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2015 Jan by Michael Novins
December 1998 and January 2015 -- In January 2015, I had a one-day layover in Seoul, during which I visited the Royal Tombs of the Joseon Dynasty (the Seolleung and Jeongneung clusters), Jongmyo Shrine and Changdeokgung Palace Complex, each of which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On an earlier trip in December 1998, I visited Namdaemun gate (National Treasure Number 1), which was damaged by arson in February 2008. |
2014 Mar by Ryan Trapp
||Ryan Trapp does not wish to be contacted by MTP members|
March/April 2014: I spent a couple days based in Seoul where I visited both the modern business area of the city and the traditional old city areas containing numerous outdoor markets. I also took a day trip to the DMZ (the highlight being walking 1.2 miles down the narrow Third Tunnel that North Korea reportedly dug to try and gain access to South Korea) and Panmunjom. I arranged my DMZ/Panmunjom day tour with I Love Seoul, which I recommend (http://www.iloveseoultour.com/eng/) |
2009 Jul by Gunnar Dahlberg
Friday, February 02, 1996 - Seoul 20°f
Just came back from a short romp in the hills. At this hour in the evening you\'re guaranteed the mountain to yourself. I followed the well worn sandstone path bathed in the Moon\'s luminescence. The stars were out sparkling deep above the jagged mountainscape. Below, the city lights danced in a multitude of colors heralding the arrival of night. As I gazed northward, I couldn\'t help but feel the ominous threat of North Korea looming just a few mountain peaks away. I look around for any sign of sudden movement or silhouettes creeping along the bush that might signal the early hours of an invasion. |
2009 Jun by Estanislao Plantada
I cross South Korea by bicycle. From Dalian (China) I took a ferry going to Incheon, 16 hours to get there. I arrived there the 11th of June and form Incheon I was riding my bycicle to Seoul. I guess there are 30-35 km and took my 5 hours to reach the house of my friend in Seoul, near the city hall. I was quite lost, I couldn’t take out money from my card because you need to go to special ATM and I was a little bit tired of so many cars. After 3 days enjoying Seoul…I left direccion to the east coast.In Seoul I had time to try Korean food, visiting the tower ville, visiting a tradicional Korean viallge, going out in the crazy night of Seoul (nothing to envy to Beijing), meeting Eungjung a friend that I met in Uzbekistan and renew my energies to follow riding.Going out form Seoul my trip was difficult, I was burn by the sun, some wind, some mountains….however the views were great, full of rice fields, rivers, some lakes and mountains. From Seoul to Gangneung (east coast) took me 4 days.Three days took me form Gangneung to Busan doing all the coast. The coast was not easy, full of ups and downs and quite windy all the time. I was surprise because we are in June and people were not in the beach, but once I tried to swim I got why people were not in the beach…. The water was really cold. Almost all big villages has saunas (quite cheap around 4 or 5000 wons) in some you can spend the night or at least you have a shower… I used quite a lot because after long days with bicycle you need to relax and I was camping with my tent, so I was not taking hotels. I took only one hotel in all my trip to Korea and it was quote cheap, sharing one room I paid 15000 won (around 9 euros). Camping is easy and nice in Korea. It seems that now after (or in) the crisis the won had devaluated a lot and things are more cheap than before. Soemone told be that the won devaluated around 60%.People was not really surprise to see someone foreign with bicycle, in other countries they stop you and want to talk to you, try to speak English o whatever… in Korea they look just a little bit and the change looking to you… It was quite surprising… but its true that when you stop someone they are extremely helpful.. Koreans are very kind and friendly. One thing I was impress it was the quantity of militars I saw. Even quite a lot of war planes. Specially in the center of the country, maybe because I was close to North Korea. In Korea you can find Wi-fi almost everywhere and that helps a lot. |
2009 Jun by Aino Ilkkala
I attended an organized tour visiting Busan (China Air flight from Beijing), Gyeongju, Haeinsa Temple and Seoul (China Air flight back to Beijing). Meals in restaurants were included, and what surprised me was that the final preparation of the meals happened at the tables. We either cooked or grilled, mostly with the help from the personnel. This happened every time except once when we dined at a Chinese restaurant in Seoul. Most restaurants are specialized offering only a very limited choice of dishes, but you get always kimchi. It is also common that the locals sit on the floor. We did it only once, since there are usually also tables and chairs available. |
2005 Oct by Bill Altaffer
CORRECTION: Title displays article written about South Korea but this article is actually containing NORTH KOREA information.|
A rare look into North Korea
In early October ’05, I learned that North Korea, otherwise known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, had begun allowing Americans to obtain tourist visas. As North Korea had long been closed to Westerners, I jumped on the opportunity and signed up for a tour, Oct. 7-15, with Universal Travel System.
