Apr. 23rd, 2017

Once upon a time, I spend a few months living in the city of Incheon. Still connected to Seoul by public transport, Incheon is Korea's main port city, where large container ships dot the seascape and most international travellers pass through (Incheon International Airport is the main airport into the country). Not only is it incredibly important to trade, but historically, Incheon is a pretty big deal. This is where the famous Incheon Landing in the Korean War, where the Americans joined the fight against the North happened, and that's one of the reasons that eventually the North was beaten back. For all that it's economically and historically important, and I'm going to have to give Incheon a bit of the short straw when it comes to 'interesting things to do'. There really aren't that many things for me to recommend in general, because there really wasn't all that much to do. Shopping and eating yes, but when it came to just going out and doing something fun for the day? Not so much. That said, there are still a few things I can suggest. Two of those things are, rather continently, in the same spot. Those two places are Chinatown and Jayu Park.

Incheon's Chinatown is Korea's largest and only official Chinatown. It's been in existence in one form or another since 1883, and was one of the first non-ethnic Koreans communities to officially set up shop. In fact, it was in Incheon that Korea finally opened up it's boarders to international trade, ending its time as the Hermit Kingdom. It wasn't China that forced Korea to open its boarders (that would be Japan, and America got it in on that not long after), but Chinese influence grew after the Chinese helped Korea put down an insurrection. It brought about the China-Korea Treaty of 1882, which made Incheon an extraterritoriality of the Ching Dynasty (which meant that Korean law didn't apply there- consider it diplomatic immunity for a place). With that, in moved the Chinese to set up trade, businesses, and a community that is still going strong today, generations later.

Chinatown is actually really easy to get to- just get on the Incheon subway line and ride it to the end. When you get off the subway, it's still very easy to find. You head out the exit, and then just turn. It's pretty to tell where to go, when a giant Chinese style gate heralds the entrance. It's called a paifang, and it's a great way to declare 'This is Chinatown' on a pretty large and impressive scale. The gate is made up of three connected gates. There is one large square arch in the middle, with two smaller ones on either side. It's still massive, so don't let the word 'small' in that description fool you. It's made of grey stone with symbols craved into it, especially dragons snaking up and around the sides. The carvings are intricate, as is the tops of the gates themselves. They're Chinese pagoda style, where the angular tops flare upwards instead of straight out. While this isn't the only gate (there are ones at the main entrances to the neighbourhood), this is by far the biggest. The other ones are simpler in design, but infinitely more colourful (bright colours are a repeating theme here). There's one other similar, if smaller, gate, but that will come later.

Once you pass through the gate, you're in Chinatown. The first thing you're going to notice is that 80% of Chinatown is on a hill, and the slope can get pretty steep at time. Prepare to get some exercise as you wander around. Almost all of the buildings are painted bright, vibrant red, with yellow gold lettering (in Chinese characters and Korean Hangul, with some instances of English). Everything about Chinatown is so colourful, which is so different from the neighbourhoods I'm used to in Korea. I love the traditional style of Korean buildings (I've written about hanok before, in some detail), but they're pretty bland when it comes to colour. They're off white colours and brown, generally, and they're not going to catch your eye in the brightness department. The buildings here, for all they are more just square/rectangle buildings shape wise, draw your attention automatically. They stick up and give the streets wide dashes of colour, and it's fun. The focus on red makes a lot of sense, once you learn that red traditionally means good luck in Chinese culture. With all the red in Chinatown, I'd have to say it's probably the symbolically luckiest neighbourhood in all of Korea.

There are wonderful painted murals all over the place. The colours are bright and flashy, and while they might not be painted in a more traditional Chinese art style, they are lovely in the way that they show scenes of China. There are beautiful painted women in colourful traditional dress. The emperor's chair surrounded by the famous terracotta warriors is painted on the steps of a staircase, making it so you can only see the whole picture when standing at the bottom (appropriate for an Emperor's throne, yes?). On either side of the throne stairs are massive paintings of the main hall of The Forbidden City on one side, and the Great Wall climbing along mountain tops on the other. In another area there's a wall of pandas munching on bamboo. Those are just the ones I saw, and I know there were more scattered throughout the neighbourhood. The walls were painted with the images that first come to mind when someone hears the word 'China'. It's not only a beautiful design added to the city itself, but it also awakens (or reawakens, as the case may be) the desire to see those places for real. Chinatown was great for that- by itself, if was a really awesome slice of a culture. There's nothing wrong with just that, but seeing it all really makes you want to see the original as well. Those murals, along with everything else, make it easy enough for the thought of 'I need to visit China' to slip into your mind. It's an equally wonderful and frustrating thought all at once.

The murals aren't the only decorations that give Chinatown its distinctly Chinese look. The lamp posts are highly decorated as well. They're red (not surprising) with a gold/green dragon curling around the pole. The light part is shaped to look like a traditional paper lantern, for all that they're clear glass. It's a nice, yet subtle touch. It's a design that's practical (they work just fine as lamps) and perfect at setting a scene/design. Speaking of lanterns and light sources, there are a lot of paper lanterns hanging from the covered porch-like outsides of buildings. During the day, they're a nice touch. At night, however, they're pretty beautiful. They're lit up, and they're beautiful red balls of soft light, decorated in gold. It made the streets lovely after dark. There are statues all over the place, especially these massive stone lions that seem to be at the bottom to decorate every staircase.

I have to admit that the biggest draw to Chinatown is the food. There are restaurant upon restaurant of various types of Chinese food (some more traditional food and others that fall into 'Korean Chinese Food'. Much like how Chinese immigrants to America took their traditions and adapted it to their new surroundings to make American style Chinese Food (what we're used to), the same happened with the Chinese-Korean community). There are fancy sit down restaurants and smaller ones that are little more than stalls. I've known people to head to Chinatown just to get some great Chinese food (no surprise there), and I don't blame them. Not only is it good, but there's a great selection. You can get all the classics, such as sweet and sour pork and dumplings (both delicious at the restaurant I ate at while there- look for the restaurant with the giant Chinese lanterns and a Terracotta soldier outside). Jajangmyeon, noddles covered in a thick black soybean sauce, incredibly popular Korean Chinese dish, and it is in abundance here. Janjangmyeon is so popular that they've even made a photo opportunity of it (which is so very Korean, Chinatown or not). On one of the streets there is a giant stature of Korea's favourite noodle dish (horizontal, so you can see what it is), complete with giant chopsticks sticking out the top, just sitting there and waiting for you to take a picture with it. I found it so very amusing on both a Koreans really love photos and food way, and believe me- I was right there with them in getting my picture with it. While I personally am not a fan, most of the people I know in Korea absolutely love it, so I suggest at least trying it once. Chances are great that you'll probably like it as well. Even if you don't there's a hundred other dishes to choose from, and that's just in the restaurants. That doesn't count the convenience stores and markets which sell imported goods. There's a reason that Chinatown is known for food, and part of it is the sheer plethora of it.

While this is obviously a place that's been cleaned up and gentrified to bring in tourists, it's still a legitimate Chinatown, built for the Chinese population in mind. There is a Chinese temple along with Chinese schools for the population. The stores sell ingredients for traditional Chinese meals, and there's even a huge Cultural Centre for Chinese-Korean Relations (topped with a giant golden dragon, which I absolutely love. I LOVE Chinese (or Eastern in general) dragon motifs. They're so much more interesting than the traditional Western dragon). This is an actual living, breathing community, and that's important to keep in mind when visiting. You can't just come here and treat it like anything other than a neighbourhood, for all that a lot of it seems to be geared towards visitors (shops selling touristy things, for example). Respect is a must when you're visiting a community where people live and work in their everyday lives.

Once you've ended your visit to Chinatown and gorged yourself on delicious, it would seem like a great time to walk some of those calories. Luckily for you, the answer for that is right there. Above Chinatown, when you keep walking up the hill, you're going to find yourself in Jayu Park. To get to the park from Chinatown, you need to pass through another one of those gates I mentioned. It's very similar to the main gate, though it's a much smaller scale with the top of the gate coloured with bright blue. You pass under that gate and find yourself at the foot of some stone stairs. They're fairly long and steep, so expect to start burning off your lunch or dinner from the very first step. Once you've climbed up to the top of the hill, you're find yourself on a hilly, a little wide park, full of some trees and vegetation, with a LOT of statues mixed in there for good measure. It's not the biggest park, and I finished walking through it at a leisurely pace in under forty-five minutes, but it's still really interesting for some cool reasons.

I'd argue that the biggest reasons to see the park is the statues. There are a ton of statues all over, some big and others small. Some are traditional looking designs and others along the lines of abstract art. There are three that really stand out, for different reasons. The first is the Korean-American Centennial Monument. This one stands out because it's just plain strange and in no way looks like it has anything to do with celebrating an anniversary of relations between those two countries. It's generally shaped like a triangle tent, with different pieces of silver/black metal jutting out of the earth. The pointed and wide spears of metal are uneven, with big spaces between them and never touching. They're not even at the top either, and never actually meet, with some pieces coming short and other hanging over the others. It's also huge, and you can walk through it. It is so strange. Not necessarily from the design itself, but by the message it's trying to say. As in it's pretty impossible to figure out what it's supposed to even stand for. I will fully admit that I'm not the biggest fan of abstract art in any form, but there is nothing in this statue that makes you think of America, Korea, or the relationship between them. That said, it's still a cool looking monument, and it's certainly one of the most unique ones I've seen.

There was one statue on the other end of the park that caught my eye, but it was almost just a passing glance. It was a statue of three bronze soldiers. One soldier was one his feet, holding a gun at his side and reading to use it. Another soldier was in the middle of throwing a grenade, face set in what looked like a determined yell. The final soldier was crouching down, an unfurled flag in her hands. I'll admit that it's the final solider that caught my attention and made me actually stop to look. It's not all that common for women to be depicted in war memorials, unless it's a memorial specifically dedicated to women who served. When it's general achievements or sacrifices, male solider statues are the default. Again, unless it's the specific topic, the contributions of women to war efforts tends to be shuffled to the side, forgotten, or just plain ignored (which is an entirely different rant altogether), so the fact she was obviously present here intrigued me. Thankfully, there was a very detailed English sign that explained why this statue was there and what it meant. This statue is dedicated to the Korean students who volunteered to the war effort after Incheon was recaptured. At first, it was just in an attempt to keep order in the city while the Americans joined the Korean military to take the fight to the rest of the territory the North had taken. In the end, circumstances were going to require more from them. Just when it looked like the tide was turning against North Korea, their ally joined the fray. That ally was China, with its massive army. It took the war up another notch, and these students knew it. Many of them joined the army or marines to help fight. Both men and women volunteered, and these students weren't just ones from university. There were high school students as well, and think about that for one moment. Think about yourself in high school- would you have been able to drop everything and take up arms? This isn't to disparage high school students (I think they tend to get a bad rep, personally), but an honest question. Could we have all done it when we were seventeen-eighteen years old, or younger? This is a bravery I cannot even begin to imagine, and that's why this monument is here. It's a dedication to all of those students who died during the Korean War. There were over two hundred of them. I will fully admit that, if it hadn't been the fact that I noticed a female soldier, I probably would have walked by with only a quick glance. I probably wouldn't have stopped, because I have seen so many of these types of statues. War memorial statues are everywhere. They're usually all dedicated to the same thing- 'soldiers who died in this battle', 'soldiers who died from this town', and so on. Now that I think about it, that's a pretty callous way to go about things. 'Oh look, more people died and got a statue'. That's...not respectful is probably the nicest way I can say that, and I really hate that I got to that point. Actually stopping and reading about these students, the story behind that one statue, reminded me that these are, in fact, in the memory of people. Real people died, who had dreams and ambitions of their own, and who would never even get to officially stop being a student. They died young and in a bloody war. They deserve more than a two second glance. I'd argue that (at least most, but there are always exceptions to every rule) all these kinds of statues deserve that level of respect, if only to the memory of the people it's there to represent. I'm not saying that you need to stop at every memorial and have a moment of silence (though all the power to you), but maybe give it more than a two second glance and avoid shrugging off the importance of it. I know I'm going to keep reminding myself of that while I walk past future memorial statues.

Now, the most...random isn't the right word, but it's the first one that comes to mind. Sitting in the middle of the park, standing on a high pillar, is a bronze statue of General Douglas Macarthur. That's right, the American general Douglas Macarthur, standing there looking serious in all his life size glory. I knew that it existed before going there, but I'll still admit that it left me blinking for a few seconds when I first saw it. It certainly fell into things I never expected to come across anywhere but America (I'm assuming there's a statue of him there, but I'm not 100% sure, so don't just take my word for it). I do get it though, and I do understand why Incheon/Korea in general has chosen to honour him, specifically in this particular spot. It all goes back to the Korean War, specifically the Incheon Landing. For that, let's take a look back at Korea, 1950. After the North Korean invasion of the South on June 20th, 1950, it didn't take them very long to take about as much ground as they possibly could. The South Koreans were forced all the way back to Busan, which is literally the very south-eastern corner of the country. Busan literally sits on the sea, and if that city had been captured, South Korea would have fallen. They were in trouble, and they needed help. Enter General Macarthur. He suggested (well, demanded) that they attack from the port city of Incheon. Incheon was a really risky place to kick off an invasion. It was a very narrow part at the time, and the tides were very extreme. An amphibious landing was downright dangerous, and so many people were absolutely against it. Macarthur was having none of it. He argued right back that those risks made it certain that the enemy would never expect it, and it was absolute surprise that they needed. He pushed for it, argued furiously for it, and he got his way...and it changed everything. The Incheon Landing/Battle of Incheon lasted from September 15-26, 1950. After it was over, not only did Korea have one of its port cities back, but it was so successful that it cut off North Korean supply lines and forced them to retreat. The UN forces, combined with the Korean army, were able to recaptured Seoul not long after. From there, it was like an upwards momentum, a true 'I come to you now at the turn of the tide' moment. Not only did they force the North Korean army back up north, but captured their capital as well. This one landing could have led to a victory that would have left us a very different world today, had China not gotten involved. That turned the war around once again, and it's what made the Korean War keep going until 1953, where it only ended in a stalemate of an armistice. The Incheon Landing is still considered one of the greatest manoeuvres in modern military history, and Macarthur was the reason it happened. He was the one who led the charge that metaphorically snatched the victory out of hands of North Korea. Part of why South Korea exists as it does today is because of this military victory, so of course there was a statue put up of him. Do NOT get me wrong- not everyone in Korea hails this man as a hero (though there are those who do see him as a hero, mostly people who lived through the Korean War). Much like in the rest of the world (including his native America) sees this man in a very polarizing way- he turned the war around, but he's also been accused of allowing some terrible things to happen in remainder of the war. The fact that the American military continued having a strong presence in the country (which led to some terrible aspects of the government, though it's not completely on them) only made a lot of feelings towards him as worse (those feelings I understand a lot more, since my first thought about Macarthur is the Red Scare and hearings that ruined countless lives). There have been calls to tear the statue down, off and on, but for now he still stands proudly in Jayu Park, for better or for worse. It's certainly a testimony to just how skewed history can be, and how it can be seen through so many directions, where a person can be a hero in one person's eyes, and the villain in another's.

Not only are there statues to see in the park, there is also an absolutely an amazing view of the Incheon harbour. When you're at the top of the park (especially on the second floor of the beautiful two story traditional pagoda Korean) you can see the harbour and sea behind it stretch out for kilometres. You look other over top of or through the wide gaps in the trees, and you can watch the harbour as it goes about its business. There are hundreds of giant shipping containers sitting on the docks with container ships docked besides them. You can see more ships out in the harbour, showing that this is a place of trade. While it might not be a lovely view of a clean, crisp beach, this is a much more interesting one. This isn't a pretty picture, but everyday real life, and that's special in its own right.

Incheon may not have been the most exciting city of I've lived in (not that I've lived in many, to be honest), but it was still a pretty interesting place. The presence of both Chinatown and Jayu Park, especially in such close proximity to each other, was certainly on of those things. It's a double bonus really: you get a great mix of history, good food, and a nice walk to top it all off, and all in one place.

Everland

Apr. 23rd, 2017 02:03 pm
If you ask your average Korean child where they would love to go on any given weekend, there's about a 90% change you're going to get roughly the same answer. It's also one that's not going to lose its appeal, no matter how many times you ask. It's a place that all the kids love for a reason, one that would be appealing to kids all over the world. Theme parks are a popular thing throughout the globe, and why would Korea be any exception? Here, the be all end all of Korean theme parks, is Everland.

Everland is basically Korea's answer to Disneyland/world, though on a much (much) smaller scale and without the international fame. That's not to dismiss it, because it is a pretty popular (16th in the world for around of people who went in 2014, and that's not a number to laugh at, given the amount of theme parks in the world). It's also Korea's largest theme park, and was the first family amusement park to ever open in Korea, back in 1979. It's only grown since then. It's not just a theme park anymore, but it's also home to a small zoo and huge water park (the later, Caribbean Bay, I've never gotten to yet. I have, however, heard it's awesome). If you look out, you also might get lucky and find a time when they're offering foreigner discounts, just like I did. During one of the holiday long weekends, I was able to get in half price, just because I had a coupon. So if you're planning on tackling Everland (and the subway even goes there now -I had to take a long bus ride from Seoul-, making it even easier), I recommend looking at their site and seeing if you can get yourself a deal.

The main theme park is divided into five separate areas. The first is the Global Square, and it's around the entrance. There's no rides here, it's more of a stroll around and eat/buy stuff. Just like the name suggests, it's a global theme. The buildings are designed like castles from around the world. Some are designed like European castles from France and Spain. There's replicas from Russia, looking as bright and colourful as the Church of the Saviour on Blood in St. Petersburg. There are Middle Eastern countries and even India. It's very interesting to see all the different styles in one place. It serious makes one want to run to an airport and take off to travel the world. It also is a great way to start the park.

The second area, at least on the path that I took, was the American Adventure. That's where the rides start. There are some real clichéd American themes going on here, but it's super fun as well. There's the Wild West represented, with rides like the rodeo themed ride where you sit in a booth and spin around and around. I wouldn't recommend it on a full stomach, but it was lots of fun. There's the traditional Viking ship, except refurbished as an explorer's ship. The second major theme is 1950s Rock & Roll. The aesthetic is as fun as you'd expect, with bright colours and blinking neon. It feels like you stepped into Grease when you look at them. There's a roller coaster in this section, along with a few other rides, including one that spins around like a ferries wheel (and there's one of those too), except it turns you up and down as well. Also not one to get on when you're full or get motion sick easily.

So far I'm making it sound like Everland is all thrills and chills. Don't get me wrong- there are a ton of rides for those who like adventure and a little excitement (more on that coming up soon). Those of you who aren't all that fond of thrill rides, or those who have children not old enough to go on those rides, are probably beginning to think Everland might not be for you. Hold on before you pass judgement, because the next section is more gentle, and totally has kids in mind. This is the third section of the park, called Magic Land. This, to my everlasting delight, is designed with Aseop's Fables as the core component. So we got an area decorated with fairy tale like buildings, colourful and a little wacky. It was a bit Alice in Wonderland in building design, with a pretty fountain featuring cartoony frogs as centre pieces. There were statues from the fables everywhere, from the tortoise beating the hare, a mouse helping a lion out of a net, and even an ant and a grasshopper arguing about the best way to save food for winter. They're fun, something straight out of the pages of the stories themselves. If someone ever decided to make a cartoon, I'd recommend the designs on the statues. The kids around me loved them. Here there's also a pretty cool ride, much like Disney's It's a Small World ride. It's called the Jigu Maul, and it was the first underground boat ride in Korea. It features dolls from around the world, showing scenes and ideas from different countries. The dolls are animatronics, which allows them to give you a bit of a sense of a living scene. There are flamenco dancers from Spain, football players from America, a traditional fan dance from Korea, dancing around tulips and windmills from the Netherlands, and even scenes featuring the Maasai, the ethnic group of people in Kenya. Sadly, there's no Canadians playing hockey (or maybe eating maple syrup, I can't decide which is better). Just like the Global Village entrance, this is a great look at around the world. It's also a good way to make you want to book the next plane to some far away place, though that one is a it harder to accomplish, even for someone already living halfway across the world.

With European Adventure, we continue the trend of basing the design on the architecture of other countries. In this case, it's based on Holland. I've never been to Holland, but I can tell you they managed to make it look like any pictures I've seen. You feel like you're walking down a small street, with shops of all kinds on either side. There's rides here as well, including Korea's first wooden roller coaster, which also doubles as the world's steepest wooden roller coaster. Admittedly, I didn't get on this ride. The line was just way too long, and it was getting fairly late in the day. It looked awesome, and if the screaming was any indication, exciting and heart racing as well. I honestly wasn't too put out -I'm more of a ride the big rides to prove you're not scared kind of woman- but I actually wish I had gotten on this one, if only to experience the thing most of my older students exclaim to be their favourite part. I did get into one thrill ride while there. It's a ride that it meant to simulate being in a room that's literally turned upside down. You get strapped into a row of seats in a room designed to look like a wizard's study, complete with creepy talking gargoyle. All of the sudden, you're being jerked around and risen up, the seats doing a 180 and then 360 degree turn around. The furniture for the room (on the sides, and clearly well attached) flips around, and the effects of the room change, making it look like you've now found yourself trapped on the ceiling. The lights are blinking and the gargoyle is laughing like a little demon, and you just keep moving. It honestly feels like you're actually spinning around and around, going from the floor to the ceiling and back. It was dizzying and head spinning, but a lot of fun. The effects were perfect and it was a pretty thrilling ride, though not as crazy as a roller coaster.

One more thing in European Adventure, and that's the Horror Village. It's exactly as it sounds. It's where you find the haunted houses. There are two, and you have to be eighteen to even go in. No kids allowed, and I know exactly why. As said, there are two haunted houses...and I only went in one. Not because it was boring or a waste of time, but because it was honestly terrifying. I love horror movies and basically anything scary, and I can take it with the best of them. I might get a little spooked or jumpy, but I rarely get really scared, even in haunted houses. This time however...I don't remember being that scared in a long time. It starts from when they make you wait in a dark hallway in groups of about five with only a red light to take with you. You have to hold onto the shoulders of the person in front of you so you don't get lost, and there's the creepy women dressed as ghosts (hair hanging over face, white dress...you know the type) just floating along and staring at you. It sets the scene, and then you go in. It's set up like some sort of torture house, with the creepy ghosts trapped inside after being killed by some sort of mad scientist. You don't need to know the story, because the design and rooms make it so obviously. There are flashing lights and the sounds of screams and moans. There are footsteps coming towards you and people sliding out of shadows (and they'll touch you here, though only lightly, so be prepared for that). More ghosts and other people, half looking like zombies or the dead who died really terrible deaths. All of that was terrifying, but it wasn't the worst (best). There's one room, meant to represent something like a meat house, where the meat is hung from the ceiling. There's no path, and the things hanging down (I think they were actually punching bags in real life) are so close together that you have to touch them. You keep walking through them, them closing in on all side as you have to follow the people in front of you through it while they stumble along attempting to find their way out of this dark, silent part of the house. This is literally the first time I've ever wanted to get out of a haunted house early. I almost told one of the workers to take me out, but I managed to make it through. Barely, I might add. After I got out into the beautiful sun, there was no way I was going back into the second haunted house. Never again.

Speaking of haunted houses, that leads me into the best part of the whole day. I'm now going to let you in on my absolutely favourite aspect of Everland. Remember when I made an entry about Lotte World? How I mentioned that there was an overall theme going on, and it was Carnival when I was there? It's the same at Everland, though the theme was very different. It wasn't Carnival, but one of my absolutely favourite things in the world...it was Halloween. I went in September, so they were all decked out for Halloween in a way that the rest of Korea doesn't begin to follow. There are decorations everywhere, built right into the structure of the park. They are huge, giant jack-o-lanterns sitting on flower beds, graveyards popping up everywhere. Some of the decorations were cutesy, others creepy, and some downright scary. It was strange as well, since all of these creepy decorations were right in these bright, colourful flowers. My favourite decoration was a massive tree close to the entrance of the park. There are eye balls hanging down, eyes in the branches (making it look like something is peeking out at you). It's interesting in the day, but it's even better at night. The eyes glow, adding to the creep factor. It's not only the decorations that make it Halloween at Everland. The workers are all dressed up in scary costumes, and they are freaky when they're acting like their character. The shops are selling Halloween sort-of costumes, mostly vampire capes and witch hats. There's a Halloween themed show in the middle of a square, complete with moving floats and an elaborate backstory that I couldn't understand but guessed it was about the good characters banishing the evil devil-witch character. There's lots of singing and dancing, things I will never stop loving. They always make everything that much better. I love Halloween. I cannot emphasize that enough. Getting to experience Halloween at Everland was spectacular, and the cherry on the metaphorical pie.

Last, but not least, we come to the last part of Everland proper. That area is Zoo-Topia. As the name implies, it's the zoo area of the park. There are a few ways to see the animals in this section of the park. There's the usual petting zoo and pony rides for the kids. There's a safari ride, where you ride in a caged bus and drive through an area with big cats (lions and tigers) and bears (oh my). It was pretty cool to see them, since it's not often you get to see them that close, even if a bus separates you. There's also a normal zoo, called The Lost Valley, featuring some marine oriented animals (polar bears, penguins) and the usual fare (primates, for example), though I was unable to get in. It was closed by the time I actually managed to make it to this end of the park (it's on the other end of where I started). I hear it's pretty good, but I've been to enough zoos (including the huge Seoul Zoo) to be okay with that. There's a small zoo area, where the smaller animals like rodents are in a small area. The last part of the area is a ride called The Amazon Express. It's a water tube ride. You sit in a massive raft that then goes down the pseudo Amazon River. There are statues of the various wildlife along the banks, and you rush past them, getting soaked in the rapids and spinning around and around. It's not the most exciting ride in the park, but it was a pretty fun one, especially if you like water rides. Be warned, you're going to get wet.

The Amazon Express was actually the last ride I got on before I managed to pull my tired self out of the park and back to the bus stop. It was actually really close to closing time when I left. I had spent the whole day at Everland. I was tired, a bit sore from being on my feet for so long, and beyond the point of excitement for the day. I had been to Korea's favourite theme park, had some stories to share with my students, and got to play around like I hadn't in a long time. Plus I got an early taste of Halloween, including the scare of a lifetime. All and all, not a bad day for a September holiday.
I'm a very, very organized person. I plan most things down to the tiny details, especially when it comes to any sort of writing. My travel guides are the same. I have the order already planned, so I could tell you exactly what I'll be covering a year from now. I can go off schedule if I need/want to, but I usually try to stick to it. Yet every once and awhile, something comes up that you see a reason to go off script. The world gives you a perfect opening to a topic, and you have to take it. This is one of those times. I don't know if it's reached the Canadian media, but Korea has been in the news lately, and not for a good reason. There have been massive protests in Seoul, with huge crowds from a number of diverse groups protesting in Seoul (and being put down with a great degree of violence). The people are angry for a number of reasons, many of which are just too extensive to put into one travel guide. One of those reasons is the government imposing a new, universal textbook to be used in all Korean schools. While I haven't read the book myself, most of the teachers and educational professionals have panned it, saying it downplays the terrible things that happened during the military dictatorship (that went until the 80s), villainized the pro-democracy movement, and made a lot of excuses for the politicians who were quite pro-Japanese. The government has claimed the historical revision is because the current way of teaching doesn't make Korean students proud of Korea/their history (always a red flag), and while reading/watching the news of all this, I was reminded of a place that I visited in Seoul. While it's not as dramatic a place as protests at city hall, there's a remnant of the history they're talking about there. This is the perfect time to talk about it...so I give you the Seodaemun Prison History Hall and Independence Park.

The name of the place and the connotations that go with the word 'prison' should already give you a feeling of what this place is going to be about. Prisons are not fun places, are places of pain and suffering. They're a place of punishment, deserved or not. In its heyday, Seodaemun Prison was all of that, and more. This was the place that the Japanese, and then the military dictatorship, brought those Koreans who protested against them. From full on freedom fighter to underground peaceful protestors, were to sent to this prison. Many of them didn't come out again, at least not alive, and they suffered far too much before that even happened. By going in with this introduction, I'm making a warning that this is not going to be a light hearted travel guide. It's going to be dark and brutal, and that's with me toning down the information. This was a violent and horrific place, and I'd be doing a disservice to all that suffered there if I didn't write it that way. As TV always says, viewer discretion is advised. I never thought I'd ever have to do this for a travel guide, but I'm going to say trigger warning, just to be safe.

Saodaemun Japanese Prison was built by the Japanese in 1907 to imprison anyone who protested against colonial rule. It's not an old place, not in the context of Korea, but it's interesting to note that is was built before Japan offically took over the country. The Joseon Dynasty and Korean independance ended in 1910. You see that coming now, and I can't imagine how terrible it must have been for the people of the time, because how could you not see the writing on the wall? If the building and use of this prison wasn't a look into the near future, I don't know what would be. After Korean Independance was finally acheived, the prison wasn't just left to be abandoned. Instead, the military dictatorship that was given control of the country took it over, and used it in the exact same way as the Japanese did. I can't decide which one is worst- fighting to free your country and being imprisoned for it, or having to fight for deomcracy in a country you have supposedly already freed? The first thing I noticed when I got to the prison museum was how nice it was. I know that sounds so strange to say, but it really is the truth. I mean, obviously it's very well taken care of. It's a museum after all, so of course it's going to be well maintained. That's not the nice I'm talking about. The place itself, especially the buildings, are lovely buildings. They're very large, and a number of the main ones have a shape that remind me of barns (the tall walls with the slightly curved, pointed roof). They're made of red brick, and that's where the visual appeal comes from. The red colour of the brick is perfect. It's the bricks you see in those clichéd, picture perfect versions they always show when brick buildings are shown. I really like red brick, so the outside of the buildings really appealed to me in an aesthetic sense. Once you go inside and walk through the halls and learn what happened there, it makes that appeal all the more stomach turning. There's such a lovely looking area, and it housed some of the worst horrors imaginable. It's not a good feeling to have, and it made the horror all that more poignant.

The first building you come to, right near the entrance to the space (as a prison, it should come as no surprise that all the buildings are surrounded by a huge brick wall, complete with dozens of tall, octagonal shaped guard towers. Those watch towers were very, very imposing, and I cannot imagine looking at them and thinking 'can I run? Will they catch me?'. It was a shiver inducing thought, one that I didn't contemplate very long), is the exhibition hall. It's inside the building that held the notorious Intelligence Department. I really probably don't have to tell you just why that Intelligence Department is notorious, and what it was famous -terrifying- for. Intelligence gathering means one thing, and that is getting answers by any means necessary. Those means are never pleasant ones, and usually end in the most brutal torture possible. This place is no exception. This was the building to be feared, even more than the prison housing. There's only one place I'd argue is worse, and even that can be debated. It all comes down to which is worse for each person- living and suffering or ending it all with death. The museum doesn't let you forget that either.

