Archive for May, 2009


Week 9: DMZ

   Posted by: Rhona    in South Korea

Today we went to the DMZ – the “demilitarised” zone separating North and South Korea and it was to much info to wait for my weekly update. When the Japanese surrendered in 1945 the Soviets accepted the surrender north of the 38th parallel and the American forces to the south. It was never meant to be a line dividing the country but the two halves developed along political lines according to the overseeing powers and on June 25 1950 North Korea launched a surprise attack. The two sides were ridiculously mismatched – South Korea was a largely rural country while the North had the industry and was supplied with weapons by the USSR.

Seoul fell in 3 days and within 3 months the North Koreans had pushed Southern forces all the way down the peninsula to Busan and controlled 95% of the country. UN forces intervened and a coalition of 16 countries sent troops with another 5 sending medical support teams. The USA sent the most troops and had the most casualties of a foreign power at 33, 642 deaths. Ethiopia and Columbia were interesting additions to the international team and Turkey lost a surprising number of troops with 724 deaths. The Republic of Korea lost 152, 279 soldiers.

Under General Douglas MacArthur a daring landing at Incheon (near Seoul) turned the tide of the war and the North Koreans were soon pushed back almost to the border with China (all the way in places). At this point China, not relishing the thought of a US backed democracy at their doorstep, stepped in and helped the North Koreans push the UN/South Korean forces back to around the 38th parallel. All this happened within a year; Seoul had changed hands 4 times, about 3 million people were dead, millions more displaced and the country was divided along almost the same line as it had been before the war had started. There followed 2 years of stalemate with peace talks and border skirmishes happening simultaneously as both sides battled to control strategic hills before a truce was signed. The final peace deal was signed by delegates from North Korea, China, the USA but intriguingly not South Korea.

At the cessation of hostilities each side withdrew 2km from the line of control and the resulting 4km wide, 248km long zone is what is now known as the Demilitarised Zone. The line itself is marked by white stone posts and metal signs. In Panmumjeom what used to be a village is now the Joint Security Area where negotiations between the two sides take place. Overlooked by 3 story buildings, oodles of video cameras and a North Korean guard with binoculars we made our way into the blue buildings which straddle the demarcation line between North and South Korea. A line of microphones on the table monitored conversation and South Korean guards with martial arts black belts stood around in Taekwondo poses and Raybans. Brett and I posed with the guard who blocked the door to the North Korean area.

Outside some of the South Korean guards stood at the corners of the buildings with only half their body exposed to the North Koreans, though we tourists stood fully exposed. When there are no tourists the guards go inside as there’s not really any need to have people out there with the amount of recording equipment in use. Which made the North Korean guard with binoculars pretty redundant, but the North Koreans do like to put on a show. From Observation Post 5 we looked across to Kijodong, a village in the North Korean side of the DMZ. In this case the word “village” is used in the loosest possible way – while there are buildings, the world’s tallest flagpole flying a ridiculously large flag and speakers broadcasting propaganda to anyone unfortunate enough to be within hearing distance there are no actual residents. The flag is 31m long, weighs about 300kg and takes 50-60 people to raise and lower.

There is also a village in the South Korean side of the DMZ which does actually have residents. The 218 residents of Taesong-dong live restricted but well subsidised lives in their ancestral village and are guarded and protected by UN forces. To maintain residency they must spend at least 240 nights per year in the village and must be at home and accounted for with doors and windows secured by 11pm. In return they are allocated 14-17 acre plots of land compared to average plots in the South of 2-4 acres. Most plots seem to be devoted to rice or ginseng and the wealthy “farmers” often hire others to till the land and reap in the rewards, earning up to $US80,000 per year. Other perks include free housing and free college education anywhere in Korea. Women can marry into the village but men can’t, though I’m not sure if this means women have to leave the village if they marry an outsider?

After lunch we went to visit the “Third Tunnel of Aggression”, a 1,635m tunnel dug by North Korean forces with the aim of invading South Korea. Discovered in 1978 with the help of a defector, the tunnel was wide enough to move 30,000 troops (with weapons) to a point 44km from Seoul in just one hour. On realising the tunnel had been discovered the North Koreans painted the walls with coal soot and claimed it was an abandoned mine shaft, despite the fact it was heavily booby trapped and in geology which contains no coal. Sometimes the things I hear about North Korea remind me of China, except that China has hired a better PR team lately and people are actually starting to believe the propaganda.

