Friday, March 6, 2009

And continuing from part one:

The Third Tunnel
After I nearly missed the tour bus, we were off to our next point of interest: the Third Tunnel of Aggression. (That's what I get for wondering off in search of food, haha.) The Third Tunnel is one of a handfull of underground tunnels that cross the border of North and South Korea. This 1.1 mile long tunnel was built by North Korea for launching a surprise attack on Seoul. It didn't seem that big, but it's estimated to be large enough to move 10,000 soldiers per hour. Here is a layout of the tunnel to give you an idea of what it looks like: 

The tunnel is located 240 feet underground, so you have to walk down this long, steep walkway just to get to the entrance. (I didn't think it was that exhausting, but our tour guide told us about how one of her tourists couldn't make it back up the path.) It made me really sad that we couldn't take pictures inside the tunnel. I'm not exactly sure why it was such a big deal. Maybe it was a matter of national security, to ensure the North is unaware of the renovations that have been made to the tunnel. Or maybe it was just because the tunnel was small and crowded. (I like the former reason; it's more scintilizing even if it's not true.) In either case, here is a picture of the entrance to the walkway. Beyond this point you're not allowed to take pictures :(

Now when this tunnel was discovered by South Korea in 1978, North Korea actually tried to downplay the incident. In fact, they flat out denied building it, claiming it was a South Korean tunnel. But based on the slight incline of the tunnel (that drains water back towards North Korea) and the direction of the dynamite blasting, it was clear that North Korea had build this tunnel. So then they changed their story claiming that this was just a coal mine. They even went so far as to paint black "coal" on the walls!

Since I can't show you the "coal," here is a picture of the camera feeds from various places around the tunnel. It's hard to tell, but the images on the top row are from inside the tunnel!:

Dora Observatory
After almost missing the tour bus again, we were off to Dora Observatory, the northern most point in South Korea. Located atop Mount Dora, from this observatory one can look across the DMZ.

For security reasons, they had this "photo line," i.e. you're not allowed to take any pictures past the yellow line. From standing at this line, it's impossible to see the DMZ or North Korea (well unless you're Yao Ming or something). Again, I'm not really sure why. Maybe this kind of intel could be valuable to the North Koreans for planning attacks across the DMZ? In either case, the soldliers were serious about the rule and they were ready to confiscate memory cards:

Dorasan Station
Finally, there was Dorasan Station. This railroad station has become a symbol of the hope for reunification. The Gyeongui Line that runs through this station at one point connected Seoul to Pyeonyang. An effort has been slowly underway to recconect this railway with tracks having been built across the DMZ. Test runs have been completed and there's even a once a weekday frieght train that travels between North and South Korea. Obviously though there's no regular passenger train service ... for now. Anyway, this is the sign for the passenger trains to Pyeongyang:

And because tourists love pictures with soldiers in uniform, they had two people standing guard. It must seriously be the most boring job in the world. For one, there's nothing really to guard. And secondly they have to deal with annoying tourists/photographers (like me!) who want to take pictures of them all day. That's probably why this guy looks so heated:

On a final note about the DMZ, it's interesting to note that no human has entered the DMZ in the last 50 years. Thus it's become a de facto wildlife/nature reserve and environmentalists hope that if reunification occurs, the area will be preserved. It sounds like an awesome idea except for the fact that this was a battlefield littered with mines.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The DMZ was probably the most fascinating historical place I visited in South Korea. Before coming, I actually didn't know that much about the history of the division of Korea. (That's the great thing about traveling: you have the opportunity to learn all sorts of neat things about someone else's history, culture, language, food, etc.)

From current my understanding it seems like Korea got screwed over by the US and the Soviet Union. After decades of colonization and annexation by Japan, Korea had the chance to form their own country at the end of World War II. But the US and Soviet Union were unable to agree on whether to implement a democratic or communist government. So they decided to arbitrarily divide Korea along the 38th parallel. Independent elections were held in the US-backed south, while a USSR friendly provisional government was set up in the north. And to this day, Korea is still divided into North and South Korea.

So what is the DMZ then? Well after being unified for more than a millennium, the idea of a divided Korea was unacceptable to both governments. And the Korean War occurred as a natural result of this conflict. After the war, a 2.5 mile buffer zone was established between North and South Korea. And this area is what is known as the DMZ. (Interestingly enough, since no peace treaty signed after the armistice agreement, the two countries are technically still at war.)

