Sights of South Korea part I

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Gyeongbokgung Palace

Gyeongbokgung Palace

Were my eyes trying to deceive me, or did my tour bus really look like a pink bordello? The décor was bright pink, and not only that, it was frilly. Frilly curtains, frilly seats even, and it was softly lit too, doing its utmost to create the impression I was in a friendly little brothel. Hardly what you’d expect from a modern South Korean touring vehicle, but kind of groovy all the same.

I had just landed at Incheon International Airport after my night flight to Seoul, feeling none-too-fresh, but at least the colourful bus interior woke me up somewhat and I busied myself checking out the scenery on the way from the airport. Winter was late and the autumn colours were stunning, waking me up further, so that by the time we reached our hotel in the centre of town – an area called Myeong-dong – I was almost ready to set off exploring. This was my fourth visit to South Korea and apart from Seoul, I’d be visiting some places new to me, as well as returning to an old favourite, Busan, where I’d last visited back in 2001.

Checking in at Lotte International, my second wind swiftly slumped. It was early evening in Seoul already and it was all I could do to stay awake for a quick dinner, before crashing in my lovely 33rd floor room – just managing to take in the view before those zzzzz took over. Woke up to find there was quite a surprise in store. The autumn day was crisp, getting warmer as the day wore on, thanks to blazing sunshine – in other words a perfect time for dressing up and prancing about a royal palace. Myself, and some 40 other Westerners were all invited to a traditional hanbok clothing place, where we were encouraged to choose a favourite traditional robe and change into it before “doing” the Gyeongbokgung Palace, Seoul’s main royal palace.

shop selling traditional Korean costumes

shop selling traditional Korean costumes

Of course a group of Westerners all wearing traditional Korean garb was quite a sight and within seconds of entering said royal palace we had achieved celebrity status! I have never been so photographed in my entire life and the morning was a total blast, even though the outfit was slightly binding and cumbersome, with its flouncy skirt, complete with underskirt, and tight jacket. The palace, dating back to the late 14th century, although very much restored after the Japanese did their best to wreck it in more recent times, looked more alive and authentic somehow, when populated by native costumes. The grand tour lasted several hours and also took in Bukchon Hanok Village, an old part of Seoul with buildings in traditional hanok style with curved roofs.

A lunch of enormous and most satisfying proportions followed – gorgeous barbeque beef and all the trimmings, cooked at the table – and then a leisurely afternoon when I just wandered the busy streets of Myeong-dong, in my “civvies” this time, rather missing the attention. Mentally I was preparing myself for a bit of “war tourism” the next day, my first visit to the infamous DMZ, or Demilitarised Zone – the border between the two Koreas.

Friday the 13th seemed as good a day as any to visit the DMZ and the bleak, driving rain just added to the desolate mood. It has to be said, I’ve never taken to war zone tourism, not even the comparatively peaceful zones, but the border between North and South Korea is a big tourist attraction – on the south side of the border, that is. In fact, so commercial has it become that you’d almost be forgiven for forgetting all about the human tragedy surrounding it. Essentially this is one country and one people, still at war with itself and although the south is more humane and far less belligerent, both North and South are stuck in their positions, with little being resolved as the decades pass.

inside the third tunnel

inside the third tunnel

The tour took most of the day and included stops at the optimistically named Unification bridge, followed by the 3rd tunnel, which we visited by monorail and then on foot, wearing hard hats and just as well, or several of us would have accidentally knocked ourselves out on the tunnel ceiling. This is just one of many such tunnels built by North Korea into the South – quite a few have been discovered, but yet more are believed to be lurking underneath the 160-mile long border.

After the near-knockings in the tunnel, we headed to Camp Bonifas, inside the JSA (Joint Security Area), before getting military transportation (our third bus for the day – I was already sorely missing that “pink bordello”) to another abbreviation, the MDL (Military Demarcation Line), right on the border itself. If any of us visitors had managed to repress being in a war zone thus far, there was no getting away from it now. Before being allowed near the actual border, we all had to sign our lives away, so to speak, on a document explaining the potential risks of visiting. Then it was time for strict instructions as to what we could and could not do, when in plain view of the North Korean soldiers. Let’s just say I was starting to get a bit tense. What if I had to scratch my head and it was accidentally seen as a provocation? Best leave all scratching, anywhere, till later.

at the border with North Korea - the DMZ, Demilitarized Zone.

at the border with North Korea – the DMZ, Demilitarized Zone.

It was all extremely surreal, with Koreans on both sides having soldiers in plain view of each other, “facing the enemy down”. We were encouraged to take photos, and I did so with some trepidation, and then wandered about the Mac conference room, where negotiations between the two countries take place. Walking through the room itself, we were actually spending time on North Korean soil, as the border runs right through the conference room. Two South Korean soldiers stay in the room at all times, keeping visitors safe, but to be honest some 5-10 minutes were quite enough and I could hardly wait to leave.

Traipsing out of the conference room and away from the border itself, the tour continued by bus, showing us different spots where skirmishes and incidents have taken place since the ceasefire started over 60 years ago. The rain kept falling unrepentant and the jolliness of the royal palace the day before seemed a million miles away. I was definitely seeing some very different sides to this fascinating country on this trip. For a complete change of scene, pleasantly far from the border with the North, my next stop, the very same evening, was Busan on the southeast coast.

To be continued…

For further information about South Korea, click here 

Images and story by Anna Maria Espsäter

First UK Rights





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