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Live the adventures of Dan Walker's travels through reading his travel journal. The travel journals are listed below in descending order of date. To search the travel journals, use the keyword search at the bottom of the page.

Journal Entry:

Saturday, April 26, 2003 05:41:35

Asia Pacific 2003: 5 - From Korea

Wednesday, April 23, 2003

Departure from Taipei was smooth. Kevin, the taxi driver I'd been using, was there right on time and as traffic was lighter than he expected we made good time to the airport. It is interesting, and very noticable, that industry has been kept outside of Taipei, so there is little air pollution in the city, but it is very evident on the other side of the hills between the city and the industrial zone. All airport formalities were dealt with quickly and efficiently, although there were lineups due to the number of travellers.

The plane was a Thai Airlines airbus 330, on which I had another great exit row seat with about 8 feet of leg room for the two hour flight. The big difference is that this flight was almost full. Most passengers were still wearing surgical masks. Entry into Korea was handled efficiently, but there was a lineup at customs - the penalty for being back where people are travelling again.

The airport for Seoul is located at Incheon, on a mud flat surrounded island in the Yellow Sea that is connected to the mainland by a long causeway. Incheon is the third largest city in Korea, with a population of 3,500,000. I'd been tipped off by the hotel that it would be a very expensive taxi ride, but that Korean Air Lines ran an efficient bus service. The Seoul subway system currently services Incheon and it's domestic airport, but the line is still under construction for the international airport.

I found the bus easily, and after a short wait paid my 11,000 Won ($US9.25) for the hour and a half trip to the hotel. The bus was great - instead of traditional bus seating they had installed seats like those found in first class on domestic flights in North America. To make room for the wider seats there were only three in each row, with lots of leg room between rows.

Seoul is a city of 11 million people in a country with a population of 47 million. Most live in long, thin Soviet style high rise apartment blocks, each identified by a large number written on each end. These are built by private companies, often for employees. There were two hotel stops to let others off, then I was the only passenger for the Sheraton Walker Hill Hotel, which is in an out of the way location in the SE part of the city. The going was slow due to heavy traffic in spite of freeways running along both banks of the Han River, which runs through Seoul. There were an amazing number of bridges across the river - I later found out there are 22.

The hotel is located on Walker Hill, named for an officer in the US military during the Korean war. It was an R & R site for US troops at that time. My room on the 11th floor has a fabulous view down the Han River. This hotel is another entertainment centre, with many restaurants featuring different types of food. There are TV sets built into the floor in front of the elevators on the lobby levels, as well as inside the elevators. There is also a 720 seat Las Vegas style restaurant theatre with two shows per night. The current show is "Magic on Ice" featuring figure skating and magic combined. It sounded intriguing, but my schedule didn't leave me time to see it. The hotel's no tipping policy is a nice innovation!

I'd been feeling pretty lousy all day and had the runs to boot, which I'm blaming on the jelly fish heads for the lack of something more definite! By the time I got organized at the hotel and had a light snack for dinner I was beat, so went to bed. This is the first hotel in quite awhile where the windows opened, so the cool night air instead of air-conditioning was welcome. In the morning heat was required, and for the first time my leather jacket was put into use.

After a good nights sleep, I was feeling great. As the hotel is far off the beaten path, the guide had come by taxi to pick me up. It turns out Good Morning Tours is a fair sized operator, with a fleet of buses and a major hotel where we connected with the tour bus. Their buses are great - one armchair type seat down each side of the bus with lots of legroom. So far transport has been designed for me, something I really hadn't expected here!

There were only four of us on the tour, one fellow from California and a couple of characters from Bangladesh who spoke just enough English to get by. We got a real work out, as two of the palace complexes we went through were enormous and required miles of walking through the maze of buildings. One covered 110 acres, I don't remember the size of the other. They were truly amazing to see, even though they now cover only a fraction of the territory that they once did. They have been maintained in excellent condition.

A point of interest in the palace buildings was the heating they installed in the 1400s. There were fire pits, or furnaces built into the foundation of the buildings. The heat and smoke was piped under the floors then out to external chimneys away from the buildings. In this way the floors were heated, which in turn heated the rooms. The traditional Korean way of sleeping is on a futon type matress on the floor, so it would have been quite comfortable.

The schools in Seoul have an outing this week - there were thousands of well behaved students streaming along in groups behind their teachers. All shouted "Hello", and many would ask "How are you?", or "What's your name?" Even though it was repeated hundreds of times, it was fun bantering with them as they practiced their English.

