Sunday, June 6, 2010

Korea, part 3: Seouled out

Back to the capital city for a few days, and we had a couple of major things we wanted to accomplish. The first was to head to the DMZ, the demilitarised zone that exists between the north and south Korean borders. We did an official tour, as this is pretty much the only way you can see it. Below is a very touristy picture of us.

Anyway, the DMZ was pretty fascinating but kind of surreal, as we were shepherded through the itinerary of sights on the tour. These included the Peace Park, which featured amusement park rides and tourist shops (possibly built so that the North can see how great a time the South is having on the other side? Just a thought...); the last stop on the South Korean rail line, complete with transcript of inspirational/self-congratulatory speech by George W Bush; a kind of interesting/rather one-sided documentary with abrasive American reality TV-style voiceover; a viewing platform so you can see into North Korea (that's the picture at the top of the post); and a trip into one of the tunnels dug by the North in the general direction of Seoul.

The tunnel was the best bit, as you could get a really tangible feel for the tension between the two sides. The tunnel was discovered in 1978, and North Korea initially denied having anything to do with it, but blast marks in the walls and the fact that water drains northwards kind of proved they were guilty; then they claimed the tunnel was a coal mine, and in fact parts of the walls had been painted black to make this (somehow) seem more plausible. It would be funny if it weren't scary.

Walking through the tunnel (up to a point, not into North Korea, obviously) was really kind of creepy, thinking about how there are undoubtedly more, undiscovered, tunnels that could have North Korean soldiers filing out of them into the South at any point. In light of recent incidents, this is even creepier.

There was no photography allowed in the tunnel.

(Mirabel wants to add that, looking across to North Korea, you could see a noticable change in the scenery; the hills have been stripped bare of trees.)

After the tour was essentially done we headed back to Seoul on the bus, but there was still one more stop to go. Going by the tenuous link that amethysts have apparently been found in some tunnels, we were taken to a supremely bizarre amethyst tourist shop, run by a, frankly, scary robotic shop lady with a crazy-looking plastered-on smile. Her bizarro sales pitch basically consisted of "man buy for his darling, woman buy for her darling" (ie. EVERYONE should buy one). Mirabel got told off for laughing. It was so weird, and despite the "special, just for you" 10% discount offered, we departed early and laughed our way back to the hostel.

The next night we went in search of swing dancing venues, as we had learnt beforehand that Seoul is a pretty swinging city. We eventauly found Happy, a nice kind of hall that was packed with amazing dancers. They were happy to have us, it seemed, and we danced with a few of the locals (although we really felt afterwards that we need to practice more -- these guys were very good).

But since Sendai's swing dancing scene has turned out to be actually really extremely small, it was nice to find a place like this (and apparently Seoul has around a dozen more like it).

The next day we were up with the lark to get on a bus, a plane, a train, a bullet train and a subway back to Sendai. Next time we'll consider flying direct from Sendai...

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