Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Korea DMZ and Joint Security Area Tour

Seoul is a short jaunt from Shanghai, so we packed up for a quick three-day weekend trip recently. We rented a GREAT Air BandB apartment as a home base and had a number of fun and interesting activities lined up, along with a plan to just have a fun time exploring. We'll share more about all our fun (and delicious!) activities soon, but our first post is on a more serious note.

We had decided to get some important context while in Seoul by visiting the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone). There are various tour options available, and we did an afternoon tour focusing on the Panmunjom area/JSA (Joint Security Area) with TourDMZ. We got a bit of background (and important guidance on behavior while in the DMZ) from our guide on the hour-long bus ride from Seoul before stopping for lunch. Our first official stop was Imjingak park and the Freedom Bridge. This area was set up for visitors to be able to access the DMZ fairly easily and pay their tributes, remember the war, etc. You can see the many ribbons on the fence and notes about peace and reunification.

Map of the DMZ. The DMZ Wikipedia page gives a good overview of this area, history, etc.
Next, we entered Camp Bonifas and the JSA. The JSA is used by South and North Korea for diplomatic engagements. It's the only portion of the DMZ where the two sides stand face-to-face, so it is a solemn and stark reminder of this ongoing conflict.

South Korean forces and United Nations Command run this area and we were given a briefing and provided with guest passes and asked to sign a declaration of the rules while visiting. The American presence is much lighter than in the past, with about 90% of the soldiers being South Korean, but we had an American soldier as escort throughout.
The soldier and our guide were very helpful in answering questions and explaining the area to us. There are two villages within the DMZ, one for South Koreans (they call it "Prosperity Village") and one for North Koreans (the South Koreans call it "Propaganda Village"). 

We learned a lot about Prosperity Village as well as some of the incidents that have occurred within the DMZ/JSA. These include the "ax murder incident" in which several United Nations Command soldiers were cutting back a tree in order to have better clearance on their viewpoint and were attacked by several North Korean soldiers. Two UNC soldiers were murdered. In another incident, a Russian national tried to defect while on a N. Korean JSA tour. The area is run very tightly and the tours are cancelled during times of heightened security, but the stories are clear reminders that this remains an unstable region (the night after our tour, a S. Korean soldier shot and killed several of his colleagues, which obviously was not an issue between the two sides, but clearly had the whole area on high alert).

We were taken inside the conference buildings where the two sides have diplomatic talks. You can see the South Korean soldiers, who stand in a martial arts pose (and also stand with half their bodies behind the building to "make a smaller target" per our U.S. soldier guide). In this conference room, you are essentially stepping foot into N. Korea, though you don't get a passport stamp. We were permitted to take pictures and look around briefly. It is all completely surreal and pretty tense as they tell you both sides record and monitor everything in the building and you think about the discussions that have gone on here.

From outside, we were told more facts about the various building (being reminded once again not to point at anything or anyone). There is a "recreation" building for the North Koreans, which has no recreation equipment or much of anything (we were told this, clearly not something we could see on the tour). Apparently, on occasion, soldiers will be packed in to the room and apparently watch the other side and make provoking/rude gestures. Our group was watched carefully by the sole North Korean soldier standing guard on their side (according to our guide, there is always another soldier also watching from inside the building).
We toured around the area further on bus, with background on the area and incidents as well as better views of the two villages. We stopped to take pictures of what looks like nothing, but is the "bridge of no return" which was used for prisoner exchanges. It gets its name from the fact that prisoners were given the chance to remain captive or return home, but never be allowed to return.
As we rode back into modern, bustling Seoul, there was a lot to process. I am happy we did the tour, as I have tried to learn more about the war, ongoing conflict and North Korea since being in Asia. It is one of the most puzzling and disturbing things in today's world (though there's a lot of competition for that honor) and I think it gave some important context to our visit to Seoul.

For anyone interested, I'm also glad to recommend some books on North Korea and I'll try to put some up on our site's Amazon recommendations.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Capital City: A Visit to Beijing

After almost two years in China, we felt we had no choice but to make a trek to Beijing on the latest holiday weekend. It becomes pretty embarrassing to admit you haven't seen the Great Wall when it's one of the most known sites worldwide. So, off we trekked with millions of other holiday-goers (when we told people we were going to Beijing for the holiday, the reaction was uniformly horrified over what we'd experience with the crowds).

