Your worst days are never so bad that you are beyond the reach of God's grace
And your best days are never so good that you are beyond the need of God's grace.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Seoul, South Korea

Day 1

When looking at air fares to Thailand, the cheapest I could find connected through Seoul, South Korea.  It was about a 19 hour layover… what could I do and see in 19 hours?  As I began to think about this... the light bulb went off!   I thought… nothing says I only have to be there 19 hours…make this puppy a multi-destination and stay as long as I like!  And that is exactly what I did!!  Michael was not able to go so I would be on my own in Seoul, but would have the mission team in Thailand.

 I could leave on Thursday morning at the earliest and then meet up with the rest of the team on Saturday night at the airport in Seoul.  So I booked tickets and hotels and made ready for a little mini vacation in Seoul!  It would be two nights and only one full day… coming in on Thursday and leaving out on Saturday.

 I asked several friends that were either from there or had lived there, what I should do… the overwhelming reply was the tour of the DMZ was a must.  So with a bit of research and comparison shopping on tours I settled in on an all day tour that would allow me to experience the most.  The other places were the markets and the ancient Korean Village.  The unfortunate part was the Village tour was only available in the afternoon on Saturday so it cut the time dangerously close for getting to the airport… so I missed that one!  But the markets were available to fill the time.

I was a bit disappointed Michael could not go and a little nervous about being in Seoul on my own… but figured I just put on my big girl panties and have some fun.  The tour would give me an opportunity to see a lot and have people around so as not to feel so ‘by myself’. 

 So Thursday came and off I went… it started off a bit shakey!  Could not get a taxi to take me to the Maglev station right away… that was a bit nerve racking!  But finally things fell into place and I am at the airport… plane delayed for an hour, but I am still charged up!

 The flight was not long once we got in the air, only an hour and a half… my first time on Korean Air.  By the way… very nice airline!  Only drawback, it is part of the Delta miles system…not American! 

 Ok… immigration…baggage claim…customs… I am so familiar with the drill now… but this is the most efficient airport I have seen!  No waiting…anywhere!  Crazy easy place!  I researched ground transportation and felt the KAL Limo bus was my best option… now where is that counter???  Found it… and had 2 minutes til the bus would be there…again… no waiting!

 My first impressions of Seoul from the airport to the Hotel…

The 80 minute ride from the airport upon KAL Limo bus, which is short for a fancy bus, was actually quite nice.  I had my iPhone/iPod that was filled with my favorite tunes so I plugged in the ear bugs and cranked up the Jesus music for the long ride in to Seoul.

 The first sights that unfold are miles and miles of mud fields.  I have no idea until later what that is all about.  However… it is low tide and that is simply sea floor that is exposed as a result.  It looks very barren!

Once a little further inland, there are miles and miles of greenhouses.  I mean greenhouses are everywhere.  I don’t think I have ever seen so many together in my life… for as far as the eyes can see.

As we get closer to the city, the highway follows rivers or inlets from the sea.  There are bridges crossing over to the other side at what seems very deliberate intervals.  And these waterways… are teaming with barges and other crafts moving materials all up and down the water… heading to their appointed destinations.

 Then I see what may be the MAIN bridge… bright orange beaming in the distance to the right of me.  On my left are mountains.  And you can see the tall building of Seoul in the distance beyond the bright orange bridge.  Impressive sight!

I found it interesting that all along the river there are what seem to be parks and other people friendly activities.  Actually under the bridges are rows and rows of exercise equipment… like outdoor gyms.  People in their workout clothes on stair climbers and treadmills!  There are basketball courts and dirt tennis courts.  The sign reads ‘Hangang Park’.

Finally the mountains part and tall buildings, apartments, and industry emerge.  I see a church steeple with a cross.  I later find out that five to the 10 largest Christian Churches are here in Seoul.  The largest in the world is right here.

 We finally are crossing the bright orange bridge… and I am now seeing 7-11’s everywhere!  And McDonalds... The Coffee Bean… SubWay… Starbuck’s… Paris Baguette… these places are everywhere!

