Wednesday, November 7, 2007


After more than 8 months of living almost within walking distance of North Korea, we finally made it to the Demilitarized Zone. It was kind of odd being allowed to visit one of the most heavily armed borders in the world - it seems as though a place like this would be off limits to tourists. But it’s not, so we went to check it out.

I was most surprised to see that the ROK (Republic of Korea, aka South Korea) soldiers were a lot more intense than the KPA (Korean People’s Army, aka North Korea) soldiers. The ROK soldiers stand half hidden behind a wall (to give their enemy less of a target), making fists (and looking angry like they’re ready to kill someone) and staring north, while the KPA soldiers were walking around taking pictures of each other with us as the background. Maybe it was just a coincidence and we happened to visit on 'KPA Picture Day', but it was definitely not how I had envisioned things to be.

Michelle and I with a ROK soldier, technically standing in North Korea. Notice the clenched fist and the angry demeanour. You don't wanna mess with these guys.

ROK soldier guarding the border. The pebbles in the foreground is South Korea and the dirt in the background is North Korea.

The white posts behind me mark the border.

The Bridge of No Return. This bridge crosses the actual border and was used for prisoner exchanges during the Korean War. The prisoners were given the choice to either stay in the country in which they were captured or cross to their home country. If they decided to cross, they were never allowed to return. Hence the name of the bridge.
The tallest flagpole in the world (160 metres), holding the largest flag in the world (600 lbs) in Kijong-dong, North Korea. South Koreans know this place as Propaganda Village because nobody actually lives there, just some maintenance workers turning on the lights at night.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Ulleungdo and Dokdo

My last post (summer in Beijing Part 1) started off like this;

Wow am I bad at updating this blog. So much has happened since my last post and there’s nothing on here to show for it. Oh well, maybe this will be the start of more posts in the future.

Well, so much for that. It’s been over 2 months since that post and once again a lot has happened here in the ROK. The most significant event – and the main reason for this post – is our trip to Ulleungdo and Dokdo for Chuseok vacation (Sept 22nd-26th).

Ulleungdo is an island about 120 km off the coast of Korea in the East Sea (the Sea of Japan to the rest of the world). It’s not very big (about 70 sq km and about 10,000 people living there) but the scenery is spectacular. It was another Adventure Korea trip and we went with some of our fellow foreign teacher friends (Amie, Dan, and Linda) and we all had a blast. Most of our time was spent hiking around the island, checking out the sites, and meeting new and interesting people. We met one girl who Amie insisted was Hermione Granger (we never actually found out), another girl who told us an odd story about her dad and then she went around saying “I’m gonna cut you!” to everyone (very strange), a guy Michelle new from high school, and a guy who grew up in Burlington! You’ll meet all kinds on an Adventure Korea trip! Here are some pictures.

Group shot in front of the hotel

Bongnae Waterfall

Elephant Island

The view from our hotel

Bridge jumping

Bamboo forest

A drunk Korean took this pic while he was smoking (hence the smoke)

Michelle and I also took a trip to Dokdo which is another island in the East Sea. This one is actually disputed territory between Japan and Korea so it was really cool to see. It is much smaller than Ulleungdo and there are only 2 people living there. The Korean government subsidizes their living (pretty heavily I would assume) so they can justify their current occupation of the island.

Korean police stationed on the island

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Summer in Beijing - Part 3

Day 5 (Thursday, August 2nd). This was our busiest day by far. First we went to the Lama Temple which is Beijing’s largest temple. Most of the tourists here came to pray and offer incense to Buddha in the many halls of the temple. The coolest part was the 18 meter high(!) statue of the Maitreya Buddha carved out of a single piece of sandalwood. Unfortunately, they don’t let you take pictures inside any of the temple buildings, not that I could’ve fit it all in a single frame anyways. Here are some pictures of the temple nonetheless.

From there we headed to the Temple of Heaven Park (built in the early 1400’s) which is where emperors would come to pray for good harvests. As with most of the places we visited in Beijing, it was crawling with tourists so our pictures aren’t as cool as they could be. The park itself is huge and when you’re inside the walls, walking around, it’s hard to believe you’re in the middle of Beijing.

