North (and South) Korea

Day 256 (21st of November, 2016) – In Transit

In transit.

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Day 257 (22nd of November, 2016) – Taipei, Taiwan

It was a strange route which my flight took from Los Angeles, flying over Alaska, Russia and Japan.

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Meanwhile Dylan, Lachie and Ben were enjoying the longer layover in Singapore being out and about in the city.

Day 257, and from now until January 29, I will always have company (bar one day when switching groups).

But, lo and behold, the excitement of joining friends was to be delayed by yet another few hours. A late take-off and some circling in the air meant that I arrived at 7:30am, a full two hours after Dylan, Lachie and Ben arrived at Taipei International Airport. They kindly waited around.

And what a happy moment it was to see them. As much as you make friends around the world, there’s nothing quite like your school mates. I feel like this was strengthened a lot in boarding. I lived with these boys for two whole years, and as such we experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows together. It was good to be reunited with some lifelong brothers.

And the journey began.

Let me introduce you to Taiwan. This country of 24 million, officially called the Republic of China, is inhabited almost completely by Han Chinese (just like mainland China). This is because of the country’s interesting history, all stemming from the Chinese Civil War in which the Nationalist Party (now Taiwan) were defeated by the Communist Party (now China) and forced back to the island of Taiwan. A peace treaty still hasn’t been signed over that conflict.

One of the most interesting facts of the complicated sovereignty of Taiwan is that it is not a member of the UN. In fact, it is the most populous non-UN state and the largest economy outside the UN. The government of Chiang Kai-shek, the original leader of Taiwan, represented China at the UN until 1971 when the mainland Chinese government took their seat under Resolution 2758, mainly prompted by China’s rapidly increasing importance on the global stage.

My Chinese quickly got a workout when finding our way into Taipei’s city centre. A half-an-hour long bus ride found us at Taipei Main Station where we lugged our gear down to the metro.

And there we found ourselves – smack bang in the middle of Ximending, the bustling neighborhood and shopping district in the Wanhua District of Taipei. Ximending has been called the “Harajuku of Taipei” and the “Shibuya of Taipei”, and you can see why. Here’s the picture which inspired me to stay here.

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We resisted the temptation to begin exploring the surrounding pedestrian streets early and instead decided to drop our luggage off at our accommodation. We’ve booked a mix of accommodation for this Taiwan/Korea trip: a hostel, a guesthouse, a temple, an AirBnB and a Hanok. The hostel was first – an easy step before gradually lowering ourselves into more and more local accommodation. This hostel, the “WOW Hostel”, quickly became a bit of a meme for us (amongst many memes, may I add). But the wacky name aside, it was actually quite an enjoyable space. The lounge area was trendy, the coffee was high quality and the balcony was relaxing.

There was just one downside.

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This was the entrance to the elevator which led us up to the hostel – a wall full of advertisements for everything from singers to escorts scattered on the floors around us.

With it still being early in the day, we weren’t able to check-in to our rooms. That didn’t stop us from chilling out on the balcony for the first hour of our day.

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Passers-by looked up to us from the street below, likely noticing the billboard for a pay-by-the-hour “Love Hotel” situated just one floor above us.

The hostel sold us unlimited data SIM cards for just over $10 on Taiwan’s largest network. I had heard that telecom companies had insanely good rates in this country, but I didn’t think it would be that good.

We quickly found ourselves all thinking the same thing: we couldn’t spend too much time enjoying our accommodation. We had enough time to do that already. Instead, we ventured out to explore the surrounding streets with the intention of eventually winding our way towards Taipei 101.

Within metres of our hostel, Dylan, Ben and I had found ourselves wanting to try some street pancakes, and Lachie (who once lived in Tokyo) was back in his element with 7/11 onigiri.

At the crippling price of $1, this thing was more than worth its price. It felt good to be back in a cheap part of the world. Back to being a big consumer!

We dipped in and out of gimmicky Taiwanese toy shops and arcades, laughing at the absurdity of it all.

It was like being thrown straight back into high school Chinese exchanges, only that this place was a whole lot more high-tech and civil than China. But for once, I was able to laugh at the things which I used to laugh at all the time. Experiencing these countries on your own is entirely different because humour is substituted for seeing things matter-of-factly. It was refreshing to see it all in a more youthful light. I was remembering why learning Chinese was a hobby in the first place rather than just a necessity when living and travelling in this part of Asia.

It took some effort to drag us away from the laneways of Ximending, but eventually we were on our way to Taipei 101 via some currency exchange shops.

We also passed through the Peace Park on the way to the metro station which, as the name suggests, was very peaceful.

