w r i n k l e d
ADVENTURES IN TRAVEL, WRITING AND AGING GRACEFULLY
ADVENTURES IN TRAVEL, WRITING AND AGING GRACEFULLY
Second only to the Chinese, Korean tourists are everywhere. We’ve seen them climbing the conical mountains of Cappadocia, taking selfies along the Tiber in Rome, picking their way through the rubble of Angkor Wat. They disembark double decker buses en mass, dressed in vivid track suits and multi-colored visors, chattering as loudly and joyfully as Rainbow Lorikeets. And every time I spied them, I would feel strangely comforted. We were all looking forward to Korea – the food, the culture, seeing family. And in those ways Korea felt familiar. For us, it was the closest thing to going home. In other ways, it was totally alien. Or maybe I was just made to feel that way. Everywhere we’ve been in Asia, the locals thought of me as their own: In Thailand, they assumed I was Thai. In Indonesia, I was Indonesian. In Vietnam; Vietnamese. A Cambodian taxi driver was so convinced that I was one of them that despite repeating, “Korean, from America” (because when you’re Asian traveling abroad, it is never enough to just say American), he watched me from the rearview mirror, blurting the occasional Cambodian word to see if my eyes betrayed a flicker of recognition. But in Korea, they took in my wide freckled face, the grey hair, heavy ass and shook their head suspiciously as if to say, “Oh no, you can’t possibly be one of us.” The young men are impossibly dapper and pretty as girls. The women are flawless, expertly coiffed and tailored. They don’t have pores or sweat glands and there is nary a wrinkle.
It’s different in other ways, too. Seoul is a city filled with smart-tech high rises and mega malls. Sure in the States we, too, can watch TV and pay bills on our cellphones, but in Korea, you can also use it to buy snacks at a kiosk, pay transit fares and start a load of laundry all from the wifi equipped tunnels of the subway. The roads are filled with cars we’d never of heard of: Ssangyong Rodius, Daewoo Matiz, Kia Carnival. And unlike other countries that have embraced American music and movie stars, here, the billboards and magazines don’t feature Kiera Knightley or George Clooney, but K-pop bands and Korean soap opera actors. Just 60 years ago Korea was annihilated by civil war, left so impoverished its GDP was equal to that of Somalia's. Back then, prosperity could only be found abroad. Today it’s charting the course as an internationally recognized leader in technology, beauty and popular culture.
Case in point: my cousin and his wife are gorgeous, effortlessly hip, funny, smart and incredibly kind. He runs an international luxury goods brand. She arrives to the cool Italian restaurant dressed in head-to-toe white just as I’m rubbing soda water on my shirt. Their 10 year-old daughter runs to greet us. Katie is already fluent in Korean, Mandarin and English and when she grows up, she will be your boss’ boss.
But Korea is a country seeded as much in the past as it is in the future. Despite having been invaded 400 times in its history, and having endured a 35-year occupation by Japan, Korea has still managed to retain its own unique language, food and traditions. There is a strong sense of national pride and a belief in honoring one’s heritage and elders, an appreciation that deepens during dinner with my great uncle. He regales us with stories of the past, and we, Isoo especially, are riveted when he tells us about the Korean war.
Although almost every Korean can speak some English, most are too timid to try (thus the popularity of group tours when traveling abroad). I begin every interaction with an apology, and to everyone’s surprise, we manage pretty well. So with my broken Korean, we worked our way around Seoul – seeing the ancient palaces and Bukchon Hanok, the traditional Minsok village, the trendy Gangnam and Insadong neighborhoods, the eerily surreal DMZ, and Namsan mountain glowing pink with cherry blossoms. It was a fabulous trip and one I would love to share with my cousins. So family, let’s put this on the docket for 2018!
Giant canvases adored with the Korean flag lead up to Gyeongbokgung Palace.
Leaving their mark (anyone what to guess what Isoo wrote?).
The changing of the Royal Guards ceremony,
Oona meets Gyeongbokgung Palace alive with pink cherry blossoms.
The Gyeongbokgung Pagoda - so iconic it used to be printed on the Korean won.
We went to Minsok, a re-creation of a Korean folk village. The kids watched a traditional farmers' harvest dance, played with ancient toys, and tried their hands at milling rice. They loved it even though we never made it to the adjacent amusement park.
Oona wearing a traditional water basket. Isoo carrying a baby cradle made of bamboo and twine.
Jumping rope with new friends.
We also took a rainy day tour of the DMZ. A memorable day despite the crowds.
Surprisingly, the DMZ is actually a working village comprised of 460 civilian farmers and their families. They grow soybeans, rice and ginseng and if you can endure the heavy military presence and 10pm curfew, you can enjoy tax-free and chemical-free status, making DMZ farmers one of the few organic, highly-profitable farmers in the country. The area's toxin-free status has also made the region a defacto wildlife refuge, home to 70 different mammal and 320 bird species. Isoo was eager to bird the area, but because of still active land mines, we had to clip his wings (I so do love puns).
