Category Archives: travelling in Korea

Dreams of kimchi-land

“We live, as we dream – alone…” Joseph Conrad

There is nothing quite like travelling alone to a foreign country to isolate one. This is not to say that I haven’t been loving every moment of seeing friends and family since returning. It’s amazing to see everyone but it also a reminder of how experiences isolate us. As a friend observed the other day, it’s the little things – the food, the household practices, cultural idiosyncrasies of a place far, far removed from anything those around me have ever known. A couple of months returned and I am particularly aware of those little things. I keep thinking of something or noticing things that remind me of Korea. It doesn’t seem rational. I am so very happy to be home and have no desire to go back. I guess when you live in a place for month upon month it gets under your skin and I always miss the places I’ve called home.

Some of the things I miss are obvious. I’m still subscribed to the ROKetship feed so I get each new cartoon and find myself laughing and thinking of the people who share that context. Some mornings I also wake up full of the urge to head to DongDaegu to take a train or a bus to Gyeongju or Busan or Seoul and go exploring. It’s a lot harder without that super-efficient public transport system. It’s also harder without a thousands-of-years-old Silla Capital and museums around every corner. Or an Opera House just across town. I miss living in a country that invests heavily in history, tourism and the arts.

I miss the little things too. Not even miss – I’m just aware of the difference and less comfortable in my own culture than I used to be. I feel just a little bit uneasy every time I suddenly register that I’m wearing shoes in the house. Anyone’s house. I miss having a ‘mart’ on every corner selling the basic essentials – like garlic and instant rice and plastic cheese slices and Spam. The shops are lovely and western and modern here – not to mention clean and pleasant – but they are so far away and wandering down aisle after aisle makes everywhere feel like Costco or HomePlus (which isn’t as good a thing as it seems like it should be). I find myself reverting to Korean – strangely most often when I’m trying to use a language other than English. Saying ‘Kam-sa-ham-nida’ to an Afrikaans-speaking bag-packer at the local PnP gets odd looks.

Other things are less expected. I miss eating with chopsticks. It’s not intellectual, either. I miss the feel of metal chopsticks in my hands. I feel the need to eat (ramen) noodles with chopsticks just to be eating with chopsticks. But really what I want is pajeon or galbi. Korean food. Proper Korean food, with all the side dishes – even the ones I don’t like. And, of course, kimchi. I miss kimchi. It is strange and odd and a little embarrassing, but I really do. I keep thinking about that Galbi place next to Festival downtown. Or the Hut. I miss the Hut. I miss the people and the place and the music and ‘Congratulations’. And dongdongju. Bizarrely, I miss Korean beer, but I think more for the sake of Somaek. Some days I want nothing more than to be able to head to the Hut after work at 9pm.

I miss that part of my life – far enough away now to be something that happened, another chapter. Missing places and people, like regret, is probably futile, except that it strengthens memories, histories. Things experienced alone only really exist in the mind of the experiencer. In remembering, we travel back to those places and those times and revisit, reinforce, sometimes recreate, what exists nowhere else. At least, that’s how I think of it – with a secret, private smile – when I suddenly feel that crazy urge to go to the hut or drink dongdongju or eat kimchi with metal chopsticks.


On Tuesday, I was up and ready to leave by 8am. Outrageous, I realise, especially for a non-working day, but worth it for what was to come. I was going on a tour to the DMZ. There are two kinds of DMZ tours. The longer, more expensive option takes you right up to the Joint Security Area, where you can actually enter the room where talks are held, through the middle of which runs the border between North and South Korea. The border never used to be enforced in this UN-controlled area until the axe murder incident between some US soldiers and the North Korean army, after which it was enthusiastically insisted upon (mostly by the North, if reports are to be believed).

I opted for the shorter tour, which takes you to the edge of the DMZ. I was picked up at the backpackers at around 8:15am, just as I took the first sip of a destined-to-be-abandoned cup of coffee. I joined the rest of the group in the small bus and we headed off. There were 6 of us on the tour that day, two New Zealanders, an entertaining American (as opposed to the annoying type) and two possibly-Canadians who didn’t say all that much. I was the only woman, apart from the tour-guide, which bothered me not at all, although the guide seemed a little concerned about it.

