Thursday, December 24, 2015

Korea // Visiting the DMZ On Your Own

Visiting the DMZ is something that has been on my Korea bucket list for a while, yet I've never had the opportunity until now to go. After doing research, I realized that visiting the DMZ is a very tourist-oriented experience. If you're wanting the more intense version, then you should visit the Joint Security Area (JSA), which can only be booked through selected travel agencies.

The DMZ is near Paju, where I initially planned to visit. I figured I could visit the DMZ in the morning and tour Paju city in the afternoon. WRONG. Visiting the DMZ is a whole day activity. Also since I decided to visit the DMZ the day before going booking a tour wasn't an option. I'm glad I didn't though. The tours are exactly the same as what I did except double the cost (verified this with a hostelmate who did book a tour).
KTX ticket booth in Seoul Station
To get to the DMZ go to the KTX ticket booth in Seoul Station and ask to buy a roundtrip ticket to Dorasan Station. You will be riding on the DMZ train.

Above is the latest DMZ train timetable, updated on July 1, 2015. The blue column is the weekday train (excluding Monday) and the red columns are train times for the weekends. These are the only available trains so make sure you plan accordingly! 

You'll also be asked to fill out the form above. Remember to bring your passport because they will check it at the checkpoint in Imjingang Station.

The DMZ train is easy to recognize because of its loud exterior and interior decorations. Each car has a different theme with pictures of different spots you'll pass along the way or during your tour.
Taken at Imjingang Station
At Imjingang Station everyone will be asked to disembark and go through "immigration," if you will. They will check the form you previously filled out, your passport, and hand you an ID.
The closest South Korean station to North Korea, Dorasan. The surroundings are eerily empty.

Once you exit the platform area you need to buy a ticket. This ticket allows you entrance to the DMZ.  It includes shuttle service to the DMZ, tunnels, and Peace Park. There are different ticket options but the day I went only one was available. Prices and options are shown in the picture above and updated as of 11/5/2015.

First stop, the DMZ area. The most exciting part of this place is that you can see into North Korea. Below is what I could see on that day.
Basically, nothing. For some reason the haze that day was extremely severe. Parts of this view are in the demilitarized zone so the nature has not been touched in over 60 years. Lost in the haze is North Korea territory.

After this stop we visited a rest stop area where we were forced to take an hour break for lunch. I was very displeased with this part of the tour because this is supposed to be a self-tour, yet it is still rigidly structured much like a tourist group. In addition we had to pay for our own lunch, so remember to pack your own! This also ruined my plan to see other parts of Paju.

Next stop were the tunnels dug by North Korea as a way to invade South Korea. It's pretty underwhelming. You walk down a tunnel until you hit a dead end, in which you then turn around and head back. It's a bit strenuous of a walk because of an incline and it was touching to see old grandmas and grandpas trying their best to make it all the way, as if it were a rite of passage.

The last stop the shuttle will take you to is the Peace Park, from where you can walk back to Dorasan and take the DMZ train. Once you board the train it will make a stop in Imjingak again, where you are forced to disembark and walk around the area. There's a large park, amusement park, and some museums around Imjingak.

And that was my underwhelming DMZ experience, though I don't regret spending my day there. It's just one of those things you feel obligated to do because of its historical significance.

Korea // Jeonju: The Ultimate Hanok Experience

After my Sunchang mishap, I finally got things right and successfully booked a free ride to Jeonju. We're nearing the city center and I'm already getting really excited. Look at these beautiful trees!

I love how you have to cross this bridge to get to the Hanok Village. It helps you get into the mood to time travel to the Joseon dynasty. Admittedly though it's still pretty jarring because even though all the buildings are designed in the traditional hanok style, inside it's all modern. They even have cosmetics stores in the village.

For lunch of course we had to order what Jeonju is famous for: bibimbap and makgeolli! All very, very delicious. The makgeolli we had (can't remember the name ack) was very different than any other kind I had. It tasted like a dessert and had a cinnamon taste.

The hanok village was littered with couples taking couple pictures in traditional hanboks. The hanboks were a lot more elaborate and detailed than the ones I usually see, so I'd recommend doing it here if that's your thing.

If you get sick of walking around the hanok village you can walk towards the mural village nearby. Very similar to the Ihwa Dong mural village in Seoul.

We got tired of walking around and decided to try look for a place to sit and rest when we came across this. It's a bibimbap shaved ice! The cutest thing ever and apparently Daehan, Minguk, and Manse had it there. Doesn't hurt that it actually tasted pretty good too! Jeonju visit: success!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Korea // Suwon: A Fortress City

Honestly, I didn't plan to go to Suwon. Originally I wanted to go to Chuncheon since it was featured in "Winter Sonata," one of my top Kdramas of all time. My friend said there wasn't much there and suggested a few alternatives. Train tickets to the other places were sold out, so to Suwon we went!

Suwon's main attractions are the many historic sites. We went at a good time too because you could see a glimpse of the fall foliage. The sun also made it a pleasant day to walk around.

