Still Brothers at Bulgogi Brothers

After a long day of hiking in Bukhansan Natonal Park my brother and I opted to get bulgogi for his last night in Korea. He tried many different dishes and all sorts of barbeque and easily declared bulgogi to be his favorite Korean food.

I asked my Korean friend, Sejun, for a restaurant recommendation near my house and he suggested a high end chain, Bulgogi Brothers. We took the train right there since it was on the way home and only a 5 minute walk from Mokdong station;we were seated right away.


Bread and a cold tea were brought out immediately. The “bread” was warm, fresh and a nice change of pace for Korea but it tasted as if it was made with rice. It was tasty but I hesitate to call it real bread like what I’m used to in the states.

The menu has pictures but unfortunately not a lot of them. They gave a general idea for what each type of meal was at the top of the page but the specific dishes below were all written. There’s an English translation but it is merely a phonetic version of the Hanguel. Luckily I have a dictionary app on my phone and we were able to pick out two bulgogi meals.  The waitress kept asking fus something but we had no idea what she was saying.  She covered her mouth, clearly embarrassed, and left.


The banchan came almost instantly with a delicious spread that included a spicy salad, kimchi, some sort of sweet potato mash, spicy peppers, what I think was almond jelly and a seaweed dish. I really liked the salad and seaweed; the sweet potato would have been better warm but the rest wasn’t appealing to my palate.
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Back to Bukhansan National Park

Ben and I decided that our last big excursion would be to Bukhansan National Park.  He had visited earlier in the week doing the same hike I did on my first time in Bukhansan.  We were excited to see if any of the fall foliage was popping its head and planned on heading to Songchu Falls.  I hadn’t heard anything about them other than seeing them on the trail map so we picked a route that led us to Obong peak after Songchu Falls.

We got up bright and early having packed our bags and picked out lunch already.  I was bringing Gimbap that I made in cooking class and Ben grabbed a meal at 7-11; we had plenty of trail mix and grabbed our camelbacks out of the fridge before jumping on the subway.  Just over an hour later we arrived at Hoeryong Station.  You could immediately see the mountain range and we started out for Hoeryong Crossing.



The hike started along a paved path; we were quiet surprised to share the road with a few vehicles, stepping aside as it grew more vertical.  Before long we came across a Buddhist temple at the end of the road.  There was a small celebration for what appeared to be a new monk with paintings and plenty of Koreans.  Ben and I focused on the gorgeous view in the background and were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a hummingbird in the garden.







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An evening at Doeksugung Palace

Ben and I decided to visit Doeksugung Palace after I got out of work one evening.  This would be our 3rd of the 5 Grand Palaces built by the Joseon Dynasty.  The palace stays open until about 9pm so Ben met me at the subway near my school and we were off to the City  Hall subway stop.  The palace is easy to find and has a nominal fee of ₩1000 to enter.  The gates are an impressive set of 3 massive double doors; if you get there late enough you might be able to see them closed, although they are usually open to allow visitors in and out.

D71_1468The path past the gates has tree cover and a peaceful aura about it while the brilliance of the city peers over the walls.  There are a handful of signs describing the histories of the palace buildings being built as recently as the 1900’s before you quickly arrive at the pavilion in front of the throne room.  Another massive gate stands guard over a concrete courtyard that leads up to an intricately designed throne room.  The decor of Doeksugung was very similar to what I found at Gyeongbukgung and Changdeokgung but with a night sky the experience feels entirely different.  I imagined patrolling these grounds as a night watchmen listening as much as watching for creeping Japanese ninjas.  We snapped a few pictures and played with the shadows before continuing to explore.





D71_1427Most of the buildings here are designed and decorated with traditional Korean decor but there are a few with a modern flair.  Seokjojeon is a Western style building used by King Gojong as a sleeping quarters and audience hall.  It was added to the palace by British architect G.R. Harding in 1910 with 19th century neoclassical style and Corinthian columns.  The colorful fountain out front provides a stark contrast to the glowing skyscrapers surrounding the area.

D71_1434Continuing our tour of Doeksugung we encountered another elaborate bell and a small forested area winding through gates and smaller buildings.  A secluded open air pavilion provided a golden glimmer to the pathway shining off its delicate displays carved into the outer colonnade.




The glow of the city continued to astound us and provide a backdrop that teleported us through time.  Ben stopped and set up his tripod for a long exposure of the gargoyles atop the nearest structure.  The black night sky turned blue as he let more light in; capturing the splendid coloration that was all too common at these royal palaces.


D71_1464 We made our way back out of the castle leaving just before 9.  It only took about an hour and a half to tour the entire grounds which was a perfect excursion for a work night.  Back on the street we noticed a police line, perhaps here to protect Doeksugung or the glamorous glass city hall situated behind the old stone center of town.  With one more long exposure he captured the buzz that surrounds Seoul in all hours of the night.


Remnants of the Korean War at the DMZ

Saturday Ben and I woke up bright and early to get to a bus near Samgakji station. He signed us up for an all day Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) tour out of the US base in Yongsan.  Technically North & South Korea signed an armistice not a peace treaty so the war never officially ended.  In 2011 Kim Jong Un took over as supreme ruler of North Korea and in 2013 he ended that armistice; there hasn’t been any direct military action but it certainly raised tensions.

Our tour guide, Jon Kim, was a native Korean who spoke English with a thick accent.  He counted all 42 of us and checked to make sure we had proper id or passport.  (You need either a military ID or a passport to get into the DMZ).  After a few roll calls he finally had everyone and we were off.  Just over an hour ride before we would arrive at Camp Bonifas and make our way into the Demilitarized Zone.

I decided to take a nap since we were up early on a Saturday.  I slept fitfully waking up to random facts about the landscape like how the highway following the Han River has barbed wire and regular guard posts in case any communist commandos try to sneak in.  He told us a little about his own life and how the many apartment buildings we were passing were largely family apartments now on the market due to empty nesters’ need to downsize.



Before long we were pulling in; I snapped off two shots from inside the bus before Specialist Mitchell came onboard to let us know the only building we could take pictures of was the visitor’s center.  I hope a stop sign and water tower aren’t breaking too many rules!


We emptied the bus and had a bathroom break before signing a waiver indicating that we were in fact entering a warzone.  The tour included “the entrance into a hostile area and the possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action.”  I’m writing post this so I guess that means I made it out safely?

We donned a UNSCA guest badge and sat through a brief presentation about the Korean War, the establishment of a military demarcation line or (DML) which roughly follows the infamous 38th parallel.  Both North and South Korea were required to pull all personal and military equipment a minimum of 2 kilometers away from the DML making a 4 kilometer wide Demilitarized Zone which inadvertently has developed into a pristine ecosystem that naturalists hope to one day preserve as a national park.  It’d be great if not for the live mines that keep the deer from living happily ever after.


Specialist MItchell’s presentation went through the progression from Kim il-sung to Kim Jong-il to Kim Jong-un and subsequent encounters in the Joint Security Area (JSA).  He let us know we would be visiting the JSA and go into the building where North and South Koreans meet for negotiations and quickly ended the slideshow.  We boarded a new bus, now with a military driver and were off._DSC6739

We drove past a few checkpoints and Specialist Mitchell reminded us that unless he says we can take pictures we explicitly CANNOT take pictures.  He pointed out many of the defenses that are in place; including an anti tank wall which had C4 visible beneath massive cement pillars, an electrified barbed-wire fence and a live minefield.  Anytime a mine goes off they send a team to investigate what caused the explosion, 9 times out of ten they just end up cleaning up deer guts.

We passed Tae Sung Dong, a South Korean village which is heavily subsidized by the government.  Residents each get about 17 acres to farm and can make a US equivalent of over $80,000 a year!  Unufortunately the town’s population has be declining as a result of its proximity to North Korea and all of the youth’s moving out at first opportunity.  In Tae Sung Dong stood a massive flag pole with the South Korean flag; it was built to rival the flag pole at Kijong-dong.