It is similar but different from Shanghai.  Burger Places are everywhere… the signs are English and Korean characters…  a nice mix of old and new buildings.

 Lots of churches continue to peep out above the surrounding buildings displaying their crosses proudly.   

 Street Vendors are selling everything from shoes to towels to trinkets of all kinds… just lining the streets as we are passing.

 The topology reminds some of San Francisco… up the hills and down the hills as we wind our way through the streets to the predetermined stops to let passengers off and collect new ones heading back to the airport.  There are shelves in the terrain that rows of buildings are dotted along.

 And finally… the last stop on this verrrrry long bus ride is mine… The Grand Ambassador Hotel.  Time to collect my bag and check in… let the exploring begin!!!  Oops…only after I get settled in and let Michael know I am safely there… then I… let the exploring begin!!! 

 The hotel offers a shuttle bus to the main markets and shopping areas.  I figure that is my best bet for transportation to do some walking.  Not completely certain where I want to go… I just get off at the first stop and start walking.  These streets are buzzing with people, food, and anything and everything one might want to buy. 

The one thing I have not done is exchange any money.  I finally find a money exchange and pop in… I am a little confused at first but finally get the hang of the machine.  It offers me various amounts of Korean currency.  I am thinking…10000 should be enough… to it dispenses the cash and away I go.  As I begin to price things… I realize immediately I should have checked the exchange rate before I left the hotel… I would have known that 10000 is nothing and the only thing I might be able to buy was food.  In my mind I had gotten so much… but in fact… I had withdrawn only $10 USD.

After about an hour I am totally exhausted… I have bought nothing and I have eaten nothing.  I head back to the bus pickup spot and wait for the bus to pick me up and take me back to the hotel.

 I ask at the desk where I might find a Paris Baguette close and walk a few blocks… get a chicken salad sandwich and make my way back to the hotel to have my dinner… so much for the exploring.  It had been such a long day and it is 10pm…  HUM… maybe I need to admit I am not as young as I used to be…NOT!!!

But tomorrow I do the DMZ and PanmunjeomTour and it’s an early start!!! So off to bed for another jam packed day!

Day 2

Up and at it early… had to be at the location for the tour by 9 am.  The dress code for the tour was pretty strict.  No jeans or tank tops or anything see through… no shorts… no flip flops or sandals of any kind.  No sneaker or any type of athletic shoes.  I thought this was rather strange, but ok… I can follow the rules.  So I had taken kakis pants and regular  leather shoes… and the top was no issue…not wearing a tank or see through regardless of where I am… those days are long gone for this grandma.  Down for breakfast buffet to eat a bite… food was good…not great but good enough.  Then off to catch the shuttle to the other hotel.  Everything is going well.

I am sitting in the lobby of the hotel waiting on some person that might look like a tour guide to show up!  After about 15 minutes a young girl comes in and tells me we must hurry to the yet a different hotel to catch the bus.  So we hustled down a  flight of stairs to go under the street… passing a huge underground shopping center (note to self...come back here for a closer look!)… and out the other side climbing another flight of stairs… then around the corner and up the ramp… had to have been 45 degree angle… by the time we got to the waiting area, I felt like I had run a marathon.  She takes my passport and disappears to get everything in order.  And I wait… again.

Finally she reappears… we make a quick potty break and head to the bus…  I must say that through all of this the girl is friendly and really nice.  Once she got me settled on the bus in my assigned seat, she even ran across the street to get me a bottle of water.  That was the start of a really fun day. 

I was perched in the front seat next to the tour guide.  As we pull away from the parking lot a very vivacious Korean woman, who had lived in the US for about 20 years, began describing, in detail, everything we passed along the route out of town.  I was very pleased we had a really knowledgeable tour guide and  she spoke excellent English.

We passed one of the five palaces in the city… and statues of important Korean leaders… neither of which I was able to snap a photo of… always on the wrong side of the bus as we zipped past.  So here are some photos borrowed from the internet.

