Friday, August 28, 2009

The Final Leg, Part 3 of a 3-Part Series

After leaving Andong for the last time. My parents and I set out for the big city. And when I say big city, few in the United States who have not been to Asia can really understand just how large the cities here can be. Seoul is like another country, another continent, an entirely different existence altogether. Conservative estimates of the city's population place it around 10 million people, but if you include the entire metropolitan area, it could be much larger. I certainly feel small in this sprawling megalopolis of a city. So when mom and dad set foot in Seoul, it was obvious that they were small fish in a very big pond.

Day 1: Lotte Hotel and Sightseeing

Since navigating Seoul can be difficult for out-of-towners, we wanted to stay near most of the things we wanted to see. Since we were planning to go to the DMZ, we decided to stay at the luxurious, 5-star Lotte Hotel. Lotte is one of Korea's biggest corporations and they definitely show it in their hotels. The newly remodeled Lotte Hotel is one of Korea's best, and possibly the best hotel I've ever stayed in. The price tag may be hefty, but we got lucky when we got there and were automatically upgraded to a junior suite because our rooms were overbooked for the night. The result was a stunning hotel suite with a gorgeous mountain view, automatic toilet, mirror/TV in the bathroom and a console next to the bed that controlled everything from the lights to the blinds. I will post a video tour of the room a little later, but for now here's a picture of the view.
On our first day, we stayed near the hotel and went out to see the town. Since the hotel was in Jung-gu, the heart of downtown Seoul, there was no shortage of things to see. We went to nearby marketplaces, down the high-profile shopping streets, stopped to watch street merchants make exotic deserts and, yes, even found Dr. Pepper. Our first night there is a blur of lights and people, making it hard to render in words.

Day 2:The DMZ and Gyeonbokgung Palace
On the second day, we fulfilled one of dad's (and my) wishes for their trip to Korea. We visited Korea's foreigner's-only de-militarized zone. In order to take a tour there, you must present a passport from a foreign country. Very few Koreans, outside of military and tour guides, ever see the DMZ. What are they missing? A surprisingly developed tourist attraction.
(See, the DMZ's only a LITTLE scary, with plenty of bright colors and flowers. :-D)

The entire area is full of small museums, gift shops, sculptures, and other paraphernalia related to the Korean War and ensuing stand-off between the North and South. Another surprising aspect of the DMZ was the downplayed nature of the US involvement in the Korean war. If you didn't already have intricate knowledge of US-Korean ties, you would never know the USA ever set foot in Korea. Still, the tour was enjoyable, and we got to see some very interesting things. One of them, of course, being North Korea.
The mountains you see there are in North Korea. I would have gotten closer, but the observatory where you can look into the reclusive, communist nation (Dora Observatory) has a strict policy about getting to close with your camera. Right at my feet was a yellow "no cameras" line. I could hold up my camera for a shot at this point, but couldn't go to the railing with it. The girl in the white dress with the umbrella was our tour guide.

We were told that you can clearly see the different between North and South when you get to this spot by looking at the mountains. That was true, as the North Korean mountains are far more bare than the South's. N. Korea has used up many of the trees on their mountains for fuel, since they have a painful lack of infrastructure and modern energy sources.

From the Dora Observatory we went to Dorasan Station, a train station built with the sole purpose of one day connecting North and South Korea by rail. A map inside the station showed how, with the North's cooperation, people could travel to and from South Korea from any point in Asia or Europe by rail. Today, because of the strict regulations on immigration, there is no rail service passing through North Korea, and South Koreans must travel by sea or air to leave the country. But Dorasan Station serves as a tangible example of how serious South Koreans are about eventual reconciliation with their Northern brethren.After the DMZ, we took a taxi to Gyeongbokgung palace, which I blogged about when Sara and I first got here. It is a reconstruction of one of Korea's oldest and largest palaces, where the head of state lived for many years during the dynasties of Korea. Unfortunately, due to the repeated Japanese occupations, it was destroyed time and again until it was finally totally leveled during World War II. The current compound, while expansive and beautiful, is newer than many of Seoul's skyscrapers.
Day 3:
Back to Busan
On our third day in Seoul, the only thing left to do was leave. But not wanting to waste a single moment, we decided to go back to Busan the most interesting way we could. So instead of a bus, we decided to take the KTX (Korea's cross-country bullet train) from one end of the peninsula to the other.With most of our travels behind us, and mere hours left on the trip, mom, dad, Sara, the Eagles and I set out for one last dinner, as close to the hotel as we could possibly manage. We ended up having a delicious beef soup at a nearby restaurant famous for its bulgogi.

And so, after one of the best vacation of all of our lives, there was only one thing left to do.


And sing we did, for hours until every one of our voices were strained from shouting out the most intense ballads and musical masterpieces to ever graze our ears. We sang everything from the Beatles to Johnny Cash, and from Grease to Phantom of the Opera. What a wonderful way to end a splendid vacation--and no vacation in Korea is complete without a trip to nore bang.

Mom and dad made it back to the states safe and sound, and things here are back to the way they were a month ago. Classes have started and the summer warmth is finally starting to cool away. I don't know if we'll ever make it back here as a group, but if we don't, at least we made a damn good time of it while we could.


  1. First of all, I want to go to this Lotte Hotel that you stayed at. I can't wait to see the video.

    I also want to see the DMZ. It's interesting what you pointed out about the mountains and the missing patches of trees. I'd not really considered that, but it really paints a difference between the North and South (among other things economically).

    And wow, the station to Pyeongyang? Wouldn't it be nice to take a train from South Korea to other countries? The whole divide makes the South feel something like an island nation, with only boats and planes going in and out of it.

  2. What a great experience we all had. I liked how we each got to do our thing, yet come together as a group also. I've always wanted to travel to other countries with friends, and that finally happened... I'm so blessed!! It was especially wonderful with Leslee and Larry because they are so open for whatever the day brings and have such sunny dispositions!! What a great trip!!

    Thanks again to our amazing hosts and tour guides, Scott and Sara!!

  3. There is no better way to remember a fabulous trip than through the blog of a wonderful son. I think the best way to share the trip with friends is to have them read your blog. I agree with Linda, our tour group was the best. Eagles and Williams touring forever to exotic places! (or perhaps Weagles Sightseeing Inc.)

  4. Thanks for the wonderful post. It is great to see and learn about Seoul and the DMZ. Your insights about the deforested hills of North Korea, the train station to nowhere and the U.S.-less history of the Korean Conflict are fascinating and remind me how little I know about the two Koreas. Keep up the great blog! Tim