Sunday, June 3, 2012

Last Day in Seoul and Now Headed Home

Ok, there probably isn't much to write in terms of commentary here.  We pretty just went all over Seoul seeing the sights and taking pictures.  It's probably best just to write describe a bit of where we are and what we are doing in the captions.

An elevator takes us up to a cable car which then takes up to the top of the N Seoul Tower.  The tower sits on this peak in Seoul and supposedly has great views of the city. 
You can see the tower and the cable car the takes us up. 
I saw something similar in Zhangjiajie.  I guess the Chinese and Koreans are very romantic people.

Super hazy day.  The views were not that great.

The tower is a pretty green color at night and can be seen from many places in Seoul.

Jezreel wanted to have a donut party since there is a Dunkin' Donuts on every corner.

More food.  I can't believe how much food we are eating on this weekend.

Just a random door going nowhere.

Jee-Young at I at Gyeongbokgung Palace.  She wouldn't let me post any pictures on the blog showing her face.  So, here I am with the mysterious woman with the black visor.

The palace is a fairly large area with multiple buildings.  It was destroyed by the Japanese when they colonized and then rebuilt.  It was then partially destroyed during the Korean War and then rebuilt again.  Jezreel thought it was pretty amusing that so many Japanese tourists were roaming around the grounds with a tour guide.  We wondered what they were telling them.  Would they say: "This place used to be even more beautiful until we burned it to the ground!"

We got to see a recreation of the changing of the guards ceremony.  It was really interesting!

I love the look of the architecture here.

The king's throne.

This girl came up to me and pointed at her camera.  I thought she wanted me to take a picture of her with her friends.  But, she wanted to have her friends take a picture of her with the foreigners.

Hyunjin kept telling me: "You aren't doing it right.  Drop your knees lower."  I said: "I'm trying!!!!"

Love this shot.  Lily pads, traditional Korean building, typical looking mountain in Korea.  

I was born in the year of the rabbit.  Thought he needed an extra set of bunny ears.
I was excited to take a bite of what I thought was a Korean marshmallow.  Turns out it was a moist towelette for cleaning your hands before eating.

You see why I can't get a decent burger in Korea.  They have no clue!

This was in an older residential area in Seoul that's been preserved.  People still live in this area and the architecture looks like this.

I like this picture because you can see the old Korea with the new Korea.

Another good shot contrasting the old and new.

Jezreel and Hyunjin could not have been more hospitable.  We had such a great time! 
Standing in front of the National Assembly building.  The National Assembly is Korea's version of Congress.

I'm trying to look tough, but I can't quite pull it off.

The shot right after this is me falling, but I didn't include that one.  I like this one better.

The start of the sequence where I try Bundaegi, which is a steamed butterfly cocoon (yes, with butterfly included).  You can see my reaction if you scroll down.

I came so close to throwing up.  The taste was indescribable.  I kept burping it up during the day and even had to refrain from thinking about it.

I saw this and so badly wanted to have my kids with me.  They would have loved this park right on the Han river.

From the top of the 63 building, which used to be the tallest building in Seoul.  Wonderful views from up here.  We all thought it was crazy how far the city went in all directions.

Sign for the LDS temple in Seoul.

It was hard to get good shots at night, but we tried.

Jezreel agreed to take a picture in front of the temple with me, but kept saying "There better not be a guy waiting with pamphlets."

I didn't plan this, but a missionary from California who is working at the temple came up and asked who we were.  Really nice guy.  It was Sunday night in Korea, so the temple and vistors center were closed.

Not the best picture, but I like the spires, the moon, and Korean flag all in one shot.

I was surprised that the driveway going up to the temple was right off of this alley way.

Jezreel wanted to challenge me to a dart throwing battle.

I won!!!!  I did like this pig better, but it had a big rip in it, so I had to exchange it for another.

I sure got a great many stares on the subway ride home carry my pig with me.  The sacrifices I am willing to make for my little girl, Lucy!

Very typical scene in Korea.  They are so attached to their gadgets.  It's a little disturbing actually.

He is so jealous of my pig!

