06 February 2015

Recap: Korea

Korea has been on my bucket list for some time. My curiosity extends to daily google alerts, loyalty to the Korean bodega in my neighborhood, coveting date nights at Korean BBQ joints in Midtown and an allegiance to K Beauty products.

Our time was limited, but we managed to visit the DMZ, an amazing local market in Incheon and Jeju Island.

Propaganda houses in North Korea from the DMZ.

We joined a DMZ  tour (in parallel, I was reading The Orphan Master's Son and highly recommend it), as it seemed to be the only route to visit the Zone. Upon arrival at the entry, we were instructed to dig out our passports out and hide any cameras or phones ahead of military inspection. 

The soldier turned us away, with the explanation that our manifesto said that we had 41 people, but that there were only 40 on the bus. The tour guide patiently waited for the soldier to disembark and then explained to us that we would leave, edit the manifesto and return, "Military doesn't have a brain. They are brainwashed. It will work." And it did. We were in.

After being forced to put our cameras in locked boxes, we boarded a trolly which took us deep, deep underground. We wore helmets, which seemed silly, until I began bonking my head every 15-30 seconds, albeit crouched down while moving through the wayward  3rd Tunnel. I managed to sneak a few photos with my iPhone (view them here and here). 

Oddly, exploring the catacombs in Paris amongst over 1 million skeletons is quite a bit more pleasant than this experience. The tight, uneven surfaces, coupled with the low and inconsistent ceilings was incredibly awkward. The mind boggles when considering the process of digging these portals for several kilometers.


Women serving fresh octopus on a Jeju Island Beach.

Jeju Island was our final destination in Korea. Sleepy, yet vibrant, the volcanic archipelago quickly became one of my favorite places on Earth. Our first stop was the beach to see a Yongduam Rock which claims to be shaped like head of a dragon. I didn't really see it(!), and found myself more intrigued by the women selling fresh octopus on the beach. For generations, the Lady Divers have made a living by putting on vintage-style wet suits and hunting for octopus (we saw one surface!).


Impressions Snapshot

Although focused, there was a sense of curiosity and playfulness laced in each person I interacted with. From the DMZ tour guide (who poked fun of Kim Jong Un's morbid obesity) to the street vendors hustling oranges and beauty counter attendants. Albeit an understated and polite delivery, it was present and I loved it.

There was definitely a contrasting demeanor when the subject of reunification was mentioned.  You'd see eyes lower, as if digging in some melancholy space. It's a difficult feeling to place, but it was troubling and hopeful in one swoop.

More: See images of the Dorasan Railroad built in 2000 to travel from Seoul to Pyongang and beyond to London.

Korean women have impeccable style. The younger generation has taken a cut from the traditional Chosun's structured drape with  over sized coats and  sweaters  which billow out at the waist. Shops were abundant and popular.

The beauty scene: gasp. It's no secret why Korea women literally glow. Although I was limited it smaller markets in my travels, there were endless boutiques with more skin care products than I could imagine (they dwarfed Sephora!). I tried to be modest, but eventually came to terms with my need to splurge on the masks, sleeping packs, BB cream and a gorgeous apricot eye shadow (and some things for my gal pal that was taking care of my Pug back in NYC).

Tip: If you can't make it to Korea, a friend of mine recommended Memebox, which has a decent selection of similar K Beauty products.

On the food:
I'm a nibbler. A small plate aficionado. When I dine, I suggest sharing a handful of appetizers, which quickly secured my adoration for Korean Banchan. Along side the fish dish and octopus we ordered at one restaurant, the waiter laid out a dozen or so small, healthy plates of pickled veggies, seafood and rice.

 The seafood was impossibly fresh and delicious. Due to the language barrier, we accidentally ordered much more soju than we realized. As it turned out, it was a blessing in disguise. We needed it to build up the courage to try the shredded octopus, which was fresher than anticipated:

Chewy and marinated in sesame oil, the one tentacle I managed to get down (while wondering if it would be offensive to ask the chef to steam it) grabbed at my chopsticks and...the inside of my cheek. I could feel it crawling up my throat for the rest of the night.

Now enjoy South Korean girls reacting to American snacks:

No comments: