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KoREA: Natural Wonders

Alternate title for this blog: All Work and No Play Makes Sarah TERRIFICALLY SPIRITLESS.

Fantastically devoid, if you will. So no new blogs, no, not as of right this moment. Sorry, Friends. I am working on it, trying to figure out a better life for myself, trying to piece things together.

Speaking of which…guess who made it home all in one piece? Ms. Whitney! All the way back from Korea! Here are some final thoughts from her whirlwind 6-week sojourn in the Far East.

South Korea, if you will.

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I was blessed with a childhood full of outdoor activities and opportunities to observe Nature’s facilities with unlimited wonder.  My appreciation for such an upbringing grows with every new outdoor adventure, and our weekend trips to Seoraksan National Park and Jeju Island provided just such growth.  The nostalgia of my outdoorsy childhood aside (the smell of the woods in Eastern Asia reminded me of that in the woods of the Eastern US), let me tell you a little bit about our excursions.

Seoraksan National Park:

Tim is an excellent planner.  Over the last six weeks, when I wasn’t occupied with one of the many entertainment items he assigned to my Anti-Boredom drawer (the contents of which included books, spa kits, a dart board, an Etch-A-Sketch and more things for me to play with while he was at work), I was busy enjoying the fruits of his travel planning.  When we found out that our tour to Seoraksan was canceled, he decided that we could go it alone.  He found out which bus to take (and which bus to take after that), got us a reservation at the best hotel in the park (technically, the only hotel within the park), and one early Saturday morning, we were on our way!  It’s a little something what I call Vacation Determination.

Taking the bus turned out to be pretty easy.  From Songtan (located south of Seoul on the western side of the peninsula), we got a bus to GangNeung on the eastern side of the peninsula – about a four-hour trip.  In GangNeung, we caught a bus for an hour-long ride to Sokcho, right on the coast of the East Sea (The Sea of Japan to most non-Koreans), and then rented a car.  The rental turned out to be the trickiest part, since we were experts in the fundamentals of Charades but still far from proficient with Hangul (the Korean language) and we couldn’t find the section about renting a car in the guidebook.  The rental agents were helpful and perseverant, however, and within an hour, they had us on the road heading for the mountains in a Hyundai.

We reached the hotel (again, the only one inside the park, which afforded us some advantage with parking and relief from the crowds), dropped off our things, and went to the front desk, where Tim asked the clerk about the sites he wanted to see most.  The clerk was very helpful and proud to tell us all about the park.  First stop: Ulsanbawi:

Ulsanbawi Peak

Ulsanbawi - The face of Seoraksan

This peak is not the tallest in the park but is said to be the face of it.  From the other pictures, you’ll see that most of the mountains, where they aren’t covered in trees, are very rocky with many jagged edges.  The smoothness of Ulsanbawi really struck me with its contrast to the crags on the other mountains.  Up we went!

Along the path to Ulsanbawi, there is a giant boulder that rests in such a position that, if you push it in just the right place, it will rock back and forth: named Rocking Rock (or Waggling Rock, as I also saw on signs).  After watching a monk from the nearby cave-temple demonstrate where to push on the rock, Tim got it to wiggle just a little bit (click here for video).  That’s the fun part – the funny part is that, even though people can get it to move, no one can move it enough to knock it over; thousands have tried to push it down from its perch and none have succeeded!  Quite a famous rock.  Moving on!

We reached the base of the summit, after a fairly good climb into the clouds, and had a mighty good climb ahead.  From here, locals say there are 888 stairs to the top of the peak, though I only counted 699.  (When I was a kid, my mom told me that every stair you climb is enough exercise to gain you one extra second of life.  So we added at least a dozen minutes to our lives with this summit!)  A combination of metal staircases cemented into the rock and a path over boulders brought us to the top of the mountain where we saw nothing but fog.  We were disappointed not to have a view (we took a picture of a picture showing what we would have seen on a sunny day), but appreciated the fog for its eerie factor and for keepin’ things cool.  It was a climb of 873 meters (about 3,000 feet), and we had gotten up early for the bus, so after descending we showered, dined, and zonked in preparation for another early morning.

