Round the World in 40 Days: Stage 4 – Seoul and the DMZ

It took just over two hours to fly due north from one disputed East Asian country, Taiwan, to another, South Korea, where we visited the capital Seoul and the DMZ (Demilitarised Zone).

Hyangwonjeong Pavilion in the Gyeongbokgung Palace
Pavilion in the Gyeongbokgung Palace grounds

South Korea has been much in the news recently due to the antics of North Korea, or more specifically specifically its unpredictable leader, Kim Jong-un. Seoul itself is constantly threatened with both conventional and nuclear attack and the border area just a few miles north is bristling with armaments.

Hence it was with some trepidation that we undertook this stage of our Round the World in 40 Days trip.

Of course our fears proved completely unfounded. South Koreans are so used to the rhetoric that they seem to brush off all the threats and get on with their lives.

Street statue in Seoul
Street statue in Seoul


We chose to stay at the Holiday Inn Express Euljiro as it is very well situated in the centre of Seoul. It proved a convenient starting point for a walking tour that gave us a good feel of this vibrant capital city.

Since it was a around freezing point even at mid-day, we found ourselves walking quite briskly. But we still had time to marvel at the many strange street statues around the city, including a massive spiral shell, a strange fish skeleton and various human figures. The central area of Seoul is quite flat so no problem for us senior travellers.

Our route took us along the Cheonggyecheon Stream just behind the hotel. This seven mile long stream is below road level and has walkways at either side, reminding us of the San Antonio River Walk. However during the winter period when we visited, it was not looking its best with sparse vegetation along its banks.

Sentry and lady dressed in Hanbok style
Sentry and Hanbok lady

From the western end of the Cheonggyecheon Stream, we walked north up the broad Sejong-daero road to the massive complex of buildings, gardens and pools known as the Gyeongbokgung Palace. Entry is totally free for seniors 65+ with ID to prove it.

At the main entrance to the palace, I’m not sure what intrigued us more – the sentries in traditional uniform or the ladies with beautiful make-up and gowns. We later learned that the ladies dressing up in this way is referred to as Hanbok and gowns are hired for a few hours.

Although the palace dates back to the 14th Century, it has been much destroyed and rebuilt over the years, with restoration work still continuing. The most striking building is the main throne hall, the Geunjeongjeon, but many of the smaller buildings have their own individual charms, especially when viewed across the then frozen pools.

The Geunjeongjeon Throne Hall
The Geunjeongjeon Throne Hall

The National Folk Museum of Korea is situated in the north-east corner of the palace grounds and contains an interesting mixture of buildings, statues and various cultural artefacts.

Our walking tour passed through Bukchon Hanok village, with many small houses dating back 600 years, before returning south towards the city centre via narrow streets, lined with shops, restaurants and traditional tea-houses.

As we retraced our route back to our hotel, it was getting dark and Seoul seemed to take on a new life with dazzling light displays round every corner.

Even the Cheonggyecheon Stream, which appeared rather drab earlier in the day, was now shimmering beneath the lights of the surrounding buildings and provided an atmospheric walk back to our hotel.


The Cheonggyecheon Stream
The Cheonggyecheon Stream

Our wives were not that keen on visiting the demilitarised zone: “What is there to see in an empty tract of land?

However even they had to admit that the organised tour we took proved to be quite fascinating.

You have no choice but to take an organised tour. This is for ‘security reasons’ and passports must be taken with you. Our half day tour was booked through  Expedia (check under Things to Do) and operated by Seoul City Tours at a cost of about £32 per person.

Observing North Korea
Observing North Korea

It was quite surreal gazing across the border with flagpoles on each side competing for height and the strains of ‘Scotland the Brave’ being blasted out towards North Korea.

Equally surreal was the massive modern Railway Station at Dorasan just by the border. A map inside shows railway routes passing through North Korea and on to China, Russia and even England. However no trains come to Dorasan station and the line is completely blocked at the border, with one rusty old steam engine standing guard.

The only train at Dorasan Station
The only train at Dorasan Station

The tour also included walking about a quarter of a mile down into a tunnel built under the border by the North Koreans. The pretext was that it was a coal mining shaft and, in a ludicrous attempt to show this, the walls had been blackened.

Some Korean Cuisine

Korean restaurants are becoming more common in the UK, but not in our neck of the woods, so we were a little unsure of what to expect in the local restaurants.

We decided against the braised chicken with marsh snails and the boiled duck with medicinal herbs.

Suitably aproned for our pots of chicken
Suitably aproned for our pots of chicken

However the big pots of Korean braised spicy chicken and boiled chicken with vinegar and mustard sauce proved to be very tasty, once we had been suitably dressed with flowery aprons!

Overall Impressions

We were not sure what to expect in South Korea. Would it be a nation cowering under the threat of attack from the North?  Well if so, then we didn’t notice it.

The South Koreans we met seemed more interested in dressing up and enjoying themselves, whilst being very welcoming and keen to show us something of their unique culture.

Of course in our short stay we only scratched the surface of this ancient culture, but we saw enough to make us decide that we should return again one day and explore much more widely. Who knows, maybe one day we will be able to take a train from Dorasan Station to North Korea and beyond!

In the meantime our World tour moved on and headed back into a Chinese environment in the form of Hong Kong.

See also:
Round the World in 40 Days: Planning and Booking
Stage 1 – Golden Triangle of Agra, Jaipur and Delhi
Stage 2 – Singapore and the Gardens by the Bay
Stage 3 – Taipei and NE Taiwan
Stage 5 – Hong Kong Revisited
Stage 6 – Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef
Stage 7 – Earthquakes and Vineyards in New Zealand
Stage 8 – A Tour of Santiago, Chile
Stage 9 – Cusco and Machu Picchu
Stage 10 – Lima and Miraflores, Peru
Stage 11 – Miami and the Everglades