Friday 31 May 2019

Seoul, Day Three - Serious and silly

With thanks to Air New Zealand for this famil

Today guide Sue really came into her own. She rearranged our programme to avoid the crowds, took us straight to the important bits, and showed us fun things we would certainly have missed on our own. Plus, she talked to us candidly and thoughtfully about South Korea's history and politics, and gave our fleeting visit to Seoul much more depth than it would otherwise have had.

We started the day by driving across the Han River to the northern part of the city, and up Namsan, a steep and wooded hill, to the N Seoul Tower. The tower itself is 240m high, and has a great view of Seoul, which is vast - and also surprisingly green, despite all the apartment buildings and towers. And all around are rocky peaks and wooded hills, much of it well-used national parks. The observation deck (enclosed) has windows with helpful captions on - and also foreign city names and distances, on the appropriate sides. It was, I confess it, a thrill to see Auckland and Wellington included (we are very used to New Zealand being overlooked). Sue pointed out the sights, including surviving sections of the ancient city wall, and then took us to the toilets - honestly, the most fun bit of all. The cubicles' outer walls are glass, so you can sit there and gaze down at the city nearly 500m below - which might help with proceedings, possibly. Or the opposite.

Outside there was a section for the cliché lovers' padlock thing, completely over the top and really just a photo op - of which there were many today. It's early summer here and the trees are in fresh leaf, with a beautiful cluster of bronze maples contrasting with the green. Sue said in autumn the hill is at its busiest - very beautiful, but more visitors than leaves. As we walked back down to the car, we were delighted to hear, and see, a cuckoo calling loudly above us.

Then we headed along the motorway out of the city, past the World Cup stadium from 2002, through the DMC - Digital Media Centre, that tells you a lot about South Korea's economy - and under a bridge with a huge billboard on it depicting futuristic-looking soldiers. I thought it was a video game ad, but it's actually promoting the army, and the bridge itself is designed to be blown up in case of invasion from the north, to prevent entry to the city. Sobering stuff, and an appropriate introduction to our focus for the day: the DMZ.

After a fresh and dainty multi-course lunch served in small dishes at a pretty little fusion restaurant Sue chose, we continued along beside the Han River into the country past neatly-planted rice paddies. All very rural and pleasant - but then we turned to follow the Imjin River, which is separated from the road by a continuous high wire fence topped with coils of razor wire, with regular security cameras on high poles, and wooden guard huts, all facing north. It looked distinctly grim, so it was disconcerting to stop next at a funfair with rides and games. But that was where we transferred to our bus to the DMZ, in which, after passport checks and head counts, we drove over the Unification Bridge, zigzagging round a series of barriers at each end.

Our first stop was at the futuristic Dorasan railway station which was built to serve passengers travelling between South and North Korea, and, eventually enable people to travel by train from Seoul all the way to Paris. But of course politics have got in the way, it's been repeatedly opened and closed, and currently sits unused, a sad symbol of hope and the unfulfilled dream of unification. Inside there's a display of framed photographs showing leaders' handshakes and grins - but no progress.

The bus then took us to the Dora Observatory, a sleek and modern building on top of a hill, where Sue whisked us up to the open area on the roof with a row of telescopes. We looked across rolling green countryside and the river into North Korea, to a distant city and beyond it wooded hills, all hazy in the sunshine. We could see the South's tall flagpole, and the North's even taller one. It was just countryside, the same on each bank of the river, the north not bristling with fortifications, or laid bare - just a continuation of what is, or should be, the same country.

It was all a little anticlimactic, to be honest. I'd expected soldiers, guns, bare earth, fortifications, but more than anything it was a slick tourist operation, efficiently shuffling hundreds of visitors through newly-built halls every day. There was one soldier - a life-size cutout in fatigues, for posing with. If we'd been able to visit the JSA - Joint Security Area - where the blue buildings are and the table that straddles the border, it would have been more dramatic; but it's more often than not closed to the public, and was today.

