My Trip to the JSA and DMZ

Recently, I won a discounted fee for one of the most popular tourist destinations in Korea: the Joint-Security Area (JSA) between North and South Korea on the DMZ.

Despite being commonly referred to as “the most dangerous place on earth”, trips to the DMZ are strikingly popular among tourists visiting South Korea.

Prior to this trip, I’d already been on two tours to different sites along the 38th parallel, separating the communist North from the capitalist South.

(Why are there two Koreas? It’s a long story – check out the video below for a summarized version)

I’d never visited the JSA before, which is arguably the most interesting stop along the border.

With American and ROK (Republic of Korea) soldiers on the Southern side staring down DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) soldiers on the Northern side, the line on the ground separating these two countries seems more apparent than ever. In other words, tensions are VERY high.

That said, the rules for visiting JSA are understandably strict. For example, even though there are dozens of independent operators offering tours to other DMZ sites (such as tunnels, military museums, and observatories), only a few select government-approved tour agencies are allowed to take visitors to the JSA.

It’s not cheap, either – most JSA tours start at around $77, while other non-JSA DMZ tours can go as low as $33 (like the one I took).

That’s partly the reason I hadn’t signed up for a JSA tour since coming to Seoul (student budget!).

I did do a free DMZ tour as part of the summer Korean culture program I’d attended back in 2011. As well, I opted to go for another tour in the winter of 2012 that visited some other sites I hadn’t seen, mainly because it was offered at an affordable price ($33) through When in Korea (WiNK).

In the case of this JSA tour, offered by the Panmunjom Travel Center, I’d won a facebook draw a few days prior for a discounted fee. Normally, the cost of the tour is $77, but I only had to pay $10. The tour company occasionally uses this promo to fill up empty seats on the bus a few days before the departure.

Panmunjom Travel Deal Photo

Anyways, after receiving a facebook message confirming my spot, I sent my passport to the company. Part of visiting the JSA requires having a UN-performed background check (serious, right?). I passed, so come Friday morning I was set to go!

Shortly after arriving at the Lotte Hotel in downtown Seoul, we were on our way to the first stop along the tour, Odusan Observatory.

Odusan Observatory 

Once hearing that we were visiting an observatory, I got a bit disappointed. Since I’d already visited a few others on the two other tours I went on, I thought it would be a bit boring to see the same place for a second or third time.

However, I’d never been to the Odusan Observatory. In fact, I’d have to say that it’s one of the better ones I’d visited along the DMZ.

Unlike other observatories, there wasn’t any visible North Korean “stuff” in the landscape (ex: propaganda posters, military watchtowers or outposts, etc). However, the mini museum inside the observatory was very interesting.

The view from Odusan Observatory: staring out into North Korea from the South

The view from Odusan Observatory: staring out into North Korea from the South

The focus was on life in North Korea, so they had a replica of a typical North Korean class and living room.

Typical North Korean clothes

Typical North Korean clothes

A typical/well-off North Korean home (notice the TV set, not something a lot of poor North Koreans can afford)

A typical/well-off North Korean home (notice the TV set, not something a lot of poor North Koreans can afford)

Our tour even included a Q&A with a North Korean refugee, who was a woman in her 40s or 50s. We sat in the replica classroom and asked her questions about her life back in the DPRK. I asked her what made her decide to leave, and she said (with the help of our tour guide translating) that it was the fact that her sister had already left.

It was a great follow up to the film that we were showed upon arrival, which briefly showed the history of division between the two Koreas and the state of human rights abuses in the Hermit Kingdom.

The observatory’s gift shop was pretty impressive as well, with a lot more DMZ and North Korean products available for purchase than at other tourist sites.

Entrance to Odusan Observatory

Entrance to Odusan Observatory

North Korean liquors for sale ($15-$50/bottle)

North Korean liquors for sale ($15-$50/bottle)

North Korean liquors for sale ($15-$50/bottle)

North Korean liquors for sale ($15-$50/bottle)

North Korean liquors on display

North Korean liquors on display

JSA Tour (19 of 46)

North Korean pins and stamps on display

North Korean pins and stamps on display

JSA Tour (24 of 46) JSA Tour (25 of 46)

The giftshop was the largest I'd seen on a DMZ tour

The giftshop was the largest I’d seen on a DMZ tour

South Korean ginseng products

South Korean ginseng products

JSA Tour (30 of 46)

A monument outside the observatory

A monument outside the observatory

A statue outside the observatory

A statue outside the observatory

After wrapping up our visit at Odusan, we moved onto our next stop.

Imjingak

Now, I’m not going to say much about Imjingak, mainly since I already visited the place on my prior DMZ tour with WiNK. Granted, at that time it was covered in snow and almost devoid of any other visitors; while on this visit there was no snow to be seen and instead just droves of tourists.

I took a look at the pond, which I must’ve missed on my first visit there.

Prayers for unification at Imjingak

Prayers for unification at Imjingak

Train and tourists

Train and tourists

Gift shops and restaurants

Gift shops and restaurants

Participants on the Ministry of Environment tour

Participants on the Ministry of Environment tour

Little pond beneath the symbolic bridge between North and South Korea

Little pond beneath the symbolic bridge between North and South Korea

Something I didn't notice on my last tour - this monument is a symbolic ancestral tombstone for all North Korean refugees who cannot visit the remains of their deceased relatives back home - moving.

Something I didn’t notice on my last tour – this monument is a symbolic ancestral tombstone for all North Korean refugees who cannot visit the remains of their deceased relatives back home – moving.

After snapping some photos, I headed back to the bus, but not without running into Patricja, a Polish friend of mine from the Friends of Invest Korea program I’m in. She was there on a group trip with the Korean Ministry of Environment.

