Seoul and DMZ, South Korea: Where people don’t stare.

With a week of holiday remaining, myself and Nicki decided to leave China in search of something a little different. As part of our search for the cheapest flights we decided to spend a couple of nights in Shanghai first.

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20151001_144310Shanghai is renowned for it’s population, but we had not accounted for the swell of people for the Mid-Autumn Festival. Nanjing Lu in particular must’ve had half the population of the UK walking down it. I don’t think I have ever seen so many people in one place. We later came across the People’s Park where Grandparents were advertising their grandchildren. I have been trying to read a little Chinese recently and noticed that some of them were stating their grandchildren’s monthly income in addition to their age, weight, height and looks. We even found one man advertising himself and had a chat to him. Nicki informed him that the Internet is a different option.20151001_135546

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Aside from the crowds and the matchmaking, we were able to see quite a bit of Shanghai in the one full day we had, and even managed to include some fake clothes shopping. In my attempt to be a good haggler I offered 4 pounds as a starting price for one item. The response from the female vendor was (in English), ‘No, I am going to kill you’, with all the conviction of someone who actually had the intention of killing someone. I did not return to her stall.

Our second night ended early because of our early morning flight to Korea.

We eventually did make our flight, despite initially arriving at the wrong terminal. And we were soon in Korea and on the metro. The first thing we noticed about the Korean people was that they weren’t staring at us. There were no white people about, yet we weren’t the focus of everyone’s attention. We were comforted in this and instantly took a liking to the people of Korea.

In search of our hostel we took a lengthy metro trip to Jonguk, despite intending to get off at Jongak. The metro system in Seoul is so extensive that it must stretch across several cities.

We eventually did make it to our hostel with the whole afternoon to spare, albeit a little disappointed in the size of the room since we could stretch our arms to touch both walls. However, we spent very little time in the room anyway.

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We headed into the city centre of Seoul, with the impressive Tower looking over us. We wanted initially to explore the multiple markets situated around and found some nice Korean street food along the way. We then strolled around Myeong-dong, the most commercial area of Seoul.

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Although the crowds were not quite the same extent as those in Shanghai, it was a busy area and we were soon looking for somewhere to sit down. We then came across exactly what we had been dreaming of; a cat café.

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I got a little too excited in the cat café and probably paid more attention to the cats than I did to Nicki. In fact, I think she was as excited as me about it anyway.

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The café consisted of 20 cats who sleep until a customer comes in for a coffee and a box of cat food. They then pester the customer into feeding them for novelty. Although some people appeared to just come in for a coffee.

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After the excitement of the cats we headed to a night market that was set up for the weekend. We discovered an immense queue for food which we avoided before stumbling across a band of Korean old women singing ‘It’s Raining Men’. We settled with a beer beside the river and listening to an acoustic set as the night drew in.

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Later we decided that we were actually hungry so we came across a popular street barbeque under a marque. It was now about 11pm but all of the tables had a couple of people on it. Without thinking we sat on a couple of plastic stalls at a table where another couple had just settled down. The couple looked at us in disgust and informed us that we were not to join them. Thinking it was a one off we moved to another table, but were told the same thing. We would not have sat with random couples at home, but this was one of the customs we enjoy about China. We decided to score China vs Korea from this point, and this was a point to China. We were eventually told to sit on the table with the first couple, but they fled soon after without ordering. We felt like we had won the table.

On the following day we decided to leave the city proper and visit a Mural Village on the outskirts. The small village was situated up a steep hill and would not have looked special save for the fantastic artwork on the walls and stairs of the buildings. We had a nice time wondering around the village before settling down for a beer.

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Later that evening we headed to a Nanta performance. We had no idea what Nanta was before we arrived but it turned out to be one of the highlights of the whole trip. Essentially, it is a story told n a kitchen between cooks with little dialogue but lots of music with kitchen instruments and food. We decided on front row seats which meant we were regularly covered in carrots when the chopping beats got fast. Nanta is a must see if anyone visits Korea.

