In front of them all

Trip Start Sep 11, 2005
Trip End Dec 26, 2005

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Flag of Korea Rep.  ,
Friday, December 2, 2005

Hang on, South Korea isn't east of my last destination...

The idea to come here actually begin way back in the planning stages. Looking at the map and knowing I was going to go to China and Japan, it seemed logical to stop off in South Korea on leaving China before heading to Japan. When the time actually came to leave China, I took a look at my plan and decided that seeing as Japan was going to be expensive I would have to cut Korea out. After three weeks in Japan it turned out that I had a couple of hundred Euro left (mostly savings made from adopting a water & bread/fries diet for those weeks - bloody seafood). Cutting Korea out was something that had been nagging at me, so I had a look at flight prices from Tokyo (one of NE Asia's major flight hubs), and they were pretty cheap. So I decided what the hell, I might never be in this corner of the world again, I might as well go for it for a couple of days.

Despite being a small country, I didn't really want to be running from place to place trying to book accommodation and train tickets every couple of days. So I've based myself in Seoul and had what can be described as a sort of a city break within the larger trip. I did a lot of running around in Japan and I'll be running around again once I reach the US, so it's nice to just stay still for a while.

And Seoul is a good place to do just that. It's busy without being chaotic like China was, and efficient without being staid like Japan was. There's the usual assortment of temples and other doodads to be seen, but at this point I'm pretty much ignoring guidebook suggestions and going where I feel like.

The most obvious thing to see here is the DMZ, so I made it my first stop. Unfortunately, it's only visitable via an organised tour, so I went with USO. It's an interesting place, but it's hard not to think that some parts of the tour are pure propaganda - one example is that when visiting an South Korean observation post built of top of a huge hill, you're not allowed take photos of the hill. But surely the North Koreans can just look straight at it?

Other obvious propaganda is the North Korean "propaganda village", visible from the South Korean side. Basically, It's a series of large building shells with no rooms, doors of windows. It's just for show, as is the massive Eiffel tower-style flagpole in the middle of it which holds a 300kg flag.

At one point in the tour you're brought along to one of the UN buildings which straddles the border between South and North Korea. The border is described within the building by a series of microphones running down the middle of a table. So we all crossed the room and so were technically in North Korea too. Bonus!

The rest of my time has been spent relaxing (although that has also led to some unusual incidents (such as when myself and another guy from the hostel went to a nearby local restraunt/food stall thing which ended up with the owner putting Kimchi - pickled cabbage dunked in pepper paste - into our mouths and then buying us beer when we motioned that the paste was getting to us), but seeing as this part of the world is starting to get very cold, I think now is a good time to leave...

I think one of the reasons I've enjoyed South Korea quite a bit is that I basically haven't stuck around long enough to get annoyed at anything. In both China and Japan I ended up leaving just at the point where culture shock was beginning to set in (ie, the point where the novelty of a new place wears off and irritations start cropping up because things don't work the way they do back home), and that's not going to happen here. It sounds obvious, but the Asian cultures are very different from our own, and I've only superficially understood this. Despite my positive impressions of the place, I met some Irish and American English teachers in Beijing who had been based in South Korea and after a year they were sick of it due to reasons I can't grasp due to my limited time here. Similarly, Thomas in Iwamizawa will have a far better understanding of the Japanese because it can take a while for them to open up (I ended up having sadly little contact with Japanese locals). Speaking some of the local language helps a lot, but I found it too wearing to learn anything but the most basic please/thank you-type phrases. Basically, I can see myself coming back to this chunk of the world again to visit, but I don't think I'd ever be able to live here and integrate myself.

Right, enough of this philosophical nonsense. I'm off where it's nice and sunny...
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