We also visited Dorasan train station, the final stop on the railway line that links up to Pyeongyang. It was opened in 2002 but as yet no passenger trains have crossed the border. Instead freight trains take raw materials to the joint North-South Korean business zone in Kaesong where 40,000 North Korean workers provide the labour for South Korean enterprises. South Korea also supplies the electricity and telephone lines. The North Korean government takes the majority of the US$55 monthly wage and only passes on around US$5 though it being a communist country all essentials are, in theory, provided and the US$60 annual wage is twice the average. For South Korean firms the benefits are a cheap, educated and Korean speaking labour force that is more attractive than Chinese or other Asian manufacturing bases. Another feature of the town is a large jamming tower, designed to block all radio and TV frequencies coming from South Korea.

More about our adventures in the next weekly update :o)

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Week 9: Seoul

   Posted by: Rhona    in South Korea

We’ve been in Seoul for just over a week and I’m not sure what I think of the place. I guess it’s hard to adjust to being in the big city after so long in the less populated areas (though we have also visited the 2nd and 3rd largest cities). The thing that’s struck us the most is the incredible number of foreigners here. Apparently there are 130,000 foreigners living in Seoul although 60% are Chinese so we can’t necessarily tell them apart until they speak. Given the number of white faces at tourist attractions I’d say there are a lot of people who come to Seoul and then leave Korea. We certainly haven’t seen many of them in other parts of the country – even Gyeongju which surely must be on even a basic Korean itinerary.

Our first excursion was to a granite capped hill poking out through the jungle of highrise apartments. Korea’s overall population density is 480 per sq km but almost a quarter of the 48.4 million people live in the capital, many of them in massive high density forests of apartment towers. The hillside was associated with shamanists and we saw some of them waiting for customers or carrying out rituals. We couldn’t get to the top for a view though as it was occupied by the military. It’s easy to forget how close to the North Korean border we are here and even Pyongyang isn’t all that far away.

We’ve also visited a couple of the palaces, residences for Korea’s royal family in the Josean dynasty (1392-1910). Changdeokgung was probably the best preserved one as it was rebuilt in 1610 after the Japanese invasion of 1592. It was originally built by the 3rd Josean king who claimed that the topography of the previous palace wasn’t auspicious enough, though the brochure points out that he killed a number of people in order to ascend the throne and may not have wanted to live in the same palace as hosted the bloodbath. It seems intrigues, murders and betrayals are common amongst royal families all over the world. In another episode at Changgyeonggung Prince Sado, heir to the throne, was sealed in a rice chest by his father after it was reported that he was mentally ill and behaving erratically. Thankfully things have changed since 1762, we’ve been impressed with the number of mentally and physically disabled people we’ve seen out and about.

In the same area as Changdeokgung and Changgyeonggung is the Jongmyo Royal Shrine where the spirit tablets of Joseon Kings and Queens were enshrined. Like most things in Korea the buildings were destroyed in the 1592 Japanese invasion but the spirit tablets were saved. There are 83 kings and queens enshrined in two buildings. After a royal death was mourned at the palace for three years the spirit tablet was moved to the Main Hall but in order for someone to “move in”, another spirit tablet had to “move out” to the Hall of Everlasting Peace. Only royals who achieved outstanding deeds were allowed to remain indefinitely in the main hall. Once annually a ritual offering of food is carried out by male descendants of the royal family. The Lee family is symbolised by a plum blossom which you see decorating many of the palaces and it seemed there was no final purge of important family members like there has been at the end of some royal lineages. A grandson of King Gojong (1852-1919) apparently operates a guesthouse just north of where we’re staying.

Resistance fighters during the Japanese colonisation weren’t as decently treated. We visited the Seodaemun prison, built in 1908 to house 500 prisoners at a time when the total holding capacity of prisons on the entire Korean peninsula was 300 people. Animatronics dummies and recorded screams detailed the various tortures used and a bizarre interactive display let you sit in a chair in what used to be the execution room. After being “judged” the chair dropped an inch and the noose above your neck let you know it used to drop further.

Early in the morning on the 23rd the ex prime minister committed suicide. We spent the day exploring Nandaemun market and having a very productive stock up and get things fixed day but kept seeing busloads of police kitted out in riot gear. Eventually a man passing by told us what had happened: Roh Moo-hyun finished his 4 year term last year and was very popular for his honesty and anti corruption focus but in the last month he has been hauled up on charges that family members accepted US$5 million from a wealthy businessman. It seems the younger generation supported Roh Moo-Hyun and dislike the current prime minister as he has done some bad things that everyone knows about (except us). The police were amassed in areas likely to be gathering grounds for protests. There seems to be a massive outpouring of grief and we’ve seen a few alters with crowds of people offering white chrysanthemums and bowing before a photo of him. In a largely Christian country suicide is uncommon and an ex world leader taking his life is drastic in any country. Having said that, I’m not sure that Australians would mourn a past leader with quite the same reverence.

