DMZ Tour- Part 1

Before I came to Korea, one of the things that I knew I had to do was to go on one of the DMZ tours.  After further research, I decided on the USO (United Service Organization)/Koridoor tour, since it is the only one that can get you access to the JSA.  On Tuesday, I arrived at Camp Kim USO just before 0730 when the buses were to depart.  They check your passport 3 times throughout the trip, so do not forget it if you go!  (I think military ID works, but not any other kind of ID).  This tour also has a strict dress code that’s enforced- no sleeveless clothing, no tight stretch pants, no short shorts or skirts, no flip flops, no baggy pants, etc.

I made friends with a nice girl who works for Google and we chatted a little on the way up.  As we got closer to our destination, I started to see chain link fences with barbed wire.  Apparently this is to keep North Korean military from swimming their way down (not defectors, although some of them have probably tried it too) and sneaking into South Korea.  We start seeing these fences maybe an hour or less after leaving Seoul, reminding us that Seoul is pretty close to the border.

Once we get to the DMZ border, we are made to wait a little bit and two army guys come on the bus and inspect our passports yet again.  They are our escorts for the rest of the trip, until we leave the DMZ.  The DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) is a strip of land which divides the Korean peninsula in half(ish), it’s 4 kilometers long (2 belonging to the South, 2 to the North) and 240 km across going from coast to coast.  The Military Demarcation Line is the actual “line” that separates north and south.  So the DMZ is the barrier around the MDL.  I don’t want to bore you with a lengthy and poorly written history of the DMZ, but basically it started out like this- the 38th parallel came about after WWII, dividing the northern Soviet occupied space with the southern American occupied land.  Then of course the Korean War started and in July of 1953 an Armistice Agreement was made, creating the DMZ, stating the rules for the area (what weapons can be there, etc), and other stuff.  The armistice agreement is just kind of like a cease fire though, not a peace treaty.  Technically these two countries are still at war, and are still negotiating, making this the longest war in U.S. history.

Anyway, as soon as we arrive, the mood on the bus becomes more tense.  The bus driver knows his way around and is careful to stay within the lanes- no crazy driving here like in Seoul!  Everyone is to stay on asphalt at all times unless they tell us we can walk on the grass.  Usually the open grassy areas are fine, but other wooded areas have land mines everywhere.  In fact, the DMZ is lined with tank traps, electrical fences, landmines, and of course two armies ready to pounce at any moment.

Our first stop is at Camp Bonifas, which is a joint U.S. and ROK (Republic of Korea, aka South Korea) army camp where we were given a 20 minute briefing about how to act and what to expect.  We also had to sign a waiver saying that we would follow the rules and understood we could get harmed or possibly even killed while there- eek!  After our briefing, we board different buses to take us to the JSA (Joint Security Area) at Panmunjom (판문점).  We first walked into the Freedom House (built in 1998, used for meetings and exchanges), which we were unfortunately not allowed to take any pictures of due to security reasons (there were lots of points of the tour when this was the case).  The security reasons they gave were so that our photos of their camera placements wouldn’t get online, thus North Korea having access to their location.  Inside the Freedom House, we were told again (maybe this was the 5th or 6th time) to not point at, wave, make any kind of motions towards the North Korean soldiers in any way.  I wonder if some stupid tourist has ever tried it.  Anyway, here are some pics of the JSA!

The ROK soldiers here have to always be in that  modified Tae Kwon Do stance and have sunglasses on, so the North Korean soldiers can’t see what’s going on.  Also, we were not allowed to go around the table on the side of the flag.  I was standing on the North Korean side while taking this picture.  Mics on the table in this room record everything.  Official meetings are still sometimes held here.

North Korean soldier

Our Koridoor tour guide and one of our army tour guides said this is the first time they had ever seen this many North Korean soldiers out here.  I counted more than 10, less than 20.

