DAY 1Apr 27 2016
In case you missed it, we are coming off the last post (trip to Malta) into a marathon day of flying. Yesterday we got on a plane in Malta at 11am, transferred in Istanbul, landed at JFK at 10pm. Went home, showered, unpacked, repacked, left for EWR at 3:30am this morning, get on a plane to Seoul via Dallas at 5am and land in Seoul at 3pm tomorrow. Yup.
Newark Liberty International Airport
Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport
Incheon International Airport
DAY 2Apr 28 2016
Somehow we survived. Made it to the hotel (took the subway, the Seoul subway system is super easy, clean, and efficient!) and will be figuring out what to do for the night. Apparently, North Korea has been firing lots of missiles the last week, even this afternoon. We are doing a tour of the DMZ tomorrow, things could get exciting!
We walked around with beers exploring a popular shopping neighborhood that had a lot of street vendors. We first got some chicken on a stick and walked. We tried to sit at an outside table at a restaurant but had some trouble with the language. The old woman trying to help us sat us down then came back and motioned for me to go to the back. There a younger man started speaking in broken English and motioned to a table inside in the back of the restaurant. I said we wanted to sit outside and he said what either could have been "we don't want people outside" or "no white people outside". I asked twice and I think he said no white people outside. So I said we'd to somewhere else. We went across the street and say outside but the menu has no English and the server didn't understand us. So we just pointed to what we knew was beer and had another beer. Then we walked around more and got some street meat. Then we headed back to the hotel.
DAY 3Apr 29 2016
Today we're going on a day tour of the DMZ. The tour is guided by the USO. Our tour guide is a cute little Korean man, SP. He even asked us to put our seatbelts on in the bus.
During the drive, SP gave us a brief background on the Korean peninsula's separation. After the end of WWII, the US and Russia made an agreement to each take control of half of the peninsula. Russia got the north and the US got the south. Unbeknownst to the US/South, Russia was supplying and training the north for an invasion of the south, which took place shortly after. That started the Korean War which lasted from 1947-1950. At the end of that war, two US Officers somewhat arbitrarily (just down the middle) chose the border that exists today. However, the DMZ is not the same as the "official" border and actually acts as the de facto border. It's 4km wide and spans the entire length of the peninsula.
Apparently, approx 2,000 North Koreans try to defect every year and about only half succeed.
Joint Security Area, which is manned by the US Army, UN Command, and South Korean Army.
We arrived at JSA early and first, but when it was time to get through the checkpoint we couldn't because of some paper work mix up. We waited for a US Army MP (military police) to check all of our IDs before we could enter the area and start the tour.
We waited for 30+ mins and watched all the other buses behind us go ahead.
Once we got in, we checked out the small museum while we waited for the next presentation and I learned about the axe murder incident. Two US soldiers got killed by 10+ North Korean soldiers because the US soldiers were trying to trim a tree...
Our guide/security detail is MP Spina. He gave a brief presentation on the JSA and DMZ. He is on month 11 of a 12 month tour and is pretty funny and light hearted.
Bob is the name given to the one sole KP (North Korean) soldier who stands guard on 12 hour shifts in the exact same spot all day. Apparently, they don't like getting their photo taken, so they duck and hide behind a pillar from time to time. We luckily got him on camera.
We ate lunch in the cafeteria of the train station that is the last S. Korean stop before entering DMZ and then N. Korea. Lunch was nothing special.
The train station was the first stop on the DMZ line, which for one year brought food and supplies to N. Korean workers employed by S. Korean companies in an industrial park/village near the border. N. Korea agreed to let S. Korea use some of their people for work. This lasted about a year and then N. Korea said, eh this isn't going to work. So they cut off their end of the railroad and that was the end of it. The train now only operates one round trip per day to and from Seoul. Millions of dollars wasted. Apparently, S. Korean still hopes to reopen and complete this project so they can eventually travel by train to mostly anywhere in Eurasia.
The Bridge of No Return - at the end of the Korean War, both sides had POWs. Many were exchanged and had to decide which side they wanted to be on. Once they decided, there was no going back.
From here we could see the "Propaganda Village", which was built in response to South Korea's Freedom Village, which is home to several S. Korean farmers. The only way to be part of the village is to be born into it, marry into it, or be a descendant from one of the original inhabitants. The village had a large flag and flagpole. N. Korea built the corresponding village and erected an even larger flagpole from which flies the largest flag in the world. The village larger than S. Korea's and is fake. No one lives there. All the doors and windows are painted onto 4 walls of buildings, which don't have floors or ceilings. The village also constantly blasts propaganda through a speaker system - hence, the name. I caught a video of the propaganda, which we could hear for a while at this stop.
In the decades after the Korean War, S. Korea discovered 4 tunnels dug by the N. Koreans. We went to the site of the 3rd Tunnel (named just because it was the 3rd tunnel found) and watched a video (read: serious propaganda video) that talked about these tunnels and why they were dug. It showed the paths of the tunnels extending beyond where they ended all the way into Seoul and then a fireball on Seoul. And then the video talked about how the DMZ was a beautiful and peaceful place for animals but until unification the DMZ will "live forever". Weird.
He tunnel itself is far underground. We walked 450m each way at an 11 grade decline/incline to reach the tunnel entrance and then just walked a few feet through the actual tunnel because it was crowded and also we had to crouch so it was a bit uncomfortable. We "weren't supposed to bring cameras" but we took photos anyway!
