Day Four: DMZ, Yeouido, Antique Market, E-Mart, Myeong-dong

Day four was one of the only open days we had during our week…almost every other day we’d be with K or doing something related to K. We thought the best way to use our open day was with a tour of the DMZ. We had some hesitations about dedicating so much time to it, but most of the adoptive parents we’d talked to said it was #1 on the must-do/must-see list.

Boy do I wish we had made other plans.

The tour starts out in Seoul, where you board a bus. It’s strict from the beginning…there’s a dress code, supposedly, and you have to have your passport with you. Armed soldiers stop you at checkpoints on the way in and out of the DMZ zone to compare your face to the photo on your passport.

Outside Seoul on the way to the DMZ:

The first stop is at Imjingak, a tourist resort (with an area of carnival rides and everything) very near the Freedom Bridge, or Bridge of No Return. Busload after busload of people are let off here, and you sort of explore it on your own. This was probably the highlight of the tour for us, as it’s here you can see a little of the impact the division has on the people of North and South Korea.

On a hill overlooking the Freedom Bridge, there’s a pagoda with a large Korean bell. The striker that would ring the bell is locked in a held-back position, and the bell is waiting for reunification. When the Koreas are united again, the bell will ring.

There’s also a collection of stones from battlefields all over the world, creating a Stones of Peace wall. Whether it’s a stone from the battlefield of the 1241 Mongolian Invasion of Budapest or a stone from the first Gulf War, it’s here.

One of the four description panels:

For me, one of the most moving sights of the day was Mangbaedan. It’s the memorial and altar where families divided from their relatives in the North can perform their ancestral rights on important holidays:

From higher up (on an observation ramp), with the bridge in the background:

The Bridge of Freedom has landscaped lotus (lily pad) ponds on either side. At the end there’s a barbwire fence with letters, drawings, ribbons and flags people have left. That was something to see.

Don’t move too far to the side, though, or this greets you:

Odd, isn’t it, the lushness of the surroundings behind the layers of threatening defenses?

We left Imjingak for a ride toward the DMZ and the Third Tunnel. The Third Tunnel was discovered in 1978, just 52 km away from Seoul, and is the third of several tunnels dug under the DMZ by North Korea. It’s 73 meters below ground, 1,635 meters long, and about 2 meters high/across. According to the tour/museum info, it was capable of allowing 30,000 fully armed North Korean soldiers to pass through it in an hour. The South Koreans discovered it before it was completed, and now it’s blocked off at the DMZ line by three underground concrete barricades and a series of guns.

The worst of our “this tour was a mistake” feelings came at the Third Tunnel stop. You get off the bus in a little plaza with a tourist shop, bathrooms, and a museum. Walking into the museum, you have to sit through a mandatory movie (see a short clip of it here). It is truly one of the strangest movies I’ve ever seen. It starts out with a little white-clad girl playing a field. Red lights flash and sirens scream, and suddenly she finds herself caged in by wire fences in the DMZ. She drops to the ground in terror. The ground opens. You get the feeling she dies. I know, I know, symbolism. It was truly bizarre, though….it went beyond symbolism and straight into trippy nightmare territory. And it was something you were forced to watch.

After that lovely visual, a voice comes on to give a brief overview of the DMZ (soldiers marching in rank flashing on three sides of the room, heavy metal music blaring the whole time). It’s all fright and might, but then there’s an odd part at the end about how the DMZ is actually a positive thing, a symbol of hope. Also, this confusing sentence (one of many): “Today, the Demilitarized Zone is home to many extinct species.”  ??

It was so much propaganda, in such a short time, that we felt detached from reality as the screen opened up and allowed us into the museum. Not in a “wow the DMZ is so intense!” kind of way…just in a “why are they making such an effort to tell us what to think?” kind of way.

The museum is small, but nice. It’s a series of looping videos, DMZ and Panmunjeom models, objects of the DMZ conflict, etc. Mostly it’s just information about what’s happened over time, especially lists of conflicts between North and South that have taken place in each decade (50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, 00s). Murders, attempted invasions, captured spies, flare ups.