The ROK soldiers have to wear the sunglasses and also stand halfway behind the buildings like that so the Northern soldiers can’t “read” them

They believed the reason for that was perhaps because of this above group of people touring the JSA from the North side!  Some guy did confirm that it was a tour group, but for some reason they were all wearing the same color.  Apparently the JSA tour in North Korea costs around $10,000 and that probably doesn’t even include getting to North Korea.

After the tour group went in the building a few of the soldiers started to do a very strange march, zig zagging or something weird.

There were also some soldiers on the top of the building looking down at us with binoculars.

Just to clarify, when no tour groups or people are out there near the blue buildings, only 2 soldiers stand out there.  The extra ones were for us.  Also, when a tour group from either side goes in JSA, the other door is locked so they can’t get in.  So that way only one “side” is in there at a time.  The JSA is the only area where North and South Korean soldiers face each other.  Another interesting fact is that South Koreans can’t go easily on this tour.  They have to file all this paperwork and it takes 3-6 months to get approval.

Our young and energetic Koridoor tour guide was as excited as we were about what we were able to see.  She called us a lucky group!  More DMZ stuff on the next post.


Busan Adventure Part 3

The last installment of this series.  During the weekend we had some good Korean bbq, had some fun at noraebang, and did a bunch of other stuff.  But one of the highlights of the trip for me was going to Yonggung temple (용궁사).  Yonggungsa was originally built in 1376 and is quite different from other temples because of its being situated on the coast.   You can check out the above website for all of the historical info, but this is one of the most beautiful temples I’ve seen in Korea.  Arrived in late afternoon, very serene and peaceful.  Here are a few photos:

throw coins and if yours reaches the bowl, a wish comes true. i’m 99% sure one of mine got in

golden piggies- always good for wealth luck

hundreds of tiny little buddha figurines

huge golden buddha that lots of people were taking their picture with

goddess buddha of mercy


Here’s a video that gives a better idea of how big the place is:


I’m trying to decide whether to put all of my pictures on facebook or elsewhere (flickr or picasa).  What’s the best way to organize digital photos?

Busan Adventure Part 2

Okay, day two of my Busan trip started with us moving to lodging with a view of Haeundae beach.  It was a great view from the 8th floor and there was even a Starbucks just a few steps away!  Haeundae is the most famous beach in Korea, attracting over 500,000 tourists each year (busy season is in August).  Lucky for us, this weekend was the Haeundae Sand Festival so we got to see some pretty neat sand sculptures.  So since I’m tired, I’ll just post a few choice ones for you:

(the  Shinsegae department store in Busan.  The biggest dept store in the entire world, even bigger than Macy’s in New York)

There was a hoola hoop contest on the beach.  This guy was interviewing people to try and mess them up.

I’m going a little out of order but on Monday, we did stop into the Busan aquarium.  Biggest in Korea, had some strange fish.  Lots of strange eel I hadn’t seen before.  One more post to complete this series.

Busan Adventure Part 1

This weekend was a holiday weekend (Memorial Day on Monday, basically the same concept as in the U.S.) so I decided I should take advantage of it and go on a trip.  Went with a meetup group to Busan, which is South Korea’s 2nd largest city right on the bottom right of the peninsula.  First off, we traveled by KTX which is a high speed train that travels throughout part of South Korea (around 200ish miles an hour).  So getting to Busan took only 2.5 hours, as opposed to perhaps 5.5 hours by car (if you’re lucky and get to drive in the bus lane, or if traffic isn’t bad). 

We had 8 people in our group so we were able to reserve 2 tables which featured 4 seats facing each other.  The leg room is similar to an airplane.  Actually so are the bathrooms and the guy selling food on a cart.  Some people are always going to be facing the backwards direction of the train.  Those prices are a tiny bit less than forward facing seats.

