Paju Province and Gwangjang Market, Seoul, South Korea

Today, Perry and I decided to adventure out of Seoul, and headed to the northernmost province of South Korea, Paju. Usually when people head to this province and the smaller cities in the area, they are heading to the launch point for the DMZ tours. Not us.

Nestled in the sleepy, hazy hills of Paju is a vibrant art community called Heyri Art Village, filled with shops, museums, and art pieces to explore. We hopped on the bus from central Seoul and were there in about forty five minutes.


The art village itself was interesting, if a little quiet due to it being New Years Day. Unfortunately, not many of the shops were open, and due to budget restrictions, we opted not to go into any galleries. However, we did enjoy walking through some of the cultural exhibitions and looking at the beautiful architecture of the homes, which seems incredibly out of character for a city just a couple miles from the border with North Korea.


As we wandered, we noticed some impressive looking stone buildings up the hill, and ventured closer. It turns out that the South Korean government built a quasi-English village in order to promote the learning of the English language among South Koreans (especially children) and for some reason, decided to land the English village on the top of this hill. Of course, we had to see what “England” was like (and visit Stonehenge, obviously).


Turns out, it was incredibly bizarre and a little surreal, not to mention slightly uncanny. The village was, for the most part, entirely deserted. We received our passports and went through “security” at what I assume was meant to be Heathrow airport.

After that, we were allowed to emigrate into the English village, and enjoy all of London’s comforts, including a railroad track, the “pub” and, oddly enough, a convenience store which only sold Korean snacks, used Korean currency, and at which the clerk only spoke Korean (must have been “Korean-town”).


To be completely honest, the experience was fascinating, but fairly uncomfortable in that it seemed like a better fit for a post-apocalyptic video game story line. On a bright side, “South Korea” didn’t even check our documents when we left the village, so we flew through customs on the way out.

Perhaps the coolest (and most surreal) aspect of the trip was the drive home. When I said Paju is only a couple miles from the North Korean border, I meant it.

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The red dot was the village, the black line the water border with North Korea, and the orange interstate the one the bus took home. We could literally see the barbed wire fencing against the shoreline, and in fact were able to make out the tail end of that peninsula across the span of river. So basically, we saw North Korea today (although sadly this station was the least blurry of my pictures but was from the South Korean side of the waterway further down the highway).


Fascinatingly, it is quite clear that the border is very active and under constant surveillance. The highway borders that waterway pretty much the whole drive back to Seoul (the return lanes are closer than the lanes to Paju) and you’re able to see very clearly from the highway into the marshland of the border, the floodlights, the security cameras, the guard stations, and the armed guards in the stations and on patrol. It seems that for each station, two guards sit in the watch towers and two guards patrol the area between towers. I also saw a parked tank, under a gilly suit looking material, next to one of the stations. For me, it was really interesting to see how far these protections go, especially since Seoul is so close to the border. I would say the hardcore protections (double layers of barbed wire, the tank, armed patrol, etc) stretched about twenty miles from Paju, while the lesser protections (just double layers of barbed wire, fencing, non-manned patrol stations) stretched to around fifteen miles of Seoul, and the fencing finally disappeared just after passing the first “welcome to  Seoul” sign. For me, seeing this more organic representation of the active military tension that still persists was much more interesting than the DMZ tour seems from the reviews.

After we arrived back in Seoul, we decided to head to a North Korean noodle restaurant close to the subway station (we were kind of following a theme here). However, because its New Years Day, not a single shop in that complex was open, so we decided to venture in to an open air market called Gwangjang to see if we could snag some street food for lunch.


It was incredible. Truly one of my favorite things we’ve done in Seoul, and worth the $7.50 each for noodles, dumplings, gimbap (kind of like a maki roll, filled with fermented ginger, cucumber, and dipped in spicy mustard like the kind Chinese take outs include) and pig’s cheek. The sheer amount of food options and the types of seafood available was fascinating to see. Plus, we’re in Korea, so there were tons of different types of kimchi and other staple goodies around.


The market was a clear highlight for both of us, and I’m so glad that other shops weren’t open as we probably would never have ventured in otherwise. The soup, called mandu guk, included handmade dumplings by the woman in the photo, who also made the dough while we waited and stretched the noodles by hand. The broth was incredibly good, full of depth, and the noodles, dumplings, and pepper she added at the very end went together incredibly well. I think chicken soup may have a serious rival in that dish. It was the perfect thing to warm us up.


After our time at the market, we wanted to see if we had missed any other major areas of town, and decided to walk a couple blocks to the City Hall area in order to see the City Hall building and one final palace.


We went to the Deoksugung Palace, where the National Museum of Contemporary Art resides. The museum was closed, but the palace was a quick walk through and interesting in that it showed off a merging of different period styles as well as gave a reprieve from the bustling modernity of the surrounding area.

Then, we headed home and are now about to finish our time in Korea with a traditional Korean barbecue from a great restaurant we found last night in Gangham when we celebrated New Years in the area. Then, it’s off to Thailand first thing tomorrow morning! I, for one, am very excited for the beach.

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