DMZ with a side of Bisnett

In the background is the North Korean building where Communists, Stalinists, and Fascists alike stand to gawk across the military demarcation line (border, to you non-military types) at the Capitalists on tour. The blue buildings mid-frame are the Joint Security buildings we wrote about previously - half in one of the world's great economic powers and half in the world's most ideologically insular fiefdom.
In the foreground is our guide, the affable, fast-talking, and highly charismatic Sgt. Tom Bisnett, a walking compendium of both official knowledge (the history, costs, and statistics of a half century of conflict) and the arcane (apparently, should you find yourself playing a shoot 'em up computer game called Mercenaries, there are some geographical inaccuracies regarding the placement of Checkpoints Three and Four). Like most military and English teaching personnel, Bisnett is counting down time remaining in-country. Seven months from now with this Korean tour complete, he hopes to be redeployed with his squadron of Rangers from Fort Hood for his third tour to the Iraqi frontline.


Crossing the Line

We spent about three minutes in North Korea. This is the Joint Security Area, where political negotiators have met to discuss reunification. Sadly, it hasn't been used for much besides tour groups for a long while. The room is built directly over the border between the North and South, so when you walk pass the negotiating table you are in North Korea. The Republic of Korea guards all have black belts in taekwondo and stand in a position known as "ROK ready," pronounced rock ready. All military personnel are required to wear identification armbands, though you can recognize the ROK guards by the sunglasses they refer to as "hater shades."


DMZ - Part One

In contemporary North Korean mythology, it was Kim Jong-Il, not Al Gore, who invented the internet. Fittingly then, nothing makes for blog fodder like a Saturday trip to the world's most ironically named place. We signed up for a one day tour into the Demilitarized Zone, which included about three hours inside Camp Bonifas (the United Nations Joint Security Area), a few minutes inside the Hermit Kingdom, an hour deep underground in one of the insurgency tunnels, and some visceral insights into a still unresolved conflict. A very memorable and thought-provoking day indeed.
After having our passports scrutinized three times in the hour long bus ride from the USO in Seoul to Camp Bonifas, we received a briefing from our military escort detailing the major incidents of sixty years of conflict. We also signed a waiver stating that we would not seek monetary compensation from the United Nations or the United States miltary should we be killed by North Korean snipers. Joseph Heller would like this trip.


In case of emergency...

Place plastic bag over head and cinch tightly. In a few moments your oxygen will run out and you will not care about the emergency.
Found in every subway station, our best guess is that these bags are meant to be employed should the subway ever fill with smoke or other noxious fumes. Of course, at any given time, there is at least a few hundred people milling about the platfrom, and a thousand or so more on the train itself. There looks to be about a dozen bags at each of the station's four emergency posts. Like Shakespeare and St. Valentine before him, Darwin was at least half (the recessive half?) Korean.


The Bard Wears Hanbok

Where else but the gift shop at the Seoul Museum of Art could you expect to find such a pointed, polite, and thoroughly Renaissance sentiment - like Shakespeare himself had penned the signage. One half expects the full Korean translation to include "lest a pox be issued on thy storied cache of kimchi".


This post has been rated R for language.

Need a new blouse? Some earrings? How about a purse to match that new pendant? Well, come on down to #@%!ing Lovely!


When soup is art

Let me begin by stating for the record that pop-art has never been my cup of tea. It's not even close to cracking the top four on my list of Things I Like With the Word 'Pop' (popcorn, soda pop, pop rocks, and popsicles). Imagine my joy then when Deanna read that an Andy Warhol exhibition has come to Seoul, and we could go see it! This on the heels of the Great Shanghai Trek of 2005, where we traversed that city in Biblically torrential rain looking for the soupcon of soup cans in a different Warhol roadshow. The gallery was in Insadong, sort of the Broadway Avenue of Seoul (minus the $2 smokies at Boryski's) and one of our favourite haunts. Deanna really enjoyed it, and I begrudgingly and curmudgeonly did too.


Royally Flushed

We have a semi-regular game night with Kaleigh, Tom, Mike, and Angie. Fun times had by all. Especially for Tom, who emerged victorious in two games of poker and two board games last Saturday night.


Sae hae bok mahn ee pah du sae oh

Literally, "Year New blessings many please receive", and a brief insight into the devilish workings of Ural-Altaic word order (not surprisingly then, Korean is a snap for Turks and Mongols). Linguistic challenges notwithstanding, Happy New Year to all. Not only is this the Year of the Pig (like the Chinese, who actually invented the myth, Koreans eschew the Occident's fancified Boar for plain-old Pig), which happens once every twelve years, but it is the Golden Pig, which happens once in sixty years. Highly auspicious for those looking to increase their fortune and/or their brood. We feel it best to kick the year off in style, and have decided to cook some bacon golden-brown for breakfast, a tradition we are sure to abandon come Years of Dog, Rat, and Horse.