Lunch

Again, I’m not going to say much on this subject.

Since those who know me know I’m a shameless foodie, the fact that I don’t have much to say on the subject of a meal will understand that this is not a good thing.

Okay, so I can’t complain – I only paid $10 for the trip.

However, everyone else was paying $77 – and for that price, I’ve gotta say, the meal was pretty horrible.

I’ve eaten a lot of Korean BBQ since abandoning my meat-free days here, and this was pretty bad. The lettuce was limp, and there was enough grease in the table-top bulgogi pan to drown an army.

It was clear that the restaurant survives on business from DMZ tour busses, as it’s in a pretty isolated area, and all of the other diners were being herded to their tables after getting off of their own respective tour busses.

Compared to the restaurant we ate at on the DMZ tour I took with WiNK, this place was not very impressive.

Camp Bonifas

After lunch, we got back on the bus and were off to get our passports checked on the Unification Bridge.

Everything was good to go, so we continued onto Camp Bonifas, which was the military base that we would transfer busses at.

Camp Bonifas is operated by both Korean and American troops.

At this point, we were now officially in the South’s side of the DMZ. We just needed to get onto a UN-approved vehicle for our trip to the JSA.

After meeting our supervisor from the US military, we were on our way to the JSA.

Panmunjom – the Joint Security Area

Finally, we’d arrived at the main attraction of the tour – the JSA.

As mentioned earlier, everything was super strict. Back at Camp Bonifas, one of the tourists had to change out of his shorts and into a pair of pants.

It appeared that I was one of the few tourists that actually took the JSA dress code seriously, but in general they were pretty flexible with it.

The dress code prohibits visitors from wearing: t-shirts, miniskirts, shorts, heels, exercise clothes, slippers, faded jeans, tights, leggings, and trousers. Previously, I thought the reason for this was partly due to safety concerns (ex: a woman wearing heels isn’t exactly in the best position to make a break for it, just in case shots get fired).

According to our tour guide, the dress code exists in case the North decides to feature any of the tourists in state propaganda.

Those who dress “sloppy” make perfect fodder for the North’s favoured depiction of American (or other Western) foreigners.

Additionally, we were instructed not to make any gestures (ex: pointing, waving, etc) towards the North Korean guards. This was for the same reason – those who are shown waiving risk being depicted as “someone wanting to defect to the North” by the DRPK’s propaganda artists.

After being given these briefings, we made our way – single file – to the JSA.

We were quickly shuffled into the Freedom House Military Armistice Commission Building, where one can put one foot “into North Korea”, and one foot into South Korea.

South Korean guards were in the building to keep watch, and much like the British bobbies in London, they’re supposed to keep still in the ready position – a perfect photo opp for tacky tourists like me!

Standing with a South Korean guard

Standing with a South Korean guard

Photos!

Photos!

The centre table

The centre table

This building is used for signing official documents and to have UN-monitored meetings. Since it’s half in North Korea, half in South Korea, it makes for a fairly neutral meeting space.

After taking a few photos in the Armistice Commission Building, we moved outside.

I was a bit disappointed that there weren’t as many North Korean guards as I had expected (based on different YouTube videos I’ve watched), but it was still cool to see.

The JSA!

The JSA!

JSA Tour (44 of 46)

A North Korean guard

A North Korean guard

Before you can say “bomb threat”, we were shuffled out and back into our tour bus.

From there, were were back on our way to Seoul.

Summary

All in all, it was a good trip.

I liked that they brought a North Korean refugee along with us to answer questions; it was probably a great experience for those who only had a week or two to spend in Korea.

Additionally, I liked that we were back in Seoul by 4:30pm. Everything ran very smoothly.

Would I recommend Panmunjom Travel Center?

If you must see the JSA, then yes. The fact that they brought along a North Korean refugee was quite memorable. The tour guide was alright – not fantastic, but not horrible.

If you just want to be able to gaze out into North Korea and buy some North Korean souvenirs, then I’d recommend taking a tour with When in Korea (WiNK).

Though not regularly offered, WiNK’s DMZ trips are affordable and cram a LOT into a one-day tour; around double the sites that the standard DMZ tour operators normally offer.

How can I get an 85%-off travel deal to visit the JSA?

Simply like the Panmunjom Travel Center on facebook, and keep your eyes peeled for their next deal.

Students can get a discounted rate of $65 to go on this tour.

Korean Cosmetics Haul #2 (Face Shop, Innisfree, Skinfood, Etude House, Too Cool for School)

So, after being here in Seoul for six months, I’ve found some pretty good (and pretty horrible) Korean cosmetic products.

The biggest things I’ve learned? Well, Korean mascara is horrible (although I can’t say I wasn’t warned), hair products are generally non-existent (specifically heat protect) and I should’ve started using Skinfood earlier.

I’d actually been avoiding Skinfood for a while because their whole brand and packaging “look” never appealed to me. Actually, it seemed kind of tacky. I knew the premise was that most of the products were made from food products (quinoa body lotion, ginseng face mask, sugar cookie blush, etc) but I never thought of going in until I read some good things about a few of their products online. After buying the products, I was very impressed. They also gave me a ton of freebies – as in, more than you’d usually get at a Korean cosmetics shop – so of course that had a positive influence on me!