Along with a buddy, I made my way to Beijing, China, where, after a 3-day process, we received our visas from the North Korean Embassy. If we had not previously been screened by their government a year earlier for a trip the North Korean government had then canceled for no apparent reason, the visa process probably would have been more difficult.
We joined the remaining three tour members and boarded a Russian jet for our 2-hour flight to P’yongyang, North Korea. In addition to our small group of paying tourists, the plane was packed with journalists from all over the world, all abuzz with the excitement of a rare visit to this mysterious country.
We landed at a modern, very clean terminal where, on entry (as well as on our subsequent exit from North Korea), the officials refused to stamp our passports. Before leaving the terminal, we relinquished our cell phones with the promise that they would be returned to us at our departure.
We then drove out onto a modern highway that took us by hundreds of ultramodern buildings made of granite and marble.
Our first stop was the state circus, where we were treated to an excellent performance. Upon leaving, we noticed that it had become very quiet and dark on the streets of P’yongyang. We were taken to the area called Restaurant Row for a meal that was good, as were all of our meals during our stay.
After dinner, we were deposited in the elegant, 3-story lobby of the Koryu Hotel, a solid 5-star property. The hotel was actually two 45-story towers, each topped with a revolving restaurant. Modern escalators on both sides of the marble-inlaid floor of the lobby led up to a restaurant and shop and down to a basement complete with swimming pool and all of the amenities.
Our rooms were very modern, large and clean. We found that our TVs could receive one station during the week; it broadcast a continuous program of revolutionary themes. On the weekend, a second station was available with more of the same. The hotel had no Internet service.
My first impression that day, which did not change throughout our short visit, was that I felt very comfortable and safe in P’yongyang. No area that we saw there, or saw later as we toured away from the city, had any slum or rough area to avoid after dark. What other city in the world can claim that?
All that night, as was true every night of our stay there, we could hear melodic music being broadcast hourly from the railroad station; it was very pleasant. Each morning at 7:00 we were awakened by a loud air-raid siren. On the first day, from my room 30-plus stories up, I looked down at the people beginning to stir on the streets and saw a child alone on a park swing.
Later that first morning our local guide, Jong, along with the government official who would also accompany us on our outings, met us in the lobby. Jong informed us that we were going to have a lot on our plate during the next four days, since we would be seeing as much as could possibly be crammed in. He said, “Don’t complain about it!”
His warning was prophetic. I was soon overwhelmed by the stimuli I was receiving from this truly foreign land. It was as different and unfamiliar to me as if I had landed on Mars and was experiencing Martian culture for the first time.
Our first stop that day was at the monument to Kim Il Sung, the Great Leader, where flowers were an obligatory offering. No bronze or marble had been spared in the creation of this monument. The sculptures were as fine as any in classical Europe.
Kim’s son, Kim Jong Il, is the General and Dear Leader of North Korea. His portrait, in the form of a red pin, adorns every citizen of the country. He is the author of the Juche Idea, a philosophy that covers all aspects of life. He even created a calendar that is unique in the world — year number 1 is the Great Leader’s year of birth, and each year begins on his birthday.
The Dear Leader wears many hats. We were told that he was also the architect responsible for the design of P’yongyang, a very well-planned city. Within its limits, there must be half a dozen giant stadiums, each capable of holding 120,000 people. There are at least a dozen galleries and an equal number of different types of museums throughout the city.
In the Fatherland Liberation War Museum, we were shown jars of what was purported to be American nerve gas and germ warfare. One section of this massive museum was devoted to the American involvement in the Korean War. Dozens of American tanks, destroyed warplanes and crashed helicopters occupied the basement. Also on display were 15 Russian MiGs which had been used by North Korea during the war.
A large model of the infamous ship USS Pueblo was on display. Later that day we visited the Pueblo itself at its permanent anchor on the river. Originally a war prize, it is now a museum.
After watching a propaganda film, we were given a tour of the ship, where over 80 Americans had been captured and held prisoner. Jong, with four of our cameras draped around his neck, photographed us there. In a rare display of humor, he said, “After I take these pictures, I am going to throw these cameras in the river!”
Eighty-four percent of the North Korean landscape is mountainous. The word p’yongyang means “flat land.”
The second night, we left the “flat land” and drove north, almost to the Chinese border. There, the highway came to an abrupt dead end at the base of a modern, 20-story, pyramid-shaped hotel, our lodgings for the night. Early the next morning I watched perhaps 150 soldiers in brown uniforms marching past the hotel. Taking their picture would have gotten me in big trouble.
