Thursday, May 5, 2011

Sightseeing in Korea

I recently went to Korea for a conference, and I intentionally stayed an extra two days so that I could have a chance to do some sightseeing.

Of course two days isn't nearly enough to explore an entire country, but I did my best to see a bunch of things. I took one of the very touristy "hop-on, hop-off" buses that runs loops around the sights of Seoul. I "hopped off" at a traditional village.

Figure: Traditional village, right in the middle of modern Seoul.
Turns out, the traditional village didn't have much to do, because it wasn't set up as museum or anything, it's just a bunch of empty buildings. Neat architecture, but moving on, moving on...

I attempted to "hop on" that bus, which was supposed to come around every 20 minutes, but I waited thirty minutes and saw no sign of my bus. I did however see every possible city bus route, and approximately seventilly buses from other touristy companies, just to taunt me. Just as I was pondering buying a ticket for one of those OTHER hop-on-hop-off companies, who actually seemed to be in the "hopping-on" business instead of just the "hopping-off" side - my bus finally appeared.

I went to see Seoul Tower, which is like the Empire State Building in that the only reason people go, is to make it to the top and look out. So I went. Rode to the top. Looked out the side. Tried to take pictures, but the windows were dirty.


The one attraction is to look out, and the windows are crusted up? Come on now... Also it was a twenty minute wait to get to the elevator to go back down. How is that possible? Doesn't conservation of mass indicate that if I only had to wait 5 minutes to go UP, there shouldn't be a twenty minute line to get DOWN? Tis a mystery...

On Saturday night, a bunch of us went out to the local clubs. Since I was sightseeing with four single guys, I was not surprised that they were way more excited about this than I was. In contrast to Boston, where the bars and clubs all close at 2am, the nightlife never stops in Seoul. The subway stops running from 1am to 5am, so the common thing is to stay out at least to 5am, so you can get home. I went home at 3am (by cab, thank you very much), but the guys apparently made a night of it.

I have to say that the clubbing scene is much different than Boston. In Seoul, the clubs are packed into one area, with people pouring out into the streets and just hanging out on the sidewalks, and the feeling is incredibly alive and vibrant. And in the clubs, the music of choice is techno/electronic. In Boston, you can't have alcohol outside, so everybody is inside, and the common music is hip-hop, or house music. 

Let me just say that I'm not bad as a dancer, (especially as an engineer), but I could not for the life of me figure out how to dance to techno. Fortunately once the club got busy, there was no need - everybody was packed in so tightly, it hardly mattered. It was an experience I wouldn't have missed - the lasers, light show, special effects, and electric atmosphere were pretty incredible.

Until 3am. And then nothing but bed is incredible in my book.

Sunday I took a tour to the DMZ - the border between North and South Korea. This was actually my favorite part of the trip. It's pretty fascinating to hear the history of Korea, which I only knew a little about. For instance, there is a railroad that goes from South Korea to North Korea and back that ran every day from 2003-2008. Did you know that? I had no idea. I thought that border has been sealed with machine guns ever since the DMZ was established.

The plan was to bring raw materials from the South, manufacture items using cheap labor in the North, and then have huge warehouses to store the goods. It's pretty incredible that enough companies got together to finance such a risky venture, I think. For a while it worked great, and then a North Korean guard shot a South Korean woman on the train, and they shut it down. So now there is the brand new train station, and giant warehouses, just sitting empty. It's eerie, really.

Also cool to learn that four tunnels have been discovered underneath the border. The North Koreans claim the tunnels were built to invade towards the north, but since all the dynamite marks are going south, and the tunnel slopes toward the south, it's pretty obvious the purpose was to invade South Korea... And the DMZ tour lets you go down and walk in these tunnels. The closest you can get to the North Korean border is 170 meters, which is where you are stopped by a concrete wall. So folks, I've been as close to North Korea as I care to get. This lady writes about the same tour with much more elegance and better photos than I, so you can visit her blog for her take.

Sunday we visited a traditional temple, which was beautiful and calm.

Still surrounded by Seoul, but peaceful nonetheless. It's a functioning temple, so people were there praying and lighting incense.

And the artwork and detailed architecture - gorgeous. Why can't churches in the US be like this? We pat ourselves on the back when we hang a nice banner on the putty-white wall above the gray Berber carpet, or when we put a few flowers on the stage once a year for Easter. These people paint every ceiling (see above)

... put sculptures on the church grounds...

...and hang colorful, cheerful pendants that dance in the breeze.

Beauty in nature and creativity in expression are part of God's gifts as well, and I might enjoy going to church more if it looked more like this. :) It's one of the things I have always enjoyed about Catholic churches in particular, actually.

Anyway - in conclusion, Seoul was an adventure I will not soon forgot. I enjoyed seeing the city, tried to experience some of the culture, and definitely established that I will have to go back in order to fully explore! For instance, I didn't get to go to a tea ceremony, which I would have liked, or go to the outdoor marketplace. Another time, another time. Until then, I will enjoy the memories.

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