How to see your K-pop idols for free

kpop band CNBLUE

The Korean wave and above all K-pop is conquering the world. Bands like BTS or Blackpink break new music records and conquer the Billboard charts. In this blog post, I give you some tips on how to see some of your idols for free in South Korea.

The first K-pop band I was listening to was CNBLUE back in 2011. My friend Jenni was a huge fan of Japanese and Korean pop culture including K-pop and K-dramas. As a media scientist, I was more interested in dramas. When I watched “Heartstrings” with Hyung Joong-Hwa in the male lead role, I found out about CNBLUE. But to be honest, until my exchange semester in South Korea, I was listening more sporadic to K-pop music.

💡What is K-POP?
The shortcut K-pop (케이팝) stands for Korean popular music and is influenced by all kinds of music genres and stylistics. The term itself became popular in the 2000s but was already used before. The Korean wave brought K-pop as well as K-dramas around the globe. Usually, the songs are a mix of the Korean language with some sentences or phrases in English. Most bands get cast through a tough trainee programme at a young age like the girl band Blackpink. These trainee programmes get more and more criticised, especially by Western media outlets. Other criteria of most K-pop idols, especially former trainees are the complex choreographies but also the experimental way of fashion on stage and in their videos. Usually, K-pop groups have a leader who is the oldest or most experienced one of the group.
Free Concerts for foreign residents
Kpop duo December

A few of my friends from Taiwan told me about free K-pop concerts for foreign residents. A free concert in Seoul with my favourite band CNBLUE included. Sounded too good to be true? Well it was, the tickets were already gone by the moment I heard about it (you can not imagine how sad I was). Spoiler Alert: I still saw them playing live – I will come back to this in a minute.

The idea behind the free concerts is to promote Korean culture to make K-pop as well as traditional Korean music more popular by inviting foreigners to free concerts. It started in 2015 organised by Hello K! which established itself as a cultural performance for foreigners in Korea. But since the last year, they seem to concentrate more on traditional music but this could be also because of Covid-19. I guess checking it out can not harm.

K-pop band CNBLUE
My favourite band CNBLUE on the Korea Sale Festa 2016
Festivals including free concerts

As I already mentioned, I could not manage to actually go to one of the free K-pop concerts for foreigners but I actually got another chance. During my semester abroad in 2016, I was able to visit the opening show of the Korea Sale Festa with bands like SHINee, Red Velvet, MAMAMOO, Wonder Girls, INFINITE, GOT7, B.A.P. and most importantly (to me) CNBLUE. At the opening ceremony, every band was invited to play one of their current songs. The festival is about the shopping week in Korea with a lot of different programmes as fashion shows, concerts, and obviously thousands of possibilities to go shopping. This shopping week is every year. But be warned the concerts are very popular and you have to come super early (seriously early) to get a spot. My friends waited in line seven hours before the beginning of the concert (I came a bit later because I had university) and we got in but were quite far from the stage. Anyway, I was so happy to see my favourite band, therefore, it was worth waiting for.

K-pop Music Shows
Kpop band I.O.I.

Another possibility is to attend K-pop music shows which are pretty popular in Korea, for example, Simply K-Pop (Arirang TV), MTV The Show (SBS MTV), Show Campion (MBC), M Countdown (Mnet), Music Bank (KBS2), Music Core (MBC), or Inkigayo (SBS). I did not gain any experience with this but found a good article about how to attend these kinds of shows as a foreigner by KoreabyMe, click here to read it.

If want to read more tips for free events and entrances to cultural institutions then you should read my blog post about Culture on a budget – free trips, museum admissions and discounts.

You have read the blog post How to see your K-pop idols for free on My Travel Journal-Blog.

University, Hangul & Samul Nori – My first week in Seoul

Streets of Seoul

To me, South Korea and Seoul itself are full of new experiences, differences in culture, language script, food and even in everyday life. It’s a country full of opposites. New-age Korea with all of its high modern technic versus the old traditional Korea with all of its palaces and Hanbok – This post is about my first week as an exchange student in Seoul.