I'm taking such good care of my new friend.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Demilitarized Zone and Joint Security Area

I need to offer a disclaimer right at the onset.  I was less excited about going to Seoul than I was to go to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) and joint security area (JSA).  The same thing happened to me when I went to San Francisco.  People kept telling me that I need to go to the windiest road in the world or Chinatown or the Golden Gate Bridge.  I just wanted to see Alcatraz and I made it a priority.  In Korea, I mostly wanted to visit with my friends and to ride up to the North/South Korean border.  I had seen pictures of the North and South Korean soldiers staring each other down at the military demarcation line and wanted to feel the military and political tension that exists at the spot.  I had my chance to finally embark on this adventure this morning, but I needed to go alone since there were no seats available for Jezreel and South Koreans are not allowed to go without completing a very lengthy approval process.  I think the United Nations Command that controls the DMZ worries that the South Koreans will not be able to control their emotions in the presence of the North Korean soldiers and will do something to provoke them.

So, I got up at 6:30 a.m. for a quick shower before heading out.  Jezreel and Hyunjin have a control panel on their wall and you have to actually turn on the hot water in order to shower.  I can't read Korean and I couldn't remember how to turn on the hot water.  I fumbled around with the switch and finally got the water to heat up.  I later found out that I had not only turned on the water heater, but I had turned the apartment heat way up.  This caused Jezreel and Hyunjin to suffer while I was gone because they were still in bed and not aware that I had changed the temperature.  I had trouble with their control panel the night before as well when I accidentally pushed the wrong button and the security system went off and kept repeating in Korean "emergency" over and over.  

After getting ready, I headed to the subway and made my way to a hotel downtown where the tour would depart.  Checking in was a breeze because my friend, Johnny Oh, had booked and paid for my entire tour as a gift (thank you so much, Johnny).  When we got on the bus, the tour guide inspected all of our clothes to ensure that they met their strict guidelines.  They really worry about anything that might provoke the North Koreans, so they have specific rules about what can and cannot be worn and what physical behaviors are allowed.  Some of the rules made sense and others I did not understand.  Some of these rules include not wearing jeans that have any kind of wear, holes, or faded color.  No sandals are allowed.  No tank tops are allowed.  No clothing that looks military in any way.  No tattoos can be showing.  No gum chewing is allowed.  We were also instructed never to come up behind the South Korean soldiers or to gesture or point toward the North Koreans.  Not only will it possibly provoke them, but they also take pictures of what the tourists do and may use it as a propaganda tool on their side of the border.  

The bus departed on time and it was very comfortable.  The DMZ is about one hour north of Seoul and the road runs along the Han river and through green mountains and fields of rice.  As we traveled along the Han river during the initial stages of the journey, the river was lined with miles (well...kilometers) of razor wire and outposts where South Korean military personnel would watch the river in case the North Koreans tried to enter this way.  Not all of these posts were occupied, but we could see soldiers periodically keeping guard with their weapons.  Apparently in 1978, a group of North Korean soldiers entered South Korea by hiking down the Han river in the winter because it was frozen over.  They killed several people before they were stopped.  Now, the South Koreans worry about the Han river being a viable access point for an attack on the South.  We got to a military camp where our passports were very carefully examined and then we were briefed on how to behave once we arrived at the Joint Security Area.  We were asked to read a document outlining the potential risks and sign a waiver indicating that the United Nations Command and the South Korean military are not in any way responsible for our safety.  

We then departed the camp, but this time on special military buses to go the additional 2 kilometers to the JSA.  During this short ride, we were told that we were traveling through the land mine area.  The tour guide told us that planes had dropped thousands of land mines in this area, that they weren't armed individually, and that they didn't know where they all were.  Hmm...kind of scary!  When we pulled up to the building that stands between the JSA and the North Korean border, our tour guide pointed out a small park in front of the building.  Apparently, this was the location where a Soviet defector tried to run across the border from North Korea into South Korea.  He ran into this small park and instigated a firefight between the North and South.  Several soldiers were killed on both sides, but the Soviet survived and went on to live in the U.S.  Interesting story.  We waited our turn to get into the JSA.  This was the moment I had been looking forward to.  You can see from the pictures what this area looks like.  The South Korean soldiers look directly ahead across the border to the North.  Occasionally, there will be North Korean soldiers standing directly across the demarcation line (but faced sideways).  They won't look toward South Korea.  I think it's to show a lack of recognition of their sovereignty or something like that.  This time, though, those soldiers weren't there, but there was a soldier in the building just on the opposite side of the border looking carefully at all of us through his binoculars.  It created some anxiety in me to be so close to the border and to know that if I did anything stupid, I could be shot.  I didn't plan on doing anything out of the ordinary, but Jezreel mentioned to me how I could have been famous all over the world and my name on every cable news network if I were willing to run across that border.

