korea, and for the most part that is absolutely accurate. However, I must be honest, the bug situation is absolutely awful. I don’t do bugs. I don’t like them. Never have. Never will. And bugs are EVERYWHERE here. I am not over exaggerating. And not just bugs….spiders. Big. Fucking. Spiders. They are literally everywhere you look when you go outside. If they can put up a web, they are there. I went outside last week to grab our patio chairs before the typhon hit, and two huge spiders had decided to take residence. Needless to say, I’m never going out on my balcony again.
So we were supposed to get hit by the Typhoon last week, but luckily all we have been getting is lots of rain. But with lots of rain after a very dry season, all the bugs have decided to come inside. Zach was in the field over the weekend, and I went to go take a shower. I was greeted by George. Even Valcor wanted nothing to do with George. Like any reasonable person, I got a glass, covered him up with said glass, and waited 48 hours for Zach to come home to take care of him and used the guest shower for the following days. Totally reasonable.
So consider this your warning: when you come visit me (and you still totally should), you will see spiders. Big Spiders. Big. Fucking. Spiders. But like the rest of Korea, they seem completely polite and mind their own business for the most part. Consider yourself warned.
Besides the bugs, everything else is going really well. I am in week 2 of the new semester, and we are gearing up to head to Seoul and the DMZ for Labor Day Weekend. I am also officially a Costco member (my inner child is crying a little), but with that membership I was able to find boxed wine for the first time since being in country. Hooray for being economically and environmentally responsible! Another fun Korea fact: it only cost $35 a year to be a member. You better believe I will be renewing right before we come back stateside 🙂
Until next week, peeps!
For those of you who follow me on Facebook, you probably know that we are bracing ourselves for Typhoon Soulik this week. This is predicted to be the first typhoon in 6 years to directly hit South Korea, so people (Americans) are freaking out. Living on the East Cost for a good portion of my life, I have witnessed a hurricane or two, so its business as usual in the Palko Household. Its been interesting to see how Korea handles preparations for the big storm, the biggest difference being that they are proactively cutting trees away from power lines, so we shall see if that helps with overall power outages. Zach, of course, is in the field this week, but they made the call to move the exercise indoors: Translation: he is camping out in his office until the storm passes. (UPDATE: after camping in his office for the last two days, he gets to come home tonight!!!!) Though not ideal, I’m just happy he isn’t out in the field and is under a roof for the storm. I will keep you all posted on how we fair. To add some excitement to the mix, there is another Typhoon right behind this one that is looking to follow the same path. Double Trouble.
Enough about the weather though. Let’s talk FOOD!
Zach and I live about a mile from post, with the area in between us and post known as “the ville.” In the Ville, there are probably 100 different places to eat. Traditional Korean, Vietnamese, American, Mexican, Italian, Filipino, Japanese, Chinese, Thai…you name it, there is a restaurant for you. I’m pretty sure I could eat at a different restaurant every week from now until we leave and still not go to all of them. Its overwhelming. And amazing. And that’s just within a 2 mile radius of where I live. Pyeongtaek, the local city which is about a 10 minute bus ride away, boasts even more food options, including Outback (apparently Koreans really love Outback steakhouse! ha). Some observations about Korean dining:
- The service is superb. I think it goes along with the culture of kindness, but seriously, top notch service.
- What’s even more crazy about the service is the fact that they do not tip their servers in Korea. There is some tipping if you eat close to the base because they know we having a tipping culture, but otherwise that is not something you do while dinning out.
- Most places have a button on the table for you to call for your server. If you don’t push the button, the server will not come over. Its awesome to not be pestered throughout a meal.
- Because soup is a staple here, your place setting comes with a spoon and a set of chop sticks. No forks. I actually ate at an American style restaurant over the weekend that had forks and I felt so strange using one in public. I’m getting really good at chop sticks.
- Water is self serve at most places. The restaurant will have a water station and the worlds smallest cups and you help yourself. Its kind of counterproductive with how hot its been, but that’s my opinion.
