I think that today might go down as one of the more weirdly contrasting activities day that I have done on a holiday. I’m certainly struggling to think of another off the top of my head. It’s one of those interesting days that can only happen when you have a massive to see list and you end up playing Time Tetris and seeing what combinations work. Also helps if you’re staying in a city where such varied activities are available.
Prior to today, the same evening we found out another the Korail strike actually, we received an email from the tour company that we booked with that the DMZ was just closed because of an outbreak of African Swine Flu. We were later told that, depending on the severity, this might stay closed for up to a year. However, they had an opening on another tour to the Military Demarkation Line (MDL), so we jumped on that.
Right, so I know that this isn’t 100% what was meant when this was added to the Lonely Planet list, but I believe that I’ve completed it in terms of the spirit of its inclusion. So, what did we do?
After an hours trip out of Seoul, where our excellent tour guide gave an in depth recap of the situation between the two Koreas and of the developments in the last few years, we arrived at Imjingak. On the way, we managed to catch our first glimpse of North Korea from the window of the coach as we drove along the river. That alone was surreal, but to be at Imjingak and see the remains of the semi-destroyed Freedom Bridge (where prisoners of war were exchanged in the Korean War) firmly put more of a human element to the stories.
Also at Imjingak were a train and railway line, both destroyed during the Korean War and now sat there as a symbol of the severed connection between two nations that had been joined for a millennium. There was also an alter to allow Koreans separated from their family members or hometowns in the north to perform Confucian rites that they are unable to complete normally.
From here we went to Odu Mountain Unification Observatory, which allows you to see an actual North Korean village over the border. The observatory itself stands on a mountain that overlooks an are where rivers from both North and South Korea converge before heading out to sea – quite a metaphor in that. Using the binoculars there you can see the village in closer detail including a Kim Jong Il memorial and houses, some with incomplete roofs. However, it was clear enough that I saw something I didn’t quite bargain.
People. The weather was good enough that we could see actual North Koreans walking down the roads going about their lives. The whole thing really did have the threat of feeling like an exercise in anthropology, but seeing those North Koreans walking the roads of the farmland made all of this ridiculously real. Not that it didn’t since I’ve been in South Korea for nearly a fortnight, but suddenly North Korea was less an abstraction and more flesh, blood and earth. Gave me a lot to think about on the ride home.
Our final stop on the tour was at the Korea War Museum and, by extension, the War Memorial of Korea. I think that if our tour guide hadn’t been so thorough in her explanations, and that we hadn’t already learned about the previous wars in Korea thanks to visits to Gyeongju and the National Museum of Korea, we might have found this museum a lot more interesting to walk through. But, hey, it’s another example of a free South Korean museum and so we made sure to give it a proper walkthrough.
Also here, as I said earlier, are war memorials to those who lost their lives as part of the Korean War. These memorials are very affecting, especially all the tablets listing the names of the fallen from all over the world. Also, in front of the museum there is a plaza where they fly all the flags of the nations who supported South Korea in their fight after the North invaded in the 1950s. Such a diverse group including nations from all the continents. It’s very humbling and really heightens the contrast between the first and second half of the day.
First though, lunch. We hadn’t eaten anything (or really drunk anything) and it was two in the afternoon. Where the hub got a rather nice looking bulgogi rice bowl, I fancied noodles and went for something that was just translated as “Traditional Korean Noodles”. I’m sure that isn’t what was written in Hangeul, but it was delicious so I’m not complaining.
And here we are at pretty much the opposite of a North Korean in a field: Lotte World. This is the largest indoor theme park in the world, but more on that in a bit. As it’s close to Halloween, the exterior section of Lotte World (called Magic Island) turns into a zombie invasion after sunset. So, since zombies freak me out, we wanted to cross this off before it got dark.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to notice that the similarities with the Magic Island having a castle in the centre much like Disney’s Magic Kingdom, but that’s the kind of blatancy that I live for. As this is the outside park, this area includes one of their major roller coasters (where I was over the maximum allowed height, much to my disappointment) and a few vertical drop rides. All this adds up to us only really wanting to try out one ride – the underground rotating roller coaster called Comet Express. We were spinning and being flung around like nobody’s business. It was so much fun.
We had a wander around the rest of the Magic Island admiring the decorations and drinking a blood bag full of some sort of strawberry-flavoured liquid before heading inside and getting to know the five floors of the indoors-park. The best way that I can describe it is like the sort of theme park I end up making in management simulation games, as in things seem piled together and somehow it works really well as a park concept.
Our plan of attack was simple, we had limited time here so we were going to start at the top and try and hit all the rides we were interested in. Beginning on the 4th floor, we got in a pretty long queue for the Pharoah’s Fury. It was here where it hit me just how much care had been put into the theming for these attractions. I mean, the queuing area for this dark rides was filled with replicas of Egyptian treasures and the walls with their own take on Egyptian carvings. It was really cool.
Next we boarded the Aeronaut’s Balloon Ride because I wanted to get some good photos from the top of the park and because the balloons looked so cute just going around the edge of the park that I just wanted to be in one, fear of heights be damned.
Being up this high really brought home just how huge this park actually was and how many things I actually wanted to try before it closed. Luckily. After these thirst three initial rides, we didn’t have to queue for anything else for much more than 5-10 minutes. Granted that’s because we decided to give the inside roller coaster a miss, but we weren’t really feeling it anyway.
We ended up riding the river rapids Jungle Adventure and the Fly Venture (which was their version of the Voletarium from Europa Park, but with a lovely fantastical setting) rides before making our way to the centre for the parade.
Following the lead of other parks, this after sunset parade was an illumination parade with lanterns controlled by drones, floats, puppets, dancers and some surprising inside fireworks coming from the castle in the centre. Although on a smaller scale than other parades, because of the restrictions of being inside and having the parade take place on a floor above visitors, this was so well done and made us look forward to what they would do as a closing performance.
We did two more rides – a shooting game called Dragons Wild Shooting and a simulator called Wild Jungle that has you driving through the jungle and having all matter of things happen to you – before grabbing a hot dog from one of the many food vendors. Trying to stay Korean somehow, I went with the dak gulbi dog, which had spicy chicken as a topping. It was really good and gave me the energy for the rest if the evening.
Time was marching on, so we bought a gift for our niece and I got a keychain for my collection as well as doing two repeat rides of our favourite indoor attractions – the extra ride on the rapids being extra cool as they gave us our own tube so we were able to go through the ride again with just the two of us.
The finale show wasn’t at all what we expected, but it was pretty marvellous to see. Rather than a more traditional light show or fireworks (the latter being near impossible because, again, we’re indoors) the show was done by projecting images onto the surface of a section of the park. It’s hard to describe or photograph, but it was very transfixing.
So ends a pretty contrasting day, all possible because of what can be done in Seoul. Tomorrow we’re boots on the ground again as we do our own tour of the many royal palaces of Seoul. Hopefully we’ll be able to hit them all up in a day, else there is always our final full day as a bit of a spillover.