The products I’m going to review today are:

  • Innisfree: No-Sebum Mineral Powder ★★★★★
  • Etude House: Drawing Show Brush Liner ★★★
  • Too Cool for School: Dinoplatz Lost Identity Lipstick ★★★
  • Etude House: Lash Perm Volume Mascara ★
  • The Face Shop: Anti-Trouble Spot ★★
  • The Face Shop: Face It – Oil Concealer, Dual Veil ★★★★
  • The Face Shop: Tea Tree Oil Spot Corrector ★
  • The Face Shop: Blemish Zero – Clarifying Toner ★★★
  • Skinfood: Black Sugar Scrub ★★★★★
  • Skinfood: Argan Oil Silk Hair Mask Pack ★★★★
  • The Face Shop: One Step BB Cleanser (Cleansing Oil – Foam) ★★★

My apologies for not putting them in order!

———————-

Innisfree: No-Sebum Mineral Powder ★★★★★

Definitely an HG product! I think it’s supposed to be used more as blot powder, but I’ve started using it as an all-over finishing powder instead of MAC’s Mineralize Skinfinish Natural. The two are very similar, except MAC’s version costs $25 CAD and Innisfree’s costs 8,000w (roughly $6.50 CAD), in addition to coming with a free applicator. Definitely going to stock up when I got back to Canada!

Pros: Lasts long, goes on sheer (good for any skin tone), really fights oil.

Cons: Pretty small, but still good for its value.

ImageImage

Etude House: Drawing Show Brush Liner ★★★

So, previously I was using the Revlon Colorstay Liquid Liner (after having downgraded from MAC’s version, nearly triple the price). I’ve since downgraded to the Etude House version, and I find it’s pretty comparable.

Pros: Lasts long, easy to apply

Cons: Not as dark as MAC’s or Revlon’s version. I also prefer the stubbier applicator from Revlon as opposed to the longer one from Etude House (kind of between MAC and Revlon).

Image

Image

Image

After smudging them…Image

Too Cool for School: Dinoplatz Lost Identity Lipstick ★★★

So the packaging here was just too awesome. I’d read about this lipstick that starts off green, then changes colour to match your lips. Had to buy it. However, when I applied it on my lips, it became too dark. I don’t like wearing a lot of colour on my lips because I usually go pretty dark with my eyes.

Pros: Awesome packaging

Cons: Expensive; too dark.

Image

Image

Image

Image

Image

Image

Image

Etude House: Lash Perm Volume Mascara ★

Easily the worst mascara I’ve ever used. Clumpy, hard to apply, and just generally horrible. I tried using it then removed it immediately after. The stuff is awful.

Pros: Nothing (maybe the packaging, which I fell for)

Cons: Crappy applicator, super clumpy

Image

Image

The Face Shop: Anti-Trouble Spot ★★

I don’t have much to say about this; it’s not that great. It’s not horrible either; but it just doesn’t get rid of my acne. I’ve been using it together with the Tea Tree Oil Spot Corrector, so maybe I’ll try using it on its own in the future. I bought it because it was on sale.

Pros: Meh.

Cons: Meh.

Image

The Face Shop: Face It – Oil Concealer, Dual Veil ★★★★

AMAZING, simply amazing. This stuff rocks! Covers up even the worst spots and under-eye circles. I’ve heard some people comparing it to Urban Decay or MAC, which is why I bought it. Affordable and super effective. Great design too.

Pros: Cheap, lasts long, great dual-applicator tips.

Cons: Nothing really.

Image

Image

The Face Shop: Tea Tree Oil Spot Corrector ★

Also a “meh” product, bought solely because it was on sale. Produces no noticeable results.

Pros: Meh.

Cons: Mehh.

Image

The Face Shop: Blemish Zero Clarifying Toner 

A pretty decent product; good for the people like me who want to reduce redness (but not bleach the face in the process). Got it on sale a few months ago; great value for size.

Pros: Reduces redness and trouble spots “sans-brightening” (aka: non-bleaching)

Cons: Not all that strong

Image

Skinfood: Black Sugar Scrub Foam 

This product warrants a heart-felt OMG. Wow. Seriously though, this is my new HG scrub. It works magically. My skin is SO soft after using it, and my foundation/primer even goes on easier the morning after. I only use it about once a week. It’s one of Skinfood’s top sellers.

Pros: Doesn’t irritate my sensitive skin, produces AWESOME results, little product needed. Also very affordable!!

Cons: None!!!

Image

Skinfood: Argan Oil – Silk Hair Mask Pack 

This treatment is pretty awesome. Not quite as effective as my HG hair treatment (Healthy Sexy Hair Soy Tri-Wheat Treatment) but still pretty good. It’s hard to find decent hair products in Korea. Maybe it’s because all Korean girls have enviably thick and shiny hair naturally and don’t need to use treatments, heat protect, and the like. In any case, this mask pack is a lifesaver. Works great on my extensions.

Pros: Cheap. Works well, makes hair shiny without weighing it down.

Cons: You need to use a lot of product to get results.

Image

The Face Shop: One Step BB Cleanser (Cleansing Oil – Foam) 

Finally a half-decent product that doesn’t turn my skin into a pasty mess or make me break out! Hurray. It cleanses deep without irritating the skin. Definitely going to buy it again.

Pros: Removes foundation really well. Good for sensitive skin.

Cons: Not that great for reducing trouble.

Image

A Trip to Ani Land (the Studio Ghibli Store) in COEX

Today I visited a store I’d been wanting to go to for a long time… “Ani Land” in COEX, Seoul’s biggest mall. Ani Land carries collectibles from Studio Ghibli, a Japanese animation company with a cult following. Spirited Away, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and Howl’s Moving Castle are all my favourite Ghibli films.

IMG_1005

Outside of the store…

IMG_0997

…And inside

IMG_0996

Everything was SO expensive though! I was really disappointed. Even the keychains cost upwards of $15. Everything was imported from Japan.