Base of Ulsanbawi Peak

At the base of Ulsanbawi, before hitting the stairs

The beginning of the stairs

The beginning of the stairs

The fog negated any chance for a view

The fog negated any chance for a view, but at least I had a good view of Tim

What we would have seen sans fog

What we would have seen sans fog

The next day we left the hotel at 6:30am, just in time for us to beat the throngs of day visitors to the trails.  Heading for a cave in the cliffs of another mountain, we took a trail through the woods, over some beautiful pools of clear blue water, and up another rocky hillside to another set of crazy stairs.  How anyone ever found this cave, I can’t imagine (not true, my guess is that is was rock-climbing monks).  It was set so high in such a vertical wall that some of the “steps” carved into the rock were about two feet tall.  We reached the top, peaked into the small temple inside the cave, and had a sip of water from the spring running down the wall.  The clerk at the hotel desk told us that the more water you drink from this spring, the longer you will live, but, he added, don’t drink too much, or you’ll get diarrhea.

View of the cave

View of the cave (the dark area with vines growing out of it)

View from the cave

View from the cave (vines encasing the rock)

Drinking spring water

Drinking spring water, but not too much

The last thing we saw at the park was the view from the tram-gondola-cable car (they are called so many things! But it was just like the one in Juneau, so I’m calling it a tram).  It carried us up yet another mountain and from there we climbed to the top of the rocks.  And whaddya know, the fog rolls in!  We had had sunshine all morning and somewhat regretted taking on Ulsanbawi on the cloudy day before, but had enjoyed the next morning’s sun until it was time for the clouds again.  Oh well.  They rolled in and out and we got the best views we could, made more valuable by the weather.

The park, Sokcho, and the East Sea, as viewed from the top of the tram

The park, Sokcho, and the East Sea, as viewed from the top of the tram

On the way down, I got stung on the thigh by a giant bumblebee while boarding the tram.  I was wearing jeans!  I felt the sting and in my frantic effort to get at whatever had caused it (I couldn’t see the bee at the time), I may have even poked myself with the stinger a second time.  Is that possible?  Because it definitely looked like there were two prick-points.  Ouch.  Tim had the idea of buying a bag of ice cream and using it as an ice pack, which was brilliant (see my earlier post on Korean Snacks).  I iced it as we drove back to Sokcho.  After turning in the rental car, we walked around the coast of the East Sea for a little bit, then caught a bus back to GangNeung, and were back in Songtan by 10pm.  A whirlwind trip, but that’s been the name of our game for a while now!

Jeju Island:

For our stay in Jeju, we had a little bit more time but plenty to see.  Jeju is a volcanic island to the south of Korea, about the size of South Carolina, and the top honeymoon destination for Korean newlyweds.   Indicated on most official maps as “Jeju Special Self-Governing Province”, we think that its status with South Korea may be similar to Puerto Rico’s relationship with the US… that is, it’s part of a ruling country but also doing its own thing.  Research is needed here.  In any case, we booked an itinerary for a package deal that included airfare and two nights at a five-star hotel with the on-base travel agency, and saw the sites.

We arrived Saturday at noon and rented a car.  The process here was mysterious: the rental agency seemed to be located in a parking lot at the airport, and was one of about 30 other agencies in that parking lot.  Each company had its own van that functioned as an office and 6-10 parking spots each.  So we waited for about an hour for our reserved-ahead-of-time car to be brought to us – as they didn’t have room in the parking lot for all of the reserved cars, it seemed like they had to go get our car once they realized we were there.  The dumbest part: we had to pay a parking fee to exit the parking lot!  It was less than a dollar, but still, really?  You’re going to have a van as your office, with enough room for one customer to sit and wait out of the heat (air conditioning made possible by keeping the van running all day), while everyone who can’t fit in the van stands in the sun while you go out of the parking lot, retrieve cars, take them to get washed as everyone waits, still in the sun, then send us out with a parking fee?  I’m not indignant here, I just really don’t see how that process makes sense.