The kids were deemed too young to see Panmunjom, the designated "neutral conference room" where the two nations meet for negotiations, but we did get to walk through the Third Tunnel. The tunnel was revealed in 1978 by a North Korean defector who claimed to have helped engineer the tunnel with the intent of attacking the south. Now it's a tourist attraction. Three more tunnels have been found with as many as 16 more believed to be discovered.
Driving to the DMZ, you'll see huge billboards hanging over the streets. It's more than an advertising strategy - in the event of an attack by North Koreans, the ropes holding the boards would be cut, dropping the billboards to barricade the path to Seoul. And of course the streets must be wide enough to fit tanks and land fighter planes.
The day of our visit was rainy and grey, but on a clear day, you can see straight into North Korea. If you squint, you can see the South Korean and North Korean flags in the distance. The South put their flag up first and the North responded by building theirs higher. So the South built a higher one and so forth. South Korea finally gave up when the North's Panmunjom flagpole was deemed the third tallest flagpole in the world.
Just beyond Panmunjom flagpole is Kijongdong village. The official position of North Korea is that Kijongdong is a vibrant, prosperous collective farming town. However, after viewing the village through high-powered scopes, it was discovered that the brightly painted multi-story houses are abandoned concrete shells lacking window glass and interior rooms, with building lights turned on and off at set times and empty sidewalks swept by caretakers in an effort to preserve the illusion of activity, thus giving Kijongdong the nickname " Propaganda Village".
At one point, reunification of the North and South seemed eminent. North and South Korean soldiers would fraternize, often playing soccer on the DMZ line during breaks. An even bigger step toward opening boarders was with the creation of Dorasan Station and the Gyeongui Line railway that would connect the two Koreas. Built in 2002, the first train took its maiden voyage in 2007, only to be shut down immediately after, when an incident involving the North Korean shooting of a South Korean tourist who accidentally wandered across the border re-ignited tensions. Now talks of reunification have quieted and South Korean soldiers are not allowed to talk or even make eye contact with North Korean soldiers. Many of the soldiers wear sunglasses to ensure adherence to the new rules.
The shiny Dorsan Station may only have run a maiden voyage, but it was fully operational with train conductors, ticket takers, customs desk and even a concession stand ready and waiting for passengers. Also prepared: a beautifully designed passport stamp, which for the time being, is merely a collector's curiosity.
My father lost his eldest brother during the Korean War, but gained a sibling when my grandfather "adopted" an orphaned girl. People often ask how South Koreans feel about reunification. Here's your answer: outside the station is a plaque filled with the names of donors who have contributed to the building of the railway. The war is recent enough that several living generations of families are still separated. Reunification may not happen in my lifetime, but I'm confident it might happen in Oona's.
We did the crazy steep hike up Namsan mountain to walk the city's ramparts. Our reward: great views of Seoul framed by pink cherry blossoms.
N Seoul Tower in the distance. If you visit, definitely check out the excellent burger joint on the first floor.
The traditional Korean style house is called a hanok. Most have been renovated into guest houses, art galleries and restaurants, but the 900 hanoks of Bukchon Village remain predominantly residential. We loved wandering the narrow corridors and took in the sunset over the picturesque tiled rooftops.
Next time we come to Seoul, I'd love to stay in one of these (instead of our dump near Seoul Station).
Want to know what the future looks like? Then you should visit Songdo! Well, maybe. Once just a landfill next to the Incheon Airport, Songdo is a planned city envisioned as a high-tech international business center and residential utopia. $35 billion later, with progress slowed by the recession, the city is still only half completed, with finished buildings at 70% occupancy.
Yes, it has the requisite shiny metal buildings. But there's more: Songdo's underground trash system is comprised of a network of pipes that suck trash from your apartment/office to a central plant that automatically sorts, recycles, buries or burns waste for fuel. Since there's no need for trash collectors or garbage trucks, the waste disposal department employs only seven people to service the entire city. Songdo's residents can also sit in front of custom television screens and from a subscription menu of items, take classes and talk to teachers from all over the world. And coming soon to Songdo? Micro-chip tracking of kids - just in time for Isoo's teenage years.
But the city is anchored around its parkland, which make up 40% of the terrain. The city's commitment to Green Living fosters transport by bike and as far as we can tell from the empty roads, residents are on-board (or should I say, on-bike?). And the city's sophisticated water system automatically separates filtered water for drinking from water used in showers and even toilet tanks.
We took advantage of the free-bike rentals and are happy to report that the trails are extensive, safe and well marked.
Who knew that in the future apartments resembled 1990's reduced income housing facilities? Despite Songdo's best efforts, the rate of development (slowed by the economic downturn) is already dating its advancements. The occasional shiny high rise not-withstanding, Songdo is not nearly as futuristic as the hype. In fact, it's a little depressing. Ironically, the empty streets, lack of traffic and the undeveloped lots give the city a post-apocalyptic feel.
If you really want to see the future, get a look at the one on the left. My cousin's daughter already speaks three languages and has the confidence and charisma of someone who will one day run the world. And more pretty girls - we got to have dessert with friend/family Katherine. We were so lucky to be able to see her face!