- I’ve learned to go with the flow. Some restaurants you cook your own meat at the table, and at others, they cook it for you at your table. And if you are cooking your meat ‘wrong’, they will tell you 🙂 Its been a learning experience for sure. Pork Belly is very popular here, and my personal favorite thing so far is yangnyeom (spicy fried chicken).
- Cafes. Koreans love cafes, and even better are themed cafes. Today, a few of us tried to go to a honey themed café (think honey ice cream, honey drinks, bee hives in the back yard), unfortunately the owner decided to not open this morning so we were out of luck. Instead, we went to a coffee shop in a tower that had the most amazing view of the surrounding area. (pictured is the sweet potato latte. It was different. haha)
- Hot dogs are weirdly popular here. Street vendors sell them cooked in a variety of ways, and I have even ordered Korean Bulgogi that came with a hotdog.
- Markets: a great way to get fresh, local food is to head to farmers markets. You will find street food, local honey, fresh produce, fresh seafood, and other delicious delights. Zach is definitely fond of the lady who makes homemade donuts at our local farmers market right in front of you. Its amazing.
I’m seriously in love with the food here. I have yet to find a place that I didn’t like. I’m really excited to spend Labor Day weekend in Seoul to really explore the food scene there and all the cafes my heart can handle. Wish us luck with these Typhoons! Until next time 🙂
Hello! Here is a little overview of our last month in our new home: South Korea!
So I have had a few requests to chronical our adventures in Korea via a blog, so here goes.
**disclaimer: This is my perspective of things based on my experiences here in the ROK (Republic of Korea). They may vary from what you have heard or what someone you know who has been to Korea experienced. And that’s ok. I’ve already had someone back home argue with me because I made the statement that mass transit here on the peninsula is far superior than what we have in the states (and it is!!!!). Its my perspective. Deal with it.
We have been here for just over a month and are completely settled and in the full swing of things. The house is set up, Zach is working like a mad person, we bought a car and a bike, and I have a pretty good lay of the land as far as the local area goes. Someone asked me this week what some of the biggest differences are here that I have noticed so far, so here is a quick overview:
- The people of Korea are sooooooo very nice. Seriously. Their culture is very formal and family oriented, and the overwhelming kindness I have witnessed here has been such a breathe of fresh air. We only have one car, so I either walk or bike to post every day and it never fails for me to be waved at or said good morning to as I go by. I’m not saying this doesn’t happen in the states, but it definitely happens more often and it feels so genuine. I have two Korean grandmas already, kind of, and though they speak no English when I first started commuting to post they would get after me about not wearing a hat or wearing long sleeves to protect my arms from the sun. It was adorable and now they smile at me every time they see me with my hat and protective gear. A friend of mine and I got on the wrong bus to go into town (the 20 bus is not the same as the 20-1….lesson learned), and a local woman must have noticed our confused looks, and not only walked us to our destination, but was quite upset when we wouldn’t let her buy us a drink! Seriously, kindness is my favorite thing here.
- Most Koreans are happy to have the US military here, however, there is a small population that wants us gone. From what has been explained to me, this group feels that our presence here in the ROK is a huge roadblock for the re-unification of the two Koreas. There was an anti-America protest last week, which was met with a counter protest, as most Koreans want us here. There is also a group of Koreans that have been right outside of main gate every Sunday afternoon that are pro America and proudly waive American flags as we go by. Its been interesting to learn about the history between North and South Korea, our country’s role in that relationship, and how South Korea and the United States are moving forward in their partnership. I have been recommended a few documentaries on the subject, and will share once I have had a chance to watch them.
- Its HOT here. I’ve been to Africa and this is way worse. Not only is it hot, but its also humid. Every. Day. There hasn’t been a break yet. Apparently, this is a record breaking summer here, and it is down right oppressive outside. I become a hermit around noon and don’t go outside if I don’t have to. So if you are planning a visit, I recommend the spring or fall. The downside of this is that its been difficult to meet new people, but hopefully that will come with time.
