(edited on 21 juillet 2009) this travelog has been put off for such a long time that the novelty has been replaced by many more recent experiences, but i refuse to leave it unfinished. i have been immensely busy in the last week and really all my free time has so far been spent on catching up on sleep and rest. many apologies for the delay, my pitiably few but faithful readers!
friday, 10/07/2009: day 1 in seoul
after a sentimental round of final goodbyes at woosuk university, we took the bus woosuk provided for us back to seoul. we reached around mid-afternoon and parted ways in the heart of the city. some people stayed back in jeonju, some had flights to catch and others stayed together in a hostel they had booked a bit earlier. i had already made plans to stay with lina (korean) and andreas (german), so i didn’t join them but waited where i told lina i would meet her. i ended up being a little lost because i was misled to believe that i was in front of the intercontinental hotel, where i was told i would be. after 30 minutes of confusion and mild panic, it turned out that i was on the other side of the river which divides seoul into north and south. i ended up needing to drag my luggage across the street through the underground tunnel in order to catch a taxi (20kg and 3 extra bags is not an easy feat for me! thankfully, a nice man offered to lug it up the stairs in the end), which i didn’t even have enough won to pay for! when i finally got to her place, she and andreas were already there and i felt really happy and relieved to see familiar faces again. the AU15 people were nice, but my sciences po darlings are irreplaceable.
upon my arrival, lina briefly explained that things were kinda complicated and that she would be staying with her real dad, while we stayed with her step-dad in this posh french expat area where the lycée français de séoul is. with the number of taxis available in seoul, however, the separation in logding wasn’t very difficult to overcome. we had an incredible dinner with raphaël (sadly i cannot for the life of me recall the name of the dish), over which we got a bit tipsy because we had so much beer and soju. by the way, beer and soju is to south korea as wine is to france. you have it with your meals and over hangouts with your friends. soju is drank in shots, but what the koreans like to do (or so i hear – i never actually saw anyone else apart from my happy european friends do this) is to drop the entire shot into a glass of beer and then drink the two together. despite the shots i drank and the bottles i brought back home, soju is really not my poison. it tastes a lot like watered down vodka. i personally preferred drinking it with beer, but raphaël thought it just made the beer taste exceptionally bad. a much better combination is soju with fruit juice, which only tastes good because you cannot taste the soju anymore. andreas just seemed happy to have anything korean to try, so i’m not sure how much he really enjoyed the alcohol, haha. overall i think my time drinking in korea taught me how enjoyable a good jug of beer can be, relative to soju. whoever said it was a man’s drink?
saturday, 11/07/2009: day 2 in seoul
everyone got up super early because lina wanted to bring us to suwon, where she had a lacrosse game (our little korean friend is one of the republic of korea’s national lacrosse players!) raphaël came over to where we were staying around 8am and lina picked us all up in her BMW which, like almost every other car in seoul, had this super nifty GPS system she used to navigate with. while she went for her lacrosse game, the rest of us went to the palace where dae jangeum, the superhit series about korea’s favorite heroine, was shot. it was quite unimpressive though. it was very small and quite bare, with most of the buildings partially under construction. the most interesting parts of it were probably the cardboard print images of the actress who played dae jangeum scattered around the palace buildings, depicting various scenes of the movie that had taken place where and when. there was a martial arts performance after that outside the entrance of the palace, which was interesting enough, but a bit unbearable to watch in the sweltering heat. we met up with lina back at the university where she had a game afterward, but not before getting lost in a cab whose driver had misheard raphaël’s directions haha. fast forward to night-time: we joined some of the AU people for dinner, but didn’t stay with them for drinks because i felt like being on our own. i didn’t feel exceptionally close to anyone at the AU dinner, plus i felt awkward facing someone i now had problems speaking to normally, so the three of us just went for a short drink (beer again!) at a bar nearby before heading home.
sunday, 12/07/2009: day 3 in seoul
this was probably the most tragic part of the trip and the one that left the largest impression on me. i’d wanted to see the 38th parallel for quite some time, not realizing that it wasn’t actually possible to see it unless you (1) were not south korean, (2) registered for a tour with an authorized tour company and (3) paid extra to go on tour C, which was the only one which would bring you into the demilitarized zone (DMZ) and right up to the 38th parallel itself where there is a small north korean village situated right on the border. unfortunately, certain nationalities were prohibited from entering the DMZ altogether and malaysia happened to be one of them. the others would probably have gone on tour C without me (which i would have been extremely annoyed about) had the tour been available on sundays, but as that was not the case we stuck together.
one would think that the DMZ is such a highly politicized and sensitive issue that a visit to the area would entail more decorum, but right now the entire affair has been commercialized quite thoroughly. there is a little recreational tourist place you can stop at for snacks and souvenirs before heading towards the checkpoint, where soldiers will check everyone’s passports before letting them through on the bus. on this particular day, we made the entire trip under the shade of our umbrellas as the monsoon decided to be particularly relentless. we went to a musuem where we could see some relics from the north-south korean war. there was also this large 3D map of the DMZ which showed us where 4 tunnels discovered to be dug by north koreans in an attempt to invade seoul were located. up till the border seperating north and south korea, there are still towns and landmarks. beyond that, the peninsula turns into a mysterious expanse of jungle. we got to see one of the tunnels by walking down this 300m tunnel which was drilled by the south koreans in order to intercept the sneaky north koreans at work. the tunnel was quite low so raphaël and andreas had to walk down the path bent-double, with one hand consciously holding on to their helmets, which everyone had to wear (for clear reasons). i didn’t realize at first the problem with walking down this tunnel until we reached the end of it – we then had to climb back up the tunnel which was at a rather steep incline. when raphaël first pointed it out, i frowned and said 300m wasn’t a lot. then he said that was roughly the height of a 15 story-building we were climbing up!