Lunch we had galchi jorim, a really tasty fish stew. One of my favorite meals that I had this time in Korea. Then we headed to the fortress wall and surrounding areas. A great half day hike and the perfect way to enjoy Suwon. I was already very impressed by the scale and distance of the Suwon fortress wall. Can't even fathom what The Great Wall is like!

As we walked around we saw an opportunity to try archery. It's been featured before in Running Man. Of course I had to try it and experience being a Joseon princess archer ;) 

Next time I visit Suwon hopefully I can try hiking the surrounding mountains. A fun historic city worth visiting!

Korea // That Time I Somehow Ended Up In Sunchang

I found a lot of recommendations to go to Jeonju while researching places to visit outside of Seoul. The Korean Tourist Organization offers a free shuttle service to Jeonju for foreigners so I thought, "why not?" As I tried to sign up online I noticed that for the weekend I wanted to visit only a Sunchang Gochujang Festival and Ginseng Festival were available. Thinking that both festivals were special events being held in Jeonju I signed up for the Gochujang one and proceeded to book housing and plan my itinerary accordingly.

The day to go to Jeonju rolls around and at 8am I get on the right bus without any issues. It's a beautiful sunny autumn day and I enjoyed this view for three hours on the bus:

The bus stops a a rest stop and I take the opportunity to ask the tourist guide how far from the Jeonju Hanok Village this festival is. She gives me a puzzled look and replies, "This bus is going to the Sunchang Gochujang Festival. It's in Sunchang."

I'm sure you can imagine the look of horror on my face. Stuck in a god knows where countryside town without Internet and my crappy Korean. This is how I came to know that a city called Sunchang exists in Korea. Later when I returned to my hostel in Seoul I looked Sunchang up on the map and saw that it's further south than Jeonju. 

A poster in Sunchang advertising the festival
After a lot of indecision and panicking I decided to stay and just go with the flow. Below are pictures from the Sunchang Gochujang Festival that I accidentally attended. Sunchang is famous for its Gochujang, and another fellow traveler told me that this is one of the larger scale festivals.

Main entrance of the festival
This was the first time I'd been in the true countryside of Korea. All I can say is that it lived to all my expectations: lots of fresh air, stretches of nothing, and many old people. 

The biggest bibimbap I've ever seen in my life. And the best part was that it was free! They even gave free water bottles to go with it. Have to appreciate their planning for such an event. At least a hundred people were there yet they still had so much leftover afterwards.

Freshly mixed bibimbap made with Sunchang gochujang. After taking a few bites I realized that they added raw beef as an ingredient. I always imagined eating raw beef to be really gross, but it didn't have much of a taste, just a chewy texture much like eating sashimi. Adding raw beef is a signature of bibimbap in the Jeollabuk area.

Ending this post with a cutie I met at the festival. Two new Korean words I learned that day: Sunchang (순창) and donkey (당나귀) 

Korea // Nami Island: Unleash the Drama Girl!

One of the highlights of my Korea trip is a popular destination not only for tourists but also locals: Nami Island! Though a pain to get to from Seoul it is worth it and a must visit place for drama fans. 

That tower is for ziplining onto the island. We were so excited to try it but when we arrived at around noon it was a 3 hour wait. Tip: if you want to zipline make sure you arrive early in the morning. It's only a one-way zipline so the turnover is pretty slow. We were stuck with going by boat.

It's a pretty cheesy boat ride because they commercialized it as if you are visiting a different country, complete with flags and "passports". The scenery along the boat ride though is gorgeous.

Approaching Nami Island!

Nami Island is known for its trees and as the filming location for the Hallyu drama "Winter Sonata". The island itself is tiny but still lovely to walk around and enjoy the gorgeous scenery. My friend and I joked that if we had a hard breakup we'd escape here. Also a great place for picnics and frisbee because there's lots of big grassy fields.

The iconic Winter Sonata spot

Afterwards we headed back to the main island for a late lunch. Basically your only option is dakgalbi, so we picked the one that's right in front of the bus stop for convenience. Very yummy. My favorite part with these types of dishes is always the very end when they add rice to make it fried rice!

The next must visit place is Petite France, which is about 30 minutes away by bus. It's also another popular filming location that drama fans will instantly recognize.

Before "My Love From The Stars" catapulted it to iconic status, it was actually also featured in "Beethoven Virus" and "Secret Garden". Yes, I know, it's a bit lame to be visiting a fake France in Korea (especially when I've already been to France and it looks nothing like it) but it's really photogenic and features sculptures of The Little Prince all over. As a Little Prince fan I couldn't resist!

We also were lucky and got to see a puppet show performance. It featured puppets like the ones they had in "Lovers in Prague". Cue fan girl squeal. Indeed, many drama milestones were accomplished today.

There's actually more to do around Nami Island but because we had a late start we didn't get to see anything else. Guess that'll be left for the next time I visit!