Our first stop was Imjingak. This is the site of the second-last station on the North-South line and the closest any civilian can get to the North without being part of a specially arranged, guided tour, complete with military checkpoints and permissions. All the way to Imjin, the road followed the line of the Han River (or Hangang – for some reason generally translated as Hangang River). For most of the way, the pretty area of forest beside the road was separated from the river by a line of barbed wire fencing, dotted with guard posts with  armed guards. This line, the guide explained, is the civilian control line. The demilitarized zone stretched for roughly 2km in either direction north and south. On the Southern side of this (and presumably mirrored on the North) is an extremely heavily militarized zone stretching between 5km and 20km (depending on where you are in the country) to the civilian control line in the South.

Imjingak is along the civilian control line. It also has huge symbolic and historical importance. It is here, for example, that ‘freedom bridge‘ stood (stands?). During the Korean War, the bridges that had existed over this river at what, several times, was the front, were destroyed. Once the truce had been signed, the ‘Bridge of Freedom’ was built, theoretically to connect the two Koreas but really for the express purpose of facilitating the exchange of POWs. On that bridge, thousands of Koreans were asked to choose, very finally – they would never get the chance again, whether they wanted to belong to the North or South.

Also at Imjingak are various artefacts from the war, including a locomotive that was shot to pieces as it tried to deliver supplies, as well as a bell dedicated to unification (Peace Bell), a wall dedicated to unification and various other testaments to (some of) the South Korean people’s hope for the reunification of the peninsula. The most poignant, at least for me, was the shrine. The idea and role of ancestors in Korea differs from that in South Africa and is intrinsically tied up with place. So, each Cheosak and New Year, families travel to their ancestral homes to perform the rites that show their respect for or veneration of those who have gone before them. During the Korean war, the front-line between the armies moved back and forth several times and civilian populations scattered before it, trying to avoid the fighting. At the end of the active war, therefore, many were far from their homes. Prior to this conflict, Koreans could move across the peninsula but once the truce was signed, the 38th parallel became a fixed barrier and many Koreans found themselves cut off from their homes and ancestors. This point at Imjingak is the closest they can get and over the years many families began coming here to bow towards their homes and make their sacrifices here. Eventually, the South Korean government built them a shrine – a tiny gesture that is really all the still-technically-at-war nation can do to ease their loss. Just near the shrine is a monument recognising all those nations who fought as part of the UN force on the Southern side. I had a moment of ambivalence about my own country’s involvement.

After half an hour or so, we were all hustled into a larger tour-bus. Because the rest of the places we’d see on the tour are in an area under heavy military control, all small tours are bundled together (with their tour-guides) onto larger buses driven by specially accredited drivers. We were on our way to see the 3rd Infiltration tunnel, also known, according to Wikipedia, as the Third Tunnel of Aggression. Once there, we watched a video that was surprisingly un-anti-DPRK but concertedly, explicitly and emphatically pro-unification. This was followed by a walk through the exhibition hall with our guide – a great chance to ask questions and get a clearer sense of the history.

And then the tunnel. This is one of the bits of the tour I was looking forward to most, perhaps because the infiltration tunnels are less well-known and so less propagandised, perhaps because there is something so classic-war-novel about tunnels underground. Perhaps because allowing people to visit these tunnels is a recognition that hostilities still exist, something that doesn’t seem to happen often in the RoK, particularly in the expat community, where most people dismiss the North as a joke. This tunnel, and the others like it, are clear evidence that the DPRK didn’t just lie down and give up in 1953. It appears that the North Koreans decided in the 1970s that the best way to get around the DMZ was to tunnel under it, all the way to Seoul, so that ground troops could move through the tunnels to back up an air assault (it is assumed). The first tunnel was found in 1974 and the most recent (4th) in 1990. There are probably at least 3 to 5 tunnels as yet undiscovered.

This third tunnel was found in 1978 after a tip-off from a defector. It is estimated that it took roughly 6 years to construct, using dynamite and then (probably) human labour to clear away the rock. It is just over 1600m long, 400m of which are on the South Korean side. In order to get to the tunnel, tourists must don hard-hats and walk down the steep access shaft. The North Koreans are apparently pretty good at tunnels – our guide informed us that they have a subway system up to 100m deep. They must have perfected their skills here – it was a long way down.

Once in the tunnel itself, I found myself wishing – for the first time ever – that I was average Korean height. Scores of Koreans wandered effortlessly past as the Westerners bent and ducked to avoid knocking ourselves out on the solid rock above us. The rock dripped and glistened as we walked. Dynamite holes were ringed in white paint to mark them. On the walls and the roof, if you touch them accidentally, is the black ‘coal’ they were dusted with by the retreating North Korean soldiers, the basis of the North’s later claims that the tunnels were in fact part of a coal-mining operation.

The end of the third tunnel is blocked by three solid concrete walls. Tourists are able to go as far as the Southern side of the first. The space between the first and the second is monitored by CCTV and beyond that second barrier, land-mines protect from any invading force that might successfully overcome the final wall. The area around the first wall is now also monitored by CCTV, too, replacing in the early 2000s, the previous human-plus-dog-plus-canary early warning system.

The tunnel is fascinating, particularly to someone with an interest in history, if only to get a real idea of just how determined the North Koreans were (and possibly still are). It should, however, come with a warning – coming back up to the surface required a hike of nearly half a km up an 11 degree incline.

Our next stop was Dora Observatory – an opportunity to look across the DMZ into North Korean territory, or at least at the Kaesong Industrial complex and the DMZ ‘peace’ villages. You are not allowed to take pictures beyond the ‘photo line’ at the observatory, apparently because they’re scared you will capture on camera images of a South Korean military base in the DMZ, but that makes no sense to perhaps there is another reason. This means that it is impossible (at least without a fairly substantial zoom lens) to capture images of the villages and the border.

The view is awesome, though. We were lucky to be there on a perfectly clear day and so were able to see far across the DMZ, even without the binoculars (500 won per view). The DMZ is, these days, a precious nature preserve in a peninsula where not all that many creatures survive. This provides an even more stark contrast that would exist anyway with the massively deforested hills of the North’s side. On the Southern side, forests blanket the hills with lush green (happily concealing their carpet of deadly landmines). To the North, the hills are bare and huge patches of erosion glaringly scar the landscape. Of course, this area is near the border and it is possible that some of the clearing has been intentional, but there is an awful lot of ground cleared, suggesting that the North’s insatiable and unfulfilled need for energy is a more likely explanation. What little is known of the North suggests that they are anything but a thriving country, struggling to produce sufficient food, power and other goods. A far cry from the North Korea that existed not so long ago, when the North’s standard of living in fact remained higher than that of the South right up until the 1970s and the South’s economic miracle.

From this look-out point, we could also see the two flags, the North’s bigger after they finally won (at least for the moment) the bizarre my-flagpole-is-bigger-than-yours stand-off, building one of the world’s highest. Also visible was the North’s ‘model’ village, often referred to as a ‘fake village’. I was a little sceptical of the story that the North maintains this village that no-one lives in, but looking closely through the binoculars, it does appear that the windows are empty and the buildings are just shells. The South’s own ‘peace village’ has a population of 500, with a maximum of 200 allowed to live in Kaesong-dong, from what I could gather.

The observatory was good but soon it was time to move on to Dorasan station, the last station on the Southern side – or fist station to the North as the information boards and pro-unification propaganda proclaim. This sparkling, modern station complex, complete with customs, cargo storage area and ticket office, has never been used and stands as a symbol of Kim Dae Jung, President’s Sunshine Policy towards North Korea. The train to the North (to Kaesong, not any further) apparently runs past here but this station, situated as it is within the civilian control area, is not uses. At the deserted counter, tourists pick up info pamphlets and use the commemorative stamp to prove they were here or shop at the tiny café. Nothing else happens here and guards walk back and forth, dealing more with tourists than anyone else.

The final stop on the tour was unification village, where we visited a ‘market’ (read: souvenir store) selling products made in the DMZ and North Korea. They sell a variety of goods, from T-shirts and key-rings to roots and herbs grown in the DMZ. They also sell North Korean beer. Once the guide mentioned this, several of the group jumped at the chance to try it. It was very good, actually – rich and refreshing and beating hands-down the South Korea offerings.

