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Monday, April 26

Kimonos in Korea

Our last big Asian hurrah has come and gone as we checked off own more country-we-hoped-to-visit while living on this side of the world, South Korea.  I know, I know.  Why South Korea?  It really isn't your typical vacation destination.  But ever since we found out that we were going to be living in Asia, I've had it in my head that I need to visit the same foreign lands that my father walked on many years ago.  I'm not entirely sure why this inclination, but I think it has something to do with the fact that my dad is a bit hard to get to know.  I feel like if I trail in his footsteps in whatever way I can, I might glean a more thorough picture of why he is the person he is today.

This isn't to say that my dad isn't the best.  He really is.  He's just... well... for those that know him, would you say... different?  Intelligent.  Knowledgeable.  Tender, but he only shows that to little ones.  Physically strong.  Mentally sharp.  But he is also opinionated.  Stubborn.  Reserved in many ways.  Abrasive (and this amuses him).  And quite prone to eventually removing himself entirely from society at large.  The stories I do get out of him tend to come when we have had a few drinks. 

My brother probably would not agree on all of these parts of him as they have a very different relationship than what I share with him.  My brother is an awful lot like him in many ways.  He's always been the smart, calculating one.  I'm not saying I'm a brainless twit or not at all like my dad.  My mother would say I am all him.  I just think my brother is more how my dad is today and I'm a bit more like the wilder, younger side of my dad that had the intelligence to have reservations in his head, but (back then) very rarely let them dictate what he did in life.  Which is why we went to Korea.  Or at least why I went.  Korea was part of those wilder, younger days and that meant I felt a need to take part in the experience.  Minus perhaps all the booze and broads that my dad surely made part of his experience.

Besides all this, there was also the culture!  Another culture to spend a few days interacting with.  Try it on for size.  That's the stuff my dreams are made of.

The trip was only a few days long.  There wasn't much of a plan before we got there except a few pages in a tattered guide folded down for possible things to see and do.  We cashed in some United vouchers that we had each received from our last flight home from the states... the one that leaked fuel all over the runway and threatened to blow us into smithereens if we had actually tried to go wheels-up.  We used some of the insane number of credit card points we have amassed from previous travel to stay practically free at the Grand Ambassador Hotel Associated with Pullman (formerly a Sofitel so very cushy-cushy).  Budgeting for just a couple of hundred pocket cash, we did the entire trip for under a $1000.  For a place we had only dreamed of visiting, we managed to do it and do it in style.

Before we had left Japan, I had made several calls to hook us up on a Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) tour the day after we arrived, which looked to be the warmest and driest of days that we were planning on being there.  After some difficulty finding an English-speaking person (many spoke English, but didn't really speak it, if you know what I mean), I managed to book a tour.  When our guide picked us up that morning, we weren't really sure what the tour included, but after speaking with her for a few moments, it was quickly realized that we weren't doing exactly what we had hoped for.  We wanted to go to Panmunjom.  We wanted to stand in the room where the North and the South have had both epic and small talks to resolve military, economic and political problems.  We wanted Kimono Peanut to give a friendly gesture to the North Koreans.  We kid.  We joked about it, but we know the seriousness of this area and would not have jeopardized ourselves or the sanctity of the area.  We actually were more worried that he would simply wave in his typical uber propitious ways and unintentionally cause an international incident.  I was prepared to hold his arms at his sides.  Turns out we had nothing to worry about.  We weren't going there.  Nor was anyone else on our tour.  We would have tried to do a different tour to get us to Panmunjom, but we found out at the same time that there was an age limit.  Unless one of us was prepared to sit at the hotel and let the other go, neither of us were going to make it to that room.  During this current trip at least.

Instead our guide, a slight woman, but who had a forceful way about her ushered us onto a small bus with rather Chinese-looking red and gold fringed curtains in the windows that would take us out of the city.  As what seemed like an afterthought during a rather dull talk about how the area around the DMZ was very fertile ground for growing the Korean prized ginseng, our guide threw out the quite interesting fact that the barbed wire rings that separated the side-by-side river and highway were placed there to stop the North Koreans from coming near the shores and throwing mortar.  Apparently, we were traveling the road that separated North and South by only the river.  Sure, the DMZ was there too, but I guess in the past, this had not stopped the North from trying to start something on many occasions.  If you follow the news on this side of the world, this would not entirely surprise you.  In fact, just the other week, it looks like a South Korean ship was sunk by a North Korean torpedo.  And then there was a few months ago, when the North was shooting missiles over Japan, landing them in the water just beyond my own home.  I guess I should worry more, but coming from Washington, DC, it feels like I always seem to live somewhere that likes to keep a target painted squarely on its back.