From the display of the Brutal Axe Incident/Axe Murder Incident (when two US soldiers were murdered while trying to trim a poplar tree in the Joint Security Area, resulting in the launch of Operation Paul Bunyan):

This model was helpful, and I used it to figure out where we were during the day in relation to the DMZ:

Toward the back of the museum was a wall I found very interesting…a list of reunification efforts, by date:

After walking through the museum, you go across the bus lot to the Third Tunnel entrance (NO PICTURES IN THE PARKING LOT!!). Walk past the tourist shop (want a DMZ key chain?) and snack area, then check your bags and cameras into a cubby (NO PICTURES PAST THE CHECK POINT!!).

The entrance to the tunnel (on the left):

You don a construction hat, then walk down a very wide, very steep modern tunnel. Down, down, down until you’re 73 meters deep and you join up with the actual Tunnel. You walk single file through the small, damp space, and along the way there are lights to showcase certain highlights ( for example the drill holes for dynamite, now marked with yellow paint). It’s a short space, so you bump your head/construction hat a lot.

You walk along for quite a distance, and at the end is a concrete wall, barbed wire, and a window where you can see another concrete wall and guns pointed forward. Heavily defended. We get it. Nevermind that this is a tourist stop. With a gift shop.

The tunnel looks something like this (you can also see pictures here):

the dynamite holes:

How did I get photos? No, I didn’t break the rules. I just took photos of the video they were playing (showing the tunnel) in the museum. Why we couldn’t take photos in the tunnel, but could take photos/video of the tunnel video is beyond me. It was one of many things that seemed like an artificial constriction. There are a lot of “Photos okay here” and “NO PHOTOS HERE!!!” hoops that keep you on your toes, and make you feel on edge, but the logic for the rules isn’t always apparent. Can someone explain why photos of a sight seen up-close-and-personal by tens of thousands of tourists each year would be a security threat?

After the Third Tunnel, you get back on the bus and drive to Mt. Dora Observatory. It’s the closest we’d get to the DMZ, and it’s a chance to look out on North Korea.

Mt. Dora observatory looks like this:

(Why the cammo?)

There’s a platform overlooking the DMZ, and on that platform is a yellow line. You can take pictures from behind that line, but not at the edge of the platform. There are guards and security cameras to make sure you don’t take photos past the yellow line. They’re very, very, very serious about it. Trust me. You get yelled at.

From the edge of the observatory, you can plug coins into binocular viewers to see the two DMZ settlements…The North Korean village (South Korea calls it “Propaganda Village“) on the left and the South Korean “Freedom Village” on the right:

Closeup of the North Korean village (called Peace Village, or Gijeong-dong, by North Korea):

The North Korean side is a fake city. The buildings and streets are empty. Workers are seen occasionally, but reportedly there’s no glass in the building windows. The South Korean side is a subsidized city…farmers and workers are paid by the government to live there.

The flags are big deal. On our tour, there was a lot of finger-pointing at the North Koreans, and Kim Jong-il, for being childish and insane enough to build the largest flagpole in the world…just so it would be larger than the flagpole on the South Korean side of the DMZ. Okay. The thing is, I see an awfully big South Korean flagpole in “Freedom Village.” So it’s not just North Korea that was playing the “mine is bigger than yours” game, right? And it’s not just North Korea that has to have an occupied city and settlement in the DMZ, within sight of the other city. More posing. More propaganda. On both sides.

A word on the actual DMZ? It’s pretty. Green and wide, with mountains in the background. There’s talk that it might become a wildlife sanctuary if or when the Koreas are united, and I hope that happens…mostly the reunification, but also the sanctuary.

After Mt. Dora, we were bused to Dorasan Station.

