Even in the centre of Seoul, which seems hyper-modern with swipe cards that pay for everything, free, passwordless wi-fi on every corner and all the shopping opportunities you could ever ask for, you can find pockets of traditional Korea. If you don't want to wander around the back alleys (although that's highly recommendable!), a visit to Namsang Hanok Village is a great option for a fun afternoon out.

the master of the ceremony
Every weekend, they put on free shows of traditional Korean dance, music and theatre, demonstrate traditional crafts (you can try it for yourself or buy some) - and you can witness traditional Korean wedding ceremonies. Most Koreans now have something that is very similar to a western wedding (at least it looks that way) and purchase set wedding packages that include dress and venue hire (yup, Korean ladies hire their wedding dress), priest, catering and more.

Sometimes, this includes a short ceremony where both dress up in traditional Korean clothes - I though THAT was the traditional Korean weddding. Nope - the whole thing takes between 1 and 2 hours and includes traditional Buddhist songs and a complicated procedure that has to be carefully studied - and even then,

At the Hanok Village, couples can do this kind of ceremony for free if they accept the fact that a whole lot of tourist will gawk at them during the wedding - you don't need to be on the guest list, and don't even need to dress up - just show up (and should you get bored, you can just leave anytime, as did a giant tour group of Chinese tourists when I was there!).

When I went to the Hanok Village, I managed to see a special event - a Korean lady getting married to an English guy, who was endlessly patient and  managed not to look too confused in his traditional garb.

to be fair, the bride needed directions what to do, too...

Even during the week, this Hanok village in the city centre makes for a great visit, as the hanok (traditional wooden Korean houses) are set in a lovely park with plenty access to Korean street food.

Have you ever attended a wedding abroad?

I didn't quite believe my ragged old copy of Lonely Planet Japan when it said 'Even if you have spent months or years in Japan, Ritsurin is one of the places where it just hits you and you go - woah, I am REALLY in Japan'. Takamatsu, capital of Kanagawa prefecture in Shikoku, is pretty much off the tourist track - for Westernern, other East Asians and Japanese alike. Yet, the prefecture is in easy reach from the urban Kansai area (Osaka/Kyoto/Kobe) and home to many more sights - if you have some extra time, don't miss it!

prolific and giant koi!
On my last afternoon in Takamatsu, I had almost given the garden, which is a mile straight walk from the JR train station, a miss: it had been gloomy and raining all day, and after all, I had to do some souvenir shopping and make use of the free evening noodle snack and fancy Japanese bath my hotel offered (Takamatsu is also off the beaten path enough that it doesn't offer any budget accommodation except love hotels). But how can I resist the lure of Japanese classification, which calls it ones of Japan's 'Special Places of Scenic Beauty' (they sure know how to market stuff). So I gave it a go - while the garden was much smaller than I had expected (I am giving the garden a hard time, the parks I compare it to were London's Hyde Park of Osaka Castle Park, to be honest), even in slightly rainy weather is made for a nice stroll.

Ritsurin Garden was developed during the Edo period and was never of any great importance, which is why it apparently annoyed a lot of officials in Kyoto and Tokyo that is was so much nicer than their own gardens. 

 The pictures ended up being more scenic than my visit, though, as I had to keep finding somewhere to seek shelter from the rain!

The place  I looked most forward to in Barcelona itself was probably the Boqueria market. I know people visit Spain and marvel about tapas and paella, but most of the fare we encountered in Barcelona was much the same of everything, and apart from paella, heavy on sausages and cold cuts. Now if you love meat, that's going to impress you. This German with more than vegetarian tendencies wasn't.

However, La Boqueria offered a lot more than this - from Central American to Korean, from Spanish to Middle Eastern - this market right of the Ramblas in Barcelona offered a great choice and mixture of produce, snacks and take-away places plus some places you could sit down to eat.
The market has been on this spot since the 13. century, although today, I would say it's less traditional, with a 50/50 tourist/local ratio. Prices seemed very fair and quality of the fresh produce, particularly fish, was amazing!

We did manage to get ripped off at our second attempt to eat at the market, though - pointing to a wrap, the stall holders insisted on selling us a whole meal deal for €10 each for a mixture of coloured rice, pasta and salad leaves plus wrap and some water, and wouldn't let us go. It certainly put a damper on the experience and was another reminder that the market is a little more touristy than I tried to make myself believe.

What is the favourite market you have visited during your travels?

skinny asparagus!

mysteria fish/seaweed/ocean creatures

This could be lunch for me every day!
ham and Spain, inseparable!
salted cod - does anyone really eat this?

