Jordan and I traveled up to Seoul on Christmas Eve and arrived in the city around midnight, when Santa is supposed to be delivering gifts. We did not catch a glimpse of him, but we did get to our hostel without any problems.
I, unfortunately, came down with a cold on Christmas Eve, which put a damper on my long weekend. We took a bus from Changnyeong to Daegu at 6:20pm, then a bus from Daegu to Seoul. All in all, it took us a good six and a half hours to get from doorstep of work to doorstep of the guesthouse. This isn’t usual–I think there’s either construction in Daegu or holiday traffic slowed the bus down, adding over an hour to our time.
We crashed into bed and woke on Christmas Day to the sound of our hostel-mates moving around the common room. I had ambitious plans to hike a small portion of Bukhansan National Park, which was relatively close by our guesthouse. The park is in the middle of Seoul, and has trails up and down the mountains, as well as medieval temples and an old fortress from the 14th century. Old parts of the city wall are still standing.
We ended up getting halfway there, then deciding not to hike the national park. We hadn’t had a full meal in 24 hours (thanks to all the buses) and I still felt pretty sick. Instead, we walked around a neighborhood park that was much closer (and still felt like a mountain). Bukhansan will still be there next time we go to Seoul, and it will probably be much prettier in warmer weather and with leaves on the trees. At least, this is our logic.
For Christmas dinner, we went back to our guesthouse and had a typical Malaysian meal with the other guests, no extra costs. It is called “coconut rice,” I think because the rice is boiled in coconut milk, then covered in a spicy red sauce. So we ate that with cucumbers, dried anchovy-looking fish, boiled egg, and nuts. My first Malaysian dish! It wasn’t exactly what I pictured my Christmas meal looking like, but the company was wonderful and I got to practice a little of my Spanish with a Venezuelan guest.
In the afternoon we took the Seoul City Bus Tour. It was reasonably priced (12,000 won an adult) and seemed like a good idea. To be honest, we weren’t very impressed. Because it is a bus, so much of the experience depends on traffic. Being late afternoon on Christmas Day, we ran into lots of traffic jams. While it isn’t indicative of the bus company itself, it does color the experience. Also, several of the buses we hopped on had broken headphones, and the recordings in English were crackly and hard to understand. We normally really enjoy hop-on-hop-off bus tours, but this just wasn’t up to par, unfortunately.
However, we did stop by the Korean War Memorial. This impressive museum details the causes and aftermath of the Korean War (1950-1953). Jordan and I both have been to the Korean War memorial in Washington, D.C., but that’s about the extent of our knowledge of the conflict. In history textbooks, the Korean war is often overshadowed by the Vietnam War that followed it only a few years later.
I highly, highly recommend a visit here. The park has many beautiful statues, a Children’s Museum, and a field full of tanks, airplanes, and even a small ship used in the war. The most famous figure is the Statue of Brothers, is based on the true story of two brothers on opposing sides meeting one another in battle and embracing. Ethnoscopes offers and interesting insight in the ideology surrounding the statue. We spent about two hours at the memorial, but we could easily have spent more. The main floor is the history of the war, and on the top floor are some exhibitions that change. Currently, I think, is a piece of the Berlin wall. The bottom floor was designated as history of warfare in Korea, so that was pretty cool. We saw a model of a turtle boat, learned a little about the Japanese invasion of 1592, and saw some really old swords and pikes.
You can learn more about the Korean War elsewhere, but an eight-sentence summary is as follows: Japan had control of Korea from 1910 to the end of WWII. When the Japanese empire collapsed, the US took over the southern half of the country and the USSR the northern half, much like western/eastern Germany. The Cold War began, and North Korean politicians, bolstered by the USSR, unexpectedly attacked Seoul and the southerners on June 25, 1950. Unprepared and reeling, South Korea fought back, aided by the US military and later the United Nations. Progress was slowly made, but eventually the South Koreans cried for reunification and pushed past the 38th parallel line to unify all of the Korean peninsula with the encouragement of the US. It worked well, until China entered the war, on the side of the USSR and North Korea. Although the Chinese were woefully unskilled and lacking in weapons, they had manpower, and that’s all that was necessary. The ROK, UN, and US forces eventually agreed to an armistice (proposed by India) with the DPRK, USSR, and China on July 27, 1953, and formed the Demilitarized Zone that we all know of today.
Yes, that’s a very short version, but it’s the barest of the facts. The photo is about half of the plaques inscribed with the names of Americans that died in the Korean War.
So this turtle ship was designed by a famous admiral in Korean navy, Yi Sun-sin. This was only one of the Japanese invasions of Korea (which explains why so many Koreans hate Japanese, even if they’ve never met one). In 1592 famous Japanese warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi attacked Korea and China, hoping to conquer both. Surprising no one, neither the Ming dynasty rulers of China nor the Joseon dynasty rulers of Korea took the attacks well. While at first the invasion went really well (for the Japanese), the Koreans were able to fight back, with a little help from the Chinese. They wages battle on the sea, destroying many Japanese supply ships and using guerrilla tactics against the Japanese land forces. There were long periods of stalemates, but eventually in 1599 the Japanese withdrew their forces and peace was settled. This period, however, is still regarded highly in Korean culture, and Korean nationalism draws much of its history from these events and surrounding cultural misappropriations.
After the history lessons, we went back to the bus tour and got caught in traffic. We drove past N Seoul Tower at sunset. We plan to go back one day, when it’s warmer, and explore the tour and old city walls to get a better sense of it. That ended Christmas Day, though we did more around Seoul in the next two days. More on that later!