- Traditional Korean cooking does not involve using an oven, so all of the places we looked at had what I lovingly call an easy bake oven. Seriously, I can fit one cookie sheet in long ways and that’s it. So no turkey dinners will be happening unless we get a fryer. In addition to a gas range and easy bake oven, we also have a built in hot plate on the counter. Most places we saw had this, and I assume its to cook soup, as there are restaurants here that have a built in hot plate at every place setting that specialize in soup. Also, all the refrigerators have a little trap door on the front to store easy access items, like wine (at least that’s what I use mine for haha). Also, there are no garbage disposals so that’s been an adjustment as well.
- Trash collection is next level here. Instead of paying a company to come collect your trash, here you are required to buy specific trash bags which are kind of expensive in order to properly sort and discard your trash in the designated areas. There is a bag for general waste, a bag for food waste, and you must sort your recyclables by type (glass, plastic, aluminum, etc.) and use clear bags for each. You are also only supposed to take out your trash after 8pm, though I have seen both Americans and Koreans take trash out during the day. Zach and I don’t risk it because big brother is watching. Speaking of big brother….
- CCTV is a thing here. Korea is roughly the same size as Indiana, and has over 40 million cameras throughout the country. If you pick your nose, big brother can see you. Because of this, crime is relatively low here. My first time on the train to Seoul, I saw a girl board, find her seat, set her purse and backpack on her seat, and then leave them next to a complete stranger. I immediately decided to watch her stuff (Thank you Target for making me believe everyone is a criminal! haha) , but no one bothered it. She was gone for a few minutes, and not one person took advantage. I was absolutely blown away. Never in a million years would I leave my purse in my seat in a public place if I was by myself. EVER. Thank you CCTV.
- Technology here is amazing. I don’t have keys because our house has key pads and that’s fairly standard. No way to lock yourself out of your house unless you forget your code. Your metro card can be linked to your bank card and you can use said metro card to ride the subway, buses AND taxis throughout Seoul. But while technology is amazing in some areas, it is not used in others. For example, despite stellar displays of technological advances through the country, I have to pay rent in CASH. Feels like a drug deal going down every first of the month. Its weird. And a pain in the ass.
- Food. I won’t go to much into this because I plan a separate post, but in short, Korean cuisine is phenomenal. The town I live in also has a farmers market known as the 3/8 market, because it happens on any day of the month that ends in a 3 or an 8. There you can buy produce that is reasonably priced, fresh seafood, grains, KIMCHI!!!!, street food, and other random items. Finding reasonably priced produce here is tough, especially on post. Seoul is one of the most expensive cities in the world, but I am still not prepared to pay $18 for a small watermelon, $3 for ONE avocado, or $8 for a half pint of blueberries. Its absolutely highway robbery on post, but if you are adventurous and willing to put some work in, you can find local markets that have more reasonably priced produce and goods.
- Other quirky things: Anytime you want hot water in your house, you have to turn it on. And then remember to turn it off. Utilities here are exponentially expensive, so Koreans have designed things in a way to help minimize usage. Each room in our house has an individual AC unit, and I typically only run the AC in the room I’m in if I turn it on at all. Luckily we are on the bottom floor and in a shaded corner, so our place stays pretty comfortable, so I’m interested to see how our first electric bill will go (I’ve heard people have seen $800 monthly bills!!!!). In the winter, houses are heated through floor heating, so I’m excited to experience that. Also, shower curtains are not a thing here. All of the bathrooms have a drain near the center of the room; sometimes the shower is enclosed in glass and sometimes it is not.
Overall, its been an easy transition and though I’ve only been here a month, I am really enjoying it here. The people are lovely, the food is amazing, and there is sooooo much to do and see (as long as its not so freaking hot outside). In the upcoming weeks, I have a trip planned to Seoul, the DMZ, and I am taking a two day course through the local university here to learn more about the culture here and to also explore a traditional Korean folk village, so definitely more to come from this new blogger.