- This has been the most amazing trip. I think it may have been our best ever. Nothing was a disappointment (except of course losing my blog drafts!). The whole trip was one wonderful experience after another. How lucky we are to be able to travel. Although retrospective, I needed to do the blog for me. I want to enjoy reliving our experiences when old age restricts our activities. I hope you have enjoyed the armchair journey as much as we enjoyed the real thing.
8th February 2014.
It’s snowing! Bizarrely, for all the lying snow that we have seen this is our first snowfall since Helsinki. It was too cold for snow in both Moscow and Harbin.
We decided to spend our last day going to the War Memorial that we had read lots about but felt that we didn’t have time to visit it yesterday. War memorial? No, it’s more of a museum.
This statue depicts two brothers who met on the battlefield. One was fighting for South Korea, the other for the North. How tragic.
You can see by the uniforms that these figures depict the two opposing armies.
Rather inappropriately, there was a children’s play park at the entrance to the memorial. It amused us to see children playing in the snow with buckets and spades – a good idea to get year round use of them.
Many of the exhibits in the three floor building featured high tech graphics depicting various episodes in the course of the war. They included this one laid out like a military cemetery.
I particularly liked this comment at the end of one piece of film,
whilst this needs no comment.
There was so much to absorb that we could have spent all day but I wanted to get back and pack. I also needed to continue my acquaintance with Korean street food which is so delicious.
I’ve spared you yet another photo of John stuffing his face!
This was a last chance to enjoy our lovely hotel suite and both the view of it from inside the building, and the view from it over the eastern part of Seoul.
Whilst I was packing John went off to look at a Buddhist temple which he had noticed previously.
We realised that we had not tried soju – the local firewater. This is an oversight which we will rectify this evening. Meanwhile we have two big decisions to make 1) where to have our last evening meal and 2) where to go on our next big trip.
7th February 2014
We decided to take the hop-on hop-off city bus tour. My personal travel agent said it was less than a 30 minute walk to the start point. 55 minutes later we arrived! The bus has 27 stops in all and takes 2 hours, so we decided to be highly selective and hop off only 3 times. There is half an hour between each bus so timing was of the essence.
Today the was memorial didn’t make the cut, despite the interesting presence of a B52 bomber in the grounds.
Neither did the shopping area of Itaewon but that’s a possibility for tomorrow. However we did get off 2 stops later at what turned out to be a seriously trendy shopping area.
I scored a bargain!
This is where Dermot demonstrated his ability as a quick-change artist. Mrs Brown must be getting really worried by his prolonged absence.
As with previous areas Santa’s little helpers were very much in evidence, whilst this particular area also contained possibly the most user-friendly police station we have seen.
One stop further on we visited a traditional Korean village. Lots of old wooden buildings had been restored and furnished in the style of the day.
Having posed previously as Terracotta Warriors in Xian, we had to do the touristy pose as a Korean Maid Marion
and a Korean Warlord.
We were surprised to find the water in this water wheel was frozen. After Harbin, it feels positively balmy here at around freezing.
There was an area where you could try some traditional games, which proved a great hit with some.
The village is obviously regarded as educational, certainly by this particular nursery class.
It was not quite The Peak (in Hong Kong) but the bus did go up to the Seoul Tower. We didn’t get off but got some cracking views.
Hunger caught up with us and we wanted to try some more of the delicious street food.
It was not quite the final stop but the bus did stop in our district – a short walk from Fraser Suites. Happy days.
After a rest and more frustrating attempts to solve my blog problem, it was vodka and Sprite time.
6 February 2014
…….or at least the scariest man-made place on earth.
Up at 5.15 for a 7.30am departure from a hitherto unknown part of Seoul. One of the reasons South Korea is so twitchy about the North is that Seoul is relatively close to the frontier and therefore it took little more than an hour to get to the DMZ. Although there has been an armistice since 1953, no peace treaty has ever been signed and so, technically, the two countries are still at war. We were therefore entering a war zone and it showed in all sorts of ways. Our passports were checked repeatedly, in most areas there was a ban on photography, and the landscape was characterised by tank traps, cleared woodland containing minefields, and razor wire.
Approaching the Joint Security Area the scary started to be accompanied by the bizarre. As we got near the actual boundary we had to walk in single file and all bags ,including handbags, had to be left behind on the tour bus. We had to stand on a plinth while we were given a briefing by a US soldier with the obligatory dark glasses and crew cut.
It seems that the reason for standing on the plinth was so that the North Korean soldiers in a nearby watchtower could take photographs of us (and also take potshots at us if they had a mind to do so). We were instructed not to look at, point at, or in any way gesture towards the North Korean watchtower. on the other hand we were allowed to take photographs looking ahead so snapped this North Korean soldier.
An interesting little point is that some South Korean soldiers appear to be guarding the corners of buildings. In fact this is to ensure that only half their body is a potential target in the event of attack. The poor soul standing in the middle whose entire body is open to attack is of a superior rank!
Incidentally, the concrete upstand between the two buildings marks the actual boundary.