We chose to take the high-speed train, which takes just under five hours. Again, some people wondered why we wouldn't just fly (prices are actually about the same) but as we sat back and enjoyed the leisurely journey, we knew we'd made the right choice. No airport security or arriving an hour ahead, a chance to read and watch the world go by (no free meal, but then again, no airline food indigestion) and almost 100% on time. We had a bet going with a friend who was originally going to go along for the weekend, but was going to fly, about who would arrive quicker...I am sure we would have won.

Because this was a quick trip and anticipating the holiday crowds, we narrowed things down to the list of "must dos" and figured we could always come back another time to explore more. We stayed at a great hotel...the Park Plaza Wangfujing (highly recommended!) which was relatively affordable but a really comfortable place with loads of amenities. I had wanted to stay in one of the hutong inns with a little more personality, but the better ones were booked and to be honest, the comforts of this hotel ended up being quite nice. They did the "club level" thing so common in China, where you get happy hour (which typically includes enough food to make into dinner) and breakfast. Both were generous and even though this can discourage exploring local spots, it is a relief on a busy holiday.

Our first stop was for a roast duck dinner. Since we have branches of two of the more famous spots, Quanjude and Dadong, in Shanghai we opted for the third choice the hotel recommended, 1949 (if you don't get the reference, it's time to review your China history). It was probably a bit more posh than needed for a roast duck place, but it was a beautiful environment and the duck was tasty.

If you haven't experienced Beijing duck, the server brings the whole duck to the table and expertly carves it before your eyes.

Typically, you eat it in little pancakes with sliced cucumber and spring onions and a sweet sauce. Here they mixed in a peanut sauce, which was a nice twist. They also provided two small sesame buns to make a little "sandwich" out of the duck as a twist, along with the pancakes. When we've eaten at Quanjude in Shanghai (highly recommended!) one of our favorite parts is eating the crispy skin dipped in the small bowl of sugar, which we missed here. But, it was fun to try a slightly different style. 1949 had an extensive menu of specialties, but only being two of us with a whole duck to eat, we didn't have the capacity to try much this time.

The next day we were up bright and early for our full day tour. We hired a driver and guide to take us out to the wall and other major sites (the wall is quite a distance from Beijing). We choose to visit the Mutianyu section, slightly less crowded and touristy than the most visited Badaling section, but well-restored and easily accessible (and still with plenty of stuff to buy if you so choose).

This was the only time this weekend that the crowds really caused any pain, as traffic was horrible and the drive took almost 3 hours. Once we arrived, however, the wall was surprisingly uncrowded.

We chose to take the chair lift up the mountain and the toboggan ride down (there is also a cable car option, but who could resist the toboggan?). It was so nice to enjoy the breeze after being stuck in the car and what a view!

We had the most gorgeous sunny day for hiking...and the wall provides plenty of exercise as it winds along the mountains and you climb the stairs and cobblestone hills up and down.

Just be sure to follow the rules of the toboggan (meaning you are not "a drinker", "mother to be" or have a "mental disease" or "permanent disability have difficulty getting about, old, weak") and you're sure to have a great ride! Since we have not driven cars in a while, this was our chance to reveal our driving personalities again...one of us got told to slow down several times, while the other created a traffic jam.

After a respite for lunch (some delicious Beijing dumplings, noodles and more), we made our way to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. While our guide got our Forbidden City tickets, we made our way around the enormous Tiananmen Square for some pictures.

Street between the Forbidden City and Tiananmen, Mao's portrait
Tiananmen Square and Dr. Sun Yat Sen
Mao's Mausoleum

There's not a lot to see within the Forbidden City beyond the enormity of the whole thing, so visiting later in the day actually worked to our favor as we were the last group in and crowds had mostly dispersed. Our guide shared some of the history of the emperors, empresses, and many concubines, servants and staff who lived in this well-protected fortress. It brought me back to reading Empress Orchid by Anchee Min, which brought to life many facets of intrigue within the Forbidden City.

The many, many buildings and courtyards of Forbidden City stretching into the distance
 with the park and pagoda overlooking

On our last day, we took some time to walk from our hotel towards Tiananmen and stroll inside some of the preserved hutongs (P.S. some highly recommended reading on this subject: The Last Days of Old Beijing by Michael Meyer). There's definitely a friendly rivalry between Beijing and Shanghai and a certain snobbery among residents of each toward the other. The comparison to Washington, D.C. versus NYC is quite apt. Shanghai is a cosmopolitan, fast paced atmosphere jam packed with skyscrapers while Beijing really feels like the capital city, with low-rise buildings spread out over a lot of space and a real sense of being the seat of government and much important history. We also got the sense of a much more enforced orderliness, where it seems like more of the tarnish and quirkiness breaks through in Shanghai (or maybe just in my neighborhood).