So, we drove to the hotel (which was very nice but for the looped track of ten songs that played on high volume all day in the garden), dropped off our things, went in search of sushi (then gave up and just went in search of lunch), and then drove to see waterfalls.

Cheonjiyeon Waterfall

Cheonjiyeon Waterfall: good for cliff jumping because the water below is 20 meters deep

Cheonjiyeon Waterfall is about a ten-minute walk inland from the tourist parking area and is pleasant to view.  We couldn’t get terribly close to it.  Jeongbang Waterfall, however, falls straight onto the beach, and while it was surrounded by slippery rocks, you could walk right up to the small pool of water at its base.  Tim’s observation was that Cheonjiyeon would be better for cliff jumping because it falls into a 20-meter deep pool of water.  As you can see, Jeongbang would not provide as comfortable of a landing:

Jeongbang Waterfall

Jeongbang Waterfall: Not good for jumping because the rocks, although volcanic and possibly full of air holes, are not fluffy.

The next day we were planning to hike Hallasan, the tallest mountain on the island and an extinct volcano.  It is also the tallest mountain in South Korea, measuring 1,950 meters tall (almost 6,400 feet).  We woke up at 8am, having read that the trail we would take to hike the mountain didn’t open until 9:30am.  We found out upon our arrival that you actually have to get there before 9:30am, or else they won’t let you ascend the summit.  We had gotten there at about 10:40 and were pretty dismayed at the news.  However, we learned that the trail opens at 5:30am, so we decided to switch Sunday’s itinerary with Monday’s and save the mountain for the following day.  So our new plan for the day included lava tubes and a hydromagmatic crater-island-thing!  We went to Manjanggul, one of the largest lava tubes in the world and home to the largest lava column in the world (a lava stalagmite, if you will, formed when cooling lava flows off of a ledge and piles up.  It’s like when you make a mud-drip castle at the beach).  It was chilly and dark inside as we walked one kilometer underground from the public entrance to the lava column.  There is a rock formation, called a lava raft, that they named “Turtle Rock”, which is noticeably shaped just like the island of Jeju!  Fun and interesting, it made me wish I knew more about geology.

Turtle Rock

Turtle Rock at Manjanggul, in the shape of Jeju Island

Largest lava column in the world!

Largest lava column in the world! Lighting also available in blue, green, purple and yellow.

After Manjanggul, we drove to Seongsan Ilchubong, or Sunrise Peak.  It is a large vertical volcanic formation that rose out of the water thousands of years ago whose edges form rims to a giant crater in the center.  Narrowly connected to the mainland of Jeju, it is located on the easternmost point of the island and is therefore the first to see sunlight every morning, hence its name.  We climbed the steps to the top, along with a few hundred other tourists, took in the views, and took pictures until my camera battery died.

Path to Sunrise Peak

Path to Sunrise Peak

View of the crater at the top of Sunrise Peak

View of the crater at the top of Sunrise Peak

All of these excursions, the waterfalls, the cave, this peak, cost 2,000 won: about two dollars per adult.  We laughed to realize, however, that the youth/child prices applied to those up to age 24, so Tim was technically deserving of the discount at 24, while I was the adult at 25!  It’s funny how in the US youth prices stop for those over age 12; many other countries extend the favor to young people well into their twenties, whether they’re a student or not.

Our last day in Jeju was great for hiking Hallasan.  We woke up at 4am and checked out of the hotel, then drove to the park in order to hit the trailhead at 5:30.  The insanely early start was necessary because our flight left that afternoon at 5pm, and it turned out to be quite worth it.  The only bummer about being the first hikers on the trail was that we caught a bunch of new spider webs in our faces.  I took to waving a stick out in front of me to try and take them down before accidentally eating them.  Besides that minor nuisance, there were only two other hikers on the trail with us as we climbed to the top, so it was very peaceful.

We were worried that, like in Seoraksan, we would have such low cloud cover that we wouldn’t have any views at the top, and as we walked, the reason for such worry increased.  It was foggy here too!   The first two hours of the hike were first in the dark, then in the clouds, so we braced ourselves for the worst, but finally, during the last 45 minutes or so, we started to get some sunshine.  It was so wonderful to have a view at the top, and the extra warmth was greatly appreciated.

