Following a much needed rest at Incheon Airport’s Spa on Air I took the Airport Rail into Seoul, an express train which takes about 45 minutes and cost around £3 one way, I’m still struggling to get used to the cost of things away from the UK!
Checking into the hostel I then explored a small part of the river side and found dinner before calling an end to Day 1.
Day 2 began with a trip to the War Memorial of Korea. The name is slightly misleading as it is more than just a memorial with a fantastic museum over 3 floors going through the history of war on the Korean peninsula from early ages to the Korean War.
Like most big museums in Seoul it’s completely free to visit, has excellent English guides and all the videos either have English subtitles or voiceovers.
I was particularly impressed by almost an entire floor taken over by acknowledging the contributions of other countries around the world during the Korean War and there were many moments that made me stop and appreciate some of the horrors of war.
The rest of the day was more exploring but not for long as I needed an early night for Day 3.
For some reason I have long held a desire to visit North Korea, to the point I was actively researching the rare tours offered to Westerners a few years ago, that fell away with stories of tourists being arrested and held captive increased!
North Korea has fascinated me for a while and if you have any similar interest I highly recommend the book Nothing To Envy, a collection of stories from people who escaped the North.
When the opportunity to do a tour of the demilitarized zone between South and North Korea came up there was no way I was going to miss it.
When looking at tours there are two general options. A DMZ tour to visit the border area and use binoculars to see across the border. A more restricted tour also includes the Joint Security Area, also known as Panmunjom, the iconic blue meeting rooms built across the border between the two countries where discussions can be held.
Until only May this year the JSA tours had been cancelled for security reasons and two days before my tour was booked I was told they were cancelled again. Fortunately though a few hours later I was contacted to say it was back on if I wanted to go.
Being driven a couple of hours north of Seoul by bus we started passing various guard posts and increasing barbed wire fence lines along the river. The border between North and South not running exactly east to west we were driving parallel to North Korea and I had my first glimpse of this strange land.
My appreciation for seeing North Korea for the first time was somewhat reduced when the Swedish family next to me explained their flight had flown directly over North Korea.
We also had a North Korean defector who had managed to escape on the tour who helped to enforce the realities of the regime above.
The first place we stopped was an observation point to look across the DMZ and this is where the situation turned truly surreal.
Looking out onto an oppressive country where the population live in poverty and starvation whilst I was stood at a tourist attraction with fairground rides and fast food outlets whilst people took selfies.
After a brief stop here a rapid hop on, hop off tour continued across various sites of interest. One thing that was made clear was the ongoing desire from the South, at least, to eventually reunite these two countries with impressive investments in infrastructure such as toll booths and train stations currently sitting idle.
Finally, after lunch, we headed to the highlight of the tour, the United Nations controlled JSA. We started with a briefing from US Army personnel before being driven to the site itself.
Despite international media appearing to show escalating tensions from the North the border itself was very relaxed. Indeed the only South Korean soldiers were watching us to prevent anyone defecting North and we didn’t see any North Korean soldiers. Both sides have dramatically reduced the military presence in the area including removal of many land mines and it appears, for now at least, things between the two Koreas are stable if not improving.
Eventually we were allowed into one of the huts and there you could cross the border between North and South Korea, up to a locked door at least! We were told the story of how the door, on the North side, never used to have a lock and one day a North Korean soldier opened the door and tried to drag a South Korean soldier out. The South Korean grabbed onto the wall nearby until his colleagues could grab him and eventually pull him back to the South.
Again the strangeness of standing in a place seen only on the news and doing it with smiling tourists was one of the weirdest contrasts I’ve experienced. But I guess I can now say I’ve technically stood on North Korean soil!
Day 4 started, after a coffee of course, with a visit to one of Seoul’s palaces – Changgyeonggung.
Now here I must apologise to South Korea. In Japan I tried to learn some of the language and improve on the two words I knew on arrival and by the end could recognise some words in Japanese script and understand a few spoken words. I tried in South Korea but it was like the difficulty had been turned up even harder! I’m sad to say I cannot reliably identify any Korean words after a week in the country. I certainly can’t pronounce any of the amazing places I’ve visited!
The royal palace, originally built in the 1300s and restored over time, was impressive to walk around but only took a little over an hour.
I then began walking round Seoul and came across the largest gathering of police I’ve ever seen, which for a policeman is quite impressive! Riot shields, tens of police buses and the assembly of barricades initially got me worried but an officer said it was safe to stay and eventually a small protest, heavily outnumbered by police, formed and began chanting.
I later found protests all over the city for everything from workers rights to supporting the US troops to stay in Korea. It seems Saturday is protest day in Seoul. They were all clearly passionate but calm and organised happily sitting to hear speakers.
Having found out it’s illegal for foreigners to be involved in protests I decided I didn’t want to be mistaken for a supporter and continued my tourist explorations through various parks and sights.
Day 5 began in Myeong-dong, a famous shopping district, but being a budget backpacker I didn’t stay long and continued a walk that ended up being over 10 miles by the end of the day!
The photo above shows the start of Seoullo 7017, an elevated roadway converted into a pedestrian park that runs through central Seoul. It is similar to the High Line in New York with flowers, trees and seats but goes further with pianos and even a hot tub open to the public! Unfortunately the rain meant I didn’t get to fully enjoy this.
Topping a hill near the city centre, and visible for miles around, is N Seoul Tower. An observation point you can reach easily by cable car or, like me, decide it’s more fun to walk up this effective mountain in the combined rain and heat of typhoon season! It’s a beautiful view from the top but I think I’ll take the cable car next time.
The final few days were spent randomly exploring other parts of the city including Gangnam, the wealthy district south of the river, Seoul Forest a beautiful public park with bees, butterfly houses, deer and sculptures and the Museum of Seoul.
At one point I ended up in a Sheep Cafe and feel this has to be mentioned… Seoul is home to various animal cafes, where you can order cake and a coffee in the company of bunnies, cats and dogs. However they start getting more extreme with some offering kangaroos, meerkats, raccoons, sheep and more.
I really wanted to visit the meerkat and raccoon cafe but just reading about it sounded cruel and the reviews were not reassuring. The sheep cafe sounded safest but even they looked sad and watching a sheep get up to stand closer to the air conditioning is something I never expected to see. So with apologies especially to a certain lady at home who wanted me to find her a raccoon this was not the time!
Overall I probably spent too long in Seoul and didn’t see enough of the rest of the country. I had intended to take a bus away from the city but that day also had an emergency broadcast warning for severe rain and flooding so decided to take a rain check.
As I write this I’m flying towards Hong Kong and Typhoon Lingling is predicted to hit South Korea this weekend and I wish everyone still there a safe outcome. Like everywhere else I’ve been so far I’m incredibly humbled by the kindness and patience shown to an ignorant Western tourist and I leave behind a beautiful country and people that I hope to return to one day, particularly one I hope is fully reunited.