When the prison was built, an underground interrogation space was created. It was sheer concrete, empty of any sort of colour or decoration. It's dark and cool, and there's nothing there to make it any less creepy. That's the way it was supposed to be- this was a floor you were led into and knew what was coming. A basement of concrete? Fewer people can hear you scream. Out of sight, out of mind? No one to save you. This created the atmosphere, and psychological torture can be just as breaking as physical. The museum doesn't let you get away with just reading/hearing about this reality, they make you see it as well. Not with actors, of course, but they set the scenes with mannequins and shadows. They have scenes set up in the small integration rooms, of Japanese soldiers and a Korean prisoner, and some of them are horrific. Some are just scenes of soldiers demanding answers, but others show straight up torture. This is the point where I once again tell you to stop reading if semi-graphic depictions of torture are going to bother you. Seriously, this is a warning. A version of water boarding, pieces of wood shoved underneath fingernails, pulling nails off completely, beatings, flogging...they all happened in these little rooms. People were sat/tied down and made to feel pain. This place would have echoed with screams and confessions that probably weren't real. Innocent or guilty, it didn't matter. These people...how can you even really explain it in a way that encompasses it all? I could use a million words to talk about their suffering, and it'll never be enough to describe it, to make us understand. I'm not even close to being that talented a writer, and I don't think I'd want to put myself into that even if I was. I know that for a fact, because I was given an opportunity that I couldn't take. There are lots of torture techniques that require tools of some sort. Some are big, some are small, some are hands on, and others can be used and left to its own devices.

One of those torture devices was a box. It doesn't sound all that bad, does it? It was- it was big enough for a person to stand inside, but not enough to stand up straight. You had to bend to get inside. It was wide enough for a person to stand inside, but not enough for them to sit down. The walls weren't necessary sharp, but too uncomfortable to actually lean against. A person had to stand with their body bent and straight, being unable to find any relief from sitting or leaning to shift their wait. They would put people in here and leave them for hours. Hours of being unable to rest in anyway. They had one of those boxes there, though obviously not an original. You could go inside and see what it was like...but I couldn't. Even the idea of stepping into that box made my heart race with claustrophobia I'd never had before that moment. I didn't want to put myself in the position of the people who were tortured here, I couldn't make myself step into their place, not without wanting to choke on the air I was breathing. I have never been hit this hard while in a museum, never felt the need to run, to get away. I fully admit that I ran out of that basement at that point, and I did not look back. If I felt the need to escape for that, how terrible must it have been for the people who were brought down here?

The first and second floor of the exhibition hall are no less sombre and poignant, but it's done in a different way. These floors are designed to make the people who were imprisoned here real to visitors. Here we get a glimpse of who they were, even if actual names are not explicitly given (there was a list, but they didn't actually provide a picture to match). These floors show us what the prisoners went through that wasn't torture, and why they were going through it. It sets up the society that made these people risk everything to protest. It focuses first on the state of Korea when the Japanese took over (which I've covered before, so I'll give the cliffnotes version: Japan attempted to wipe out any semblance of a Korean society. They attempted cultural genocide on top of treating the people brutally), and then once the military dictatorship was in control of the country. When it came to people who were fighting against them, the government didn't treat them any better than the Japanese did their forefathers. Both of those governments wanted to stay in power, so they were going to brutally put down anyone who was even a potential threat to that. There are interesting artefacts on these two floors, but there's one room that stands out in particular. In its own way, it was as powerful as the basement, but in a different manner. This wasn't brutal, but incredibly sad and sobering. It was the room that did give faces to the people who were brought to this place. It's a big empty room, and when you first go in, looks like it has some weird kind of wallpaper on all the walls. When you get in further, you realize its not wallpaper at all. It's thousands of little pictures, pieces of some sort of identification card. It took me a moment, but when I realized just what I was looking at, all I could think was 'oh'. These cards were the ones that the prisoners were forced to carry. I was looking at the faces of the people who were forced into this prison. Some were old, black and white pictures from the earlier days, and others in full colour. There were pictures of men and women, people young and old. The pictures were all different, but there was something similar in them all- the look on their faces. There was determination there, and maybe some fear. These were people who knew what was coming, what was going to happen here, and faced the camera with that knowledge in mind. They were people who understood just how terrible their situation was, and their faces reflected it. This room forced you to know that these people were very, very real. You can't dismiss their history when you're looking in their eyes, even if it's only a picture. You can't ignore what happened there when you see who it happened to. A picture is worth a thousand words, after all. I don't know the names of those people, or what happened to them in the end. I don't know if they lived or were able to walk out of that place alive. Yet I know they all had a story, and the sheer magnitude of these pictures drove that home. This was, without a doubt, the most powerful place in the whole museum.

The exhibit hall in the old intelligence building isn't the only building open to the public. The central prison building, where the warden used to run the prison, is set up to show how the prison was run. For all that it was horrific, a lot of administrative effort went into running this place. It would have been a full time job, and the warden's office exhibit shows you a little slice of it. Also in the building are photographs that showed the every day life at the museum (lunch time, exercise time...the parts far more normal) and artefacts that the prisoners would have had/owned, such as outfits and work tools. The pictures are what stood out to me the most- they're usually filled with smiling, at least semi-happy looking people. Nothing in those pictures looks out of place, and one would see them out of context and think 'wow, that prison must not have been so bad'. These would have been the photos they showed outsiders whenever it came up, one that was used to brush away any potential questions or concerns. It's propaganda at its finest. Knowing that, and wondering just what you'd have to do to make the people you're trying to break, pretend like that, makes it that much more insidious. Another building is where another staple of prison life happened- exploiting the free workforce by making them do labour for whoever was in charge. The Engineering Work Building was where textiles and clothes were made by the inmate labour force (and it goes without saying they were heavily exploited). They made everything from military supplies (which was just one more slap in the face to the people sent there because they were protesting the military in charge) to textiles to be used at the prison itself. Remeber those bricks I loved so much? They were also made here. Not only to be used for the prison, but all over the province. So again, slave labour to build the prison you've been sent to. There's so much terrible irony in that that it's up there with the term 'mind blowing'.

Then of course, there are where the prisoners actually live. There were three residence buildings, two for men and one for women. The buildings for the men are the biggest and clearly meant to hold more people. They are two story, long buildings. When you go inside, it's a long hallway with doors on either side. The walls are solid white concrete, with the only colour being the green metal cell doors. The only breaks in the walls are a small window at the top of the door and a small mail-slot like opening, where a guard could open the metal flap and look in on the prisoner inside. There's a small wooden knob beside the door, called a pae tong. It's a piece of wood that can be pushed out from the inside of the cell. If a prisoner was having an emergency, they could let the stick fall out to let the guards know. Maybe it's just me, but it seems like a pretty flawed system- emergencies can mean being unable to move, let alone have the coordination to get to that exact place and push on the little area. That's also assuming the guards would answer the help signal, because after seeing the rest of this prison, I highly doubt it would happen that way. The ceiling is made of wood beams with pretty big gaps in them. They look almost half put together, like whoever built the place got started and then said 'good enough' about half way through. The roof is still complete, of course, but it's really obvious there's no insulation in that place. There was probably very little to keep the cold from seeping in, and it gets really cold in Korea. The cells themselves were tiny and bare, and really depressing because of it. There was nothing there to make the cells more human, to give them life, and that's terrible. It's another form of psychological warfare, a way to dehumanize prisoners further. Colour and decoration may seem like the most trivial thing ever, especially on top of everything else, but it's something for a person to focus on, to cling to in order to keep a bit of sanity. The prisoners -of either the Japanese or the military dictatorship- weren't even given that little bit of a distraction.

The women's barracks were much of the same thing, albeit on a smaller scale. There were less female prisoners, though that doesn't mean they were treated any less harshly. They've turned the women's prison building into another exhibit hall, this time focusing exclusively on how women contributed to both the independence and pro-democracy movement. Whenever and wherever there has been a call to revolution, a fight for freedom, or a war to fight, women have always been there along with men. They fought, they protested, they planned, they spied. Women have always fought in one way or another, and yet they're the ones who tend to either be forgotten or have their contributions completely dismissed. History tends to (wilfully at times, in my opinion) just acknowledge them, which is why I was really impressed that the museum gave information on them in quite a great amount of detail. They outlined the way these women helped and what they did, as well as focused on the mail players in both of the movements. It wasn't a brief footnote, but a really good look at that section of history.

After the cell blocks, there's really only one major building left (though I'd like to take a moment to state that there is a small building built on top of a small hill made of stones right beside a guard tower. That was for patients with leprosy. That's right- leprosy was a problem on top of everything else). That building, depending on your philosophy, might be the worst building of all. It's not brick like the others, and quite small as well. It's made of wood boards and about the size of a garage. It actually really looks like one too. It's in the far corner of the grounds, something that you probably wouldn't even think about while you let your eyes glance over it. As always, there's a reason why. It wasn't designed that way as an afterthought or some other reason like they ran out of bricks. This building was designed to look boring and unimportant, because they didn't want anyone to look too closely at it. They wanted it to stay inconspicuous, because this is the building where they took their prisoners to be executed. This small wooden shed is where people were brought to die, and that is why it might just be the most terrifying building in the whole complex (again, it depends on each person- which is worse? Torture or death?). You can't go in (thank God), but you can look through the windows to see inside. It's nothing special- just a small room with concrete floors, the middle lower than the rest. There's enough room for a person and their killer(s) to go in. It doesn't say how these executions were carried out, which kind of made it worse. You can't help but imagine it, when your brain jumps to conjuring images before you can stop it. When you don't know, it goes through a slideshow of possibilities, where you see people die in all different ways. You imagine people knowing what's going to happen, maybe crying or forcing themselves to be stoic. You picture people praying and maybe pleading as they were led into that room, and then you picture them dying many different ways. To the side of the building, there's a tunnel. It's manmade, built into and out of the stone wall. There's two large metal doors, and it's not really all that big. Maybe two-three people could fit in there are once. Again, a fairly boring looking thing holds a dark history.

As it turns out, executing too many people was always frowned upon, especially when it gave the prison (and thus the governments in charge of it) a bad name. You'd think that would just stop them from killing people, but that clearly wouldn't work (tone can be hard in writing, so I am stating outright that this is said sarcastically). Instead of just not killing people, they had to hide it when they did. That's why they had this tunnel- they'd execute people in them middle of the night, and then sneak the bodies out through the tunnel. No one would see them doing it, so they could deny it completely. It was a way to lie, plain and simple, and to get away with doing terrible things. I can say in all honestly that it haunted me for the rest of the day, these images. This whole place haunted me, and that's something a place is rarely able to do.

While that's the end of the museum, it's not technically the end of the. While it's not actually part of the museum, it's basically considered an extension to it. The museum shows all the terrible that happened, and the next place honours the people all that terrible happened to. About five minutes away from the museum is Independence Park. Independence Park is dedicated specially those who died fighting for independence from Japan. There's Independence Hall, a traditional hanok building that houses the ancestral tablets of patriots who died protesting the Japanese government. There's a statue of Songjae Shur Jae-Phil, an activist who wrote a pro-Korean independence newspaper and is considered one of the greatest leaders of the March 1st Movement.

There's another statue on top of a of men and women in hanboks hoisting up the Korean flag, and that is dedicated to all the martyrs who died in the fight. Then there's Dongnimmun, or Indepedence, Gate. I'd actually say that this rather small, stone gate, in the centre piece for the park, and it's rather funny, because it's not directly related to the Independence Movement from Japan at all. The gate was actually built after the first Sino-Japanese war (China vs. Japan from 1894-1895, fighting over who got to control Korea) in order to assert Korean independence and a break from the old official declaration as Korea as China's tributary state. Many years later, the symbolism remained when the Koreans needed to assert that independence once again. It's really interesting to see, because this gate in no way looks Korean. In fact, it looks really European, like something you'd see in a place like Italy. I was off in my idea of Italy, but it was built to look European. The builder was inspired by the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, France, and I really do see the resemblance there. I admit I find it odd that a symbol for Korean independence would be based off a landmark from a completely different country, but it definitely makes it stand out. It's really small, just like the park around it. Seriously, it's not even really big enough for a nice stroll. That said, I'd still go see it, especially after going through the prison. The prison is despair, is the lowest that the independence/democracy movements could reach. It was the disastrous consequences of the fight, and it almost seemed hopeless, even when you already know the outcome.

Yet not to far away, there's a place that is all about the success. Yes, it's dedicated to the ones who fell while fighting, but it's dedicated to them because they won. After all the pain and suffering, independence and democracy was achieved, so they were able to create a place to honour them.

And this brings me back to the beginning. In the end, this museum was made to honour the past, to make sure remember all that happened there, good and bad. That's what history is- it's a story. It shouldn't be used to foster or destroy national pride- it should just be. History is full of good and bad from everyside, and you shouldn't try and brush that under the rug. You can't just try and cover up the brutal things that have happened, even when it's your own people/country/other that's done them. You can -have to- teach history, good and bad. You look at the terrible things and make sure your students know that this should never happen again, and you look at the good things and say 'yes, aim for that'. Historical revisionism is a horrible tool, and I hate it. I hate that they (in this case, the people pushing these new universal textbooks in Korea) would feel the desire to downplay the horrific things that happened to people who were either fighting for independence or democracy. These people suffered and died to create the Korea there is today, and it makes me so angry. It's not even a Korea thing either- I feel the same rage whenever I see it anywhere, including Canada. It's not okay. I've always believed that, but after going to the prison museum? After seeing exactly who these people are that they are trying to vilify? It's something that makes me want to scream. That's why I think everyone needs to see this museum (or the million others like it across the room). Taking someone out of history, or making them a villain to make the current government look better, is wrong, and it's places like this that will make it obvious to you in stark reality. We need these places, and if you're in Seoul, I really think you need to see this one in particular.
Say you were traveling to Korea for a short period of time, and could have only day in Seoul. You think to yourself 'Hey, I wonder what things are a must see?', and decide to ask me. You wonder which of the five palaces you should see, because who doesn't love palaces? If this were the case (and feel free to ask if you're ever in this part of the world), I would, without hesitation, point you towards Gyeongbokgung Palace. The others (including the two I've previously mentioned) are all interesting and have something unique to offer, but Gyeongbokgung Palace is the crown jewel of Seoul (possibly Korean) palaces.

Gyeongbokgung Palace was built in 1395, only three years after the founding of the Joseon Dynasty. It became the main palace and centre of the royal family, and stayed that way (off and on) for the next five hundred years. Gyeongbokgung being a site of power made it a prime target during the Japanese invasion in the 1500s. It ended up burned down, though both sides dispute who did it (Koreans say the Japanese burned it down, the Japanese say it was the Koreans who burned it down so it couldn't be taken by the Japanese). It stayed as basically a burned out ruin for nearly 300 years, and other palaces were built to fill in for it. The palace was finally rebuilt in 1867, and it was made bigger and better than ever (only to be demolished during the Japanese occupation starting in 1910 until the end of WW2, and rebuilt again a very long time later).

One thing I didn't expect was how huge Gyeongbokgung was. When I say it's massive, I mean that it is very, very massive. In fact, I stayed there for at least half a day, and yet I didn't even get to explore everywhere. The size alone makes it an awesome palace to visit, because you know you're going to get the most bang for your buck (though entrance was only like 5, 000 won (5ish dollars) when I went). There is so much to see at this palace, and an amazing story to go along with almost every part of it, especially when you begin to look at the fall of the Joseon Dynasty and the beginning of the Japanese occupation of Korea.