EWHA Womans University with the view in direction of the city

💡 Facts about South Korea and Seoul
The official name of South Korea is the Republic of Korea (Daehan Minguk in Korean, 대한민국). The official language is Korean and the official script is Hangul. After Second World War the country was divided into North and South Korea. Since then, North Korea is the only borderline of South Korea. The capital of the Republic of Korea is Seoul. It is also the largest city in the country and the 16th largest city in the world. Circa 50% of the population from South Korea live in the metropolitan area of Seoul.

Finally, my semester abroad in Seoul started. After 18 hours and a little stop-over in Abu Dhabi, I finally arrived in Seoul. South Korea has a time difference of seven hours compared to my home country Germany. Lucky me, I hadn’t to deal with jet lag plus the weather is just very nice – Something between late summer and early autumn.

Living expenses and grocery shopping in South Korea
Clown and girl on the street

I am studying at the EWHA Womans University. The campus is really beautiful and even a little tourist attraction in Seoul. Rents and especially deposits are disproportionated high in South Korea (at least compared to Germany), which is why I am happy to stay in a dormitory (even though in the beginning it was a real fight, read more here: Curfew. Woman’s University. Visa. And lots of preparation.) The living expenses are rather high in South Korea, which makes the country so expensive compared to Germany (and many other countries). Also, the food prices in supermarkets are higher, especially, fruits and vegetables are quite expensive (for example, five apples cost approximately 6,500 ₩, these would be 5.80$). Unsurprisingly, groceries which include (for Asia) uncommon ingredients are also pricey. This includes all kinds of milk products as cheese and chocolate, but also most of the bread. And for a reason – nobody understands – toilet paper seems to be a luxus article as well.

❗️ Tips for groceries and toilet article
We bought our toilet requisites including toilet paper but also sweets and some basic food in the discounter around the corner of our university. A common and good one is the Japanese shop Daiso. You can look after street hawkers or local markets mostly it is cheaper there for fruits and vegetables.
Also do not forget, some toiletries are especially expensive in Korea (or actually the whole of Asia). Therefore, my tip is to bring enough deodorant (most Asian do not use it because they do not sweat as much – therefore it is hard to find but really expensive), tampons, and especially sunscreen. Latter is not really hard to get but can be really pricey plus most sunscreen includes whitener because the Korean (and also other Asian) ideal of beauty is pale skin.
Dining outside – restaurants

Even though, grocery shopping feels quite expensive to me, eating out is actually really affordable. I wondered really often how it can be that cooking for yourself seems to be more expensive than actually dining outside. I heard that special groups of society like families and restaurant owners get a card with which they can do cheaper grocery shopping (but I have no proof this is true). I guess a few points which make going to restaurants quite cheap compared to many other Western countries are three main points. First of all, you always get free water or cold tea with your food (you only pay for additional drinks). Second, usually, you get free side dishes like Kimchi, yellow radish, other vegetables, or rice (it depends a bit on your meal) and you mostly also reorder them for free. Third, Koreans do not tip.

Fast food, street food and markets

But I noticed very fast that even when eating out is comparatively cheap (to me) it is still too expensive to do so every day. The cheapest meals you can get are probably street food and meals from the local markets. As well as from convenience stores like my favourite snack Samgak Kimbab (triangle Kimbab). Also, the prices depend a lot on the district. I noticed that the street food in the student districts is way cheaper than in the city centre. Another really common way is to order food. I feel like most shops have their own delivery services, even the fast-food chains. One of the favourite spots to order food and have a picnic is the Han River. When we went there in my first week we got 41 different flyers (I counted them) for delivery services in Seoul, most of them offering Fried Chicken or Pizza.

❗️Tips for eating out
Not surprisingly, the cheaper restaurants are outside of the centre. The restaurants owned by Ajummas (아줌마, middle-aged Korean women) or Ahjussis (아저씨, middle-aged Korean men) with traditional Korean food are usually cheaper as well but they will not speak English or offer a translated menu. But usually, the menus have some pictures (or even a display window with the meals). Also ordering food is quite easy (literally the only word I knew when I went to a restaurant), just say the name of the meal and behind it Juseyo (주세요), it means please, for example, Bibimbab Juseyo (비빔밥주세요).
Also, one restaurant my roommate and I love is the Food Café. They have common dishes as Kimbab, Jajangmyeon (black bean noodles), or omelette. As far as I know, the restaurant exists close to Gangnam and Sinchon.
The other way around, all kinds of restaurants which offer so-called Western food are usually more pricey.
Learning new language characters
King Sejong who invented Hangul
King Sejong who invented Hangul

Hangul (한글) is the official written language in Korea. Although it looks really complicated, it’s not that difficult to learn. My university book for Korean classes says it’s the 12th widely used language in the world and ahead of Italian and French (sounds unbelievable, I know).
Hangul was invented in 1443 by King Sejong, the fourth monarch during the Joseon Dynasty. The new language script was supposed to help ordinary people to write and read. Because before Hangul, Korean was written in Chinese characters. One says a wise man could learn Hangul in one day, a stupid man could learn it in ten days. I have Korean classes twice a week, so I learned Hangul in seven days ;). The modern Hangul has 24 letters and 27 digraphs. But also if you don’t speak the Korean language, especially Seoul has many English speaking people who will try to help you and the metro signs and the station announcements are also in English.

Samulnori Traditional Korean dance and music
Samul Nori

Samulnori is a genre of traditional Korean music and dances (read more in my blog post about Traditional Korea). My roommate and I were lucky to see such a dance performed by Korean students at our university. Samulnori means literally translated playing four things which already explains the use of four different percussion instruments. They have a small gong (Kkwaenggwari), a larger gong (Jing), an hourglass-shaped drum (Janggu) and a barrel drum (Buk drum). The students wore beautiful Korean dresses, called Hanbok. They had two students, which were dressed differently in pink jackets. These two had small gongs and provided the rhythm. Some students from the audience ran to the dancers and clipped some banknotes under their hats.
There was also a little ceremony in the beginning. We didn’t understand what they were saying (because it was in Korean), but one girl had a pig mask. Pigs count as a lucky charm here. Some of the girls were standing in a line, got something to drink, then they had to kneel down. After they got up, they gave some little papers to the pig mask. My guess is that they wrote down some of their wishes.

Read more

Other things I joined in during my first week were a museums visit during Culture Day, and a free trip to the South of Korea. Culture Day is an initiative of the country offering free entrances and discounts on cultural facilities. I visited the Seoul Museum of History. It shows the history and culture of Seoul from the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) to the present day. It represents the living of the people in Korea, also during the Japanese colonial era until the late 1990s.
The free trip was sponsored by the Korean government to show foreigners around their country. We went to a little island, different festivals and another museum about Korean art. You can read more about Culture Day and how to join in a free trip in my blog post Culture on a budget – free trips, museum admissions and discounts.

First written on Friday, September 16th, 2016, you have read the blog post University, Hangul & Samul Nori – My first week in Seoul on My Travel Journal-Blog.


Culture on a budget – free trips, museum admissions and discounts

Fish shaped lanterns on the lantern festival in Seoul

The Culture Day in Korea offers free museum visits and discounts, the government invites foreigners to free trips, and national holidays await you with many activities and festivities. Sounds good? Then you should read the following blog post.

Korea has a lot of cultural sides to offer with its own traditions and modern pop culture – even though the country was influenced by many different Asian countries, especially China but also the USA. Particular Seoul offers a lot of museums, palaces, festivities, and events you should not miss. I have been on two free trips for foreigners and visited a bunch of museums for free. Let me tell you how.

Culture Day and free entrance to museums

Since 2014, every last Wednesday of the month is Culture Day. This particular day offers discounts or sometimes even free entrance and extended opening hours for all kinds of museums, galleries, and other cultural facilities. Usually, on Culture Day, most museums including the king’s palaces have free admission and cinemas offer a discount. I really love the idea behind it and I think it is such a good experience to explore a lot of Korea’s culture on a budget. I have used Culture Day to visit a bunch of museums in Seoul including the Seoul Museum of History and the National Museum of Korea.