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Christmas in Taiwan

Taiwan is definitely overlooked in terms of tourism and I'd highly recommend more people consider it, especially if already visiting or living in Asia. We spent some relaxing time there over the Christmas holidays and found a lot to like.


We had a lot of rainy (but significantly warmer than Shanghai) weather while there, so we took it a bit easy on this trip and left a lot to see in future visits. One of the great things about Taipei is how easily accessible nature is from the city, with hot springs and mountains within a MRT (subway) journey. When we come back, we will certainly take advantage of those opportunities. On this trip, we enjoyed:

The markets, including the famous night markets where you can get all types of street food and assorted junk or even play some games. We shopped in the jade market, a local produce market, and enjoyed a stroll through the flower market, filled with holiday poinsettias. We also popped in to the electronics mart for a new hard drive and the prices, variety and quality were nice.
Night market food (including the infamous snake restaurant) and shopping
Jade everything for sale

Strolling the streets, enjoying the coffee shops and shopping opportunities, with nice little lanes to get lost in and a great coffee culture to get out of the rain and watch the world go by over a cup. There are plenty of big malls and department stores with good food courts too, which is easy for a cheap, convenient meal (somewhere I would avoid like the plaque in the U.S. but go to options in Asia). Because it was Christmas, there were festive decorations up everywhere and a special display by city hall.
Christmas lights display near Taipei 101
Great food, which is one of the things Taiwan is known for, from street food and beef noodle shops to all kinds of international cuisine. The years of Japanese occupation have left behind plenty of authentic Japanese restaurants and we enjoyed tasty shabu shabu one night. Yongkang Lu is the place to go for a huge variety of restaurants and little dessert shops (plus the original Din Tai Fung). Try shaved ice with fruit or all kinds of good street snacks and Chinese food from all different provinces. We also had a gourmet dinner to celebrate a special birthday at the top of Taipei 101 (Diamond Tony's) and enjoyed "Taiwanese tapas" at China Pa, a great little 1920s style place with a live band and fun crowd.

A popular vendor on Yongkang Lu
Getting my ice cream "spring roll" at the night market (spring roll wrapper with peanut and pineapple ice cream plus shaved peanut brittle and cilantro). Tasty, but maybe no cilantro next time.
Sightseeing: with all the things above to do, it is sort of nice that Taipei does not necessarily have a massive list of sites to see. We visited Chiang Kai Shek memorial hall and its exhibitions and we took in the view from Taipei 101 during our dinner rather than via the observation deck. The national museum has many of the treasures of old China that were taken when the KMT fled here. We visited Longhua Temple, which was a busy temple packed with locals. There are plenty of nice museums to keep you busy as well, though I think it's more fun to get out and explore the city.

CKS Hall
The amazingly still guards at the Chiang Kai Shek statue
Beautiful grounds and surrounding architecture around CKS Hall
Hualien and Taroko National Park

We loved Taipei, but I think the highlight of the trip was our visit to Hualien and Taroko Gorge. We took the train over to Hualien, a quaint little beachside town. The next day we woke up for our full day tour of Taroko Gorge. These are pretty easy to arrange in town with English-speaking taxi drivers (or group tours) but we had prearranged ours via Round Taiwan. Our driver arrived and whisked us off for a day of enjoying nature's beauty and some great hikes. Taroko is a large swath of parkland along the pacific coast where dramatic geological landscapes have been formed by tectonic shifting. The "marble gorge" lives up to its name (a tribal word meaning magnificent and beautiful) and you could spend many days exploring the varied terrain.

Hualien istelf is a cute little town with some beautiful beaches nearby (our drive along the coast reminded me of Hawaii, but instead of million dollar homes and hotels, there was a large cemetery and a military base). Hualien had one of the most enjoyable night markets, where we tasted a local specialty. "coffin bread" (sort of like a french toast pocket sandwich with different filling options) and enjoyed some freshly grilled seafood and tasty beers at a little corner bar/restaurant.

Beaches of Hualien
Hualien at night
Hualien night market
Yummy "coffin bread"
Beer and freshly grilled seafood
Taiwan is a beautiful country. In addition, it is well-organized and traveler-friendly. We met so many nice people and were often offered help (for example, when we stopped to look at our map one day). We were impressed by the level (and willingness) of English spoken. Taiwan has a great transportation system (plus it's a small island packed with diverse geography so you can see a lot in short distances) and it was clean, quiet, safe and generally left a wonderful impression. We hope to go back to explore more!