Friday, October 24, 2008

A (brief) interruption to my otherwise laggardly Korea-post producing rate. I just happened to be skimming through the Onion (procrastinating, of course, on writing an essay), and came across one of their regular columns, Statshot, which this week was asking "What Else Is On The Ballot?"

Item number 5 on the list is "Portland, OR: Joke about a guy walking into an election booth."

It is more than a little bit likely that I am making too much out of this, but it delighted me to no end to see such an incomprehensible (to most people) joke on their list. No one I know down here has even heard of vote-by-mail, and I can only guess at what they would have made of the joke. I just feel like I'm part of a little, 3.7-million-or-so-strong, secret club right now.

I guess it's kind of a joke if you don't know about Oregon's vote-by-mail, but then it's not nearly as funny.

And that's that. I now return to a more placid rate of posting.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Korea, part 3

If, say, your next-door neighbor took it upon themselves to prune a tree that sat between your two houses and, furthermore, you kind of liked the tree the way it was and rather it not lose any of its branches, what would you do?

Well, if you were the nation of North Korea, you would kill your neighbor. Because, you know, that's how rational people resolve their horticultural disputes.

This is not some sort of weird, obscure political analogy: this really did happen, in the DMZ separating North and South Korea. In 1976, a small troupe of UN/South Korean soldiers were dispatched to trim the branches off of a poplar tree that was blocking their view of the North Korean side of the border. For whatever reason, North Korea decided that the reasonable response to this act of aggression was to dispatch a cadre of soldiers to convince them to stop -- in this case, "convince" meant "murder two of the UN soldiers with their own axes.

I knew North Korea was crazy. I knew that the government practices a policy of political brinkmanship designed to keep the rest of the world off balance. But murdering hedge trimmers? That's just batty!

Of course, there was only one logical response: escalation. Shortly thereafter, the UN launched Operation Paul Bunyan, in which a troupe of engineers armed with chainsaws, backed up by South-Korean taekwondo experts armed with axe handles and soldiers with claymores strapped to their chests, drove up in a convoy of armored personal carriers and proceeded to chop down the tree (leaving the stump, though, as a reminder). According to our tourbook, an entire aircraft carrier was diverted to the region as support.

And this is about where it all happened:

SonicLlama and I, being the nerds that we are, could not fathom the idea of going to the DMZ. And when we realized that you could actually go inside the DMZ and walk on the North Korean side of the conference room!, we were willing to move heaven and earth to make sure we got on one of those tours. Or, at least, give ourselves some very incovenient train trips.

On the course of the tour, our guide made sure to tell us the store of the axe murder incident several times. At the time, I thought they didn't have all that many annecdotes to tell us, but then I realized: this is a cautionary tale. It's not just that we're in one of the most tense, militarized areas on the world, but the people on the other side are completely insane!

So when they told us that there was a dress code to go on the DMZ tour, and that anyone with holes in their jeans or wearing excessively baggy clothing couldn't get through the checkpoints, we believed them. Because, sure, we now completely believed that the North Korean government would be taking pictures of us, and baggy clothing would be used as evidence that South Korea was so destitute its citizens couldn't afford well-fitting clothing. It made sense, right?

Duly warned, we hopped off the tour bus and into the DMZ (I keep wanting to write Neutral Zone: I believe that Star Trek has somewhat ineffably sullied me). Of course, most of the DMZ is military emplacements, so most of the interesting sites we ended up seeing (or, at least, being allowed to take pictures of) were explicitly designed for propaganda purposes. Like this statue memorializing the Phillipine soldiers that you also did not know served in the Korean War:

The ne plus ultra, of course, were the villages. North and South Korea each have villages that they keep in the neutral zone (with elementary schools among the minefields and everything). Our guides kept on laughing about the North Korean village: "They give it all the modern appliances, and it looks nice and all the buildings are big, but nobody lives there! All the lights in the village go on and off at the exact same time! We call it 'Propaganda Village,' because that's obviously the only reason it's there." "What do you call the South Korean village?" we asked. "Ah," they smiled, "we call it Freedom Village."

Apparently the two villages are the site of yet another silly patriotic spitting match. The South Koreans, eager to stick a nationalistic fist in the air, built a 100-meter-tall flag pole in their village. Because, after all, what convinces your enemy of the rightness of your cause but an enormous piece of cloth, right? North Korea, of course, would not be outdone and proceeded to build a 160-meter-tall flagpole in their own village. The South Koreans, apparently cowed, have not yet one-upped them.

Of course, we couldn't actually get anywhere near the villages, so you'll have to make do with this picture. The North Korean flagpole is visible slightly an inch or so right of my left ear. Maybe if you squint.

Not all of the sites were quite so garish or over-the-top, of course. For example, we came across this rather pleasing installment of pinwheels, which I can only assume must serve as some form of anti-war memorial. Or something.

But, of course, we weren't here for the memorials. Oh, no. We were here for buildings. Specifically, the main conference building where all the North/South Korean talks occur. The one where you can walk on the North Korean side of the room!

So, of course, there were talks going on. And the conference room was occupied. And we couldn't actually go inside. On the plus side, I was near something that was in the news briefly. You know when North Korea announced it was going to resume developing nukes a couple weeks ago? Yeah, I was there. In a tour bus. In the parking lot. Hooboy.

Here's the building. This was the best I got.

And then, of course, we checked out the gift shop, where I was able to find apparently the only available postcards in South Korea. Also some North Korean wine, and a bottle of hard alcohol that I've been too scared to try.