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Taipei 101 was the world’s tallest in 2004, and remained such until the completion of Burj Khalifa in Dubai in 2009. The building is also considered the most “green” tall building on Earth, and also houses the fastest elevator on the planet which zooms up at 17 metres per second.

Exiting the Taipei 101 metro station, we craned our necks upwards to see this sight.

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The feeling of inferiority these megastructures give you is intoxicating. But at the same time, it’s a really pleasurable feeling of inferiority. One which makes you feel like you are part of a process much bigger than just yourself.

This was as much of the building as a we fit into the photo whilst still including all of ourselves.

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For the uninitiated, that is from left to right: Lachie, Dylan, Ben and I.

The pedestrian photographer did give us a piece of advice for including the whole building: a selfie. So we got to work.

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We rushed inside to figure out how to scale this building. What makes Taipei’s skyline so unique is that few other buildings even approach the height of this building and its spire. A view from the top would surely then provide the best birds-eye view into the veins of this city.

We worked our way through the luxury shopping mall at the building’s base to the observatory deck entrance.

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After purchasing our tickets we were funnelled into a compulsory photo stop. We simply copied the demonstration image.

We’re fairly sure we wrecked most of the others passengers’ journey by becoming fascinated with the difficulty of jumping in an elevator going at such a great speed.

We were hit by a fascinating view over the city.

I sometimes find that views like this don’t put the world into perspective, but rather make everything seem so… fake. Almost like a big lego set. Courtney Barnett puts it best in her song “Elevator Operator” in the lyric, “I come up here for perception and clarity. I like to imagine I’m playing SimCity. All the people look like ants from up here, and the wind’s the only traffic you can hear”.

One of the notable things about this city is its striking similarity to Hong Kong. As a city bordering on mountains, its buildings extend right up to the borderline of the greenery. It gives the area quite a rainforest-y feel, which is a welcome break from the intensity of the city itself.

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And then, this rolled in.

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Pollution, fog, I don’t know what it was. Probably a mix of both. We got a few photos in front of the now even more alien view for the laughs.

I’m holding back from telling Dylan that he does his peace signs backwards. The more photos that appears in, the funnier.

The next part of the building we got to see was one of its most famous features, officially called the “super big wind damper”, also known as the “tuned mass damper” or “harmonic absorber”. This structure is suspended in the middle of the building to reduce the amplitude of mechanical vibrations during an earthquake. It’s enormous. The photos don’t do it justice.

A small contemporary art gallery marked the end of the Taipei 101 visit.

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On the way home I gave the boys their first introduction to the Chinese world of fashion drinks. They got around it. Especially the “latte milk tea with pearls”.

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By the time we finished the drink we were able to check in. It turns out that our room had 17 beds in it, but it certainly didn’t seem like it. Why? Well, let me emphasise this when I say that we owned the room. Our corner quickly became the life of the party, and the more comfortable we became the messier the place got. Boarding all over again.

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We weren’t back for long – we had to make the booking which I’d made for the first night. It was dinner at “Modern Toilet”, the famous toilet-themed restaurant in Ximen.

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When I say toilet-themed, I mean toilet-themed. Our seats were toilets. Urinals adorned the hallways. Greeting us under our glass table was a perfectly formed turd.

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Even the food was designed to look like turds.

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We drank out of urinals. The first time we could say that we genuinely were “on the piss”.

We embraced the theme. Much of the dinner was spent hurling phrases (excuse the language) like “ya shithead” and “eat shit”.

Needless to say, we did eat shit. Directly out of the toilet bowl.

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Walking back to the hotel we were able to see Ximending in full flight. Roaming it in the early morning was great fun, but it was only at this point that we realised that we really hadn’t seen it for what it was. This was consumer and cultural paradise all in the one precinct.

We spent the next few hours having a drink and exchanging anecdotes from the last year. All of us ended up on different paths – Ben is in Mosman studying at Macquarie Uni, Lachie’s living in the inner city studying at UNSW and Dylan’s at college in Canberra doing a combined law degree. Dylan and I sound like we’re actually taking almost identical paths, only that I’m going to be pursuing it in Sydney.

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Day 258 (23rd of November, 2016) – Taipei, Taiwan

Happy birthday to Lachie! What a way to spend a 19th. And what a 19 years it’s been – few people have such a likeable and friendly character. I really hope today ended up being the birthday Lachie had hopes for.

I pushed through the jet lag to wake up on time. Thankfully, we’d all had a great sleep. An excellent sleep, in fact. Everyone was really liking this hostel. After some discussions over dinner yesterday we decided that today would be as good of a day as any to go to 香山 (xiangshan, or Elephant Mountain). Elephant Mountain is to Taipei what Victoria Peak is to Hong Kong. Only that its much lesser known, meaning less crowds, more isolation and better views.