Atop Hallasan

Atop Hallasan: A lake in a crater on the peak!

The clouds

The clouds didn't leave us alone entirely, but we were thankful for the views they granted.

On the way to the summit we only saw two other hikers, but on the way down the trail, we saw over 400!  Yes, I counted.  It was so good that we went early.  It took us three hours to get to the top but just as long to get down because the trail was so rocky and because of all of the people we were passing!  In any case, we made it to the airport in time to check in the car and grab some lunch, then made our flight back to Korea just fine.

The sites we visited in Seoraksan and Jeju were crowded, and I noticed two distinct types of visitors.  The first were clad in all the designated gear for ascending a serious mountain: synthetic fabric shirts (often in blazing bright colors), swishy pants, hiking boots, hiking gloves, bandannas, hats, scarves, packs… all of it in pristine condition (so did they really need such serious clothes if they weren’t doing much hiking that would create some wear&tear?).  Then there was the other end of the spectrum: those dressed as though they had hit the trails just after shopping at the mall.  Women in heeled sandals or silly little shoes were everywhere, and they seemed so unprepared for the terrain!  But because there were so many of them, they must not have thought their choice of footwear would be regarded as careless.  These two versions of ill-equipped and well-equipped hikers was baffling!

Overall, despite the crowdedness, people were very friendly and welcoming on our trips.  Many offered to take our picture for us while others wanted to know where we were from, and though I found the attention and questions a little embarrassing, they seemed genuine.  It was nice to visit such friendly places.  Maybe we’ll be back for the Olympics in 2018!

KoREA: Cuisine

So while I’m picnicking an hour to the north and filing it under “Travel,” others are grilling slabs of raw meat over open coals in foreign lands. That’s right, you guessed it–another guest blog from Ms. Whitney! Please enjoy, and don’t forget to tip your server.


Before this trip, I had no experiences with Korean food.  My friend once worked in a pan-asian fusion restaurant that was run by Koreans and they thus served kimchi fried rice (but I never had any), so that’s all I knew of before coming here.  And once people knew I was coming here, all they would mention to me was kimchi (pickled cabbage with red pepper paste), and it’s true, kimchi is a very prevalent and popular dish here.  Traditionally, it made a good winter food, as its fermentation process and resulting pickled state allowed it to “keep” for a long period of time after the harvest season.  But there is so much more to Korean food than kimchi!  My novice experience with the culinary culture has exposed me to yaki mandoo (potstickers, essentially), bibim bab (a bowl of rice with veggies and a fried egg, meat optional), cold raddish soup; these and other dishes are served in a way with which we are familiar: you order and receive.  In a different category, there is bulgogi, samgyeopsal, galbi and more; these are dishes that you order and COOK YOURSELF.

Most of the Korean restaurants we’ve been to are set up with their own miniature grills in the center of each table for 4.  They present you with an array of side dishes (bean sprouts, fish cakes, silk worms, raw cabbage salad, raddish soup, and yes, kimchi), a basket of lettuce leaves, and a plate of raw meat.  They place a bucket of white-hot coals inside your grill and you begin cooking the meat right there.  It’s kind of like being at a smaller Benihana table with yourself as the chef!  If the meat is still in slab form and not yet cut up into pieces, you wait for it to cook a little while then start cutting it up with scissors while holding it with a pair of tongs (sometimes the restaurant staff does this for you).  Once the meat is cooked, you place a couple of pieces in a lettuce leaf with whatever combination of rice and side dishes you’d like, and scarf it.

White-hot coals at a table for 4

White-hot coals at a table for 4

Meat over coals at a table for 4 (we cooked and staff intervened when necessary)

Meat and mushrooms over coals at a table for 4 (we cooked and staff intervened when necessary)

Chicken and veggies on round barrel grill

Chicken and veggies on round barrel grill (staff cooked)

Meat-Restaurant on mini square grill (we cooked)

Meat-Restaurant, gas grill (we cooked)

We assume that we haven’t encountered restaurants like this in the States because a) none of us have frequently been in the company of Koreans who would know the locations of such restaurants, and b) if such places exist, they would be quickly shut down by some jerk who didn’t allow his pork or beef to cook thoroughly before eating it, got food poisoning, and filed a crippling lawsuit against the restaurant to gain compensation for his self-inflicted illness.  But now that I know what to look for, I will keep my eyes out (especially in San Francisco’s Inner Richmond neighborhood).


