Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Man Who Escaped from Camp 14

Okay, first off, I acknowledge that I've experienced Thanksgiving in Korea, and I'm about to experience my first Christmas in Korea. I have intentions to blog about all that (we'll see what becomes of these intentions). :)

This weekend, I thought I'd write about something quite different.

Several months ago, I purchased this book and read it. It's the story of Shin Dong-hyuk, who is (at the time of this post) the only known man to have escaped from a prison camp in North Korea. I highly recommend it. It's not a happy book, but it is insightful. It helped me think about how several things that I take for granted, such as the freedom to choose what I eat and to form emotional connections with other human beings. Shin Dong-hyuk had neither of those while he lived in the camp.

One thing that struck me was a confession that took place before the book was published. Initially, Shin had said one thing about his role in the deaths of his mother and brother. Later on, the story changed, and the author found out more about Shin's role in their executions. To me, it seemed that Shin's decision to not initially reveal all was connected to Shin's inability to trust people as he was growing up. He and the other prisoners lived in constant fear of being attacked, tortured, and killed by the prison guards. During his 20+ years in the camp, there were two people that he was able to form any sort of friendship with (neither of those two people were family members. One was a fellow inmate while Shin was in prison, and one was a coworker at a sewing factory). I feel like it would be very difficult to trust anyone and be honest/forthright if I had grown up in those circumstances.

On a similar note, Shin learned how to feel love long after his teenage years. With this, he also learned to feel guilt. In the camp, he did certain things out of self-preservation; years afterwards, he realized how some of those decisions resulted in death for other people. I can't imagine the burden that this poor man must carry.

Well, Shin came to Seoul for an open discussion this past weekend.

With the help of an interpreter, Shin spoke about the situation of prisoners in North Korea and encouraged the audience to raise our voices in protest of the camps. Seeing him in person was a surreal experience.

We then watched a documentary based on the book.

The documentary contained interviews with Shin as well as two former North Korean prison guards. Though I did learn some chilling insights about the callous nature in which the guards treated the prisoners, and though there were parts of the documentary that helped illustrate the conditions Shin lived in, I can't recommend this documentary as strongly as I can the book. Reasons: several longer-than-necessary pauses, and (perhaps the strongest reason) I felt like Shin's privacy was being invaded by the makers of this documentary.

I'm not sure what I was expecting from going to this discussion/movie, but my takeaway was this:

Shin must be, in every way possible, tired.

  • He must be tired from his childhood and adolescent experiences in a place where he had zero freedom.
  • He must be tired from the very risky journey he took, though it was almost ten years ago, from within the camp to outside of the camp to China to South Korea.
  • He must be tired from going from a reality where everything is dictated to him to a completely opposite where competition and materialism are the norms.
  • He must be tired of having to dig into his memory, retelling horrendous experiences in order to answer questions from people who are likely complete strangers.
  • He must be tired of the intense attention he has received. He seems to be a celebrity that had "fame" forced upon him due to his unimaginable upbringing.
In no way do I mean to minimize the suffering that is happening in the North Korean camps as I type this entry. I hope Shin's words are part of a solution to the human rights abuses happening there. 

At the same time, I hope Shin doesn't feel forced to relive his past over and over because he feels compelled by X organization to speak about them.

Most of all, I hope he's able to find some peace and meaning in his own life.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Gyeongju, Encore - The pros and con of traveling solo

Three posts in five days. This hardly happens.

"Someone get me some butter, 'cuz I'm on a roll!" - The Illustrious Spencer Whitlock

Way back on Tuesday, I mentioned that I went to Gyeongju solo, and that it was good in some ways and not so great in others. Now that I think of it...I can only really think of one negative of traveling solo this trip, so I'll start with that and move onto the pros:
  • Traveling and seeing places, when you have no one to share the experience with, can be lonely at times. 
For me, the negatives end there.