Catalan - making me read the language guide REALLY thoroughly
When I started high school and found out that there would be no French class but I'd have to take Spanish (or physics, *cough*) instead, I  remember being annoyed beyond belief - it was probably the last language I ever thought of learning. See, to me, Spain is a place I knew my fellow Germans to drive to for two weeks each year to drink €1 beers and get sunburnt. It never seemed like a country that held any other interest to me. When I travelled to South America, though, I was thankful for my school Spanish, which expanded quite a bit in three months spent there (mostly thanks to the chatty nature or South Americans).

Now I'm happy to have learnt Spanish, yet Spain was never high on my list of places to travel to. When a friend moved to Barcelona, I attempted to visit - three times I had already booked the flight and twice I was actually at the airport when the flight was cancelled. Something has always been in the way between me and Spain. 

After three attempts, I finally made it to Spain this month - well, that it, Catalonia, for a four day trip to Barcelona. I can understand Chilean mumbling, Mexican slang  and wacky Argentine grammar (and oh so sexy pronunciation!). I knew Catalan was different, but people kept comparing it to French, which I figured should make it even easier for me to understand - but what I heard people speak at the airport as we were queueing to board didn't resemble either language. Reading Catalan made sense to me, but I barely understood a word of anything anyone said. When people spoke to me, I panicked and resorted to English (and at one occasion, Japanese. I'm really good at speaking Japanese when under pressure!).

They say that most people in Barcelona will instinctively address foreigners in Spanish - this happened exactly twice during my time in Barcelona, when checking in at our holiday apartment, and when ordering wine and empanadas at an Argentine bar (with Argentinian waiter). I guess I still don't look foreign enough for most Mediterranean people.

Yet, I enjoyed the experience, even though I admit resorting to English more than was probably necessary... I hate going somewhere and not being able to speak the language at least a little bit. It makes me feel like the cliché German or British tourist who travels to a warm country to eat and drinker for cheaper than at home, and ignores the culture.Which, to my surprise, seems to be what most people in Barcelona were expecting anyway. Or is the culture really that close to North-Western Europe?

sometimes, not talking is good, too
After my first Spain experience, I have to admit, it's not gone any higher on my list of 'must visit' countries. Barcelona is an interesting city and I am happy to have visited some places I've always wanted to go to, but there was no 'wow, it's so amazing' moment during the trip, even compared to much smaller European cities. Nevertheless, I'll be sharing some pictures and stories about places we went to the next weeks.

Have you ever been confused by any 'accents' of (and yes, I know Catalan is its own language, not an accent) of a language you thought you knew?

(for Part 1 of the trip, click here)
not one for touristy shots, even I couldn't resist

After lunch, we got on the bus again. Another 20 minutes later we entered the joint security area, or what is known as the “Demilitarized Zone”, a 40 km wide, heavily guarded area around the border of North and South Korea. At the first checkpoint, a soldier boarded our bus to check our passports and explained that it's not allowed to take pictures from now on.

Ironically, over the past 20 years, this has developed into a green belt with almost untouched nature. There are quite a few farms on the South Korean side. As you can imagine, farming here is heavily subsidized – there's no shops, no public transport, but a 11 pm – 5 am curfew, and yes, the fact that North Korea is just on your doorstep. Our guide estimated that the farmers here earn double of what top business men make in Seoul.

Our next checkpoint was in front of the JSA building, which is part of a complex that houses the room where conferences and talks between North and South Korea are held (and attended by other UN members – the US, and confusingly also Poland and Norway). Here, our passports and also our fashion sense was checked once again – jeans, t-shirts or anything with English text on, military style clothing (d'uh!) or anything deemed too sexy was forbidden. Equally, we were told not to make any gestures or pull silly faces toward the North Korean side.
The reason for this, according to Laura, was that if North Korean soldiers in the building opposite feel provoked (or you look too hot ;) ), they will take a picture of you and use it for propaganda in North Korea, so they can say “Look at those American savages! They have no decency. We've got it so much better here!” I kind of enjoy the idea that picture of me waving in a gay pride shirt will be used for propaganda North Korea, but well... rules are rules (and you shouldn't mess with them here! One girl tried to take a picture of the outdoor area while on the bus and the soldier sacked her camera. Indefinitely).

Next, we entered the front building, which looked like a nondescript, grey university or school building. We were given a 10 minute slide show presentation on North/South Korean relations and other countries involved and had to sign a paper stating that we accept that the UN doesn't guarantee for our safety, and that there is a chance of death (we got to take this home). From here on, we had to walk in orderly kindergarten style rows of two people. Oh, and walking fast or jumping was also forbidden, lest someone mistakes us for a North Korean deserter and accidentally shoots you. There's not end to the fun in the DMZ.

