Friday, August 5, 2016

Imjingak Park and the Demilitarized Military Zone, Korea

My initial intention when planning this trip was to visit the Joint Security Area where the North and South Korean government officials would hold their meetings in one of the blue conference rooms straddling the border of both countries. However due to scheduled military training, all JSA tours were prohibited. The next choice was to visit Imjingak Park and Dorasan Station. Hotel concierge recommended hiring a luxury car with driver for US$250, more expensive than joining a tour from Seoul, or taking the commuter or DMZ train from Seoul Station, or self drive. Since we have limited time in Seoul, we took the concierge's recommendation.  
Took an hour drive to Imjingak Park and we spent an hour exploring the area in the hot sun. 

Colorful messages to deceased or living relatives in North Korea left on the military barbed fence at Imjingak Park.

Locomotive relic riddled with bullet holes reminding us of the devastation inflicted upon the locals by the Korean War.

The only way to go to Dorasan Station from Imjingak Park is by joining a shuttle bus tour offered by the only tour company allowed to operate tours to Dorasan Station, Dora Observatory and the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel. Was not keen on visiting the tunnel but it was "mandatory" of the tour. There's no tour with just stops for the Dorasan Station and Dora Observatory as I checked the ticket box display. Tour ticket was 12500 won each with the monorail ride into the tunnel. We got on the bus at the scheduled time and had to go through several military checkpoints before entering the DMZ area. At the first checkpoint, a soldier came on the bus, checked everyone's passport to ensure the identities matched and did the first head count. At the second checkpoint, a soldier came on board the bus and did a second head count.  Final checkpoint was at the end of the tour where another soldier did the head count again. We were required to arrive and depart the DMZ area on the same bus. Switching to different shuttle buses was not allowed even though the tours were quite regular. 

   Entrance to the platform of Dorasan Station, ready to be used but stands empty at the moment.

First stop of the tour was the Dorasan Station for 15 min. Bought a 1000 won ticket to go onto the platform. Gave me goosebumps standing on the platform thinking what could have been if South and North Korea were connected through this station. The hope of peace and dream of reunification are very much alive. 
                                                           So close yet so far away.

                                Hopes, dreams and history on display in the Dorasan Station.

                                                             Dora Observatory

2nd stop was Dora observatory for 15 min. Shelled out 500 won to use the telescope for a better view of  North Korea in the distance. We could hear their propaganda broadcast and see the 2 country flags plus factories and apartment buildings.
3rd stop was the tunnel for an hour. 15 min monorail ride down to the tunnel, walked for 10 minutes to a block of wall and looked into a 2' by 2' window view of North Korea then turn around and walk back up the same way that we came. Uneventful indeed except watching taller tour mates getting their heads (with helmets on) bumped on the tunnel ceiling multiple times. 
What is a tour without a stop at the souvenir shop for 15 min? Bought some DMZ themed t-shirts and shot glasses. 

                                                               North Korea in the distance.

        South Korea flag on the left and JSA buildings on the right as seen from the observatory.
Tiny view of  the taller North Korea flag on the left and a white speck view of South Korea flag on the right.

Last stop was the reunification village of Tongilchon where history has it that the villagers were farmers during the day and soldiers by night,  always ready to go to war for their country. The DMZ tour time was 3 hrs in total and we felt rushed the whole time. 

We had a taste of how bad Seoul's traffic was on a Friday evening. We had reservation at Jung Sik Dang Restaurant at 7:30 pm that night. What should have been a 20 min cab ride turned into a 140 min nightmare. We were 1/2 hr late but the restaurant was nice to keep our reservation. So glad our last dinner in Seoul was one of our best meals of all time. It's modern Korean cuisine perfectly done with the right flavors and pleasing aesthetics. We enjoyed every dish of the 8 course tasting menu.

Amuse bouche - beef wrap, sticky rice,croquette, potato on a stick (below), local berry soup, etc.

                Gujeolpan- delicious crocker sashimi in seaweed cracker wrap with 8 condiments.
  Deep fried abalone - never knew deep fried abalone could be this tender and satisfying.
Braised octopus - very tender but overpowered by the sour chojang aoili. The octopus was flavorful enough by itself without the aoili.
Sea urchin bibimbap -creamy uni and rice, very aromatic and appetizing. Can't get enough of this dish.

