In January, 2010, I traveled to beautiful South Korea with ten choral conductors and five others on a "Fam" tour. Familiarization tours used to be fairly common for choral directors to test the waters in hopes that they would bring a choral group on the same tour with the promoting company at future time. I remember several people I know going on different Fam tours and I was always jealous of the low price and high levels of adventure they experienced. I almost missed the Korea opportunity because even though it was addressed to me, the invitation was in a pile of junk mail that had several travel advertisements and I was going through them quickly. The price was incredible and the trip itself amazing and unique....HOW could I refuse? It was all-inclusive (lodging, airfare, transportation, and some meals, etc.)
The trip was offered by the wonderful Accolades International Tours for the Arts out of Minnesota.
After a very brief hotel stop, we headed out again to see a rehearsal of the Korean Children's Choir, directed by Mr. Heecheul Kim (pictured above). They were fabulous! Mr. Park is dynamic and their sound was vibrant. That night, we had a welcome dinner with several Korean choral directors at a Korean BBQ restaurant. YUM! It was awesome and I got to try several different kinds of Kimchi. I learned that pots of various marinades of cabbage and other vegetables are buried underground for the duration of the winter to make the kimchi and that there are several hundred varieties of it! For the rest of the tour, I noticed pots in practically every backyard. My favorite kind of kimchi was one that remotely tasted like a bean chili and it was not so vinegar-y.
A big after dinner shock was when everyone needed to head to the restrooms. After being in the nice, warm restaurant, gathered around BBQ over coals and hot soups...the restrooms were located outside a door and in another portion of the building.......that happened to be UNheated. It was ICY cold and I could see my breath. WOW and washing my hands in more icy water was not an experience I want to repeat!
What a terrific first day!! The next day, we had the opportunity to visit the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone), the 6th Division of the ROK Army, the Peace Center, and the 2nd Infiltration tunnel. I never really thought that I would get to see these highly volatile places so I was extremely glad to be given the chance. I had the interest in seeing/observing the DMZ ever since a friend went in 2007 as part of TOPIK (Toward Peace in Korea). Later in the trip, one of our guides, Laura, told us how hard it was for so many in South Korea to live without knowing if relatives across the border were ok or in some cases, alive. Her grandparents were in North Korea. In my opinion, the whole realization of this border is traumatic and sad. It is an exercise in futility, of pride and of war. Nonetheless, I am glad that I had this chance to observe it. On the way to the DMZ, we drove through the Gangwan province and the area of Cheorwon. It was snowy and full of wildlife between the small villages and towns. I saw several different varieties of endangered cranes. They are beautiful, noble birds and are featured throughout Korean history, myth and lore since before the Silla kingdom. Cheorwon is known for its high crane population and has an annual crane festival. You could say that we were CRANING our necks to see them out of the bus windows :-) Some of the street lamps were even shaped like crane necks! Because the bus windows were frosting over on the inside from condensation, I wasn't able to get any superb pictures along the route, but here is one decent one...
It was clear when we were getting close - air space was also being guarded and no fly zones were marked. We stopped at a place to use the restroom and were watched to & from the bus. I noticed that no one else was around and it was eerily quiet. I'm sure the icy temperatures helped with that, but it was still a little odd. I also suppose there are not many tourists, especially Americans, during the harsh winters. We arrived at the lower level of the Peace Center, Woljeong Station. This location can actually be used as a performance venue.
We took a cable car up the side of the small mountain to the main building of the center. There were tons of deer down below our car and you could see a monorail coming up after us.