Tomorrow we’re headed to the DMZ and Panmunjom which should be an interesting day, especially given current headlines then on Friday we’ll leave Seoul for Suwon. En route to Jeju Island we’re also planning on stopping in Jeonju to explore the hanok village there. Then it’s back to Seoul to catch a boat over to Beijing and on to Tibet before Brett heads back to work. I’ll probably hang out in China while he’s away and then we have to decide if Kyrgystan or Xinjiang is next on the list. Long term I’m looking at possibly trying to get a job based in Germany that takes mentally and physically disabled people on holidays.

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Week 8: Submarines and waterfalls

   Posted by: Rhona    in South Korea

We caught our first train in Korea to Jeongdongjin, a beach resort town where we stayed in a hotel overlooking the beach and the train station. Crowds of high school girls flocked to the station which apparently featured in episodes of a popular TV drama. They almost all had the same haircut – straight fringe and a shoulder length bob that curled slightly under at the ends. Middle aged women tend to go for short, curly hair and we’re wondering if women simply go into the hairdresser, state their age and get the appropriate haircut?

The North Korean submarine at Unification Park had an interesting story. In 1996 in an incident which the South Korean sign said “was a great shock to us and incurred our wrath” a North Korean submarine got stuck on rocks near Jeongdongjin while doing reconnaissance (which the South Koreans call spying). The 11 crew members were shot by their own side and all documents burnt before the 14 spies tried to escape back to the north. One was captured alive, the rest were shot by South Korean soldiers and in the 49 day process 11 South Korean soldiers and 6 civilians died. Inside the submarine there is still a strange smell in the cabin where the documents were burnt and we hunched our way through wondering how 25 people could live together in such a small space.

On a headland in downtown Jeongdongjin was one of the more bizarre buildings I’ve ever seen. It was a resort in the shape of a massive cruise ship perched well above the waterline. There are plans afoot to make the complex even bigger to incorporate the small cove underneath the monstrosity. We ate dinner nearby, feasting on a banquet of shellfish barbequed at our table by the obliging restaurant owner. He seemed to be accustomed to honeymooning couples as he was finding heart shapes in everything.

Since then we’ve spent most of our time in Seoraksan National Park, a beautiful granite lumped and pine treed area to the north of the country. It’s apparently South Korea’s most popular park and with good reason, even in some of the less than perfect weather we had it’s easy to see the beauty. Unfortunately that meant that we didn’t exactly have the place to ourself. On the hike up Ulsanbawi, a granite outcrop dominating the skyline on one edge of the main valley, we were at least spared mass tourism by virtue of the fact it was a longish climb. The final section climbed very steeply up to a small and disappointing peak from which we saw cloud, cloud and more cloud. At least the people buying medals here engraved with their accomplishment had something to be proud of. The man in full climbing gear selling medals 10 min from the top of the cable car seemed a little silly.

On our way to the more remote parts of the national park we spent a night in Sokcho in a massive pink castle of a motel. No 4th floor or room 504 as well as the dried fish tied in yarn hung over the door suggested South Koreans are as superstitious as people in other Asian countries. I say as I refuse to split a pear with Brett (symbolises separation in China). At night down on Sokcho beach the lights are bright and pointed out to sea to detect any North Korean landing. All along the coast up north we’ve seen barbed wire and military outposts. It’s hard to imagine living daily with the threat of invasion but I guess it’s like living in Tokyo in a way. Its 16 years overdue for a massive earthquake yet after living there for a while it became something I didn’t really think about. My earthquake chocolate supply was constantly raided and the headlamp ended up in the camping equipment. Meanwhile, back in Sokcho, the spice in a bowl of yukgaejang (peppery beef soup) brought tears to my eyes, a disturbingly frequent occurrence over here in South Korea.

In Baekdam town we spent an afternoon sheltering from the rain then headed out hiking the next day with the hope that the forecast of improving weather was correct. It was and it wasn’t. The clouds needed one last dump before they stopped raining and we just happened to still be hiking at the time. It was a nice easy hike along a river but by the time we got back to the bus stop I resembled a soggy rat. Thankfully the next day’s weather was better and we had a fantastic hike up another river valley from Namgyori. Steeper but also much more spectacular than the previous day’s we spent 8 hours hiking through the Sibiseonnyeotang valley where 12 fairies came down to bathe in the 12 pools. They certainly picked a beautiful place.