As with so many big Asian cities, the mountains are accessible directly by metro.

We emerged from Xiangshan metro station on an insane curved escalator.

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We were immediately led through luscious parks with apartment blocks nestled amongst them.

Dylan was the first to point out what stood directly behind us as we worked our way through some suburban streets.

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Photo time.

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And another.

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The walk up, whilst all paved and on stairs, was steep and tiring at times (especially for my jet-lagged self).

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But turning around halfway up made it all worth it.

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It was a perfectly secluded window into this great city.

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We continued the hike up to the top, passing the odd family on the way up. We found a secluded viewpoint poking through the overhanging canopy, and it happened to sport the view from one of the photos I’d uploaded on this blog in the past.

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Dyl’s face when he was looking at the view.

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Before long it was the afternoon. We strolled back down Elephant Mountain towards Ximending with the aim of finding a restaurant to fill up at. One of the things about travelling independently is that you always forget to eat, and being with friends is exactly the same. Perhaps we’ve grown up in lifestyles where food always ends up in front of us on the table…

Couldn’t hurt getting a bit more meat on these bones.

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We tracked down one of the most highly rated cheap eat joints in Ximending and found a huge crowd of people downing boat noodles. We joined in the fun to mixed reactions at the food. Lachie loved them the most.

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Roaming Ximending at night was equally as exciting as yesterday.

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We returned to the room for a couple of drinks and some music. The Smiths, (old) Coldplay and Flume heavily featured. We spotted a big wheelchair tour group going through the city below us.

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And before we knew it, we were out on the town again to celebrate Lachie’s birthday. Of all the things we did, one of the weirdest was going to a virtual reality centre to fight some dragons.

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And this hallway…

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Day 259 (24th of November, 2016) – Taipei, Taiwan

“WOW Hostel” had an average DIY breakfast at best. We ended up making plates and plates of shoddy looking French toast to satisfy our morning appetites.

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Today we had decided to do a day trip. One of my friends who used to live here had highly recommended going to a city of 100,000 people on Taiwan’s East Coast called “Hualien”. He primarily recommended this place because of its stunning mountainous scenery and the presence of Taroko Gorge. With pictures like this appearing after one Google search, we couldn’t resist.

We found our way to the main railway station later than we should have and weren’t able to secure tickets for another hour. At least it was a spectacularly grand station.

 An onigiri each went down well while we waited.

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And this was an interesting concept found on the platform.

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The train ride out to Hualien was quite scenic. We traversed landscapes of valleys, mountains, beaches and cliffs.

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Unfortunately the ride did take longer than we had expected, and by the time we arrived in the city we had just over two hours before we had to board a train to return. We thought that this would be enough time to get deep in the gorge, but after some warnings from local shop owners and tour guides about the fading light, we decided that it wasn’t the smartest idea.

Instead, we paid a guy to drive us closer to the mountain with some bikes.

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This was probably the best experience of the trip so far – it was a real insight into the daily life of regular Taiwanese people.

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We wound our way up narrow alleyways, pedalling past rural houses and spotting the occasional farmer wearing a bamboo hat.

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At one point we were riding while playing music over my portable speaker, and suddenly we heard the barks of a dog growing louder. Then, this Rottweiler appeared.

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We sped as fast as we could away from the dog which spurred it to start chasing us. I was the last one to turn around, and we were engaged in a heart-racing high-speed chase for a few hundred metres.

After getting away from it, we moved away from the mountains and closer to the sea, dashing through the seaside streets and around the fountains.

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Unfortunately the day really wasn’t as long as we would have liked for it to have been, but we all agreed that it was still a worthwhile little adventure. We slightly miscalculated how long it would take to ride back to the bike shop before we had to get our train, and ended up in a mad rush after hastily paying.

We dipped our way in and out of hawkers and confused locals during our dash for the train back to Taipei, and we only just made it. We jumped onto the first carriage and then walked through about ten more with me leading the way and running face flat into a door. I was able to complete some more tutoring on the train with my SIM card’s unlimited data. The two-hour train got pretty boring for the others.

Upon disembarking the train we decided not to return to the hostel but rather to push straight on to the Shillin Night Markets.

The metro there also grew pretty boring.

Just outside the metro station, there was a building designed in an optical illusion which threw a lot of us off. It had a huge, slightly distorted sphere in it.

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This market, often considered the largest and most famous in Taiwan, sells all kinds of clothes and street food. The market consists of two sections: the old Shilin Market building which houses almost 540 food stalls, and an outdoor area with hundreds more stores selling nonfood items. The markets open around 4pm and it doesn’t start closing until at least 1am, and upon arriving we could see why. This place was absolutely packed with every demographic you could think of: young students, old people, tourists, immigrants, you name it.

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We quickly made our way towards the only kind of stalls we were really interested in: food.

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We passed some interesting vehicles on the way.

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Arriving at the food stalls, we quickly tucked in to some of Shilin’s specialities, namely 炸鸡排 (fried chicken steak), 大肠包小肠 (small sausage in large sausage) and 珍珠奶茶 (pearl milk tea). Dares to eat the putrid “stinky tofu” were never followed through with.

He still doesn’t know which way the peace sign is meant to be…

The walk back through Ximending on the way back to the hostel was exciting as always, but with the fatigue kicking in we decided to call it a night.

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Day 260 (25th of November, 2016) – Seoul, South Korea

We woke up this morning to this notification ringing on all of our phones.

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In Chinese, that explains that there was a 5.5 magnitude earthquake at 5:55am. That earthquake happened to be centred in Hualien, the very city we were in yesterday. Only Ben and Lachie felt the tremors.

With our flight out to Seoul being in the afternoon, we didn’t have enough time to see any attractions outside of the city centre. So, after discussing it with the hostel staff, we decided that it was best to go and see two sights which were nearby: the Lungshan Temple of Manka and the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. It’s interesting how in Taiwan they use English transliterations which are distinctly different from the actual pronunciation of the Chinese word in pinyin. For example, Lungshan Temple is “龙山寺”. There are two options for how you would write that in English: one is “Dragon Mountain Temple” (the English translation), and the other is “Longshan Temple” (the pinyin transliteration). But instead, the translation used in Taiwan is neither. I wonder who decided on the names.

Lungshan Temple was first up.

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The boys quickly vied for the best photo.

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The inside of the temple was where things started to get really interesting – we were seeing a live demonstration of Taiwanese Buddhists praying and laying incense. It all seemed very familiar to the temples I’d seen in China, and that would make a lot of sense. That’s because this place was built in 1738 by settlers from Fujian Province in China.

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What’s unique about this temple is not only does it contain Buddhist statues, but it also includes halls and altars to Chinese deities such as Mazu and Guan Yu.

We joined in with the incense ceremony, but it’s fair to say that we weren’t quite dedicated enough to sacrifice any food.

One of the nicest things about the complex was the juxtaposition between the temple and the office buildings just outside. It wouldn’t be a bad view if you were working in one of them.

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It’s sad to think that the Americans bombed this temple during World War II to prevent the Japanese from hiding armaments there.

Just outside the Temple was a garden and waterfall.

Just a few metro stations away was the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. This national monument was erected in memory of Chiang Kai-shek, the former President of the Taiwan (the Republic of China). Why was this man so important? Well, he was the leader of the Republic of China from 1928 to 1975. That is, he led the Nationalist Government of China against the Communist Party when the Nationalists were ousted to Taiwan. This was a particularly interesting sight for me to see since it contrasted directly with the memorials for the leaders of the opposite side which I saw dotted all over China, including Xuzhou. If you recall from my earlier blogs, I visited a lot of places which glorified the Communist’s defeat of the Kuomintang (which Chiang led).

The main structure of the memorial is a white building with an octagonal blue roof (used because of the lucky Chinese number eight). Two sets of 89 steps lead up to the memorial hall, representing the President’s age at the time of his death.

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Inside was the statue dedicated to the President.

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Guards stood watch over it.

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They even participated in a mannequin challenge.

The hall provided a spectacular view over the gardens and halls below. The architectural style of these buildings, while obviously rooted in Chinese style, is distinctly Taiwanese.

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It was those gardens which the other boys explored next while I headed back to get some things done. The photos afterwards made me wish that I could have stayed.

It wasn’t long until we had gathered our bags, argued our way out of a late check-out fee and were finding our way to a bus to the airport. Realising that our (my) organisation had been sub-par, we jumped in an Uber to play it safe. Yet more boring transport.

This has been Lachie, Ben and Dyl’s third “Scoot” flight of the trip. This Singapore Airline-owned budget airline is about as low quality as they get, but it’s always a good laugh. It ended up that our flight wasn’t full and that we were in an exit row, though. So it was actually very comfortable.

We arrived to a crystal clean Incheon Airport in Seoul where the organisational perfection and air-freshener smells were sustaining Lachie’s nostalgia from having lived in Tokyo. We quickly exchanged money and revelled in the fact that we were now considered millionaires.

Disappointed by the fact that the Maglev (a 430km/h train which levitates) only ran between airport facilities, we boarded the metro towards Hongdae. Seoul is a city of 10 million people. It’s. Huge. Selecting which district you will stay in is therefore as important as choosing which city you’ll visit in a country. Hongdae is centred around Hongik University.

As AirBnB describes it, “Watch trends take form in Hongdae, a fashion-forward and forward-thinking Seoulneighbourhood. To the west of business-savvy Jongno, Hongdae’s business consists of blankets at sidewalk markets and all-night dance clubs blanketed in bright lights. Wear what you like and say what you mean in Hongdae. Here, self-expression is paramount – it’s written on walls, espoused in streets, and danced in front of gathered crowds. What you see today in Hongdae, you’ll hear about tomorrow everywhere else.”

Arriving just before midnight, this description immediately seemed accurate. The town was alive, with the only sleepy bit being the very alternative street leading all the way towards our guesthouse.

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Stepping into the “Bounce Guesthouse” was a welcome relief from the zero degree weather outside. The location was convenient, the people warm and the rooms homely.

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But within minutes, we wanted to be out again. We all loved the fresh, crisp air.

We knew what we wanted, and we wanted it now: Korean BBQ. We got walking to try and find it.

It wasn’t long until we ran into dozens of them in a row. We picked a full one and found a seat.

The food started flowing out. We didn’t need to order anything.

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It was very humorous, actually. We genuinely had no idea what we were doing. We were just going off my memories from having eaten with Koreans in Xuzhou. We would only be instructed on how to do things when we did something wrong. The waiter would only appear when we burned our meat, ate something the wrong way or mixed the wrong ingredients. We were using our hands for some time before we even found the cutlery drawer.

It was getting frustratingly difficult when out of desperation I asked the waiter if he spoke Chinese. And he did! It was good to see that the language was coming in handy elsewhere in Asia. He explained all the instructions to me and we got cooking.

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By the end of dinner it was approaching 2am and we headed back anticipating an early wake-up for tomorrow’s activity. It also happened to be the activity which I was most looking forward to on the trip and one of the top things on my bucket list. I was excited to say the least.

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Day 261 (26th of November, 2016) – Seoul, South Korea

Today, we would step foot in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (a.k.a. North Korea). This totalitarian dictatorship of 25 million people was founded in 1948 in the aftermath of World War II, and it was their division from the South which sparked the Korean War. North Korea follows “Songun”, or “military-first” policy. It is the country with the highest number of military and paramilitary personnel, with a total of 9,495,000 active, reserve, and paramilitary personnel. Its active duty army of 1.21 million is the fourth largest in the world, after China, the U.S., and India. They possess nuclear weapons.

Perhaps the most famous figures of the North are Kim Il-Sung (appointed by the Soviet Union as the original leader), Kim Jong-Il and Kim Jong-Un, North Korea’s successive “Great Leaders”. The personality cult they have conducted means that North Koreans are often observed weeping in front of their statues, and all must wear badges bearing their faces.

But we wouldn’t be going very deep into North Korea. To be more exact, we were going a few metres into their territory.

We were going on a tour to a number of locations in the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) including the Third Infiltration Tunnel, Dora Observatory, Dorasan train station and the Joint Security Area (JSA) where we were able to enter the North.

We arrived at the President Hotel in central Seoul for the hour-long journey to the border.

During the bus journey, we received the necessary documents and information. One such document was the UN Visitor Declaration. With the border being a UN-controlled zone, we had to abide by their rules.

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We also received our official UN visitor passes.

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One of the more interesting rules was that we couldn’t wear any torn jeans or sandals. This was because North Korean guards had a history of taking pictures of tourists in these clothes and sending them to the government for use as propaganda against the West (since those items of clothing are perceived as symbols of poverty).

After a clothing check and two passport checks by South Korean military, we entered the DMZ. The landscape, which is home to some of the world’s most diverse selection of flora and fauna (due to it being relatively untouched) instantly became more rural.

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We passed by ‘Freedom Village’, ironically situated just behind this fence.

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This is a small farming community, but one out of limits to all but those living or working here. These are among the richest farmers in Korea: they pay no rent or tax, and DMZ produce fetches big bucks at markets around the country. Technically, residents have to spend 240 days of the year at home, but most commute here from their condos in Seoul. One of the rules is that they must be back in town by nightfall, and have their doors and windows locked and bolted by midnight. Women are allowed to marry into this tight society, but men are not; those who choose to raise their children here also benefit from a school that at the last count had eleven teachers and only eight students.

Eventually, we reached the DMZ tourist centre. This place included a souvenir shop and temple for the soldiers. Marching by our sides were groups of American and South Korean military personnel. We were told that we could take pictures later, and were quickly shuffled into the hall for a briefing on the history of the DMZ.

