Three Things Thursday

It’s less than a fortnight until I depart Korea and my wonderful home in Seoul for good, so this month I present for you my Top Three Things…

…to get up to in Korea.

Thing 1 ~ cross country cycling

I’ve been lucky enough to have a lot of amazing holidays in the last few years, but my cross-country bikeride from Seoul to Busan in June this year was one of my favourite holidays ever. I finally completed the Seoul to Ara Hangang West Sea Lock just last weekend when, after days of frustrating packing and paperwork preparing for the move, we decided to blow off some steam by jumping on the bikes for the 40km ride west towards Incheon and the beginning / end of the full 4 Rivers trail. It gave a nice sense of closure both to our summer adventure and to the wonderful and incredibly active life we’ve enjoyed for our two years here.

The full, day-by-day account of my June bike-venture has all the gory details, which I won’t go into again here. Suffice to say that everyone I have read about or spoken to who has tackled this momentous journey concurs – it is one of the greatest adventures they’ve ever had, inside or outside of Korea. And I think there are several good reasons why, many of which are reasons I’ll really miss this place when I leave.

Firstly, a reason many Koreans give when describing why they’d never move to another country on a permanent basis: the fantastic infrastructure that makes the journey not only possible, but ridiculously easy whether you’ve been here for two years or two weeks. I’ve spent a reasonable amount of time in places where you’re lucky to find a functioning road that allows essential goods and travel between different cities and towns, let alone a fully mapped, signposted, well-lit road with regular service stops and amenities just for bikes!

In addition, and another high contender on the list of Korea’s Big Pluses, personal safety. I come from a city where I was always on guard in some low-level way. I had a special walk that I used at night and even in the day in certain areas of town. I had all the habits the police advise you to cultivate: I didn’t get my purse out on the street, I was always aware of the people around me. All of those skills have been gently rotting through idleness during my time in Korea.

An example: about a month ago, Wonderboy cycled to our nearby subway station. As he was leaving the flat, he realised he didn’t have the key for his bike lock. He went anyway because the chances of his bike being stolen, even if it’s clearly unlocked and left at a busy urban intersection, are ridiculously low. I’m not endorsing this kind of risk-taking willy-nilly; I have a bike I’m sentimentally attached to and would never leave anywhere without quadruple locking, a pat on the handlebars and a comforting word so she doesn’t feel lonely while she’s waiting for me. But in my everyday life in Korea, the difference between living with a constant low level of threat to my person or belongings and having that ugly burden lifted from my shoulders meant that in preparing to undertake a 600km ride through country trails, at times very isolated from civilisation, safety was something I didn’t even need to question.

The third and final point, and something I blathered on about at length at the time, is the scenery. Korea’s external tourism industry draws very much upon the K-pop explosion which draws young people from around Asia to sites such as Hongdae and Myeongdong to see the places where major TV exports are filmed and to shop until they drop. Internal tourism sees thousands of families flocking to the beaches and beach resorts each summer. Very few people are flocking to the countless rolling hills and valleys that make up the centre of the peninsula, and this is what makes the journey so magical.

If you’re from America, Europe, or Australia and you’ve seen the Rockies, or the Alps, or the Blue Mountains, you’re not going to be overawed by unique, breathtaking views in Korea. But if you’ve spent any time looking at the history, art and ancient culture of the region you are going to discover the peaceful beauty of the Land of the Morning Calm, and it’s infectious. Even after days of riding 90 – 100km a day in blazing sunshine with ankles and knees that barely functioned, a bum that was more bruise than flesh and hands frozen in handlebar position, the only way I could describe my mood during the journey would be ‘blissed out.’

middle of nowhere

middle of nowhere

Thing 2 ~ Heyri Art Village and the DMZ

I should start by saying that these are not two things that must be seen together, but Heyri Art Village in Paju is very close to the DMZ so it’s a combination that works well.

