Archive for the ‘South Korea’ Category

Cathay-Pacific

It is time to say Ahn Nyeong Hee Gyea Se Yo to South Korea. I say goodbye to all at Bong House (which is a reference to its owner Bong rather than any illicit smoking habits) where I have been staying and head for Incheon airport once more.

I am pleasantly surprised when Cathay Pacific do not charge me for daring to travel with a surfboard, but am less impressed with the results of their work when my surfboard looks like it was involved in the Axe Murder Incident upon arrival in Hong Kong. There were five huge holes in it.

Hong Kong AirportIt was only a few hours on the plane to Hong Kong airport, which is located on a vast man made island within the harbour area.

From the express train I catch to Hong Kong Island I can see that there appears to be a great deal more terra-forming going on close by, although I have no idea what else they are building. The cargo container port is breathtaking in its scale too.

Hong-kong-skyline-from-victoria-peakSpeaking of construction though, you cannot help but be impressed by the skyline here in Hong Kong. Land has clearly been in such short supply historically here that everything has just stretched skywards.

Every inch of space seems to have another skyscraper built on top of it, with anything below twenty stories high being dwarfed by all the other towers. The development model that started here, has now been followed in the developing cities all over Asia.

WP_20131014_010I will be up in the clouds myself whilst staying on the 17th floor of the Ibis Hotel in between the Central and Sheung Wan areas of Hong Kong Island.

The first thing I do upon arriving here is establish a ding repair shop in my hotel room to repair the damage done to my surfboard by the airline. I suspect that the hotel will not be very fond of the smell of curing fibreglass resin and I have decided to play dumb on that if asked.

 

Share

WP_20131013_024It is my last day in South Korea so I decide to do some sightseeing. Seoul has 6 palaces within the city and Changgyeonggung is only a short walk from the hostel I am staying in so is first up.

It has beautiful grounds and a number of buildings that have been constructed in the style you see here.

WP_20131013_038Next door is Changdeokgung which is equally stunning having far more buildings to admire. I’m not entire sure which way round it is but one of these two palaces was the crown prince’s and the other was for his concubines.

Whilst in Changdeokgung I get to see what I would look like in Korean national dress. I think they might need to give me a bit more room around the shoulders.

Seoul was captured and lost four times during the Korean War so was largely razed to the ground by the end of the conflict, and the palaces did not escape from the damage. A great deal of restoration work has been completed bringing all the vibrant colours back into old buildings and replacing those that have been destroyed.

WP_20131013_084Gyeongbokgung palace was the home of the Josean dynasty who ruled Korea from here from the fouteenth century until the peninsular was taken under Japanese control at the start of the twentieth century. You can see the craggy  Bugaksan rising behind the palace to the north.

I arrived there perfectly to watch the inspection of the guards ceremony catch a little bit of footage of the colourful outfits. It was a marvellous spectacle.

WP_20131013_135The royal family were all eliminated by the Japanese but Gyeongbokgung remains the centre of the identity of the Korean people and the hundreds are visiting the palace today.

The grounds and the buildings within them are stunning at times. I can’t imagine the length of time and hard work it would take to create such things. Some must have taken centuries.

WP_20131012_175Bizarrely on a traffic island in the middle of the road directly opposite Gyeongbokgung  there is a festival being run. I saw these martial arts performers who were fantastic being particularly impressed with the four girls who could clearly whoop me with their taekwondo skills. I also watched a group of drummers that were amazing. You can see a little bit of footage of their performance here

WP_20131013_141From here I took a stroll down the Insadonggil market area where you can pick up souvenirs and craftwork. I wasn’t tempted by anything and to be honest was starting to get a bit riled by all the people who bump and jostle you.

I think it must be an east Asian thing due to the cramped conditions, but if I barged into people the same way that others are doing to me I would be knocking people over. There is an awful lot of gnashing of teeth on my part as a result of it.

WP_20131013_149It was a quick ride on the metro down the international food festival which was going on at Itaewon.

In amongst the stalls supplying tastes from all over the world there were sound stages, breakdancers, and crowds, which by this stage I didn’t have the energy for. I was delighted then when I found a bar that served John Smiths bitter, and didn’t move a great deal further than that until the end of the day.

Share

PsyReturning to Seoul from the madness that is the DMZ I have realised that it is Saturday night and I need to go out and party with the locals.

Psy’s parody of life in the Gangnam area of town, which is all fake tans, implants and designer labels, means I am looking for something a bit more authentic. A little bit of research suggests either Itaewon which is usually full of personnel from the local US army base or Hongdae

WP_20131012_198I opt for Hongdae because I am in South Korea and not the USA after all, and am staggered at how busy it is.