Riders on horses on the lantern festival 2016
Free events, festivals and attractions
Peacock at the Lantern Festival 2016

Besides Culture Day you should also take a look for free events, festivals and attractions. Especially South Korea’s capital Seoul has a lot to offer. One of my favourite ones was the Lantern Festival at Cheonggyecheon, the little river starting at the city hall. The festival returns every winter with free admission. Another big festival is the Seoul International Fireworks Festival at the Han River at the beginning of October. Every year, two to three changing countries plus Korea create a show of fireworks. During the day, there is a programme, in 2016 there was a K-pop concert as well (with B1A4, I.O.I., 24K, and Mamamoo), and in the evening there was an after-party with a DJ. The festival was very well organised and even with traffic control on the subway to make sure that the subway is not getting too full and everyone gets home safe.

Public holidays for discounts

You should also take a look at the public holidays in Korea because they also bring free entrance, festivities or discounts. The biggest holidays are Seollal (설날) – the Korean New Year on the first day of the Korean calendar, and Chueseok (추석) – the Korean harvest festival in autumn. When I was in Korea we got a 50% discount as foreigners on Chuseok to visit famous amusement and water parks in Seoul (the downside, it was pretty full because of the holidays). Another holiday you should watch out for is Buddhas birthday in late spring. It is the perfect day to visit one of the Buddhist temples because they celebrate the day with different festivities and beautiful lanterns.

Tips for the king’s palaces

If you visit the Gyeongbokgung and Deoksugung Palace in Seoul make sure to attend the changing ceremonies of the royal guards. The shows are for free and right in front of the king’s palaces (before you enter). If you visit the king’s palaces wearing a Hanbok (Korean traditional clothing) you also get free admission. Otherwise, you can save money by buying the Integrated Palace Ticket to visit more than one sight. For more information read my post about Traditional Korea.

Free trips for foreigners

When I visited South Korea back in 2016, I was lucky enough to attend two free trips in the South of the country. The idea behind the trips is to bring foreigners closer to the Korean culture and improve tourism by offering them free tours and cultural events, which are sponsored by the government. On my first trip, we went to the Great Battle of Myeongnyang Festival, the Korean Minhwa Museum with traditional Korean paintings, and the little island 가우도 (Ga-u-do). The second trip included the visit of the Naeso Temple in Buan, the Gomso Salted Sea Food Festival, the International Integrative Medicine Expo and Woodland in Jangheung. The latter is a cypress forest and offers a bunch of activities and facilities. Apparently, it is also a known spot for TV productions as the K-drama Faith.

Free tours and silkworm pupas
Beondegi (Korean silkworm pupa)

Just a little story from one of the trips: at the Sea Food Festival, my roommate Jazz convinced me (plus two other US-Americans and two Koreans who apparently never tried it before) to eat our first (and for me at least also last) Beondegi. This is a silkworm pupa, a Korean snack. What can I say, I thought it would be crusty – well it was not. I guess the worst part was the juicy consistency and the knowing of what I actually ate. Probably I would not recommend it (little fun fact: in 2019 I became a Vegetarian).

❗️ I did the free trips with Kim’s Community Travel. As far as I know, nowadays it is a combination of free tours and really cheap trips overnight. Another fun fact: The organiser of Kim’s travels Dongryeong also founded a community house. It was a shared flat with foreigners from around the world. Given that sharing flats are not a thing in Korea the shared flat got national attention when the TV channel KBS made a reality series out of it. You can find Kim’s Community House on Facebook as well.

First written on Friday, September 16th, 2016, you have read the blog post Culture on a budget – free trips, museum admissions and discounts on My Travel Journal-Blog.

Jjimjilbang – One night in a Korean sauna

Jjimjilbang

What is it like to spend a night in a Jjimjilbang? I have given it a try, together with Lea from France and Xiao Ying from China – two of my fellow students from Seoul. We got to know the differences to conventional saunas, slapped eggs on our heads and made a “sheep head”.

Street of Seoul at night
💡 What is a Jjimjilbang?
A Jjimjilbang (찜질방) is a Korean public bathhouse with various saunas, pools, showers, and a relaxation area that is typically open 24 hours. Usually, the place has a larger common area with lounges and TVs, exercise rooms, restaurants, sleeping quarters, and of course different temperature saunas. In these areas, it is mandatory to wear clothing that is handed out at the entrance. There are also areas divided into men and women with hot tubs, steam baths, showers, and sometimes massage tables. Here it is intended to be naked.