IMG_0988

The photos are poor quality because I’m still not 100% comfortable taking pictures inside specialty shops like this. I forget that I’m in Asia, where it’s okay to do that. In Canada the manager will usually have a hissy fit – buy something or get out.

IMG_0990

A whole cabinet filled with Kiki’s Delivery Service stuff. I wanted the mug!! It’s the same one Kiki buys in the movie.IMG_0991

Lots of figurines… Spirited Away on the far right

IMG_0989

IMG_0995

Stupid expensive stuffed animals. I wanted a stuffed Gigi (the black cat) from Kiki’s Delivery Service, but the smallest one was $13; the regular one was $30. Just couldn’t justify it.

IMG_0993

Not Ghibli related, but still cute!

IMG_0998

Giant Totoro in the window

IMG_0999

More Totoro stuff

IMG_1001

Totoro Wreath

IMG_1002

A giant beer in the movie theatre lobby as I was walking out of the Ghibli store

IMG_1003

Finished my shopping trip with an udon + sushi set. Ready 5 mins after I ordered, not bad.

IMG_1006

The planner was only $12 so I treated myself. So cute!!!IMG_1007 IMG_1008 IMG_1009

….And a Totoro one for a fellow Ghibli-obsessesd girlfriend back home

IMG_1011

Birthday Love from Canada + a trip to High Street Market

Yesterday, after two months of eager anticipation, I received my birthday package from Canada!

Image

There were a ton of cards from family members, winter gloves, smoked salmon, Straight Sexy Hair heat protect, Healthy Sexy hair soy wheat treatment, and a mickey of Crown Royal! So awesome.

Image

Mmm… maple salmon… I’m going to save one pack until the exam period for late night snacking with my roomie, and another pack for Christmas.

Image

Canadian whiskey!

Image

These gloves were super popular during the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics. They sold out everywhere because they were so comfy and warm! They look super great too.

Image

Because of the salmon, I decided to buy rice crackers and chive & onion Philly cheese dip (my preferred flavour is the low-cal herb & garlic cream cheese, a cheaper and less-fattening version of Boursin, but I could only find the plain and chive & onion ones!).

Anyways, I had to make a special trip to the foreigner district of Seoul (Itaewon) for these “speciality” products. I actually haven’t been to Itaewon too much. As one of my other foreigner friends described it, it’s basically like Korea’s “Americatown”. I took a trip to the famous High Street Market there, which is the most popular foreign food shop in the city.

High Street Market - photo from jseseoulsearching.blogspot.kr
High Street Market – photo from jseseoulsearching.blogspot.kr

The prices weren’t too bad; the crackers and cheese were about the same I’d pay at a Thrifty Foods in Canada, and I was excited to see that they sold Reese cups! However, these were most certainly not cheap – I’m talking like $20 for a medium-sized bag (something that would probably cost $5 in Canada). I love Reese, but I don’t love them that much!

High Street Market
High Street Market

This photo is from their facebook page. HSM has a deli section and also sells frozen meats, baking supplies, pastas, snacks, import beer & wines, among many other things. HSM is also sponsoring a fundraiser I’m helping plan with Justice for North Korea (a local human rights NGO based here in Seoul) so they’re obviously a socially-concious business! HSM was actually a bit smaller than I’d expected, just based on the hype, but there were lots of goodies that I’ll likely by back for… But couldn’t find any Kraft Dinner. Bummer!

How to Play Pub Golf in Hongdae, Seoul

A few weekends ago I got together with some friends to play a round of “pub golf”. None of us had ever heard of pub golf before, but our friend Christian had come across the concept online recently and decided to organize a tournament for us. Here’s a step-by-step how-to guide for anyone else who wants to try their own game!

Step 1: 

Have your meticulous and detail-oriented German friend draft a score sheet.

DISCLAIMER: This challenge was in no way, shape or form officially associated with Chung-Ang University. It was just for fun. Logos used were not done so officially. Now, continue on with the Pub Golf guide!

 

Step 2:

Choose a teammate of similar drinking abilities. Choose team name. (“Team Sexy” seemed only fitting in our case).

In consultation with your teammate, select desired drinking course. Standard course is recommended; approach Austrian course with caution.

Step 3:

Begin the challenge at your first stop – Ho Bar 2!  As Ho Bar seems to always be conveniently “sold out” of the cheapest beer (Cass: Korean – $2.50), no matter what time of the night it is, opt for the next cheapest brew (we chose Budweiser: American).

Step 4:

Complete the next couple holes on the list. Find a Korean old lady (ajumma) in an elevator at one of the bars. Party hard with her. Attempt to get off elevator, only to have the doors open on a brick wall (yes, this actually happened). Get off at the correct floor and continue on with the drinking!

Step 5:

Continue onto Ho Bar 1 for the “One cocktail + one beer” challenge. Can’t go wrong with a Jack & Coke!

Step 6:

Pose with some friends at one of the later stops on the tour. At this point, everyone should be very, very wasted!

Step 7:

Finish off the remaining holes. Celebrate with some dancing & drinking at Hongdae’s Club Mansion!

Photobomb a Swede photobombing an Austrian photobombing a German.

Step 8:

Find this photo posted on your facebook a week later. Think to yourself “so that’s where all those weird black marks on my arm came from!”. Make futile attempt to recall where the photo was taken.


Step 9:

Have your  meticulous and detail-oriented German friend tally up the scoresheets. Find out that your team won! (A win is still a win, even if most of the teams just forgot to write down their scores during the night).

———————

Feel free to alter guide to fit your individual drinking preferences! Perhaps we will have another tournament in Gangnam or Itaewon.