Kijong-dong is a village built with a massive flag and loudspeakers just past the border into North Korea.  North Korea insists it is a populated farming village but the South and US military personnel have only seen soldiers come in and out to raise the flag.  All evidence points to the village being completely uninhabited; combine that with the hours of propaganda blasted from the speakers and the village was aptly nicknamed “Propaganda Village.”

Here’s a fun fact!  The day after Tae Sung Dong’s flag was raised the North built an even larger pole and flag which takes as many as 30 soldiers to raise & lower.  Oh yeah, and its too heavy to leave out in inclement weather so all of the democratic security forces get a little laugh out of Kijong-dong.

Before long we arrived at the JSA and were told a few rules.

1) NO pictures except when and of what we are explicitly told is allowed.

2) Do NOT communicate in any way with the North Koreans, verbally, hand motions, eye contact, etc.

3) form 2 lines and stay in the lines.

4) NO dramatic movements

It felt a little like being back at camp with the hard-ass camp counselor but here it wasn’t a laughing manner.  We all exited the bus and formed two lines before entering the Freedom House.  Inside we climbed a staircase and were met with ROK (Republic of Korea) guards.  They escorted our two lines out to the only view we could take photos of.


Upon exiting the Freedom House you can immediately see North Korea’s Panmun-Gak Pavilion and the buildings that are built on both sides of the DML.  We found more ROK guards standing like stone statues and across the way a North Korean guard took out a pair of binoculars to stare us down.



The whole experience was a little cool, a little strange and rather enlightening.  You hear about how crazy North Korea is and how they impose all sorts of radical rules and brainwash their citizens but here its the real deal.  Mitchell told us stories about the “axe murder incident” and the Soviet Defector,Vasily Matusak, who was part of a North Korean tour when he suddenly sprinted across the border.  North Koreans chased him with a primary goal of killing the Russian which sparked a 21 minute gunfight that left one South Korean and three North Koreans dead.

All Vasily wanted was a chance at freedom; in the end the South Koreans were willing to defend his right to have freedom once he crossed and risked their lives that day in 1984.  The ROK guards were risking their lives today to make sure we were safe; although tensions at the border have been calm the past few months they are always on the look out for suspicious activity.


Here’s a fun fact!  All the ROK guards must be at least 6 feet tall and black belts in taekwondo.  It came in handy when 3 North Koreans tried to kidnap one of the guards who was locking a door.  He single-handedly beat the crap out of all three before returning and being the poster-child for the new rule that states whomever is locking the door will be “held onto at the belt  buckle by a fellow ROK soldier.”


After being told about some of the favorite hand gestures of the North Koreans who hang out in some of the blue buildings we were led into the one which hosts cross country meetings.   Inside we found a table a flag and more ROK guards.  It looked like a pretty plain room but it happens to be one of the most important locations in modern history.   Crossing the “microphone line” brought me a few feet into North Korea.  Didn’t get a visa stamp for this border crossing.


We spent a few moments taking pictures before heading back into our orderly lines and to the bus for a quick stop at the gift shop.  I almost bought a bottle of North Korean wine or whiskey but I made the mistake of asking how it tasted.  After a vigorous head shake and “Aniyo (NO!)” I decided to pass on the opportunity.



We left the JSA andheaded to the Third Tunnel.  So far there have been 4 tunnels discovered underneath the DMZ heading towards Seoul.  The most recent tunnel was discovered in 1990 and the first was found in 1974.  Our visit into the third tunnel required all cameras to be stowed in a locker before donning a helmet and heading down a long ramp.  South Korea found this tunnel in 1978 by filling small boreholes with water.  When one of them sprouted into the air they immediately drilled more nearby and eventually found North Korea’s Third Aggression tunnel.  Each tunnel can supposedly send a full infantry division, or roughly 20,000 soldiers each hour so they are very tightly monitored.


We descended at a steep incline for  a few hundred meters before leveling out at the actual tunnel.  It was like most other tunnels I’ve been in except with absurdly low ceilings.  There was a faint black layer of coal that remained on some of the tunnel walls because when it was discovered the North tried to cover it up as an “abandoned coal mine.”  There are zero coal deposits in the area, I’ve got a better dumb idea.  A few hundred meters later we found barbed wire and a cement wall with a tiny window to peer into North Korea’s half of the tunnel.  Their side was flooded but otherwise looked nearly identical to ours so we headed back.

We left the tunnel to head to a lookout with a wonderful view but yet another photo restriction.  This one was even stranger; there were tons of binoculars set up for ₩500 ($.50) and a thick yellow line declaring “no photos past this point.”  I tried to find a lighter companion to prop on my shoulders but with the patrolling  ROK guard we decided that wasn’t a good idea and just held our cameras over our heads and hoped for a good shot.


The view gave some perspective about how close Taesungdong and Kijong-dong were to each other; their flags waved high above the rest of the scene.  Ben and I snapped away while some of our new friends opted for the binoculars.  They found the view to be the same but that they saw a moving bus proving whatever village they were looking at was actually inhabited.  A few minutes later we were ushered back to the bus for a quick lunch stop outside of a ginseng festival before heading.


Today was a success.  The DMZ and JSA certainly are unique places on Earth and worth the stop if you have the time.  They aren’t exactly scenic and may not last forever if the South Korean dream that was reiterated on monuments with slogans like “end of separation, beginning of unification”comes true.

Ben & I go to a village, a palace & a hike

Ben arrived late Saturday night!  I was waiting in the subway station when all of the sudden I got an email saying he was in my apartment.  He managed to come out a different subway exit and beat me home; good thing I emailed him my door & room code.

We took it easy Saturday night and caught up over some Kkanbu chicken, a chain that sells some excellent dishes. We ordered Sweet Tender Chicken which is basically sesame chicken but more tender and a little more kick.  Before bed we looked through our guidebooks and solidified \plans for the next few days all while maneuvering around in my now cramped studio apartment.  He slept on my foam mattress which took up most of the floor space that his luggage left open.

Sunday we planned on seeing a Hanok Village, hiking up Namsan to the Seoul Tower and wandering through Namdaemun Market.  They are within 10 minutes of each other a great way to spend our bonus day (Ben was supposed to arrive late Sunday night but with the government shutdown got out of his assignment 2 days early.)

We hopped on the subway and headed to Chungmoro station which was a short walk from the Hanok Village.  Following the sign we made a sharp left and saw a traditional Korean house.  On closer inspection it was aptly named “Korean House” and the sign mentioned the word “hanok” in Hanguel.   Unsure if this was where we intended on going we stepped inside to find  a smattering of Korean’s in authentic wedding regalia and an info box indicating that this was a great venue for weddings, meetings and other events.  Pretty sure this wasn’t what we were looking for we left and kept walking hoping to find the actual Hanok Village.

A Hanok is technically a traditional Korean house but its more of a small community.  There are separate buildings for men, women and different families and this was only one building.  Walking a few more blocks and we soon realized we were going the wrong way and looked at our map before deciding to head back the subway to reorient ourselves. Upon arrival we immediately realized that we had taken the wrong left turn out of the subway.  Skipping the sharp left we instantly saw the Hanok Village a mere hundred meters ahead.


Once inside the village we saw traditional Korean dancing and listened to music while wandering around the sandy courtyard.  We passed on some kids crafts and games before finding ourselves staring into an ancient Korean household.  The glimpse at this home from centuries past showed a more common lifestyle than the royal life I had previously seen in at Gyeongbokgung palace.


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Inside each structure were samples of what little furniture they used along with some rugs and tapestries.  There was an old kitchen with logs underneath big black cauldrons and elaborate screens along the walls.  Some of the doors had intricate carvings while most passageways were open air.  Continuing around the village we saw more of the same style house when we both realized how hungry the walk here had made us.   We hoped to try a traditional Korean meal in the Hanok but unfortunately the only food was from a vending machine.  We left the village in search of an eatery but I made sure to pause and pose as Ben took a shot of me as a Hwarang (the Korean equivalent of the  samurai) defending against the Japanese invaders.

