I too had a great time with Jeff visiting. Though I worked most of that time, and just saw him in the evening, we did have a couple jaunts to ourselves: A long weekend in Korea, and a flight above Luzon Island.
Korea was Jeff's idea, and a darn good one. We hadn't taken a travel adventure together in a long while, so we went to Seoul for a long weekend, as he would be flying through Seoul on the way here. We did some planning, but not a great deal -- just enough to know the areas we wanted to get to.
We spent the first day in central Seoul. We went to Gyeongbokgung Palace, a collection of beautiful buildings, temples and courtyards. This palace was the seat of the Joseon dynasty, which lasted over 500 years, until 1910. Then we went to the National Museum, next door. National Museums are either good, or not good. This one was more of the latter -- too many pots, coins, pieces of buildings. Interesting, but they start to run together after the first few rooms. Far better was the War Memorial Museum. Now this was cool. It tells the story from Korea's inception right up until now. Fitting, since Korea's existence is defined by war. Whether that's war against barbarian tribes, Japan, China, the British, the French, assorted other Asian nations, or, most recently, itself, you can track the history and development of Korea by its wars. The War Memorial Museum does a wonderful job of this, through artifacts, videos, even little Chuck E Cheese-esque animatronic exhibits of naval battles. The most gripping story, of course, is the war between the North and South. It's amazing how much we didn't know: how the North advanced all the way to Busan in the southeastern corner of the country, and was days from total victory, how the North grossly outmatched and yet surprised the South, how the South were forced to toss everyone, including Seoul students and military cadets, into battle. We spent over 3 hours there, and could have easily spent more.
On Saturday, we went to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, also known as North Korea. No, really. Thanks to a friend at our Embassy in Seoul, we scored tickets to the USO tour of the DMZ and "peace village" of Panmunjom. Panmunjom actually means "Joint Security Area," which doesn't sound very peace-y at all. There, we went into one of the infiltration tunnels dug by the North into South Korea in the 1970s. We got a great view of the "Propaganda Village" in North Korea, which until very recently was deserted and existed only to blast propaganda broadcasts southward. Now, thanks to an agreement this year, it has a few workers in it, and the propaganda is blasted back north. In Panmunjom, we went into the Conference Room, where summit meetings are held and duty officers from both sides meet daily. A line goes through the room, representing the control border between both sides of the DMZ. Hence, we went over to the North. It didn't feel so strange. What felt strange was the creepy DPRK soldier that kept poking his head next to the outside of the glass windows on their side and staring at us. He didn't seem to mind all the pictures taken of him, either.
The DMZ is full of great and harrowing stories, many of which we learned on the trip. Here's one: Why were B-52 bombers, 27 helicopters and a platoon of soldiers needed to trim an overgrown tree?
Seoul is great for stories, as well as souvenirs, but we also took a roadtrip to Gyeongju in southeastern Korea. It took about 4 hours to drive there, more if the map you're using has all the street numbers wrong. Sometime between the printing of our map and when we went, all the highway numbers changed! Lonely Planet Korea doesn't even have a section for driving around, and we discovered that people just don't. Why? Here's three reasons:
1) Traffic in Seoul sucks.
2) It cost over US$100 to fill up our rental car, a Samsung. (Yeah, they make cars. But Samsung cars drive as well as Samsung TVs.)
3) Their road food. They have tons of highway rest stops, like the ones on I-95 in the mid-Atlantic. But the food! Jeff had a fried thing that had a label in Hangul characters that sounded like "Pee Zaa Hot Do Gee." Pizza Hotdoggee. It was neither Pizza nor Hotdoggee. I had something that looked identical to a bratwurst on a stick, complete with grill marks. When I bit it into it, the conversation went like this:
Jeff: What is it?
Ian: It's not bratwurst. It's... I think it's fish.
Jeff: Fish? It's on a stick.
Ian: True, but it really is fish. And squishy.
I was right. It was grilled fish paste on a stick. Who came up with this? "Stupid round-eye Americans won't eat fish paste. Let's put it on a stick!" Ugh.
But Gyongju was worth it. It truly is a museum without walls. It's the seat of the Shilla dynasty, which ruled for about a thousand years. We saw two UNESCO heritage sites, and burial mounds of its kings scattered throughout the city.
Our second adventure together was back in the Philippines. Jeff went up with me in a Beech Musketeer as we flew over Batangas, Lake Taal, Cavite, and Corregidor. He had fun, and only had a tiny panic as I took a steep turn for a closer look at a grass airstrip. Now I need to take Michele and the kids for a flight.
Jeff and I did have another short adventure together, which Michele alluded to. But we decided that we'll keep that one in our pockets for the next time someone accuses us of not being adventurous enough.
Thanks, Jeff, for a great visit. We'll see you when we return.