Special thanks goes to Christian, my German friend who organized everything! What a pal.

 

Visiting the DMZ: Imjingak and Cheol Won

On Sunday, I went with some friends to the DMZ. We went with a tour company called “WinK” (When in Korea), which I’d heard great things about. The thing that was so attractive about this tour was that it covered double the sites that most DMZ tours cover – we went to the Imjingak and Cheolwon areas of the DMZ, while most other companies just visit one or the other. The price was 47,000w (about $43 CAD), which was a very good deal.

At the crack of dawn Sunday morning, I headed over to the the subway. First off, grabbed some breaky at McDonald’s (as those who know me well understand that I’m a grumpy you-know-what without fuel in the morning!). It was 6:00am, and most people were just coming back from the bar. I ran into a few guy friends from CAU and then headed to the subway to meet my friends Janna (from Finland) and Kristina (from Lithuania) before departing to the tour meeting spot.

We made it there on 10 minutes early – perfect timing. The bus rolled up and we were on our way!

Sadly, once I was at the subway station I realized that I’d forgotten my passport – a REQUIRED item if you intend to enter the DMZ area! It would be too late to run back to the dorms now. I frantically called William, the tour leader and explained my situation. He seemed a bit uneasy but reassured me that he would figure something out. Thank god he did!

——–

Part 1 of the DMZ Tour: Imjingak

First Stop: Freedom Bridge

The Freedom Bridge is so significant because it connects South and North Korea.

Hyundai’s late founder, Chung Ju-yung, is widely loved in Korea. He was a North Korean defector who stole a cow from his father to help finance his escape to the south. After gaining incredible success in the South, Chung sent 1,001 cows over the border via the Freedom Bridge as interest on the cow, and as an act of aid that the North Koreans could truly appreciate.

Image

A bronze relief depicting the Korean War near the Freedom Bridge.

Image

A very powerful memorial… Stones from war zones around the world were gathered and made into a monument here

Image

The Peace Wall

Image

DMZ “guards” on the bridge near the Freedom Bridge

Image

Ribbons with prayers for peace and unification between the two Koreas.

Image

I liked the contrast between the ribbons and barbed wire in this  photo.

Image

Ribbons symbolizing a unified Korea.

Image

Me with the bridge in the background.

Image

Photos with images of the war that lined the bridge

Image

I have no idea what this says!

Image

One of the many ribbons on the bridge

Image

With Janna (left) and Kristina (right).

Image

It was so cold! But nice and sunny.

Image

Painting of a unified Korea

Image

Doing the tacky tourist pose with the little guard!

Third stop: Tunnel #3

Next up was Tunnel #3. The North Koreans dug a series of tunnels to the south with the intention of secretly invading Seoul. A defector tipped the South Koreans off, et voilà, the North Koreans’ secret was out. Several tunnels were found and are now tourist sites (although photography is forbidden, which is why you won’t find any pictures here on my blog).

Image

At the 3rd Tunnel

Image

This was a film we got to watch before entering the tunnel

Image

A very powerful image of a man who was presumably separated from someone across the DMZ

Image

 

The “Axe Incident”

Image

DMZ model

Image

Some SK Soldiers…

Image

Janna and Kristina pushing together the globe for peace & unification!

Image

One of the observatories we visited

Image

Off to Dorosan Station, one of the places I’d been most looking forward to!

Image

Dorosan Station

Image

It was built as a symbolic gesture. The hope is that one day, after unification, a railway will be created to go across the peninsula and thereby connect Korea with the rest of Asia and Europe.

Image

A map explaining this concept in detail

Image

To Pyeongyang!

Image

I was a little hesitant about taking this photo, but at the last minute I changed my mind (YOIKO!).

Image

A description outside the station.

After Imjingak, we were off to the Cheolwan area!

Image

Here is a statue of a Korean figure comparable to Robin Hood. This area was the place he hung out most in. We decided to eat lunch fast and then visit the canyon he relaxed in.

Image

This was the restaurant our guide reccomended, and he even called in ahead to take pre-orders. Within a few minutes of sitting down, our meals were delivered to us piping hot. We had the choice between bulgogi (Korean marinated beef) or doslot bibimbap (mixed veggies + raw egg on top of rice, served in a hot clay bowl). I’d had the cold version of bibimbap before and sort of liked it, but this hot version blew my mind! The hot bowl makes the rice all warm and a little crispy on the outside, while also cooking the raw egg.

With bimbimbap, you need to take a spoon and mash up all the ingredients together…

Image

Before…

Image

…And after! The result was a warm, delicious bowl of irresistible comfort food. I know I’ll be having that dish again sometime!

Image

This was the beautiful canyon area where the Korean Robin Hood would find solace in…

Image

Gorgeous!

Image

A ferry boat was doing tours, but our time was rather limited.

Image

Getting a bit mischievous….

Image

Image

Nothing says “trip to the DMZ” like a ride on a carousal! This place was eeeeeerie, and just seemed out of place at such a solemn area. You should note that PSY’s “Gangnam Style” was playing in the background.

After the canyon, we were off to the next observatory….

Image

Staring out into North Korea! The faint white triangle in the middle of the landscape is a North Korean propaganda village. The area next to the DMZ has very few (if any) NK civilians living there, so the village just serves as storage, training, and the occasionally housing facility for the NK military stationed there. You may be able to see a very small rectangle in front the of the triangle. Through the binoculars I was using, I could actually see what was on it. It was a propaganda poster, featuring a woman in hanbok (traditional Korean dress) holding a child. The writing in Korean was too hard to read, and  I can barely understand the language anyways ^^

Image

South Korean outpost?

