Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Land of the morning calm after six months

Coming back to Korea after a trip we've just made abroad I realised that I no longer felt Korea was such a strange place; perhaps after six months we're starting to settle in ?  (The other day when I was walking along the street I even had a taxi driver ask me directions !). Anyway I'd better hurry and jot down my impressions about things here before they really start to seem 'normal'.

Last month we went to the Philippines, we did several dives during the two weeks we were there, and were able to see a shark, turtles, and sea snakes (one was more than 2m long).  Afterwards we were told that the sea-snakes are 17 times more venomous than cobras ... (but they can't open their jaws wide enough to bite humans apparently). We also did a great wreck dive on a big Japanese warship sunk since 1944 - very atmospheric.  Manila on the other hand probably has it good points but we found it mainly dirty and noisy (and hot !).

We also made the most of the long weekend here when there was Lunar New Year to do some travelling locally, and amongst other things we went to the DMZ (DeMilitarized Zone between the two Koreas).  The name is pretty ironic because it's probably one of the most heavily guarded places in the world.  We saw lots of South Korean soldiers but only one North Korean one (although I'm sure there were plenty hiding in the background).

We saw the place where the third world war nearly started when a tree was cut down in the 1970s, and we visited one of the four tunnels that the North Koreans secretly built in order to invade Seoul/South Korea.  

Inside it's painted black and apparently this was going to be the North Korean excuse - pass it off as a mining tunnel; the problem is that the whole area is granite and there's no coal for miles around !  I also recently read a book written by a defector who spent 10 years in a North Korean gulag as a young man, and I went to a conference held by a British tour operator based in Beijing specialised in trips to North Korea. He explained that when he talks to the guides there they've never used internet, a mobile phone or a laptop - although at least they've heard about them, which is not the case out in the N. Korean countryside (Click here for the account of my trip to North Korea in August 2010).

I can't wait for June - not because of the weather but because they'll be bringing out the new 50 000 won bank note (about 25 pounds).  Until now the biggest banknote has been 10000 won (5 pounds), and because cheques don't exist here ("cheques, but not as we know them") you spend most of your time carrying around wads of cash so that you're never caught short. Another idiosyncrasy here is the address system. Each district is sub-divided and in that sub-division buildings carry a number, but not the number of the building next-door.  So 123 is not next-door to 124 for example ....  The postmen know what they're doing with post, but whenever you go to someone's house or a shop you always have to have a map and directions otherwise you'll never find it.  The government is putting into place a system whereby streets have names and building have numbers that follow each other but it won't be finished before we leave Korea.

Winter seems to be almost finished - my husband's first ever - and spring might be here.  The coldest we saw was -15°C. V was delighted to be able to go skiing on Sunday mornings just an hour away from Seoul.  Korea's not a very snowy country - it's too dry - so they make real snow artificially. Koreans aren't early risers (I've been wondering if the country's nickname "Land of the morning calm" was because of this ?) so the ski slopes are pretty empty on Sunday mornings.

Suggested reading:
Korea Unmasked: In Search of the Country, the Society and the People a graphic novel by Rhie Won-Bok 

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