It’s a huge modern railroad station, built for when passenger transport between the two Koreas begins again in earnest (right now only industrial goods are exchanged, and only since last December). It’s a strange place. Optimistic in its purpose, yes, but its emptiness also it seemed like a strong recognition of the Korean division. Hundreds of seats in the terminal…but no passengers. (It’s also 700 meters away from the southern DMZ line, so NO PHOTOS! facing anything but the station.)

lots of art in the station:

Guards at the unused passenger entry gate (mostly for photo ops, it seems…people from our tour group took turns posing with them):

The billboard on top of the passenger loading area:

closeup of that:

Empty passenger waiting area:

I’m not sure what it says about me, or about us, that we didn’t like or appreciate the DMZ tour. I’m sure the DMZ tour can be a great and meaningful experience, but for us it wasn’t. Perhaps, as P (and Lonely Planet) suggested, the USO tour was the one to pick. (We went with Grace Tours, with “Mia” as our guide). And perhaps, as another guide book suggested, it’s not worth doing any of it if you can’t stop at Panmunjeom (our tour didn’t). Perhaps, if you have the chance, the best way to experience the oddness of the DMZ was by going on North Korea’s DMZ tour.

A lot of the experience felt propagandized. Some of that might have been Mia (boy did she come up with some doozies), but it wasn’t just our tour guide. The places we stopped, the “packaged” experience of North Korean tunnel, DMZ museum, DMZ lookout, was off. On one hand they were so serious (NO PHOTOS! STAND BACK!), but on the other hand they seemed to want to thrill you with the danger and intrigue of it all…and sell souvenirs. They put down North Korea (rightfully so) for their propaganda machine, but then forced South Korean propaganda on you (the movie) or acted as if South Korean posturing (the DMZ village and flag) was the sane side of the equation. It also felt like they purposely upped the boogeyman quotient, but then expected you to believe it was all real, all necessary.

I don’t doubt defences are necessary. I just wish they’d give some thought to the tour, and explore the impact of the division between North and South. There were so many ways they tried to spin the DMZ, it felt a bit like an identity crisis. Were they trying to scare us? Convince us of something? Sell us stuff? Inform us of history? Denigrate the North? Inspire peace? It was all over the map, coming from all directions, and there were so many conflicting messages that none of them seemed genuine. I felt skeptical and on guard the whole time.

For us, the conflicting messages and military posturing went so far into absurdity that the meaning of the division, the history of the division, was overshadowed. That seems like a shame. I would rather have spent that time at the War Memorial of Korea in Seoul, and I’ll bet you it would have been a more authentic/moving experience, with more ways of seeing and understanding the division.

If I sound frustrated, it’s probably because we were very frustrated that day. We wanted to see the DMZ, and we’re glad we were able to see it, but the hours of forced activities and information on either side of seeing the DMZ were hard to take.

On the way back, we passed more military outposts and defences (these were frequent):

We drove back toward Seoul, along the river, and the whole route had barbed wire and guard towers:

From the highway you could see the 63 building (the tallest in Seoul) and the National Assembly building on the other side of the Han River:

Closer to the National Assembly:

The Grace Tour of the DMZ gets back into Seoul in the early afternoon, and for some reason they take you on a mandatory (agh!) stop at an amethyst factory. Where you are first ushered, as a group, into a large room lined with cases of amethyst jewelry for sale. Sit down! Try this on! Buy this! We’ll be in here for 20 minutes or so before the factory tour starts!

We’d had enough of being forced to do things, so we asked if we could leave. Mia didn’t seem at all opposed to the idea, so we got out while the getting was good.

One problem. Where were we?

Turns out we were in Yeouido.

Yeouido is some of Seoul’s most modern development…an island in the Han River that sat idle for centuries but is now “Seoul’s Manhattan.” I has the stock exchange, the National Assembly, the LG headquarters, and it’s a mass of modern shiny skyscrapers. The sidewalks are filled with men and women in business suits. We hadn’t planned on visiting it, but hey–when an opportunity arises, right?

Part of the fun we had in Yeouido that day was trying to find a metro stop. We set off in a direction, asking people along the way, and along that way we bumped into quite a few interesting sights.

Yeouido Park (very pretty):

Another marching protest!

More construction sites (these were everywhere in Seoul…walled-off city blocks where the new, modern business/apartment complexes are going up):

Skyscrapers everywhere you looked:

After a great deal of wandering, and several directions from business men and women, we found a subway stop. We decided we’d spend part of our day looking for a special antique at the Janganpyeong Antiques Market on the east side of Seoul. First, though, it was time for lunch.