We were then escorted into THE room ie. the room where all negotiations take place and where the negotiating table straddles the actual border.
Today the room was guarded inside and out by elite South Korean troops who adopted a martial arts stance. In fact we thought at first that they were dummies.
Inside the building we were free to move around and take photos. Half the room was in North Korea and half was in South Korea. We were subject to certain restrictions – we couldn’t touch the table or the chairs round it and we couldn’t go within 12 inches of any of the soldiers in the room. Despite the fact that both of us can say that we set foot in North Korea John is most disappointed that they didn’t stamp his passport!
Next stop was an observation point. From here we saw the Propaganda Village – so called because it is fake. The windows and doors were merely painted on and the buildings had no floors. Beside it was the North Korean flagpole – a mere 100 metres high, and with a flag so heavy that they have to lower it in adverse weather conditions. (This flagpole was erected to trump the earlier South Korean effort which was 60 metres high which itself outdid an earlier North Korean effort!) All this was symptomatic of how quite trivial matters get blown up out of all proportion.
More sinisterly, in the distance there was a large radio mast used to jam all radio communications. This may explain why we had no mobile phone signal at all while in Seoul. We saw the Bridge of No Return, so called because at the armistice prisoners were exchanged and were offered the chance to return home or remain in their country of captivity. If they crossed this bridge they were not permitted to return.
Nearby was the site of a particularly unpleasant incident in 1973: a detachment of US troops was cutting down a large tree which was preventing intervisibility between two observation points, when they were attacked by a much larger force of North Korean troops wielding axes. Two US troops were hacked to death and the incident provoked a major crisis resulting in the deployment of lots of US ground, air and naval forces in the wider area. This memorial, which is the same diameter as the tree they were cutting down, was erected in their memory.
Although standing in the South the other 3 sides were all North Korean territory. The silly grins on our faces were our attempt at staying relaxed.
Lunch was something that happened but not to be remarked upon save for a slight digression: we had previously commented that Korea seems a lot more like Japan than it does China. This was borne out by the toilets. Although they were spotlessly clean, I had the same problem that I had in Japan. With all the buttons and controls I couldn’t work out how to flush it!
After lunch we were taken to another observation point with a particularly panoramic view of the North. Yet again pettiness raised its head and we could only take photos from behind a yellow line some distance away from the edge of the viewing platform – rendering them virtually worthless.
An adjacent museum gave a good overall picture of the geography and in particular the models on display made up for the earlier prohibitions on photography.
The horizontal dotted line is the boundary, the blue buildings are the UN and the white buildings beyond the dotted line are North Korean.
The final visit of the day was to a tunnel. South Korea has so far discovered four tunnels dug by the North Koreans apparently with the intention of facilitating a future invasion of the South. One of these has been preserved and opened up for tourism. We, even John, went down. It was the equivalent depth of a 25 storey building. The length of this tunnel took us to within 100 metres of the frontier, Again restrictions applied and cameras, handbags and even mobile phones had to be left in lockers at the surface.
There is so much more that I could say but the above is a necessarily condensed version. We learnt a great deal and in particular our US army security mentor turned out to be highly informative, at times entertaining, and not at all like the Uncle Sam acolyte which he first appeared to be.
Tonight we are both reflective and thoughtful.
After our rest John went for a foray with his camera.
The entrance to a traditional restaurant. Pity we couldn’t read the menu.
Very zen like.
A distinctly Japanese influence, but not as manic as Tokyo.
Wish I’d had a foot massage. John kept that one quiet!
I went to check out the pool, sauna and steam room.
Success all round. Early bed for our early start.
This is day 1 in Seoul. We realise that our drafts may be lost for ever so have decided to hand write the posts of our time in Seoul. This is the first of them.
5 February 2014
Went to Namdaemun market this morning which is reputed to be the best traditional market in Korea.
We have seen better markets. We did find and buy fridge magnets girls. That’s all I bought. It was a cheap day for John.
We had read about wangmangdu dumplings filled with either meat or seafood and veg. There are lots of vendors making and selling these in their stalls.
We tried some. Yum! Yum! Yum! They were light, fluffy and packed with goodies. We would have had more but feared runny tummys. There were so many vendors selling so many different things, even if we didn’t know what most of them were, that we were spoilt for choice.
Returning on the metro we saw cabinets containing gas masks to be used in case of emergency ie. invasion by the North. Scary to think that this remains a real threat.
and how to use them.
We have been on the lookout for postcards, as these were “off” in Harbin. Yipee – found some. They were only in packs of 8 or 16 but at least we can now send pcs.
There are young people employed by the Tourist Board to be on the streets offering advice to the likes of us.
Thanks to a lovely helpful girl we were able to buy stamps to put on our cards.
We had a snack lunch, and of course a beer, in our luxurious apartment before the afternoon began. 5 nights in the Fraser Suites was my reward for lasting 6 days without a shower.
Have spent ages trying to solve my blog problem. Thank you Jenny and Graham for your help. I’m not sure where we are but at least I think I know what the problem is. I hope I haven’t lost all the drafts I had saved.
