Korea pics are up on Flickr!

August 25th, 2008 § Comments Off on Korea pics are up on Flickr! § permalink

Check them out

Our last day of fun in Seoul

August 21st, 2008 § 1 comment § permalink

Technically, tomorrow is our last day – but since we fly out in the late afternoon, we are thinking of today as our last. Tomorrow we will be packing our bags (OK, that only takes 5 minutes), looking for that last spicy lunch (not hard to find), and taking the metro an hour or so to the airport (the subway system puts ours to shame in a bad way).

The high temps and thick humidity we’ve been sweating through these last two weeks has suddenly disappeared, but we do have 1 last day of rain – most of this trip has, unfortunately, been under moody gray skies either raining or threatening rain.

What better thing to do with a rainy day than go to museums? And what better kind of museums than the funky small ones we found here in Seoul:

The kimchee museum
The lock museum
The rolling ball museum

The kitchen utensil museum


August 20th, 2008 § 1 comment § permalink

We’re back in Seoul for 2 last days before we head home. We spent several days in the south of the peninsula in a city named Gyeongju, called a ‘museum without walls’, for the many relics and remnants from the Silla period (57 BC – 935 AD).

A popular travel destination for Koreans, there are giant maps of the area and the many points of interest at bus terminals and at each attraction.

The most conspicuous of the historic treasures are the large mounds scattered throughtout town and the region–they’re tombs of Silla kings, buried at ground level, under a massive dome of boulders covered in clay and grass.

There are also palaces and temples to visit…

We hiked to the top of a mountain full of Buddha statues and rock carvings…

…walked through a humongous lotus pond…

…and sat in a field of flowers

More red food (mostly)!

August 20th, 2008 § 1 comment § permalink

Me No Speak is helping us eat our way through Korea–everything here was ordered with the book, which is great as most restaurants don’t have an English language menu. Some places have photos of the various dishes on offer on the exterior windows, which would do in a pinch but you’d only be guessing at what might arrive on your table.

Bibimbap is a commonly found rice dish that comes with veggies and egg (sometimes raw), which you mix up with hot sauce. A variation on this dish is served in a sizzling hot stone bowl to give the rice a crispy crust. Not only is bibimbap fun to say, it’s tasty, too!

Ramen noodles

Spicy beef and noodle soup
When the women prepared this meal, the spices emanating from the kitchen made my eyes water, my throat tighten and itch, and my nose run.

Tofu and kimchee (an appetizer or snack)
We were surprised this came with meat stir-fried with the kimchee. Must do more recon on this one for our vegetarian book buyers.

Steamed dumplings
Something not red!

BBQ (again and again and again)
Sliced pork belly… yum!

The food post

August 16th, 2008 § 3 comments § permalink

As requested by our dear foodie friend, Rob, this post is all about showing you what we’ve been eating. Bon appetit!

Juk is rice porridge served in a variety of ways. Pictured here: juk with seafood.

Banchan are the side dishes that accompany every order. Kimchee (spicy, fermented cabbage) is a staple.

Kimchee stew
It’s a spicy as it looks!

Dumping soup
Dumplings were (sadly) not filled with meat.

Omelet over rice with sausage
I don’t really know what to say about this one, but I think a joke is in order…

Tofu stew
We were surprised the stew came with small shellfish–but were lucky to be able to order anything in the first place (see the menu picture that follows).

As Rob requested, a photo of a menu–this restaurant only had the menu posted on the wall. Would love some translation from my Korean friends! We ended up ordering the tofu stew from our Me No Speak book. Since the owner of the restaurant was nearly blind, we got help from a neighboring table, full of giggling Koreans.


August 14th, 2008 § Comments Off on The DMZ § permalink

Our tour of the DMZ took us about an hour and 20 minutes north of Seoul, to the 4km-wide uninhabited buffer between North Korea and South Korea. Barbed wire fences, guard posts, and mine fields stretch from coast to coast along the 38th parallel–a 248 km stretch of the most heavily armed border in the world.

A brief overview of the history for those who, um, don’t remember: the division between North and South Korea is a product of Japanese occupation during WWII, when at the end, communist Russia and China were left as political advisors of the North and the democratic US was left as political advisor of the South. The Korean War began in June of 1950 when the North invaded the South, and ended in July of 1953 when a cease fire was agreed to by all parties involved. The DMZ was created as part of the armistice agreement, separating North and South Korea by 4 km of land (2 km for each side), with a military demarcation line running through the center–today this line can be seen by a trail of white posts and rusty signs which run the width of the Korean peninsula.