Image

On top of that mountain to the right is a North Korean outpost. Apparently, you can sometimes see a NK guard on duty, walking back and forth. I guess he was on his lunch break (lol), because I didn’t see him.

Image

Next, we were off to a monument commemorating a famous battle at “White Horse Hill”. It was a pretty similar story to Vimy Ridge.

Image

Our guide, an enthusiastic young SK soldier.

Image

A really cool relief made with the bullet shells of the battle.

Image

The sculpture at the top of the hill (again very similar to Vimy)

Image

The battle was so intense that some of the soldiers’ guns even melted from the heat of firing too much.

Image

Another bronze relief; made the same way (melted bullet shells)

Image

A pavilion at the top of the mountain

Image

The tour guide’s dog! So cute and well-behaved!

———————

Overall an AWESOME experience. I would recommend WiNK for any future tours. They were well-organized, efficient, and our guide (William Cho) taught us a lot about Korean history and the DMZ situation. As someone who has a minor obsession with North Korea, I went into this tour thinking I wouldn’t learn more than I already knew, but I was wrong. William gave some great insight into Korean and international politics. It was the perfect balance of being taught history and actually experiencing it. AWESOME tour.

Photos of NK souvenirs to come!

 

SIWA (Seoul International Women’s Association) Annual Bazaar

Today I visted SIWA’s Annual Bazaar and had the chance to browse around the stalls run by various embassies and cultural groups.  I picked up some cheap Korean language books and got showered in freebies, tried the Indian stall’s chickpea curry (but all the naan bread was gone T^T) and had perhaps the BEST dessert I’ve ever tasted: South African cheesecake! Had to pick up some authentic North American baked goods from the US table (which looked straight out of a county fair bake sale). Didn’t buy any Tim Horton’s coffee that the Canadian table was offering though; I feel like a traitor to my people!

I’d found out about SIWA (Seoul International Women’s Association) via facebook last week. One of their sub-groups, Cultural Connections, was having a private event featuring a representative from NKHR (the Citizen’s Committee on North Korean Human Rights) the next day, and since I’m so interested in the situation in North Korea, as well as the work that NKHR does, I figured I’d try to attend. Sadly, the event was “members-only” and the $60 membership fee seemed to expensive to pay without having attended any sort of prior event to get a feel for the group. So, I decided to email them (VERY short notice) about paying a student rate. They replied and told me I could attend the Cultural Connections event for FREE. How nice was that?

The event was held at a SIWA member’s home in Itaewon, surrounded by beautiful houses, European-style bistros, and various embassies from around the world. The event was very intimate, and I think I will pay the membership fee. The only bad part is that most SIWA events are held during the daytime, and as a student living in the largest metropolitan area in the world, I won’t always have time to go to their events between classes. Last week though, I was able to, and I’m so glad I did. The women were very kind and welcoming, and the presentation (which focussed on the situation of children in North Korea) was incredibly moving.

ANYWAYS, fast forward one week later to the Bazaar – I got a little confused finding the museum, but thanks to my trusty TripAdvisor app,  I was able to find my way there eventually. I saw a “visibly foreign-looking” lady who kept walking around confusedly in the same area I was, so I asked if she was headed to the Bazaar and it turned out that she was. We walked there together and then went our separate ways…

The main hall of the Seoul Museum of History where the event was held.

The bazaar was divided up into two areas: the main area with various national booths, selling everything from jewelry, to apparel, to books, to sweets, to national crafts, liqueur, and more… The other area was the food court!

The first table I saw: Ukraine

This one was from the Nordic Women’s Club, featuring Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland.

The Bazaar was SO busy! There were about an even amount of foreigners and Koreans.

And now.. onto the food court!

The food court was a festival of foreign tastes and flair, as many countries took the opportunity the present their national cuisine with pride to the event’s many attendees…

Of course, I had to visit Canada’s table first!

Loved the tablecloth..

 

Canada was serving up roast beef sandwiches with potato salad, and to drink: Tim Horton’s coffee!

To calculate the amounts, just remove a zero off the end and change the comma to a period – et voilà, a rough equivalent of what the price is in Canadian or American dollars (ex: the coffee was roughly $2).

Next was the South African booth, which was definitely the best-decorated! It caught my eye immediately so I decided to go take a gander…

The display was pretty cool!

I’d never heard of Hunter’s before, but it sounded really nice. I’m still getting used to the whole concept of being able to drink during the daytime (in Canada, I drive nearly everywhere and have a license that prohibits me from having any alcohol in my bloodstream). I quickly remembered that I was taking the subway back to school, and decided to come back after doing a lap around the room to try some of this yummy-sounding booze. I did make it back to the SA table, however, I totally forgot to buy a bottle of Hunter’s!

I was having a sweet tooth craving, and as soon as I realized that I’d never tasted South African food before, grabbing a dessert from the table’s impressive selection of goodies just seemed logical!

The guys there recommended the cheesecake – it was the last piece so I thought it must be good! And boy, was it ever! I’ve had a lot of desserts in my day (again, just an insatiable sweet tooth!) and this probably ranks in my top 10 – perhaps the best cheesecake I’ve ever tasted.

They also gave me a free shot of Amarula, South African liqueur. What a delicious way to wash it down! I’d never had that liqueur before.

The lady who baked the cheesecake has a facebook group here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/103982269694930/

Perhaps I’ll have to order another cake when Christmas comes around 🙂

For lunch, I took a trip to the Indian table and decided to try some of their curried chickpeas and naan. Sadly, the naan bread had sold out, so I had their jasmine rice instead – a nice change from the sticky white rice eaten most often in Korea. I’m not a huge fan of the stuff.