This is a statue of Yi Sunsin.  A little history…

Lee Sun-sin (April 28, 1545 – December 16, 1598, Korean: 이순신, Hanja: 李舜臣) was a Korean naval commander, famed for his victories against the Japanese navy during the Imjin war in the Joseon Dynasty. One of the most revered figures in Korean history, Lee is well-respected for his exemplary conduct on and off the battlefield not only by Koreans, but by Japanese Admirals as well.  Military historians have compared his naval genius to that of Britain's greatest naval hero, Admiral Horatio Nelson.  His title of Samdo Sugun Tongjesa (Hangul : 삼도수군통제사, Hanja :三道水軍統制使), literally meaning "Naval Commander of the Three Provinces," was the title for the commander of the Korean navy until 1896.

Perhaps his most remarkable military achievement occurred at the Battle of Myeongnyang. Outnumbered 333 ships to 13, and forced into a last stand with only his minimal fleet standing between the Japanese Army and Seoul, Lee delivered one of the most astonishing defeats in military history.

Despite never having received formal naval training or participating in naval combat prior to the war, and constantly being outnumbered and outsupplied, he went to his grave as one of few admirals in world history who remained undefeated after commanding as many naval battles as he did (at least 23).

Lee died at the Battle of Noryang on December 16, 1598. With the Japanese army on the verge of being completely expelled from the Korean Peninsula, he was mortally wounded by a single bullet. His famous dying words were, "The battle is at its height...beat my war not announce my death."

The royal court eventually bestowed various honors upon him, including a posthumous title of Chungmugong (충무공, 忠武公, Loyal Duke of Warfare), an enrollment as a Seonmu Ildeung Gongsin (선무일등공신, 宣武一等功臣, First-class military order of merit during the reign of Seonjo), and two posthumous offices, Yeonguijeong (영의정, 領議政, Prime Minister), and the Deokpung Buwongun (덕풍부원군, 德豊府院君, The Prince of the Court from Deokpung). Lee remains a venerated hero among Koreans today.

This next statue is of Sejong the Great (April 17, 1397 – May 18, 1450, r. 1418–1450).  He was the fourth king of the Joseon Dynasty of Korea. During his regency, he reinforced Korean Confucian policies and executed major legal amendments (공법; 貢法). He also used the creation of Hangul and the advancement of technology to expand his territory. He was the third son of King Taejong and Queen Consort Wonkyeong.

Sejong is one of only two Korean rulers posthumously honored with the appellation "the Great", the other being Gwanggaeto the Great of Goguryeo.

Oh yeah…We were finally told about the dress code… evidently the North Koreans use anything they can to warn their citizens of the evil ways of the rest of the world.  If we dress inappropriately they use that as propaganda that westerners cannot afford to dress properly or what evil people we are.  The ‘no sandals or flip flops’ is entirely for our protection.  If something were to happen, we would need to run to beat a hasty retreat… we would not want to be worried about flip flops getting in our way or impeding our exit!  Point taken!

First Stop on this tour is Mt ODU Unification Observatory.  Unfortunate for us… it is very foggy this morning and we cannot see the other side of the river…which is North Korea.  But here are a few shots… foggy as they may be.

About the Observatory…

Opened to the viewing public in 1992 as a memorial to the millions of Korean people in the South who lost their hometown in the North due to the Korean War, the 5 story structure of the Odusan Unification Observatory houses some of the best collection of items and artifacts found in North Korea, providing the visitors a preview into the lives of the North Korean people and its environment.

In line with the name, the Odusan Observatory also provides the tourists traveling to the Korean DMZ region, two viewing vantage points to see firsthand (via a binocular viewing system) the contrasting existence of the impoverished North Korean state in comparison to its more progressive South Korean nation counterpart.

Finally, the Odusan Unification Observatory also serves as promotional haven for the ultimate goal of the two divided Korea (North Korea and South Korea) – the future unification of one united Korea.

But here are a few shots… foggy as they may be.

As a visitor I was  greeted by a statue of democracy activist Cho Man-sik, who is believed to have been executed by North Korea. Inside are a 2 meter diameter Reunification Prayer Drum and resources for writing and drawing. The Mangbaedan Altar allows defectors to pray to relatives still in the north.