Finally, around 3.30 pm, we made is to the part that we had come there for – the border and conference room between North and South Korea, with North Korea in front of us. We could walk into the conference room and over the border within the building, not over the outside border. Actually, the North Korean soldiers (they don't come out when tourists are there apparently) face this border in a group of three people, while there are only two on the South Korean side. Why three? Two of them face south and one North – this way, they can control the situation should one of the North Korean soldiers decide to desert (as they are literally standing a metre away from the border). If the country can't trust it's highest ranking military officials, imagine the kind of control they exercise over common people. It's also hard to believe that the soldiers of both countries face each other for hours, every day, share the same language and never even utter a word to each other. The atmosphere there is insanely tense, in a way I am not sure how to describe. It's somewhere between completely hopeless, life threatening and ridiculously silly. 
We got to take some pictures but where in and out of this whole area within 5 minutes. There's 500 – 900 tourists coming here each day, the schedule is tight. Afterwards, we got to spend 20 minutes in the souvenir shop, where quite a lot of chatty American soldiers (who also guard the border, alongside South Korean soldiers) were hanging out and you could buy liquor made in North Korea (I have to admit I was tempted, but then remember stories about Chinese liquor that made people go blind), as well as North Korean soldier action figures and all the military tourist crap you can imagine. After that, it time to go back to Seoul – which, by the way, is just a little more than an hours drive from the border.

So, was the trip worthwhile and would I recommend it? Is it a tourist trap? To some extent, yes, but the gravity of the situation means it's not cheesy or predictable. You won't learn anything dramatically new if you already know a bit about Korean history (when in Seoul, the History Museum is my recommendation over the overwhelming and slightly tasteless War Museum). The tour is heavily regulated, and you actually spend a fraction of your time (as in, 45 minutes, of which half the time is in the souvenir shop) in the DMZ that you don't spend on the bus. I wouldn't exactly say it's an “enjoyable” tour. Yet, I feel it's an important experience where you get a feel of what a total lack of freedom and human rights might feel like. If anything, it will make you appreciate Seoul's superficial, consumerist culture a bit more.

I've always been intrigued to visit the „world's most dangerous border“, as the border between North and South Korea is often called, but on my previous visit to Korea, my fear of military crazed tourists held me back – in Sarajevo and Japan, I've had to witness that “military” sights often attracted military and war fanatics with politically right tendencies, and I have a very low tolerance for these kind of people.

But alas, my curiosity about North Korea would die down, and so this time, I invested the $80 for a day trip from Seoul. There are many different types of tours, and many do not actually take you to the border area, but just to the area around it and some of the tunnels that North Korea dug to invade the south. So if you book a tour, make you get the right one (and that lunch is included, too, I've heard from many who went on tour that they were taken to tourist trap kind of, expensive and bad restaurants).

My trip started at the Lotte Hotel in Seoul, a swanky place that is part of a giant shopping centre. To my big surprise, there was a group of middle aged Brits in my tour group (a species rarely seen in Asia except for Thailand), along with a group of American college kids and another university aged group from Malaysia. Just as I though “Phew, no crazy army dudes!”, the tour guide, a perky Korean lady in her late 50s introduced herself. I don't want to sound paranoid, but Korean grandmothers are out to get me (no really, I get kicked, run over and shouted at by them, or at least get dirty looks every waking hour I spend in Korea).

“Laura” seemed an exception and was funny, kind, yet full of information and passion for her country's heritage and history. So I take back what I've said – not all Korean ladies are pure evil (still, most are). The first part of our visit was the spent at the War Museum which is actually inside Seoul, yet I hadn't taken the trip before. I like history, but war is not exactly my favourite topic. Like most Korean museums I've been to, this one was a firework of media and interactivity, but also full of information – too much to process on a short visit. If anyone is that much into the smallest details and battles of the Korean war, I can imagine that they can easily spend a day in here, though. I was a little confused by activities such as the “shooting centre” and “real time battle simulation”, though.

Memorial and altar to pray to ancestors buried in North Korea
There were many school groups with young kids, often kindergarten age, and I'm not sure if this is sending the right message (albeit I'm sure it keeps them entertained). After that, we drove north, and on our drive, already managed to see some of the hills of North Korea on the other side of the river. “Notice the difference?”, Laura asks. “Grey mountains. There are no trees on the mountains of North Korea, because that would make it difficult to observe what the North Korean public is up to."

The next stop was Imjimgak Park, the northernmost Park in South Korea. What's special about this place is that people whose ancestors are from the Northern Part of the Peninsula come here to honour ancestors during Korean New Year and Chuseok (Thanksgiving), where it's normally customary to return to your home town (i.e. the place where the graves of your ancestors are located). The park also hosts a few monuments, most strikingly the remains of a train all of whose passengers where shot during the war when North Korea attacked. 

After the park, it was time for lunch. At this point, I felt a little cheated regarding my time... it was already past 2 pm and we had left Seoul at 10 am. Did I really pay that much money to spend hours and hours on a bus?

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