welcoming in a New Year and new adventures
12.30.2010 - 01.03.2011 15 °F
Well, well, well... It has been far too long since I last updated the blog. For the sake of your reading pleasure, I will not tell you all the details of the holidays only that they were spent in good company and made for a unique experience, leaving us each a bit more thankful for all we have, especially our families and each other! There were some highlights that include Joe being Santa Claus, experiencing my first Korean wedding, our first, modest Christmas tree, presents from home, and skyping with our families.
For Christmas, I planned a trip to Seoul for Joe and I. The last time I was in Seoul was for training and it had left a bad taste in my mouth. I spent my first week in Korea traipsing around a huge city with 200 lbs of luggage, nonstop rain, and 100% humidity finding the city to be nothing more than a really spread-out city that could not compare to NYC in any way, shape, or form. I wanted to give Seoul a real shot so when I got a much needed break from school for 4 days for New Years (we don't get your typical ten day Christmas break) it seemed like the perfect time. VERY early Thursday morning we headed up to Seoul via the train. Although we could have taken the bullet train for double the fare and would have gotten to Seoul in 3 hours, we opted for the economical route which was a six hour journey. Six long hours later we were dumped into the chaos of Seoul Station. (Imagine Grand Central at 5 pm times about 100 and that is a typical afternoon in Seoul Station.) We got ourselves T-Money cards so we were armed to traverse Seoul's ridiculous subway system for the next few days and we made our way to the Alpha Guest House. We stayed in the Sinchon area of Seoul which is located near three universities and five minutes from the subway making it easy for me to drag Joe to every museum and tourist site possible in the next four days! We were greeted by the friendly manager and showed to our quaint but very clean and suitable room. After nearly no sleep, no food, and a long train ride, Joe was about ready for a nap but do you think I could allow that?!?! NO, NO, NO!! There were places to go and people to see, subways to be ridden, pictures to be taken... Joe quickly learned this would by no means be the relaxing getaway that perhaps we both needed!
Seoul's Subway Map... are you kidding me?!?!
Before heading anywhere we stopped for lunch. After promising my mother I would not go to the DMZ, the first thing I did was book a tour for us to go to the DMZ early the next day. Sorry Mom but it was taunting me too much to deny! Our first stop was to head over to Changdeokgung Palace which is considered one of the "Five Great Palaces" built in Seoul during the Joseon Dynasty. We headed over there just to watch the large doors of the palace close in our faces... note to any travelers: the damn palaces close at 5 PM SHARP!! Luckily, the palace was located right next door to Bukchon Village. This beautiful neighborhood, which is situated between two palaces, has the largest group of privately owned traditional Korean wooden homes, or hanok, in Seoul. The area is a maze of narrow alleyways which you could easily get lost in, full of beautifully restored homes, courtyards, traditional markets and stores, restaurants, art galleries, cafes, as well as traditional workshops where you can try your hand at things such as Korean embroidery, making folk kites and Korean liquor, fabric dying, among many others. Unfortunately all the workshops closed at 5 PM as well so we didn't get the opportunity to try any of these things this time but it was nice to walk around and feel as though we were experiencing the Korea that existed in the early 1900's. Unable to handle the cold anymore we headed into an Ice Gallery. (Counterproductive, I know, but we got to stand in front of the heater in the lobby for awhile). They claim to be the world's first Ice Gallery that is open year round. With a claim like that, Joe and I got our hopes up real high! Low and behold, after paying our admission fee we were essentially taken into a basement with old wooden rafters and were the only two people in the over glorified walk in freezer. We couldn't help but laugh... it seems the first ice gallery in the world, surely didn't equate to the best ice gallery in the world. That being said, since we had the place to ourselves we could goof around and take our time going into the ice igloo, pretending to pee in the ice toilet, checking out the ice hotel room, visiting ice temples, getting served at the ice bar, and going down the ice slide (well Joe just got stuck). If nothing else we got a laugh out of it!
Feeling a bit defeated and exhausted at this point we headed back out to brave the cold and went to Insadong for dinner. Insadong is a very busy, traditional Korean street. There is one main street with plenty of alleyways off each side to explore. We ended up in a big 6 story, open mall that had lots of cute little shops and lights and overlooked a street full of traditional Korean restaurants. We had a seafood pajeon, or pancake, and a hot skillet of rice, "exotic vegetables", and seafood. It was entirely too much food but delicious. We were now ready to head back to the guest house for some sleep before another early alarm to head to the DMZ.
^^ the before and after effects of our meal ^^
The next day, New Years Eve, we bundled up tight and headed to the DMZ bright and early. Our first stop was Imjingak Park where we needed to be registered with the Korean Army. While we waited to get our clearance we were able to walk around a bit. The park is located 7 km from the actual line of Demarcation and was built to console those from both sides of Korea who are unable to return to their hometowns, friends, and families because of the division of the country. There was definitely a somber feeling to the area and the two main things that we saw there were a derailed train and the Freedom Bridge. The Freedom Bridge was crossed by many South Koreans to return to their mother country from Northh Korea and is the farthest point North civilians can go without military clearance. There are Buddhist prayer ribbons everywhere, many left by families that were left divided from the Korean War, praying for peace and reunification. Many South Koreans who's family escaped from the North during the war return to the Freedom Bridge to pay their respects. Amongst the barbed wire, the vibrantly colored prayer ribbons were a stark, yet beautiful reminder of the heartache many families have endured and continue to endure as a result of the division of these two countries. There was also a recovered steam train that is left to serve as a symbol of the tragic history of the division between North and South Korea. According to the train operator, the train was backed due to the intervention of Chinese Communist Forces on its way to the North Korean capital to deliver war materials. There are more than 1,020 bullet holes.