A little perspective

As beautiful as Seoul is, it is difficult to escape the sheer number of people. We read in the newspaper today that over 34 million people will be travelling this weekend, as returning to one's hometown is a time-honoured New Year tradition. Planes, trains, and buses have been booked solid for weeks. Fortunately, we have decided to stay close to home.
And so, some numbers: for each city, we have found the area in square kilometers of the greater metropolitan area, as well as the most recent population statistics. Eye-opening indeed, and not surprising that on virtually any street you stand in Seoul, you receive an eyeful of twelve to twenty storied apartment buildings, one after the next, complex after complex.
Saskatoon - 3680 sq. km - 220 000 people
Calgary - 5080 sq. km - 1.1 million people
Regina - 3400 sq. km - 200 000 people
Montreal - 4090 sq. km - 3.4 million people
Seoul - 2370 sq. km - 22.8 million people.


How you like them apples?

While unlikely to finesse the mathematical subtleties of Fermat's Last Theorem, I have seen Good Will Hunting enough times to feel relatively comfortable around the basic laws of chance. I have three pairs of work slacks in shades of khaki, three sweaters, and four long sleeved button-ups in rotation. Matthew seems to have about the same. This day was bound to happen.
It was awful. It was Twins: Redux. I was DeVito. Oh, the humanity.


Long-haired freaky people please apply...

Few things amuse more than the signs around Seoul. We've started carrying the camera at all times to capture the mistranslations, odd borrowings, and absolute random sequences of phonemes that appear everywhere. The above picture is the local transgender/transvestite/transsexual bar cum brothel. We have it on good authority that, like its namesake, there's a half-decent caramel macchiatto within.


In the spirit of the day...

Well, we could get married in a church, or an inn, or a garden, or our parents' living room...nah, too boring. Let's get married in the resplendent pink wedding palace! You know, the one with the Disney lights! The one-stop, plastic flowers, non-specific banners (Congratulations to the beautiful bride and handsome groom!) place on the really busy traffic circle! Love can be beautiful and efficient.

Korea has taken Valentine's Day to its logical extreme. First, on February 14, is "Red Day", when the girls pay homage to the boys, with far more than the usual fare of chocolates and flowers. Matching leopard-print thong underwear, intricate crafts woven of red ribbons, there are no limits to the romantic fervor. Then, just as surely comes the response, a month later, on "White Day", when lovestruck lads reciprocate. Again, this is far too subtle and festive a time to resort to the standards of poetry and long-stems. Instead, nothing less than petit sachets of bear bile, known for its wildly aphrodisiacal properties, could sate the heart of an amorous lass. Finally, and perhaps predictably, on April 1, comes "Black Day", when singles the country over congregate to eat specially prepared black noodles and mourn their non-involvement in the previous machinations of love.


The Pilgrim

High up on Bukhansan we stumbled onto a temple built into the granite. The outside had been painted by one of the resident monks with scenes from some of the Buddhist sutras. Even in an oxygen-deprived state we could recognize the intricacy of his work.



A huge national park girding the north and west of the city, Bukhansan is still accessible by a long Metro ride and a short stop at the Starbucks at the base of the mountain. Koreans of all ages are clearly descended from a lost race of sure-footed mountain goat creatures, zooming up and down the steep grades as we gasp and struggle in their wake.



Namdaemun, the Great South Gate, was originally built in 1398. Though designated National Treasure No. 1, one finds it hard to believe that the once-mighty Joseon dynasty forefathers rest well knowing it now festoons one of the busiest traffic circles in Seoul. Regardless, a magnificent structure.

These serious-looking gents are charged with circling the mighty gate on foot while keeping a stern eye out for marauders and infidels. We rated only a sideways glance and a half-smile.



The aforementioned Tagpol Park, which we will probably next visit on March 1, a National holiday and time for Koreans to gather and celebrate both their independence and their identity.

This is North Seoul Tower, at 236m the world's highest communication tower and source of great civic pride. The building itself is no taller than any on the majestic Saskatoon skyline, but has the grand fortune of being perched atop Mt Namsan. These dizzying heights are apparently calculated from street level.


To begin our foray into the labyrinthine world of the blog, a photo Deanna took of a 15th century meditation hall in one of the many Seoul palaces, this one the Palace of Illustrious Virtue. Rather than clogging the email accounts of all and sundry with the sights of our new home, we will occasionally post here the fruits of our wanderings. We have barely begun to scratch the surface of the amazing number of temples, museums, galleries, stadiums, parks, mountains, and palaces in this city. Yesterday while walking through one of the markets we had visited several times before, we stumbled upon Seoul's first Western-style park, and on March 1, 1919, the site of the reading of the Declaration of Independence, modern Korea's first organized resistance to Japanese rule. Making our way home, we happened upon a Metro stop fifteen minutes walk from our apartment, a huge find in lieu of the twenty minute bus ride to what we had previously believed to be the closest station. And for today, new books, new magazines, and some genuine quiet time.