2 nights ago we arrived in Seoul but I’ll write about the megacity in my next post as we’re planning on spending another week here exploring. The day after tomorrow my mum leaves us to fly back home and Brett and I will spend another 3 weeks exploring before heading to China.

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Week 7: Traditional Korea

   Posted by: Rhona    in South Korea

After a full week in and around Gyeongju it was finally time to leave, but not before I headed back to Bulguksa temple to photograph it without the Buddha’s birthday crowds. We also visited the Gyeongju national museum which had plenty of fantastic artefacts including a dice used in ye olde drinking games a few hundred years ago. It had commands like “recite a poem”, “remain immobile while someone tickles your face”, “drink it up and laugh loudly” and “drink 3 cups of liquor at a stretch” (i.e. scull).

En route to Haeinsa temple we stopped in Daegu to explore the Yangnyeongsi Medicinal Herb Market. Originating in 1658 as a biannual market it has long been the biggest herb market in Korea, exporting throughout Asia. The wholesale market wasn’t on while we were in town but we browsed the streets full of shops selling everything from tree bark to seahorses. We asked a shop owner (using a combination of English, Japanese and sign language) what the seahorses were for? Ground up and made into a paste with water they gave you strength. And the dried flying lizards? Also for “strength” he said, winking at Brett. We also found out that for illnesses of the upper body you should take the medicine after food and for illnesses of the lower body before food.

The delicious smell of all the herbs made us hungry so we stopped in to a small hole in the wall. An elderly lady joined us and at one stage when the owner was trying to tell us something I thought I heard the lady say something in Japanese. Sure enough, she was speaking Japanese. At 84 she’d been born after Korea had been a colony of Japan for about 15 years and a quick check of my guidebook mentioned that the Japanese had made Koreans to abandon their own language. She said she studied Japanese for 4 years and went over to Japan at age 20. Two years later when the war ended she came back. I wished that I spoke better Japanese, I’m sure she’s got some fascinating stories.

From Daegu we headed to Haeinsa temple to spend a night there through the Temple Stay program. It gave us a lighter version of the monastic life. We did 108 bows, meditated, ate the most complicated meal I’ve ever experienced and got up at 3am but all in all they made the experience accessible for your average first timer. The temple itself has so many cultural treasures that incense isn’t allowed and has two items of UNESCO world heritage. In four specifically designed buildings  from the 13th century are housed the 81,350 carved woodblocks of the Tripitaka, one of the world’s most complete sets of Buddhist literature. Carved over a period of 16 years they have been housed in the buildings which were actually given UNESCO world heritage listing before the incredible contents for some reason.

During the temple stay we wore grey outfits given to us. Unfortunately for Brett (size 13 foot) they also gave us slippers. It seems monks or people visiting temples in Korea don’t come in Brett size and so he minced about like an oaf in ballerina slippers for the duration of our stay. I’m not sure if small shoes could be considered as one of the 108 sufferings of human life? Twice during our stay we joined the monks for a service in the main hall. The sound of over 100 voices chanting in unison is always amazing.

From the temple we headed to Andong where we found a room in a hotel that had pink mood lighting, condoms in the vending machine and business cards with scantily clad women adorning the walls and stairs. Nearby is Dosan Seowan and Hahoe Folk Village, both great daytrips from the main city. Founded in 1561 by a prominent scholar, Dosan Seowan was a Confucian academy where students lived and studied. Nestled among the trees in a narrow valley fronting a river there is a dormitory, a lecture hall, a shrine, a library and a printing place. The Hahoe Folk village is also a daytrip from town and we headed there today, braving the drizzle. Our first rainy day in Korea. Members of the Ryu family have lived in the bend of the Nakdong River for about 600 years in traditional thatch roof and tiled houses. Despite hundreds of years of history the museum at the entrance was almost entirely dedicated to a visit by Queen Elizabeth in 1999. Displays included a shovel that she used to plant a fir tree, a desk that she sat at and, confusingly, a fan that was presented to her. I particularly liked a plastic model of the feast of 47 16th century dishes that she was given on her birthday. The Queen apparently enjoyed her stay and commented “Andong is a futuristic city where traditions and culture are well preserved.”

Tomorrow we head to Jeongdongjin to visit a North Korean submarine and then Seoraksan National Park for some hiking.

