Today is August 1st, 2011.
It’s Monday morning and once again I find myself sitting behind my desk, classes over, with not a whole lot to do. Let me tell you a little about how I find myself here this Monday morning.
It all started on Friday evening. I do believe I mentioned in a previous post that a good friend of mine would be coming to visit me here in South Korea. He arrived last Tuesday evening and the fun hasn’t stopped since. The story of how I arrived at my desk on Monday morning actually begins on Friday evening, as Tyler and I prepared to embark on our greatest adventure yet….
We left Busan on Friday and took the 5 hour slow train to Seoul. The long boring train ride was lubricated nicely with alcohol which we discovered was available for sale in a special car of the train. This car, dubbed ‘the beer car’ also contained computers with internet connection as well as video game machines like you would find in an arcade.
We arrived in Seoul just about midnight and wasted no time in finding a galbi restaurant and having a few post train beer beers. Saturday was a very special day for Tyler and I, as well as our friend Guillaume (a fellow Canuck) who joined us for the trip. I don’t really know how to say this without sounding like a complete and utter nerd, so I’m just going to say it; We went to a Starcraft II tournament. For anyone who does not know; Starcraft is a computer videogame which is popular in North America and insanely popular in South Korea. I have played Starcraft since about 1999, one year after its release. Just over a year ago Starcraft II was released and I have played it a fair amount as well. I’m going to describe the Starcraft tournament and simultaneously try to justify being such a massive nerd. Here goes:
The first thing you should understand about Starcraft is that watching two good players playing is like watching a chess match, only better because instead of wooden pieces on a board knocking each other over you have space marines being torn apart by aliens, or vice versa. Both players are thinking several steps ahead, making complicated split second decisions based on very little information while simultaneously trying to play mind games with their opponent and exploit each other’s weak points. Now the next point I will make in justification of going to a videogame tournament, is that professional videogaming (E-Sports) is becoming a major international industry. For example, the winner of the Starcraft tournament on Saturday brought home 50,000,000 Korean Won, about 50,000 USD. I’m told this was actually a smaller prize purse, the last GSL (Global Starcraft League) winner brought home closer to $100,000. The player who won (NesTea) has won a total of 3 championships and is a richer man than most people with a steady job.
The tournament took place at the main auditorium of Yonsei University, one of Korea’s top 3 universities. The game took place on the stage, with both players sitting in soundproof booths on opposite sides. Between them was a massive big screen TV which showed the game being played out. There were 3 Korean commentators who gave a play by play based on what the two players were doing. Not only was the stage set up impressive (it was complete with lights, fog machines, lasers and sound) but the pre and post game ceremonies were pretty sweet as well. Pre-game the commentators gave bios of the players and showed interviews with players they had beat out of the tournament on their way to the finals. There was also a performance by one of the biggest girl bands in Korea – The 5 Dolls – who serenaded us with their own brand of peppy K-pop and enticing dance moves. Between matches while the players relaxed and prepared for the next game (it was a best of 7) the commentators conducted interviews with the player’s mothers (All you Moms out there who don’t like their kids playing too many videogames, I want you to imagine how you’d feel if they started bringing home $50,000 checks for an afternoon’s work) and held competitions to see who had the funniest sign (the signs you hold up at sporting events with hand written messages are called ‘cheerfuls’ here in Korea, and they can be downright delightful). The post game included the awarding of the checks (even the loser still earned $20,000) and trophies as well as streamers shooting out of the ceiling and each of the players’ teams showering them in champaign.
All and all a great experience. Even if I wasn’t a video game player I would have had a great time and the fact that I am an avid gamer and finally getting to see E-Sports gaining popularity made it all that much better. What follows is probably the lamest thing I’ve ever said, so if you still have a shred of respect for me and want to keep it alive I suggest you stop reading now. I hope that one day I can tell my kids that I was there, in Korea, at the GSL Finals the day that IMNesTea won his third GSL Championship against IMLosirA, and that this will impress them.