And then it was time to return to Seoul. As we drove back, we chatted with the guide about the situation and the history, learning more about the two Koreas. Back in the city, we were dropped in Itaewon and went our separate ways. I had a last lunch in Korea’s foreigner-central and let myself process and think about all that I had seen and learnt in my 4 hour tour to the DMZ.

Stopping by Hongdae

Korea has had both good and bad moments. I’ve travelled more than ever before and learnt to enjoy exploring by myself, among other things. The place where I spent the most time, however, was a relatively small (by Korean standards), fairly conservative and determinedly ‘normal’ city. A city unlike any other I’ve lived in or known. In order to ease the transition, and also to take in one of the major Korean tourist experiences I’d so far missed, I decided to spend a few days in Seoul on the way out. This ended up being just one day and two nights, thanks to the usual Korean complications of bureacracy and poor planning, but turned out to be a good choice.

I arrived in Seoul on Monday around 5pm. I took the KTX up from Daegu. It would probably have been simpler to take a bus, with my life-for-one-year-in-a-foreign-country-sized suitcase, but the KTX was faster and I wanted to travel on a high-speed train just once more. Once in Seoul, I hopped in a cab and headed for Hapjeong Subway, where I found myself at completely the wrong entrance for the directions I’d been given. After lugging my large case up and down various staircases, I found the right exit and set off, dragging said suitcase behind me. I was booked in a Kims’ Guest House which was perfectly nice, if rather annoyingly far from the subway when dragging 20kg of luggage.

Having settled in and dumped the bags, I headed off to explore a little and find some dinner. I vaguely thought about going to the area I’d visited with a friend not too long ago (Hongdae) but wasn’t particularly concerned, really. I was just walking. How strange to think I’ve become comfortable and confident enough in Korea to set off ‘just walking’ in a city I barely know. A year ago, I would most certainly not even have come close to considering it. As it turned out, my wandering led me, by gradual and unintended twists and turns, to something that looked familiar. Sure enough, before long, I spotted the bar I had visited with that friend.

I was pretty tired, thanks to all the suitcase-lugging and leaving-Daegu admin, combined with a late night on Sunday, so my first thought was to stop into the first place I liked the look of and get some dinner. But then I saw another place that looked interesting. And another. And another. Each with its own unique style and atmosphere. Each as interesting as the last.

As sunlight faded into romantic dusk (with candles on tables and couples sipping wine), I wandered the streets of Hongdae, almost overwhelmed by it all. French Bistros sat next to Spanish grills. Japanese Sake Bars shared pavements with galbi-on-the-street. Cafés offered coffee and wine. One place was selling pork cutlet pizza (pizza topping on a giant port cutlet). Another offered “ethnic oriental food”. And the music! Sophisticated wine bars spilled elegant jazz onto the pavements. Rasta-style taverns echoed with laid-back rhythms. Cafés moved with hip-hop. Bars pounded old-style rock. Cellphone stores and clothing shops kept the usual K-pop in the mix. Music drifted and mingled and enveloped.

In restaurants, on streets, tripping up the stairs to drink cocktails and beers, Koreans (and not a few foreigners) of all shapes and sizes, styles and fashions populated the area. There were punk rockers, emo kids (appropriately blonde in contrast to the standard black), jocks, tattooed bikers, pretty girls in summer dresses, stylish women in six-inch heels and all manner and form of doc martens. Hair ranged from black, through red and orange and purple to white-blond and yellow with a streak of pink. It’s hard to accurately express the significant difference between Daegu downtown and Hongdae but I suppose the key is contrast – Daegu’s peaceful, controlled, highly-(over)valued normality against Hongdae’s effortless, unconcerned energy and variety.

I stopped into a lovely place called Piccante and had a simple (but good) thin-base margherita pizza and a glass of wine. Wine by the glass? What a novel idea. Behind me, on the raised edge of the main restaurant level, was a row of wooden letters, table-high (and holding up a glass counter) spelling out PIZZA&PASTA. Just great.

I could have wandered Hongdae all evening but I was tired and had a (relative to what has been my usual) early morning planned, so I went back to the hostel and slept like a baby.  I went back the following evening, though, and spent a very happy few hours – my last night in Korea – with pen, paper and glass of wine, in a delightful Italian Restaurant and Bar called The Gabriel.