From there we walked over to the Pearl Market to do some shopping. Haggling skills were definitely needed and as a general rule of thumb, they say to never pay more than half the first price offered by the vendor. This place was absolutely crazy. It’s like a flea market but all the vendors are yelling at you trying to get you to look at their stuff. They’re like vultures coming at you from everywhere, “Hallo, hallo, you need shoes? I give you good price, very cheap!” and “hallo, sir, just looking over here!” If you stop, even for a second to look at their stuff, they’re all over you. They’ll tell you anything to get you to buy their stuff and some it is hilarious. One woman told me that she gives the “real” price to Americans, but for me, “much cheaper” and she had no idea where we were from (she guessed Sweden). After it was all said and done she tried to get me to buy her an ice cream because I talked her down so much. It’s going to be so hard to buy things at Korean prices now (let alone Canadian).

Day 6 (Friday, August 3rd). This was our last full day in Beijing and we decided to go to Beihai Park which was the center of Beijing until the Forbidden City was built. It’s a huge park taken up mostly by Beihai Lake but there’s an island in the middle with some cool temples and such.

Next we went to the Silk Market to buy more cheap stuff. It was pretty much the same as the Pearl Market only this one specialized in silk rather than pearls. This place was also a little classier than the Pearl Market and so the vendors would try to gouge you even more than usual. Michelle and I were interested in 2 t-shirts from this one lady, so we asked how much. She said “for anyone else, I charge more, but for you, 480 Yuan”. We felt really special being offered 2 t-shirts for almost CAD$70. I countered with an offer of 25 and we finally settled at 40 Yuan (CAD$5.50).

Day 7 (Saturday, August 4th). We didn’t do much today as we had to be at the airport relatively early to catch our flight. We decided to check out the Museum of Chinese History as it was only a short walk from our hostel. Unfortunately it was closed which they say is not a rare occurrence. Apparently they like to revise history a lot based on current events.

A few other notes about our trip…

China is definitely the place to visit if you want your money to go far. Everything is way cheaper than I could have expected. 5 Yuan ($0.70) would bye you a big bottle of Tsingtao Beer (almost twice the size of a regular beer bottle) at our hostel; 1 Yuan ($0.14) was enough to get you on a bus or bye you a bottle of water from a street vendor. Even a taxi going half way across the city cost us less than $3.00. It was amazing.

We never did run into any pickpocket problems. I was probably a little over cautious because of all the things we had read about Beijing (and warnings in our hostel!), but oh well. For the first couple days I felt like Homer when the Simpsons go to New York, like everyone was trying to screw me (which was probably true) or like everyone was trying to sell me something I didn’t want (which actually was true). You couldn’t walk down the street for 2 minutes without somebody offering you something. Rickshaw rides, postcards, bottles of water, Mao watches (which had a smiling Mao on the face waving to you – they were actually pretty awesome, I wish I bought one), you name it. Never in my life have so many people tried so hard to get me to buy stuff that I didn’t want or need.

That was part of what made it such an awesome place to be. Everything about the city was so different from anything I was used to. I was especially glad to see Beijing before the Olympics as a lot of places were under construction in preparation for the games. There were also a lot of areas that were going to be levelled so that newer and “nicer” areas could be put up and shown to the world. It will be interesting to compare what I saw on the trip with the things I will see during the Olympics in 2008.

All in all it was an amazing experience and I would recommend it to anyone.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Summer in Beijing - Part 2

Day 2 (Monday, July 30th). We got up relatively early and walked to the Forbidden City which is directly north of Tiananmen. Once again, we were sweating well before getting to our destination. The Forbidden City was the Chinese imperial palace for the Ming and Qing Dynasties. It’s called Forbidden because it was off limits to commoners for 500 years (it was built in the early 1400’s). To say this place is big is a vast understatement. It’s over 700,000 square metres, has 800 buildings and more than 9000 rooms! We could have easily spent the whole day there, but it was just packed with tourists so after a couple hours we decided to explore some less busy areas.

Day 3 (Tuesday, July 31st). Today we hit up the Summer Palace which is where the emperors and their entourages would come to escape the heat from the Forbidden City. This place was huge and really impressive. It’s basically a bunch of palaces built atop Longevity Hill all leading down to Kunming Lake. This was our favourite place in Beijing so far.

Day 4 (Wednesday, August 1st). Today was our Great Wall day. We got up early and headed out on a trip run by our hostel to the Mutianyu section of the wall. It was pretty much everything I had expected and a lot more. The Great Wall is one of the only places in the world that I’ve always wanted to see, and it didn’t disappoint. Whatever I say will not do it justice.

Inside a watchtower;