Korean Thanksgiving

Today is our last day in Seoul. In the morning, we’ll be flying to Okinawa, where the last taifun just swept by. (We’ll be save, no worries. But for more information, check the Tropical Cyclone Information of the JMA.)

As mentioned yesterday, there’s a holiday today: Korean Thanksgiving. And if we thought yesterday’s streets were empty, we stand corrected, since the city was even more abandoned today. At least our innkeeper didn’t leave his post and guided us to Namsangol Hanok Village, where they had a big Thanksgiving Festival with lots of reenactment, music, stories – which we didn’t understand, but admired the passion it was recited with – and of course food.

But since pictures can tell all that way better than words… you should come back after we uploaded the photos… whenever that will be.

Aside from that, we searched and found some geocaches, didn’t find a lot of coffee (our favorite shop – probably the only one in town with just a Korean name on the front – was closed as well) and we are now done hiding/forcing all of our stuff back in our bags.

Spending Our Money in Seoul

Today was planned as our day off. But aside from trying to sleep long (which wasn’t really possible due to bright and loud surroundings), we were soon out on the streets again. It was shopping time. First, back to the Namdaemun market, where “someone” had to buy another bunch of t-shirts. (And since the first week isn’t even over yet, “someone” will have very heavy baggage at the end of the trip.) We also had some very tasty snacks there… twice.

Something was already noticeable: Our innkeeper had told us that this Sunday is Korean Thanksgiving – which means many people will leave the city to visit their families. On one hand that means the city is less crowded, smells better and looks even nicer. On the other hand that also means that many shops are closed for the (long) weekend. For a shopping day, that’s a bad thing… or a good thing, can’t decide.

Anyway, after having our first load of snacks, we walked on and found the Hoehyeon Underground Shopping Center, which has to be a paradise for collectors. Never in this millennium have I seen such an abundant range of vinyl records. Collectors of stamps, furniture, art and models can find a lot here, too.

Once we got back to ground level, we entered Myeong-dong. It’s a large shopping area for young people, that can be best described as Japantown or Little Tokyo. Seriously, I think I could’ve gotten along here with my Japanese (which is way better than my Korean – unfortunately that’s not very hard…). That was some nice preparation for the weeks to come, but I think we’re a bit too old not as “hip” as their usual customers.

For the final stop of our shopping tour, we went to Yongsan – probably the largest train station in Seoul. There are a lot of shops and malls around there where you can find anything you want or don’t want. We walked through a couple floors full of electronics and the conclusion is that stuff is a bit cheaper here than in Germany, but customs would kill any savings. Maybe with a lot of haggling you can make a small deal, but the effort isn’t often worth it. The whole Yongsan area is something one should explore (so we heard), but since we had enough and were low on caffeine, we preferred to get back for some coffee and chilling out (read: coding).

In the evening, we went looking for some Korean dinner – which was harder than you might think – since there are so many choices and we don’t have Sam’s nose with us to point out the best food. We ended up with some really nice Korean barbecue – which was a bit small due to some communication problems. So we went to our regular convenience store to pick up some dessert on the way back to our hostel.

Which is where we are now – writing postcards and this blog post (which was only supposed to be a few lines long, but we’re always happy to bore the world).

Back from North Korea (kinda)

Today we took a tour bus to the Joint Security Area – South Korea, Demilitarized Zone or short just the JSA in the DMZ as everyone calls it. But just to make sure it’s clear: The JSA is a small part inside the DMZ, which was intended for communication, negotiations and stuff like that. The only area where civilians can go to inside the DMZ and you can only go to one half – depending on the side you came from.

Hardest part (for me) was getting up at 5 am to be in time at the USO (United Service Organizations) at Camp Kim in Seoul. From there – after showing our passport two times – we took off in two buses along the river towards the DMZ – where we had to show the passports once more.

Before we report on the trip, lemme talk about rules. Rules are important and these especially. For once, you have to wear the right clothes. Or better said, you can’t wear the wrong clothes. Sleeves on shirts can’t be too short, legs need to be fully covered, as well as the feet (so no sandals) and no political or otherwise inappropriate messages on anything. No photographs towards the wrong direction, which mean no to the side you came from, so you don’t support the other sides espionage. No gestures, waving or finger pointing towards the other direction, as they could interpret that as insults and use it for propaganda (or as a reason to shoot you). Another thing is not a rule, it just doesn’t work there, so: No cellphone usage.