The main entrance to Gyeongbokgung Palace comes in the form of Gwanghwamun Gate. Just outside the gate, you'll find yourself facing the Haetae. It's a statue of a creature from Korean mythology, a lion covered in scales and with a horn on its head, and it was built during the Joseon Dynasty because the creature was said to protect it from harm (specifically fire). It's a strange looking animal, and it's one of those myths that make me raise my eyebrows and go 'Huh? Where did this come from?', but it's very interesting. So interesting, in fact, that Seoul has been using it as their tourism symbol/mascot for years.

Once you enter into the palace proper, you come to the main area, Geunjeongjeon. This is where the king took care of the more pompous matters of state, such as coronations and receiving foreign dignitaries. Now, every Korean palaces has an area like this. Gyeongbokgung however, takes it and doubles it. Not only in the size of the building, but the size of the courtyard itself. The main building (throne room) looks like it's two stories, which is different from the norm. Appearances can be deceiving, as this building proves when you get close enough to get a glance inside. It's actually just one story, but it has a massively high ceiling, decorated in every primary colour you can think off. The ornate is so obvious that you can almost taste the riches and care that went into building this throne room, because it was made to impress. Unlike the building, the stone courtyard is exactly as large as it appears at first glance. The stones are uneven and cut roughly, and it makes it more than a bit irritating to walk on. It's not because of poor craftsmanship or cost cutting, but to reduce glare...and to make sure, if you're going to be planning any sort of attack, it's going to be a challenge. It's the reason why there are no trees as well, in any palace courtyard- no where for an assassin to hide. The only thing on the stone ground is a few iron rings attached to the stone, and I'll admit that I was completely confused about what they were even doing there. I guessed that they were left over from some sort of construction...and I was wrong. Turns out, they're there to anchor tents in case it was too sunny or rainy, because forbid the idea of the king not looking perfect. Geunjeongjeon is impressive for its side, make no mistake, and it's even better lit up. Now, normally the palace closes pretty early in the evening, but a few times a year, they open up for a few hours at night, and the main buildings are lit up. It looks amazing, and the lights do make it seem like it's something important.

While Gyeongbokgung was home to many a king, the most famous one has got to be King Sejong the Great, who I've talked about before. He's the king who brought Korea Hangul, allowing the country to use writing other than the complicated Chinese symbols. Korea's famous sundial and water clock were also invented during his reign. He employed Jang Yeong-sil, a genius who invented the sundial in 1434, and it's not just any old sundial. It didn't just tell the time of day, but the 24 subdivisions of the seasons, and built in the shape of a hemisphere, and had water mechanics that made it strike a clock to show the time. It was an awesome invention, which showed that Korea not only understood the celestial heavens, but was able to harness them as well. King Sejong, in particular, saw the importance of it. In another part of the palace, he had Heumgyeonggak built, a place for astrological study and observation. It was a place to study the stars, something Korea had been doing long before the Joseon Dynasty.

Every palace needed a place or two to rule, obviously. It wasn't the only thing a palace was for, of course. The royal family needed a place to live, and like all other palaces, those places were divided into quarters. The queen's quarter, Gyotaejeon, was where she ruled her household, much like the king ruled his country (I don't even want to know how much work and effort would go into running a palace). The most interesting part of the queen's quarters was the terraced garden, called Amisan. The flowers were beautiful of course, as was the ground, covered in bright green. It was a lovely place, and I can see the queen and her ladies spending their days there, when they could, relaxing. It's a place I certainly wouldn't mind relaxing in. There's also something extra special to the garden, a design I haven't seen at any other palaces. Strangely enough, these interesting features are chimneys needed to have ondol (in floor heating) heating system. They're solid brick work, mostly shaded red, but with light brown bricks inserted in places to make a design. They're wonderful, and it's obviously that someone sat down and thought 'well, they have to be there, so how can I make them pretty for the ladies?', and then just that. I salute them.

Another interesting living area is Jagyeongjeon, the area built for Queen Dowager Jo. Once upon a time, I wrote an entry on Deoksungung Palace and the last independant Korean king, King Gojong. Queen Dowager Jo was instrumental in bringing him to the throne. In thanks, the dowager queen's quarters was rebuilt, and made into the most elegant and comfortable section of the palace. She's more than just bringing her son to the throne, because her son (King Heonjong) became king when he was eight, and she kept her hand in the throne while he ruled. When her son died with no son, and then his successor died without a son, she was the driving force behind putting King Gojong on the throne at age twelve. Twelve year olds can't rule on their own of course, so of course she stuck around for the next ten years and controlled state affairs from behind the scenes. Like many a royal mother before her, she was the ruler without the crown, and I tip my hat.

That isn't the end of King Gojong, however, which I've remarked before. I've talked about his move to Deoksungung and the way he was torn between his father's desire to remain away from outside influence and his wife, Queen Myeongseong, pushing for modernization and ties with the West. As Deoksungung Palace proves, Gojong was leaning more towards modernization, and to do this, he felt he had to break away from his father's influence. To do this, he built a palace within the palace, at the rear of the property. That palace is Geoncheonggung (fun fact- 'gung' at the end of a world, such as Gyeongbokgung, translates to 'palace'. That means that the name of this area is Geoncheong Palace, inside Gyeongbok Palace). This was the place where King Gojong and his wife lived, and it's both grand and beautiful. The highlight of the area is the pond called Hyangwinji, which was my favourite part of Gyeongbokgung. It's a large pond, filled with lily pads and lotus flowers, with brightly coloured gold and white coy fish skimming the surface of the water and searching for food. There's an island in the middle of the pond, with only a small bridge leading up to it. On that small island is one of the most beautiful pagodas I've seen in Korea. It's not all that high, really, but still manages to look like it has an upper and lower part, and it's shaped like a cone, until you reach the top. The roof flares out more than usual, coming to sharp arch points. The colours, while the same as all other formal buildings, seemed to be a lighter shade, because it just seemed...softer, for a better word. This pavilion was created to seem both intimate and feminine, and the builders succeeded with it. This place was beautiful, and I'm seriously considering adding a full scale replica if I ever get rich enough to buy and built up my own massive bit of property someday.

Geoncheonggung wasn't just a lovely place, but a place where history was made as well, for good and bad reasons. King Gojong wanted to modernize Korea, and he took one of those steps here. The first power plant was built here, powered by water from the pond. It created power to light the palace up at night. It made Korea the first East Asian country to use electricity. For better or for worse, Western modernity had come to Korea.

Geoncheonggung wasn't all beauty or invention, and it was the scene of one of the most famous assassinations in Korean history, one that's still talked about today. To set the scene: October 8th, 1895. Japan has just won the Sino-Japanese War, and that has Korea justifiably on end. Japan begins to flex its muscles, doing its best to interfere with Joseon affairs. Seeing the danger, Queen Myeongseong began to court the Western powers for help. She turned to Russia, hoping to form an alliance that could provide a buffer between Japan and Korea. The Japanese were not going to let this happen, and assassins stole into the palace late at night. They stabbed three women present in the area, and when they realized which woman truly was the Queen, they took her body to the hill and burned the remains. This didn't only lead to horror and outrage amongst Koreans, but other foreign powers as well. Anti-Japanese sentiment skyrocketed, especially when the killers were acquitted of the murder because of a lack of evidence. Not long afterwards, King Gojong and the crown prince were forced to flee the palace, being smuggled out and handed over to the Russians Queen Myeongseong had hoped to convince to help. In the end, his efforts were as fruitless as hers had been, though his outcome didn't end in assassination. On February 11, 1896, King Gojong became the last Joseon king to ever stay in Gyeongbokgung. History, dark and cruel and violent, happened in these halls. A queen killed in the dark for trying to protect her country, and a king forced to flee and take refuge with uncertain allies. It was the beginning of the end, and only fourteen years later, Korea would fall to the Japanese until 1945. Those years were not kind to Korea, and the Korean people suffered under it.

Since leaving you on that depressing note would be quite unfair to you, I've saved one final piece of Gyeongbokgung for last. Along with the pond, this is considered the other highlight. It is Gyeonghoeru Pavilion, a massive two story building located in another pond. This one was used for functions, be it formal banquets on the bottom floor (open with only pillars acting as pseudo walls) or looking out at the lovely view from the second floor. Like the main throne room, it's also elegant and lovely when lit up at night. Like the queen's garden, this is a wonderful place to relax and look out and see not only the whole of the palace, but the mountains behind it as well. I actually think of this area as what symbolizes the palace as a whole- functional, but easily used for its beauty and relaxing nature as well. There's also a story or two to go with it, and because I will always first and foremost be a historian at heart, here's a romance and a tragedy to end your tour of Gyeongbokgung. Once upon a time, King Jungjong took the throne from his half brother, and had to divorce his wife because she was of the same family. He loved her however, truly, and would go to the top of this pavilion and gaze out at her home. She loved him as well, and when she heard how the King suffered, she put a pink skirt she had worn as his wife outside her home, in a place that would get his attention. Knowing that she was there and missed him, the sight of the skirt helped his broken heart. That was the romance, now the tragedy. King Sejo deposed his nephew and took the throne. With nothing else to do, here is where the nephew handed over the royal seal. Loyal followers tried to reinstate the nephew, but it failed, and King Sejo wasn't going to let that stand. He brought those ministers, now called 'The Six Martyred Ministers', here, and slaughtered them all. The soft and the hard: two histories found throughout the world, even in Korea.
Last month, I gave you all a pretty extensive review of Gyeongbokgung Palace, and one of the things I mentioned was that it took a very, very long time to take a tour of the place. I said straight up that it felt impossible to do it all in one afternoon, and I completely hold to that. There was, however, another reason that I found it hard to see the whole palace. That reason was that Gyeongbokgung isn't the only thing to see near the palace, and I had to take some time to see (rush through) them as well. One of those things is a quick look from across the street, and the other two are museums. It's a LOT to do in one day, but it is possible to see the palace, the house, and the two museums in one day...just be prepared to be exhausted by the time you're heading home.

The first of these three things is actually incredibly quick to see. If you go through the north gate of the palace, you'll come to a highly guarded road. Those people are guarding the building across the street, known as Cheongwdae or The Blue House. That house -named for the blue tiles that made up the roof of the white building- is Korea's White House. It's the president's residence. Much like the White House, it is possible to get tours of the Blue House, particularly the beautifully designed gardens. That said, I only managed to see it from a distance when I visited the palace. It's an interesting sight, even if I could only see the roof and a bit of the building below it. It's certainly one of those things you should see if you're already there, especially if you're into politics. Even more than that, I find it such a beautiful bit of symmetry. Side by side lay two different faces of the Korean government. Gyeongbokgung, a symbol of Korea's past where the rulers of the powerful Joseon Dynasty ruled. Just behind it, a building where the leader of a renewed Korea, which rose of them ashes of the devastation of the Korean War, leads. But it's not only those two - before the democratic government moved its elected presidents there, the Blue House was the seat of power first for the Japanese Governor General during the Japanese Occupation, and then for the U.S military led government that came right after WWII. To me, the two of them together represent an interesting juxtaposition regarding Korean history.

Now, onto the museums. The first, and the most memorable, is the National Folk Museum of Korea. The folk museum focuses on traditional Korean culture, using both indoor and outdoor exhibits. Part of it even starts with the building itself. The building is designed to bring together different elements of famous and important temples in Korea. The steps up resemble those of Bulguksa Temple (which I will tell you about one day, I promise!), and they're huge and imposing white stone. It just goes up, and up, and up. The top of the building looks like it's trying to be a massive pagoda, painted in the bright temple colours I've come to love. This is a blown up centre piece from Bubjusa Temple. Either side of the main building reflects two other temples, Geumsansa and Hwaumsa Temple. It's such an interesting (and award winning) way to create a museum dedicated to the traditions of Korea. Buddhism has played a huge role in the development of Korea, and this building is an ode to it in all their forms.

The outside exhibits are a lot of fun because of the way it's set up. Every little section is designed to be a piece of Korea's past, like it was plucked out of time and plunked right down there. There's a replica of a traditional villages, each little section one part of Korea. There's the old traditional buildings, the hanoks I've written about before. In fact, one them is an original house built in 1848 and then moved to the museum in the 1900s. They took the original building and recreated a traditional living area around it. There's recreated shops set up, from food to tailors. It's meant to represent a port city in the 1970s and 80s. That part in particular in interesting, since it's not something you see as much. The focus is generally on creating the distant past, like you see with folk and hanok villages. You don't really see the Korea that's exploding after the Korean War, growing at an astounding rate. In a way, it's even more interesting, because the fact that Korea was able to rise from the devastation at such a rapid rate, is nothing short of mind blowing. They call it the Miracle of the Han River for a reason.

The inside of the museum also brings Korean history to life, but does it by showing artifacts. The history of Korea, from prehistoric to modern times, is the first exhibit room you come to when you enter the museum. I've always loved when museums have an extensive, detailed timeline that plainly lays out the history. While timelines are far from as interesting as artifacts, I've always thought them essential for giving the viewer a baseline of what they're seeing. The timeline begins in the Palaeolithic Age, when fragments of the original Korean people begin to show up in greater numbers. Like in so many places, most of the artifacts have been lost in time, leaving only weapon heads and broken pottery behind (most of which date back to the Bronze Age, which came after). The museum has them in spades, and say what you will about the quality, these are items that have lasted for thousands of years. Some of these simple arrow heads date back to 4, 000 BCE, and that's nothing to scoff at. As we walk through the ages, we come to what many people would consider 'history' (opposed to pre-history). It goes through the main historical periods in Korea, defined by the ruling dynasties of the time. Artifacts -books, art work, pottery, weapons, dress- from the first dynasty of Korea (Gojoseon), through the period of Japanese colonization, until the more modern day, are all on display here. It's not only about the ruling classes either. There's a great focus on the lives of ordinary Koreans as well, which is also something that's refreshing to see. Most of history focuses on those in charge, who did the great or horrible deeds. We sometimes forget that history is about the normal people too, and they all have a story to add. The fact that the museum embraced this was one of the highlights.

Room two and three are both highly related, though they focus on different parts of one whole. It's almost like an indoor version of outside, focusing of village life and the life of those villagers, from birth to death. The first room talks about the life in a normal village. It goes through how a village functioned. There is a season for everything, after all, especially when these villages would mostly revolve around agriculture. The practises of agriculture are the same around the world, with the planting in spring and harvesting in fall, where summer is about growing, and winter about preserving (or making kimchi - a staple of the Korean diet, made of fermented cabbage and red bean paste- in Korea). A lot of these ideas are set up in some way, with a scene playing them out in 3D glory. It's an excellent look into day-to-day life, which leads into the last room. That is about the life of the people themselves. It lays out the major events in a Korean's life. Like in any culture, there are significant events in a person's life, and celebrations to go with them, and Korea is no different. It begins with birth, of course, which is also a Korean's first birthday. In a Confucian influenced society, there was so much importance in education (for boys), and the levels of achievement when it came to that were huge. There were ceremonies for coming of age, marriage, becoming a civil or military official (the jobs basically all Korean families wanted their sons to aspire to and achieve), reaching sixty years old, death, and then performing ancestral rights. Much like the second room, there are displays set up to give you an idea of what these things looked like, and amazingly detailed dioramas as well.

I spent a great deal of time at the National Folk Museum, because it was absolutely fascinating. I loved everything about it, from the display set up to the artifacts themselves. I don't regret spending a minute there, but that did mean I had less time at the second museum on the premises. In order to see it, I really had to rush through the National Palace Museum, and that was a shame.