We wanted a chilled out (unfortunate phrase given the temperatures!) last day in Harbin. We had planned to go shopping but most shops and businesses were closed for New Year. They appear to close for 10 days! We needed something to put in the vodka John had cleverly sourced in a wee shop. I wonder if the shape was intended to be some kind of sublime message.
Finding a convenience store that was open was not easy. We had two problems; the first being that most places were shut, the second being that from the outside we had no idea what the structure contained. It could have been a private dwelling , an office or a shop as far as we knew. Eventually we did find somewhere and secured a few cans of Sprite. Yay!
We were walking in the general direction of St Sofia’s when we saw masses of people going in somewhere. Because of the intense cold all entrances to buildings were protected by very heavy duty polythene curtains. All these people were pulling aside the curtains and entering. Not to be outdone we followed suit and found ourselves in a huge, packed OPEN shopping Mall.
I had not bought as much as a postcard let alone fridge magnets so we sallied forth.
We had all our layers for the cold on and it was incredibly hot in the Mall. When we looked down and saw the crowds we knew it was time to go.
We went down to the ground floor and stopped near the exit to don all the hats, scarves and gloves we had removed. By that time I thought I would pass out with being so hot so I said to John I had to get out and made for the exit, thinking John was right behind me. The crowds were worse than Harrods sale opening day so walking together was not an option. As I was about to exit I turned round – no John! We had spoken previously about getting separated and had agreed I would stand still and John would find me. The minutes passed and no John. I began to panic. The crowds were so dense that you couldn’t see beyond the next person. I had money for a taxi back to the hotel but had broken my own cardinal rule and was not carrying a card with the name and address of the hotel in Chinese. I waited a few more minutes then retraced my steps making sure that there was no other route John could have taken. He was standing just where we had stopped to don our gear. I don’t think I have ever before been so pleased to see him! That is a very condensed version of events which doesn’t convey the panic I felt.
Feeling very “together” we continued in search St Sofia’s. It had been a church at one time but was now converted to a museum of architecture. Quelle surprise – it was closed.
We decided to cut our losses and go back to the hotel for some down time and to get packed ready for our early start to the airport in the morning and to decide where to go for our last dinner in China..
We had planned to wait until it was dark before going to the smaller of the two ice festival parks. In the meantime we wandered around the streets away from the centre. We decided to walk down to the river before going back. What a surprise! These boats were clearly going nowhere.
There must have been a couple of thousand people on the frozen river. Somewhat Lowry-esque.
There was another enormous slide with people queuing up to go down. We could see cars driving over the river, skidoos and horse drawn carriages. Nearer to the river bank there was an area of rubber tyres being used for dodgems.
If the noise was anything to go by they were all having great fun.
As dusk fell we made our way back to the smaller of the two parks which was fairly central. It was still spectacular but perhaps we were spoilt having been to the big park the previous evening.
There were far more smaller sculptures, once again they were for the competition.
When we were down at the river we had seen people sitting in chairs mounted on skis. At this park we watched people propelling themselves through a maze on these things. We stood amused for ages until the cold drove us on.
It had been a long day for us so we were pleased to go back to the hotel and enjoy yet another fabulous meal in the Chinese restaurant attached to, but not part of, the hotel.
We had been undecided whether to go to the Siberian Tiger Park or not. We are so glad we did. It was about 10 kilometres outside Harbin. It had been snowing in the night and it was fascinating to see how efficiently they cleared the roads. What we were not prepared for was the intense cold. With the wind chill factor it was almost 40 below. This was the first day of wind we had experienced.
We booked a bus tour of the park with an English speaking guide. That was a good move as she was very informative. I took video of the park from the bus but we have no still photos of that.
After the tour we were free to wander in an enclosed area for as long as the cold would allow.
There were some tigers in cages. These were the ones who were sick or pregnant or who were there as a punishment for being naughty! What constitutes a naughty tiger we never did find out.
There were also larger enclosures where we got a good view of the more co-operative ones.
This chap is a White Siberian Tiger, but he wasn’t for posing to have his photo taken.
We were lucky to see one of only 10 ligers (a cross between a male lion and a female tiger) in the world.
It was lovely to get back to the warmth of our hotel room but it was a great morning and well worth the effort.
The ice festival in Harbin took my breath away, and it was more than the cold! I had not fully appreciated the size of the sculptures. There were two parks and the following pics are from the larger of the two.There was a copy of the Colloseum in Rome, the Gate of Heavenly Peace in Beijing and St Paul’s Cathedral in Macau. These were the ones John recognised. It was on an enormous scale with lots of colour changing lights.
There was an enormous twin track ice slide which had plenty takers. We were cold enough without trying it.
There were smaller, more intricate sculptures which formed part of a competition.
It was very very cold. There was no wind the night we were there and it was still -32c. I was beginning to get a bit cold but Mr Rohan really kept my body warm and together with Mrs Bearpaws they kept my feet cosy. Even John wore a hat and 2 pairs of gloves! I took very little video because I could not keep my thick gloves off for long. I had bought John a really good pair of liners which allowed him to use his camera, albeit with a tad of difficulty.