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Week 6: Gyeongju

   Posted by: Rhona    in South Korea, Travel

After leaving the bustling city of Busan we headed to Yeonhwa Island, off Tong Yeong. It’s a small island of fishermen and people who made money off the crowd of day trippers who seemed to arrive while we were out walking the island end to end. In the evenings it was nice and quiet as we enjoyed our first ondol room, underfloor heating that keeps the Koreans warm during the cold winter. On the boat out to the island we were a little confused as we had 2 tickets for one price and 1 for a more expensive price. A man explained to Brett (age 43) that he and my mum (age 61) had got the pensioner price for over 65s while I was paying the normal fare. I guess they have as much trouble guessing a Westerner’s age as we have with telling how old that smooth faced Asian grandfather is. On the island we spent the day walking from our village to the other end of the island via fantastic views of Yongmeori, a rock formation jutting out into the sea that is said to look like a dragon’s head.

From Yeonhwa island we headed north to Gyeongju, jewel in South Korea’s historical crown. It was the capital of the Shilla dynasty (57BC – 935AD), which is regarded as the dynasty that founded a unified Korea for the first time. We arrived and my mum immediately got very excited about the many tumuli, tombs of ancient kings and royal family members that are scattered around the city. To me they look like grassy hills which may or may not have really cool treasures buried underneath but I guess I’m not a connoisseur of tumuli… We visited the park which encloses some of the more impressive ones and saw a cross section with copies of some of the more impressive treasures unearthed. That was cool but we’re hoping to see the real things at the Gyeongju National Museum before we leave. As for the tumuli they seem to pop up all over town, between buildings and next to petrol stations.

On our first full day in Gyeongju we headed to Bulguksa, a UNESCO world heritage site that was built in 751. Our visit coincided with Buddha’s birthday and we weren’t the only ones crowding our way into the temple that day. All along the path and in the open spaces around the ancient buildings coulourful lanterns were hung, paid for by worshipers who had donated money and whose prayers fluttered on pieces of paper hanging from the bottom of the lanterns. From there we walked to the Seokguram grotto, another UNESCO world heritage site constructed around the same time as Bulguksa temple. I could wax lyrical about the intricacey of the carving, the spiritual experience and the beam of light that shone from the Buddha’s head when I realised the meaning of life. It would all be a complete lie. We were hurried through the enclosed space and i was twice told off for being too slow. There were too many people waiting behind me to allow me to smell the lotus petals.

The next day we went to Seongnamsa, another temple. Compared to Buddha’s birthday crowds it was blissfully quiet and we enjoyed the forest setting, bamboo forest backdrop and the amazingly colourful and intricate painting that seems to adorn the roofs of Korean temples. In the brochure it mentions a three storied stupa that was

“built by Master Toui in order to defend the fatherland. It was destroyed during the Japanese invasion of Korea (1592)”

I guess maybe it didn’t work so well? Mind you the Japanese were eventually defeated so there could have been something to it?

Yesterday we headed outside town to a village called Yangdong. It was founded in the 15th century and has always been a village of scholars and landowners. There are over 160 thatched roof and traditional tile roof houses in the village and most are still lived in today. Traditionally the tiled roof houses were where the landlords lived while the thatch roof houses were for their servants. You can go inside the buildings that aren’t lived in and it was great to be able to explore the fantastic old wooden mansions. We spent almost all day exploring the various valleys the village is based around. There are 4 valleys forming the Chinese character for “not” and during the Japanese occupation the villagers managed to divert a nearby railway away from the base of the valleys. The addition of that railway would have made the character for “blood”.

Today we hiked in Namsan, a mountainous area to the south of Gyeongju. Which is why it’s called Namsan – “nam” is south and “san” is mountain. It was a full day’s hike with historical relics galore. The Shilla dynasty lasted almost 1,000 years and we saw more tumuli as well as many Buddhist carvings and stupas. Near the end of the walk at Chilbulam hermitage we spoke for quite a while to a nun about her life in the mountains and how Korean Buddhism differs from the Buddhism Brett and I have seen in other countries. Traditionally nuns and monks wake up at 3:30am but the 3 nuns there have agreed to rise later, at 4:45 every morning, as they need to be awake enough to serve tea and coffee to all the hikers passing through. They chant for an hour 3 times a day as well as several sessions of seated meditation. Then there’s practicalities like having to hike down to collect water and the fact that they can’t do laundry or wash properly up on the mountain. To do laundry or shower they walk to the closest town, 30 minutes down the hill. While we were talking there was a Hungarian nun chanting, she has apparently been a nun for 7 years and speaks fantastic Korean.

We plan on spending another few days in Gyeongju. It’s hard to believe some people only give it a couple of days if the 1 and 2 day suggested itineraries are to be believed. From here we hope to spend a night in Haeinsa temple (rising at 3:30am) and some time checking out Daegu’s traditional medicine market. Then some time in Andong, a new addition to our itinerary that looks like a very traditional and rural area.

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