D had been eyeing all the donut stores around Seoul. For a guy who loves his breakfast, the Korean custom of having regular food (rice, soup, kimbap, etc.) for breakfast was a strange adjustment. There are donut and waffle shops in Seoul, though, and the magnetic pull of Dunkin’ Donuts was too much for D to resist.

D ♥ Dunkin’ Donuts:

I ♥ the wonderful and unusual flavors of some of the donuts…cool melon- and cool mango-filled, and a mysterious creation called the “green tea chewisty.”:

Our donut splurge:

And my new favorite, the green tea chewisty. It was a pull-apart, chewy/doughy, green tea-flavored donut. Totally unlike anything I’ve had before, and totally fun. Checklist for our city’s Seoul-inspired improvements: Kyobo bookstore, more Korean restaurants, more public art, and green tea chewistys:

We took the subway from the south side of Seoul to the east side (Dapsimni station). We spent a lot of time in the subway, so I wanted to remember the handy-dandy card scanning system and gate. T-money rocks!

This subway ride was particularly fun. The cars up and down the line were filled with little orange-clad school kids. They were everywhere, even sitting on the ground, and we got to see a lot of cute school kid behaviors (giggling, whispering, etc.)  D really enjoyed watching these boys play a finger and hand game (something their teacher didn’t seem to approve of):

Janganpyeong antique market is in an area of Seoul that isn’t very touristy. It’s full of everyday shops and lots of car/motorcycle repair shops, and the buildings of antique vendors are a little spread out. We visited three of the buildings, and did a fair bit of walking between them.

On the way there, by a puffed rice vendor, there was a group of men playing/watching janggi, or Korean chess:

Each building is a few stories, and inside the floors are divided up into several shops joined by hallways. The shops, and hallways, are crammed with antiques (some more than others). We were looking for an old wooden box to store some of K’s belongings from her time in Seoul. We went from shop to shop to shop, and discovered in pretty short order that the afternoon would be about browsing, not buying.

If you want to buy antiques in Jananpyeong (or Insadong, for that matter), get ready to pay a lot of money. A small wooden box, antique and made in Korea, can easily cost you hundreds of dollars. You can buy a 1980’s “antique” box for a reasonable price, but if you’re going to do that you might as well buy a new one. The problem with that is now everything is made in China. If you want something made in Korea, it’s probably made by an artist, and again…$$.

Once we gave up on the antique idea, we just looked. Old Buddha statues, kimchi jars, pottery and celadon, wooden screens and antique calligraphy…it’s all there. Fascinating stuff. Beautiful stuff.

My favorite store was the last store we visited. There were two men inside, talking and drinking tea, and they obviously didn’t care in the least that we were in the store. They also didn’t seem to care what was in the store, or how it was put in the store. Items seemed to be thrown, stacked, kicked, and piled on top of other items. It was so overstimulating visually, that only now (editing the photos) am I able to see individual items. At the time, walking the narrow path through the antiques/wreckage, the only thing I could think was a steady stream of “don’t tip that over” and “careful! don’t step on that.”

D and I joked that the store was a front. Either these men were cornerstones of the local mafia, and needed a legit store to conduct business, or they just “ran” a store to sit in peace all day, watch tv, and chat somewhere quiet away from their wives and kids. We were only kidding, but there had to be some interesting story behind it all. A corner of the universe as unique as this was must have a story. We walked, ever so slowly, along the narrow path leading through the room. It was a dead end. We had to turn around and walk all the way back! Eek!

Outside the market, we stopped in a little convenience store. On my list of things to try was samgak kimbap, or those little triangle-shaped kimbap sold at convenience stores. Aren’t they cute?

Of the color-coded varieties, I chose green. I thought green = veggie (chamchi), but instead green = tuna (yachae). I’m not the biggest fan of canned tuna, but the samgak kimbap was fun to try. It’s a little triangle loaf of white rice, fillings inside, and in the package the seaweed wrap is separated from the rice. You unwrap the package, wrap up your rice with the seaweed, and eat up. Nice (and cheap!) snack.