During this trip we visited several points of interest inside the JSA, like the Panmunjeom, which is the part where both sides face each other from day to day. We saw some observation posts and from there the South Korean and the North Korean villages, which were intended as a step towards unification, but didn’t work. We saw the famous Bridge of no Return (something like in the James Bond movie, just that one was – of course – fake), but for some reason were not allowed to leave the bus and check it out for ourselves. And also we went to see a North Korean infiltration tunnel, which ended in a nice stiff march on an 358 meter, 11° incline. And finally we had lunch in a train station, along the rails which lead from North Korea to South Korea. Yes, it was finally some Korean meal: Bulgogi (which was quite mild, I’m used to stronger stuff). Anyway, that train station and the rails are actually in use, since there’s the Kaesŏng Industrial Park in North Korea where South Korean companies can produce with North Korean workers. Since we’re talking about money here, this might be a way of unification that could work in the end.

Oh and why “Back from North Korea (kinda)”? Well, since the JSA has two sides, but a common meeting area for negotiations and stuff, we could walk a few meters inside that building to the North Korean side (till they kicked us out).

JSA Negotiation building
Left side South Korea, right side North Korea

After that, we got back to Seoul for a coffee, early leisure-time and a welcoming “Hey, you did not get shot!” by owner of our hostel.

Seoul: The cultural part

Today we checked out the culture in Seoul. We went to the Seodaemun Prison, where we learned a lot about the Japanese occupation and some of the hardships during that time, especially for revolutionaries.

Outside the prison was the Independence Park.

We went to the Deoksu-gung palace, which also houses the National Museum of Art. Well, the palace and the park were about the usual thing you’d expect (also telling a little story about one of the kings enjoying coffee here… a bit doubtful next to a modern cafe, but never mind), while the museum on the other hand had some video installations of modern artists interpreting some of the history of the palace and it inhabitants.

Close to the palace was the Seoul Museum of Art, which was quite interesting. Some video installations as well, but also fun stuff like social art where it displays current tweets from the area, a fly colony with it’s own twitter account, some kind of flight simulator, which one could control via eye tracking, a table drenched with honey and a video of a German performance artist, who wrapped himself in tape and leech…. don’t ask.

We also payed a visit to the tech mart, in hope to find some nice and cheap gadgets… well, that wasn’t worth the trip. But what was worth it, was our main meal today (around 5pm). Vietnamese Pho. Still no Korean food, but we’re getting closer… geographically speaking.

Seoul, the (unofficial) capital of coffee?

Some say Seattle is the capital of coffee shops, since it’s the home of Starbucks and you can find coffee everywhere. We’ve never been to Seattle (so far), but I think we at least found a competitor. But let’s start from the beginning.

Today we just wanted to stroll around the city, getting to know it better. We ended up doing a 23-25 km (even with a GPS logger we’re not 100% sure due to some underground travels) walk/hike through Seoul, going up from 10 m above sea level to 266 m at the foot of Seoul tower (with several up and down intermissions).

We saw all kinds of neighborhoods, quite wealthy ones and very poor ones, both regarding living arrangements and shopping areas. It seems that half of the city is paved with coffee shops, you can’t turn a corner without running into one. Some areas even have up to five coffee shops literally next to each other. You have to assume that the whole city is on a caffeine rush. The other half of the city is under construction.

I’ve got a theory about this. Seoul has a lot of coffee junkies, that’s for sure. But when too many of these extra-strong-tripple-ristretto types with a personal warp field gather in one building, it just fades out of the time-space continuum. And thus they have to build new ones.

We seriously had a hard time getting some coffee, not because we couldn’t find one, but because there are too many choices. Like you can’t walk through a Japanese city without running into a vending machine every few meters, it’s the same with coffee shops here. Of course we got some coffee after some time, but believe me, that wasn’t easy. One was at a shop that claimed to have the best burgers in the city. We decided to continue the tradition from our last trip and get some burgers for our first dinner out.

And after a long search we finally stumbled over Starbucks (but didn’t go in). You would guess that there are more of them here, but probably they can’t get a hold around here with all those other small coffee shops. By the end of our week week here we’ll either warp to Okinawa ourselves or fall asleep in the plane as soon as we leave the caffeine aura here.

In a total unrelated note, we got on top of Seoul Tower in the Namsan Park, visited the Namdaemun street and underground market and saw a lot of urban and downtown Seoul (with a lot of coffee shops).

Tomorrow we’ll report about our visit to the Seodaemun Prison… maybe… well, if they let us out again.

One week to go

In one week, we’ll be up in the air, on our way back to Asia. Can hardly wait for it. Then again, there’s also this feeling of: “OMG, all that stuff I need to do till then!” This is not supported by paranoid reminders of other people, like that there are taifuns, earthquakes, two countries about to wage war (in all destinations) and so on. I wonder how people can go on with life if they are worried about all possible issues? Anyway, the preperations and paranoia merge very nice into one question: “Do you have an Auslandskrankenschein?”

(Sorry, only in German.)