As soon as our semester abroad ended, our university was kind of in a hurry to get rid of us. We already have had our graduation ceremony ten days earlier – with a little celebration and handing over of the certificates, although we had not even written our final exams at this point. The last day of the university also meant that we had to move out of our dormitory rooms – meanwhile, some of us still had to take their final exams, as my roommate Jazz. The university’s hurry was also due to the fact that the new students who had rented the dormitories during the semester break should have the chance to move in immediately.

The next day, I was planning on taking a bus to Busan, the second biggest city of South Korea with around 3.4 million inhabitants. But there was (so far) one more night left in Seoul. – And where could we have spent it any better than in a Jjimjilbang.

Lea, Xiao Ying and I met in the early evening in Sinchon – a district for students in Seoul – for having dinner and to spend the end of the day in a Korean bathhouse in the neighbourhood. The Jjimjilbang was comparatively small. At the entrance, we were given clothing – a t-shirt and short sweatpants as well as two small towels. Mine was in light pink. After we left our bags in a locker at the entrance we were ready to explore the Jjimjilbang.

Jjimjilbang as a replacement for taxis
Inside one of the saunas

Jjimjilbangs are one of the cheapest possibilities to stay overnight in South Korea. Depending on the size it usually costs between 10,000 and 12,000 Won (8.50-10.50 USD) per visit. It gets even a little cheaper if you do not stay overnight. During the day, Jjimjilbangs are a popular destination for families. At night time they serve as cheap accommodations after work or in favour of party people (either way because they are too drunk to find their keys or the taxi for going home is just too expensive – because Korea has no public transport at night).

A sauna for chatting, reading, and relaxing

The saunas of our Jjimjilbang were housed in bright coloured igloos made of stone with small windows facing the common area. On the ground of the saunas were pebbles covered with thin mats to prevent burning the soles of one’s feet. The igloos have dim lighting. The atmosphere is calm and relaxing. At least the main sauna where we were sitting was not too hot in order to comfortably last for some time. Actually, Jjimjilbangs are designed for longer stays and differ from a conventional sauna in its temperature, which is usually between 40 and 70 degrees Celsius (between 104 to 158 degrees Fahrenheit). The stay reminded me of a very hot summer day. Those days where you already start sweating while sitting around. Someone was even lying next to us and reading comfortably. Jjimjilbangs are often used to chat with friends or just relax a bit. The kind of saunas I know from Europe, dry saunas and steam baths are way hotter. Usually, they have temperatures between 50 to 100 degrees Celsius (between 122 to 212 degrees Fahrenheit).

An oven as a sauna

A few weeks later I visited a way larger Jjimjilbang in Hongdae, another student district in Seoul in the neighbourhood of Sinchon. There they had a much bigger selection of saunas. Including some which work as a sort of oven (한증막). These are significantly hotter with temperatures up to 135 degrees Celsius (up to 275 degrees Fahrenheit). In the Jjimjilbang I had visited, existed a small rounded stone house which was formed like an oven with a narrow passage to keep the heat indoors. Inside it was comparative dark. On the other end was a walled-in fireplace for burning coal. It was absolutely silent. Talking takes too much energy in the heat. Every visitor had to bring an hourglass inside to make sure to not exceed the prescribed maximum time in order to not overload one’s body. I was sitting close to the exit because the heat was increasing towards the back.
Unlike the Finnish saunas which are the most common ones in Europe, the saunas in Korea (normally) do not have benches. Instead, all visitors sit on the floor – the material is mostly stone covered with mats or planks. In Korea, it is common to take a sauna in clothing (except in the gender-segregated areas).    

The sheep head – the fashion trend of the sauna

Lea, Xiao Ying and I got quite fast into a conversation with three Korean women in our age – here in South Korea going to a sauna is definitely also a common evening activity instead of karaoke or watching a movie. We noticed that the three had folded their towels in a special way by rolling the ends up. I have read that this trend gained national attention in 2005 introduced through a K-drama (My Lovely Sam-Soon) and since then it has become a cute fashion trend in saunas. Because of its look, it is called sheep head and even has a practical purpose. The towel around the head is supposed to ensure that you sweat more but also protects the hair from the heat. The three Korean women willingly taught us the correct folding technique.

