The South and the North

Arriving in Busan, on the southern coast of Korea, the sea makes its presence known. Korea's "summer capital" is the second largest city in Korea, a busy shipping port, and a destination for beach-goers seeking to escape the hot weather of August. In winter, spared the tourist hordes, I found a different Busan.

People here, as in most areas outside Seoul, speak with a distinctive dialect, or saturi. After the polished tones of Seoul-ites, the brusque and animated inflection of the southern provinces was a treat to hear. I also just finished watching 응답하라 1994 (Answer Me 1994), a Korean drama about coming of age during the 90's and adjusting to life in Seoul after living in the south. Slipping phrases from the show into daily conversation is a good way to get a laugh, although this might be poorly received outside of Seoul.

Koreans love questionably safe things, especially if you can take pictures while doing them, so I joined in the fun and bought some Roman candles and sparklers.

Next, the economical cooling strategy and probably tasty combination of lobsters and beer. Advertising companies take note...

On Sunday I slept in, had lunch at Ops Bakery (delicious and recommended), then headed to Haedong Yonggungsa, a seaside temple popular with sightseers. Too popular. After a delightful stroll through the grounds and along the beach, I tried to catch a taxi back to the city. No taxis (this rarely happens in Korea and is not a good sign). So I got in line for the bus. Over the next hour 3 buses passed by, packed to the brim and only able to accept a few people each. Finally, as I waited at the front of the line, the bus pulled up at the tail of the line, causing a mad dash for the bus doors and general chaos. I had a freakout and yelled (in Korean) at a bunch of very alarmed Koreans, "Use the line! What's the meaning of a line if you don't use the line!!" During the following few moments of shocked silence and calm, I boarded.

Anyway, if you're headed off the beaten path in Busan, make sure you go early. Public transportation gets overstressed by the huge numbers of tourists, even in the off-season. The temple is very pleasant.

I also recently took a day trip to the DMZ, comprising the western and eastern areas (we didn't have time to visit the JSA, which includes the famously tense truce village of Panmunjeom, where North and South Korean guards face off across a narrow line).

The DMZ is very cold. Although only about 30 miles from Seoul, outside the warm coffee shops and public transportation of the city, the elements make themselves known. It's hard to contemplate surviving the harsh winter much further north in malnourished, undersupplied North Korea.

This is a tourist observation deck on the South Korean side, not some massive guard tower. The guard towers on the North Korean side are low-profile affairs, set deep into the hillside.

The North Korean army continually attempts to construct tunnels under the DMZ in order to funnel troops and artillery under the border. The displays at the tunnel entrance estimate that 30,000 troops per hour could pass through.

Barbara Demick's book on life in North Korea, "Nothing to Envy," is excellent, as is "Escape from Camp 14," by Blaine Harden.