After going to Imjingak Park we were allowed to enter the Civilian Control Area. We were taken to the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel and taken underground to walk through the tunnel which was built by the North. It is one of four tunnels that have been found by the South so far but the South believes there are 16 more tunnels, all of which were built by the North during and after the war to attack the city of Seoul by surprise. We also got to go to an observatory that overlooks North Korea. Due to currently raised tensions, we were unable to do as much as the tours usually offer since there have been treats of attacks on tourists from North Korea. We were a bit let down but were thankful for the added caution. We plan to head back to the DMZ next time we are in Seoul to see Panmunjeom City which is the small village that straddles the line separating the North and South. I must say, I did find it surprising and somewhat interesting that everything in the area has Unification and Freedom in it's name. The South Korean government has done everything in its power to fill it's side of the DMZ area with beautiful wildlife and park areas in an attempt to show that life and beauty can flourish in the wake of such disastrous and tragic cruelty.
After such a somber day we were ready for New Years Eve night. We headed to Itaewon, essentially the "Little America" of Seoul and met up with Ryan, my friend from high school, and some of his co-workers. We brought our New Years in strong with plenty of Jersey fist pumping (only kidding... sort of) and good company! It was great to see Ryan and while I learned how to drink with Ryan and had learned to ignore his peer pressure, Joe had not... leaving Joe to bring in a blurry 2011 and hung over for the next full day of activities!
The next day, we went to the Korean War Memorial Museum where you can learn all about Korea's tumultuous past, full of military takeovers, fights for independence, wars, colonization, the list goes on and on. There was an entire exhibit celebrating 60 years since the outbreak of the Korean War where they thanked all of the countries that came to their aid with posters and videos for each country. It was touching to see how thankful they were. The sign for the US read, "The year 2010 marks the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War. The peace, prosperity, and liberties that we cherish today are built on your selfless sacrifices and contributions. Korea is forever indebted and we will continue to build the trust and friendship between our two nations." I really loved this museum and it was very interactive with tons of tanks, planes, and guns to play with and a full area dedicated to walking you through every step of the Korean War and all of the many affects the war had and continues to have on the peninsula.
Afterwards, we headed over to Cheonggyecheon Stream. This is a beautiful 3.6 mile stream that is set down 15 feet below street level providing you a serene place to walk and talk with beautiful lights, overhead bridges, small waterfalls, and wonderful scenery. While everywhere we read about this place it said there are tons of people there, I think the 15 degree weather may have kept many people home allowing us some treasured and all so infrequent moments alone together with no one gawking and staring. Oh, the peacefulness!
On our last day, we headed to Seoul Tower. I don't know why I always feel the need to go to the top of the tower in every city I visit. It's always so anti-climatic but Seoul Tower at least had another draw. Seoul Tower sits atop Namsan Mountain. Long ago it was believed that if lovers made a wish at the shrine on Namsan it would come true. Since then, Namsan has become a place for couples to hang a lock together, promising everlasting love. There must be hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of locks hung with writing all over them. We couldn't go to Seoul without taking part in the tradition.
Undeterred by our train departure we couldn't miss the opportunity to go to a restored prison built in 1908. Seodaemun Prison signifies the suffering and pain Koreans experienced during the time of Japanese occupation. It is one of 30 prisons built by the Japanese to jail independence activists and punish any pro-democratic activities. Here we were able to learn about the Korean independence movement and the oppression of the Japanese Imperialists. Throughout the weekend, we both were in constant shock at how little we were taught about Korean history. Through all my years of education, I have learned comprehensive history lessons on so many countries, but Korea has seemed to slipped through the cracks. The history behind this country is so incredibly interesting, violent, and unsettled. We were able to go through real torture chambers and look at the many ways the prisoners were tortured, as is with any regime willing to torture... no line was too far. We were also able to go into some of the different kinds of cells. It was all so interesting.
I promised not to speak politics for a year from the time I set foot on Korean soil... for anyone who knows me they know that's pretty impossible but all-in-all I've done pretty well. That being said, I need to take a moment to reflect. As I learned the history of this country and how hard the people of Korea have fought for every freedom they have and the personal sacrifice that was paid for every liberty, I could not help to feel unendingly grateful for the relatively simple past Americans have endured for our freedoms. Less than 60 years ago, Korea was a country destroyed with no real economy to speak of, never having a solid, untampered independence, yet they have struggled and worked their way to freedom. They are now the tenth largest economy in the world but the blood, sweat, tears, and sacrifice can still be seen on many Koreans' faces. They do not forget what they've fought through to achieve their current way of life and the struggles in Korea's past have left a country with such indomitable spirit and potential. As a result of this, I was reminded of the invaluable importance of freedom and peace and the potential they can release in a people left to their own devices. Korea serves as a wonderful example of the product of ambition, self-sacrifice, and hard work.
On Sunday, we were happy to head back home and are looking forward to our next trip to Shanghai for Lunar New Year in February. The goal of the month is securing a job for Joe! Wish us luck!!
love & hugs from Korea!