Star design

Star design

The first time I visited, it was the dead of winter and a Monday, so everything was closed. There’s still a lot to see. The buildings themselves are star attractions. Unique, cutting edge design fused with traditional values of harmonising with nature has made for a visually striking landscape. Around and between the buildings – mostly galleries and workshops – are hundreds of sculptures, artworks, and decorative features that will fascinate and delight at every turn.

A fifteen minute walk away on the other side of the main road there is also the delightful Provence village – a slice of Koreanised France on the hillside overlooking North Korea. Much smaller than Heyri, but still featuring a collection of French bakeries and coffee shops, markets and galleries, it’s a nice stop for an afternoon snack before catching the bus back to Seoul.

In the same direction it is also possible to head to the Odusan DMZ observatory, which was also closed the first time I went. So the second time I caught the newly reestablished DMZ train from Seoul Station to Dorasan station, the last station on the line north from Seoul.

Dorasan is within the Civilian Control Zone and so to reach it there is an identification check stop at Imjingang station before you can proceed. Once you’ve got your clearance, the train progresses over the Imjingang (river), over the barbed wire fences next to peaceful farmland, next to the remnants of a bombed-out bridge from the Korean war, and into the eerie peace and silence of the DMZ, an area so devoid of habitation that it has experienced a burst of ecological regeneration and is apparently home to species of bear, birds, big cats and other flora and fauna that have all but died out elsewhere in the country.

DMZ crossing at Paju

DMZ crossing at Paju

Crossing into the Civilian Control Zone

Crossing into the Civilian Control Zone

At Dorasan station the customs and immigration hall stands empty and silent but ready next to the small waiting area for the only train available. A bus whisks you away to the nearby Dora observatory from which you can see the world’s tallest flagpole and Kaesong industrial complex. On the day I visited it was very misty and these things only came fleetingly into view. We were then whisked off once more to the Third Tunnel – one of the famous attempts by North Korea to bore into the south.

The sobering knowledge of the division the area represents contrasts strongly with the airy cheer of the DMZ train (all pink flowers and butterflies), the light openness of Dorasan station, and the ubiquitous smiling animated characters holding instructional signs along the way. It all makes for an oddly disconcerting experience, but one that’s worth the time.

Thing 3 ~ Quality mooching in Seoul

As one of the most densely populated cities in the world, with much of the population residing in towering high-rises, I wasn’t expecting to be charmed by Seoul. In fact, it wins my prize for the most livable city thus far in my travelling adventures.

I included a snapshot of the things I love about Seoul to celebrate my first year here, but at the end of my time here I should round up the best.

1. Summer on the Han. For sports, for hanging out, for playing in fountains, for ordering 치맥 (chicken and beer) delivery by Smartphone direct to your spot on the grass, there’s nothing better than the miles of parkland by the river.

Haebangchon hillside

Haebangchon hillside

2. “Everywhere is photo zone.” A great quote from a student describing a picturesque town, this describes my view of Seoul as my journey into photography has progressed. There is something to see around every corner in this city full of life. Whether it’s the old alleyways and huddled buildings on crazy inclines, or the public art provided (for better or for worse) by every building over a certain height, the palaces, temples, food zones or streams, every inch of Seoul is a feast for the eyes.

3. There are museums to everything, everywhere. On the street I used to work on, there was a police museum and a rice museum. Nearby were three major palaces, the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, the Sejong Arts centre and the Seoul Art Gallery. I spent three months visiting a museum every week and there are still a bunch of museums that I never got around to.

4. Sights in general. There are streams, parks, museums, palaces, outdoor fountains, screens, performances, festivals: a host of delights for the eye, ear and soul. Whatever your budget, you can rest assured that if you want something to occupy your spare hours, you can find it in the highways and byways of the city. And, if you’re on Meetup or Couchsurfing or any of a number of social networking sites, you can probably find a host of people to join you. It’s all part of the joy of Being Here.

Metro meets Mountain

Metro meets Mountain

***

Useful links

See My Seoul Searching‘s account of her day in Heyri here: Day Trippin’: Heyri Art Village

And a lot of photos of Provence Village from MisSuetY here: Seoul Diaries: Provence village, Paju

Information on DMZ tourism and train services here: Visit Korea

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