The main reason for our visit to this beautiful, rustic countryside was to see the International Friendship Hall. It is actually two dramatic buildings sitting side by side, about 90% underground. In these buildings are displayed the countless gifts given to the Great Leader as well as the Dear Leader by other countries, world leaders and famous figures and organizations over the years.
Allowing one minute per exhibit, it would take a year and a half to view all of the exhibits in the 200-plus rooms in the long, high, subterranean halls. We walked for miles underground, viewing gifts from over 170 countries, including a soccer ball from Pelé, a silver bowl from Madeleine Albright and four cars from Stalin’s armored train.
Back in the capital city, we visited its Arch of Triumph, which outsizes its counterpart in Paris. P’yongyang also has the highest stone tower in the world, which is adorned with a torch at the top.
At the other end of the spectrum, we descended into the deep tunnel that leads to the metro. The tunnel was designed to do double duty as a bomb shelter. The metro itself was old but in perfect condition and without graffiti. The seats may have been made of old Naugahyde, but they were pristine.
We visited a giant stadium constructed along the Puthong River, which bisects the city, to see the Arirang, the mass games held every couple of years to commemorate significant anniversaries. These games are huge, choreographed celebrations that are beyond imagination. Acrobats soared hundreds of feet across the stadium. My jaw dropped every time I looked up. The spectacle dwarfed any Olympic opening ceremony I have seen.
These performers, like their fellow countrymen, appear to be the most disciplined people on the face of the Earth. They would have made Hitler proud. The backdrop to the performance was a group of 50,000 children holding up color-coded cards in precise unison.
On the last day of our tour, we drove to Kaesong, site of a major battle in the Korean War, and also to the DMZ at Panmunjom to see the tightest border in the world. Having taken the DMZ trip years ago from the south via Seoul, the north side seemed very relaxed in comparison. However, along the road driving south from P’yongyang, I saw many tall towers designed to stop tanks.
At the beginning of the trip, we had decided as a group that we would encourage our guides to share their genuine feelings with us. What did we learn? The best way to put it is that they hate the American government 10 times more than the Jews hate the Nazis. They have one common enemy: us!
Their animosity toward us is constantly reinforced in museums and monuments that portray the U.S. negatively. During our stay, we were always referred to as “imperialists,” and South Koreans were referred to as “puppets.” There was never any point in arguing with this view. Jong and the state national guides have been taught, and firmly believe, that we Americans are responsible for all of the shortcomings that exist in the DPRK.
When someone in our group mentioned the prosperity in South Korea, Jong replied that North Korea is rich in cultural development. He commented in turn on the phenomenon of American students shooting their teachers, something incomprehensible in his culture.
We had arrived in the DPRK one day after an important anniversary, the 60-year celebration of the creation of North Korea. It had been marked by countless soldiers goose-stepping through Kim Il Sung Square. This military image is often the only view that the outside world, through the news network, receives of North Korea. We got a very different view, including an exhibition of flowers presented to the Dear Leader from across North Korea.
In this communist, totalitarian country, there were gift shops at every local “tourist site.” In the city, every man wore a dark suit. It is a very conservative culture, with many women in the city still wearing the chi ma jogury, a traditional kimono-style dress.
Our visit had included an excellent musical review at the Children’s Palace. There, children are taught arts and crafts as well as how to play most musical instruments.
After we returned to the States, the North Korean government unfortunately reversed its policy again, once more refusing to issue tourist visas to Americans. While this restriction is in place, we will see only military images of this fascinating country. I am glad that I was able to experience its other side for a few days.
With this trip, I had visited all of the world’s capitals. After seeing North Korea, however, the thought of visiting anyplace else seems anticlimactic.
Mammoth Lakes, CA
Mr. Altaffer is returning to North Korea in 2006, leading the Sept. 30 departure of a tour with Universal Travel System. In addition to visas ($190), costs are as follows: land portion, sharing, $3,460; single room supplement, $750; Los Angeles-Beijing airfare, $2,923 business class or $1,015 economy class, plus Beijing-P’yongyang-Beijing airfare of $500.
1986 Jan by Veikko Huhtala*
When I came back home from Sudan after working there two years, I left immediately for my Far East Tour.|
I stayed one night in Soul where I flew from Taipei by Cathay Pacific. In this time of the year it was not very warm in there and I was almost freezing. Because of that I proceeded in the morning via Tokyo to Saipan in Northern Mariana Islands.