The National Palace Museum covers exactly what you'd expect from the name. The area of expertise, while covering the general history of Korea, mostly focuses on the history, impact, and existence of the five palaces, Gyeongbokgung in particular. Sadly, it's not as stunningly designed as the National Folk Museum, but the ordinary (if large) exterior doesn't mean the contents aren't just as interesting. There are ten galleries in this museum, though I only got to really see the first four-five, before having to rush through the others in order to see anything before closing time. The first gallery kicks off with the kings of the Joseon dynasty, which obviously makes sense, since the five palaces of Seoul were used by that ruling dynasty. There are artifacts from many of those kings, but the focal point of the room has to be the replica of the kings' throne. It's wide, though not all that tall, and bright red with golden dragons designed on it. It completely screams 'I am the ruler, bow before me!', and a part of me really wished that I could climb on up and see what it felt like to rule. The second gallery is interesting, though the effect is a little less. It focuses on the palaces as a whole, and after you've seen the palaces themselves and learned the history there, it loses it's bang for the buck. That said, there were still some pretty interesting odds and ends located in the building, especially the map deigns on traditional Korean paper and the pieces of design work that had been removed and restored over the years (keep an eye out for any ceiling decorations, because they are some of the most beautifully designed, colourful works of art I've ever seen). The third room is about royal court life, and there's a good deal of individual stories told here. While I might not know who all of them all, hearing about individual royals doing things, made it seem more real. It's not a general idea, but a story. A story always grounds a concept, and that's a good thing when it comes to old fashioned court rules that very few today would even know about.

That brings us to another floor, which I found the most interesting, for a number of reasons. Everyone knows I'm a words kind of girl. Manuscripts, poetry, logs, and even lists, are all things that I adore. I love the written word, and being in a room full of it, regardless if I can read any of it, is an experience of euphoria for me. Gallery four was all about state and ancestral rights, and there were some beautiful scores, books and screens that described, in detail, how to do these rights. It was all in either Chinese or Korean, which means that I couldn't read a word of it, no matter how much I wished to get my hands on it to read and analyze. Knowing the wealth of knowledge and information in those words was right there, but I was unable to access it, was a sad, sad fact. That said, it was an amazing sight, all of it around me. If you're more of a big, physical type of artifact person, the next gallery is for you. It's a bit of a jarring change, but there, all of the sudden, in the middle of the room, is a car straight out of 1940. I'm not much of a car person, but even I know how cool that was. It's something out of a period piece, and you can just picture it driving down the old Korean unpaved roads, open aired and making a lot of noise. It's in the museum because it belonged to the Consort Empress Sunjeong, and it's the oldest surviving car in Korea. On top of that, it's one of the three of this model left in the world. Any auto lovers will enjoy seeing it, if only because it's in wonderful condition and so different than the rest of what you'll see in the museum.
If there's one thing that Korea has always been good at, it's astrology. Korea had an amazing understanding of the heavens, and it's best seen in the science they came up with to study it. Astrological study and the Korean science behind it are the next room. The kings had to study the heavens to make sure they were ruling the way they should be, so it's not surprise that the Joseon kings spent a great deal of time continuing to develop it. It's the celestial charts, both on paper and carved on huge stones, that are the main part of the room. There's one constellation chart, carved into a huge, rectangle black stone, that draws the eye. It always blows my mind, seeing the science people in the past had at their fingertips, even though I know it shouldn't surprise me. The past doesn't mean a lack of science, though the degree of understanding the night sky that Korea showed, is still pretty amazing. The focus on astrology isn't the only science that Korea looked into. In the last room of the museum, there is a look at the other inventions that Korea came up with during the Joseon Dynasty. One of the most famous examples was Jagyeokru, a self-striking water clock. This clock was a big deal, because it let the government and royal court keep time accurately. It was invented under the rule of King Sejong, and it became the national standard time in 1434. The museum has a full scale model of the clock itself, and it looks so simple. It doesn't look as complicated and advanced as it really is. The technology behind it was brilliant, to say the least. It's certainly an example of appearances being deceiving.

The other three rooms revolve around the royal court: the first is the art of the court, the second is the music of the court, and the third is the processions of the court. I've mentioned Korean art again and again, and every time I've gushed about how beautiful it is. It should be of no surprise whatsoever that I would gush even more if I had the space in this review. I will say to pay close attention to the massive screens, because their colours alone make them worthy of a few gasps. Joseon music was all about harmony, so many of the instruments you see on display are ones that were made to accomplish it. My favourite was what I have dubbed an old fashioned xylophone. That's actually a huge simplification, because it's actually sixteen bells hung on a wooden frame, two roles of eight with one on top of the other. The bronze bells were different sizes and thickness, which meant that they made different sounds when struck...just like a modern xylophone. Finally, the royal procession. Full of pomp and circumstance, made to be flashy and show off the wealth and power of the ruler and their family. This was meant to be a grand affair, so it'll surprise no one that the palanquins of the kings were huge, flashy, and possibly a little gaudy in their extravagance. There are two full sized palanquins, one for the king and one for the crown prince. While they're both bright red, with decorations, there's an interesting difference. While the prince's is enclosed, with only small windows letting him see the outside world, the king's was completely open, leaving him exposed to anyone who happened to be there. Given the attempts to assassinate kings through the years, you'd think that it'd be the other way around.

That brings us to the end of our whirlwind tour of the areas around Gyeongbokgung Palace. All three should be seen with the palace, because each of them adds a little bit extra to the history you experience at the palace. Remember- context is always important.
By this point in time, I feel you've probably realized I go to a lot of festivals. Historical festivals, cultural festivals, nature festivals, and party festivals...I hit them all. Occasionally, there's one I come across that makes me stop and say 'Wait, what?'. I like to think of them as the 'huh?' festivals., or the ones that sound so random that I'm left wondering who even came up with that idea (Mudfest, previously written about, is one of those examples). Another of these examples is the Jindo Miracle Sea Road/Sea Parting Festival. I'll admit that when I hear the words 'sea parting' my Western mind automatically goes in a Biblical direction. That's where the 'What?' came in, because the South-West coast of South Korea is not the first place that I think of the Bible's version of a sea parting. So of course I needed to do a little research, get my tail down there, and see what was up for myself.

As it turns out, it's not about that version of parting seas at all (though, hilariously, there was a man dressed up as Moses wandering around)- not that I actually thought it was. This festival celebrates a very different occasion. It's a much more simple yet heart warming story, to be honest. Once upon a time, in Hoedong Village, a tiger was stalking about, so the people of the village decided to move to the island (Modo) just across the water. They left Grandmother Ppong behind (and just never took a boat back to get her, apparently? Folk tales never really make much sense, do they?). Surprising no one, Grandmother missed her family, so she prayed to the spirit of the Dragon King to help her out. The Dragon King, sea spirit that he was, felt sorry for her and promised to make a bridge to the island. The bridge appeared, and the people on the other side noticed it as well, and finally started to come back for Grandmother (and with a flourish- drums, gongs, and all). When they got there, Grandmother was overjoyed at seeing her family again...and thus she died happily. To honour her, they changed the name of the village and moved back (apparently the tiger just went away at some point? It never gets mentioned again). Every year, when the same ;and bridge appears, the people on both celebrate with ceremonies. Thus the Sea Road Festival was born.

That's the folklore. Here's the science. Jindo is an island (third largest in the country) just off Korea's south-east corner in the Yellow/East China Sea. It's an area that has some pretty strong tides. Everyone from St. Martins knows exactly how extreme tides can change the landscape, and Jindo is another place in the world that proves this. A few times a year (but most obviously in the Spring, when the festival is), the perfect storm of tide harmonics comes together to part the sea for us. The extreme low tide, the rotation of the Earth, and phase of the moon all line up, and the road appears. The pathway that stretches between Jindo to Modo Island is actually a 2.5 Km, 40m wide sand dune (sadly not a magic bridge made by the Dragon King), and the name of the festival is actually a misnomer. It does, in fact, look like the sea just parted down the middle, revealing the path. The reality is far less magical- it's just the tide lowers enough that the dune, higher than the rest of the ground, stands out. It's not a straight line, but kind of snakes around a little bit, and it's exposed (to varying degrees) for roughly an hour a day for about five days in early Spring. Honestly, I prefer the magic version with the tiger, so I'm going to go with that one.

So there's the background, and here's the festival. As said, the festival is said supposed to celebrate the Dragon King's creating the bridge for Grandmother, so a lot of that storytelling and imagery is throughout the festival. The whole festival begins with a memorial ritual for Grandmother, as well as actors/singers/dancers acting out the whole story. The history behind the festival is everywhere, but it's not so much the main event. The main event (which happens at a different time every day, depending on the tide) is the torch parade. For me, it came at five in the morning. It was still pitch black when we stumbled out into the brisk morning, and there weren't even any stars in the overcast sky. We moved towards the sea front area, along with at least a thousand other people there for the same reason. We all found our way to the booth they had set up, handing out the torches. When I first heard 'torch', I really hoped that I would be getting one of those old fashioned things to carry around, but it was not to be. Instead, we got (oddly enough) those big tiki torches that you can find in a lot of gardens. They're actually a lot heavier to carry around than you'd think, and it was pretty cumbersome making sure to keep it high and upright (the line ends up packed, and you need to hold it steady enough so it's not knocking into the other torches or people holding them). While that was a bit disappointing, getting to told a lit torch was walking was still pretty cool, so I wouldn't call it a downside (and if you go, make sure you get there early, otherwise all the torches will be gone). Then, once the torch is lit, you go and wait in a very appropriate place. Right on the edge of the water area, there's a statue. It's not a big elaborate thing, just a block on stone with two figures standing on the top. One of those figures is a fierce looking tiger, looking in the midst of a prowl. It certainly looked dangerous, and I can fully understand why you'd be willing to pack up your village and flee if one was poking around. Beside the tiger, is a woman on her knees, praying. This is the grandmother, a pained look on her face, looking over the water. Her eye line is straight towards the island, and the sculptor did a very good job carving her sorrow into the stone. This is the place where the grandmother prayed and waited, so it's only fitting this is the place where the festival goers began their pseudo exodus.

Finally, after what felt like a very long time, the tide had finally gone down to its lowest, and it began. I can't claim that this was the most exciting thing I've done in Korea- literally, all it is holding a torch while walking in a line across some water with a massive group of other people. On paper, that doesn't sound all that appealing, and I can admit that easily. However, there is quite the atmosphere around it, and that made it worth it. It felt very journey like, the moment you step out into what should be a deep sea. The steps that come after it, when you know it should be getting deeper and deeper, are even more daunting. You know the ground is there to meet you, but in the darkness, you can barely see where you're walking, so the one thing is in the back of your mind- what happens if the ground isn't quite where it's supposed to be when my foot comes down? The torches were barely enough to see the dark water, for all that there were hundreds of them. There was just the flickering torch light above you and a slowly appearing speck of an island as the sun slowly began to rise. It was a long, long line, trudging through water that was calf deep but should have been far over my head (at certain times the water recedes completely and there is a fully walkable sand dune, but that's only at the very peak times. I wasn't able to go at those times because they were in the middle of the week, so my walk was when the water was low enough to walk through in rubber boots. That said, that actually added a bit of anxiety to the whole thing. I was pretty legitimately worried about my clumsy self tripping and getting a mouthful of salt water). We were all silent, and that was what also made this feel like some sort of journey. There was no chatter, no laughing back and fourth. It was probably just because it was so early, but the hush almost felt like a part of the experience. I stayed silent because it felt like the proper thing to do, and because it gave me time to let my imagination run wild. I thought about the story behind it all, and the author in me changed it around a bit because I could picture this alternate version so well as I went along. I imagined the people of that village, waiting until the tide was low enough, and then taking whatever they could carry as they fled the tiger that was terrorizing them. It would be slow going, much like we were hundreds of years later. They would be moving away from their home, towards this new place they'd seen from the shore. It would be too dark to look back, so they couldn't even peek back at the home (or grandmother) they were leaving. Again, this isn't the real story at all, but it was fun to imagine as I took the journey myself.

The one thing I really regret about the festival was that we didn't make it all the way across to the other island. I got pretty close, maybe a kilometre away from the shore, but we had to turn back. The sun was finally coming and you could finally make out more than a dark shadow of our destination, but with it came another thing anyone from St. Martins is completely familiar with- a tide change. It took us roughly forty minutes to get where we were, and already the tide was coming in on us. It wouldn't be long before we would, in fact, be very far underwater. It was certainly disappointing that I didn't get to make it the whole way, but I know far better than to dare the tidal change, so I turned back with just a shrug and a sigh. I then proceeded to trek another forty minutes back the way we came, in the exact same line, but the magic of it had gone out. Going back is never the same as starting a new journey, or so I've always believed. It took a little less time this time, and the water was most certainly higher (normal sized rubber boots would have failed you by then), and then it was back to the hotel for a few more hours of sleep. After I managed to pull myself out of bed (no easy task on a good day), I decided to go and explore the place I had set off from hours earlier. I went back to the statue of Grandmother and the tiger, and I was a little surprised. The stairs we had gone down to get to the water? They were nearly completely covered in water. A big difference in tides is no surprised to me, but what made me blink some was just how far away the island I had nearly walked to was. Logically, my mind knew that it would be a fair distance, given the forty minute plus walk. However, during the time I was walking, I didn't actually realize that I had traveled that much of a distance. So for awhile I just watched the island, once again letting my imagination run wild (though according to the actual story this time). It was a really grey day, almost like it was going to starting raining at any minute. The island was still basically a dark grey shape with a dash of green where some trees were, muted because the lack of clear light. Looking across, you could almost picture Grandmother standing beside you, looking across the water with a look of mourning on her face, desperately wishing to go to her family. It could almost be described as an eerie picture, if you were one to believe in legends.

While the Sea Road Festival is the main draw for Jindo, it's not the only thing it's famous for. The other isn't something that only happens once a year, but something that lives there all the time. It's something that goes straight to the heart...it's the Jindo dog. This is a dog breed native to Korea (the only breed that originally came from Korea, actually), and is actually a pretty big point of pride for not only Jindo (second most important thing, after all), but Korea as a whole. In 1938 the breed as a whole was made a national monument, and in 1967 the national government passed a law that protects them (this is big because there are not that many animal welfare laws in Korea, especially at that time). They're a breed of dog that was originally domesticated back in the stone age, and clearly evolved over time with their human counterparts. They're known for being loyal (again with the folk tales- there's a popular story of a Jindo dog who stuck with its owner, not matter the situation or odds. Given it's a story, you know they were pretty bad situations and odds), and thus why they developed so well alongside humans. They were also highly prized as animal partners because they were good at tracking and gave great protection. They're medium sized dogs, maybe up to just above my knees. They're usually yellow and white, and have the most open, sweet looking face I have ever seen on a dog. Most of all, they're adorable. Goodness are they cute. That innocent looking face? It made everyone in my group go 'awwwww'. The way they were totally willing to be petted and cooed over? I wanted one. Those were the adults. When we saw the puppies...well let's just say there was more than one person who did end up taking a puppy home with them. I, however, restrained myself. Barely. And I mean just barely.