We stopped and checked in just outside of the entrance to the DMZ.  Here at Imjingak park, we were given a speech about following the rules.  Don't go where you aren't supposed to.  Don't take photos where she said not to.  Don't dilly-dally.  And many others.  The last one, she wasn't kidding about, but more on that later.  We wandered the grounds there for a bit where you could see the Freedom Bridge which spans the Imjin River.  12,773 prisoners of war crossed this bridge after the Korean War and today, it is as close as some Koreans will ever get to their relatives still living in the North.  Today, a rusted train with over 1,000 bullet holes sits stranded on the DMZ line where it was forever halted from the gunfire it endured.  The same winding strands of barbed wire stretch the entire area, ensuring that you get only limited photograph-able views of the bridge as it is yet the first of many things we saw but couldn't properly immortalize for our own records.  Knowing our guides propensity to push for extreme timeliness, we figured we best get to the meeting point sooner rather than later.  She was already eagerly awaiting us. 

From here, we climbed onto a larger bus.  Only certain buses are authorized to enter the DMZ.  At the checkpoint, we relinquished our passports to be checked by the heavily armed guard that boarded the bus.  Talk about squelching the fun in a tour.  They take security very seriously.  I kept my eyes down and my camera away as the rule was not to photograph on or from the bus.

Crossing into the DMZ, there really isn't much around.  If the ground is so fertile, I certainly wasn't seeing it.  It was of course April, which is still quite chilly in Korea.  But you know how you see pictures of the North and it looks pretty barren?  Well, so does the DMZ.  Of course, now I wonder why I ever thought the terrain would automatically change as I crossed that magical line.

When the bus stopped, we were in front of the entrance to the 3rd Tunnel.  I could go into a whole history lesson here about how the DMZ is the last front to the Cold War, but I will refrain.  There are surely only a few that read this that are honestly interested in hearing a history lesson from me.  I will have to say this - the North did have plans to invade the South through these tunnels that there were digging.  The 3rd Tunnel was discovered in 1978.  It is the largest one found to date (the 4th was found in 1990) and would have allowed an army of 30,000 fully armed North Koreans to pass through within an hour.  It is believed that there are other tunnels undiscovered.  Imagine if they had managed to invade through these tunnels.  Shocking.

As we were stuffing backpacks into lockers at the entrance, our guide told us we could take cameras.  Of course, when I tried to snap a picture as we were entering the tunnel, I was immediately stopped and shoved backwards with wild fluctuations being made toward my camera.  Our guide was already throwing hats at her group to prepare us to enter the tunnel, so getting her attention was difficult.  I was worried that I would be left behind before I even got started so I took it upon myself to yell for her.  She came back, talking quickly in Korean, trying to convince them to let me take it but to no avail.  I returned to my locker, under a close eye or I would have slipped it back into my pocket and had to rush over and throw a helmet on as the group was already beginning a near sprint down into the tunnel.  Bitterness in my throat at being thwarted when everyone else in my group was carrying a camera, I honestly didn't have much time to think about it or even possibly use it as we headed down at a breakneck pace.  We had befriended some Australians on our tour and we all four made jokes about how our guide would be getting a severe lesson if she expected us to haul our cookies back up out of the tunnel later at the same pace.

It was steep; it was deep.  Kimono Hubby carried KP as my clumsiness would have probably caused me to roll downhill with the baby.  When we got to the bottom and the actual tunnel, we had to bend over so our heads did not hit the very low ceiling.  This wasn't so bad, except we were carrying a 30 pound kid in our arms.  Bend over like that with a sack of potatoes in your arms and go for a mile long run and see just how much fun you can have.  I already have back problems and this little jaunt wasn't helping.  We constantly heard the knock of hats of the ceiling or felt it when we smacked our own.  On the walls, the North had smeared coal in an effort to explain the reason for the tunnels being that they were mining coal.  I give them a 90% for the effort of this little white lie.  When we finally get to the end, I am given no more than seconds to glimpse what is there.  More barbed wire spirals block the way into North Korea.  I'm sure there was a guard or two there too, but I never got the time or close enough to actually see this.  Sure, the guide pushed me forward to see, but pulled me back just as quickly.  And yes, she did plan for us to go up at the same pace.