Anyway, enough with the history. For my trip to the DMZ, I decided to go along with a tour group. Honestly though, I hate being in a tour group because I hate feeling like a tourist. Plus I'd much rather explore at my own pace. I hate feeling like I need to keep up/slow down for the group. But with a coupon from my hostel, I decided to make an exception. And I will admit that it was nice having someone else plan everything. Plus my tour guide was hilarious.

Freedom Bridge
The first stop on the tour was the "Bridge of Freedom." This bridge connects North and South Korea and it was used by refugees from the north. However, it's probably most famous for being the site of a POW exchange during the war:

And this fence blocks off the bridge to keep people from entering:

The South Korean entrance to the bridge is located in Imjingak. This park that was built in 1972 with the hope that someday unification would be possible. With the division of Korea, there are a lot of people who will never be able to return home to see their friends or family. It's rather sad actually:

As a result, people will often come to this site and hang ribbons with their notes/prayers. You know, things like, "No Divided Korea." Usually something more serious than, "PEARL JAM RULEZ!" (Not that I disagree with that message):

Anyway, that's it for part one of my DMZ tour. I ended up splitting the entry into two parts because I ended up having written so much content. I'll have part two posted tomorrow!

During my last night in Seoul, I made my way over to N Seoul Tower, a communication tower located on Mt. Namsan. The structure measures 777 feet in height from base to tip, but since it's on a mountain, the total height is 1,574 feet above sea level. N Seoul Tower was an item on my "Seoul To-Do List" that I ended up putting off until the last possible moment. And with my hostel at the base of Mt. Namsan, I really really should have gone earlier. So on my last night, I braved the cold and caught the Namsan cable car up to the peak.

I didn't really make it a priority because other tall buildings just pale in comparison after you've visited Taipei 101. I ended up going N Seoul Tower anyway though for two main reasons. One was the nighttime view of the city...

...And the other was the "sky restrooms." Imagine peeing to this! (Well for guys anyway. I'm not sure about the design of the women's restroom.) It's funny that you can enjoy a great panoramic view in the bathroom. And obviously the fact that it's a bathroom didn't stop me from taking this picture. You should have seen me hanging around the restroom, waiting for the place to clear out, pretending to wash my hands, etc. Taking pictures while guys are peeing would have felt too weird and creepy:

As for the rest of the place, it's exactly what you'd expect: lots of glass windows, overpriced cafes, plenty of souvenir shops and a fancy expensive restaurant on the top floor. I did like the "window guides " that pointed out famous/historical/touristy sights of Seoul. (It's that writing is on the window): 

They've even got little dots and lines on the window to give you a general idea of where the landmark(s) is located. The line in this image demarks the Han River and the various bridges that cross it. (And I'm pleasently surprised by how well the bokeh came out):

After I'd had enough of nighttime city views, I headed back down the plaza level. Walking around, I noticed a whole lotta' these little locks attached to every gate and fence: 

So what's the deal? Apparently couples love to come up here and chain their everlasting love with a little lock. (Did I mention that these are locks of love?) I'm curious about where they get such cute little locks though. Look at this one, it's got little hearts on it!:

But my real question is: "What happens when you break up?" I mean you don't want leave up a lock that belongs to your ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend. I suppose that why they have this sign:

And I imagine all the pimps and players out there must spend a small fortune on locks!

Next up is Cheonggye Stream, a 3.7 mile long stream that runs right through the heart of central Seoul.  Historically, the steam served as a waste water drain for the people living in Seoul. (Thus it's rather ironic that Cheonggyecheon translates to "clean stream.") The garbage and waste situation became considerably worse after liberation from Japanese colonial rule and the Korean War. It became the symbol of poverty and slovenliness and as a result it was eventually covered over with concrete. But in 2003, the city of Seoul began a massive urban renewal and beautification project:

Two years and 249 million USD later, the project was complete. Since then, it's become quite the popular attraction among local residents and tourists alike. Paths were made on both sides of the stream for people to take leisurely walks. If you ever get a chance to check it out, you'll understand why it's such a lovely place to visit:

They even made the effort to beautify and modernize the bridge underpasses. Under this particular bridge they installed rows of lights under the water:

Actually, there's a total 22 bridges that cross Cheonggyecheon. At this underpass, they made an photography gallery! And of course every work on display is a photograph of the stream. (Sadly, not every underpass looks as cool as this one):

And this is the waterfall at the beginning of the stream (Yay for blurred moving water photos!):

They even went so far as to include some digital, public works of art. This first piece is Digital Garden a work by Mexican artist Miguel Chevalier. According to the official blurb: 

"The artist takes you on an unforgettable journey through a digital 'garden of the future' that even includes a captivating presentation of a variety of three-dimensional flowers."