After arriving at a nice ocean view hostel (my first time staying in one), we decided to visit Jagalchi fish market 잘가치 시장 (part is inside part is out), which is the country’s largest fish market.  Let me say this- if you don’t like fish or can’t stand the smell, then this is definitely not the place for you!  However if you can tolerate it, you’ll get to see some pretty amazing varieties of fish.  Mostly ajummas’s (middle-older aged women) sell the fish while their husbands are doing the fishing, so you’ll see mostly women in this area.  There are also tables for you to sit down and pick what fish you want for them to cook right there.  We decided to eat at a large restaurant in this area that has traditional sitting (you have to take off your shoes and sit on the floor, raised platform).  We ordered some really fantastic sashimi and also some cooked fish and scallops.  The side dishes were pretty amazing too, including muscles, shrimp and other stuff.

photo of the inside portion of jalgachi fish market (these photos taken with my iPhone 4)


After dinner and wandering around the fish market, we took a short cab ride to Yongdusan Park (용두산 공원) to visit the 118 meters high, Busan Tower.  I am a little bit (or a lot) scared of heights, but had pretty amazing 360 degree views of Busan.  The sun was just beginning to set, which made for a pretty scene, lights coming up for the evening.  You could also see the port’s massive operations, which is pretty interesting.

With the sun down, then went to a nightlife district near one of the universities (forget which one). Went to this place called the Dugout, which was a nice little bar, lots of expats there.  The manager (perhaps owner) had perfect English and accommodated us nicely (which isn’t always the case).  Didn’t stay out too late since a lot was jam-packed in the next day.  More to come later.

Noraebangs and Tambourines

Last weekend a friend who is stationed in Japan right now came to Seoul for the weekend with some others.  We met up, had dinner at Korean BBQ, got some drinks, went to a jazz club (was okay), and then ended our night with a bang at a noraebang.  For those of you who aren’t enlightened, a noraebang (노래방) translates to singing-room, but basically is a karaoke place with private rooms that are open all hours of the night.  It’s not just going to a regular karaoke room that has an extra microphone.  These noraebangs feature several plasma flat screen tvs, different sized rooms depending on your party, great sound systems, food/drinks (at some you’re allowed to bring in stuff), sofas, tables, and most importantly… light-up tambourines!  I never knew that I would love on a tambourine so much, but get some soju in me and I won’t lay off it all night!  Case in point-

 We had several Koreans with us who sang Korean songs, but the Japanese and English song selection wasn’t bad at all.  In fact, there were a lot of newer songs to choose from.  Some of the shadier looking noraebangs, or ones out in more rural areas unfortunately don’t have all the new hits.  Anyway, you can rent out rooms by the hour and is a pretty inexpensive way to spend an evening with friends.  There are some nicer noraebangs that are decorated in themes too.  Nice plush couches and more have a hotel like feel in the rooms.

I hear there are noraebang busses that travel throughout Korea.  That would be a pretty fun way to get to some of the distant cities.  Wonder if the driver ever partakes in the fun.

Just an FYI, there are other types of ‘bangs’ (pronounce the “a” like “ah”) besides the noraebang.   There are PC bangs for playing computer games or surfing the web and also DVD bangs were people go to watch movies (sometimes some scandalous happenings go on there).  Several of each of these can be found in virtually every neighborhood here in Korea.  However the noraebang is by far my favorite.

Throwing Money in Someone’s Face

So life in Korea isn’t always rosy.  Actually daily living seems a lot more difficult for me here (probably because my commute is so long) but that’s not the hard part.  It’s the little things.  I knew that the language would be different, food would be different, etc.  But I miss little things like having personal space on public transportation, grass, diversity of people, and other stuff. 

I got into a little bit of drama earlier this week though.  A friend and I went shopping in the underground cheap shopping mall area at Express Bus Terminal station.  Basically it’s a bunch of cheap stuff at tons of different stalls.  You could really shop down there for hours.  Our plan was to leave after work, then get a few summer tops, since the weather is already getting quite a bit warmer, then head home.  In the middle of our shopping experience we hit a big of a snag. While looking through one particular rack of clothes, my friend was standing near this crochet shrug on a mannequin, which had a string hanging down from it.  More like a big thread, one of the crochet things or whatever you call it came loose.  But then she got her bracelet caught on it.  I quickly and surreptitiously tried to yank the string off her bracelet, but it was proving to be difficult without further pulling the string from the shirt.  Of course one of the ladies working there sees us breaking it free from her bracelet and begins to chew us out in Korean.  Now, I understood every single word this lady was saying to us, but I thought it best under the circumstances to act ignorant and pretend that I didn’t know any Korean.  My friend is blonde so she probably just assumed neither of us understood any Korean.  Another girl who worked there was a little nicer, but the main girl yelling was incredibly rude saying that we ruined the shirt, how can she sell it, she has to buy it, etc.  I was hoping that our not ‘understanding’ Korean would be in our favor, but this chick was not letting us leave without a fight.

At this point, one really has only a few options.  One is to run (which really was not an option to either of us), two is to just pay her for the shirt (which my friend really didn’t want to do because it really wasn’t her fault), and three come up with some other solution, maybe split the difference?  Anyway after my friend and the lady started arguing some more a huge crowd of Korean women- shoppers and other shop keepers, started to gather around us.  Just great.  Other people whose English was not very good at all tried to explain to us what the girl was yelling, but I think anyone could understand even if you didn’t speak Korean.  She wanted 10,000 won for the shirt, which really is nothing at all, only $10.  But it was the principle of the matter.  How could she make her pay for a shirt that was already fraying and then  blame it on us.  In the end my friend had had enough and threw a 10,000 won bill in the girl’s face (I’ve secretly always wanted to do that).  We immediately turned and left and that was the end of it.  The girl didn’t chase us down or yell at us anymore.  She was happy because she only cared about the money.  We tried not to let that event ruin the rest of our shopping experience.

The next day my friend said that she felt a little bad about throwing the money in the girl’s face and I just told her not to worry about it too much, it’s over and we can move on.  In the past she said she would have really blown up at the girl and just waited for the police, but we both knew why we shied away from that solution.  Since we were foreigners, the police pretty much would have taken the side of the shop owners.  It’s not to say they wouldn’t have listened, but I am 99% sure that’s how it would have ended.  We would have had to pay them anyway or been hauled down to a police station and in the end that’s not worth it over $10.  But I’m glad that we both got over it more quickly than we would have thought.  Especially myself, even though it wasn’t my bracelet that got caught, in the past I would have thought about the incident for days, perhaps a week or so and replay the event over and over in my head.  But the way that girl was acting was out of control.  It’s not like many people here, she was obviously having a bad day.  Maybe tired of having to work underground getting paid very little for watching shoppers and then having to go home and live with her overbearing mother.  With an attitude like hers, I’m sure she had a hard life.  And so, it was easier to forget.

So in the end, the moral of the story is- watch out for your jewelry while shopping.

Happy Birthday, Buddha

So this past Tuesday  was a vacation today for me- no work!  It was a national holiday too- Buddha’s birthday.  Although it seems there are just as many Christians as Buddhists in this country, everyone gets to partake in the celebration.  A month prior to today, streets all over Korea have lanterns hung up, which are nicely lit in the evenings. 

On Saturday, I went to the Lotus Lantern Festival in Seoul.  During this festival weekend there were dance and music performances, vendors selling various Buddhist related items (bracelets, lanterns, etc) and more.  I chose to attend on Saturday to see the 2.5 hour long parade which featured all kinds of big and small lanterns.  Here are some photos from the event.  I took a bunch at the night parade but am too lazy to put those up here.  Maybe I’ll stick them on picasa or a facebook link or something.  What do most of you people use, flickr?

Also, a friend of mine took some video with my iPhone.  I stuck it altogether really quick.  If you’re bored you can take a look at some of the paper and plastic lanterns.  In the parade are adults, kids, monks, and even some pets too.  My favorite lanterns are the peacock, the dragon, and the turtle ship.

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