I have also sampled a small variety of street vendor foods.  There is Miss Jin’s Top burger (two hamburger patties, one thick slice of ham, three fried eggs, layer after layer of cabbage, and condiments) and a couple local kebab-eries, but these foods you can find in many cities of the world.  A few things I hadn’t seen before coming here include rice-balls filled with red bean paste, spiral potato slices on a stick and many popsicle/ice cream bar variations:

Andrew, Daniel and I try spiral potatoes on a stick

Andrew, Daniel and I try spiral potatoes on a stick

Tim devours corn on the cob ice cream (encased in a corn-shaped "cone" with real kernels of corn!)

Tim devours corn on the cob ice cream (encased in a corn-shaped "cone" with real kernels of corn!)

Milkshake in a bag

This ice cream is essentially a milkshake in a bag; sold as a solid frozen block of ice cream, you mush it up and then drink it through the top. Also good for icing bee stings, as seen here (Korean bumblebees can sting you through your jeans, I've learned).

I’ve also sampled a number of Korean sodas.  The one I’m holding below actually tasted like pine:

Korean sodas, from left: Coke's version of "milkis" (milky-colored Sprite-like soda), Chilsung cider (also similar to Sprite), and my pine-flavored drink.

Korean sodas, from left: Coke's version of "milkis" (milky-colored Sprite-like soda), Chilsung cider (also similar to Sprite), and my pine-flavored drink.

They also have here, as I was pleasantly surprised to find, Baskin Robbins.  On behalf of a traveling American who has grown somewhat weary of gustatory surprises that necessitate trying (read: silk worms), thank you, ice cream gods, for delivering to  us the wonderful American ice cream cake!

Baskin Robbins Rainbow cake for Daniel's birthday

Baskin Robbins Rainbow ice cream cake for Daniel's birthday

We celebrated Daniel’s 22nd birthday with a good old-fashioned American tradition.  I feel so pampered!

KoREA: The North and the DMZ

Hey, Friends. Let me tell you a story. It’s about me having even more photos from the cabin to post. Are we sick of those yet? It’s about me making new friends and spending my evenings drinking, dancing, and listening to music, instead of at home, blogging. It’s about me working two jobs, Friends. Moral of the story? I haven’t been posting as often as I’d like. And now all of my cabin posts will not be in a row. Imperfections: How Sarah Learns to Deal With Them. That’s probably the title of the story.

Whitney, on the other hand, is on vacation! Lots of time! Lots of time to write long, interesting posts about world travel. No resentment here, Friends; she deserves it. So settle in with a cup–make that an entire pot–of tea for…another post from Whitney in Korea!

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When I studied abroad in Paris (five years ago – wow!), one of my friends from the program was from Korea.  I remember her trying to explain to us Americans how South Koreans viewed the North as she said, “We feel like they are our brothers and we want them to stop suffering”.  That statement has always stuck with me and was one of my most revisited memories while touring the Demilitarized Zone last Saturday.

The Demilitarized Zone is an area of land that buffers the North/South border, cutting the Korean peninsula in half roughly along the 38th parallel.  It runs about 250km long from coast to coast, is 4km wide and is heavily guarded.  Much of it is fences and walls topped with barbed wire and speckled with guard posts looking into dense jungle, while the most famous section is called the Joint Security Area – a compound right on the demarcation line where North and South Korean officials hold meetings on “neutral” grounds.  On a tour organized through Osan Air Base, Tim, Andrew, Daniel and I visited this area along with a few other stops, only taking pictures when told we were allowed to.

The first stop was Imjingak – a site with memorials dedicated to separated families, a place for displaced Koreans to pray and honor their ancestors, and the site of the “Bridge of Freedom”, built to return over 12,000 Korean War prisoners to the South (now only about 100ft long), everything expressing wishes for peace, healing and reunification.

"peace wall" between Bridge of Freedom and Worship Altar

Peace wall between Bridge of Freedom and Worship Altar

Fence with prayer ribbons

Fence with prayer ribbons along Bridge of Freedom

The next stop was at a sort of military observation post, providing a brief opportunity to look out over the DMZ.  From there we could see the only two towns that are located in the DMZ – the “Propaganda Village” in the North and “Freedom Village” in the South.  Both have tall towers that fly huge national flags, waving them in each others’ faces.  We were not allowed to take photos here, but I have a decent one of the Propaganda Village from later in the tour. From there we went to another location where we weren’t allowed to bring cameras: one of the four known tunnels that North Korea has dug underneath the DMZ.  Tunnel #3, which we visited, was the largest of the four – large enough to allow 30,000 fully armed North Korean troops to pass through in the space of an hour, should they use that tactic to invade.  We stowed our cameras, donned hard hats, and marched down a 30% incline to reach an opening to the rock-carved tunnel.  North Korea ordered the tunnel walls to be covered with coal dust so that when it was discovered by the South in 1978 (thanks to a tip from a North Korean defector), North Korea could claim the tunnel was actually a mine shaft: a 1,635 meter mine shaft that happened to pass under the DMZ.  Some of the dynamite scars show that North Korea was intentionally directing their missive toward the South.

After the tunnel we came to the northernmost train station in South Korea: Dorasan.  This station was built to connect the Korean Peninsula to the rest of the continent’s rail system; running through North Korea, the network eventually reaches Western Europe.

Trans Eurasian Railway Network

Trans Eurasian Railway Network

North Korea allowed this train to run, one symbolic time about ten years ago, from Dorasan to Pyeongyang and back again.  The station now sits empty but for the occasional burst of people armed with cameras deploying from tour buses.  We paid 500 won each (about 50 cents) for a ticket to the platform where we took pictures of ourselves casually lying down on the tracks and made half-hearted jokes about running away from a Northbound train, knowing that such a train is not likely to run for decades to come.  This giant advertisement from Korail, the Korean railway company, expressed a sort of obligatory hope that the station was not constructed in vain.  Note: the small sign pictured in the bottom right corner of the ad indicates that Pyeongyang is 205km away and Seoul is 56km in the opposite direction.

Korail Advertisement

Korail Advertisement

After Dorasan Station we had lunch and were then driven to the trip’s highlight: the Joint Security Area.  As I mentioned before, this is a heavily militarized compound straddling the border where the North and South hold political meetings.  We were led by an American Army soldier who told us when we were and were not allowed to take pictures.  The photo below shows the blue buildings (considered neutral territory) where meetings are held, as well as some of the People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) buildings, the three gray ones in the center and on the right.  The biggest gray building, in the center on the far side, had two brown-clad North Korean soldiers peering at us through binoculars – one standing on the top step just outside of the doors, and one inside on the ground floor.  The soldier leading our tour said the one inside was scanning our faces to make sure that none of us were politically important peoples or celebrities disguised as tourists.  He also told us that North Korea conducts about 1 tour of the JSA to every 10 tours on the South Korean side.

Joint Security Area

The Joint Security Area: blue buildings are where meetings are held; the three gray buildings here are North Korean owned.

Because we were being watched so closely, we were instructed not to make any gestures whatsoever toward North Korea or its soldiers so as to give them as little material as possible to be used as propaganda against South Korea and the United Nations Command.  We had the opportunity to enter the blue building that you see above (the one with the door open) and see the table where diplomats meet (and conduct “bladder wars”, where no one gets up from the table for hours and hours).  We were told that no meetings have been held there for some time.  The Republic of Korea’s soldiers (ROK = South Korea) are standing in a modified taekwondo position that allows them to react quickly if necessary and also looks tough.  This stance is known as “ROK Ready”.  The soldiers positioned halfway between a building and an open corridor are placed so because it allows them to duck and cover quickly, or signal with their hidden hand without being seen from the North Korean side if they see something unusual.