1982 Sep by Jorge Sanchez
While I was in Seoul (I have been twice in South Korea) visiting Buddhist places considered by UNESCO Patrimonies of the Humankind, such as Bulguksa Temple, I met several travellers from USA who were enjoying the active nightlife of Seoul.Some of them specially flew there to make a very exotic excursion in that country: the conference table, at the border with North Korea.Since USA nationals were forbidden at that time (1982) to enter North Korea, this excursion was the only chance to, at least, put a foot in this hermetic country.There are many people that “collect” countries and try to visit all of them, even for a second, to get the stamp in their passports.But that is not travelling. If you are not conscious you should not count a country. If you just put a foot in a border, or in an airport, you have not visited that country.That is trickery; it is like buying a book and reading only the title of the book, but not its pages.I preferred to visit North Korea properly in a more orthodox way, instead of only DMZ, and declined the invitation of an American citizen with whom I made friendship, to join him in this excursion.Some years later, in 1997, I paid a cheap tour in Beijing (inside the north Korean Embassy there is a travel Agency that arranges everything), just for myself, to North Korea, during four days (see my North Korea chapter at this respect).......................................................
BULGUKSA TEMPLE AND SEOKGURAM GROTTO: I took the boat from Shimonoseki, in Japan, to Busan, in South Korea. Since the first day I noticed the kindness of the people and everywhere they helped me. It is impossible not to love the Koreans. I only spent one day in Busan visiting the main tourists’ attractions, then the next day had lunch in the famous Gukje Market and headed by bus to Gyeongju, the capital of the old Kingdom of Silla. I had the intention to visit two famous places in that area: Bulguksa Temple plus Seokguram Grotto, both places listed in the UNESCO Organization. Bulguksa was a wonder; it dates from the VIII century. As I was told by the monks, in Bulguksa follow the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism. At the entrance of the Bulguksa Temple there were vendors selling food and souvenirs, as usual in these religious places. I visited the temple consciously and then made a trekking to the Seokguram Grotto, at about 4 kilometers distance, which took me less than one hour. Several Korean pilgrims came along with me. The statue inside that grotto was formidable. The face of Buddha showed a perfection that made me think that its author must have been in nirvana. It is one of the most wonderful in the Buddhist world. But it is forbidden to take pictures. I stayed in front of that statue for about two hours, watching and admiring it, feeling its power. Back to Gyeongju I took a night bus to Seoul.
PAN MUN JOM: Without doubt, the most original and fantastic one day excursion that you can organize in South Korea is the one to the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, at PAN MUN JOM. I was lodged in the dormitory of the Banana Backpackers hostel, in Seoul, when I was proposed the visit to PAN MUN JOM, or Panmunjom, the border between the two Koreas. The price was not excessive and I could afford it, so I joined for the next day. The bus was picking up tourists in several hotels until it was full. I noticed that I was the only European in the bus; all the rest were Koreans, or at least they looked like Koreans. The previous night I already had been advised not to wear jeans and not to take pictures in determinated places. I agreed with all the conditions. There were many checkpoints at the border, the most militarized in the world. Some of the tourists were even afraid because we were told that if you do not obey the instructions regarding taking pictures or making suspicious movements around the border, the North Korean soldiers can shoot you, what had already happened in the past. We had arrived to the border of the Military Demarcation Line, not far from the North Korean city Kaesong. We saw many memorials to those fallen during the Korean War, between 1950 and 1953. We even noticed a monument devoted to the journalists that died at that border covering the news. Another one requested the reunification of the two Koreas, etc. There were also ribbons in the tress symbolizing prayers for peace. If we had to pass near the soldiers, we were advised not to talk to them. All of them looked like statues of salt and did not even blink. We only had the opportunity to talk with an American soldier in the souvenirs shop. He was very nice and gave us much historical information in English about the DMZ. He could even speak Spanish fluently. Some hours later I returned to the Banana guesthouse very satisfied, with the feeling that I had visited a very unusual place in our planet.................................