Think Times Square in New York or Piccadilly Circus in London and then double the number of both people and light bulbs.

f-16-paper-airplaneThere are an huge number of very attractive local ladies wandering around here too in particularly short skirts or hot pants, which is very easy on the eye.

At the point where I realised I would really need a wingman to have any success in chatting up the local talent I bump into a fighter pilot from a local US Air Force base. His call sign is Prox and he flies an F16 often on patrols along the North Korean border.

MiG-29-Jet-FighterHe is in town due to being given extended leave as a result of the US government’s funding issues. I am fascinated by what that must be like to work on the front line knowing that your any move could escalate to World War III.

With the sort of swagger you would expect from a fighter pilot he tells me that the only concern he has is the handful of MIG-29s that the North Koreans have got hold of. I have no doubt he fancies his chances against them too. The two of us enjoy a few drinks together and I’m quickly chatting to the female service personnel and ex pat teachers who are also in the bar we are demolishing tequilas in.

KoreaAtNightThe only other thing to report here was what Prox (I can’t remember his real name as a result of the tequila) told me about what he can see from his rather unique vantage point of the North. There are virtually no trees because all have been cut down to be used for fuel, and at night you can see almost nothing across the border because they can’t supply their population with electricity.

Something which I can confirm from this night time photograph of the Korean peninsular that I found online, which probably tells the real tale about what is going on around here.

My Top Gun days might well be behind me because after a few hours I am more interested in bed than thinking about dueting ‘You’ve lost that loving feeling’ to impress the talent on offer. Getting home was a nightmare though because I didn’t note the hostels address and obviously my pronunciation of Hyehwa, which is the nearest train station, was nowhere good enough for most of the taxi drivers. It took me 30 minutes before anybody would let me in their cab.

Share

poplarI have one more thing to report on from the DMZ which happened in 1976. It was caused because a United Nations Command outpost close to the Bridge Of No Return had its line of sight to the next watch tower obscured by leaves which had grown from a poplar tree.

A five man american detail was dispatched to perform some trimming of the offending tree, but these military gardeners were met by forces of the DPRK. Things descended into violence quite quickly with the US captain being killed by a single karate chop to the neck, and the rest of the detail then being attacked with the very axes they had taken into the DMZ to prune the tree killing a young lieutenant also on the detail.

axe-murder-incidentThe US military was filming the whole incident from the outpost, although it is still unclear in the footage on how things got started, with both sides claiming self defence.

What is clear is that three days later a show of force that must go down as the largest topiary exercise in history was launched. Operation Paul Bunyan involved two dozen truck loads of men approaching the poplar tree, carrying more than eight hundred men all of whom were armed to the teeth and trained in Taekwondo. This force was backed up by attack helicopters, fighter planes, B-52 bombers and a US aircraft carrier, which meant that the tree was successfully cut down without response from the DPRK.

Share

DSC01725Just behind London’s CCTV coverage I think this must be one of the most heavily monitored parts of the world. Alongside both edges of the DMZ there are watch towers every few hundred metres. At one particularly big observation tower I was lucky enough to be able to peer though some of the military grade binoculars there. It was such a clear day that in the distance I could even see a statue of Kim Jong-Il the former ruler of the North looking down on one of the towns.

As a consequence of all this monitoring on the border the north has made several attempts at advancing into South Korea underground. The idea being that supplies and personnel could be ferried forward as hostilities began or perhaps to actually start them!

3rd TunnelThese tunnels have been found by the South, although the North claims they were either coal mines (painting the walls black to make the story more convincing) or that they were built by the south.

When I am taken down one and along to the subterranean border I can see for myself what bunkum this is because all the marks from digging and preparing the explosives have clearly been created from the northern end. The mined space is not very high and certainly wasn’t built with me in mind, and when you reach the partition that has been installed by the South Koreans to stop anything from easily getting through you know that just the other side of it there will be a number of North Korean soldiers.

ak47

Each of which will be ill informed, heavily armed, most likely with AK47s, and probably wouldn’t be too pleased to be seeing this particular surfer.

The ‘Third Tunnel of Aggression’ that I visited is one of four that have been discovered with the most recent being in the nineties, but it is highly suspected that there are several more.

Share

Minefield warningI am up first thing in the morning because I am being met by the guy who is going to take me into the Demilitarized Zone. I have been told I will need to take my passport with me so that we can get through the military check points.