I can't even begin to explain how hard it was to get back up out of that tunnel.  I think our only motivation was to get to the end and smack that woman upside the head.  The Australians hung back and offered to help, but they were a little bit on the older side.  The last thing we needed was for them to drop of a heart attack.  Again the thought of sparking an international incident flashed in our minds.  No, instead we trudged along and threw each other bitter glances every so often.

Red faced, out of breath and with near broken backs, we got back to the top entrance, where lo and behold there was group after group snapping a picture of the exact same thing I tried to photograph on the way in.  I guess it is fine if you take a picture after (and probably in) as long as they don't see you go in with the camera.  Or maybe you just can't have the name Karen.  Gah.  To spite them, I simply refused to take a picture.  Take that, crazy rule people!

We were rushed back to the bus, drove for a moment, and rushed off the bus again, this time to take in the view of North Korea from the northernmost observatory, Dora.  Telescopes line the wall that allow you to see Propaganda Village, the North Korea flag sailing high, and other small glimpses into North Korea like the second largest city Gaeseong and surrounding farmland for a few won.  There is a line painted in yellow that tells you it is at that point that you can no longer take photographs.  Of course, the line is so far back from the high wall that you could never possibly get a picture of North Korea from there.  A new group of South Korean soldiers were doing some sort of introduction to their new mission and lined much of the wall, looking excitedly upon their futures.  We were there only minutes to take everything in before we were rushed back to the bus.

Moving again, this time we stop at Dorasan Station.  Please forgive me, but this station amused me.  It has huge historical significance as being the possible railroad connection between South Korea and Pyongyang and potentially beyond.  This ultra modern station lies completely empty, hopefully waiting for the time when the Korea's reunite.  I know this is awful to think and even more to say, but I can't imagine that this station won't be a dinosaur when/if that time ever comes and worse, it would likely be under control of the North.  I pray that I am wrong and I love its symbolic nature, but it just seems like a pretty unrealistic goal.  South Korea also feels like this station could be the start of a trans Euro-Asian railroad.  Seriously?  Who wants to ride a train that freaking far?  Take a plane already. 

President George Bush previously visited this station.  I don't love or hate what he did with his presidency, time has yet to tell if it was a good one or not, but I did love the slightly dumbfounded look on his face in the pictures from that epic visit.  One has to wonder what his thoughts were as he walked off Marine One into the middle of nowhere to celebrate a station that will likely never be used for more than the tourist destination it is today.

Rushing.  Back to the bus.  Stopped.  Again.  Last minute DMZ tourist gifts.  I grab South Korean candy, North Korean beer and a book on the Korean DMZ.  Rush back to the bus.  Cross back out of the DMZ.  Get off bus.  Get back on smaller, weird-curtained bus.  Head back to city.  Driver takes a wrong exit and instead of going forward, he kicks it into reverse and backs out onto the highway.  More heart failure on our part.  In the city, we stop again, this time at an amethyst museum.  For those that have read my past travel blogs, you know that this means it is just a way to get tourists to buy jewelry they never intended to.  This time, we refuse to get off the bus.  So do the Australians.  I know this perturbed them, but we all had had enough of the up and down crap for the day.  When everyone else reboards, we finally make our way back to the hotel.

As for the tour, I'm glad I went.  But I would never, ever do it again.  The end.

We were starved, especially the Peanut.  The concierge we got at this time of the day happened to be the only one who didn't speak very good English so getting a restaurant out of him that was kid friendly was more than a little difficult.  We knew there was an Outback nearby, so I must admit that this is where we ended up.  I know, I know.  But when you are starved, you go to what is quick and what you know.  It was delicious too, although way more Australian than American.  Australian beef is so much more game-y than American.  And the funny part, they served kimchi with it all.  It was our first acknowledgment that they really do serve kimchi with every meal.

After dinner, we realized we were in a very busy part of the city, although which part we didn't know.  We were still a bit turned around on directions yet.  After some scouting, it came to pass that we were in Myeong-dong, an area full of trendy shops, bars and cafes and ripe with street vendors.  When something looked tasty, we were sure to try it.  Exhaustion took us before we tried too much however, so we headed back to the hotel to put KP to bed and to do our own little North versus South beer testing.  I hate to say this, but the North won hands down.  If Hite was the beer my dad drank all those years ago, I can't figure out for the life of me how he came to stomach them. 