Of all the stories told, the most interesting was that of the “Axe Murder Incident” when two American soldiers were killed by a pack of axe-wielding North Koreans. The cause of the trouble was a poplar tree which stood next to the Bridge of No Return. A UN outpost stood next to the bridge, but its direct line of sight to the next Allied checkpoint was blocked by the leaves of the tree, so on August 18 a five-man American detail was dispatched to perform some trimming. Although the mission had apparently been agreed in advance with the North, sixteen soldiers from the North turned up and demanded that the trimming stop. Met with refusal, they launched a swift attack on the UNC troops using the axes the team had been using to prune the tree. The attack lasted less than a minute, but claimed the life of First Lieutenant Mark Barrett as well as Captain Bonifas.

My favourite part of the story is that three days later, the US launched Operation Paul Bunyan. A convoy of 24 UNC vehicles streamed towards the plant, carrying more than 800 men, some trained in taekwondo, and all armed to the teeth. These were backed up by attack helicopters, fighter planes and B-52 bombers, while an aircraft carrier had also been stationed just off the Korean shore. This carefully managed operation drew no response from the North, and the tree was successfully trimmed.

Before we knew it, we were marched back onto a different bus (with a driver who was trained for “emergency situations”) to drive all the way to the JSA. We disembarked the bus and were marched in two neat lines right up to the front lines of the North Korean border. I instantly recognised the bright blue buildings and the iconic building on the North Korean side, Panmungak, from pictures and documentaries.

It was very, very rushed. And extremely strict. Within a matter of seconds, we were told that we would have no longer than 30 seconds for photos. With the people guarding us holding assault rifles and some potentially hostile North Korean soldiers staring us down from just metres away, there was no messing around with that rule. We started snapping away.

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Here is an overview of the area.

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That grey building in the background is the main North Korean military post at the border. If you look closely, you can spot a guard of the Korean Republic Army.

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Facing the North Korean side, 24/7 365 days a year are an American and a South Korean soldier. Flanking them are two more South Korean soldiers, half hidden behind the UN Conference Room for ease of cover in the case of an attack.

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That blue building in the centre is the United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission Conference Building. Half of it lies in North Korean territory, the other half in South Korean territory. And that was the building which we were whisked away into in single file as soon as the photo time had finished.

Here was the table which the two governments have at times agreed to hold negotiations.

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And that concrete slab, ladies and gentlemen, marks the border between North and South Korea. I am standing on the northern side. That will be one of the few photos in this blog ever taken in North Korea, and maybe even one of the only photos I will ever take there in my life.

Standing directly on the border is a South Korean guard, badass sunglasses and all.

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We joined in the fun.

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This is also where many world leaders have been photographed, including our very own Tony Abbott. When he was here, some of the North Korean soldiers took it upon themselves to approach and take a closer look.

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Here is a glimpse straight into the North.

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This guard stands firmly in North Korean territory. The blue door behind him, if entered, symbolises complete defection. At any point in time we were free to enter that door, but it would be regarded as a defection by international law, and at that point North Korea would have their way with us.

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We weren’t really in a defecting sort of mood today. The possibility of one of us defecting, escaping to China and then meeting us back in Seoul was discussed, but ultimately not followed through on.

There was a story in the news a few months ago of a North Korean guard who defected into the South through that very door.

We literally had less than a minute for photographs. And after frustratingly being the last people in line to get a photo with that guard before our time was cut short, we thought better than to resist demands to exit immediately.

We were shuffled out of the JSA with as much speed as we were rushed in, and before we knew it we were back at the DMZ tourist centre, still dizzy from how much of a surreal experience it all was.

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Realising that we didn’t get an opportunity for a photo with that last soldier, our English-speaking escort kindly jumped in our photo.

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He is a teenager completing his compulsory two years of military service, and is only able to go home once every two months. He, along with many of his peers, are put in charge of manning one of the most tense and volatile borders on Earth. It was chillingly relatable being the same age. Wally, my Korean friend from Xuzhou, once counted himself among these soldiers.

There were plenty more American soldiers roaming the compound, such as these two on the outside just next to the temple. Regardless of people’s opinions on whether it’s America’s responsibility to stick their hands in every pie and “keep the peace” internationally, there’s no denying that it’s exactly what they’re achieving here. Unless you were to argue that it’s an unnecessary aggravator for the North.

And right on queue, the first snow of the season grew substantially heavier.

We also had to be able to say that we danced our way along the North Korean border, and we were able to do this in Imjingak Park.

The park had some harrowing sights, including this shot up train leftover from the Korean War and this border shrine strewn with prayer flags.