The 4 kilometre wide stretch of land which keeps the North and South Koreans apart is one of the most heavily mined pieces of land on the planet so I am told not to wander off for my own good. Despite this a North Korean defector surprised everybody last year by knocking on the window of one of the South Korean watch towers, having walked and swam past all the surveillance and mines on both sides completely undetected.

WP_20131012_108Once inside the zone I couldn’t resist posing next to the sign you see here.

There is also the Kaesong Industrial Park, which is located ten kilometres into North Korea, with direct road and rail access to the south. The park allows South Korean companies to employ cheap labour that is educated, skilled and fluent in Korean, whilst providing North Korea with an important source of foreign currency. South Korean companies employ more than 50,000 workers whose wages totalling $100 million per annum are paid directly to the DPRK government, which is probably the real reason why the North allowed the complex to reopen again after the hostilities that followed a bout of muscle flexing from Kim Yong-Un earlier this year.

WP_20131012_072I will not be able to go that far North though so am left puzzling on life within the DMZ, where military vehicles park next to shrines, and on the South Korean side there is actually an amusement park. It is a strange place where there are even a few villages existing close to both sides of the ‘border’ in the middle of the zone.

On the south side Daeseongdong is populated by farmers who pay no tax because of where they live. Their crops are highly regarded though, being considered the most organic produce grown in Korea. This is because taking fertiliser, which is a key ingredient in home made explosives, into the zone could be construed as an act of aggression so everything has to be grown naturally.

WP_20131012_095Another surprising development of the DMZ is that it has unwittingly established one of the best nature sanctuaries in the world. Several endangered animal and plant species including red-crowned cranes, white-naped cranes, the extremely rare Korean tiger, Amur leopards and Asiatic black bears, now exist peacefully between the heavily fortified fences and listening posts, provided they don’t tread on one of the land mines of course!

There are manicured gardens in places too that are just starting to produce vivid autumn colours, and are beautiful to look at even if they are surrounded by razor-wire.

There are a number of bridges across the Imjin river which marks a stretch of the border. The most famous of these is the Bridge of no Return, which was were the James Bond film Die Another Day was set, although I suspect it was probably filmed elsewhere.

Dorasan Station Guard DutyIn less hostile times Unification Bridge was built providing a modern crossing across which the founder of the Hyundai conglomerate famously drove across hundreds of cows in 1998. Chung Ju-gung was originally from the area now controlled by North Korean, although it was under Japanese rule when he decided to move south, and he wanted to repay a debt of honour to his father who he had stolen a cow from to pay for his train ticket south to Seoul.

Another development from happier times is the Dorasan railway station constructed in preparation for the possible reunification. Apart from visitors to the Kaesong complex it is still largely unused but heavily guarded by the soldiers you see me alongside here. The eagle eyed amongst you will notice that the soldiers based on the border are taller than average, although still somewhat shorter than me. It is one of the three rules for being stationed here, with the others being that they are expert in at least one martial art, and that they are handsome in an effort to upstage their northern neighbours.

PanmunjomSadly recent hostilities prevent me from visiting the village of Panmunjeom which is located close by, but actually within North Korean territory.

It is the bizarre blue building village which you may have seen on the news where soldiers from the north and south eyeball each other all day long, and sometimes they do it nose to nose. 

Whilst everyone is a a bit jumpy I am told that my intended face pulling and name calling would most likely start a full scale nuclear assault so it is probably for the best anyway.

Gijeong-ri_FlagOne thing I do see is the North Korean flagpole stationed in their village in the DMZ, which has been nicknamed Propaganda Village due to the fact that nobody lives there even if men women and children are bused in daily to pretend that life is going on there as normal

The flag there is visible because it flies at the top of a 160m high flagpole, which was the winner in a bout of the one upmanship shenannigans which seem to be part of life here. Another entailed trying to bring bigger flags than the other to meetings, until they got so big they could not fit in the meeting rooms.

WP_20131013_006The South Koreans do appear to be a lot more comfortable with the situation than the North Koreans are (e.g. being willing to let people like me in) but the petty hostility still goes on. You will notice that the South Korean soldier of the two model border guard book ends I bought is a shade taller than the North Korean.

I have asked a few people here what they think about their neighbours, and if they would like to have the country unified in a similar vein to the success of modern Germany, but am told that they don’t want the taxation that everyone knows would be needed to get the north modernised.

It is a shame to hear that especially when you hear how many people are often starving on the other side of the fence.