We also tried the sipper-pouches of juice we’d seen everywhere:

And these…heavenly, creamy, yummy green melon-flavored frozen popsicles. What a dessert discovery! I plan on scouring the Asian grocery stores near our home. They’re so good, so perfectly creamy and not-too-sweet. A source of these MUST be found, or I’ll be forced to bankrupt my family by importing these from Seoul in freezer containers:

After our snack, we got back on the subway and headed to the northeast corner of Seoul. We had heard from a friend that E-Mart, Seoul’s discount megamarts (like a Super Target or K-Mart), made for interesting people watching. We were on the lookout for a few toys (like refigerator Hangul magnets and Pororo anything), and we wanted to see more of everyday life.

E-Mart is at the Chang-dong station (exit 2, turn left, walk a few minutes). No surprise with the limited space in Seoul, it’s a three-level discount store. Groceries in the basement, Walgreens-type stuff and electronics on the first floor, and clothing/sports equipment on the third floor. Elevators take you between floors. Some of the sights:


Going up the escalators (if you don’t have a cart):

A small hiking equipment section (Koreans have very fancy hiking stuff):

Ajumma visors!

Pretty male undies that made D laugh:

Korean cereal aisle:

Produce section:

Frozen goods, samples, and flat screens running ads (it should come as no surprise, in the home of LG and Samsung, that flat screens are plentiful and everywhere. E.v.e.r.y.w.h.e.r.e.):

Kimchi counter (this was only part of it…it was huge!):

Grocery shopping:

Walking back to Chang-dong station:

When we got home it was time for dinner. I’d read about galbi or bulgogi restaurants where the meat is charcoal-grilled at your table (grilling food at your table is common enough, but it’s more rare to do it with actual wood coals). I really wanted to try it, and Lonely Planet said one of the best places was a little restaurant called Seochogol in Myeong-Dong.

Myeong-Dong is a fashionable shopping district of Seoul. It’s packed with designer clothing stores, restaurants, noraebang (private karaoke rooms), and tons and tons of young people walking the (mostly) pedestrian streets.

We got there, got our map out, and immediately started looking for Seochogol. We found the reference point mentioned in Lonely Planet, but the restaurant didn’t seem to be on the back street listed. We asked a few people, and they didn’t know. Found the restaurant name in Hangul (Korean), and still nothing. Finally another shop owner told us Seochogol went under a long time ago. Grrrr. Lonely Planet (2006), you need updating!!

I was really disappointed (at the loss of charcoal grilling and the loss of time), but we thought we’d find another sought-after dish…samgyetang (chicken and ginseng soup). A restaurant in Myeong-dong called Baekje Samgyetang is famous for the stuff, and also has a ginseng liquor drink called insamju. Sounded great! So we set out…

Past odd store names…

And the ubiquitous street restaurants/tents that pop up as soon as it gets dark each night…

Again, couldn’t find it. Myeong-dong is kinda large, and even with a couple of people offering possible directions we couldn’t locate our restaurant. So frustrating.

So…we backtracked to a restaurant that looked interesting and was very busy with Korean customers.

It’s a restaurant where you order, then the ingredients are brought to your table and your food is cooked in front of you. The silver tubes are vents that pull down from the ceiling and suck up the hot air and smoke. I think we ordered spicy chicken galbi (dak galbi), but I’m not sure. Whatever it was, it was very spicy and very good.

A couple eating next to us asked if we’d like our picture taken:

That was our night! The day had been full some frustrations and thwarted efforts, but we enjoyed seeing three very different areas of Seoul. We hopped back on the metro around midnight, and it was back to the Sun Bee. The next day, we’d be visiting K at her foster family’s home!


~ by themagpiesnest on June 24, 2008.

One Response to “Day Four: DMZ, Yeouido, Antique Market, E-Mart, Myeong-dong”

  1. […] War Memorial…we went to the DMZ on an organized tour (Day Four), and it was sort of disappointing.  I think the War Memorial/Museum would have been much more […]

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