Back on the bus, we were taken next to Tunnel 3, where Sue rushed us into a theatre to catch most of an excitable video telling the story of the discovery of four tunnels dug from the north, as a means of sneaking south to invade. There were maps with arrows, converging lines, and explosions over Seoul, and the bald statement that there are without doubt other undiscovered tunnels. And then the narrator suddenly switched to saying how the wildlife had benefited from the 4km-wide exclusion zone, where the animals and birds can flourish undisturbed. So that's all right, then.

We left all our gear in a locker, got helmets, and set off down the steeply sloping chute that's been dug to take visitors to a section of the original tunnel. This is roughly hacked out of the stone, with yellow paint showing where the dynamite used in their construction has been detected. The tunnel was narrow, steep, low, damp and claustrophobic, with every so often disturbing perspex cases of gas masks for emergency use. Right at the bottom was a concrete wall, and an electronic counter showing the number of days since the Armistice in 1953 - it read 24,000-something. There was also a security camera, which swivelled as not one, but two men took their forbidden cellphones out of their pockets, and took forbidden photos.

Of course - remember, I used to be a teacher, and rules are rules - I told Sue on them when we rejoined her at the top, and she told the guards, but they had missed seeing it on the bank of TV screens above them, so the perps got away with it. Peeving - I would have liked to take photos myself, but instead I did as I was told.

Naturally, we exited the DMZ through the gift shop, where we could have bought bags of DMZ rice, or DMZ soybeans, or packs of DMZ chocolate, or DMZ anything else, it seemed. Commerce rules, after all.

And that was that for the Demilitarised Zone. We drove all the way back into Seoul again, having a long and interesting talk with Sue about Korea's past, present and ideal future, and learning lots of unexpected facts - for instance, that young men in the south must do 18 months in the army, but in the north, it's ten years, and seven for women. And you have to dress neatly to visit the JSA because North Korea likes to take photos of people in fashionably-distressed jeans to show their people how badly the West is doing. We got stuck, inevitably, in traffic as we neared the city again - but were compensated by low golden sun lighting up the splendid bridges across the Han, the riverside parks where people played basketball and tennis, and walked their dogs, and lit up the tower blocks and wonderfully varied skyscrapers. It was a beautiful evening, and entirely compensated for the traffic jams.

It made us late, though, so it was a rush to get out for dinner at Bamboo House, the venue that had made Sue audibly gasp when we told her about it yesterday. We did a bit of gasping ourselves on the taxi ride there: we'd been stuck motionless in a jam for quite some time, and were cheerfully chatting amongst ourselves when the driver suddenly snapped and, without saying a word, suddenly wrenched the car onto the other side of the road, nearly collecting a pedestrian, and shot through an narrow gap, ending up nose-to-nose with another car coming the other way. It was a stand-off, then the other car backed off and our driver gunned away and around a corner to the restaurant, which was fortunately not far away. 

But all was calm and friendly at Bamboo House, where we were shown into a separate room with a long table set with barbecue grills. We were served entrées of bean soup, salad, pancakes and sauces, and then the main course arrived: two sorts of steak cooked by our chatty waiters (one of whom had lived in Auckland), cut up with scissors and served, sizzling, to us. Delicious. And of course the traditional drink of soju helped - 25% proof rice wine mixed with beer. I would happily have stopped at the steak, but then came noodle soup and dried fish, and finally yoghurt with berries.

It had been a long day, and we were now full to bursting, but it wasn't bedtime yet. Karaoke is a Korean obsession, and so we wandered along the busy street to find a karaoke bar. The first one required that we bought two bottles of whisky to hire the room and equipment, but the second was more reasonable and we had beers in a dark room with a spangly light, a screen and remote, two microphones and two tambourines. It was my first karaoke experience but the others were old hands, and we were soon scoring as high as 99 with songs from Abba to A-ha, by way of the Beatles and Beyoncé. It was fun, but one session was enough for two of us and we headed home, courtesy of yet another crazy taxi driver, while the others kept going, went to bars, were amazed by the increasing crowds of young people on the streets as the night wore on, and equally shocked by the drunkenness, and finally got back to the hotel at 3am.

No comments:


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...