And here's a video of Digital Garden:

The other public artwork they have is Digital Canvas, a piece created by French artist Laurent Francois. The show basically consists of laser beams reflected of a screen of water mist. I can't quite phrase it as eloquently as the official blurb: 

"The artist's use of lasers to project various elements of nature on the water fountains of the Cheonggyecheon is truly an amazing sight."

Is it "truly an amazing sight?" You'll have to decide for yourself after watching this video (And did I forget to mention that all my videos are in HD. You've just got to click that little button that says "HD" near the bottom right):

Monday, March 2, 2009

Oh the Hwacheon Sancheoneo Ice Festival, clearly one of the highlights of my travels in Korea. Every January, crowds of people come to the Hwacheongang River for this unique festival. It's named after the sancheoneo, a rare type of mountain trout that's abundant in the streams of the Hwacheon region. Below is a giant ice sculpture of this type of trout:

But the festival is about so much more than just fishing. During the wintertime, this 490 foot wide river completely freezes over, making it perfect for ice soccer, skating, tubing, and even ATV driving! (At about 12-16 inches thick, the ice is more than thick enough.):

And of course there's ice sledding too. This traditional Korean sled is made of a small wooden board with metal blades attached to the bottom. Using these metal-tipped, pointed wooden sticks, you sit on top of the sled and propel yourself along. You can actually get up to some pretty high speeds. Too bad I was way too big for the sled :(  I had some terrible leg cramps afterwards:

They also had some amazing ice sculptures on display. This picture is from the interior of one of the ice tunnels. It was pretty cool because there were strings of LED lights frozen into the side walls. So as you walked along through the tunnel, the lights would change color!:

But obviously, the main attraction is the mountain trout fishing. For the truly fearless, like myself, there's bare-handed ice fishing. I just had to do it.

I remember standing in the warm comfort of the staging tent, waiting for them to bring the group outside. I'm nervous as hell because all I'm wearing is a t-shirt and shorts. I step outside and manage to keep warm thanks to the adrenaline running through my system. But it wears off rather quickly. There we are standing around the edge of that pool, barefoot I might add. At the sound of the whistle we jump in the water; it's time to go fishing. Let's just say I've never been so cold in my entire life. Bare-handed ice fishing was like trying to catch as baseball pop fly with with two 2x4s. I could see the fish, I could feel the fish, but I couldn't grab the fish. My hands were just frozen solid.

And of course I'd be stupid enough to try it:

Sane people usually just go ice fishing. You can buy a cheap ol' plastic rod from the numerous vendors along the banks of the river. There are hundreds of holes dotted across the frozen river and you're free to take your pick. Kind of makes you wonder how anyone catches anything when the place is so densely packed:

So how did I do? Well check out this video and find out for yourself! (Yay for videos!):

Yup that's right, I actually caught something! Actually, I managed to catch two fish in the span of about 45 minutes. Not too shabby.

Some guy offered to take this picture of me with my catch of the day. I must have looked like a weirdo when I was taking pictures of the catch. There I am carrying a fishing pole, with a bag of lenses on my back and a big ol' camera around my neck. I was trying to set up this picture of the fish near the ice hole: trying different angles, placing the fish in different positions, etc. That's probably why he offered to take my picture. It must have looked especially weird when I was holding up the camera to take that video of me catching a fish. Haha. Anyway, he was a nice guy and I ended up giving him my fish:

The really cool thing is that you could barbecue your fish there at the festival. It'll probably be the freshest fish you ever eat! Barbecues lined the bank of the river and you purchase charcoal and cooking utensils there. They even had a slicing and filleting service available for you. Supposedly, the trout has firm, chewy flesh with a nutty, slightly sweet taste. I wouldn't know though; like I said, I gave all my fish away: