Sunday, February 15, 2015

Seoul City Tour and Traveling to China

Hello again! 

In this post we talk about our Seoul City Tour and our experience flying into China!

On Sunday our tour started slightly later so we were finally able to get our Dunkin Doughnuts for breakfast! But no worries, we didn’t just eat donuts, we had a breakfast sandwich as well. ;)  

We got picked up by our little tour bus from Seoul City Tours and were on our way to see some historical sites of Korea!

We took my parents on the same Seoul City Tour that we took Tyler’s mom and brother on back in November! We really liked this tour because it hit some of the major sites like Gyeongbuk Palace, Jogyesa Temple, and a Folk Museum, but it was short enough that we weren’t flooded with too much information. Not only that, we had a strict schedule that day as
our flight to China was at 6pm!

We got to see many sites! First stop was Jogyesa Temple! We enjoyed seeing this temple again as it’s so interesting that it’s right in the middle of the city! We took photos with the giant Buddah’s, walked around, and got back on the bus to our next location!

See the gold Buddah's in the background?

On our way to the Folk Museum, we passed by the Blue House (the President of Korea’s house). Like we’ve written before, people are not allowed to drive up or walk up to the president’s house. Only tour busses with special permission are allowed to “slowly” pass by. So we snapped as many photos as we could and then off we went.

We think the Blue House is in such a beautiful environment! 

At the Folk Museum, we had a very limited amount of time, but learned as much as we could about Korean History!

Outside the Folk Museum!
After the museum we got to tour Gyeongbuk Palace! This palace is the largest of the palaces in Korea, but unfortunately a lot of it was burned down during the Japanese invasion. They are working on restoring it now. We were able to see the main buildings and learned some interesting facts about the Joseon Dynasty.

A map of what the palace would have looked's huge! 

A short "servants" door. 

Our favorite building! The lake is frozen too!  

We were able to watch the changing of the guards ceremony in front of the main gate of the palace as well before getting on the bus again.

It was just a little chilly! ;)

Our last stop was the “tourist trap” called the Ginseng Center. We were given a whole speech on the way to the center about the amazing benefits of Ginseng and then given a similar speech while in the center. We politely ignored the major sales pitch given to us quickly looked around and then went downstairs to wait for the rest of our tour to finish. Let’s just say that part wasn’t exactly the highlight of the tour! ;)

Ginseng anyone? ;)

The bus dropped us off in the part of town called Insadong, a popular shopping area that has both tourist souvenirs but also really nice pieces of art. We made a quick walk through the area and caught a taxi back to Itaewon. For lunch we had Turkish chicken kabobs at Ankara Picnic and french fries at McDonalds, before grabbing our luggage and heading to the airport!

Taxi Ride! 

We took a taxi ride to Seoul station and then took the express train back to the Incheon Airport. Once we arrived we had a semi tense moment at the check in counter. This was one of 2 very important moments in our journey to get into China. Instead of going the traditional route and applying for a very expensive visa to get into China, we opted to try China’s new program called the 72 hour visa-free entry. This allows citizens from many different countries fly into specific Chinese cities and stay for exactly 72 hours or less and then fly out. There are many rules for this program and there’s also a catch. You must fly in from 1 country but when you fly out, you must fly to a different country. As they explain it  you must fly from country A→B(China) →C. Originally, we did not know that rule and had planned to fly from Seoul to Beijing and back to Seoul again. But if we would have gone through with that plan we would not have even been allowed to board the plane to China! So our new plan was to fly from Seoul to Beijing to Hong Kong and then purchase a separate plane ticket from Hong Kong to Seoul. This caused our tickets to be a little more than expected but we had to play China’s game! ;)

Train Station!

So at the airport check in counter we were just praying that all rules were being followed and that we would be allowed to get on that plane! Thankfully after the ticket counter woman inspected our flight plans very diligently, our tickets were printed and we were able to go through security to get to our gate! Praise God!

After going through the long process of security and customs/immigration (we got our passports stamped again!) we made it to the International terminal! We actually met this really cute couple and their friends who happened to have just adopted this very young Korean toddler and were taking him home that night! What was cool was that all of them were from the US and were mennonite! It was really amazing to see this sweet boy going home to a loving family!

We're going to China! 

