Friday, 27 November 2015

Meanwhile, in North Korea...

When I was back in England and heard of people visiting the border between North and South Korea, my first thought was...are you crazy?! Why would you go there?! It was only after I’d been here for a few months that I became interested, and realised the importance of learning about this fascinating place and the history that surrounds it. Living in South Korea and so close to the border made me especially curious about the North, and so I decided that it was time to take the short 40 minute bus ride to The Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), in search of some answers.

The DMZ is the area extending two kilometers to either side of the border between the North and the South. It is one of the most heavily militarised zones in the world right now but interestingly enough, the entire line is only marked by small singular white posts. Inside the DMZ there is a mixture of farm land, wildlife and it is even home to (as they like to call it) ‘The Most Dangerous Golf Course in the world’ which is surrounded by live landmines left over from the Korean war. The most fascinating thing of all though, is that this area has completely reverted back to nature. It is one of the most undeveloped areas in Asia that is home to an immense amount of plant and animal life. It is even speculated that the rare Siberian Tiger (The traditional symbol of unified Korea) is among the wildlife here, although this is yet to be proven.

Joint Security Area

One of our first stops along the DMZ was the applicably named 'Third Tunnel of Aggression'. Buried deep beneath the DMZ are 4 small tunnels that were discovered in the 70's, and were built by North Korea to invade the South, although they will of course deny this. The third tunnel is extremely small as the average height of a North Korean man is just 5 foot 5 inches, so most people do have to crouch down the entire way. Luckily for me and all of my 5 foot and 1 inch - it didn't cause too much of a problem. Once inside and after a less than comfortable ride down to the bottom on a small monorail (claustrophobics beware), you can see black markings all along both sides of the walls. These were apparently painted on by the North, to suggest that they were simply just digging for coal, should their tunnels ever be found. However, there has never been any evidence to suggest that coal has ever existed in these granite dug tunnels, so it is a little bit awkward for them.

 Safety First!
 The end of the tunnel!


Before arriving at the JSA (our final destination) we stopped at the observatory platform from which we could see the abandoned village of Panmunjom, and the two Korean flagpoles. Back in the 1980's when these were both constructed there was a huge uproar over the height, and a small 'war of flagpoles' broke out proving that size, really does matter. The North Koreans flagpole is now the fourth biggest in the world...but remember, the average male height still remains at 5'5!

We also passed The Bridge of No Return - a prisoner exchange bridge between the two sides, and the Freedom Bridge, which was used to send soldiers back from the North during the war. Both bridges are now of course completely inaccessible. After presenting our passports at about 5 different check points throughout the day, we finally reached the last one. Here, a soldier boarded the bus and did a final check of our identification, and also our outfits. The dress code (along with everything else) is quite strict and you are told beforehand of what not to wear. This consisted of no sleeveless or collarless shirts, no army related clothing, and no flags from anywhere whatsoever. It was pretty crazy, and we were told by our guide at least 20 times an hour not to take any pictures in certain spots, and NEVER to point.

 North Korea
 Messages left by separated families on the Freedom Bridge
When we arrived at the JSA we were also told not to drink water or make any sudden movements. We all entered in 2 straight lines passing soldiers on either side as silence filled the air. We were able to go into the meeting room and step over the border itself meaning that technically we were in North Korea, and we were funnily enough allowed to take pictures in this part.

Shortly before this and still standing in line, we were given a moment to stop, and take it all in. As I looked out towards North Korea which was only a few steps away, I felt very strange. I'm not sure if I was scared, or worried, or just emotional about all of the history that these two sides have shared together, but it was a feeling that I will never forget. 

  The guards at the JSA
The Meeting room - South on the left, North on the right!

 Over the border in North Korea!

This area was by far, the most tense place I have ever visited. There are so many interesting stories that we were told and I could genuinely talk about it for hours. However it really is something that needs to be experienced first hand, so make sure if you are in South Korea to take a trip to this truly, spellbinding place.

You will not regret it!