💡 Dressed vs. naked
As already mentioned, Koreans take their saunas in clothes. The Korean etiquette prescribes to stay dressed in front of the opposite gender. It appears way looser in the gender-segregated areas. There it is common to show yourself naked. This applies to both saunas as well as for example changing rooms of public swimming pools (read more about my visit to a water park in Seoul in my blog post about Daily Life in South Korea Pt. I).     
Why my friend hit soy eggs against her head …

Every Jjimjilbang has at least one kiosk if not even its own restaurant. The most popular snacks are eggs steamed in soy sauce and Sikhye, a Korean rice drink that is served in cups with straws. I have read that some eggs even get cooked by taking them into the oven-like and therefore hottest saunas. My food decision was rather unusual because I bought ice cream and a Korean beer. But my friend ordered the famous eggs. She wanted to try opening the eggs by slapping them against her head (but I am afraid she would not recommend this technique). She got the idea from a K-drama which aired at the time (The Legend of the Blue Sea). In this drama, the main female character Shim Cheong (Jun Ji-hyun) spends a night in a Jjimjilbang and cracks her eggs with the mentioned technique. Anyway, this does not seem like a common way of peeling eggs since in the series the main lead handles a lot of things a bit extraordinary. But in her defence, she is a mermaid.

Steam bath and whirlpool

Little by little, we tried a steam bath as well as a whirlpool in the women’s area. I also let myself kneaded by a massage chair. The latter was actually quite pleasant the only thing was that the chair also massaged my calves and feet which was rather uncomfortable. That is why I cheated a bit and changed my seat to cross-legged to avoid the massage on my legs. After all the sauna visits we were finally tired enough to go to sleep. There was a common igloo for men and women to sleep. Since my fellow student did not want to sleep in the same room as foreign men we decided to sleep in one of the rooms in the separated area for women. The sleeping rooms are equipped with thin mats and hard pillows. The next morning ended with a shower and the checkout.   

You have read the blog post One night in a Korean sauna on My Travel Journal-Blog.

A few minutes in North Korea – JSA & DMZ

The borderline of Korea is one of the best-guarded ones in the world. Between peace and freedom village, blue houses, soldiers, conflicts and secret tunnels lay a tourist attraction between North and South Korea.

Korea was over 35 years the colony of Japan before it got independent in 1945 after the Second World War. But only a few years later the Soviet Union and the United States divided the country into South (Republic of Korea) and North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) in 1948. Two years later North Korea attacked the Southern part during the Korean War (1950-1953) which recessed the separation. Afterwards, the countries worked for a peaceful reunification which did not occur until today.

JSA and DMZ

Since I was more than four months in South Korea, of course visiting the borderline of its only neighbour country was on my bucket list.
The DMZ is the Demilitarized zone, four kilometres long and de facto the borderline of North and South Korea. In 1953, both countries signed an armistice agreement which says that soldiers are not allowed to cross the line and do not attack each other.

“Don’t worry the man in the back is here to protect you!”

JSA is the abbreviation for Joint Security Area and is directly at the borderline. First of all, we got an introduction to the JSA and it’s mostly Don’ts from American soldiers, who are still based at the border from South Korea. Actually, before I went on the tour I already got a whole list of clothes which are not allowed to wear at JSA. Forbidden are shorts, ripped jeans, t-shirts, flip-flops or also sportswear. They really pay a lot of attention that North Korean soldiers don’t find a reason to feel provoked.

First, we crossed the freedom house in rows of two on the South side. Our tour guide led us to one of the blue houses. These are conference rooms who are used by the two Korean countries to negotiate with each other. In the middle of this room is a long table who markers the exactly borderline. The room has two entrances, one on the South Korean side, one on the North side. A Korean soldier guards the door to prohibit that North Koreans can enter the conference room. Tourists are allowed to go on the other side of the table. Yeah, I was at least for five minutes in North Korea. The American soldier who guided our tour told us that the people on his side of the table are still in South Korea – and save. But we others would not need to worry, the soldier on the door would protect us. To be honest, I wasn’t worried before he told me this. But this sentence really emphasized the seriousness of the situation. It feels kind of surreal. The poor Korean soldier next to the North Korean door was our favourite background motive for the next twenty tourist photos. But he looked really so cool with his sunglasses (all South Korean soldiers were sunglasses – and yes, even if the sun isn’t shining).