English and Korean are the only languages taught from grade one, then additional languages can be chosen in high school. I was surprised that Japanese was not taught, as Japan occupied Korea from 1910 until the end of WW II and most Koreans can speak Japanese. According to the guide 50% of the tourists here are from Japan, and there is considerabe Japanese investment.

The folk museum we went through was interesting, then we visited a rice cake museum. I'd really expected this one to be boring, but surprisingly it wasn't. The variety of things that can be done with rice cakes has to be seen to be believed! There are some amazing creations done for special events such as holidays, birthdays and weddings. A tasty lunch consisting of a variety of rice cakes and accompaniments was served up.

The tour made a very full day - there is a lot to see here. We ended up walking another mile or so through the market area before dropping the others at their hotel and then making the long trip back to my hotel in the bus. I treated my aching body to a good meal in the Cantonese restaurant before collapsing into bed!

Sunday, April 24, 2005

It was an easy morning, as I was not picked up until 11:40, so took the opportunity to read today's paper in bed. It's nice to see SARS has dropped to the bottom of the first page! It was a cold, rainy day, which may account for the fact that once again I comprised the entire tour group. Today's trip was to see the folk village near Suwon, an expanding city of three million people a short distance outside of Seoul .

The folk village is a large complex with buildings that include a town centre and market, schools, administration buildings and houses of various classes of people constructed as they would have been in days gone by. Working farms surrounded the village, with replicas of houses that people of different income would have lived in between 100 and 200 years ago. What made it more interesting is that people actually live there, and are paid to carry on as weavers, sandal makers, potters, farmers and so on in shops fitted out as they would have been at that time. Some of the people had to be freezing today!

As I'd not bothered with breakfast, our first stop at a village restauant was very welcome. A good, hot, filling Korean meal hit the spot. We then went on a marathon trek around the entire complex in the rain - the high today hit 14 degrees C. Fortunately there was a spare umbrella in the microbus. As it would have been in those days, the entire area was dirt turned into slippery muck on a rainy day such as today. This had further been churned into deeper mud by busloads of schoolkids who were having a ball, totally oblivious to the adverse conditions. It was definitely cultural immersion!

After three hours of hard slogging we headed back to the bus. The four entertainment programs had been cancelled because of the inclemant weather. We crawled back into town through worse than normal traffic, until I was delivered to the Sheraton Four Points. I'd wanted to try both Sheraton hotels here and used todays tour to transfer from one to the other.

This hotel is located on the northern edge of the city of Seoul in a hilly, wooded area - higher mountains and forest begin right behind the hotel building. The city limits of Seoul cover an enormous area, and include many square miles of forest and mountains. The welcome at the hotel could certainly not be faulted - I was quickly checked in and upgraded to one of the executive rooms. I went to the roof restaurant for dinner where the general manager (German) introduced himself, along with the food and beverage manager (Swiss) and the head Chef (Korean). Apparently these people were recently brought in to turn around the hotel when it was purchased and renamed by the current owners.

Prices for services such as laundry and meals are less than half of what they were at the Walker Hill, and the ambience and view from the top floor dining room are great. I had breast of duck for dinner, which was supurb. There is a good wine list, and surprisingly all wines were available by the glass - including Dom Perignon! I was satisfied with a couple of very good Korean beers, though. The staff and service was great, and I'm getting used to being bowed to by everyone. I'll be in training by the time I get to Japan!

The room featured something I'd not seen before. It has a regular desk model computer with permanent internet connection at no charge. This gave me a great opportunity to catch up on emails and to do some maintenance work on the web that I'd been putting off due to the high charges in most business centres.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Today was a beautiful sunny day. I had to make my way to the War Memorial Museum to meet up with the bus for Panmunjom. The importance of dress code had been stresssed - no running shoes, no T-shirts and no blue jeans. Passports are a must. I caught a taxi an hour before I had to, arriving at the museum at a little after 9 AM for a tour which didn't leave until 10:40 AM. I received my pass for the bus, and was given a free entry ticket into the museum.

In front of the massive building a squad of soldiers were doing precision drill and marching, which I watched for awhile. The museum itself is very worthwhile, covering Korea's battles from the 800s onwards. There were a lot of displays, reconstructed ships and weapons of each period and uniforms through the ages. There were actual tanks, artillery, vehicles and aircraft used by both sides in the Korean War. In total there would have been about two dozen actual aircraft, some inside the building and many outside.