My Korea family. This is too rare a photo. We were fortunate to meet them for lunch. Later, my Kun-ah-pa (literal translation: Big Daddy) took us out for dinner and told us a bunch of fantastic stories. Here's one: When Kun-ah-pa was 19 years old, he was working as a grunt in a local hospital. One day he spied a young kid eating chocolate and after some questioning, learned that the kid had earned it shining shoes at a nearby US Army base. Kun-ah-pa, always one to find opportunity where it didn't yet exist, asked my grandfather, a tax collector for the liquor industry who was often gifted bottles of whiskey, for five bottles and an old newspaper. He wrapped the whiskey in the newsprint and waited on the trail often taken by the Army Major. When he finally passed, Kun-ah-pa gifted him the five bottles and asked for a job. The Major asked him two questions: Where do you live? Do you speak English? My uncle lied about both, but was assigned to the mess tent. The kitchen manager taught him to speak English and nicknamed him George. One day, the kitchen manager turned to him and asked, "George, what do you want to do with your life?" and Kun-ah-pa said that he wanted to go to college. The kitchen manager offered his help and Kun-ah-pa said, "Well, if you don't mind, the next time you place a supply order, can I get a bolt of nylon?" Back then, nylon was prized and difficult to procure in Korea. Three months later, Kun-ah-pa received a large package from the Sears & Robuck catalogue. He sold it on the black market for 100xs its price. That's how my Kun-ah-pa went to college, thanks to one double-wide bolt of yellow nylon.
We really wanted to see a k-pop concert while we were in Seoul, but there was nothing scheduled. Next best thing? A 4-D Hologram performance at the K-live concert arena. The technology was pretty impressive, and PSY, Big Bang and 2NE1 were not bad, but it wasn't quite the same without the throng of screaming fans.
Since the Olympics, signs in English have been added to major sights, however, none of the locals have any idea of what you're asking since the Westernized names are not recognized by Koreans. Even employees at the Tourism Office don't speak any English. Nonetheless, we were able to get around the city almost exclusively by public transportation. Yet it wasn't until we took the commuter train to Songdo that we understood just how cool public trans could be: regular fare tickets buy you a seat, but if you feel like splurging, you can rent a private room equipped with a karaoke machine and sing all the way to your destination.
How is it that Koreans look so flawless? It's not called the World Capital of Plastic Surgery for nothing. In the Gangnam district alone there are 400-500 plastic surgery clinics and hospitals in a one square mile radius. Approximately 1/3 - 1/5 of Korean women have had surgery. The traditional high school graduation gift is blepharoplasty (double eye lid surgery) and even a former President of Korea went under the knife WHILE IN OFFICE. No wonder when I say to Katherine, "Wow, the women here are beautiful," she shrugs her shoulders and replies, "Eh, they all look the same." Actually, she's right. Many do bear a resemblance to anime cartoon characters, or depending on the outfit, like "cute hookers" (my cousin Sunny's description).
Nose jobs are for sissies. In Korea, the menu of "improvement" options range from V-line surgery (jaw slimming, achieved by either sanding down the jawline using oscillating saws or breaking the jaw and then realigning), the Beyonce (teeth whitening), arm lifts, dimple creation, calf reductions, leg straightening surgery, leg lengthening surgery, eye puffiness reduction and mouth curls so your lips stay in a perpetual smile.
Personally, I was more interested in the food. I ate my fill of bulgoi (thinly sliced beef), gangjang gejang (marinated raw crabs), gamjatang (spicy pork and potato stew), chiages (spicy tofu stew) and mandoos (Korean dumplings). As spicy and fragrant as Korean food is, Koreans do not like to smell like their meal. Nowadays, if you enter a kalbi house a hostess will take your jackets and seal them in large plastic bags to keep them smoke-free. We were given two sets of forks to eat our spicy chicken wings so as not to have to touch them with bare fingers. I was given plastic gloves to eat these crabs, but much preferred to get down and dirty. Oh and if you do decide to enjoy a kalbi dinner, be prepared to pay up! A small piece of meat can set you back $100!
Most high rises in Seoul are multi-use buildings. That means offices or residences above, department stores and restaurants in the lower floors and in the basement, giant supermarkets. This one near our digs was noisy and chaotic with an extensive array of prepared foods, several dine-in specialty counters and crazy kimchi bars. We spent an hour sampling our way through the crowded aisles.
Seen around town: The newly constructed Dongdaemun History & Culture Park.
The meandering Cheonggyecheon Stream canal walk.
In the heart of trendy Insadong is the brilliant little Ssamzie-gil shopping complex. Instead of stairs or elevators, shoppers wind their way up a gently inclining ramp to pop into little shops selling boutique crafts, clothing and art.
We ate our way through Gangnam's little streets by night and window shopped Garosu-gil by day.
Namdaemun. Seoul is truly a city of the old and new living side-by-side.
Steamed pork buns in Gangnam.
The view of Seoul from our officetel (studio apartment). See you next time, Seoul!