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After Nanta we headed to a bar street to watch some of the football. This is becoming a regular Saturday thing for us both, and I always feel a little guilty about it. However, it always seems to be Nicki’s suggestion and is keen to hear regular updates about my fantasy football team. I think she actually enjoys football if she has a Kahlua in hand.

We made the decision to leave our hostel (The Box) after a 2-night stay and find somewhere a little better for a similar price. We found a room in a place called Bong’s not far from the universities which was 100 times better. This was fortunate as Nicki was struck down by a bug for the day.

Despite doing my best opportunity to nurse her I took the chance for a haircut whilst she slept in the afternoon. This was a mistake. The young lady who cut my hair did so in a professional manner, but with very limited success. I have since had it partially rectified.

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The day also consisted of a brief walk around an area called Insadong, which is good for souvenirs and trinkets, but bad if you don’t like flies in your milkshake.

The evening ended with Nicki feeling a little better and Arsenal embarrassing Manchester United.

Our next stay started with a visit to the Seoul Tower, which is synonymous with the city. Neither of us wanted to admit that we didn’t expect much from the tower experience and we would be lying if we said we found it life-changing. The 360 view from the top was impressive but I do not think it was the best thing we did in Korea. Perhaps we had been spoilt up until this point.

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As we had risen early to beat the crowds to the tower we spent the next few ours venturing into a nearby national park. Seoul’s metro system continued to amaze us as we would enter from the hussle of the city centre and exit surrounded by hikers at a mountain’s edge. We enjoyed the hike and the fresh air as we walked aimlessly along a trail before returning to the city for dinner.

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On our final day in Seoul we saved the venture we anticipated the most; the trip to the De-militarised zone between North and South Korea.

We met our coach at a hotel and travelled 45 minutes to an observatory where we were given lots of information about the history and conflict between North and South Korea. It made for fascinating learning but both of us were surprised (quite naively) about the one sided view being portrayed. There were lots of very cleverly worded phrases to help demonise the North Korean side. It was clear that there was still a lot of fear, especially as the war continues to threaten.

One of the most interesting parts of this leg of the tour was the introduction of a North Korean defector. This lady had escaped via China and had been given asylum by the South Koreans. She told us about life in the North and how people respect Kim Jung-Un far less than his predecessors and that all school children actually believe all the stories about him when they are at school. She said that she has a far better life in the South but does miss her home and family in the North. There was a lot of talk of hope for a unification here.

After being given lots of information we were given telescope binoculars to look over the river onto the North Korean side of the border. We were able to see North Korean people working on the farms on the other side. Our guide seemed a little too happy to point out the lack of trees on the other side ‘because they don’t have electricity so they burn them’.

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There was a really interesting point in the tour where we visited the ‘Bridge of No Return’ where people crossed into North or South Korea when it divided. It was a day that millions of people’s lives changed forever and some families separated for life.

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We then had lunch with the other people on our tour before heading the the JSA (Joint Security Area) where we were able to cross the line from South to North Korea. It was an uncomfortable place to be in, and even more uncomfortable to take photos of. We were standing in a conflict zone where soldiers stood on either side staring at each other all day in case one of them flinched. It was a tense atmosphere. However, being able to step into North Korea has made me want to see the country more.

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The experience of visiting the DMZ was an eye-opening one and a really interesting day. It is something that I am glad we did and I can only hope that there is a unification resolution at some point in the future, however unlikely it might seem now.

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We ended a thought provoking day with another traditional Korean meal (without the national dish of Kimchi this time) and relaxed watching The Interview in the evening as it seemed poignant after the day we had just had.

We then had to get another early night because we seem to have a habit of booking early flights.

Despite our early flight we still had a 5-hour delay in our transfer city of Qingdao. Yet were were provided with lunch and a beer to keep us happy and we were home by the evening.

Korea was a great chance to experience another Asian culture and the Korean people definitely won the points game despite the lack of table sharing. Seoul is a city I would recommend to everyone visiting Asia and I certainly wouldn’t rule out another trip there in the future.

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