It was good! However, there was barely any room to sit in the food court as it was so crowded…

…So, I decided to sit outside. The fall colours were breathtaking.

On my way out from the food court, I saw how HUGE the line for Turkey’s kebab station had grown! Obviously a popular selection!

On my way to see the other booths, I passed by Germany’s. They were selling advent calendars for $10 a piece!

Here was Canada’s booth – selling Timmy’s coffee, maple syrup, and some books.

The Canadian Women’s Club (CWC) had organized this table – even had a mini Remembrance Day display.

In true geographic style, across from Canada’s booth was the US’s. It looked like it was straight out of a county fair! Decent baked goods are hard to come by here in Seoul, as the price for butter is so high. Yes, you can buy cookies at nearly any of the countless convenience stores or chain bakeries that dot the streets of Seoul, but what you end up with is a cookie devoid of any moisture – biting into a hockey puck might be a more pleasant experience (but at least the hockey puck wouldn’t crumble all over you..)

And, of course, since our cooking facilities in the dorms are limited to a single microwave per floor, it’s not like I have the option of baking at home.

It was way too hard to choose which things I wanted! The prices were quite reasonable, but I didn’t want to empty my wallet on cookies that I would gobble up in a matter of days 🙂 There were sugar cookies, those little peanut butter cookies with Hershey kisses on them, ginger snaps, lemon zucchini and pumpkin bread, pumpkin tarts, snickerdoodles, raisin cookies, and the list goes on! I decided on ginger snaps and snickerdoodles, although I was seriously eyeing up some of that lemon zucchini bread! Willpower, willpower…

This was the venue for the event, the Seoul Museum of History in the city’s Gwanghwamun district.

My goodies!

The ginger snaps and snickerdoodles 🙂 I shared the ginger snaps with a couple American classmates in my Project Management class right after coming back from the bazaar. Aaaaaand then I ate all of them 😛 So much for “willpower”. There’s only half a snickerdoodle left too; I’m saving the one full cookie that’s left for my roommate. We have this cool system where we randomly give each other food. It’s great.

The books I picked up at a Korean publisher’s booth. The two language ones were 40% off, and the culture book was only $3. It’s got a lot of useful history in there which I’m planning on using in some future essays.

These were all the freebies they gave me for buying the books! I was distracted and looking at some other things while they were bagging my books, so I didn’t even realize they’d given me these until I got back home – I know, super observant right? They gave me a couple folders, a calendar, a pen and a catalogue of their merchandise.

—————————————————

What a fun day at the Bazaar! I was actually surprised to see so many Koreans there; I don’t know why. But here’s one thing I do know: it’s events like these that bring cultures together and help eliminate prejudice, especially at the grassroots level.

My Birthday in Seoul

Just over a week ago, I turned 20 here in Seoul. In Korea, I was technically already 21 (yeah, it’ll take too long to explain – watch this video if you’re interested in learning more about Korean age differences: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2zIBiyUANbo)

Sadly, the morning of my birthday, I woke up with a horrible eye infection. While it didn’t hurt at all, it made my eyes look horrible; like I had been crying for several hours. I researched the symptoms online, and found out that it was super contagious, which sucked. I felt totally capable of doing everything, but I didn’t want to spread it around. Combine that with the fact that I had a 12 hour-long day Wednesday, followed up by an equally long day Thursday starting early in the morning, and you’ll see why I wasn’t very partial to going out and getting drunk on my birthday.

Since I had to work late, I didn’t really do anything too exciting. However, I was so happy to see that I’d received a package from my pen pal/old friend from last summer, Jacqui! We’ve been keeping in touch since I got to Korea. She’s living away from home for the first time too, so we’ve been sending letters and postcards back and forth. It’s been really nice.

Included in the package was a letter, some socks with the American flag on it, and a shirt with her home state’s name on it.

Jacqui and I had met at Seoul Women’s University’s Bahrom International Program last summer. This photo was from our sports day during the program (I’m on the far left, wearing the generic cotton shorts you can buy in the subway here, just like a bunch of the other Korean girls are wearing ^^). Jacqui’s in the dead centre with Samah on her shoulders. We were all pretty fired up!

I also found a lovely birthday card in my mail from a very special someone 🙂

By the time Saturday rolled around, the eye infection was gloriously gone, just as I’d estimated! 🙂 I’d put out an open invite for my birthday, with the hopes of going to the Rocky Mountain Tavern, a very popular Canadian-themed bar in the foreigner district. Sadly, I didn’t realize they were having a comedian perform at 10:00pm and that the cover would be $30. So I nixed the idea and suggested instead that we go to a $6 all-you-can drink makkoli bar in Hongdae, a really popular and cheap clubbing district among students in Seoul.

Our group was pretty small, I’m guessing this was because a lot of people were really tired from the hike up Bukhansan earlier that day. However, one thing is remains true – you can always rely on Germans for a fun time!

(From left to right below: Jan, Henri, Marcel, Christian and me). Jameel (American) came too, but he was taking the photo so he’s not pictured.

While we found the all-you-can-drink makkoli bar totally fine, we couldn’t figure out how to actually order the unlimited makkoli! Their menu was only in Korean, so I had to whip out my trusty dictionary/phrasebook combo and search for “unlimited” whilst repeating “makkoli!” a million times. I’ll give you a hint – it didn’t work. So yeah, that was a little disappointing, but the place was still really cool! It was totally packed with people, and that’s usually a good sign. We drank a type of makkoli the waiter highly recommended (and by “recommended” I mean “pointed at the menu while saying ‘goood, gooood!’ in a thick Korean accent”. But hell, we trusted him).

