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A Seoul New World May 7, 2008

Posted by Mitch in Travel.
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I’m back at school after possibly the best trip away I’ve had since I’ve been here in Japan. On Friday morning a group of intrepid adventurers set out from Tokuyama with a common goal – to have a great time in the capital of South Korea. Arriving in the mid-afternoon, we made our way to the hostel that we had booked. Situated near Hongik University, StayKorea was basically just a house. But it was comfortable, clean and owned by an amazing couple. Just to jump forward a little; as we left, everyone agreed that it was one of the best places we’ve ever stayed in.

We caught the subway into Meyong-Dong where the streets were abuzz with people. Luckily, it seemed we wandered into Seoul just as lots of festivals were taking place. Cue busy streets, packed markets and more food stalls than you could possibly hope to visit in a few days. As we strolled the streets and browsed the shops, we came upon two Korean schoolgirls who came and introduced themselves to us. After marvelling at their good grasp of the English language (especially in contrast to the kids we teach in Japan) we got them to lead us around the area a little. After they had tired of the tourists, they left and we settled into a roadside cafe to enjoy seafood pancakes, mussels and the local tipple – soju. We then headed up to the Seoul Tower and looked out over the city at night. Whilst we were there, there was a laser show, which we all enjoyed before heading back down. Lucy, Daniel and I then headed to the IceBar where we enjoyed cocktails in big blocks of ice, whilst dressed in furry ponchos and gloves. All in all, a great first day.

Despite the early hour at which we had to rise on the Friday, Saturday did not herald a well-earned lie in. Instead, we were up at around 5:30am once again in order to clamber onto a bus and drive an hour north to the border between the two Koreas. First of all, we visited a viewpoint where you could look out over the demarcation zone (DMZ) towards North Korea. A short journey down the road and we were over 70m below ground in a tunnel dug by the North Korea troops. It was supposed to be a tunnel all the way to Seoul in order for another attack to take place, but it was discovered before it could get too close. We then had lunch at a traditional Korean restaurant and everyone agreed that the food was amazing. It was around this time that I decided that I liked Korean food much more than Japanese.

After lunch, we changed tours and were driven to Camp Bonifas and the Joint Security Area. There, we got to see the two sets of border guards. Apparently, the rules for the southern side are much stricter – no camera bags, no gestures or pointing at the northern guards etc. But we were told that the North Korean tourists are allowed right up to the actual demarcation line. We were ushered into a building where meetings sometimes take place and were allowed to step over the line and into North Korea. Technically I can now say that I’ve trodden on North Korean soil, so that was a highlight. We then stood on a pagoda-type thing and took photos of the North Korean border guard watching us relentlessly and then got back on the bus. Picking up some North Korean wine on the way, we headed back to Seoul and got ready for a night out. Unfortunately, most of it was spent with a group of people I didn’t know. They were nice and friendly, but for most of the evening we did karaoke, which seemed a tad too Japanese for my liking.

The next day Lucy, Daniel and I set out to do a spot of sightseeing. We walked around the palace grounds of Deoksugung. Even though it was extremely Western, it was nice to wander through a park and afterwards we saw the changing of the guard outside. That evening, we all met up and went to a cultural performance called Miso (which means ‘smile’ in Korean). After the show, we were all in high spirits, fuelled by the fact that we had our photos taken with the performers. After dinner, the group split with Lucy, Daniel, Brooke and I heading towards Itaewon for a rather raucous night out.

The following day was Monday. We wandered pretty aimlessly around the city and saw Dongdaemun, which was an ancient city gate that was burnt down recently. After sampling the sights and sounds of the hiSeoul concert, I headed home to listen to some Wagner and go to bed. One of the reasons for the early night was the fact that Asiana Airlines had rung us that day and told us that they’d moved us to the early morning flight and that they’d refund part of our money. Upon returning home, I was informed that our flights had been changed back to the original time and that in order to make up for the inconvenience, they were bumping us up to business class.

So, yesterday, we headed to the airport, enjoyed the business lounge and marvelled at how little difference there was between business and economy, once on the plane. The flight was uneventful and I got home safely last night.

Now, I’m sitting at school, waiting for the day to end. Going away and coming back has really knocked me out of joint and the last thing I want to do is spend another 10 weeks in a dead end job. That notwithstanding, it is only 10 weeks, which does make me slightly happier. Seoul is my favourite city of places outside of Japan that I’ve visited since I’ve been here. The animosity between the Japanese and the Koreans is infamous, but I’ve not held back. I told all of my teachers that I absolutely loved Seoul and was kind of sad to come back. My teachers being quite young and chilled told me that they too loved Seoul and so totally understood. They also empathised with the ‘coming back to school’ blues, but seemed pleased that I’d made the effort to bring them back some Korean chocolate. In return, Julie presented me with a Ritter Sport – she’d heard that they were made in Germany and told me that she hoped it reminded me of there. See, that’s the thing – everyone here is so nice, but the job is just so mind-numbingly boring that it makes me want to leave. But, as I said: 10 weeks to go before school ends. How strange. This year does seem to have flown by, but then I suppose they always do.

Till next time!

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