For the festival, they arranged to have a dog show to show off the breed. Well, I wouldn't exactly call it a dog show, at least not like the fancy ones you see on TV. This was more of a group or owners/trainers and their dogs showing off the (pretty neat) tricks they've learned together. This was in a small stadium area outside and about twenty minutes away from the festival grounds (and this was before the night walk), and I'll admit I wasn't the most interested. Dog shows in any way, shape, or form, are not really my thing. Animal talent shows in general, honestly. Not to mention is was raining and kind of chilly, so my attention wasn't on the tricks so much as it was on thinking 'cute puppy!' at the non-tricking doing dogs closer to me. That said, I have to give the dogs their props- they did their tricks admirably. They were nothing too spectacular I think, mostly of the run and fetch thing variety, some shaking paws and the like. The most interesting thing they did was jump through some hoops, some of them pretty high (Up to my upper chest, maybe my chin? I was fairly far away). I can only think of a handful of times where the dogs didn't quite make the jump, so clearly they were well trained. The thing that I really think made me not completely down with the dog show was the part where they lit the outside of one of those rings on fire. That was pretty horrifying, even if I had seen all those dogs jump through it with no problem dozens of times only a minute before. I don't like fire and animals anywhere near each other, let alone for my entertainment. I wasn't the only one, because a good chunk of the crowd let their own sounds of disapproval show (there was no outright or loud comments, but you could still the general stance of 'this isn't cool' in the air), and that portion thankfully lasted for maybe a minute tops. Now, don't get me wrong- I'm not judging people and thinking 'you monsters!'. Animals are trained to do potentially dangerous things all the time, and I'm 100% sure the dogs' trainers wouldn't have done it if they didn't trust that their companion was ready for it. That said, it's something that personally bothered me (and I know others it would too), so I feel its worth a (judgement free) warning for those thinking of going to see it. If you're not comfortable with things like that, skip this show. It's not necessary for the festival, but more like an extra stop along the way to the area. I loved seeing the dogs and did find it fairly interesting, if too long, but if I had to choose between the festival or the dog show, the festival would win in a heartbeat. If you're going and have a limited amount of time, I'd certainly recommend the festival over the dogs by a large margin.

So in the end, I got a taste of what Jindo had to offer. I got to experience something that was a mix of legend and Biblical enough (thanks again Moses cosplayer!) to be a delicious combination that I found highly amusing and intriguing. I learned a really cool story and got to imagine my own version, on top of a feeling of starting out on some mysterious journey. It was an interesting experience, to say that least, and it was certainly one of the better choices for the topic of an investigation.
Oh Shakespeare…the nightmare of high school students everywhere. Reading Shakespeare creates abject fear in English classes everywhere. Not for me of course, since I’m a huge geek (and high school has long since ended), but that’s another story. It was Kaitlyn going on about ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ for her own English class that made me remember reading it back when I was in tenth grade.

‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ was the first Shakespeare play that I ever read, and it has remained my favourite. Unlike his more famous tragedies, ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ is one of his comedies. Even though the definition of a comedy was a bit different back in the Elizabethan era, this play is still downright hilarious.

‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ is a tale of love, most of all unrequited love. The way it unfolds? It’s pretty much a soap opera. Here’s the deal: Hermia and Lysander are in love, but father is forcing her to marry Demetrius, who doesn’t love her so much as think he’s entitled to her. Then there’s Helena, Hermia’s friend, who is in love with Demetrius, who doesn’t give her the time of day.

And that’s only the human side of things. Out in the forest is fairyland, where there is another set of love related problems. Oberon and Titania, king and queen of the fairies, are fighting. Oh, and Puck, the classic trickster figure, is running around with love spells and making people fall in love with each other. When Hermia and Lysander run away into the woods, followed by Demetrius and Helena, the two worlds collide and things get even crazier. There are love spells, a man being turned into a donkey, fairy mischief, a very bad play within a play, and so much more.

‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ is ridiculous and hilarious. Yes, it can be hard to read. It is written entirely in poetic, theatrical form. There are words and phrases in there that haven’t been used in a very long time, and thus can go right over a reader’s head. I highly suggest reading a version that has references in the margins- those really help.

This is Shakespeare at his best. ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ has his amazing writing, but unlike the work people tend to be more familiar with (‘Romeo and Juliet’ anyone?), it is light hearted, funny and best of all, comes with a nice happily ever after.
I know, I know. The “Harry Potter” series (both books and movies) ended awhile ago. It’s still popular of course, but it’s still a fan favourite. More importantly, it’s one of my favourites, and now that “Chamber of Secrets” had been released on Pottermore (if you don’t know what Pottermore is then I seriously must ask what rock you’ve been living under), it’s inspired me to inform you all why it’s one of my favourites.

Harry Potter is the Boy That Lived. Back when he was a baby, the evil Dark Lord Voldermort (He Who Shall Not Be Named) tried to kill him with a killing curse. Instead of killing him, the curse rebounded and took out Voldermort instead. That is where Harry Potter’s story begins. We come into that story when Harry, who had been living with his abusive aunt, uncle and cousin, gets accepted to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Then he spends the next seven years battling the same dark wizard and his various cronies with his two best friends, Ron and Hermione (plus even more friends and various allies). There’s betrayals, deaths, tears, adventures and magical beasts galore. It all ends with the wizarding battle to end all battles (along with a highly contested epilogue, but that’s another story).

Everything about “Harry Potter” is spectacular, and quite frankly I’m not doing it justice. Each book honestly does deserve an individual review instead of a broad overview of the entire series. This series quite literally has something for everyone- adventure, magic, angst and in the later books deep felt romance. It’s considered a children’s series, but it’s so much more that that. There are very deep themes and messages in these books, everything from love and friendship to experiencing and dealing with grief. The series takes a dark turn in book five (“Order of the Phoenix”), and begins to take on some real world gritty feel from then on. By “Order of the Phoenix” it’s far less children’s literature and far more grown up.

The character development from book one to seven is wonderful. The world Rowling created is even more so. It would have been easy to say ‘Hey! Magic exists!’, but Rowling created a wizarding world that had it’s own history, laws and pop culture…and then she makes sure that it will still fit into the ‘real’ world. That amount of imagination impresses the heck out of me.

I grew up heading “Harry Potter”. The first book came out just before I went into middle school, and I read it by borrowing it from a friend who has since passed. I read the last one the year I graduated from high school and only a few days after I got out of the hospital from my surgery. New books aren’t coming out anymore, but I cherish the ones I’ve read, and I think that you should too.
Vampires are popular. It is an irrefutable fact of life (at the moment anyway. Fads are subject to change after all). Vamps are popping up all over the place, mostly in books aimed at young adults (I’ve reviewed quite a few myself) or as part of the Supernatural Romance erotica. Finding a well written horror novel about vampires isn’t that easy anymore.

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova falls into a true horror novel. There’s also Dracula, which is just the cherry on top. The Historian is a novel that has three separate storylines, all connected in some manner, connected through old letters and storytelling, and it feeds into one overall, mysterious plot. The plot centres around historians trying to uncover the truth behind the tales of Vlad the Impaler, and if the Dracula myth is more than just a figment of Bram Stoker’s imagination. It beings with finding a book, and that books is what leads to all the questions and the mystery (and some mysterious deaths and disappearances on top of that). The main character, and she is following in her father’s (and his mentor’s) steps, searching for Dracula, and by extension, trying to find her missing mother (the dad is missing at this point as well).

What I like most about this book is that the characters use research methodology that an actual, real life historian would use. It comes across as legitimate field work and research (at least in the context of the story), and that lends a touch of realism to the story, which is given the fact it’s about vampires, is a feat in itself. What adds to that realism is the way that Kostova blends historical fact with her fiction. If anyone was going to able to convince me that Vlad Tepes was really Count Dracula, it would be here.

I will admit, the book was slow at first. I found that the first half drug on and could, at times, could be hard to read. But once I hit a certain point around the middle, everything picked up and kept going at full throttle. If you’re having a tough time getting into the book, just keep going- it’s totally worth it. This is the best Draculas I’ve seen since Stoker’s. Seriously.
If there's one thing Korea, and Seoul in particular, does well, it's themed cafes. They are EVERYWHERE in Seoul, from big ones to small ones, very themey or not. Some are simple, like the hundreds of dog and cat cafes in the most random places scattered throughout the city (and while I'm not writing about any of them, I HIGHLY recommend finding one if possible and going there when you're feeling sad. Cuddly puppies and kitties equals instant happy). There are board game (so much fun) and study cafes, for those who like some quiet pastimes or just a quiet places to read. Then there are the more out there ideas, like the Hello Kitty or Lego cafes (which I will get to at some point). The one I want to inform you all about is The Princess Diary Cafe. Fun fact- I love fairy tales and princesses, the whole shebang. So clearly, after being told it existed, I was so at a cafe where you could dress up like a princess. Yes, you heard me right- dress up like a princess.

So here's the deal with the Princess Diary Cafe- it's this cute place, stretching about half a floor. The decor looks like something out of a fairy tale. There was a little cottage in the middle, where you go and give your order (the cookie and cream ice chocolate drink was delicious. I highly recommend it, if you find yourself there). The colours are all in soft pastels, and there are cutesy decorations, such as stuffed animals, all over the place. There was a corner that looked like an old fashioned vanity, where you can sit and preen as you gaze at your reflection (which yeah, we did). There were floral patterns (though nothing too gaudy) and trees painted on the walls. It honestly reminded me of a doll house, and if I looked up the word 'quaint' in the dictionary, I'm pretty sure I'd find a picture of the interior of this cafe. It was exactly what I figured a cafe called Princess Diary would look like. That was the atmosphere, and it was perfect for what drew me there. Like I said, it's dress up. The cafe has at least close to sixty-seventy fancy wedding dresses or hanboks (traditional Korean outfits), all in different sizes and styles (and there are suits for any men who come along for the experience). What you do is rent one of the dresses (or suits) for an hour and then go to town taking pictures with all those adorable backgrounds. So yeah, it's a photo op kind of thing, but good lord was it a fun photo op (and I love photo ops). So me, looking through those dresses and trying to find the perfect fit for those pictures. I ended up picking a strapless dress with a long train with lacy flower designs stitched into the material. I even got to wear a tiara! I love to dress up in costumes period, and this time I got to do it as a princess! It was SO much fun. Not for everyone, of course, but if you're one of those kids who loved to play dress up with pretty dresses (or an adult who loves to do the same thing!), this is a place that you're going to love. Seriously, if you're in one particular area of Seoul, do yourself a favour and find your way there.

Now, switching some gears. Perhaps you noted above that I didn't just say Seoul, but instead mentioned a certain part of Seoul. I phrased it that way because it's that area that we're going to go over. That area, where the Princess Diary Cafe (and many, many other themed cafes) is located, is Hongdae. Hongdae is one of my favourite areas in Seoul, and that's more quite a few reasons. One of those reasons is the quirky places like themed cafes. Another reason is the spectacular shopping. You can find anything from cheap bargain shops to high end boutiques full of clothes I'll never be able to afford. This is also one of the more...alternative areas of the city, so not only can your shopping be of the clothes variety, but of the piercing and tattoo variety. The reason that the alternative scene can gather around the area is because Hongdae is part of a university area. Not just one university, but two universities are in the area, and this is the place where a lot of them spend their time, especially when the sun goes down. That is, hands down, why I love this place so much. It's not the shopping, or the interesting cafes, or the killer clubs (more on that in a bit), but the vibe. Walking around Hongdae is the best, and it most certainly feels like a university area. The people are friendly, even though it's insanely crowded (especially at night). There are buskers everywhere, up and down the streets, playing different types of instruments or singing. There are people doing shows, be it dance, magic, or one memorial time, balloon animals. It's also pretty crowd interactive. People watching are also pulled into the act, given centre stage for a few seconds (and yours truly got to dance for the crowd the first time I ever went to Hongdae). The performers, whatever they're doing, always play up to the crowd. It's fun and laid back, the perfect kind of place to just chill and hang out...during the day. Once night falls, chill and laid back are the last thing to expect. Because Hongdae? Hongdae is the place to party once the sun goes down.

In general, I'm not all that much of a go out and party person. I personally much prefer adventures or events more than bar hopping. However, there are some times that all I want to do is dance the night away. Hongdae is the perfect place for that, and is actually the only place I like to go out. Not only is the vibe still there, but there are clubs upon clubs that you can choose from. Dancing clubs, pub-like places, themed bars (because of course, themes are big, everything from hip hop to classic rock), the whole shebang. There's venues with live music and ones where the DJs rock it out. You don't even have to pay the cover to get into a club to party. There's also the Playground, a mix of a tiny park with playground equipment, where lots of people also gather to drink and hang out (you're allowed to drink outside on public property here in Korea, something many people take advantage of). If you're feeling hungry and need a break at sometime during the night, there are plenty of places that stay open all night (there are a couple of cheap pizza places Monster & Mafia Pizza respectively, and they are amazing. I highly recommend), and if it is your thing, alcohol is usually pretty cheap (baring foreign brands) and easy to get. The best part? the bars don't really close. There's no last call around 2am, but you can keep on going right until the subway opens back up at 5:30am. The crowds start to clear out, but the party keeps on happening. If you're in Seoul and you want to party, skip Itaewon or Gangnam (the other two big party areas) altogether and go for Hongdae. You will not be disappointed.

Here comes a pretty 180% turn from either cafes or party places. For our final miscellaneous part of Seoul in this review, we're going back to nature. No more city for us, but we're heading for the forest. Not just any forest, but Seoul Forest. In the same vein as Central Park in New York, Seoul Forest is marketed as a large space of green nature in the middle of a huge city. It is, don't get me wrong, but it's not as big or as foresty as a place like Central Park, but it still is as advertised- a bit of forest amongst the skyscrapers of central(ish) Seoul. The park is still pretty big though (I spent most of the day walking around, and still didn't get to the marshland area. Which was unfortunate, since the bridge to the bird observatory looked pretty cool. I love wetland birds, oddly enough), and there was more than enough forest to soothe any nature withdrawals you may be suffering from. It's also a pretty nice park, with lots of grass areas to picnic, a skate and sports park for the more active, some cool looking sculptures, and some beautiful (and run by community programs, which was nice) gardens. There's a walk along a pretty stream, where there's a small wishing area. Throw in a coin and get it into the bowl just under the surface? Make a wish. I had a few spare coins, but didn't get to make my wish. Hopefully you'll have better aim if you take your shot. However, as much as the park is wonderful, Seoul Forest is called 'forest' for a reason. The forest part is one corner section of the park. The trees are tall and thin (pine, I think? I wasn't completely sure), and all of them are really close together. Trying to make your way between them would be both a tight fit and potentially suffocating. There's one big path through the forest (paved) and some smaller ones (dirt), and you really can't go for a walk through the trees (which would have been spectacular, to be honest. It's been a long time since I've gotten to do that). There's enough space to lay down a blanket and take a rest just along the edges, and plenty of people did do that.

Part of the draw of the forest is the fact that they have deer that wander around (and any sort of wildlife, even tamed ones, are hard to come by in Seoul). There's one section that's called the deer park, and they do, in fact, have deer there. They weren't, however, wandering while I was there. Most of that section of the park was closed off when I went there, and the only deer I caught sight of were in normal zooish enclosures. I have to admit that deer are not all that exciting to me, because I grew up looking out my kitchen window and seeing deer in my backyard. Seeing them in enclosures was even less exciting. However, I completely understand why this is so popular. When you don't grow up seeing deer out your window, then seeing them this close (and wandering around, when that part of the park is open). How often do most people, especially people from such a big city, get to see woodland creatures that close?

For me, the part of what makes Seoul Forest pretty interesting is the how and where it was set up, or at least where some of it was located. One area of the park is built on what used to be old water treatment plant, from way back when. The bigger building itself is now long gone, but the park still found a way to use the leftover foundations to their advantage. There are still some concrete pillars and walls that you can step down to walk through, and that area has been converted into a beautiful walking area, filled with some of the most vibrant and colourful flowers in the whole park. Those flowers crawled up the slope and were arranged into kidney shaped gardens in the middle of the stone path. Ivy crawls up the pillars and covers the walls, creating an almost fantasy image, where these old ruins have now been taken back by nature. I know it's all man made, but it still looks very cool. The entrance looks like someone punched out a section of the wall and just left it at that. It's not refined in anyway, still rough around the edges and looking like it might start crumbling at any second. It just adds to the nature taking civilization back vibe, which is such a perfect thing for a place that's meant to be nature in the middle of civilization. That's the main way they used the old water treatment plant, but they also kept some of the smaller buildings and turned them into both a butterfly garden and an insect garden.