Onto the pros:
  • Said lonely moments were balanced out a bit by the fact that I could make whatever plans I wanted to with no fear of being an inconvenience. When I wanted to go somewhere, I went. If I wanted to change my plans, I didn't have to explain that to anyone. When I wanted to rest, I rested. Now, this would all be pretty hollow, and still lonely, if it weren't for the big pro of traveling solo...
  • The trip gave me many opportunities to meet some kind and fascinating people. For example:
    • On the train to Gyeongju, the man I sat by helped me to find the bus pickup location once we arrived at Sinyeongju. He was headed in a different direction than I was, but he still took the time to make sure I knew where I was going, and I really appreciated that.
    • When the bus dropped me off, and I needed to take a taxi to get closer to the guesthouse, another man hailed a taxi, explained to the driver where I needed to go, and motioned for me to get in. It was pretty late, and the man could have taken that taxi himself, but he helped a stranger instead. Champ.
    • On my walk from Bulguksa to Seokguram (about 3 km), I started talking to an older Korean man. He taught me some Korean and he told me about his trip to the US during the 1994 World Cup. Though there was a bit of a language barrier, it was a really pleasant experience.
    • When I visited the Culture Expo, an older man approached me and, in spite of his limited English, told me about the history of Gyeongju. He seemed so proud of his city.

    • Upon returning to the guesthouse, I met a cyclist who was on his second trip across South Korea. His name was Noh. We talked, and he invited me to join him in sightseeing. We then went to a cafe and talked for another hour or so. He had to leave early the next day, so we memorialized the meeting.

    • Later that night, I met a man named Baek who invited me to join him in sightseeing the next morning. Again, there was a bit of a language barrier, and my basic Korean skills were pushed to their limits (thank goodness for my Korean-English dictionary app), but it meant a lot to me that he was willing to have me along.

    • When I came back to the guesthouse, I met two new roommates: Steve, from Singapore, who was visiting Korea for a few weeks; and Julien, from France, who was backpacking through Asia on an extended trip. After walking in the rain, it was nice to meet these two and shoot the breeze.

    • We then joined up with a few other people and talked till the wee hours of the morning.

    • Steve and I joined one of the ladies from the group, Erin, and checked out Cheomseongdae and Gyerim Forest the next morning.

While traveling alone is probably not something I'd want to do for the rest of my life, for now, it's an experience that allows me to easily make connections with other travelers, and I'm happy about that.

Till next time!

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Gyeongju, Act II

For those of you who have been waiting ever so patiently for the continuation of the Gyeongju odyssey, the wait is over.

And really, the wait wasn't even that bad. 48 hours-ish. And you just had to check the interwebs, it's not like you had to wait in line like you did for the Harry Potter / Star Wars / The Land Before Time series.

But still, thank you for waiting.

After my second night in Gyeongju, I woke to weather that was less tourist-friendly than the previous day. It was raining, and the rain didn't stop. Thankfully, I had a roommate who was not only determined to get out there and see the city, but he also had a car. He invited me along for the sightseeing venture, and off we went.

First stop: Hwangseong Park. It wasn't much more than a city park (or so it seemed), but there were a few picture-worthy places.

Okay, I lied. There was one picture-worthy place.

But it was Halloween, and this forest is the perfect setting for anything related to the holiday.
We tarried a bit before heading to a place called Daereungwon Tomb Complex, where several royal tombs are located. The royal folk who were buried in this area had their tombs placed under mounds that eventually became virtually symmetric hills. My friend said that they're basically "Korean pyramids".

Here, I saw two big advantages of the rain: It reduced the tourist traffic, and it made the tomb complex look like something out of a fantasy book. Cue picture overload...

Cheonmachong Tomb - we could go inside, but we couldn't take pictures.

Just add snow, and bam. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

We returned to the guesthouse, where I took a short nap. When I got up, it was raining harder than before, but I figured that I should get out there and check out more of Gyeongju. I saw on a map that there was a temple close by, and I had an umbrella, so I figured I'd be fine.

You know what else I had? Well-worn shoes that, being over the ripe old age of three years old, had no interest in being worn in the rain. After twenty minutes of walking, every step felt like I was walking in a puddle. Also, the umbrella had a hole somewhere which allowed several sneaky raindrops to find their way to my head.

As for the temple? Here it is:

Okay...if I had more knowledge about the Silla Dynasty, and if it were sunny, and if it didn't cost me 1500 won, I may have been a bit more impressed. As it was, I was soaked, and I spent less than ten minutes here before it was time to trudge back to the guesthouse.

Maybe it wasn't a successful sightseeing evening, but to be fair, not much could have one-upped Daereungwon.

On a separate note, I was reminded at the guesthouse that there's nothing like a good hot shower after walking in the rain. Or any other time.

I relaxed in the lobby for the evening, got some shuteye, and woke up for a bit more sightseeing before returning to Seoul.

One thing I loved about the guesthouse was its proximity to several historic sites. One such site was an ancient (and surprisingly small) observatory called Cheomseongdae.

I could have paid and gotten five meters closer. I was fine with being a tightwad and taking this picture from a distance.
Close to the observatory was Gyerim Forest, with a random assortment of tombs and other historic...ness.

The tombs look cool up close and from a distance. I don't know what it is about them, but they fascinate me.

Okay, maybe I'm obsessed with the hill-shaped tombs.

Just in case you forgot it was fall.

This is where people kept ice way back when. The cold air at the bottom kept the ice from melting, from what I understand.

Silla freezer from the outside.

Sadly, at this point, it was time to go. I went back to the guesthouse, packed, took a bus to the station, and hopped on the KTX with just enough time.

Gyeongju, even with the rain and the fees, you were amazing. I'd recommend you.

Thus ends the Gyeongju tale...or does it?

Could there be more to say about this trip?

Possibly. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Gyeongju, Act I

Soon after I arrived in Korea, I asked a few locals about their favorite place in Korea. Several said that Gyeongju, ancient capital of the Silla Dynasty and "museum without walls", was worth visiting. I decided to go during one of my term breaks before it got too cold.

I invited a few people who, for various reasons, couldn't join me on this trip, so I ended up going solo. Going solo for me is awesome in many ways, but not all ways. I'll tell you why...but first, let's talk about Gyeongju and how I got there.

I left Seoul for Sinyeongju (the KTX high speed rail station that services Gyeongju) on Wednesday night at 9pm, got to Sinyeongju a little over two hours later, took a bus that almost went to my destination, took a taxi that got me closer, walked 200 meters in the wrong direction, and then walked another 400 meters to the Gyeongju Guesthouse, where I crashed a little after midnight.

I discovered that the city is not only an ancient capital, but a UNESCO World Heritage Site...well, to be exact, most of the city is a World Heritage Site. Thus, the buildings can't be over a certain height, allowing Gyeongju to keep it country.

My first destination was Bulguksa Temple, which I'd heard a lot about. I took a bus around a large reservoir, past a theme park and some sort of expo, to the temple. I got to the entrance, where I found out that the entrance fee was 4000 won ($4 USD).

At this point, I said to myself, "You've got to be kidding. Extortion." You see, in Seoul, I've gotten used to entering epic temple grounds for much less money, as in free. I've been spoiled by this. I later found out that Bulguksa is one of South Korea's National Treasures (not quite like this), and thus, there's an admission fee. Apparently, the other temples I've been to don't fall under that category.

But I digress.

The temple was lovely. There were plenty of chances to take pictures of the temple grounds among the fall foliage.

After spending some time at the temple, I decided to travel up a hiking path to a place called Seokguram, where a large stone Buddha statue sits in a cave surrounded by Bodhisattva statues. This path was a perfect place to traverse on a day so close to Halloween. See, look!

Before I got to Seokguram, there was yet another 4000 won fee. Fine, I thought at the time. There was another trail to walk to the actual cave. What I saw when I arrived was...what's the word...

Oh yeah. Disappointing.

Oh hey, construction, I paid to see a treasure, not you, but this is cool too, I guess.
To be fair, perhaps if I knew Korean, I may have seen some sort of warning. And maybe one of my coworkers had been here the previous week and suggested that I steer clear and maybe I forgot. I was able to go to the cave, but the scaffolding around the entrance of the cave and the awkward glass panels didn't lend themselves to the grandeur of the site. Oh well, you win some, you lose some.

I returned to the Seokguram entrance and the hike continued. I decided to hike a different way than the way I'd come. A few times, I doubted my decision, but then I saw some pretty rewarding views. I should mention that while the temple and cave were rather crowded, the trail was remote.


This also seemed Halloween-appropriate.

I left the trail and entered a small village called Sibukgeori and waited for a bus. I'm currently regretting the realization that I didn't take pictures of this place. It was a farming community, and the only buildings were small homes. Very quaint.

I decided to check out the Gyeongju Culture Expo before heading back to the guesthouse. The Expo had several interesting structures, and there were other places that I would have likely appreciated much more if I watched Korean dramas. Alas.

Attention citizens: Someone has cut a nine-story pagoda shape into an office building and removed it. Please return it immediately. Your prank has run its course. Thank you.

After this, it was time to go back to the guesthouse where I thought I was done for the day, but then I joined someone for sightseeing at a place called Anapji Pond. I'll talk about this person, and the rest of the trip, in later posts, because this is getting long. For now, I'll leave you with these pictures from Anapji: