Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Seoul and the DMZ

Two weeks ago, the teachers of the Gyeongbuk province (that have been here since before summer) were invited by EPIK to go on a trip to the DMZ and Seoul. Our POE (Provincial Office of Education) officer, Angela, explained that is was a thank you for working so hard over the summer. Apparently they hadn't intended us to teach every day (that wasn't an official requested vacation day) although most of us had done so. Though some of my best teaching moments were during the summer English camps, so I took this trip as a happy bonus.
The trip started out on Friday at 9am at the POE office in Daegu. This meant hopping on the 6:30 bus out of Andong to make it on time. Ugh, yes. After a bunch of coffee and an hour and a half bus ride, we finally made it to the Daegu bus station bathroom. Since there were six of us- Myself, Scott, Katie, Alice, Bonnie, and Tom (Andrew got a ride with his co-teacher who was selected to go, and the head of the Andong office of Education), we split up into two taxis from the bus station. My taxi driver got confused and took us on a ride all over the city and to the intercity education office (though the one we needed and told him was located very close to the bus station), so it's really fortunate that taxis are so cheap in South Korea.

Because so many teachers were on the trip, we were split into three large tour buses; the Andong crew were allocated to bus 1. Lucky for us, this was also the bus with Angela, and Angela is awesome.

After making it to Seoul, the first place we visited was the Gyeongbokgung Palace. Scott and I had been there once during my late orientation in March (which I didn't write about due to my huge encounter with so many new things). The first time I wandered around by myself, but this time we were lead around by the bus 1 tour guide, whose English name was Bill. I was able to see where certain people lived: a special group of houses for concubines, for the prince, princess, and the grandmother (queen and mother of the crown prince). There was a carved stone picture on a chimney outside of the grandmother’s living quarters, covered with images of animals and plants that were carefully selected as symbols of long life, fitting for a respected aging queen.

Other features were more subtle; not as distinct as stone carvings, but slight alterations in the basic design. Most interesting surrounded the structures for the prince. The roof of his living quarters was missing the long white block that capped the other buildings, which our guide explained was so his spirit could ascend to the heavens while his body slept.
Another thing I would have missed completely was the shape and arrangement of the building posts. They were all round nearest to the places of the prince, surrounded closely by another set of square posts. I was told that the circle was the unending symbol of the prince, while the square the symbol of the royal guard, protectors of the prince. Some of these post placements were so hidden that I had to squat down and peer under the buildings to catch a glimpse. Also, the stone tiled pathways the prince would walk were uneven and riddled with imperfections, which I learned was to show that a crown prince was always to walk slowly and deliberately, without any cause to rush. I usually pride myself on picking out detail, but there were clearly things still tucked away from my careful notice.

The backdrop of Gyeongbokgung, a large mountain, was also an item of interest. Bill explained that the best location for a place, according to Korean tradition, is between a mountain and a river. The flow of water would guarantee good fortune for the future of the family, and the mountain offered strength and protection. For this reason the palace was built with the mountain to its back and a moat-like body river of water flowing through its front courtyard.

However, the strong imposing shape of the mountain also meant that living too close to it would mean disaster for future generations (though success for the first to live there), because there was too much strength energy to handle. Ironically, despite this manner of thinking, the president's house (in Korea, it's called "The Blue House") was built right next to the same mountain. The first president to live there was very prosperous, but since him, Bill pointed out that every president has met with some terrible misfortune, whether it be through shady dealings or suicide. Indeed, the last two presidents died within the last year. Interesting thought.

At the back end of the palace grounds there was also a folk museum. Not as grand at the National History Museum, but another good small place to go to glimpse replicas of daily life as well as some interesting artifacts. A section of the museum is set aside for temporary exhibits, and this I found most intriguing because it was a history of the female Hanbok. The fabric and pattern trends did change during certain decades, but the style has remained pretty much the same through the ages.

The front of the palace was slightly more lively, with traditional music and dance in the usual location for the guard changing ceremony. My favorite is the hats they wear, with big ribbons attached to a spinner to swirl around in circles as their head swings back and forth.

As soon as it was dark, we headed over to Seoul Tower.

In the dark, it was hard to notice anything but the large glowing tower itself, but there were some human figures suspended overhead (one of the Seoul Tower's trademark images) that were nearly transparent until illuminated by light. Very creepy.

Originally I had been confused about our arrival time, but apparently it's the most popular at night because of the city lights and the view is the clearest. However, I’ve never been so high up at night (the whole tower is 777ft high). and was seized by a sudden fear of heights when I had to step into that elevator. I could have sworn I felt the whole thing swaying, and I felt a little like my mother taking creeping careful steps to the wall of windows.

Before making it through the elevator line of imminent doom, the coffee shop on the observation deck caught Katie and my eye, with a big sign for a "Pumpkin Latte." True to its word, it was just that, but perhaps more actual pureed pumpkin than latte.