It’s hard to imagine the families which, by sheer bad luck, were separated by this almost arbitrarily placed fence, never to see each other again. All because of the conflicting ideologies of a few leaders, split by the ideas of Communism and Democracy. Some of those prayer flags were surely hung by those very people. My Year 11 creative writing assignment was based on these families, so it’s something which interests me greatly. Specifically, it was based on this rare meeting of long lost family members which you might enjoy reading about here. The negotiations to have this occur happened in the UN Conference room which we visited.

It was eerie to see the theme parks and carnivals which South Korea have strategically set up on the border to tempt North Koreans to defect and as a preparation for an eventual reunification.

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The next stop was the Dora Observatory, but only after a lunch break.

Dora Observatory is situated on top of Dorasan (Mount Dora), and the observatory looks across the North’s side of the DMZ.

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On a clear day, you would be able to see deep into the North including Propaganda Village. Unfortunately today it was just fog.

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What was interesting about this wasn’t the view, but rather the sounds. I clumsily uploaded a video of the speakers on Snapchat and forgot to save it permanently.

You’d likely recall news stories at the beginning of the year of the huge speakers which North Korea set up along the border to blast propaganda audio into the South. The South retaliated by erecting their own. They oscillate between proclamations of the freedoms on offer in the South to music (everything from classical to K-Pop) designed to block out the North’s constant pestering.

It’s quite infantile, really. I’ve thought this a lot about international relations: in the end, it all comes down to who can flex bigger muscles. It only gets dangerous when a country loses their temper or a flex is interpreted as a threat. There’s plenty of examples for what this international “flex” looks like: the U.S. flying stealth bombers along the border of North Korea, the U.S. sending warships through the South China Sea just to remind everyone of who’s “boss”, Russia circling Australia with warships in 2014 following Abbott’s threat to “shirtfront” Putin at the G20. The only people who hear these threats loud and clear are coastguards and foreign ministers. For the general population, it’s just another part of the evening news (and often, it’s not even newsworthy). Seriously childish. It reminds me of trying to make a bigger pile of sand in the sandpit at preschool, or waving a Nerf gun in front of Bianca and Anneke as an eight year old. Even on the highest levels, we all descend back to our tribal instincts. It’s cringeworthy.

Why’s it cringeworthy? Well, because it does things like this:

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Maybe it takes a picture for some governments to have the slightest heart.

Our next stop was something which the whole group had been looking forward to all day: the Third Infiltration Tunnel. Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take any photographs of it. I only got a picture of the entrance.

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Here’s some sourced from Google.

The Third Infiltration Tunnel is one of the four known tunnels under the border between North Korea and South Korea. 30,000 soldiers could pass through here every hour into Seoul. Only 44 km from Seoul, this incomplete tunnel was discovered in 1978 following the detection of an underground explosion apparently caused by the tunnellers who had progressed 435 metres under the south side of the DMZ. It took four months to locate the tunnel precisely and dig an intercept tunnel. The tunnel is 1,635m long with a maximum heigh of 1.95m and maximum width of 2.1m wide. It runs through the bedrock at a depth of about 73m below ground.

The tunnel was much smaller than advertised. We were squatting the whole time – a disaster for anyone with even the slightest claustrophobia. It was incredible seeing the holes where the North Koreans had placed dynamite only a few decades ago. While in the monorail out of the tunnel, Ben lost his helmet in an incident which is best not to recount. What happens in the tunnel stays in the tunnel.

One the way out of the DMZ we passed through Dorasan, the last rail station before the North Korean border. As much a symbol as a functioning station, this place marks the point which the South hopes will one day be rejoined to the North.

Korea has grander visions, hoping that this line down to the southernmost tip of the country will one day act as an extension to the Trans-Korean, Trans-Siberian and Trans-China railways. At one point, Aimee and I were planning on taking that Trans-Siberian train at the end of the year.

After a long, long, long bus ride home (peak hour traffic is some of the worst I’ve seen in this country), we emerged at a metro station where we indulged in some long-awaited snacks. Fish-shaped custard cakes ended up being the hit.

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And finally, we could use tonight to see Hongdae properly.

We stood around watching subcultures go about their way, attracting crowds in the hundreds for obscure dances and K-Pop boyband covers.

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^ Anneke take note – this is where you could end up. But maybe a little less twerking.

I just wish that Australia had this sort of culture. It’s an incredible atmosphere, and apparently it happens EVERY night. You walk around Newtown at night, and sure it’s eccentric, but you’re certainly not seeing this sort of culture. Especially with the lockout laws killing businesses and keeping young people from the streets. It’s a real shame, and we all agreed, but we vowed to enjoy the treat in Seoul while we were here.

We found ourselves in a Korean restaurant attempting to get chicken. Instead, we ended up with far too many dishes of everything but chicken. And it was very, very spicy.

