The Seoul spirit

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Gyeongbokgung Palace: the seat of Joseon dynasty that made Seoul its capital

‘Why Korea? This was the standard reaction from most of my friends when I was planning a trip to Seoul. Why not? The country is rich in history and culture. It is also blessed with plenty of natural beauty.

The Land of Morning Calm, that is what they call South Korea. Much of Korea today remains picturesque, but it is more renowned for its bustling high-tech cities and thriving industries. It is also home to the teenage craze sweeping the world: K-Pop.

All these were lost on my friends.

The trip stemmed from my teenage daughter’s interest in K-Pop. To me, it presented an opportunity to visit the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). I have always been enamoured by the fear and awe evoked by the DMZ, which was established as part of the armistice (there’s no peace treaty) to end the Korean War.

My interest was further stoked by the peace moves on the peninsula. Now that the war fears have receded, it was a good time to visit South Korea. A culture tour too was packed into the itinerary to learn of the heritage of Korea and savour its culinary delights. But my focus was the DMZ.

Only organised tours are allowed to the 257km Demilitarised Zone. An early morning drive along the Han River took us to the buffer zone at the 38th Parallel North in about an hour. Security checks, passport scrutiny and head counts followed. It was clear that we were entering a volatile area. We were in the DMZ, the world’s most heavily militarised border.

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Freedom Bridge: Rising above Imjin River, it was the site of prisoner exchanges.

Imjingak Park was the first stop. It offered a sweeping view of the green expanse of temperate forests. The Imjin River ran through it, bisecting the Koreas. A crossing that spanned the river united the divided nations. The Freedom Bridge gleamed in the morning sun. It was the site of prisoner exchanges at the end of the war.

The war ended in 1953, but a hostile atmosphere prevailed. The Third Infiltration Tunnel, which is a mere 52km away from Seoul, was a grim reminder of the tensions. Discovered in 1978, it is big enough allow 30,000 armed soldiers to pass through in an hour.

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Third Infiltration Tunnel. It is a mere 52km away from Seoul, a grim reminder of the tensions.

A trip down the tunnel is not one for the claustrophobic and the asthmatic. The shaft narrows considerably with craggy walls as it reaches closer to North Korea. The path is so steep that the return trek makes for a good workout.

Despite the violent past, Koreans still harbour hopes of reunification. “End of separation, beginning of unification,” the words on the Dora Observatory encapsulate the pain and optimism of Koreans. After all, 10 million families were torn asunder by the conflict.

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Dora Observatory: The nearest point to North Korea from the South

The Observatory is the nearest point to North Korea from the South. We could catch a glimpse of the border village in the North and the Gaeseong (or Kaesong) Industrial Complex. Barbed wire fences that cut a swathe through thick forests and rolling hills looked like a festering wound, reminding us of the horrors that lie beneath: landmines.

The Dorasan Station offered concrete proof of South Korea’s desire for reconciliation. The northern-most railway station has been readied to reconnect a people severed by the war. While the train to Pyongyang awaits the peace signal, we hit the road that wove past ginseng fields and bean farms back to the hotspots of Seoul.

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Myeong-dong Street: It’s a paradise for shopaholics.

Myeong-dong Street shone brightly with LED boards and neon lights. The premier shopping district was teeming with buyers and vendors. It’s a paradise for shopaholics. The street food looked irresistible, but fears of a stomach bug helped me fight off the temptations.

The culture tour turned out to be a fascinating experience. A visit to the National Folk Museum became an education in history and culture: the patriarchial system which places immense pressure on women to bear sons, traditional ceremonies following births, deaths and coming of age are all graphically retold. Much of Korea’s history resides in the precincts of Gyeongbokgung Palace, the seat of Joseon dynasty that made Seoul its capital. The palace still bears the scars of Japanese invasion and most of the burnt buildings were restored decades later.

A colourful Changing of Guard ceremony at the Gwanghwamun Gate rounded off our visit to the palace. That was the high point of the day’s trip that kicked off with a tour of the lotus-filled Jogyesa Buddhist Temple. The hot, muggy summer day sapped our energy. So, a trip to the Unesco World Heritage site of Changdeokgung Palace was struck off the tour.

It gave us the chance to enjoy some local delicacies. Our first attempt was great. Bulgogi was an inspired choice. Lots of salad and kimchi to go with the shredded grilled marinated beef. I steered clear of Bibimpap; the sticky glutinous rice is not for me. Instead, I opted for Beef Noodle Soup and Soft Tofu Stew. But I couldn’t try dishes I had in my mind – Ginseng Chicken Soup and Double Fried Chicken. Maybe, some other time. Right now, my taste buds are craving for some Indian masalas.

Yes, we hit the K-Pop trail but decided to forgo an obligatory trip to SM Town Atrium at COEX. A trip to Star Avenue in Eljiro was followed by some BT21 souvenir hunt at Line Friends store in Itaewon. “These are original,” my daughter gushed as we hurried to catch the Metro.

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Star Avenue: A must-see place for K-Pop fans

The Seoul Metro served us well. Despite the nine lines we never missed a train, a station or a transfer. We hailed a taxi only once, on the first day. As a mass transit system, the Seoul Metro rocks.

We went to the Lotte World too. But it paled in comparison to the amusement parks in the UAE. We skipped the N Seoul Tower, knowing fully well that it is no match for the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

Did I miss anything? Yes, the cherry blossoms.


A version of this post was published in gulfnews.com on August 29, 2018, titled Seoul searching in South Korea

High fear on Capilano

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The glass bridge in the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park in China, I’m sure you have seen it. The video clip went viral on social media some time ago. They have a glass walkway too, the Sky Walk that curves around a cliff draped in mist. The two transparent paths offer stunning but vertiginous views. Look at the drop, it is terrifying. So terrifying that some visitors could be seen crawling on all fours, bawling like children. I know the feeling. I know it.

Heights scare the daylights out of me. My head spins, my palms become clammy. Oddly enough, I enjoy cable car rides. Flights too have never been a problem, although I worry every time I fly. But that has nothing to do with heights.

I have acrophobia, a fear of heights. As a child I was fearless, climbing cashew trees and slithering down tall mango trees with ease. I could scale smaller coconut and areca nut palms without a qualm. I don’t remember exactly when heights started to freak me out. It must have been after my school days; because that is when my tree-climbing came to a halt. When I found out that I was acrophobic, I tried to fight it. The results were disastrous. Not that it stopped me from trying. Well mostly. I’ve always avoided rollercoasters.

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Last year, while on a holiday in Vancouver, I had an opportunity to put my fears to test with an obligatory trip to see the Capilano Suspension Bridge. The Sea to Sky Gondola ride went well the previous day, but the Capilano Suspension Bridge Park held untold terrors for me. Not to begin with. Because the Cliff Walk gave me a lot of confidence: I had walked around the ledge, nonchalantly looked over the railing at the canyon and even took pictures. The suspension foot bridge, however, turned out to be a beast.

Built in 1889 with thick ropes tied to Douglas fir trees, it has been a favourite of adrenaline junkies, movie stars, rock stars and royalty. About 450 feet long, it rises 230 feet high above the Capilano River.

The bridge was packed when we got there. Children of all ages ran back and forth on the narrow path. The elderly too crossed it with slow but steady strides. That was enough motivation for me. I mustered enough courage to step on the bridge.

Fifty metres out I looked down at the canyon and the gurgling water below. That was a mistake. It reduced me to a quivering wreck. I stopped for a while, gathered my wits and bravely resumed my slow trek. And then the bridge started swaying. My heart leapt to my throat, sweat ran down my ankles.

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The swirling wind made the swaying worse. But I determinedly waved away my daughter who ran back to help and scowled at my wife who offered her arm. I wanted to conquer my fears. And I did not want any help to do it. I was certain the bridge would not collapse. There was no way I would fall off it. Yet I cowered in fear. That’s acrophobia and me.

With one hand firmly fastened on the steel cable on my right, and clutching my camera in my left hand, I stared at the finish and inched forward. I made it to the other side. That’s when my wife casually reminded me, “Now we’ve got to go back.”

Well then. It wasn’t going to be easy. But I would not let it stop me, not that I had a choice. Another challenge lay ahead. Extreme Forest Adventure: rope walkways that linked wooden platforms high up in the trees. If the suspension bridge couldn’t stop me, I was not going to miss this.

The return trip was uneventful; I seemed to have managed, if not overcome, my fears. But the soles of my feet still tingle when I look back at those moments on the bridge. Spine-chilling, yet thrilling, it was a walk to remember.

I’m still toying with the idea of riding a rollercoaster. Bungee-jumping, I certainly won’t do it. But skydiving, that is on my bucket list.


This was first published on gulfnews.com on July 1, 2017,
under the title Withering Heights. 
http://bit.ly/2vvQUAg

Pictures: Shyam A. Krishna

Chasing glaciers in Alaska

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The South Sawyer: out of bounds

Misty mountains, dense pine forests, floating icebergs, slithering seals, pods of whales, grizzly bears. That was what the Alaska cruise promised. We boarded the MS Volendam in Vancouver. A mid-sized ship that navigates the Inside Passage, it would take us to Tracy Arm Fjord, Juneau, Skagway, Glacier Bay and Ketchikan.

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The North Sawyer: up close

THE SAWYERS

Alaska’s capital Juneau was our first stop. We hopped on a catamaran for a thrilling ride through Stephens Passage on our way to Tracy Arm Fjord. At the end of this inlet was the twin Sawyer Glaciers. First we sighted ice floes. Then icebergs. Pine forests filled the valleys. Silvery rivulets raced down great heights. There were thin waterfalls and cascades too. As St Peter cautiously motored into the fjord, hilltops became bare rocky outcrops; shrubs grew in patches. A snowy peak rose in the distance. A glacier stood at its base. The South Sawyer Glacier. We stood enchanted by the river of ice. Our enchantment abated when we found our path completely blocked by ice.

Our captain promised another glacier whisking us north. North Sawyer was not as majestic as South Sawyer. But it lent itself to closer examination. Jagged blue edges gleamed, ice and sand mixed to offer a rusty hue. We watched in silence, a silence only broken by falling camera shutters. The ice didn’t break. No calving. You have to be incredibly lucky to see that.

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Magical ride: Skagway to White Pass

THE TRAIN TO WHITE PASS

An elegant train waited when we docked in Skagway. Shiny black carriages drawn by a bright green and yellow diesel engine. Each of the beautifully restored coaches bore the name of a lake. Our train to White Pass Summit. What a ride. Green conifers lined the route along a fjord carved deep by a glacier long ago. The 172km railway line (built in 1898 over 26 months) is an engineering marvel with climbs of nearly 1,000 metres over 32km. Engineers, foremen and workers had blasted rocks and burrowed hills to build the narrow gauge rail line.

The Skagway community sprung from a gold rush. Stampeders, they called the prospectors. The mad dash for gold in the late 19th century sparked what became known as the Klondike Gold Rush. At the peak of the search for yellow metal, Skagway boasted of a community of 10,000. Now there are around 3,000 people, mostly living off tourism and fishing.

The ride to White Pass was a journey into the past. Of desperate men and women braving Arctic cold, unforgiving terrain and ruthless criminals in search of fortune. As the train climbed higher we moved to the viewing platform; chilling winds lashing. A river canyon plunged down one side. A road wound its way on the other side of the river: a toll road that once brought riches to the builder who even charged dogs. Bridges and tunnels too. Soon a cantilever bridge (the highest when constructed in 1901) came into view. Of course, it’s no longer in use. The train took us to the summit, more than 2,750 metres high before heading back, its engines switching sides, seats flipped so we faced the other way.

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The Margerie: the queen of Glacier Bay

THE MIGHTY MARGERIE

Mist wreathed the mountains when our ship eased into Tarr Inlet. We were in Glacier Bay, a US national park 105km west of Juneau. Cruise ship services to the 25-million-acre world heritage area, one of the world’s largest protected areas, is tightly regulated; the prime season runs from June 1 to August 31. We had timed the holiday right. Picked the right ship and itinerary. The home of eight tidewater glaciers: this was to be the highlight of the trip.

It was early morning, dank and dark. A steady drizzle fell. Glacial winds tore into us as we reached the deck. We refused to budge. Wilderness, the Alaskan wilderness, unfolded before us. A stream of ice floes swept by. Snowy mountains inched past, mist swirling around. They had an ethereal quality, a lack of clarity. Squawking seagulls swooped for fish. A couple of glaciers broke the pattern. In the distance was the Margerie Glacier. Margerie was magnificent. A mammoth blue ice sculpture, rising majestically from the sea. As the mist began to clear, Volendam drew abreast. The fractured crystalline edges of the glacier stood out like splayed fingers. Only 76 metres of the 110-metre-high glacier is above the water level. Named after French geologist Emmanuel de Margerie, the 1.6km wide glacier flows 34km from Mount Root to the Tarr Inlet. We were gazing at a product of Little Ice Age. Time stood still: 4,000 years remained frozen

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Creek Street in Ketchikan

SALMON CITY

Welcome to Ketchikan, the first city of Alaska, said an arch on the street as we pulled into the port. Behind it a quaint town. The town that boasts itself as the salmon capital of the world sits in a valley of pines set against ubiquitous mountains. Flowers bloomed on the sidewalks of narrow streets beside bright coloured buildings; a long totem pole stood at the end of a road; rows of boats swayed on moorings, the air redolent with salmon.

We joined throngs of tourists hunting for souvenirs on Creek Street.  Among the stores was Dolly’s House welcoming visitors from across a rickety wooden bridge with a board that proclaims “Where men and salmon come upstream to spawn.” More souvenir shops crowd even more streets with pubs serving Alaskan beer and salmon jostling for attention.

A pretty town, that’s Ketchikan: our last port of call. A promise, little else. Disappointing it was. Particularly after the bewitching beauty of Alaska: magnificent glaciers, ancient fjords, lush green valleys, magical train rides.

THE FINAL FRONTIER

Alaska is the final frontier. Where the shadowy mass of whales casually slides into icy seascapes; white-headed American eagles feed chicks on ice floes; glistening seals sun on rocks; deep ravines frame thick pine forests. Only the bears were a no show. I was fine with that. For Alaska put on quite a show.


This was first published on gulfnews.com on June 12, 2017. http://bit.ly/2vwZgYE
Pictures: Shyam A. Krishna