So very happy it worked and we got our tickets! :D

After eating dinner we had to kinda run to our gate as they were about to board. When we got there, we couldn’t believe our eyes. There were many people heading back to China with SO many shopping bags! We were not sure how they were going to get all of that stuff on the plane, but they sure did try! As we got into our seats these people kept coming with all of their stuff. Flight attendants were trying so hard to find little spaces in the overhead compartment to put the shopping bags in. Somehow it all worked out and we were officially ready to fly to China!!

This airline, Air China, was great! We had comfortable seats, a full meal (we were super excited about that even though we had just ate!), and the flight was not full at all so we could recline our seats guilt free! It was a short flight and before we knew it we were landing in China!

Our plane! 

When we arrived we had to go through the 2nd tense part of our journey to China. Now that we were there, China had to make sure all rules were being followed again, so we stood waiting for confirmation from China Immigration. Thankfully, we could all breathe a sigh of relief when the guard stamped Tyler’s passport first, indicating we were good to go!

Our passports received many stamps during this trip! 
We booked this 3 day China tour through “” and was very impressed with this tour company. It was a private tour so we were met by our amazing guide, Leif, at the airport. He walked us out to our driver and van and then we headed into Beijing to our hotel. The whole way there we were tired, but very fascinated by all the information Leif was giving us about the various sites we were seeing.

Our guide, Leif!
It took us about 40 minutes to get to our hotel, thankfully, there wasn’t too much Beijing traffic. When choosing the tour package we had the option to stay in a “standard” hotel (4 Stars) or a “luxury” hotel (5 stars). Obviously we wanted to save money and weren’t going to be too picky about hotels so we went for the standard. We were so very happily surprised with the quality of this hotel. It was a Holiday Inn hotel in Beijing and was very nice. Our rooms were beautiful and very comfortable. We also had a free buffet breakfast each morning that had both Western and Chinese choices. It was a great deal for 3 nights!

Cute little sitting area.

Beautiful bathroom....with a actual tub! 
Comfy bed!

That night we all slept very well in preparation for the next days big event...The Great Wall!!

Stay tuned for our next blog about that and the other many sites we saw!

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Our visit to the DMZ

Hello everyone!

It’s February now, wow!! January went by so fast as it was a mixture of a fast paced winter camp and 16 days of amazing vacation time! We wanted to write about our amazing vacation to remember it forever! My parents joined Tyler and I on a 10 day adventure through Asia and it was such an amazing time together! The next few posts will be dedicated to our vacation!

Instead of writing the equivalent of a book and posting it all at once, we decided to post “chapters” of our “book” instead. As much as we’d love to keep our blogs short for our readers sake, we also remembered that we’re writing these for ourselves for the future, so major apologies here, but this is NOT a short blog post! However, if you’re interested in learning lots of about our experience at the Demilitarized Zone, read on!

January 16th- Friday was our first day of vacation. We were all packed and ready to catch our 10am express bus to Incheon Airport to pick up my Mom and Dad! This bus ride went faster than expected (we thought 4-4. hours, but it was only about 3 hours and 45 minutes!). We entertained ourselves by watching the movie “Begin Again” and listening to music. When we stopped at the rest stop we got these awesome corn dogs and even got to eat them on the bus (they were kinda messy though, oops!). Arriving at Incheon Airport was the fastest drop off. Once the bus stopped at the Departure area of the Airport, the entire bus quickly got off the bus, grabbed their bags, and dispersed into many directions. The bus immediately drove away and off we went into the airport! Since it was only 1:45 and my parents weren’t arriving until 4pm, we had plenty of time to explore the airport! We hadn’t been there since our first day in Korea and enjoyed seeing all the traditional decorations mixed with the modern decor.

Delicious corn dogs! :D

After drinking a Jamba juice, eating McDonalds chicken nuggets and curly fries (yes Korean Mcdonalds have curly fries now!), and sitting for what seemed like forever, we finally found my parents after they went through customs and immigration! It was an amazing feeling reuniting with them after 5 ½ months apart! We were all elated and of course took our first “selfie” together to celebrate!

They made it! :D

We made our way to buy our train tickets to get into Seoul. Transportation was so easy as we bought our tickets (~$8 each) and made our way underground to the train station. We found the right train and our seats and had a 45 minute ride into the city. The train was really nice as we could store our bags in a luggage section and sit in comfortable seats without all of our stuff. Unfortunately, it was dark by then, so when we were above ground there wasn’t too much of a view. But we enjoyed the ride!

Train ride to Seoul! 