Souvenirs from North Korea

North Korean Soldier

We were only allowed to take photos from the North Korean side with the Panmun-gak (the building of North Korea) but not from the Freedom house on the South Korean side. This is kind of ironical since I heard that you can also visit JSA in North Korea. There it’s only allowed to take photos from the South Korean side. Along the blue houses stand the soldiers from North and South. At which the North Koreans mostly hide in the building. But we were lucky and could see one North Korean in front of the other building. I used my zoom to take a look at some North Korean soldiers. It felt a bit crazy to stand there and observe them. But the American soldier assured us that they also observed us from the other side and made probably some photos from us. – Weird thought.

After the visit of the directly borderline, we went to a small museum and a souvenir shop. There you can buy souvenirs from North Korea. They sell different things, among other things also money and alcohol. I bought an old 100 KRW banknote with the face of Kim Il-sung on the top, the father of Kim Jong-un, the actual leader of North Korea. I heard that if you visit North Korea you never get the North Korean money but pay everything in US Dollar to your guide who pays for you in the local currency. So it is really interesting that you can buy North Korean money here in South Korea.

Panmunjeon and Bridge of No Return

Former Panmunjeon was a village in Korea. Today there is the inter-military complex of JSA. Almost 65 years ago North Korea, China, and the UNO signed the armistice agreement to end the Korean War in 1953. The building where the agreement was signed is still preserved and today stands in a province of North Korea. The borderline and JSA kept the name and is still called Panmunjeon. Close to Panmunjeon is also the Bridge of No Return which is a bridge between the two countries and has its name from the former Korean War. The bridge was used to exchange the prisoners and prohibit them to return ever in the other country.

Freedom vs. Peace

View to the Peace Village

A few people still live close to the border. On the South Korean side is this the village Daeseong-dong, also called freedom village. There live mostly farmers who already lived there before the Korean War or are directly progenies of the former residents. The village also has its own school. The inhabitants profit by special benefits as the exempt from taxes. Soldiers guard them and they have a curfew which forbids to leave their houses after 11pm. On the other side in North Korea is the closest locality Kijŏng-dong, also called peace village. Our US-soldier and tour guide explained to us that they call it propaganda village because the houses would only be dummies and they do not believe that people would live there. North Korea claims that families live in the peace village and there would be also a health center, kindergarten, and schools.
In both villages are flagpoles. After South Korea built its flagpole, North Korea also built one. This flagpole was higher and until a few years the highest in the world.

German history meets Korea

Our group also visited the last train station Dorsan in South Korea right infront of the borderline. Theoretically, Dorasan connects South Korea with North, practically, there are no trains leaving the station from here. But a big sign in the entrance hall says “To Pyongjang” and we could buy train tickets for around 1 Dollar. We also could go to the tracks. Our tour guide told us that the station was built to connect both countries in case of a reunification and could immediately send trains to North Korea’s capital. From this station, we could also listen to some music from North Korea coming out of loudspeakers. That felt really weird.

The station of Dorsan also represents some history. There is a piece of the Berlin Wall. On both sides are boards. On the left side with the dates of the German reunification (41 years, 4 months and 11 days), on the right side an electronic one which counts even in seconds the division of Korea. Our guide told us that they would stop the counting immediately if Korea would become one country again. A small wagon shows old newspaper articles and photos of the reunification of Germany plus some relicts from the former DDR (German Democratic Republic, East Germany). The German reunification reminds the visitors of the train station that also the reunion of Korea seems possible.

Peace and Destroying (3rd tunnel)

Also part of the DMZ-Tour is the visit of the 3rd tunnel. This tunnel was built by North Korea together with three other tunnels which cross the DMZ. In the beginning, they denied that they built them but the walls proof that dynamite blows up the earth from North to South. The 3rd tunnel was discovered in 1978. South Korea believes that North Korea built these tunnels to send their men fast to South Korea in case of another war. It is evaluated that around 30,000 soldiers could walk within an hour from North Korea to Seoul to start an surprise attack. But the tunnel was never finalised. The UN charged North Korea for breaking the agreement between the two countries.