Finally on the way home. We had late check out at 4 but at this rate we think we'll be late. We meet up with Patrick James Joseph O'Conner O'Malley when we get back. And we're a little concerned for what he has in store for us...
Convenient. Seedy. Fabulous. This is the love motel. There are thousands of these motels in the city, which go for like $60/night. Most people using them are younger people who live at home that want some private time, some older men who want...some private time. And then people like us, who just want a shower, bed, Internet, and a cheap place to stay.
We did a short "hike" (more like 1.2km of stairs) up a in a park to get to Seoul tower. It was a nice easy workout and we had some pretty good views of the city from the top. Like Paris's bridge of love, there was an area at the top that was covered in locks with messages on them. Kellan and I added a lock and Pat and Kellan added a lock. We also had a beer at the top.
After the "hike", we went back to the Love Motel and showered before heading to dinner.
Korean BBQ is not exactly what it sounds like...you sit at a table that has a hot plate and order cuts of meat. They get brought out on a slab and get cooked in from of you. They also cut meat with scissors. Works really well. There are vegetables on the side, kimchi and lots of other Korean pickled goods. If you want rice, you get rice. The best part is the soy bean soup. So spicy and good. Then we had beers and soju. Oh, the soju.
We drank what didn't feel like that much soju (soju, rice wine with about 11-12% abv) but what quickly felt like a lot of soju (and would tomorrow feel like too much soju). I have no idea where we went, but we ended up at a "club", more like a bar with a DJ and danced for a while.
At some point, we lost Pat and decided we should go home. We took a cab but got dropped off in the wrong place (though still close to our love motel). While we were stumbling around we turned a corner and there was Pat. Also stumbling around looking for motel. Good thing because I had the key. We grabbed some street food to bring back to motel and all passed out in one bed. I think it was close to 3. Morning came too soon and despite the milk thistle, advil, and food, I felt pretty bad. I haven't felt hungover like that in years. My theory is the soju, jet lag, and all the cigarette smoke. No matter how much I travel, I'll never get used to smoking in bars.
DAY 4Apr 30 2016
We dragged ourselves to the train station. It didn't feel good. We grabbed McDonald's mcmuffins, which was a mistake. Sadly, our train was full so our tickets were standing room only. We found empty seats and played musical chairs until finally we had seats no one was in. Pat found an "office" between cars that has an ac, a phone charger and door that closed...zzzzz
I think Pat and Kellan slept, but I certainly did not. Again, I haven't felt hungover like this in years. Eventually I threw up in the train bathroom. It felt so good. The train ride was fast and soon we were in the beach town of Pohang.
Pat had his car at the station so he drove us to his apt. In about and hour we were expected to be alive and ready for a soccer game (watch, not play, thankfully!) with Pat's friends.
I laid down for a bit more while Kellan ran and showered. I fake showered (face wash, teeth brush, deodorant) and hung last nights clothes up to air out. Pat's apt is the only apt we know of that is smaller than ours. In Korea, most bathrooms are small and have a toilet and sink/shower in one (the water hose goes from sink to a shower head and the whole bathroom turns into a shower).
We met up with some of Pat's friends, including his gf Emily, and cabbed to the stadium. It was such a beautiful day and I was so surprised that it was so empty. Apparently, Koreans don't like being in the sun and the last week, the air has been full of pollen - these were the reasons we were given. The game was fun - there were a lot of people we didn't know that were visiting from another town where Emily used to live. It's only 30 mins away so everyone travels to and from each city pretty often.
The Steelers won, 1-0. We stopped back at Pat's apt quickly and then headed to an arcade on Pohang's main shopping district. Played a Japanese game and watched some ping pong, then headed to dinner. More Korean BBQ.
This time around we got to cook all the food ourselves. In typical fashion we sat at two tables, girls side boys side. I finally ate something for the first time all day (minus the McDonald's that came back up shortly after it went down) and had my first drink, which apparently everyone was waiting for me to do. No Soju, not yet.
Once we were all nourished, we walked to a whole in the wall place called Soju 19. On the way there, we were handed some dried squid slices, which I was peer pressured to try. It was gross, as expected. Once we got to the bar, we just order all the soju and some beer. There is flavored soju and also bamboo soju. I tried the bamboo soju, which tastes basically like apple juice. Much for palatable than regular soju. With those orders, we also got a lot of sliced oranges, radishes, and peanuts
Around the large table of about 16 people (plus a 3 year old belonging to two of Pat's friends who is so cute and fun/well behaved, named Owen or Taco) everyone was laughing and having fun. We tried to get to know the people sitting around us. At some point for some unknown reason a competition broke out. Eat 6 slices of oranges (including the rind) in under 22 seconds. I was impressed at the number of people that needed to try. One person got 17 most other people were over 22 but under 30, and a few were lost causes. It was funny to watch. With my small tongue and the title of third-slowest-eater-on-earth (looking at you Abuelita and mom at first and second), there was no point in even trying.
Also at some point, a small bowl of larva (a Korean delicacy called Bonddaeggi) was put in front of me and I was told I needed to try one. Me. Try eating a squishy larva. Not just a bug, a boogery bug....Kellan tried one first and assured me it was not bad. But I don't trust him. Then, after a lot of chanting and egging on, I poured a shot of soju, grabbed one in chop sticks, shoved it in my mouth and got it over with. Like the dried squid, it was gross.
After Soju 19, we headed to noraebang. Aka karaoke. The scene was exactly as you'd expect if you've done Korean karaoke in NYC before (not sure about anywhere else in the states). Dingy, cheap furniture, cheap drinks, microphones, and