After arriving at Seoul Station, we progressed to find the correct subway line. This was quite the trek as we had to come up above ground from the train station, walk through Seoul Station (where we saw about 4 Dunkin Donut shops in 5 minutes), and go underground again to the maze of the subway. We finally arrived and waited for our first subway. Thankfully we only had to go on 2 different subway lines but each of them only had 2-3 stops, so it was pretty quick!

Subway ride #1!

Once we arrived in Itaewon we made a 10 minute walk (with all of the luggage) down the Antique Street of Itaewon to our hostel. We booked rooms at this hostel again due to its location to good food and our activities we were going to be doing. However, it’s not the fanciest place around. But we made due! After dropping our stuff in our rooms, we headed to a very non-korean food place dinner. Tyler and I were badly craving Mexican food, so we took our parents to “On the Border” for our late dinner. It definitely tasted amazing and after we were all ready to go to bed!

Outside of Seoul Station!

January 17th-The next morning was the beginning of our very educational and interesting day at the DMZ. But before that started, we had to get breakfast. Traditionally, Koreans eat about the same thing for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Usually this consists of rice, kimchi, soup, meat, and side dishes such as vegetables. With that being said, our American view of breakfast is very different and we prefer other things. Thankfully, we were in Itaewon, the hub of foreign food restaurants. Unfortunately, there still aren’t that many breakfast places around OR those places don’t open early in the morning on a Saturday! So after discovering the Dunkin Donuts wasn’t open at 7am, we hunted for other places that might have something substantial for us to eat to begin our day! We tried a coffee shop, but they were sold out of the breakfast foods (typical in Korea) and as we were short on time, we settled for the 24 hour KFC! So fried chicken and biscuits was my parents first breakfast in Korea! ;)

Day 1, dressed alike! :)
The tour van picked us up at our hostel and transferred us to our larger tour bus. As we headed off to the DMZ our tour guide “Han” gave us great information about the DMZ and what we were seeing on the way there. It was interesting to see how quickly barbed wire and lookout stations started popping up. As we got even closer, we could see glimpses of the North Korean side. The 2 parts of Korea physically look very different. Because North Korea has little outside resources, they must use everything in their country, including the trees. So when looking at the North Korean side, it’s very treeless. Very sad to see!

Our tour guide Han.

Checkpoint station

After passing through 2 checkpoints, we arrived at Camp Bonifas, the military base located in the DMZ. Both US and S.Korean military work here. No photos were allowed, until we got to the JSA (Joint Security Area) Visitors Center. At the center, we had a short presentation by our US Military guide about the history of the DMZ and the current situation. We then signed a agreement form about visiting the JSA area (specifically signing agreeing that “The visit to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom will entail entry into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action.") and then hopped back on the bus to head to the JSA.

Our document we needed to sign....

The JSA visitor center at Camp Bonifas

The JSA is the area where North Korea and South Korea stand literally face to face. It is the one area in the DMZ that you can see a North Korean soldier. The JSA is located within the old farming village of Panmunjom, which is now no longer a real village. The blue conference buildings were built exactly in the middle of the border between the North and the South, so when you tour inside you can actually be standing on the North Korean side, depending on where you are!
The infamous blue conference buildings.

Looking at the North.

It was so surreal to see this area in person. The first thing you notice after walking through the freedom house is the blue conference rooms. The same ones I’ve seen in photos in textbooks and documentaries. It was crazy to see the stern looking S.Korean soldiers facing north Korea in a tense stance. We were split into 2 groups and put in single file lines inside the freedom house. Group 1 (our group) was walked outside in our line and into the conference room. Once inside we learned a little bit about the room and then were given time to take lots of photos. We were even given permission to take a photo with the intense looking S.Korean soldier who was technically standing on the North Korean side!

Inside one of the conference buildings.

Standing on the North Korean side with a South Korean guard.

We're in North Korea! ;)

We had a very controlled amount of time inside and after getting all the photos we were lined back up and walked back outside. Instead of going back into the building, we stood on the steps facing North Korea. We were told we could take photos of just about everything, so we whipped our cameras out and zoomed in to get a better view of the North Korean soldier standing guard on his side. We were told they refer to him (or any of the soldiers standing guard) as “Bob.” We also found out there was another North Korean soldier standing behind the window taking photos of all the tourists. This is common, as they use them for propaganda throughout the country (especially if the tourists are ill-dressed. For example: If a tourists are wearing flip flops, they can say that we are so poor we can’t afford good shoes!). We took many photos and after were lined back up and walked back through the building back to our bus. This was definitely a highlight our day. Seeing this area and knowing that it plays such a big part of history and of politics today was so interesting.

The North Korean guard "Bob." 

After the JSA we drove to another lookout point to get a better look at famous village “Gijungdong” better known as “Propoganda Village.” The buildings in this village are fake and no one actually lives there. Soldiers have even seen North Koreans painting on the windows of these buildings. After the war, both North and South Korea were allowed to keep 1 village inside the DMZ. North Korea built Gijungdong, just for propaganda, but South Korea kept it’s real village that had originally been there for years called “Taesungdong.” This village actually has 220 residents living and working inside. They are guarded by military 24/7 and only men can be married into the village to permanently live there. Propaganda village is also known for having an extremely tall flagpole in it’s village. At 525 feet, it is the 4th tallest flagpole in the world. It was built in response to S.Koreas flagpole that was actually erected first. It was built at 323 feet and of course, North Korea had to build bigger! Both villages are very intriguing and we got a great view of Gijungdong at the view point!
One large flagpole in a empty village...

Fake buildings...

For lunch we drove to Imgingak Park, an area built in 1972 in hopes for reunification. This area holds many unification events during the year. Here we ate lunch with our tour group at a Korean restaurant. Mom, Dad, Tyler, and I all ate a Bulgogi stew like meal. It was delicious giant bowl of broth, glass noodles, some vegetables, and many pieces of meat. After lunch we walked around the area finding great observation points, walking near Freedom Bridge, and looking at a old train used in the Korean War.

So good! 

Look at all the bullet holes...

After some free time of exploring, we got back on the bus and drove to the 3rd infiltration tunnel. This tunnel was 1 of 4 tunnels found after the Korean war, built for the purpose of the North secretly invading the South. North Korea claimed these tunnels were for mining coal and have even blamed the South for building the tunnels. However, coal has never been found in these tunnels and the orientation of the blasting lines were clearly pointing south….

Signifying unification! 

This tunnel was interesting to get to! We had to walk down a very steep incline to even access the actual tunnel part. We wore hard hats to protect our heads as it’s a very short and tall people can easily bump their heads (like Tyler). ;)  We weren’t allowed to take photos in the tunnel but I found a few online to share. There are many holes in the walls of the cave which were meant for the dynamite to carve out hard rock of the cave. Apparently the cave is large enough to fit 30,000 men per hour through it! After a quick walk to the end of the “visitor” section and back we had to hike back up the very steep incline, which was quite the workout! We grabbed some water and got back on the bus.

The walk down into the tunnel.
Inside the Third tunnel. 
Next was the Dora Observatory. This was a great place to be able to see both of the villages in the DMZ. Here we took many more photos of the North Korean landscape. Our tour guide was very kind and offered to take many pictures for us.

The South Korean village Taesungdong. 

After our last glimpses of North Korea, we got back on the bus for our last stop of the day, Dorasan Station. This is a train station built on the Gyeongui Line which once connected North and South Korea. Trains actually did run between Dorasan Station and Kaesong Industrial Region, but currently, it is not making that trip. So for now, this station is basically a tourist spot, waiting for one day to become a full working train station again. We took a few fun photos here (which was encouraged by our tour guide) and we even got a “ticket” for the train. One day, many trains will be running here connecting loved ones from both North and South Korea. :)

Empty train station..

Got our fake tickets!

On our way to N.Korea! ;)

Running back to Seoul! 
From here, our DMZ tour was over and we headed back into Seoul after going back through the 2 checkpoints. We stopped at a Amethyst factory and were dropped back off in Itaewon.
Overall, this was the most interesting tour we have ever been on. As an American, we hear about North Korea on the news and naturally are very curious about it. Being able to see things up close and learn more about it was very enlightening. We are very saddened by this situation between the North and the South and truly hope that one day reunification can happen. It was wonderful to see how South Korea has already started preparing for unification by building bridges, restoring train stations, and creating buildings to re-unite families. There is hope! But for now, we pray for the people in the North and the leaders there as we know that God is bigger than all of this.

We encourage our friends and family to learn more about the situation in the North. There are great documentaries that are able to be streamed on Netflix, but even some documentaries on Youtube as well. Education is power. :)

Our next blog….Day 2 in Seoul and Travels to China!