Walk the line

Trip Start Nov 18, 2011
Trip End Mar 02, 2013

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Flag of Korea Rep.  ,
Saturday, February 4, 2012

So my big excitement of the week was visiting the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and North Korea on the weekend. It's an all day tour and the US military takes you into the 4 km wide no man's land spanning between north and south Korea. You have to send in your passport information to the US military a few days prior to the tour so that you can be approved to attend. North Korea has some of the worst human rights abuse cases in the world and is under some of the strictest military rule. In addition to being fed propaganda about South Korea and the West, inhabitants of North Korea are underfed, under-educated, over-worked, and over-taxed. They pay about 84% in taxes which goes directly towards funding the military. We explored a tunnel that the North Koreans secretly built to infiltrate South Korea. It was about 1600 m long with low ceilings. You definitely want to be wearing your hard hat or else you're in for some serious repetitive head injuries. You can see the dynamite holes in the wall from when they were building the tunnel. Fortunately, the tunnel was not a success and it was discovered by South Korea before it was completed. We also got to visit the JSA - Joint Security Area - which is right where North and South meet in the middle of the DMZ. You may only enter the JSA as a guest of the UN and you are strictly limited in what you do while in this area. For instance, you can't point at anything because the North Korean solidiers may take this as an offensive action and respond negatively to it. Trust me, you don't want to piss those guys off. You are also only allowed to take photos of certain places at certain times. It is indeed one of the most creepy feelings I have ever had: to stand only meters away from the North Korean side and see all the soldiers watch your every move like a hawk with their binoculars. The South Korean (ROK) soldiers who stand on guard are some of the most intimidating people you have ever seen. They are tall and huge - standing in their modified taekwondo stance, eyes hidden behind dark aviator sunglasses. They stand so still that it's easy to mistake them for mannequins. You can actually stand on the north side of the UN meeting room and truthfully say that you have stood on North Korean soil. Because the DMZ is so empty of human activity, there is a healthy population of protected wild birds and animals that make their home in this land. You can see Chinese eagles flying all over the area. They are enormous with a wingspan longer than my armspan! I would not want to be carried away by one of them!

While it is not necessarily a "fun" trip, it is certainly very interesting to explore the DMZ. It is something you really should do. It was one of those experiences I will never forget and actually made me feel like a tourist in Korea.

The other touristy things I did on the weekend (after visiting the DMZ) included visiting the fish market. This is the second largest fish market in South Korea (the largest is in Busan, in the south part of the country). It is literally a large warehouse with rows and rows of tables covered in fish, shellfish and every imaginable seafood. Large and small octopus, pufferfish (yes, the famous, deadly fugu that Homer Simpson eats), snails, lobsters, crabs, puffy sea vegetables, the ugliest fish you've ever seen... This trip to the fish market was all in an effort to find a small octopus that we could eat alive! Found one and took it upstairs to a restuarant where it was chopped up and
placed on a plate, tentacles still crawling. You pick up a wiggly piece with your chopsticks, dip it in red pepper paste and chew, chew, chew! It crawls in your mouth and the suction cups stick to your
tongue and side of your mouth. Make sure you chew it well or else it can get stuck in your throat as it tries to crawl out! It doesn't really taste like very much. If you've had octopus sashimi, then you
know it's more about texture than taste and it's really more about the experience of having a piece of an alive octopus crawling around in your mouth. There have been cases of people choking to death on live octopus after they have imbibed too much soju, the local moonshine, because their muscles relax and the octopus closes its tentacles around their throats. These cases refer more to those individuals who chose to try the live octopus whole, which is another popular extreme cuisine to take part in while in Korea.

One more thing to cross off the tourist to-do list: a visit to Dr. Fish at the coffee shop in Seoul. First, place your order for your beverage and with a wink, "the fish", to the barrista at the counter and wait. Next comes the hot chocolate all thick, sweet and delicious. Then comes the free, serve yourself bread. Bread and coffee? Well, ok. Not the first two food items I would pair together, but this isn't any normal coffee shop. About 20 minutes later comes the call that "the fish" are ready. You remove your shoes and socks and sit by the window, overlooking the busy streets in Gangnam while placing your feet in tanks full of small, white fish. They swim up to you and immediately start picking at your feet.They are eating the dead skin! It's such a strange feeling and if you are at all ticklish like I am, it takes a little while before you get used to the feeling of small
piranah-ish fish eating your feet. It's not surprising to learn that this practice is banned in Canada and the U.S. for being unsanitary. However, like I have said before, there are many things here in Korea that would not be acceptable anywhere else that has heavy health and safety restrictions. I must say though, that it is definitely an experience worth having and my feet did feel softer afterwards. Perhaps the strangest part of it all is that you can spend a lazy afternoon drinking hot chocolate among the book clubs and stitch-and-bitch meetings while having a fish pedicure all from the comfort of your neighbourhood coffee shop!

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Julie Kennedy on

I am enjoying your travel blog Becky! Great pictures too...its too bad that the North Korean guards do not have much of a sense of humour. One of these days I'll get a Korean pedicure!! Do they say "Choose colour please!!"

redcanoe1 on

Hmmm, fish that paint your nails too? That would be a great addition to the weird and wonderful experience!

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