The insect garden was closed, so I didn't get a chance to go in, but I did check out the butterfly gardens. Butterflies are nature's gift to the world, almost making up for all the creepy crawlies it has unleashed on us. There had to be at least half a dozen types of butterflies flying around, landing on the flowers or rocks in the building. It was rather enchanting, or would have been had it not been SO crowded (though I'm so used to it, having lived in Korea for four years).

So there you have it, three different parts of Seoul worth checking out. One quaint, one wild, and one natural. Three wildly different tones and places, but each something that you should completely try if you have some extended time in Seoul. One for the nostalgic joy, one for the party, and one for the nice walk in the park/forest. Just a little bit of everything to suit the needs of three different kinds of fun.
Just over sixty years ago, Korea was a devastated country. By the time the Korean War ended in 1953, much of the land, both city and rural, had been practically razed to the ground because of fighting. There was so much to do in the shattered country, a rebuilding effort that should have been near impossible. But, through sheer determination, Koreans managed to do it. It's called the Miracle on the Han River- the way that Korea was able to not only rebuild so fast, but how quickly it modernized in the wake of the war. Sixty years later, Seoul is one of the biggest metropolitan cities in the world and the country itself a technological and pop culture hub. Korea has thrived, and it's not only recently. Where there has been a surge in popularity in the last decade, thanks to the huge demand for ESL (English second language) teachers and a growing appreciation of K-Pop (everyone remember Gangnam Style?) and K-dramas. However, the past decade is not the first time a modern Korea has been showcased to the world. That would be back in 1988, when the Olympics came to town. This is where today's travel guide, focusing on one Olympic Park, comes in.

While the Summer Olympics wasn't the first event to take place in the park (that honour belongs to the 1986 Asian Games), it's the '88 Olympics that have left a lasting impact. While Olympic Park isn't the only area of Seoul that had facilities for the games, it is the place that had the most of them. The venues for gymnastics, handball, fencing, weightlifting, bike-racing, swimming, and tennis were all built here, not to mention it also housed some of the competitors. While it might sound like a tight fit, this park is huge. Like really, really big. I wandered around for hours, and still had to come back another day to see the other sections I wanted to see (fun fact- the park was built on the grounds/remains of an old Baekje (Korean kingdom during the Three Kingdoms Period) fortress, but much more on that next month. Thankfully, unlike some unlucky cities to host the Olympics, the city of Seoul has found ways to use these leftover buildings. They still host sporting events of various kinds, including major competitions. There's sports classes and groups that use the spaces. They've also been converted into new spaces, like turning the old bike racing stadium into a multiple football field. They're used for both cultural performances and concerts. Olympic Park is such a happening place that new additions have still been made right up to recent years. In 2000 Olympic Hall was built, which is now used to focus on training athletes. One of the massive newer buildings (well, not that 1990 is all that new...almost thirty years ago, and boy does that make me feel old) is probably the most interesting. That place is the Seoul Olympic Museum.

The Seoul Olympic Museum is a museum that, you guessed it, is all about the Olympics. Not just the '88 Seoul Olympics, but the games in general. There's exhibits that trace the history, all the way back to the beginning in ancient Greece (776 BCE was the first Olympic games, held at Olympia at the base of what was thought to be Mount Olympus, home of the gods...and they say you'll never remember anything from History class). It then picks up right at the beginning of the modern Olympics in Athens, Greece, in 1986. It continues all the way up to London 2012, which was the most recent Summer Olympics at the time I visited the museum. The museum was actually much bigger than I anticipated (to my almost shame, I kind of waltzed into that museum thinking 'how much could they even put in a museum about the Olympics?'. Boy was I proven wrong, and cringe worthy as it was, I can admit it). It was also much more impressive. Again, I wasn't anticipating too much, and I was completely off the mark. Not only were there a wide range of interesting artifacts and a treasure trove of information, but it was well designed too. There was a shine to the place, a 3D vibe that made everything stand out. This is also where I made another mistake- I didn't give myself nearly enough time. There was a double whammy on this one. First, I decided to tackle the museum at the end of the day, where I was bone tired from walking around for at least three-four hours (again, thought it would be smaller). By the time I reached the museum, I wasn't going to last on my feet very much longer. The second is that I came way too close to closing time (which is 6pm, if you're ever looking to go yourself. You've been warned). It made me hustle through the museum more than I would have liked, but I did make sure to appreciate all that it had to offer. It offered a lot.

While a good chunk of the museum is devoted to the Seoul Olympics, each of the summer Olympics sites (and a few winter) from the past century of so gets an exhibit. The museum itself is divided into four main halls, each of them themed. The first room was called Place of Peace, and it is the area that traces the origins of the Olympic games. It not only traces the history of the Olympics, but the meaning of it as well. Brace yourselves- I'm about to go history major on you. Ancient Greece was divided into numerous city states, not consolidated under one country. These city states fought a lot. They soon discovered that there was more than one way to prove yourself better than others, and they settled on a sporting event, held once a year (they went back to fighting once it was over). In the time leading up to it, the Olympic Peace was enacted, which let competitors travel freely through any of the city states to get to Olympia. This was actually a huge deal, because a number of these city states really, really hated each other. The museum does a pretty good job explaining all this, and I was impressed by how simply they laid it all out (ancient Greek politics could be a mess). I also really liked the artifacts that they have on display to go with it. There is Greek pottery done up in the classic style, showcasing participants partaking in some of the ancient games, especially wrestling. My favourite, however, had to been the laurel leaves. Instead of medals, the ancient winners were awarded crowns made of laurel leaves, which were far less gaudy and far more symbolic (the plant means victory). The history section doesn't end there, but instead picks up in 1896, at the beginning of the modern Olympics. The revival of the Olympics came after Greece won it's independence from the Ottoman Empire as a way to create Greek pride. It worked wonderfully, as you might have realized by now. Along the wall are dioramas to explain the evolution of the games, and they are both well organized and very informative. They pick great pictures to help highlight the most important bits, and an excellent use of smaller artifacts, including the evolution of the medal design, to pretty flawlessly link it all together. This is a well designed hall, to say the least.

The second hall in the Place of Harmony. This is the hall that focuses solely on the 1988 Seoul Olympics. It gives a good look at how the city won the right to host the games, and where they went from there. It showcases the major winners and losers, complete with equipment and even uniforms. All of those were set up along the wall of a room, displayed like they were some weird type of mannequins. It has everything you need to learn about what went down in 1988, and while it does deal mostly with Korea, it doesn't leave out the other nations who participated. Winners from around the world were acknowledged and given a space for their win. It truly does show a bit of that Olympic spirit- the one where people of all nations come together and celebrate kicking butt at sports. The design of this room is also crazy. The lighting is weird, casting everything in a blue tinge. There are giant blue neon letters that proclaim "1988 Seoul Olympics" that wrap around the wall in a fairly empty, circular room with pillars in the middle. It's like something out of a sci fi movie, to be honest. The 3D design of this room was intense. When it comes to that, it was hands down my favourite room. Walking through it was just a little bit surreal. For all that was my favourite room, it wasn't my favourite thing.

That honour goes to the contents of the last room I'm going to talk about, the Place of Prosperity (or, in laymen terms, the Olympic souvenir gallery). I'm pretty sure this room was made to find a place for all the extra Olympics memorabilia they couldn't fit in the other exhibit rooms. There was a little bit of everything from many games- medals, tickets, stuff from the opening/closing ceremonies, you name it. My absolute favourite, however, was the little statues of the mascots. I have a full confession to make- the mascots are probably one of my favourite things about the Olympics. I love them. I think they're creative and cute, and it's so telling when you see what animal/creature/whatever is considered important enough to a country/culture to get chosen. There were a ton of them here, from a ton of different games. The Korean mascots were two tigers, one male and one female, dressed up in the hanbok, or traditional Korean garb. They were adorable. There was a tiny little beaver from the Montreal Summer Olympics. It wasn't adorable exactly, but so very Canadian that it made me 'aww' anyway. There were the Sydney Australia mascots, cute versions of some of Australia's weirdest wildlife (here's looking at you Platypus). Calgary's mascots were freaking white teddy bears in cowboy clothes. So. Cute. There were the Vancouver mascots, which were just as cuddly looking as I remember them being when they were flashed all over the airwaves back in 2010. There were many more, and it ended up in an overload of cuteness that I am not apologizing about going on about.

This museum was built specifically to keep the Olympic glory alive, and to remind future generations that Seoul was about to get them once and they should really feel some pride from that. Besides the displays, there's also a lot of educational programs that go on to help that idea along. From my wanderings among the artifacts and displays, I can see how the museum is able to accomplish that task. Not only that, but by painting a focus on not only the Seoul games, but the Olympics in general, it's not just a Korean pride thing anymore. It's not only about Korean pride as well, anymore than the Olympics revival was solely a vehicle for Greek pride. It became world pride very quickly Much like the Olympics is meant to be, down at it's very core, it's a pride that can be shared by any country. I liked seeing the three Canadian Olympics showcased, and I loved seeing homage paid to the Canadian athletes who rocked their respective games. It's true when they say that the one thing to bring out Canadian patriotism is the Olympics, at least for me. It's all about all those Olympics (countries) coming together and, for a brief few weeks, putting aside differences and engaging in sports...just like the ancient Greeks intended.

However, for all of that, Olympic Park isn't all about the Olympics. It's about the Park in the name as well, and what a park it is. It's a massive, lovely, green park full of excellent hiking trails and a pretty waterfront area. It's Seoul's version of nature at its finest. If you're not into the Olympics, then you need to visit Olympic Park just for that. I especially recommend the hiking trails. Granted, I'm not much of a hiker. I tend to dislike long walks, especially ones on steep terrain (and of course it's Korea, so there's some steep terrain), so me saying I really enjoyed one is actually a big thing. There are five different trails to choose from (or you can just wander to your heart's content, to be honest- I did a lot of that as well). I personally did the Trail for Youth (or at least part of it), which takes you around the edges of the park. A lot of it is up on the top of the hill, which makes for some spectacular views of the city around the park. If you're tired from your walk and want to sit down, Olympic Park has that for you as well. There are plenty of green areas, fields that many people were using to have picnics. There's a lake that is part of the ecological part of the park, where there's a possibility you'll spot some of the local wildlife. There are a ton of gardens, and depending on what time of year you go, the park might be painted in colours. Roses, wildflowers, tulips, you name it. Flowers, flowers, and more flowers. I got there at one of the points where the roses were in bloom, and it was beautiful. It was just row after row of pink blossoms, perfect for a nice stroll and even nicer pictures (there were at least two couples taking wedding photos there!).

If you're not just looking for a nice taste of nature, and art is more your style, Olympic Park has you covered for that as well. There is an outdoor sculpture park located throughout the park (statues are scattered through various locations, though there is a pretty big grouping of them in one area). It's not just any sculpture park either, but one that has been called one of the world's best top five. Given the amount of sculpture parks in the world, that's none too shabby. While I'm personally not exactly a fan of abstract sculptures (when it comes to art, I'm much fonder of both paintings and interesting colours), but there were some really neat ones. There is a giant bronze thumb sticking out of the ground in one of the picnic areas. There are copper cylinders with silver balls on top sticking out of the lake. There's one that has squiggly lines and circles intertwined and held up by wires so clear that it looks like it's floating. If abstract art made of all sorts of metals is your thing, this is the sculpture park for you. One statue I did genuinely like (though, to be fair, I did find the other ones quite interesting and neat to look at) was one that looked to be made of stone. It began as two giant standard looking busts (starting at the upper part of the body and up to the head)- you know, like the ones you see in museums all over the world, mostly of usually important people. The differences is that these two are leaning to the side towards the other, looking like they're getting ready to whisper secrets. The second is that there is a huge crack going up through their chest to the spot where their shoulder and neck meets, almost like they were dropped and damaged. The third is that their head ends just about the nose. They have no eyes, no forehead, no top of the skull. The top is uneven, almost looking jagged in places, once again looking like it fell and broke. There are so many ways to see this statue- is it a message about importance being broken? A message about something being broken doesn't end its worth? Two broken things coming together, or maybe coming apart? Or maybe I'm completely off and it's none of the above. This is the type of art I absolutely love, and I highly recommend you stop and try and figure it out yourself if you ever find yourself in Olympic Park.

Now I know I said I was putting the Olympics aside, but there's just one more thing. In the centre of the park, there is a giant square. This is called the Peace Plaza, and it's a wide area perfect for riding around on various wheeled objects, wandering along on a stroll, and even taking a seat to rest. At the end of this plaza, near an entrance to the park, is the Peace Gate. The Peace Gate is very obviously an ode to the Olympics. It's a massive structure, two long, deep walls that go very high up. A smaller band connects them near the top, and things that I can only describe as wings flare out on each end. Looking at it straight, they look flat, but they're actually curved down, making a perfect bend. It's a bright white (seriously bright- they must white wash that thing often) with the underside of the wings painted the vibrant blue and red colours. The paintings and carvings along the walls all come from the carvings on the walls of a Goguryeo tomb, giving it a uniquely Korean feel that mixes well with the use of Olympic colours. The Olympic rings run across the board in all their glory, completely the design. It's awesome to see, make no mistake. What's in the middle of it, however, is the most interesting part. You can walk through the gate through all four sides, but you can't go completely straight. You're going to have to go a little to the side to avoid the glass fence right smack dab in the middle. If you're close enough to look inside, you'll see a little torch sitting on top of a teeny tiny metal hill. The torch has a flame in it. It might take you a second, but then you realize what that flame actually is, and then it's super cool. It's the Olympic Flame, brought to Seoul from Greece back in 1988. It's burning there ever sense, but the Olympic Flame is eternal. It's never supposed to go out, because it represents the enduring Olympic spirit.

Which brings us back full circle, in a way. Another Olympic Flame is going to be finding its way back to Korea soon. Not in Seoul, but in a mountain a few hours away. Not in the summer, but in the winter. The Olympics are coming back to Korea, in the winter of 2018 to the city of Pyeongchang. Just like in the few years leading up to 1988, Korea is gearing up for its next Olympics. It's the winter this time, so consider me even more excited. I honestly have no idea if I'll still be here by that time, but I'm really hoping I am. If nothing else, visiting Olympic Park reminded me just why I love the Olympics in the first place. Besides, someone has to be there cheering for Canada.
A few thousand years ago, Korea was not the unified place it is today (well...sort of unified). Instead, the peninsula was ruled by three different kingdoms- the Silla kingdom, the Goguryeo kingdom, and the Baekje kingdom. This period, appropriately enough, is refereed to as the Three Kingdoms Period. While both Silla and Goguryeo are fascinating and historically important, it's going to be the Baekje kingdom we're going to be focusing on this travel guide. Why, you may ask? It all harkens back to last month's guide. If you were to take a quick glance through it, you may have seen a mention or two about the history of Olympic Park that goes past just the '88 Olympics. If you were wondering what I meant, here's your answer.