The large bus was full this time, and had the standard bus configuration of two seats each side of the aisle. All but six of us were Japanese. The others were a mother and daughter from the US, a couple from Nice France and my seatmate who is a computer representative from Singapore. There was one guide for each group. My luck held on the seats - all seats were reserved and mine was the front seat on the aisle, so lots of leg room again and also the benefit of the view through the front window.

We headed out on the four lane "freedom highway" along the DMZ. Soon we were passing double barbed wire fences and guard posts as we went along the Im Jin River, which is the frontier here and which joins the Han river below Seoul. There was very little traffic, but lots of barricades, rolls of barbed wire and defense positions in the centre of the highway ready for instant deployment. There were also nets in the river to prevent divers from crossing underwater. Eventually, there were cement and metal blockades on the road, forcing the driver to take a slalom course through them.

No contact with the outside world by North Koreans has been permitted by their government since the war. It is estimated that ten million family members are separated. My guide from the first day has family in the north, and has no idea if they are alive or dead.

We came to a checkpoint where Korean soldiers borded the bus to check everyone's passports. There the road changed to one lane each way as we crossed the river, with cement barricades forcing a zig zag route using both sides of the road. Traffic was not a factor - there wasn't any. There were high dirt anti-tank defenses across the countryside. Each time one of these crossed the road there would be a massive block of concrete the full width of the road suspensed on concrete columns which had explosive charges in them. In case of attack the charges would be blown and the concrete would drop, blocking the road.

At the next check point we all had to leave the bus while it was searched, then at the one after that the bus was boarded by two US soldiers. A couple of more miles and we had to leave our bus in a parking lot, changing to a military bus that was provided for us. No purses, packages, or carry on items of any kind were permitted on the military bus - they stayed on our bus. Our military escorts stayed with us.

This bus took us into the UN base, now occupied by only US and Korean troops, where we had a military cafeteria style buffet lunch. There are about 37,000 US troops still in South Korea, and 400,000 of the 600,000 men in the South Korean army are stationed along the DMZ. The guide said that on the other side of the border are approximately 600,000 of the million strong North Korean army.

Once inside the DMZ we were able to see a South Korean village which is located in the DMZ. This was encouraged by the South Korean government. Each person was given 17.5 hectares to farm, and living subsidies. The average income is $US82,000 per year, and as they are not officially in South Korea they pay no taxes nor are subject to compulsory military service. Military patrols guard the village, where there is an 11 PM curfew. Soldiers also guard the people as they work in the fields.

A flag pole 100 meters high was erected in the village to fly the Korean flag. The North retaliated by building a 160 meter flagpole and hoisting what has to be one of the worlds largest flags. It is 30 meters by 15 meters and weighs 600 lbs!

After lunch we passed through more checkpoints before arriving at the Panmunjum treaty signing area, which is also where infractions of the truce are discussed and resolved. We had been very sternly briefed that there was to be no waving, obsence gestures, or any other type of hand signal to the North Korean troops. In the briefing was a history of events leading to the war and the war itself. We were then lined up and with our military escort taken to the conference room where disputes are settled.

There are four wood single story buildings straddling the border here - the border is clearly marked in concrete half way down the buildings. The two central blue buildings belong to the South, the two outside grey buildings belong to the North. When we entered the conference building we were able to proceed across the border and into the North Korean end of the building. From there I was able to video the border from the North Korean side, through the window. It was not possible to leave the building through the North Korean door as a very serious looking soldier was blocking it, and we were under constant observation by North Korean troops.

From there we climbed a lookout tower to survery the two lines, and then our bus was escorted by a military vehicle to another lookout over the "Bridge of no Return", which is now blocked at the North Korean end, but which spans the border. There were two instances of North Korean troops coming into the south zone over this bridge in the past twenty years, and in both cases the ensuing fire fight left several dead. We drove right to the end of the bridge, but could not leave the bus.

That ended the tour. It was really interesting to see a place which is in the news so often, and to get a feel for it from the troops stationed there. It was then bus and taxi back to the hotel, another delicious meal and the finishing of this report. I'll get it off tonight while I still have the convenience of free in-room internet.

Tomorrow will be a long day - I'm being picked up at 7:30 AM for a private tour of Kanghwa Island, then being dropped at the airport for my 7:25 PM flight to Okinawa.