Share

North-and-South-KoreaThe Korean War was primarily the result of an agreement of the victorious Allies at the end of World War II. The Korean Peninsula had been ruled by the Empire of Japan from 1910, and following it’s surrender in 1945 the peninsula was divided the along the 38th parallel, with USA forces occupying the southern half and Soviet military forces occupying the northern half.

The North established a communist government, while the South established a right-wing government and the 38th parallel increasingly became a political border between the two Korean states. Tension in the area intensified as cross-border skirmishes and raids persisted until North Korean forces invaded South Korea in 1950.

The-United-NationsThe USA and other countries passed a Security Council resolution in the United Nations authorizing military intervention in Korea, which was able to be passed because the Soviet Union was boycotting the council at the time.

The USA provided most of the soldiers which aided South Korean forces, with mixed results until the People’s Republic of China, keen to assert itself on the world stage, entered the war on the side of North Korea forcing the Southern-allied forces to retreat behind the 38th Parallel. The Soviet Union had no boots on the ground, but provided material aid to both the North Korean and Chinese armies.

Korean_dmz_mapThe fighting ended in 1953 when the armistice agreement was signed by all involved, apart from the South Koreans, which means the two countries are still technically at war today. However the agreement restored the border between the nations near the 38th Parallel and created the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). None of the countries involved are entirely fond of the others some sixty years later.

The DMZ is a 4km wide fortified buffer zone between the two Korean countries, which is a powder keg that always seems ready to go off, so it sounds like just the sort of place you should go to on holiday! I’ll send you a postcard.

Share

South Korean flagAfter a surprising good night’s sleep in the car at a motorway services near Narita airport I am soon on my Japan Airlines flight to Seoul. There are surfable waves on the Korean peninsular but due to Japan sheltering most of the coastline they are are as a rule naff.

As a consequence I am visiting here more out of curiosity than anything else. So many consumer goods come from here (e.g. Samsung and LG) and the press from this country is usually negative due to the grumpy neighbours to the north, so I wanted to see for myself what it was like for a few days.

FirestarterI have been interested in the countries here since the opening ceremony of the 2012 Paralympic Games in London, when it was my responsibility to escort the flag bearers back to their team mates after they had done a lap of the athletics stadium. (The flag always does a full lap out of respect, but the athletes rarely do for logistical reasons that I will bore you with another time.)

Rather amusingly in the dress rehearsal I had been allocated Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (The North), Republic of Korea (The South) with Syria thrown in just for good measure.

Sadly any opportunity for starting a diplomatic incident was lost when somebody queue jumped, leaving me instead escorting a one armed athlete from the Democratic Republic of Congo!

Unlucky 4Whilst researching this leg of my travels I have discovered  that the number 4 is extremely unlucky here. For this reason most buildings in Korea do not have a 4th floor.

Also I have aged a year during my plane flight because in Korea a baby is one year old at birth, instead of zero. This is complicated further because when the New Year passes, everyone in Korea automatically ages one year, even if they haven’t had their actual birthday yet. So if a baby is born on December 31 it would be one year old, and automatically turn two the following day!

north-korea-flagHowever the real story here is North Korea which is only 20km north of Seoul, or more worryingly just one day’s march should they decide to invade.

In the interest of world peace I have decided to travel up there tomorrow to see if I can have a chat with Kim Jong-Un about bagging a few waves north of the border. It is actually more exposed to the Pacific than the south, so you never know

Share

Japanese Surf TattooIt is time for me to move on already and I will miss Japan, which incidentally has the largest market for surf merchandise in the world. Some Japanese surfers are passionate enough to get surf themed tattoos such as the one you see here, and you can see the enthusiasm for surfing at every coastal town.

They love it and it is a shame that some of the country’s best breaks in Fukushima prefecture have been tarnished, to say the least, by the damage done to the nuclear reactors initially caused by the 2011 tsunami. I hope they can at least make the situation safe there soon. However on returning to the airport which is between Tokyo and Fukushima I saw plenty of surfboards heading out to the Chiba peninsular in search of waves just down the coast from the power plants so the local surfers don’t appear to be too bothered about it anyway.

obama_shakaIt has been great to see so many people in the water at every beach I have visited regardless of the conditions, time of day or day of the week. I have also loved the people who have only been generous with their time and assistance for me while I have been here.

There is clearly a language barrier but giving people a shaka hand signal (as demonstrated by Barrack Obama) usually generates smiles all round.

Korean PeninsularNext up on my itinerary is the Korean peninsular.

I guess there is a small chance of me getting into a spot of bother in this geo-political hot spot.

Time will tell what mischief I will find there.

Share
css.php