The Baekje kingdom was founded back in 18 BCE by King Onjo. It was an offshoot of the Goguryeo kingdom, because Onjo's mom, So Seo-no, was unimpressed when she found out her son wasn't going to inherit the Goguryeo kingdom from his father, the king. So she up and moved them all, and started a kingdom that would one day span Southeast Korea. You have to love the moms who want only the best for their children (especially when they end up changing the geopolitical scene by doing so). It didn't become a full fledged power house of a kingdom until 249 BCE, a powerhouse it did become. Even though Silla would eventually conquer the other two to unify Korea in 600 BCE, Baekje was still a big deal. So big, in fact, that it can easily be said that it shaped East Asian history and culture. Baekje was right on the boarder with China, so the cultural exchanges with that country were astounding- Chinese technology and culture filtered in and blended into the existing Korean culture. Buddhism was brought back from Koreans who went on diplomatic missions. Not only did it change Korean culture, but because Baekje was a pretty big sea trading power, it had lots of trade ties with Japan. Through those trade ties, the cultural exchange was able to keep moving into Japan as well. It's how Buddhism was able to extend throughout East Asia, which is a big deal. Without the Baekje kingdom, who knows how the cultures of East Asia would be different.

Now that we've gotten that bit of a history lesson out of the way, let's get back to Olympic Park, as promised in the title. At one point in time, the Baekje kingdom started their capital in southern Seoul. You don't hear much about the Baekje kingdom and its history in Seoul because it's generally overshadowed by the later Joseon dynasty. I do understand why- not only is it newer, but the relics and monuments to that dynasty can still be found everywhere in Seoul. I mean, just look at how many palaces are left to wander around. However, it's still a pity that not as many people know about the Baekje history in Seoul. You need to dig around a little more to find it, but it is still there to enjoy. One of those places, and probably the easiest to find, is Olympic Park, AKA Mongchon Fortress. While the fortress itself is pretty long gone, replaced by the park I talked about last time, there are still pieces of it to see. Remember all those walking trails I talked about last time? The ones that were up on a steepish slope actually mark the spots where the old fortress walls once stood. The whole point of a fortress is to get up high in order to see the land all around you. While it wasn't the highest I've ever been, you did get a pretty good view from there. If you were standing on a wall, you'd get an even better one. Anyone guarding them would be able to see any threats coming for quite a while off. When you look at the park from the outside, you can see why it was such a strategic position. Not only was it high, but it had a moat dug around it as well.

The trails that twist along the long forgotten wall aren't the only remains of the fortress. In fact, there are ones you can still see today. The first is a long wooden fence. It's not much to look at. It just is a bunch of brown planks together, in some parts not looking like it's going to hold up much longer. They're lopsided because they stand just near the bottom of a hill. It's nothing much, and it most certainly looks out of place. It's not often that you see wood fences like that in Seoul Korea, especially when they don't seem to be fencing in anything in particular. It may look out of place now, but it's exactly where it had to be back then. The fortress was built before massive stonework fortresses that would come later. Instead, this fortress was protected by mud ramparts and the wooden fences that protected them. This was one of the boundaries of the fortress, and that fence (granted, it's not the original- it's rare for wood artifacts to last that long) was the things keeping the dangers out. It doesn't seem like much, but the fortress stood there for quite a long time, so what do I know? Another fun fact about fortresses- they're not just about looking intimidating. In order to build a fortress to defend something, you need something to defend. In this case, there was a small but royal palace inside the fortress, built to keep the king and his family safe in case of attack. That meant it couldn't just be a military garrison. You had to be able to live (and sustain a siege) there. One of the things you need to wait out a siege is food. Thankfully, there was lots of space inside the fortress to get some farming done, and one of those places you can even talk a walk through today.

These days the inner palace farming area is little more than a big grassy field, but it's a pretty lovely one. For the most part, it's just a wide, green expanse of green. The one landmark in the whole spot is a tree that -tall enough, but so round that it gives the impression of not being that big- stands up in the middle. It is, quite frankly, quite picturesque. Should be plastered all over a postcard picturesque. Once you look past the field, however, you'll see the remains of the fortress I was talking about. There's a replica of the old fields, and it's fully functioning. There's a few different patches, but the one I got closest to was the barley field. It was fully grown when I visited, and it was fun to walk through the fully grown rows. There's a whole visitor's experience behind it, and if you come at the right time of year, you can help plant/harvest/whatever using traditional tools. Gardening has never been my thing, but it still sounds pretty interesting. I'd have probably given it a go had it been the right time of the year. One final left over from the fortress days, and for me the best. Olympic Park exists as an archaeological dig site. There are still excavations done there (one was going on while I was there). While any newer ones are blocked off to the public, that doesn't mean there isn't a site viewing to be had. On top of one of the hills, in one of the quieter parts of the park, there's a dome-like structure. I saw it from afar, and was curious. There were no signs saying what it was, but it was unlocked, so in I went. As it turns out, it was an excavation site that had been preserved for public viewing. This site, once upon a time, was the place where dugout huts used to stand. There's not much left, of course, but you can still see the foundation of the old buildings, and while there's no English on the signs explaining them, the pictures give a pretty good idea of how the homes would have been laid out.

The Baekje in Olympic Park isn't just a few more intangible places. If you're someone who's a little more curious (you're in good company, I promise), there's something a lot more concrete to round out any lingering Baekje related questions. If you still want to more (and you know you should), there's the Seoul Baekje Museum located in the very same park. The museum, built in the absolutely appropriate place, covers the history of Seoul known as the Hanseong Baekje period. It's the 500 year period where the kingdom had Seoul as their capital. The museum is divided into three different sections: the first is pre-historic Korea, which is pretty much a staple in every museum I've been to so far. It's filled with lots of dioramas of early settlements (long before Baekje) and stone/early metal tools. Lots of earthen ware as well. All interesting, but all pretty broad and stuff I'd seen before, so I will admit that I breezed a bit more quickly through that section of the museum. The main highlight, for me, was the middle section, which focused exclusively as Seoul's time as the Baekje capital. For all that it's the middle section of the museum, the exhibit itself actually starts the minute you walk into the museum.

Once you walk into the museum itself, you come into a tall, wide space, with a huge grey wall at the far side. At first it doesn't seem to be anything much, but then I noticed something at the top. There was a model of a person -a workmen dressed in rough looking clothes, arms crossed with a stern look on his face- standing at the top, looking down. Curious, I went forward a little more. The wall went down further than I thought. In fact, there were stairs leading down past it, and it was on the floor below where the exhibit area b started. Looking down, I saw that the scene continued. The man at the top was the overseer, and at the bottom, was the workers. There were workers, dressed in even shabbier clothes than the guy above them, doing everything from hauling buckets of something on their shoulders, to scrambling over wooden tools made to move large quantities of rock. These men were frozen in their work, whether it be individual or group, and each of them was to scale for the average human. It was a full scale model of the building of the fortress that the museum was technically inside. It was impressive for that reason alone, but I also really liked that it was nearly 100% focused on the workers themselves. Yes, the overseer was there, but he felt more like an afterthought. The centrepiece of the set was the people actually getting their hands dirty, which was interesting, because normally the focus of these kinds of things would lean more towards showing scenes of what the upper classes were doing. It wasn't a scene of some nobles planning, but of normal people working. It was actually a theme that repeated itself throughout the museum. While there were the models of what the Baekje elite were up to, a lot of the focus was on the everyday layperson. In a world that looks back and generally tends to only pay attention to the upper crusts of society and what they did, it's a refreshing change of pace.

The other big scene such as this (though there are smaller ones as well, and there is some focus on the going ons of royalty there), was the full scale replica of a Baekje ship. Like I said earlier, the kingdom was hugely important when it came to sea trade. In some ways, it was their bread and butter, so it only makes sense the museum would have a room dedicated to it, with a giant example used to emphasis the point. It's not a massive ship by any means, I'd say it's about the size of one of the fishing boats we see in the harbour every day. It's not even a fancy one either, just a wooden ship (though very sharp and angular) without any fanfare around it. It wasn't a ship for show or for to make an impression. It was a ship for work, and it wasn't the glamorous kind. The sailors were dressed in simple clothes, certainly not people who were going to meet anyone important or play any history altering part in life, they were just meant to show people hard at work for their living. It was, again, a homage to the everyday people who made up, and honestly kept alive, the Baekje kingdom. It also looked really, really cool (especially the opening work scene).

There were some other highlights in the museum, specifically when it came to the iron works and pottery. The Baekje artisans and weapons makers were experts at both. There were three things that really stood out to me, though two of them are more a general quality than a specific artifact. The first was the clay tile work. I know, it seems like such a strange thing to really enjoy- it's just some small, circular tiles. They weren't anything fancy or elaborate, and they honestly weren't made to stand out in any real sense. That's actually why I liked them so much. Their designs were so simple -most of them had flower motifs, with lots of wheel-like circles and rounded, pointed lines-, and that was really appealing to me. They weren't flashy or even meant to stand out, and by doing so, were much...smoother than anything else. I would actually consider using such designs in my (hypothetical) future home, because they just worked in a very pleasing way.

The second thing that really stood out to me was something a lot more obvious, and that's because it had to do with statues. Statues of the Buddha, in fact. There are a LOT of Buddha statues in Korea. There are many different styles and looks, along with different versions, etc. A lot of them are similar when it comes to pose and such, but there was something different about the Baekje Buddha statues in the museum. The difference was in their smile. I know it sounds odd, but normally I've seen Buddhist statues where there is a pretty calm, almost blank look, carved into the face, but not here. These Buddhas were smiling, and not only smiling, but it was a smile filled with warmth. It almost reminded me of the famous Mona Lisa smile, but it's even deeper than that. Her smile is one of mystery and questioning. These smiles are ones full of inviting warmth and almost contentment. I'd even go so far to call it soulful, and that just works so well when you take into account the tenants of Buddhism in general. It shows just how much the artisans of the Baekje period got it, and how talented they were at portraying it. There are a lot of ways to create a smile that sends the wrong message, but these guys were on point.

For the last highlight, we're moving away from the arts and dipping our feet into the art of war. I'm bringing up a weapon. In this case, it's the chiljido, or seven branched sword. It is, to be frank, really weird looking. Those seven branches in the name? They're talking about the seven blades on the thing. Think of it this way- the main shaft of the sword points up straight, much like a tree trunk. The pointy side at the top is blade/branch one. On the side of the blade/trunk, are six 'branches', or smaller blades. I wouldn't even call them blades, despite what they're made of. They're curved and looked just like a curved finger, and while I'm sure they'd do a lot of damage if you got stabbed with them, it just does not seem to be a very practicable sword for battle. There is a LOT of symbolism behind the design (the branches are call backs to the crowns of the Baekje kings), and they were mostly used for ceremonial purposes (especially gifts to important people. The most famous of these swords was a gift from the Baekje king to the Emperor of Japan to show goodwill between the two kingdoms), but the fact that someone still came up with a sword that kind of resembles a tree is brilliant, and I loved it. It was so different and unique, and for all that I thought it looked strange, it was delightful. It was probably my favourite artifact there, because I do love things that are different.

There is one more room, which focused on the general political issues between the three kingdoms and the period after Baekje was chased out of Seoul. I found this was more information than anything, and while it was super interesting (at least to a history geek), if you only have a small amount of time at the museum, I'd suggest going through here with the same brevity I paid to the first part (don't skip, but maybe don't linger as much either). However, even though our museum tour is done, that doesn't mean our look at Baekje Olympic Park is. There's one more thing. I've mentioned time and time again about how much Korea loves its festivals, and historical homage ones are just as popular as the rest. If you want to have a two part festival honouring one of the three kingdoms, where's the best place to put it? If you guessed the former capital, AKA Olympic Park, then you guessed correctly. The festival itself was spread out through a good quarter of the park, starting from the Peace Gate (where it seemed the performances were taking place, and where the activity tents were thrown up) to the museum. It's pretty easy to find- the minute you step out of the subway stop at the Peace Gate, there was a pretty large wooden watch tower built, complete with a guard in costume keeping a look out. There were giant paper lanterns around the gate itself, including a really fierce and pretty terrifying looking tiger. They were scattered here and there, but there was one place where the giant lanterns were used to their full effect (though sadly it was day, so I didn't see them lit up). There's a bridge, a long wooden thing with only drawn rope for rails. Baekje flags and banners fly high on both sides, making the path you're supposed to take pretty obvious. On either side of the bridge, standing on rafts, are even more lanterns. Massive ones, detailed ones, showing various parts of old Korean life- ancestral rites, farming, you name it. I'll admit that this looked a lot more Joseon to me than Baekje, it still was a really great way to decorate the natural park for the festival.

There were two highlights to the festival, in my humble opinion. The first was the market place. The market place area was a couple of paths really close to the museum, with small 'shops' set up on both sides. I say shops, but it was really so much better designed than that. The buildings were clearly temporary ones, but they looked like the kind of structures you'd see in an old market from the distant past. People selling were in costume as well, and there were more than a few places that had decorated with things like old fashioned stone ovens and traditional tools/equipment. Some were selling homemade earthen ware or food, cooked or raw ingredients. It wasn't supposed to be a mirror to an old fashioned Baekje market, but it was certainly meant to give a sense of it. The real proof of that, comes in how you were supposed to pay for everything. They didn't accept your average won, oh no. Instead, they were only taking coins...Baekje coins. When you get to the market area, there's a stand where you hand over your Korean won for replicas of old Baekje coins (small, brass, not exactly a full circle and with a hole in the middle), and those are what you pay this. It was so cool! I just loved it, because it was such a neat detail to have there. It made shopping more fun, especially because if you didn't spend all of the coins, you got a cool souvenir to take home as well. The idea was brilliant, and it was an awesome way to not only get people into the shopping, but the history as well.

One final thing, and then I promise I'm done. The second highlight of the festival was the marching of the guards parade they had just around suppertime (and just before I left- it was the last thing I stuck around to see). I've seen plenty of Korean history reenactors since I moved here, particularly at the Joseon palaces. Despite that, I'm always a big fan of both shows and period costumes, so I just had to stick around. I'm glad I did, because it was something far different than I was expecting. Now, I knew going in that Joseon and Baekje were completely different kingdoms with different cultural norms, etc, even if I did know more about the former than the latter. Despite knowing this, I was still struck by just how different the parading of the guards looked here than it did any of those other times. The guards and other players from the Joseon dynasty were flashy and bright, with colours and designs that were meant to draw the eye. They're loud and meant to stand out, which actually reflects the Joseon period fairly well. Baekje though? They were different. The colours were far more muted, with earthy tones and simple designs making them up. Greens, browns, blacks, and dull golds were the colours that passed by, ones that were not meant to stand out. There were ones that looked better for blending in, quite frankly. They were simple and far more military looking. Joseon looked, big weapons aside, far more ceremonial compared to Baekje. There was more obvious armour here, in the form of a leather breastplate and metal helmet. They didn't look like they were marching to war or anything, but they did look like they'd be ready and have a fighting chance if someone decided to jump out at them. The contrast was quite striking at first, and more interesting once I began to think about it. Joseon was a pretty established kingdom, and while not without conflict (especially wars with Japan), it was pretty secure within its own boarders. There wasn't quite as many neighbours on all sides that were constantly trying to oust them. Baekje, however, was constantly fighting with the other two kingdoms (and others, if they felt like getting in on the action). Looking more military, even in dress uniform, did make a lot more sense for a kingdom still finding its ground. Was this the actual reason for the difference, or did the fashion sensibilities just change over the years? Who knows (certainly not me)? Either way, it's an interesting thought to ponder.

The Baekje Kingdom isn't one you're going to hear about in Seoul as freely as will about certain others. In other areas of Korea sure, but not so much in Seoul. It is, however, more than worth a look through. It's interesting and different, but it also shows some of the roots that even exist today in current Korean culture, along with the rest of the culture of East Asia. Baekje deserves a lot more fanfare than it actually gets, and the best place to get a crash course if you're not getting down to the more Baekje centric areas of the country, then Olympic Park is for sure the best place to get your crash course history.
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