Friday night was eventful. Bill had been telling us all day on the bus about the best nightclubs that we could visit, with a free shuttle downtown from our hotel. After running into him again in the lobby on the way out, he told us we weren't dressed well enough and wouldn't be allowed in with our jeans, no matter how tight Andrew's were, so we decided instead to find a bar. Waiting for a shuttle though, Andrew's tight pants turned on him. Because we are all mature 20-somethings, we started practicing our sweet Hapkido and Taekwondo moves while we waited. Unfortunately, Andrew tried putting his right leg up on Katie's shoulder (not a move our Hapkido master probably intended for us) and twisted his left leg so hard that his left kneecap popped out. It was on the side of his leg. The side. Scott and I ran off to alert Bill and Angela and call 119 for an ambulance, and when we came back he was moaning out of pain and relief "oh you Korean angel!" for an old Korean woman had hopped off the shuttle just as we left to pop his leg back into place, and was rubbing it vigorously. He remained pretty positive about the whole thing, though he had to go back to Andong early.

The rest of us woke up on Saturday by a sudden onslaught of rain just in time for our ride out the the DMZ.

Ah, well, we were all still very eager to see it. Our first stop at Imjingak, gave me the first glimpse of the DMZ area: The Super Viking! There was a whole theme park of oddities, apparently making the DMZ more of a prime tourist lure for families with children. You know, apart from all of the swerving because of the large spiked road blocks scattered all over the road to make quick travel impossible in case of invaders.

Because of the rain, there wasn’t much to see or say through the mist around the observatory looking in to North Korea, save for a tree or two that may have still been in the South. Nonetheless, we were still required to stay behind the photo line (which was right where the observation deck roof stopped, so there was no shielding us from the rain). I'll have to go back. Behold, North Korea:

The trip down to the 3rd infiltration tunnel was better. I officially spent Halloween in a dark creepy tunnel used for the purpose of North Korean invasion. Like all of the tunnels they found, it was headed toward Seoul, and it was one of their longer endeavors. We had to wear hard-hats because it was rather short and narrow. Scott talked about this tunnel on an earlier visit to the DMZ, (at www.fourteenhoursaway.blogspot.com).

We also had a chance to see Dorasan Station, the train station built with a railway to Pyeongyang, in the event of reconciliation with the North. This would also allow for land travel to other parts of the world, which South Koreans are otherwise incapable of doing because of the Northern blockade.

Getting back into Daegu after the DMZ on Saturday was an altogether different adventure. The plan was to arrive back at 7. Enter the worst foreigner in Korea, Patrick. There is one teacher in the EPIK program who is like a badly written character in a movie- the kind written without realist qualities that make them human. Patrick decided to insult and inconvenience all several hundred of us without a care. Each time we set out, he decided to switch buses. On Friday he went from bus 2 to 3, Saturday morning from 3 to 1. He did this, of course, without telling the people in charge of attendance, making us 20 minutes late on Saturday (which made us then miss our time slot at the DMZ to watch a documentary and slip another hour behind). When our POE supervisor, Angela, told him he should go to bus 2, he told her he was going to stay on bus 1. Never mind that Angela's boss was also on our bus. After telling her no three times, his bus 2 tour guide came on and asked him why he had no common courtesy for others, and he told her he liked the bus 1 tour guide better. In the end he didn't leave.

On the trip back to Daegu, we stopped at a rest area and were told 5 minutes, because we were already so behind schedule. After 20 minutes, nobody could find Patrick. He wouldn't answer his phone, and people were searching the whole rest area for him. He had gone back to bus 2 without telling anyone. Incredible. We were then caught in a wave of traffic, and didn't make it to Daegu until after 10. That was 3 hours later than scheduled (and 40 minutes behind the arrival of bus 2). At this point everyone on our bus needed special arrangements, because the buses stopped running out of Daegu at 9:30. When Angela was explaining alternatives, our bus driver started shouting rapidly, causing Angela to stop, smile, and tell us "Oh, he is talking about the Patrick." I wonder if he'll be allowed to stay in the program after this one. We did have one small justice. He left his bag on the bus so he had to wait for us to get in.

Several of us decided to stay in Daegu anyway, so for me it wasn't terrible. Plus, it was Halloween, and foreigners in costume were abound. I managed to catch Swine flu, but not to worry, I didn't bring it back to Andong.


  1. Amazing trip--amazing post. Never in my life will I EVER forget "The Patrick." He's like a cartoon character. I never thought I would meet someone so inconsiderate of others in my entire life. In fact--I hoped that I wouldn't.

    As for the rest of the trip, a splendid way to kill two days. You neglected to mention, however, that we also were able to sample fine cuisine in the vein of KFC and Subway during the venture.

  2. Absolutely great Sara!! Pictures and commentary are fabulous. It seems the Patricks of the world are, unfortunately, too frequent. He will learn hopefully he is not the center of the universe. Didn't distract from a great trip. Thanks for the pix and education. Larry

  3. Yeah, he was was also wearing the indoor slippers he stole from the hotel out in the rain for half of the day. A real piece of work.

    We didn't stick around him off of the bus, so he had no influence on our enjoyment of the rest of the trip. ^^

  4. Maybe they could use him to teach in North Korea? Great post Sar!!! I love waking up to find a new blog post, and this one probably took you a LOT of time to do. It takes a lot of time to condense so much into a great update. Perfect :-)

  5. holy cow what a post.

    OK...circle and squares. Prince and Protector. I have a funny thought but it's so cheesey I fear you'll see right through it. (Get it, swiss cheese. Anyways...)

    Thank God there was someone who could help Andrew with his knee! What a blessing and how embarassing.

    I understand the whole fear of heights thing when it is dark. Perhaps you had to play the role of the prince and walk carefully and not be rushed? I thought the symbolism was great even if it was not on purpose :)