17 October 2013

A Seoul Journey

I had never been to Seoul before.  United flies there non-stop from SFO, and October would seem to be a good time to visit (not too hot and not too cold).  I also found out that it would be possible to go on a tour of the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone that separates North from South Korea).  So, I booked a flight, made my tour reservation for the only possible day I could do it (a Saturday), and found a well-located hotel (Hilton Millennium Seoul).

The flight departs at around 11:00 am and arrives the next day around 3:00 pm.  It was a 12-hour flight.  I was surprised at the route taken because it was almost straight across the Pacific (which is not usually the most efficient because it's longer distance-wise and usually against the prevailing wind; flights to nearby Tokyo fly up towards the Aleutians and then come down).  But the flight left on time and arrived at the stated scheduled time.

My arrival plans were not typical for me.  Prior to my trip, I had signed up for the Korean SES (Smart Entry System) privileges.  this was a benefit of belonging to the U.S. Global Entry Program.  The SES program would allow me to enter and depart Korea using the automated gates.  So, after I cleared immigration and Customs the traditional way at Incheon International Airport, I headed up to the Departures Level to complete my registration at the Auto-Immigration office.  It took very little time.  Once I grabbed a number for the queue, I was called up tot he desk and they found my information online.  They verified my passport, took my picture and digital fingerprints, had me test that I would be accepted by the system and then I was done.

That mission accomplished, I headed back down to the Arrival Level and found the Tourist Desk to purchase a 3-day transit pass (I would have liked a 4-day pass, but they didn't sell that denomination).  Turns out that I could only pay cash for the pass, so I had to go find an ATM and take out some Korean won.  Next, it was down to the train level.  The pass would have been good for the local "all-stops" train, but not for the Express train.  The Express takes 43 minutes and costs about $7 while the Local takes about 54 minutes and costs less than $4.  It was late in the day and I didn't plan to do much riding around that evening, so I chose not to use my pass so that it would cover my 3 remaining days.  But I did choose to take the Express train just for the experience (I planned take the local train back to the airport using my pass on my departure day).

The trains terminate at Seoul Station, which was conveniently located near my hotel.  You have to come up several levels form the platform before you see daylight.  I wasn't quite sure which direction I would need to go to walk to my hotel except I knew it was up a hill from the station.  I figured I would be able to look up and see it somehow.  I did spot an exit sign that directed me to a shuttle bus for the Hilton Hotel.  So I got on the bus and after a few minutes (it's an hourly service leaving at the bottom of the hour) it left for the hotel.  I discovered that airport trains let you off on a platform on the opposite side of a large train station from where, when you exit the station, you could see the Hilton.  So, I was very glad I found the bus to take me directly there.

The hotel was nice enough and had an Executive Lounge.  Checking in was easy.  After settling a little bit, I grabbed some food that was to be my dinner from the Executive Lounge, and then headed out for a walk to dry-run getting to where I needed to be for the DMZ tour the next morning by walking, if it came to that.  Turns out it was about a half-hour walk from my hotel, or a very easy subway ride.  But it was not very obvious where in the Hotel Lotte I needed to go in to get to the meeting point.  So I was glad I scoped it out beforehand.  Along the way, I walked by this gate (Sungnyemun).

In the morning, I took the subway one stop using my pass and got to the meeting point on the 6th floor of the hotel with plenty of time.  I had to show my passport and pay the tour fee at the Service Club desk.  I was then directed to the 2nd floor Tour Lounge, where I could wait until the bus in the adjacent parking lot was ready to load.  Coincidentally, a friend of mine from the East Coast was going to be in Korea this same weekend and he signed up for the same tour.  However, we were assigned to different buses as we did not sign up at the same time and they assign you specific seats on the tour bus.

It took about an hour to drive up to the DMZ.  Our first stop was a place called Imjingang, which had some monuments and memorials to the Korean conflict and to peace.  Nearby was a train station on a line that was to connect the South with the North but not currently in use.  After that stop, we went to an observatory point where we had a clear look at the North Korean frontier.
 The next stop was a visit to the "3rd Tunnel", so called because it was the third tunnel discovered by the South Koreans.  the tunnel was being dug by the North Koreans for a sneak attack.  We took a small train down 73 meter below ground to have a look at the tunnel.  Pictures were not allowed inside the tunnel.  We were allowed to walk the tunnel just about up to the point where it crossed into North Korea.  However, the tunnel was then plugged with 3 concrete blocks to prevent the North Koreans form being able to use the tunnel.  The tunnel itself was small, a little cool, and damp.  It also had a low ceiling at some points.  We had to wear helmets and stoop sometimes to pass through.  There is a walkway down to the tunnel from the surface, but the tour package include d the train transport down to and up from the tunnel.
Train into the intercept tunnel to get to the 3rd Tunnel
Afterwards, it was time for lunch, which was included with the tour price.  We went to a traditional Korean lunch restaurant.  We could choose between a beef or vegetarian lunch.  The spread was very good.
After lunch, we journeyed to the Joint Security Area (JSA)  this is where get to the border compound that is used by both North and South Korea.  Both sides have tours to the JSA and it is where the two sides meet when they decide to have discussions.  The first stop was a place called Camp Bonifas, where we had passport checks and were boarded by U.N/American soldiers who would escort us in this part of the visit.  The next stage was a visit to a briefing room, where we were given a presentation on a history of the area and how it is set up. We then had to sign a waiver acknowledging that there was a risk to the visit and there were no guarantees that we could be protected should an "incident' occur.

We were then taken to another building and led to the border zone.

We were instructed only to take picture straight ahead, towards the big concrete building.  We could not take pictures to our right, left or behind us, or else our camera would be confiscated.  There was one North Korean solder visible in front of the large building.  The blue building on the left is the actual conference room right on the border.  That was our next stop.

Inside the conference room, we were allowed to stand on either side.  The soldiers present were all South Korean soldiers (in a Tae Kwon Do-ready position).  The people standing on the other side of the conference table were on the North Korea side.  We were only allowed to stay for a few minutes to take pictures.

Afterwards, it was a stop at the JSA gift shop and then the ride back to Seoul.  I learned a lot about the Korean conflict on this tour, so it was quite interesting.

That evening, I had a dinner planned at a molecular cuisine restaurant I managed to find.  It was located across the river from the side of the city where my hotel was located.  It was called Elbon The Table.  I had some interesting dishes.

For a full write-up of my visit to the restaurant, click here.

The next day, I had scheduled in advance to be part of a free walking tour offered by the Seoul Tourist Office. The guides are local resident volunteers.  The reservations are made in advance on-line, so it is easy to arrange if you do it in advance.  Sometimes they say availability is such that you need to book one or two weeks in advance.  I managed to book this about five days ahead of time.  I chose a tour of the Bukchon section.  It's an area of old Korean houses located between two royal palaces.  The meeting point was right by a subway station, so it was easy to find the guide.

We started the tour by crossing the street to an adjacent section of town.  We went so the guide could describe many of the elements of a traditional Korean house by giving us a walk-though of a former nobleman's house, which now serves as a museum.  It happened that they were doing a re-enactment of taking  State Examination in the old ways, so the grounds were open for free.  The house was large and elaborate, as the owner turned out to be the regent for one of the last emperors of Korea.
Afterwards, it was on to our walk around Bukchon.

The walk took us up and down the hills and alleys of the area and lasted for 2.5 hours.

After the tour, I went to shop a bit along the nearby Insa-dong St. area.  I then headed over to the nearby Changgyeonggung Palace complex and the Secret Garden.  There is a fee to enter the main palace grounds, which you can see at your leisure or take a tour.  There is a separate charge to see the Secret Gardens area, and you can only do so by being part of a tour group through the gardens (done in English and Korean at specified times).  There is an additional palace located on the site further back which requires payment of an additional fee.

I then turned south and headed to the redeveloped Cheonggyecheon Stream area.  It used to be a road and they recently removed the road to reveal the underlying stream.  They fixed it up a s a walkway/park.  It's a nice find in the heart of the city.

At this point, it was time to head back to the hotel for a little rest and some food.  Later in the evening, I went for a stroll in the Itaewon area (a short subway ride from my hotel).  It traditionally was where foreigners hung out and is now several blocks of restaurants, bars and shops.  On this particular Sunday night, there were three stages of loud music, food and gift booths set up in the street and lots of people around.

The next day was my departure day, but the flight would not leave until the late afternoon.  So I devoted the morning to more sightseeing.  I headed off to the Buddhist Temple Complex called Bongeunsa on the other side of the river.  Along the way, there was some interesting architecture, as this was a very modern section of the city.

With a little time left to wander, I sought out the Yongsan Electronics Market, which is supposed to be a huge collection of shops and stalls.  It was also on the way back to my hotel.  Unfortunately, I did not get to do too much exploring as it was harder to locate than I thought. I did manage to find it eventually (thank goodness for the Internet on my phone).  I'll have to go back when I return to explore further.

Heading back, I climbed the hill one more time up from the subway stop.  In my wanderings, I had checked out my other hotel alternative, the Conrad.  It is located on the south side of the river in the "new" section of town.  While it was a flat walk to get to it, it was about a 10-minute walk via underground walkways from the nearest subway stop, so I'm not sure it would be any more convenient to stay there instead.

The shuttle bus to Seoul Station leaves the Hilton hourly at the top of the hour.  It matched up nicely with the local airport train, as I didn't have to wait too long for the next one.  The local trains were a lot like the subway cars, but not as crowded (at least at this time of day) and a bit newer-looking.
It was an easy ride t the airport.  My first stop was the Tourist Desk to return my transit pass and obtain a small refund.  I then proceeded upstairs to check in and go through security (no priority lanes for security that I saw, but the lines were not long).  Then , for immigration, I found the SES gates, inserted my passport and cleared the first gate.  My fingerprint cleared me through the second gate and then I was done.

Incheon Airport is like a huge upscale shopping mall.  So, I did a little window shopping to check out prices and items.  I then headed off to the lounge.  United uses the Asiana Lounges and I was given access to the First Class side o the lounge.  It was nice, although perhaps not as nice as I would have expected of Asiana's flagship location.
The departure gate was not too far away, and I after a little bit to eat (including a Haagen Dazs green tea ice cream sandwich), I was off to board my on-time departure and my 10- hour flight back to SFO.

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