Back in our hostel room, we had a brief conversation with an Italian transhumanist--who gave us bad books about philosophy and Japanese grammar--and plotted our trip down to Gyeonju.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Korea, part 2

A silly little pleasure I have when I travel outside of the US is finding visual juxtapositions between old and modern buildings. Yeah, I know, it's a clich├ęd observation. But every time I take a picture of an old castle or temple or funerary monolith, I find my eyes casting about for some little bit of modernity to add contrast.

I'm not sure exactly what the draw is. At least part of me is fascinated with the idea of visualizing the relatively modest (by modern standards) cities whose crumbled remains lay somewhere beneath the skyscrapers I walk by. It's hard to get a sense of the scale of human history sometimes, and I feel like the intrusion of ancient civilization on our modern edifices makes the historical events I read about feel that much more real.

Fortunately, Korea did not disappoint. As a caveat, most of the buildings Llama and I toured are modern-day reconstructions. They're faithful reproductions of the old buildings and occupy the exact same spot, but there was a tiny, niggling bit in the back of my head that said "Hey, this is kind of like going to the The Luxor and telling people I've seen the pyramids." But then I thought, "Hey! Castle! Cool!" and forgot my objections. [As a side note, it's always bothered me that the big Vegas casino containing pyramids is called Luxor. There aren't any pyramids at Luxor. The big ones are in Giza. Luxor just has a bunch of (really cool) temple complexes].

Of course, if you're going to rebuild a temple complex, it would be a good idea to ensure that the damn thing doesn't burn down again. Llama and I came across a number of these (presumably historically accurate) fire hydrants.

Suwon, a little city an hour's subway ride from Seoul, provided us with a solid day's worth of exploration. The primary attraction is an intact (but, I believe, reconstructed) fortress that occupies a huge chunk of the city. As seems to be fairly common in cities that have these ancient fortifications in their midst, the modern part of the city has enveloped and absorbed the older buildings, resulting in (for example), this city gate ensconced in the middle of a roundabout.

Reconstructed or not, I very much enjoyed the opportunity to walk along the city walls, overlooking the much larger but somewhat less impressive buildings below us.

Against Llama's well-intentioned but, I feel, silly objections on the basis of relegious respect. I ponied up 1000 won (~$1) to ring a Confucian bell three times, honoring my ancestors. Llama stood some distance away and would have pretended to ignore me had I not forced him to take pictures. Mom and dad, you better appreciate it.

And, of course, what ancient city would be complete without a hideously tacky tourist vehicle? We decided that, by night, this was probably the vehicle of a Chinese-themed supervillain, perhaps named Ming. We called it the Mingmobile.

And I know Llama posted essentially these exact two pictures before, but I really like them, so they go up on my blog. Hah. The first is a section of the city wall in Suwon overlooking the river. Notice the students walking along it -- I wish my route to school were so pretty. The second is of a Korean admiral who famously repelled a Japanese invasion of Korea with "turtle ships". Not quite as cool as the Mingmobile, but definitely worth an "attaboy".

And, finally, some historical reenactment. We visited one of the larger palace complexes in Seoul on our second day. Striding out of the subway station directly onto the palace grounds, we came across a spectacle of soldiers dressed in what I assume was historically accurate guard uniforms, participating in a changing of the guard. The whole routine, with musical accompaniment and rigid solemnity, took around 10 minutes. For a while, we thought this must be a particularly serendipitous encounter, since how often do you think they change the guard at the palace?

Apparently around 8 times a day, on the hour. We'd essentially watched the Korean equivalent of Civil War reenactors. Which was cool, mind you, but not quite the nifty anachronism I'd been hoping for. Oh, well.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Korea, part 1

[Those of you who read SonicLlama's blog will notice some (strong) overlap between our stories and pictures. Perhaps my posts will provide you with new insight or aesthetic enjoyment, or perhaps you should just skip over these. I cannot instruct you here.]

Since I clearly haven't done enough fun stuff this summer, I rounded off the month of September with a trip to Korea with my dear friend, SonicLlama. We were there for only a week, so we had a bit of a rushed visit. Aware of our limited time, we did our damnedest to pack as much site-seeing as possible into our every day.

So, backpack on back, I strode off onto the airplane and into the distant Orient.

(As a side note, may I say that melatonin is perhaps the most awesome drug ever invented? I tried it for the first time this trip, and after only one day I was over my jet lag. Good lord!)

My first full day in Korea was spent alone, exploring the marvelously bustling city of Seoul. While the majority of them are recently reconstructed, the palaces and tombs littered about the city are something to see. I also apparently managed to show up in the middle of "Korean Thanksgiving", meaning that I got to experience some level of random revelry at completely unexpected moments.

First stop, the Seoul tower:

On top of a hill in the middle of the city, the tower provides pretty fantastic views of the city. And, because of aforementioned Korean Thanksgiving, there was a maypole dance going on.

And I have no idea what exactly this art installation was intended to signify, but there was a plethora of locks attached to a chain-link fence. I thought it looked kind of neat.

And, of course, there was the obligatory wash of neon lights.

While not as pervasive as in Tokyo, I was reassured to see a smattering of random pop-culture ephemera littering the streets. The first, a statue of Gandalf, was unexpectedly standing sentry at a coffeeshop near my hostel. The second, whom I can't place (can you?), posted himself in front of the Cartoon Museum at the base of the Seoul Tower.

And I'll leave you with that little taste of Seoul. To look forward to in upcoming posts: palaces (lots of palaces), enormous flag poles, North Korean soldiers, and Buddha statues (lots of Buddha statues).