On my first full day in Seoul I went on a morning tour to the demilitarized zone.
We first went to Imjingak, a park just outside of the zone controlled by the South Korean military. It is full of memorials to the Korean War, and also contains a steam locomotive that was derailed in an air strike during the war, and the bridge that prisoners of war used to get back to the south following the ceasefire in 1953. Many South Koreans also visit this park, as for some it is the closest they can get to their relatives in the North, who they won't have had any contact with since the ceasefire. They have tied many ribbons to the barbed wire fence.
The tour bus then passed through the military checkpoint into the military controlled zone. A South Korean soldier boarded the bus to check passports.
Our first stop beyond the checkpoint was the 3rd infiltration tunnel. This tunnel was built by the North Koreans since the ceasefire in an attempt to bypass the DMZ and send troops directly into Seoul. It is one of 4 tunnels that have been discovered by the South, and their intelligence tells them that 24 exist. This particular one was built in the 70s, using no digging machinery. it was a long walk down to the tunnel, and then a long crouched walk through the tunnel to see the first of the 3 barricades installed by the South since its discovery.
Next we went to an observation deck where we could look out over North Korea. You can tell the north from the south because the north has no trees. The cut them down to make it easier to spot people escaping.
Out in the DMZ, each side has a flag pole. Each side kept increasing the size of their flag to outdo the other side. By the time the South decided that the game was childish, the north had the Guinness World Record for largest flagpole. They kept that record for 20 years until 2010.
Finally we went to the last train station before the line enters the north. The station has been kitted out with an international arrivals hall. The hope is that one day the north will allow trains to pass through. Currently South Korea is like an island, but one day it might be possible to get from London to Seoul by train.
The tour guide sounded optimistic that some sort of deal like that might be reached fairly soon. He said that things have been getting better over the last year since the impeachment of their last president.
Returning from the tour, I was dropped of next to one of the 5 palaces in the city, so I thought I would go and have a look.
The first palace I went to was Deoksugung palace. It was free and also very busy. I think the two were related and were because it was the last Wednesday of the month.
Wanting to take advantage of the palaces being free, I then went to the nearby Gyeongbokgung Palace, which was at one point the main palace in the city. It was pretty massive. I found myself exiting one set of buildings just to find another set I didn't know exited. That happened many times.
The best part was the two story pavilion surrounded by water, partly because this meant that it wasn't surrounded by people.
The following day I went to Bukhansan National Park, which is one of the bigger islands of greenery that the city surrounds. I hiked up Bukhansan mountain from one side of the park, and descended down the other. It was about 2.5 hours to get up, and 3.5 to get down—partially because I got a bit lost at the end.
On both the way up and the way down I passed Buddhist temples.
Near the top, I passed through a gate in the Seoul city wall.
Towards the summit, I had to climb the granite with the help of steel cables.
The view was worth it.
For some reason, though, the summit was swarming with absolutely massive wasps, so I didn't linger.
The next day I went to the Jongmyo Shrine. It is a Confucian shrine, that enshrines The souls of the kings and queens of the Joseon dynasty. Behind each door of the shrine are the spirit tablets of a king and his queens.
Access to the shrine is only by guided tour on every day apart from Saturday, which it wasn't. The tour guide wouldn't let us walk on any of the spirit ways (cobbled paths on the ground), though walking on kings ways was fine; I am not sure how to tell the difference.
Just to the north of the shrine is Changdeokgung Palace, and I went there next. It was also the main palace at one point, so it quite extensive.
Behind the palace lies the Secret Garden. Like the shrine, access was by tour only. It was well worth it though, as the buildings are far more impressive when incorporated into their surrounding environment.
Adjoining Changdeokgung Palace is Changgyeong Palace, the eastern palace.
Finally, to complete the set of 5, I went to Gyeonghuigung Palace—the western palace. What remains of it is smaller than the others, but it was also free and quiet, which is good.
This concludes this series of blog posts. Tomorrow I fly home. It has been really good. I saw everything I wanted to apart from a lava lake, but what was there instead was still pretty exciting.