Our tour, led by the USO, included Panmunjon (also called the JSA or Joint Security Area, where North and South Korean soldiers stare at each other across the demarcation line), several observation points looking into North Korea, a few ‘sites of incident’, and what’s known as the ‘Third Tunnel’, 1 of 4 tunnels the North Koreans have dug into South Korean territory–there are suspicions of at least 10 in total.

The most interesting part of the tour was our time spent at the JSA, where we were allowed into the blue temporary buildings that sit between two concrete behemoths on each side of the border. While the buildings are temporary, they have been there for decades, an emblem of the unresolved war between North and South Korea. This is where the armistice agreement was signed way back when, and where talks between the two countries continue today, with slow and nominal progress.

Here, the ROK (Republic of Korea) military police stand facing North Korean soldiers, in a ‘fight me’ stance, with fists clenched and an expression that gives nothing away behind dark sun glasses. While we were on a tour, these men were not there for show–they were on duty, and we tourists were reminded not to interrupt or distract them as we snapped photos and stepped from 1 half of the room, which was South Korea, into the other half of the room, which was in North Korean territory. The ROK police stand peering out from behind the blue buildings (to reduce their size as a target) as well as out in the open, while the North Korean soldiers return the gaze from their respective perches, all of them engaged in an ongoing face off across an invisible border without any foreseeable end.

South Koreans are not allowed on this tour without special permission from the government, which first entails a background check that goes back 4 generations. It’s a nuisance, so most South Koreans have never been and perhaps don’t want to go as they hear about the DMZ frequently on the news. The division and the ensuing tension has become a part of their lives, as evidenced by the containers of gas masks located in every underground metro station. But the presence of these things is not as dire as it sounds; the gas masks are like fire extinguishers–there in the case of an emergency without much likeliness of use.

During the tour we could look into North Korea. At one observation point, an auditorium with raised seating has been built looking out onto the North Korean horizon through a huge plate glass window. It felt strange to gaze upon a landscape this way, and in fact, it didn’t feel much like looking at a landscape, but at a giant postcard of a mysterious and forbidden no-man’s land, not real and full of intrigue. The military built this place to watch the goings on in North Korea across the DMZ buffer… on the lookout for gathering military forces or any other unusual and suspicious activities.

From another observation point closer to the JSA, it’s possible to see North Korea’s ‘Propaganda Village’ so named by the South for the loudspeaker broadcast of messages proclaiming the greatness of the country and invitations for defectors to come to ‘Paradise’, the North Korean name for the village. The broadcasts have stopped, but the name has stuck, and those who spoke of the place don’t believe anyone actually lives there as the lights seem to come and go off as if all controlled by the same timed switch.

There’s also a village on the South Korean side. When the armistice was signed, both the North and South were allowed to have 1 village in the DMZ as the whole thing was supposed to be temporary–the idea was that these villages would establish some ‘normalcy’ to the area when the country was eventually reunified, an event still waiting to happen. The South Korean village is full of farmers who make a hefty, tax free income on the rice and chili peppers they grow in the fertile Panmunjon Valley. And while they’re given special favors like no tax and exemption from military service, they live under curfews and armed guards.

There is a lot of watching and a lot of waiting… for something, or nothing, to happen at the DMZ. It’s as tense as any ‘face off’ is tense, a supreme show of stubbornness on both sides–the DMZ itself a place unaffected by the decades that have passed since its inception, locked in a moment in time while on 1 side, a country progresses and on the other, a country withers–opposites connected by families that have been torn apart by the boundary and today hardly know each other. It was a strange honor to be allowed to visit and I wondered, at first, why they allow tourists into the depths of the DMZ, upon roads lined by mine fields and most surprisingly, upon enemy territory (albeit in the protection and confines of the JSA building)… but what better way to show the North what freedom really is?

ROK military police

North Korean soldiers

North Korea’s Propaganda Village (aka Paradise Village)

Where we’ll be traveling in Korea

August 11th, 2008 § Comments Off on Where we’ll be traveling in Korea § permalink

Tomorrow: to the border between North and South Korea with the USO’s DMZ tour

Then, we’ll leave Seoul to spend a few days in a city in the south of South Korea called, ‘a museum without walls’, Gyeongju

And to wrap things up, an island excursion to Ulleungdo before heading back to Seoul for our return flight to San Francisco on August 23.