A good chat later and we were back outdoors, enjoying the dozens of vibrant streets in the district.

Initially planning to find a bar, our priorities quickly changed when we saw “Funnyland”. This arcade wonderland had it all. Just look at this freak of nature.

We soon found ourselves reattempting the BB-rifle range an absurd amount of times.

And the batting cage, of course. It didn’t really work for left-handers…

And then the karaoke booths. Normally meant for Korean couples wanting to smash out a rendition of their favourite K-Pop song, now redefined for Westerners looking to make a fool of themselves.

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Originally we couldn’t figure out how to work the system since it was all in Korean, so we resorted to some freestyling.

But eventually, the staff helped us whack out a Lean On by DJ Snake and Fix You by Coldplay.

It made for a good end to a good day.

.

Day 262 (27th of November, 2016) – Seoul, South Korea

Despite the late night last night, we still managed to wake up and drag ourselves to City Hall on time. Here I had arranged that we meet Wally Hong – one of my closest friends from Xuzhou. It was great of Ben, Lachie and Dyl to tag along. It ended up being a good choice, because Wally showed us a bit more of what real Korea is like. Wally, who’s originally from a country town much closer to the centre of Korea, has had quite an eclectic adulthood so far. He’s lived in Melbourne packing meat, in Goulburn working at the local pub, outside of Seoul as a military Commando, in Nigeria on an extended work placement, in Xuzhou with me as a Chinese scholar and now in Seoul working at Point UV Implant.

Other than Todd’s unannounced arrivals, this is the first meeting with someone from Xuzhou which I’ve had outside of the city. Unlike Todd’s presence, this brought back positive nostalgia than negative memories.

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Wally took us to see Deoksugung Palace in central Seoul. Deoksugung Palace was inhabited by members of Korea’s royal family during the Joseon monarchy until colonial period around the turn of the 20th century. It is one of the “Five Grand Palaces” built by the kings of the Joseon Dynasty.

For its central location, the compound had a remarkably peaceful vibe to it.

The structures were mostly built in the traditional Korean style.

The only exception to that was a Western building used for diplomats and a European building for the art gallery.

This was my favourite picture taken during the visit.

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Closely rivalled by this one.

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Wally told us that the street bordering the palace, Deoksugung-gil, is the traditional street for young Korean couples to meander down early in their relationship. Since the establishment of that tradition, though, it has also become rumoured that a walk down this street marks an impending break-up.

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Our favourite feature of the street was the knitting graffiti.

And this sculpture, which really was the most mind-altering thing I’ve seen in the physical world. I could not get a grip of the real proportions of anything for quite some time after looking at this.

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Wally, also a closeted street food fanatic, took us on something of a culinary tour of the city. We started with a Korean version of peanut brittle, traditionally eaten before a big exam.

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We then moved on to the egg tarts and red bean fish-shaped cakes.

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A few metro stations later, we found ourselves in Myeong-dong. This district is the commercial centre of Seoul, marked by its endless skin cosmetics stores and extensive fashion streets.

None of us had known that Samsung released their own line of fashion.

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It didn’t take long to pick up some easy gifts for the females of our lives (sorry girls).

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Wally was more interested in the food, though. And so were we.

We found ourselves at a Korean BBQ eating a very different style dish to what we ate on the first night. It came with sides of kimchi soup and other vegetables.

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It got raving reviews from all of us, and at under AU$10 we still had some money left over for yet more street food. Among the snacks, the mooncake honey pancake was by far the standout.

Ben was in the game of fitting in with the locals. I respect that.

At the end of the main street as we weaved our way through the crowds, we could spy the North Seoul Tower. The iconic tower stands guard over this incredible metropolis.

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We rounded a corner and made our way to another famous site in the area – the Myeongdong Cathedral.

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Completed in 1898, this place is dedicated to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, the principal patron saint of Korea and the Korean people.

It was nearing the end of the day and we were all tired, so we didn’t overstay our welcome and said goodbye to Wally so that he could continue on. He was extremely kind to show us around his country for a whole day.

Amidst his touchy-feely chatter and hugs, old Wally left us with one parting piece of wisdom: Go to chimaek. Tonight.

“Chimaek” means “chicken and beer”. It’s a bit of a Korean tradition. It’s a genius idea which, as the name suggests, combines two great things: chicken, and beer.

After a brief break in the guesthouse, that was our next destination.

The jug was markedly bigger than we had expected.

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And the chicken, markedly tastier than we had expected.

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Good leftover photos = a good night.

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It’s been an incredible start to the trip. The delay in the blog is a testament to that! I can’t wait to see what else is in store in Korea.

Until next time,
Xavier.

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