Friday, 13 November 2015

Bizarre Korea

I have now been in Korea for nearly 9 months and I can quite frankly say that its been a roller coaster ride of emotions. However the one thing that has kept me going through the ups and the downs is the ridiculous amount of genuinely bizarre celebrated holidays. There are around 12 Red Days a year which is a real treat. Don't be fooled though, the holidays in which you do not receive a day off for are still celebrated and taken very seriously indeed. So here are just a few of the wonderfully weird dates that this wonderfully weird country celebrates...

Peparo day - November 11th
Pepora day is a day where everybody gets together and eats chocolate covered bread sticks...yep, that’s a thing here. There is no other reason for it and they genuinely do go all out. There are hundreds of gift boxes and different varieties available, and it is said that this day generates the highest sales in convenience stores too, so expect to receive at least six if you’re in Korea at this time. If you look at the date of 11:11, it kind of looks like 4 Peparo sticks standing side by side so perhaps that's why they chose this date. Anyone for a pocky...

The 14th day of EVERY month!!!
Well first of all lets start with Valentines day on the 14th February which everyone either loves or hates, usually depending on their relationship status at the time. Most countries celebrate this just once a year (how lovely), Korea on the other hand basically has a day every month for it! Its pretty crazy, take a look...

Children's Day - May 5th
Do you remember when you were a kid and were always asking your parents why there isn’t a children's day’? Well in Korea there is one! On this day parents buy their children gifts and usually take them on an outing of some sort. Its cute but it means that you’ll never hear the classic response of ‘because every day is children's day’ ever again. This is also a public holiday so cheers to that!

Hangul Day - October 9th
If you’re a writer than you’ll love this one. An entire day to celebrate the creation of Hangul - the Korean alphabet. It was created under King Sejong during the Choson Dynasty in 1446. Over the years the date has changed several times due to the different calendars and incorrect assumptions. However after the discovery of the Hunmin Jeongeum Haerye (a commentary on the original proclamation of Hangul) in 1940, it was revealed that the correct date is in fact October 9th. This is also a national holiday in Korea so Happy Hangul Day I say!

So there you have it, as you can see in Korea you’re never far away from another holiday. So dust off those wallets (especially if you're dating a Korean) and be prepared to spend big money but ultimately, enjoy A LOT of great days off! Score!

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Halloween in Korea...

October 31st brings yet another holiday here in Korea and of course all over the world. Halloween is that time of year where kids (and adults alike) get dressed up and go out gallivanting around the town. Back home in England its not really a huge deal to be honest. There are parties and some children do indeed go trick or treating, but compared to other countries we definitely don't go crazy for it. Therefore it was great to actually celebrate this holiday, and it will be one that I will probably remember for a while.

When I arrived at school on the Friday I was greeted with black and orange decorations as far as the eye could see. Jack-o-lanterns, Halloween treats and a crazy amount of candy were among the many items on display, and it wouldn't be Halloween without a good ole pumpkin or 6. The children all dressed up and I was not at all surprised to see 4 Elsa’s, 2 Sleeping Beauties, a Cinderella and even 1 Rapunzel. They do love their Disney princesses. We also had a pretty scary looking Witch, a Pirate, and what I thought was Aladdin - turns out he was just a Ninja. Standard. I decided to go as a cowboy/sherif (easiest costume I could think of) which was great...until the kids started calling me 'Cow Teacher'. Really didn't think that one through! DAMMIT! It was good fun though and all in the name of Halloween.

The day was spent playing spooky musical chairs, hiding under blankets, and pretending to carve the crap out of an imaginary Pumpkin. The children went trick or treating around the school too which involved turning the lights off in my office and scaring the life out of the ones that came knocking, and then giving them candy of course. A couple of children did not want to participate because of their religious views and so they did not attend school that day, but the kids who did literally had a whale of a time. 

In the afternoon we made some pretty impressive jack-o-lanterns and read some scary stories, which proved a bit too much for some of the children but all good fun none the less. Everyone had a lovely old time and at the end of the day they all went home with enough candy to last until at least next year. This Halloween at my little kindergarten school in South Korea will be one of those days that I will definitely look back on with fondness. It can sometimes be quite a challenging job to have out here, but its moments like this that make it all worthwhile.

7 weeks until Christmas! Arrgh!

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