ROK Ready Soldier, as seen from the North Korean side of the table

ROK Ready Soldier, as seen from the North Korean side of the table

That’s right, I stepped to the North Korean side of the table with everyone else, when instructed we could.  I was in North Korea for about three minutes.  Then we left the building and took to the bus once again for a drive through the JSA.  We stopped at a checkpoint where we were only about 100ft from the border (the white posts in the picture below), and just a couple kilometers away from Propaganda Village (the picture below that):

100 ft from border demarcation

100 ft from the border (the white posts)

Propaganda Village

Propaganda Village in North Korea

Propaganda Village, most recognized by its humongous, 31 meter-long, 600 pound (when dry) flag, has no real inhabitants.  The buildings mostly exist to show how “well” North Korea is doing, however, when lit (a rare occasion), the light is brightest at the top “floor”, and becomes gradually less bright in the windows below, showing that there are no walls or even floors within the buildings, as they were not made to actually have people in them.  Sometimes people are seen in the city, mostly to raise and lower the gigantic flag.  I didn’t hear how many people that requires.

Propaganda Village is countered by South Korea’s Freedom Village, of which I have no pictures because when we drove by, we were in a “no photography” zone.  It has a tower similar to the one pictured above, flying the South Korean flag.  It also has actual inhabitants who make their living by farming; as many as 17 acres per farm in this area compared with the 1-4 acres in many other regions of Korea means for a greater yield and pretty decent money – especially because the government buys the crops that don’t sell.  That incentive, along with a government subsidy, means residents make at least $80,000 per year.  Not bad living, as the residents are exempt from taxes and conscription, but the town also has serious restrictions.  Residents must be direct descendants of people who lived in that valley before the Korean war, only women can marry in, and everyone has to obey a strict curfew and be present in the town for a certain number of days per year.  (Reminds me of Alaska and the PFD in some ways.)

The drive back from the checkpoint concluded our tour of the DMZ.  We saw most of what there was to see (for the public, anyway), and most of what we didn’t see, I imagine, looked like jungle.  The cool thing about the DMZ is that, as it has been basically untouched by man since the end of the Korean War in 1953, it is essentially a 60 year-old wildlife preserve.

The most mind-blowing aspect of the day was how close we were to such an oppressed nation.  Propaganda abounds on both sides of the border; South Korea directs balloons toward the North that are filled with candy, American dollars, and pamphlets criticizing Kim Jong Il along with news of world events.  This sort of propaganda speaks, in essence, of the truth.  Propaganda from North Korea to its own citizens demonizes the United States, portrays the South Korean government as puppets of the West, strongly emphasizes the property of “juche” (North Korean independence and self-reliance), and places North Korea at the center of world events.  Its military is strong but its people are starving; any money earned (whether by legal or illegal means) and most of the humanitarian aid received goes to bolstering its military forces while very little is used to help its citizens.  An NPR article I recently listened to pointed out that Kim Jong Il is concerned not with building a healthy country with a successful economy, but with maintaining control of the populous.

Tim and I agree that we don’t expect to see much change in political relations on the Korean Peninsula during our lifetime.  My Korean friend’s description of how the South beholds the North will be with me, it seems, for a while.


As promised, and without further ado…a blog from Korea! ABOUT Korea! Written by my oldest friend, Ms. Whitney. Enjoy!

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Hello and thank you for welcoming me as a trans-pacific writer for Ms. Sarah’s big world blog.  My name is Whitney and I am pleased to share stories of my first travels to the Asian continent.  It has become increasingly evident that this 5-week trip will bring me insights on two cultures; while I am here to travel new places and see new things, my visit is entirely inspired by Tim Wilde, the love of my life, and an officer in the US Air Force.  His being stationed at Osan Air Base affords me the occasion to make (what I feel are) interesting observations on Korean culture as well as that of American airmen.  Being a foreigner to both, allow me to share some of what I’ve seen during my first few days.