We got a yellow protective helmet for visiting. First, we needed to go downstairs. The tunnel is around 70 metres under the earth and at some points so small that even I needed to move in my head.  Nowadays, the tunnels are blocked by cement blocks but visitors of the 3rd tunnel can walk forward until one of the blocks and look through a window until the next one. It was a weird feeling to walk in this narrowed tunnel system under the earth and so close to the border. South Korea believes that they are probably more than the four secret tunnels underground just they did not find them yet.

 

Traditional Korea

South Korea is still full of traditions and folkways. Seoul by oneself has five old King Palaces and different Hanok Villages, where the old Korean traditions are still alive.

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Hanok Village

The different Hanok Villages offer the opportunity to visit old traditional Korean houses, to take  a look at the architecture and also a look inside of the rooms. The houses are preserved from the past and more than 100 years old. dscn7868We were in the Namsangol Hanok Village. The entry is free. This village shows again the combination out of traditional and modern life in Korea, around the beautiful houses are skyscraper. I was really surprised, how small the rooms and houses were. At the entrance gates are everywhere warnings that you should pay attention because the gates are so low. Even for me, it was a problem (and I really don’t know many people who are smaller than me). The architecture is totally incredible and beautiful. You will feel like you travelled back in time. The location is so nice that also many fresh married couples come to the Villages to take their wedding pictures.

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Samul nori

In the village, they also had little straw huts which remembered to tipis. In the past the function of the straw huts were to keep the Kimchi (traditional Korean food made out of Chinese cabbage), I was told, it worked similar to a fridge. In the center of the village, they have small games. At one game you have to throw arrows in a vase. – Really not so easy. But if you succeed the reputation from all bystanders is safe. We were also lucky and watched an old traditional dance, Samul nori. I already wrote a lot about this traditional music and dance in my last post (click here to read the article My first week in Seoul). But this time they also had headgears with long white ribbons and when they moved their heads the ribbons danced around their heads. That was really pretty.

In the Namsangol Hanok Village
Girls wearing Hanbok
 
 
 
 
 
Dancers of Samul nori
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The straw hut for Kimchi
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
In the village of Bukchon
 
 
 
 

Feel like a Korean princess

Hanboks are the traditional Korean clothes. In Korea, you can borrow these clothes and wear them. To borrow the clothes you have to pay between 10,000-20,000₩ (circa 9-18.20$). Depends on which dresses you want to wear and how long you want to borrow them. dscn8051One of the most important holidays in South Korea is Chuseok (추석), it is a family celebration. And at these days the whole city was full of Koreans wearing beautiful Hanboks. Chuseok means loosely translated autumn evening. It is equivalent to Thanksgiving and takes about three days.

King Palaces

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Deoksugung Palace

In the Joseon Dynasty Seoul had six palaces. Today five of them are still preserved: The Gyeongbokgung (the biggest), the Changdeokgung, the Deoksugung, the Changgyeonggung and the small Unhyeongung Palace.  In my opinion, visiting a Kings Palace is a must-see in South Korea. The entries are really low (between 1,000-3,000₩, ~0.90-2.70$), Unhyeongung Palace is for free. Also, the architecture here is really beautiful.

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Me with the Aekjeongseo Sayak (key master) and the Seungjeongwon Juseo (delivers the King’s orders)

The roofs are painted in vivid colours. Furthermore, the Gyeongbokgung and the Deoksugung Palace offer free little shows for tourists. There they show the changing ceremony of the royal guards. There you can see the different persons of the king guard and get a feeling for Korean history. If you are a big fan of the Korean architecture and palaces you should think of buying the “Integrated Palace Ticket” it offers the entry to four Kings palaces including the secret garden and the Jongmyo Shrine. The ticket costs 10,000 Won (~9$) and is valid thee months after purchase (you save around 4,000 Won when you use all tickets). Furthermore, people who were a Hanbok get always free entry.

The king guard infront of the Deoksugung Palace.
The main entrance of the Deoksugung Palace.
 
 
 
 
 
The colourful roof of the palace.
 
Western architecture in the midst of the traditional Korean houses. The Seokjojeon Hall, you need to register before if you want to visit the rooms.
 
 
The Deoksugung Art Museum
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The king guard march to the main Gate.