Once inside I was able to get better photos…

This is Korea… our guide was able to show us all the important and historical sites with this map that can be lite up as she better explains the area.

This picture is of a recreated North Korean classroom.  Notice above their heads the dictators pictures.  They tell of stories of people dying because these pictures were not saved during a fire.  This is our tour guide on the right… but the woman on the left is a defector from North Korea.  She told us of stories that were unbelievable.  She escaped out of North Korea and was sold to a Chinese man and forced to marry him.  She lived there several years and the North Korean government was closing in on her she paid her way to Cambodia and then to Laos… and ultimately was given sanctuary in South Korea.  Now the North Koreans cannot get her.  Her husband and baby are with her now in Seoul.  The rest of her family is still in North Korea and she knows nothing about their location or if they are even still alive.  Families of defectors are not treated well and sometimes tortured and shot.  She was forced to serve in the military for North Korea for 8 years.  She attributes her successful escape to her military training.

The picture below is supposedly a typical North Korean home, but the defector says only the rich live like this.

The next photos are of products and other things from North Korea… notice the liquor with the snake in it… yuk!!

As we drive to our next stop… the scenery illustrates the restrictions of this area.

Next stop is Imjin Gak.  Imjingak (임진각, pronounced Ihm-jin-gak), and sometimes in English called the Imjingak "resort", is a park located on the banks of the Imjin River in the city of Paju, South Korea. The park has many statues and monuments regarding the Korean War. There is also a restaurant, an observation deck, a pool in the shape of the Korean peninsula, and even a small amusement park.

The park was built to console those from both sides who are unable to return to their hometowns, friends and families because of the division of Korea.
Imjingak is where the "Bridge of Freedom" lies. The Freedom bridge does actually cross the Imjin river, it is a former railroad bridge which was used by repatriated POWs/soldiers returning from the north. It is more famous, however, and until 1998; was the only point of egress in the western sector other than Liberty Bridge (which was controlled by the ROK Army) onto the DMZ, and the only direct link to Camp Greaves, Liberty Bell, and Panmunjom. This is not to be confused with the "bridge of freedom" which is merely an access bridge to the main span that allowed the 1 way south bound traffic to pass by while northbound traffic stood waiting its turn to cross; it now crosses a stream adjacent to the Imjin River and connects with the North-South railway.

Memorial Altar

At the end of the Freedom Bridge…  lots of memorials.

The bullet holes riddled the rusty engine of the train.

Before leaving this area we picked up some additional passengers that would be joining us for the next leg of our tour. 

Next stop was lunch which was traditional Korean food.  It was pretty good.   While waiting for everyone to finish and get back on the bus… snapped this photo… which would be our next destination… Panmunjeom.

Panmunjeom in the Demilitarized Zone is where the armistice agreement was signed on July 27, 1953, and where South-North talks still take place. UN forces are stationed at this area to aid in diplomatic relations. Group tours to Panmunjeom can be arranged through selected travel agencies for out-of-country visitors with passports.

We were met by checkpoint personnel who boarded our bus and checked passports of every person on the bus.  We are now given our instructions by the tour guide

We arrive at Camp Bonifas in MACHQ (Military Armistice Commission Headquarters area) and are greeted by a US Army armed soldier.  We are taken into a Friendship building where we are briefed by the Military escort.   We are not allowed to take any photographs unless specifically told we can.  We pass through 3 check points, but first we will unload off this bus and will board a bus supplied by the US Army and will be driven and escorted in my Army personnel.  It is deadly serious at this point.  We are not to wave, smile, point, or any other manner of acknowledgement of the North Korean personnel that will be watching us once we get the JSA (Joint Security Area).  We cannot take any anything with us off the bus except our cameras, but they must be in our pocket or in our hand.  No purses, backpacks, camera cases…nothing that one could conceal a weapon or perceive there might be a weapon in. 

We arrive at the JSA.  We tour the main building which is on the South Korea side. We see a short documentary.  Then each of us is asked to sign a Visitor Declaration.  It basically says this… you are entering a hostile area and that anything could happen… and we acknowledge this and will not hold the government responsible should any conflict break out while we are there.