JONGMYO CONFUCIUS ROYAL SHRINE: Seoul is a pleasant town in spite of its 10 million inhabitants. Food is gorgeous and people most friendly. It is impossible not to love Korean people. Furthermore, Korea is cheaper than Japan. I caught a boat from Shimonoseki (in Japan) to Busan, in Korea, and visited the south of that country during a few days. Then I headed to its capital, Seoul, which I judged chaotic. I still remembered my first journey to that city back in the year 1982, and my impression was not too good. But this second time (2012) I found a nice city with gently people towards the foreigners. One of the visits that I made while in Seoul was to a UNESCO site, the Confucian shrine of Jongmyo. It was located at a walking distance from my hostel. Besides the shrine people were playing go and also chess, not western chess, but Chinese one, or Korean one. Chess is very popular in China and Korea. I learnt that the temple was erected at the end of the XIV century. I bought the entry ticket and went inside, where I spent about three hours visiting all its buildings. I was told that in that temple there are rituals, celebrations and services to the deceased, with dances with music, five times a year. But I was not lucky enough to coincide with those dates....................................................................... IN SPANISH: GRUTA DE SEOKGURAM Y TEMPLO DE BULGUKSA:
Me dio tiempo en un largo día a visitar los dos lugares que componen este Patrimonio de la Humanidad.
Desde Busan, adonde acababa de llegar con el ferry desde Shimonoseki, abordé un autobús a Gyeongiu, y de allí caminé hasta Bulguksa, donde durante varias horas visité las pagodas y templos, incluyendo los siete tesoros nacionales de Corea.
Gracias a las charlas con algunos monjes pude aprender algo más acerca del Budismo practicado en Corea.
Me gustó todo cuanto vi y sobre todo la atmosfera de paz y armonía que se respiraba, observé con detenimiento la bella arquitectura y me quedé admirado ante la perfección de las estatuas religiosas representando a Buda y a varios Bodhishattvas.
Desde Bulguksa realicé un trekking de 4 kilómetros a través del follaje, lo que me tomó algo menos de una hora, acompañado de varios peregrinos coreanos, hasta la caverna de Seokguram.
Ya en sí, esa corta caminata fue una delicia, pero lo que iba a ver me alborozaría más de lo que había esperado.
Como todo buen turista no me perdí nada de lo que aconsejaba un letrero a la entrada. Hasta que llegué al “plato fuerte”, la gran escultura de Buda mirando al mar en la posición que adoptó bajo la higuera de Bodhgaya (Bihar, India) cuando alcanzó la iluminación espiritual.
Esa escultura de Buda exhalaba sabiduría; está considerada una de las más perfectas representaciones de Buda en piedra que existen en Asia. Imagino que su autor la realizó bajo un estado de gracia.
Estaba prohibido hacer fotografías, por lo que compré a un vendedor callejero varias postales de la estatua. Incluso la visión de Buda desde la postal te inspiraba, despertándote fuerzas interiores.
Para que su visión quedara permanentemente en mi memoria me quedé contemplándola unas dos horas seguidas, en un estado de semimeditación.
Tras la visión de esa estatua nada más podría impresionarme de ese lugar, así que a final de la tarde regresé a pie hasta Gyeongiu y poco más tarde abordé un autobús nocturno con destino Seúl........................................................................ SANTUARIO DE JONGMYO
De esta guisa UNESCO describe este Patrimonio de la Humanidad: Dedicado a los antepasados de la dinastía Choson (1392-1910), Jongmyo es el más antiguo de los santuarios reales confucianos conservados hoy. También es el más auténtico, ya que ha preservado la misma configuración que tenía en el siglo XVI. Alberga tabletas en las que están inscritas las enseñanzas de los miembros de la familia real. Todavía se celebran en su recinto ceremonias rituales acompañadas de música, cantos y danzas, con lo cual se perpetúa una tradición que data del siglo XIV.
Un día entre los días caminé desde mi albergue de Seúl (Banana Backpackers) al centro histórico porque me habían dicho que en una plaza los locales jugaban al ajedrez, juego que adoro.
En esa plaza se hallaba un santuario real confuciano que, de carambola, visité, aunque debo reconocer que empleé más tiempo tratando de aprender las leyes del ajedrez coreano (que en realidad es Chino) y haciendo amistades con los ajedrecistas, que la visita al interior del templo, y eso que era interesante y bello.
El billete no era caro. Allí durante tres horas recorrí todo el recinto y entré en todos los templos, sin dejarme ni uno.
Lo único que lamenté fue el saber que tendría que haber visitado ese templo durante una de las cinco ocasiones anuales en las que se celebran ritos y servicios a los fallecidos, con música de tambores, coloridas danzas y vestimentas fantásticas. Un ajedrecista me informó que justo dos días atrás se había celebrado el último servicio a los difuntos, y yo por tonto (ese día me había apuntado a la excursión a la zona desmilitarizada, o abreviado en inglés como DMZ, en la frontera con Corea del Norte), me la había perdido ¡Qué rabia me dio!
Pero el aprender a jugar ajedrez coreano no fue un logro menor, y regresé mi albergue satisfecho por haber invertido ese día en cosas provechosas. |