We were only allowed to take pictures in designated places and this spot was one of those places.  However, some buildings were off limits and we were told which ones they were.  I wasn't surprised when one man got yelled at by our tour guide for pointing right at the North Korean soldier. They only told us not to do that like 50 times.  Earlier, someone else had taken a picture of the military camp, which was off limits.  His shutter made a loud noise and then the military officer on the bus said in a completely serious tone, "If we find out who took that picture, very bad things could happen to you."  After getting some shots of the outside part of the JSA, we went into the MAC building, which is a building that sits right on the border.  It's purpose is to provide a neutral location for the North and South to meet if ever a negotiation is required.   The room was very interesting.  There were tables with small microphones and two South Korean soldiers guarding the inside of the building. They allowed us to take pictures with the South Korean soldiers standing guard, by they remained emotionless and we weren't allowed to get too close.  

After we left the JSA, we made a couple of other important stops along the way.  We stopped at the Bridge of No Return, which was the place where (after the armistice was signed) the POWS had to choose which side of the border they would permanently reside in.  Many Koreans were permanently displaced from their families at this very point.  Sometimes we think more about the fatalities during a war than some of the other effects.  It was interesting to think that some families were separated never to see each other again.  It kind of made me think of my own family members who went through the holocaust.  Some of the Jewish people were herded into different groups and the Nazis clearly didn't care about keeping families together.  What a tragedy! We also drove by North Koreans' propaganda city, which is an artificial city that they constructed along the border to try to convince the South Koreans that the good life resides on the other side of the border.  The tour guide told us that many of these buildings only have the front walls and are often missing windows, but that this can't be clearly seen from the South.  

We also stopped to see a monument to the poplar tree, which was the center of an international incident in 1976.  Apparently, the poplar tree was blocking visibility to one of the checkpoints and it allowed the North Koreans to more easily kidnap UN Command officers (which they had already attempted many times).  So, members of the U.S. Army and South Korean personnel attempted to trim the tree.  The North Koreans crossed the border to warn them to stop, but the soldiers refused to stop.  The North Koreans attacked them with their own axes, killing both U.S. Army soldiers.  The monument marks the spot where the incident took place.  Another interesting site we saw was the railway that the South hopes will eventually run all the way to the North Korean capital of Pyongyang.  Of course at this point that isn't possible, but the South Koreans are still hopeful that reunification will one day be possible.  

Departure location in downtown Seoul near the City Hall.

Not sure who decorated this thing.  I'm thinking the blue, red, and purple is not a good combination.  But, I'm a man.  What do I know?

Rice fields were common during the drive North.

That small park outside the window is where the Soviet defector ran causing an international incident. 

North Korean soldier looking at us from their business center on the other side of the demarcation line.

It's hard to see, but there is no fence at the military demarcation line.  Much of it is just these little white markers you can see in the middle of the photo.

U.S. and South Korean military.

Is he catching his breath by leaning against the wall? The South Korean soldiers would never do that.

Our tour guide.

Cameras mounted everywhere.

See that concrete strip going across from left to right? That is the very line separating North and South Korea.

It's kind of odd to be at a location with so much tension, but be on a tour at the same time.  It ain't Disneyland that's for sure!

The North and South will occasionally meet (sometimes with intermediaries) to negotiate.

They told me not to get to close, so I didn't.  All of the soldiers kept this exact stance the whole time with fists clenched.  It's a classic nonverbal cue indicating he is ready for a fight.  And...he probably should be.

Building on the North Korean side.  No one know what is in it.

Monument for the poplar axe murder incident in 1976.

Bridge of no return.  Prisoners of war were allowed to cross over this one time never to return again.
Propaganda Village on the North Korean side.  The whole village is apparently a fake just to show the South Koreans what they are missing.  See how tall the flag pole is?  Apparently, it's sets a world record for tallest flag pole.  They kept making it taller and taller in order to ensure it was taller than the flag on the South side of the border.

Near the freedom bridge where families pay tribute to lost relatives, whether deceased or whereabouts just unknown.

This is what remains of a locomotive destroyed by North Korean bombs during the Korean War.

The railroad that will hopefully go to Pyongyang in North Korea some day.

Common sight all along the Han river.

The waiver I had to sign before going in to the JSA.