After that.. we are told to line up two by two… no talking … we are now joined by more soldiers… both United Nations Command and South Korean forces personnel.  All soldiers are armed and their sole purpose is to protect us while we are there.  And we are then escorted out of the building to the actual talks building that is just behind the main building.  Across and behind the conference room buildings is a large concrete structure just up a hill and standing there at attention with binoculars is a North Korean soldier.  And we are told that there is a soldier just out of sight behind every window.  We are being watched the entire time.

We are not allowed in the conference building until a soldier goes in and secures the doors on the North Korean side of the building.   They had an incident just a few months before where the doors were not secured and a North Korean entered and tried to forcibly remove people.  Evidently there was quite a stir over it… as one might imagine.

Once inside the conference building, the tension relaxes.  Your look at the window and there is a concrete line that denotes the line between North and South Korea.

Can you guess which side is ours?

Just behind this South Korean soldier is the door that steps out to North Korea.  We were instructed not to touch the soldier and not to go beyond him to the door.  In this conference room, the line between north and south runs right through the room and more specifically right down the middle of a very large conference table.

We leave the security of the conference room and are told to line up again two abreast and we head for the main building only this time we line up on the outside facing the North Korean soldier with his binoculars.  As you can see from the snapshot below… we are right there at the line!

We are being observed from several vantage points… see the cameras.

Time to bid the North Koreans goodbye… and head back to the Visitor’s Center… but they will provide a couple of other stops… but no getting off the bus… at two historical spots.

In the JSA, near the Bridge of No Return, a 100-foot (30 m) poplar tree blocked the line of sight between a United Nations Command (UNC) checkpoint (CP#3) and observation post (OP#5).

CP#3, situated next to the Bridge of No Return, was the northernmost UNC checkpoint and only visible from OP#5 during the winter months. During the summer months, only the top of CP#3 was visible from one other UNC checkpoint (CP#2). Running across the middle of the bridge was the Military Demarcation Line between North Korean and South Korean territories. The Korean People's Army (KPA) had made numerous attempts to grab UNC personnel from CP#3 and drag them across the bridge into North Korean territory. The proximity to North Korean territory and the North Korean checkpoints on all access routes, along with the repeated attempts to kidnap the UNC personnel working there, led to CP#3 being referred to as “The Loneliest Outpost in the World”.

On one occasion before the incident, North Korean soldiers held a group of U.S. troops at gunpoint, so Joint Security Force (JSF) Company Commander Captain Arthur Bonifas was sent to force the North Koreans to stand down and bring the Americans back to safety, which he did successfully.  Bonifas was one of the two killed in the axe murder.

For more details on this incident, go to…

The bridge of no return…

And now … the only snapshot of me in Korea… in front of the visitor center and the GIFT shop… where I purchased a t-shirt and postcards for me and a cap for Michael… yea!!

One of the nicest things that happened on this tour… I met John and Christine from England.  We were chatting across the aisle and something I said…he suddenly asked if I were a believer… and one thing lead to another… so we decided after the tour when we returned to the Lottie Hotel, we would have some coffee or a bite to eat.  We ended up sitting in the lounge for the next 3 ½ hours talking.  They were the most lovely people. 

This was the view from where we were sitting in the lounge… waterfall was spectacular!

I left them and made my way back to a shuttle stop to wait for the shuttle back to the hotel… but here are a few market shots.

The market on Friday night was really hopping… but it was going to have to do it without me… I had a twisty fried potatoe thing for dinner and called it a night!

Saturday morning was kinda a leisurely start... pack up, check out, have breakfast, and then catch the shuttle to do some sightseeing... but mostly was spent just walking around Seoul.  So here are some random shots.

After wandering around the city, I went back to the hotel to collect my bags and wait for the KAL Limo bus to take me back to the airport.

There was some kind of cultural deal going on at the airport… here a few pics.  I never really figured out exactly what was going on… but they were in traditional dress and I think it might have been a wedding party of some sort.

I settled in and waited for our plane …

This is the mission team headed to Thailand... Kay, Chin, Bud, and Jain... next stop Thailand!