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
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.