What else did we do during our time there?  Well, we shopped a lot.  We ate a lot.  We walked the city a lot.  We tried all of the main areas and all the most important restaurant and street foods.  At what is supposed to be the more traditional area, Namdaemun, we found an open-air market with hundreds of vendors carrying ginseng tea, ginseng whiskey (that I swear looks like something out of a Harry Potter book), red pepper, fish byproducts, kitchen gear and then stands upon stands carrying the exact same upper label knock-offs.  But the bad part... none of them were good knock-offs, nor were they anything I would actually want!  I was so disappointed at this.  I had heard such great things about shopping in Korea.  People make day trips for this place!  And yet, all we left with was some knock-off socks. 

The food in this area was very authentic.  Vendors like tiny alleys and sold various steaming dishes that they cooked outside, in front of the 'restaurant's' seating area.  It was all delicious, even if we had no idea what we were ordering.  I came to love these green or yellow things that looked like pancakes but actually had something like cinnamon jelly inside.  I did not eat any squid on a stick, although it was everywhere and in every other person's hand.  Squid is a popular dish in Korea as indicated by the abundance of it on the streets and pictured on every sign.

At the Dongdaemun shopping area, we walked in and out of all the famous shopping malls, stuffed full of vendors and people.  It's not like a mall back home at all.  It's more like a hundred tiny shops selling the same thing, but set in such a way that each floor is its own crowded maze for you to make it out of.  There were no traditional goods, so we honestly bought nothing.  Although, we made our most important find here - hot dogs that are dipped in batter like a corn dog, but then also dipped in french fries before being cooked all together.  These things would be a hit at fairs back home.  I'm thinking this may be a future career maker for me.

We did one other historical tour in the city, visiting first Jongmyo Royal Ancestral Shrine and then the palace area of Changgyeonggung.  Jongmyo enshrines the spirit tablets of Joseon Dynasty kings and queens.  It was largely empty, which gave us the chance to walk unhindered on the same stone paths that the royalty of Korean past had walked.  Those some stone paths... they are killer on a kid in a stroller though.  Jongmyo is connected by a footbridge to the palace area so you can visit both for about a $1.  On the palace grounds we walked around the homes of previous kings, queens and concubines, originally built in 1418 but burned during the Japanese invasion in 1592 and rebuilt in 1616.  Neither of these places was what I would expect when it comes to something being created for royalty, but I think other country's elaborate ways have irrevocably altered the image in my head of what a palace is.  What I did find said is that the Japanese during their colonial rule of Korea, turned the palace and its grounds into a zoo.  It took years of restoration in the 1980s for the Koreans to reclaim their palace's former state.  Nonetheless, both of these places are listed on UNESCO's World Cultural Heritage list and that made them important for us to see.

After we left the palace grounds, we took a rough map and headed off in the direction of the Syngman Rhee Memorial Museum, his former residence Ihwajang.  It is located in the off-Broadway area of Seoul.  The map didn't make it looks as difficult as it turned out to be finding it.  After a few stops and starts and a few kind strangers pausing to help us even as we asked in a language they didn't understand, we finally made it up a steep hill on a winding street.  Only, the museum isn't open at one would consider museum hours.  We managed only to get to the gates, ponder for a few minutes why the first president would keep his home in this crowded area, before we gave up and turned around to head back down the hill.

For our last night, we again chose Korean barbecue.  But instead of the fancy joints we had previously gone to, we did the real deal - one of those restaurants we found everywhere that had clear plastic acting as an awning, red plastic stools that surrounded a metal table with a whole in the middle for where the hot coals would go.  It was as delicious as all the fancy places and at half the price and double the kimchi.  If we weren't considered kimchi addicts before, we could definitely be considered one now.

Korea was good.  I'm glad for this last little adventure.

My dad was never in Seoul.  His part in the war and his place in Korea was further south.  Maybe I didn't do the same things he did.  Maybe I didn't see the same things he did.  But for the fact I went to the place where he lived and breathed and learned, I may not know him any better, but it somehow makes me feel closer to him.  He'd probably only insert some smart ass comment here.  Have at it, Dad.  Have at it.


Jacki Weikert said...

Loved this entry Karen. I do think you know your Dad a little better now. and YES, he would have ATLEAST one smart ass comment to add. :)

Kimono Karen said...

Just one?? Haha!

차지은 said...

By the title, you didn't mean that Koreans wear Kimono, did you? If you meant that, please correct it to "Han-bok". Koreans DO NOT wear Kimonos, you know.

Kimono Karen said...

Kimono Karen is the name of the blog I wrote whiling living in Japan. I am aware that Koreans do not wear kimono

Kimono Karen said...

And by this specific title, I simply meant my family that I called Kimono's'