the most unsettling part of the tour involved us going to dorasan train station, which was built as a symbol of expectant reunification. the place is brand new, with shiny floors, clean counter surfaces and modern glass walls. the only thing out of sorts with the station is that there are, of course, no trains that ever come or go. the station is empty except for the groups of tourists who filter in and out of it throughout the day, gawking at the novelty of a station that has no use except for its symbolism. its grandest guests have been george w. bush and kim dae-joung, whose pictures are plasted up on this huge billboard in the lobby to show how important the station really is. outside the entrance to the railway platform, the electronic billboard alternates between the historical and symbolic significance of dorasan station and a fake list of departure and arrival times between seoul and pyongyang. by the boarding area, a soldier stands there decked in full uniform and his rifle, stiffly posing for the hundreds of tourists who stand gingerly but excitedly next to get a photograph with him and the billboard flashing away in the background. you can also buy fake tickets at the ticketing counter, but if you’re too cheap to fork out 500W (less than 0,50€) for a tokenistic piece of paper that doesn’t even say pyongyang on it, there are two stamps and ink pads on the counter which you can use to stamp on whatever surface you can come up with, showing that you have been that close to pyongyang. for the naïve and over-enthusiastic, there is a sign that warns you not to stamp these fake stamps in your passport or on currency notes. to the far left of the station, i looked through the glass wall next to the waiting area and could see the security check-in area. the station is newer and sharper than KLIA, fully decked out with everything including the conveyor belts which move your luggage through security scans. the question begging to be asked was, of course, when will dorasan station come to life?
the last part of the tour took us to a souvenir store, where we could buy 10kg or 20kg sacks of rice produced in the DMZ. if you like, you could even buy little clippings of barbed wire which is used to seal off the DMZ from civilians. it was highly amusing and yet very pathetic. my dad would say: one man’s meat is another man’s poison. in this case, one country’s tragedy is somehow one of the same country’s biggest tourist attractions.
at night we went to this nice shopping street where lina and i dragged raphaël and andreas into one of those sticker-photo shops. i’d done them before in malaysia with friends and my sister, but this time it was particularly refreshing to finally have someone go through the process fully understanding all the korean that we were being bombarded with! like in malaysia, after the sticker-photos are printed, you can pay a little extra (100W) to have them laminated. korea being korea, of course, offers a little more than just this. there are scanners and computers around for you to scan and upload your sticker-photos onto cyworld or facebook or whatever you wish! as for the rest of it…
monday, 13/07/2009: day 4 in seoul
we saw another palace in the early afternoon, this time the famous gyeongbuk palace right in the middle of the city itself. it was nothing like the dingy one we saw in suwon – this was vast and beautiful, with an amazing garden filled with elegant trees and gentle paths. there was even a little lake, in the middle of which the emperor’s “party house” was built. perhaps it was because of lina’s way of phrasing it, haha, but i couldn’t help thinking how amazing it would be to have a huge bash there. people could dive off the building and into the lake, swim amongst the lotuses, under the sensual arms of the low-laying trees and by the side of the little royal boat, where i imagine the queens and princesses must have surely sat in sober giggles. what i found the most beautiful thing about the palace though, was that it was framed by both the cityscape and the mountains. being there – you felt like you were sandwiched between the past and the future. with much persistence, lina and i managed to bully raphaël and andreas into borrowing hanbok, the korean traditional costumes, from one of the tourist guide stalls and paraded around the lake and buildings feeling like royal tourists, haha.
as it was my last day in seoul, lina took us to dongdaemun in the evening to help me find a hanbok. if you’ve seen them on my facebook profile already, you’ll know how beautiful they are and maybe understand why i wanted one so badly, haha. i spent more than i would have liked on it in the end, but andreas and raphaël both assured me that it was worth it so i’ve stopped dwelling on that since. we spent this last evening in a few bars and ended the night late in a luxurious karaoke bar. the floors were made of glass and you could see teddy bears, flowers, hearts and ribbons and all sorts of other sweet delicate things below you. i had a great time but probably dominated the mic way too much as few of them really knew all the songs.
tuesday, 14/07/2009: day in transit back home
so that’s it for my trip in seoul. i left the next day at 10am and spent 12 hours flying and transiting back to ma chère tanah air malaysia. it felt extremely strange to know that 10 months had gone by and that i would be returning to the arms of family and the earful of mangled malay-chinese-english. nothing incredible happened on this day except that during my last 3 hours on the plane, i felt inexplicably uneasy. i felt so helpless to be strapped to a seat in mid-air and not be able to move around or change course. i was so desperate to wring the feeling out of me that i started scribbling in haruki murakami’s norwegian wood which i bought in incheon airport. i was suddenly afraid of forgetting all the wonderful things that had happened to me over the past 2 weeks and all the good stuff that had been added to my life over the last 10 months in general. i think in a way i was afraid i would lose sight of all of it by simply being back in malaysia. upon arriving home, there were times in the first 2 days when i felt very violent urges to run away from home and family. to go back to my more transient lifestyle where there aren’t more than 5 people of the same nationality and socio-economic background in any given space and where holidays are spent roaming around in another country.
mais bon. that is over for now. i’m back and i already have a week-long backlog of other stuff i want to blog about!