04 October 2013

Korea - Day 5 & 6 : Seoulviving Tears & Laughter

Date of Exploration : 13 - 14 Sep 2013

Our K-Shuttle tour of Korea's eastern coast from Busan to Gyeongju to Andong, Wonju, Peyongchang, Gangneung, and Sokcho ended with our arrival in...

View of the cityscape atop Seoul Tower with the Han River to the right.
The K-Shuttle bus drop-off point in Seoul was near Exit 6 of Gwanghwamun subway station, which is considered one of the popular downtown districts so it was relatively easy to get from there to the rest of the city through the subway or taxi.

We got off the bus at around 9pm on a Friday night and it seemed a bad time to try and get a cab as we couldn't hire one and walked 20 minutes to our hotel. That brief walk introduced me to how busy the streets of Seoul are!

Our accommodation in Seoul was with CenterMark Hotel, which was booked through Hana Tour. The Korean travel agency has an extensive network of offices and partners in Korea with a Singapore presence.

The hotel is located next to the popular arts and antiques street known as Insadong and walking distance to Gyeongbokgung Palace. Nearest subway station to CenterMark Hotel is Jonggak.

My smart-looking twin room was cozy and the fuss-free contemporary design made it a bright and comfortable stay.

DeMilitarised Zone (DMZ) Tour

Coming from a country whose knowledge of war is a food fight with Malaysia, going into a decommissioned war zone where the guns may be put down but the tension very much alive brought on an exciting sense of 'danger'.

Korea is probably the only country in the world that is so distinctly divided among itself. Like a wound that refuses to heal, I was curious what caused the political injury in the first place and why there's no cure. I'm never one big on politics so I've not read the history of Korea's separation into North and South and hoped that this tour can give me a crash course.

Which it did.

It's an early rise to prepare for the DMZ Tour. I really liked how easy it is to adjust the time on my Timberland watch. Korea is an hour ahead of Singapore. 

We went on the DMZ Tour with Grace Travel and the minivan picked us up at our hotel at 7.30am sharp. The ride to the DeMilitarized Zone took about 1 hr 30 mins.

Divided by war, bonded by hope... we've arrived at the edge of peace.

This steam train is a grim reminder of the violence during the Korean War. A bomb derailed the locomotive and more than 1,200 bullet holes turned this into a symbol of the country's unrest.
Our first stop is the Imjingak Park which is next to the Imjin River, the 7th largest river in Korea that flows from North to South. The park consists of some war monuments, exhibits, cafĂ©, observation deck and amusement park.

On the observation deck at Imjingak Park. There's a strict dresscode to be observed when visiting DMZ. No torn jeans, no singlets, no shorts, no slippers. Guys should wear collared polo tees and ladies should dress respectably (no mini skirts, skimpy tops, etc). Follow the rules for visiting DMZ as the soldiers mean business and you don't want to end up in their custody.

Fast track through the Bridge of Freedom.

After looking around Imjingak park for a bit, we boarded another bus that brought us into the demilitarized area where the Dorasan Station (the end station of South Korea) and the Dora Observatory are.

Dorasan Train Station links the south to the north but it is the last stop in South Korea and the train doesn't cross over to the North even though the tracks are in place.

The Dora Observatory where you can look right across to North Korea.

At the Dora Observatory, DO NOT CROSS THE YELLOW LINE

This is what happened if you crossed the line to take photos. The soldiers will come over and order, not ask, you to delete every single shot you took of North Korea.

There's a reason for the dress code. Apparently, soldiers from the North Korean side took photos of shabbily dressed tourists of the DMZ Tour in the past and used those photos to show North Korean citizens how poor South Korea is and that they should be glad they stay in the North.

Super zoom with my Casio Exilim ZR1000 behind the yellow line to take this shot.

Along the coast of the North Korean side is a propaganda village with nice housing and developments. But apparently, they are empty shells and just for show.

After getting a rare glimpse of North Korea, we headed to the Third Tunnel of Aggression. Photo-taking is not allowed inside the tunnel. The underground tunnel was dug by the North Korean side to infiltrate South Korea but it was discovered in 1978. When discovered, the North Koreans denied that they dug the tunnel and later declared it a coal mine when marks along the tunnel showed dynamite detonation originated from the North Korean side. The North Koreans had painted traces of coal onto the walls. A total of 4 tunnels have been discovered but more are believed to be still hidden. You can go down the 1.7km third tunnel for a feel of what it is like inside.

A theatrette and gallery retells the story of the division of Korea as a result of differing political ideologies (the North inherited communism from Russia while the South ascribed to democracy). I hope that Korea will be unified one day.
Bibap - A Delicious Theatrical Treat

Moving on from something rather heavy and depressing like the DMZ, we caught the popular and hilarious Bibap musical in Seoul the next day. Other than dropping by a couple of art galleries, I seldom check out the performance arts scene while on vacation but Bibap is really worth the time.

We got a really good deal on the tickets (50% off!) at the booths outside the Korea Tourism Organisation office during the Korea in Motion arts festival month. The KTO office is located along the Cheonggyecheon River and is a great place to look for travel guides and brochures about Korea.

One of the Korea in Motion Festival stewardesses Hana Kim doing the Gwiyomi.

With the English-speaking festival stewardess Chan Lan Lee who helped us get our tickets at W20,000 (original price W40,000).

Getting fresh with the comical murals of Bibap. The musical is performed in a dedicated theatrical venue so the show is perennially available in Seoul and you can catch it when visiting Seoul.

Based on the famous local dish bibimbap, Bibap is a laugh-a-minute musical with amazing beatbox tunes, acrobatic street dancing, beautiful voices, well-timed jokes and great surprises as its ingredients.

Our tickets were the cheapest but they were actually front-row seats! Sweet!

Apart from the multi-talented cast, the audience also gets to be part of the act...

... including me! Got pulled up on stage during one of the 'cooking' segments and stuck out from the act with my 2 left feet. Embarrassment made being in the spotlight a total blur!
Two days in Seoul and two extreme experiences of Korea's modern culture... one place put a tingle of ache in my heart for all the lives destroyed by war, while another made me roar non-stop through a celebration of creativity.

Going on the DMZ Tour and laughing it out at the Bibap musical definitely provided a nice supplement to the mainstream tourist staples of palaces and shopping districts that the city is famous for. These two attractions sure got me deeper in touch with the soul Seoul of Korea!

This post has been made possible by Korea Tourism Organisation Singapore, Hana Tour, and Grace Travel.
Sole Seoul companion : Timberland.

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