Tender, juicy "ok dom" snapper fish from Jeju island with crunchy skin and scales. Nicely done.
Galbi - melt in your mouth beef with just the right amount of sweetness. Better than wagyu beef. Best dish of the night.
Sujeongwa- cinnamon punch with sorbet on top of  cream custard. Won't mind another serving of the custard.
Dolhareubang- green tea mousse with chocolate ganache shaped into a stone like Jeju statue. Terrible picture taking did not showcase how good the egg shaped angelica root ice cream (tasted slightly like the herb, dongguai) or the crumbled chocolate cake acting as seaweed was. Just as we thought that was the end of our dinner, they brought out an assortment of tea for us to choose and of course, their petit fours with sesame powdered marshmallow, soft biscotti, pound cake, and crunchie. Absolutely, an enjoyable culinary journey.

Seoul, Korea

We had 2 days in Seoul as a stopover trip. Took 2.5 hours from the plane landing to immigration and customs then arriving at our hotel. Airport limo bus located right at the terminal exit was very convenient. Our ride to Gwanghwamun Square only cost 10000 won (about US$10) per person. Must have exact change as the bus driver does not and will not accept cash. Almost got kicked off the bus as I fumbled in my purse for the exact cash to be inserted into the ticket slot. Bus ride was uneventful and took an hour to get us close to our hotel. Walked a couple of not so short blocks to the hotel. Thankfully the receptionist was nice enough to allow for 10 am check in.

Super comfy bed, felt like sleeping on clouds. Spacious room overlooking Gwanghwamun Square with the most up to date amenities, including seat warming and self flushing toilet. The only drawback was the audible traffic noise even from the 28th floor.

First meal in Seoul had to be lunch at the famous Toksokchon's samyetang. It's chicken ginseng soup with rice stuffing, jujube, lotus seed and ginseng. So rich and satisfying I wished I had another bowl. Seafood pancake was too large for the 2 of us to finish even though it was delicious . 

A short walk away is the Gyeongbokgung Palace and Cheong Wa Dae- the blue house which is Seoul's "white house". Didn't stay for long as it was hot, humid and crowded. Next stop was the Bukchon Hanok Village.

One of many traditional houses at Bukchon Hanok Village.
The lovely tea house set in traditional hanok on a hill overlooking the Gyeongbokgong Palace and Cheong Wa Dae.
After climbing up and down little hills in the village, we were sweaty and exhausted. Nothing beats refreshing ice cold flower teas plus assortment of sweet rice cakes to quench our thirsts.

After cooling off, we walked to Insadong for people watching and gallery hopping. Didn't see much that interests us except for baskets of steaming dumplings at an alley on one of the side streets. Bought 2 big shrimp dumplings for 3000 won. It  was alright, nothing spectacular compared to the ones we can get 10 min away from our home in LA. Afternoon weather was too unbearable to walk. Hailed a taxi and the driver wasn't too pleased that it was only a short 3 km ride that took 10 min because of traffic. The final fare was 3400 won to our hotel. Starting fare was 3000 won and increased by 100 won per km. Gave him 5000 won and told him to keep the change. It's not easy being a taxi driver in Seoul.

Had to try the traditional Korean meal (Hanjeongsik) at Jinjinbara Restaurant, Seoul Station. It was a feast not just for the stomach but the eyes as well. Throughout dinner, the dishes kept coming. There were cold dishes to start that included cold soup, salad, sashimi, cold noodles, wraps followed by hot appetizers like fried kimchi cakes, fish cakes, chives cakes, chicken ginseng soup, and fried glass noodles. For the main course, we had seared fish, baked shrimp, beef stew and spicy octopus along with kimchi soup. At this point, we could hardly stuff ourselves anymore. The only thing to do was to stare at the dishes in front of us. To conclude the dinner, we were served rice in water with 6 side dishes (banchan) plus desserts of sweet rice cakes and watermelon slices. Another couple next to us was trying to finish and halfway thru, the lady burped so loudly that everyone including herself started cracking up. With so many courses in one sitting, some dishes like their noodles and pancakes hit the spot while others were a miss especially with the overcooked shrimp, fish, and kind of chewy beef stew. It was quite cheap at 49000 w per person for this huge spread. A quick peep of traditional Korean dishes in one night.
Final stop for our first day was Namdaemun Market. Just a few blocks from Seoul Station and we needed that walk after dinner. I'm not much of a shopping person. Most stalls were closed and nothing that I can't get from LA's Chinatown for about the same price. Took a taxi back to the hotel and called it a night.