Too bad it’s the monsoon season, temps have been in the 90s with as much humidity and while the forecast predicts some relief there, it looks like a lot of rain in our future:


August 11th, 2008 § 1 comment § permalink

We’re loving the food in Korea, but Benjamin’s craving for garlic bread led us to an Italian restaurant last night. I was excited to order a bottle of wine, as we’ve been drinking Korean beer since we left the states. In Mongolia, they serve a Korean beer called Hite that we renamed ‘Shite’ according to taste, which wasn’t helped much by the fact that beer is served warm, for lack of refrigeration. In Korea we’ve been drinking a brand called Cass, which we haven’t renamed, but if we did (as you can probably guess), it would be ‘Ass’.

Back to the Italian restaurant…

Perusing the wine list, Benjamin mentioned something under his breath about concern whether or not the restaurant accepted Visa. I asked the waiter about this and he kept telling me ‘no’ thinking I was asking for a pizza. Yes it was an Italian restaurant, but most of the menu consisted of spaghetti (100 different ways) and steak (20 ways). We shared a bottle of wine, bruschetta and a caesar salad, and each had a plate of spaghetti, finished off with tiramisu and port. We didn’t come all the way to Korea to eat this way, but after being on the road for more than 3 weeks, something from home is a nice treat.

It’s also nice to have some options that don’t include mutton, and in general, to be presented with a menu with a high probability the options included are actually available. It’s a running joke amongst Mongolian travelers about the lack of availability of items on the menu and it’s not uncommon to hear people placing bets when they sit down at the table: “What’s your wager this time? I’m betting they have this 1,” while pointing at something written in cyrillic. We frequented 1 Turkish restaurant (go figure) in Olgii almost daily, and they consistently only had 4 of the menu’s 20 or so items available to order. After a while I couldn’t bear to eat there again, having sampled all 4 options repeatedly, but there were as few restaurant options in Olgii as there were available items on any menu in town (i.e. limited).

So far in Korea, we’ve had BBQ (thanks to our Me No Speak book, which helped us to order), bibimbap in a stone pot (a rice dish with veggies and raw egg), juk (rice porridge with various additions such as seafood or chicken), and some sort of sushi roll without raw fish but other ingredients, which Benjamin likened to a variation on a sandwich.

Squeaky clean

August 11th, 2008 § 1 comment § permalink

Last night we received an email from a newly made Mongolian friend, John, asking if we have had a nice foamy bath now that we’re in Korea. I wonder if we really smelled so bad that this is one of his main questions or if he just has a nicely sardonic acceptance of Mongolia’s deficits–specifically, the lack of convenient access to bathing facilities and hot water.

Having just got out of the shower moments ago, I am reveling in the thought that I have been squeaky clean for 4 days in a row now, with a bathroom ‘en suite’ and a toilet I can sit on if I choose to, toilet paper provided by someone other than myself, and access to a hot water shower whenever I like.  When we departed Mongolia, I was going on day 6 without a shower, wearing the same clothes I’d had on since my last bath. I am so thankful the immigration officer at the Seoul airport didn’t ask me to take my bandana off when checking my passport–he’d asked the gentleman ahead of me to remove his hat and upon seeing this, visions of my 6-day-old, greasy bed head on display popped into my head and worried me that I wouldn’t be allowed into the country.

Benjamin and I were both embarrassed to enter Korea as dirty backpackers, especially as the Korean people are crisp and respectable in the appearance. On the flight, Benjamin told me he couldn’t cross his legs because if his foot left contact with his shoe, the foul odor the pair had developed would waft throughout the plane’s cabin and possibly kill or maim his neighbors. I can attest that this is not an exaggeration. Our second night in Seoul was spent scrubbing both of our pairs of shoes with a bar of soap and toothbrush.

Here’s a photo of us as we left Mongolia:

Me No Speak named one of Time Magazine’s ‘gotta have’ travel gadgets

August 9th, 2008 § 2 comments § permalink

It may be ‘old news’ by now, but Me No Speak was featured a week or so ago as 1 of Time Magazine’s ‘gotta have’ travel gadgets on their site (in the company of the MacBook Air and iPhone) . Read the complete article or go directly to our write up.