Sunday, July 21, 2013

We've Got Seoul

We just got back from a long weekend in Seoul, which was a welcome respite. Seoul is a city with coffee shops on every corner, and even though it's surrounded by mountains, it doesn't suffer the pollution inversion Beijing faces. We were also lucky enough to stay in a lovely hotel with a great shower (you know you've been in China too long when you get excited that the shower is not situated over the toilet), a great gym (lap lanes in the pool, and treadmills where it isn't even possible to blare your individual TV screen), and coffee in the room. Coffee in the room.

When we could tear ourselves away from these delights, we did explore Seoul. The highlight was our daylong trip to the DMZ, a place Bill Clinton called the scariest place on earth. As we rode in our tour bus north out of Seoul, we started noticing barbed wire along the Hangang river, a waterway that connected north and South Korea. It started to feel more like a war zone, especially after we got our first sight of North Korea, where our guide told us the hills had been denuded of trees since the people used the wood for heat. It looked green and hilly, kind of like South Korea, although also spooky in some way that probably had more to do with our imaginations than anything.

The trip nearly ended on the bus for me. I had decided that Seoul's heat meant I should wear a skirt. I did see that the (unexplained) dress code for a visit to the DMZ listed no sandals or open-toed shoes (not wanting the North Koreans to see our decadent pedicures?), no miniskirts, and no faded jeans. I chastised Bob for his ratty, faded jeans. Meanwhile, when the South Korean soldier got on the bus to check our passports, he spied my knees peeking out and muttered something to our tour guide. I had broken two rules: I was wearing a sleeveless top (I forgot that rule) and my skirt was too short.

"You're too sexy for the North Koreans," Bob said.

"My skirt is NOT too short!" I said and stood up to show the guide the modest length of my skirt.

"Does it cover your knees?" she asked.

This is my Seoul look, pre-DMZ bag lady. There will be no pictures of that.
Right-hand side: South Korea. Left-hand side: North Korea.
Looking toward North Korea.

"Um, no," I said. But after she walked away I tugged the waistline down so that it sat lower on my hips. This was some sexy look: black and orange New Balance sneakers, a wrinkled white skirt that now looked more like a white garbage bag, and my sleeveless top covered up by Bob's windbreaker. Bag lady visits the DMZ. Or maybe I could call it Revenge for Gangnam Style. In any event, it passed muster with the humorless South Korean soldiers, who stood like statues facing the direction of the border with elbows slightly flexed and fists balled up. Bob dared me to dash over the concrete line separating north and south, which made me wonder just how much life insurance he could collect on me.

We were able to go into a building that straddled the line, and technically walk into North Korea, but the moment seemed anticlimactic after the Skirt Incident.

And that was that. The day before, we had another quasi-encounter with North Koreans on the flight from Beijing to Seoul. I noticed that the flight seemed to have an unusual number of short-haired young women wearing white blouses, and I kept mistaking them for flight attendants. But as we got off the flight, we noticed a line of security guards meeting us as we got off the plane, and then another mob of police at baggage claim. Suddenly I saw that all the young women had donned black blazers with some kind of pin. I couldn't get close enough to see what kind of pin. When we exited the baggage claim area, there was a giant scrum of cameras.

"Who is it?" I asked a security guy at a desk.

"North Koreans!" he said in an excited whisper. "Football!"

We found out it was the North Korean women's national soccer team.

Guards wait for the North Korean women's soccer team to file out to their bus.

I tried to imagine what it must have been like for them to arrive at Incheon airport, one of the most modern airports in the world, and drive past the giant phallic rocket model lit up in pink and purple in the summer night, and then to see (if only from their bus) a city that was wealthy, orderly, friendly, and quiet, the evenings disturbed only by fiesty rallies from Falung Gang protesters or demonstrations of Tai Kwan Do, and billboards with pictures of Chanel, movie stars, and Outback Steakhouse.

I'm a westerner living in Beijing, and I couldn't believe how excited I was to order Dunkin Donuts coffee. These girls probably didn't get a chance to try a green tea frappacino, but I like to think they were not that far away from that variety of capitalistic decadence either.

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