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We wandered down the street Looking for some authentic Korean and quickly passed on the Domino’s and Outback at the corner.  Eventually we found a hole in the wall lunch joint in the basement of the skyscraper towering above.  We picked it largely because of the pictures out front and were happy to find pictures in the menu too!  I was glad I knew enough Korean to order since the waiter didn’t speak any English; Ben got  bulgogi jeongol, a bulgogi hotpot with veggies and a side of rice and I got the samgyetang, ginseng chicken soup (same as what I had after the palace I mentioned earlier).  Our banchan came out and was shortly followed by the entrees.  We decided to skip Namdamun market and head to Changdeokgung, a nearby royal palace, and devoured the rest of our meals leaving just enough so that we could each try both dishes.

The palace was a short subway ride to Anguk station.  Changdeokgung is a UNESCO World Heritage site and full of vibrance and beauty.  Unfortunately the cloudy sky above made the scenery a little more dull than we would have liked.  Not letting the weather bring us down we strolled through the palace grounds.

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We came upon throne rooms and majestic staterooms.  The buildings had a similar feel to Gyeongbukgung but the layout of the palace was entirely different.  Changdeokgung is laid out to be in harmony with nature and the surrounding landscape.  It is laid out in a a seemingly chaotic nature although the architects in fact took great lengths in designing the second of Korea’s “Five Grand Palaces” to provide good feng shui with the nearby mountains.

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Walking around and around we stumbled upon the secret garden at the rear of the enclosure; sadly it was sold out.  I guess I’ll just have to visit again. Wandering back down we found a section that was a little less elaborate, likely the old servants quarters.  Even though it was not as colorful the design was still beautiful and the layout of buildings and trees provided a nice scene given the dreary sky.

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The sun was making its way toward the horizon when we decided to start out towards Namsan.  We wanted to arrive around dusk so that Ben could get a glimpse of the city in daylight and see how the landscape changes as the populous switches their lights on to bring a brilliant glow to the blackness of night.  It was a short trip to Myeongdong subway stop and Namsan was at the top of the hill.  We briefly looked for a place to grab some grub but were unable to find anything in English and decided get something at the top.

Heading upwards the ramp switched back and forth between stairs and a steady path.  It curved around to the left and leveled off before going back downhill.  Wait, downhill?  We want to go up!  Were we going the right way?  Stopping at the first sign with map we decided we’d taken a wrong turn and turned around.  Luckily there was still plenty of light and the rubberized path was quite pleasant to walk on.

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We passed joggers and hikers, a small team of runners, a few bikers and a restaurant with a trickling fall out front.  Checking out the menu it looked appetizing but we opted to keep hiking when suddenly our path hit the road and we were next to the cable car.  We were back at the start but decided to hike the rest of the way and were glad to have some confirmation that we went in the right direction.



This path rarely leveled out and seemed to be an endless series of stairs.  It curved in and out of the forest giving teases of the beautiful view at the top.  We kept saying we would wait for pictures when suddenly there was a walkway out of the forest with a spectacular scenic overlook.  I took a panoramic shot with my phone while Ben took a handful of photos with his new Nikon 7100.  A brief water break and we continued upward.



With Seoul Tower growing larger we knew it couldn’t be much farther.  Step by step; up we went.  At the next staircase the hum of the cable-car grew louder and was quickly followed by a view the massive gondola and Seoul Tower through the trees.  A few more steps brought us to a snack hut where we declined the fish-flavored roasted roll up in favor of a corn dog.  Just up the next set of stairs we found the signal fires and remnants of the ancient walls that protected the city.

Happy to be on the flat pavilion at the top we took in the sights and Ben snapped a few more shots of the city.  The sun hadn’t quite set yet so we decided to wander down below deck; only finding a souvenir shop and some overpriced restaurants we settled on grabbing some ice cream at Coldstone.

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By the time we finished our chilling snacks the sky had gone dark.  We walked over to our favorite overlook and Ben pulled out his spider-like tripod.  He wrapped it around the railing to steady his night shot and snapped a few more.  Hopefully I’ll be able to add his pictures in soon!


The walk down was much less eventful and thankfully faster.   Monday I’ve got work and Ben will be exploring the city on his own.  We’ll meet up for dinner after work Monday and Tuesday but our next big adventure will hopefully be to Suwon to see Hwaesong Fortress!