This is the makkoli that the waiter reccommended. I had to take a photo for future drinking reference because it was so good! So sweet that you could barely taste the alcohol. And of course, we had to order some pajeon to go along with the rice wine!

 

While we didn’t get to take advantage of the all-you-can-drink feature, we still drank a LOT. Rougly one bottle per person! The guys were so cool the whole night and wouldn’t let me pay for anything. Got totally spoilt!

After the makkoli bar, we were still feeling pretty hungry, so we went to grab some yummy street food from outside.

After that, we hit up Ho Bar II and Zen Bar, where this photo was taken. The guys paid for bottle service, and the waiter brought along a fruit platter with yogurt dip. This was so great because fruit in Korea is painfully expensive (think $1-$2 for ONE apple) and because we were, you know, totally plastered and therefore easily impressed.

After Zen Bar, we continued onto Gogo’s, an expat bar that Jan recommended. Spent about an hour there, and then grabbed some kebab before taking a cab back to CAU. We were too early to get in, so I passed out on one of the couches inside the lounge at 4:30am.

I had such a fun time that weekend 🙂

 

 

 

Mt. Bukhansan Hike

On Saturday November 3rd, the International Office took the exchange students on a hike up the famous Mt. Bukhansan, approximately a 1.5 hour drive from the university. The mountain offers breathtaking views of Seoul below and is supposed to be beautiful in the autumn, so even though I’ve never been much of a “hiker” (that’s a massive understatement, as anyone who knows me well can confirm!) I figured YOIKO (“you’re only in Korea once”)! I signed up and off we went.

After a 1.5 hour drive on the bus, we reached the base of the mountain…

Need some supplies for the trip? Rice wine, perhaps?

Perhaps some fruit, visors, fold-up stool or hard-boiled eggs?

These bandanas had maps of the mountain route on them (sorry for the blurriness, I thought I had my autofocus on!)

The mountain on the far left is the one we climbed…

We went to Woohobyong Peak

Consumerism is running high at the base of many hiking spots. There was basically an outlet hiking mall at the foot of the mountain. The North Face is VERY popular here…

Aaaand right next to it: “The Redface”. One of the things I love about Korea is the “just don’t give a f-ck” attitude towards copyrighting. (Cue the Samsung vs. Apple jokes!).

There were some artists painting their impressions of Bukhansan Mountain…

…This is what his painting looked like after we climbed back down from the mountain

Looking up at the mountain at the beginning of the hike. Beautiful fall colours…

The mountain was SO busy! It was a crisp, sunny Saturday morning, so lots of people were heading up the mountain with their friends and family. Bags filled with beer, makkoli, and snacks (like gimbap – Korean sushi rolls, fruit, granola bars, etc) these hikers were ready to make the short hike up to the peak.

A temple on the way up the mountain. Beautiful!

This was one of the places we decided to top up the mountain; about halfway there.

There’s me!

Taking a quick break before continuing the hike up to the peak. Those shoes I’m wearing were pretty unflattering, to say the least! But hey, after a night of shopping and being told $100+ for the cheapest pair of brand-name shoes in my size, I was glad to find those no-name ones for a cool $30 – sold. And they felt awesome too!

After a few minutes of some more hiking (the trail felt almost vertical at points!), we finally we reached the top! In the background, you can see Seoul..

We enjoyed the sunshine and munched on our lunches provided by the international office: bottled water, a roll of gimbap (sushi), granola bar, Twix bar, and pastry. They’d provided sausage McMuffins, hashbrowns and orange juice on the bus ride to the mountain. I love McDonald’s breakfasts but I’m not a huge fan of the sausages :\ At least it was a good protein-filled meal to start the day.

So satisfied! What a view..

Group photo! Next to me is the Associate Director from the International Office – aka: my boss lol.

The green bottle of rice wine is called makkoli, a kind of sweet/sour drink with a milky consistency. Most people were having a picnic up here.

Some Korean ladies enjoying funny moment at the top of the peak. I hope I am as active as they are when I’m their age!

Some friends posing for a picture. Clockwise from bottom left: Jameel (US), Anni (Finland), Lauren (Canada), Hailey (Korea – studied in US), Thi Ha (German), and Ha-young (Korean – studied in US).

This cracked me up – BIG TIME. Of course many people are aware of the stereotype that Asian tourists love taking photos. This guy took it to the next level, like magazine photography director level! These guys all came up in a group, and one of the other friends saw me taking photos of the intense photographer: “He loves to take photos”, he explained. “He’s a little… obsessed. So professional!” The guy was just cracking me up…

Blue Steel Korean style

You gotta give him credit though, the background does look pretty awesome.

Janna (Finland) and Kristina (Lithuania) relax atop this bridge during the climb down.

A signpost during the descent…

Beautiful fall colours! This was the perfect time of year to go on this hike. It was just slightly chilly, not humid at all, and very sunny.

Some policemen at the bottom of the mountain. Someone suggested that they were trying to track down a couple of the European students who couldn’t handle not smoking on the mountain (which had a strict no-cigarette policy).

This was on the side of the police bus… Yeah, so confused!

~~~~~~~

All in all, a great day on Bukhansan! Those who know me know I’m definitely not an “outdoorsy girl”, but I’m glad I went on this hike. It was very challenging but the view was totally worth it. Once the group I was with reached the top, I looked around and realized something – I was the only girl (this seems to happen a lot, but I was actually kind of proud because it meant I was the first girl to reach the peak). I know it wasn’t a contest, but it was still really satisfying to know since I’ve never been particularly athletic 🙂 What a nice day.