My non-stop flight from San Francisco to Incheon International Airport left on Thursday, July 28th, at 11am and deposited me in Seoul on Friday, July 29th, at 3pm.  There is a 16-hour time difference between my usual location and Tim’s, and though the flight was 12 hours, I “lost a day” upon crossing the International Date Line.  My return flight across the Pacific (which, according to those I know who’ve experienced it, has caused worse jet-lag than any other flight they’ve flown) will leave Seoul at 5pm on a Sunday, and I will arrive in San Francisco at 4pm on that same Sunday.  Trippy right?  In any case, I feel a little disoriented at this point, but am able to sleep through the night, so let’s consider that a WIN.

One thing that struck me while on my 12-hour flight was my American need for personal space.  After living in Paris for a year, being crammed into a metro between the backs, bellies and armpits of half a dozen other people, I got used to sacrificing personal space so that as many people could fit into a car as possible.  In the US, I commonly see that we are reluctant to allow others to encroach upon that 18-24 inches of requisite buffer while on the bus, subway or while being herded like cattle out of ridiculously crowded concert venues.   This need for space also shows itself when on airplanes.  I find myself commonly hoping, after taking my window seat on the plane, that one of the two remaining seats in my row will remain empty so that I don’t have to sit elbow-to-elbow with someone else.  If the middle-seat person arrives and the aisle-seat person never shows, middle-seat person scoots over to the more desirable seat, giving us both a little more room.  On my flight, however, a Korean woman sat in the middle seat next to me, and when the aisle seat remained empty, she was content to stay in her assigned seat.  This blew my mind.  It seemed to suit her, however, and she was unperturbed when I basically had to lay my head in her lap to fish for something in my backpack on the floor.  As Sarah would say, “different strokes for different folks”… is it tasteless of me to twist that rhyme into “different needs for different breeds”?

In any case, the flight was harmless and I managed to watch 4 full-length movies and a Simpsons episode back-to-back, something I’ve never endeavored to do in my life.  I arrived at the airport and Tim met me there, despite historic heavy rains the previous day (some parts of Seoul were receiving 2 inches per HOUR when I left the US and streets were flooding and mud was sliding…), so we got on a bus and came to Osan Air Base (not in the city of Osan, I’ve learned, but in Songtan).  And so comes my first introduction to overseas Air Force culture.

I regret not having taken many pictures to share: an amateur move in the world of blogging, I suppose.  Despair not (I tell myself), many will come.  I wasn’t allowed to bring my camera to some activities anyway, as military intelligence has restrictions on where such devices are allowed to be.  Squadron bonding events (called “roll calls”), when held in “the vault” (secure military intelligence room with no windows), do not welcome cameras, mp3 players, cell phones etc.  I was surprised that I was allowed in to the roll call, as this sort of tradition (adopted from fighter pilots and adapted to intel gents) can be pretty exclusive.  Introductions, consumption of goods (read: alcohol and bacon-jalapeno popcorn), war story rituals and naming ceremonies were among the main activities, and the roll call concluded with the passing of the mayoral gavel from one “patch” (boss) to the next.  These men and women, being trained in the ways of the US government presentational system, were prompted throughout the evening with, you guessed it, a powerpoint slideshow.

After the roll call, we piled into half a dozen cabs and left base for the pedestrian streets outside of the main gate.  We popped into a couple of favorite bars, one of which served a mixture of soju (rice vodka, essentially) and Sprite, along with something that made it glow green, from tea kettles.  I suppressed my worries about what cancer-causing elements may be in a drink that makes things glow green and downed shots along with the rest of the gang.

Green glowing SHOTS

Green glowing shots of soju mixture served in tea kettles

I hope to elaborate on more drinking gimmicks in a future post.  This one, I realize, has become somewhat lengthy and I thank and applaud you for continuing to the bottom of it (especially if you’re one of Sarah’s readers and don’t actually know me).  The rest of my first week here has consisted of a series of goodbye dinners and drinks for the resident patch (again, boss) who is outta here and heading to Italy.  My next adventures will be with Tim’s brothers, Andrew and Daniel, who are arriving for a week-long visit this afternoon.  The three Wilde Boys and I are heading to the demilitarized zone which separates North and South Korea on Saturday.  Check in again for commentary and photos from that field trip!