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Korea Travelogue

I arrived home in San Francisco five hours ago from my first ever trip to Asia. Somehow with all the traveling I did while working for CC, I never made it to Asia or Australia. So R and I decided to spend our vacation this spring in Seoul. Because I want to write some things down (and because I agreed to do this Iron Blogger thing but haven’t yet, and because my alternative is replacing my blog software, which I’m definitely too jet-lagged to do), here are three highlights of the trip.

The center of our week was a day spent in the DMZ. I have to start with this because I still feel the most uncertain about it. We arranged a day long tour of both the DMZ and the Joint Security Area (JSA). Going into it I had some trepidation: was it going to feel light and airy and unserious? Was the fact that two countries are basically at war going to be glossed over? What does it mean that I’m touring (literally, a tourist) a space set aside by an armistice agreement? I suspect the last question is something I’ll write about more at length, but here’s the high level: the JSA tour was terrifying (to me; R didn’t seem to have the psychological reaction quite to the degree I did). The ID checks, the barbed wire, and seeing the North Korean soldiers observing us with binoculars as we walked along the MDL was not light, was not airy, and definitely did not gloss over the fact two countries are at war. Part of this was Laura, our excellent guide for the morning. As we rode the bus north from Seoul, she sagely pointed out, “1,000,000 land mines! You stay with group today!” And then she looked directly at me. The afternoon tour of the “DMZ” — Dorasan Observatory, Dorasan Station, and the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel — was less compelling, perhaps because it was raining, but probably because we only had something like 20 minutes at each stop. It didn’t help that the afternoon guide, Justin, wasn’t operating at anywhere near Laura’s level. I should note that every stop on the tour has a gift shop. Some of them sell products cultivated in the DMZ (ginseng, rice, soy beans — chocolate covered and not), and some sell truly strange souvenirs (see: a plastic axe, which seems in questionable taste). The presence of gift shops did nothing to help me understand how I feel about touring a (theoretically) hostile line.

Another highlight for me was visiting the Bongeunsa Temple and Gyeongbokgung Palace. (R would insist I point out “gung” means “palace”, so I just wrote “Gyeongbok Palace Palace”, but the ticket says “Gyeongbokgung Palace”, so I’m sticking that.) These are two very different places; I’m grouping them together because they evoked similar feelings for me. Bongeunsa was an easy walk from our hotel (and the Samseong Station, if you’re going to check it out), and yielded some really relaxing time wandering the grounds, listening to the chanting, and smelling the trees. Gyeongbokgung, on the other hand, was closed the first time we tried to go, and when we finally went near closing time Thursday, there were lots of people wandering the grounds. Gyeongbokgung is actually like a park, with many buildings enclosed in it. You can look at the architecture, walk around a pond, or explore the nooks and crannies. Like the temple, this had a really meditative feel to me, and we took lots of interesting pictures.

The last day we hit up Dragon Hill Spa & Resort. Apparently the largest in Seoul (Korea?), I signed up for the “gold package” — body scrub, steam massage, oil acupressure, leg massage, muscle massage, facial massage, head acupressure, and, of course, shampoo. Quite possibly the best ₩110,000 I spent all week. The “scrub” felt like it used a scouring pad, but as I lay there afterward waiting for round two, my skin felt tingly and awake. The acupressure and “massage” were intense: every muscle in my body was pounded, slapped, pulled, and kneaded, and then for good measure the joints holding them together were stretched and twisted. I would say I walked away feeling renewed and refreshed, but I’m not sure I really “walked” so much as “oozed”. We went back to the hotel that evening and slept incredibly well. And when the soreness finally fade, I’m sure I’ll feel even better.

Other things we did, which I may write more about at a later date: Kimchi Field Museum (yes, really), Deoksugung Palace (to, ahem, further the “gung” discussion above, this one is really confusing: the ticket says “Deoksugung Palace”, which the brochure says “Deoksu Palace”), cat and dog cafes (cafes where you can play with cats or dogs while enjoying your beverage of choice), open air markets, random shopping, and great food.