Land of the morning calm – South Korea – Part 1

By Nigel Wright [email protected]

Nigel Wright and his wife Sue moved to Portugal five years ago and live in the countryside near Paderne with their three dogs. They lived and worked in the Far and Middle East during the 1980s and 90s and although now retired, still continue to travel as much possible and enjoy new cultural experiences. His other interests include tennis, gardening, photography and petanque.

Under the watchful eyes of the UN soldiers, we nervously edged around the conference table in the centre of the room and stepped briefly into North Korea.

We had been warned not to make eye contact with the armed North Korean militia, just a few metres away, who were examining us carefully.

We were at Panmunjon, on the 38th parallel, in the centre of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), a 4km wide barrier between North and South Korea.

The demarcation line stretches for 250km across the peninsula and troops from both sides patrol this heavily mined and barricaded no-man’s land.

Although there was a ceasefire at the end of the three-year Korean conflict in 1953, the threat of all out war still hangs over this ancient kingdom, often called ‘Land of the Morning Calm’. Millions of South Koreans have family members on the other side and have had no contact with them since the end of fighting.

Under the supervision of the UN, the two countries hold periodic talks in Panmunjon to defuse potential conflict. The meetings are often acrimonious but act as a vital safety valve in preventing the outbreak of fresh hostilities.

Our own tourist group, after a detailed briefing by UN representatives, travelled into the DMZ under military escort. On reaching the actual frontier at Panmunjon, we looked across the beautiful mountains into North Korea and then walked into the heavily guarded but rather unassuming hut that serves as the meeting place between North and South.

We had been instructed to dress smartly and were warned that the North Koreans would monitor all our conversation. It was then that we made our cautious circumnavigation of the conference table, which exactly straddles the border. Meeting the Cold War face to face in what must be the most bizarre tourist attraction in the world is a chilling experience!

Seoul satisfies the senses

Just 60km south of the DMZ lies Seoul, which, with a population of 10 million, is South Korea’s capital and the beating heart of the nation. We lived and worked there for over two years and grew to love the country, its heritage and its industrious fun-loving people.

Honour Guard - Gloucester Valley Memorial Service. Photo: NIGEL WRIGHT
Honour Guard – Gloucester Valley Memorial Service. Photo: NIGEL WRIGHT

Pleasingly situated on the River Han, this city, which hosted the Olympic Games in 1988, is a blend of modernity, high-rise buildings, traditional housing, fantastic bustling markets and some wonderful old palaces

and temples. Although rarely featuring as a top Asian

tourist destination, this vibrant metropolis has some great attractions, superb hotels and satisfies all the human senses.

There are several ancient palaces in the city centre that are popular with Korean families at the weekends. You can admire their superb architecture, learn about Korea’s turbulent past, savour its unique oriental culture, sit in tranquil surroundings and enjoy watching the Korean people relax and play.

Most people’s favourite is the Changdok Palace, originally dating back to the 15th century and official residence of many Korean Kings including the last, Sunjong, who died in 1926. If these palace walls could talk, visitors would probably hear tales of court intrigue, plotting eunuchs and feuding royalty!

Behind the Palace is Piwon, known as the Secret Garden, because it was the private pleasure ground of the Royal Family. It is an exquisite garden with lovely pavilions connected by bridges over small streams.

Seoul has two gigantic daily markets – Namdaemun and Tongdaemun. The sights, sounds and smells within these bubbling cauldrons of human activity are unforgettable. You can buy absolutely anything from live snakes and turtles, to brilliantly coloured silks, flowers and seasonal fruits, clothing and the latest electronic gadgets.

There is even an area devoted solely to Chinese herbal medicine. If you become lost in the maze of alleys and shops, you will be quite safe and are likely to be offered cups of green tea by stallholders so they can practise their English! It is the perfect way to intimately observe Korean daily life.

Fiery Korean food attacks westerners’ taste buds with a vengeance and usually a visitor’s first experience with Kimchi (cabbage pickled with ginger, onions, hot red peppers, radishes and garlic) is never forgotten. However, there is much more to Korean food than the dozens of Kimchi recipes.

Of the many tasty dishes, we particularly loved Kalbi and Bulgogi, succulent barbecued strips of beef first marinated in a lightly spiced sauce. They are cooked over red-hot charcoal at your table and are quite delicious. There are thousands of great restaurants in Seoul but we often returned to The Korea House. Set at the foot of picturesque Mt. Namsan, it has elegant traditional architecture, superb dining facilities and an auditorium for performances of traditional Korean music and dance.

Nearby attractions

Meeting Hut - Panmunjon, North and South Korean Border (looking towards North Korea). Photo: NIGEL WRIGHT
Meeting Hut – Panmunjon, North and South Korean Border (looking towards North Korea). Photo: NIGEL WRIGHT

The Korean Folk Village, south of Seoul, is a world-class open-air museum that offers an authentic glimpse into the country’s past. In specially constructed traditional houses from all over Korea, a functioning community of weavers, blacksmiths, pipe makers and other craftsmen continues to work like their ancestors. You can buy genuine handicrafts and the restaurants serve regional food and drinks. Folk dances, musical performances and traditional wedding ceremonies are presented in the village’s amphitheatre.

A few hours’ drive east of Seoul are a number of beautiful river valleys where you can find the true tranquillity of the ‘Land of the Morning Calm’. The region’s beauty lies in a series of hydroelectric dams on the rivers.

The resulting reservoirs have turned the area into a superb water vacationland. Pleasure boats cruise the lakes and many water sports are available. We once spent a memorable summer day in almost total solitude, exploring lovely Lake Soyang, and were invited to lunch on a fish farm in the centre of the lake.

We eagerly accepted and were soon enjoying the taste and smooth texture of the freshest possible raw fish, sliced thinly, served with a crisp spicy salad and of course, Kimchi. It was a perfect meal in perfect surroundings.

The glorious Gloucesters

Every year in late April, we joined Korean War veterans, the British Ambassador and the small ex-patriate British Community in South Korea on its annual pilgrimage to Gloucester Valley for a memorial service and picnic. One of the most important battles of the Korean War was fought here, overlooking the picturesque Imjin River and the hills of the North.

The soldiers of the Gloucester Regiment defended the ridge with extraordinary gallantry but were overwhelmingly outnumbered by Chinese forces. Although eventually defeated, the British troops held their positions long enough for allied forces to regroup behind them to successfully defend Seoul. The moving service of commemoration is held at the immaculately manicured war memorial to those that died.

It is a sobering thought that nearly 60 years later, peace has still not been declared. The Korean War ended only in a ceasefire and perhaps half a million troops still face each other across the DMZ.

In Part 2:  South Korea – Land of the Four Seasons.