Anyway, the next day was Sunday and after very little sleep and alot of beers we woke up early to meet our tour guide for our trip to the DMZ. In case you were wondering the DMZ stands for De-Militarized Zone and is the 4km wide strip of land on either side of the border between South and North Korea. The South-North Korean border is the most heavily defended border in the world with soldiers from 3 countries constantly patrolling, watching and waiting for a possible attack. The south side of the DMZ is also a major tourist attraction, with thousands of Koreans and Foreigners visiting every year to catch a glimpse into one of the most isolated and mysterious countries in the world. Now that I’m done my propaganda-like rant let me tell you about what it was really like.
The Capitol of South Korea, Seoul, is located only about 40 km south of the DMZ. The drive to the tourist friendly area of the DMZ was about 1 hour long. It was interesting because as we got further and further from the city the four lane highway we were on grew steadily more vacant. Then I noticed there were barbed-wire fences on one side of the highway. A few minutes after that we started passing guard towers which were spread every 300-500 meters along the highway, some manned, some empty. This is the first time the eeriness of the DMZ crept up on me. A super massive four lane highway surrounded by barbed-wire and guard towers and almost totally empty. My well trained Zombie Apocalypse sense was tingling. Then we started passing tank traps, which look like overpasses – except they are supported by two narrow beams which can be detonated at a moment’s notice to bring down the massive concrete cubes they are supporting, which would block the roads against North Korean tanks.
The first place we visited was the Freedom Bridge. Freedom Bridge is the only bridge between North and South Korea and is so named because over 13,000 POWs used it when released from North Korea after the ceasefire in 1953. Near the bridge was the ‘Wall of Hope’ where people write their wishes for a re-unification of the country on a ribbon and hang it from the wall. There were alot of ribbons. We also saw the remains of a steam engine that was derailed during the war. It was rusted out and covered in over a thousand bullet holes.
Next we visited the ‘3rd Tunnel’ which is one of four tunnels constructed by the North which have been discovered by the South. This tunnel was abour 1,600m long and around 73m underground. It was 2m wide and 2m tall. South Korean experts have estimated that roughly 30,000 foot soldiers could have been moved through the tunnel in about 1hour. We got to take a walk through the tunnel for about 400 meters, which brought us to within 100 or so meters of the demarcation line, which is the center of the DMZ and the actual border between North and South. The tunnel was made by dynamite and in some places there were black smudges on the walls, which we were told was coal smeared there by the North as they dug it, so that they could claim they were mining coal should the tunnel ever be discovered. I’ll tell you one thing, the North Koreans definitely did not have the heads and lower backs of thousands of western tourists in mind when they decided to make the tunnel’s ceiling so low.
After the 3rd Tunnel we headed to an observatory on top of a large hill. The observatory overlooked the DMZ and allowed one to see (on a clear day) about 27km into North Korea. Unfortunately it was a bit rainy, and visibility was hampered for our tour. We could still make out the North Korean ‘Propaganda Village’ which is a town constructed by the North to show how prosperous they are. In actuality the village is a facade, only the exterior of the buildings are finished and the insides are gutted shells – nobody lives there. Another thing we may have been able to see on a clear day is the North Korean flagpole. There is a small village in the DMZ on the South Korean side of the border. Some time ago they built a flagpole which flew the South Korean flag. The North didn’t like this so they built their own flagpole, slightly larger. The South responded and made theirs a little bigger. Before you know it you have one of the largest flagpoles in the world on the North Korean side, something like 163m high with a flag that weighs over 600lbs. The South finally gave up after that.
After the observatory we went to Dorasan Train Station. The station was built just south of the DMZ, and was funded entirely by corporation’s and private citizen’s donations. It was designed by the architect behind Seoul’s Incheon International Airport. Essentially it is the last train stop before the North Korean border. You can get to the station by train, but you can’t go any further yet. It is a symbol of the South Korean hope for re-unification, and is intended to one day be the central hub between North and South Korea by train. At the moment, however it is just a massive, totally unused infrastructure. Visiting it gave me a sense of the same eeriness I got on the highway to the DMZ: A place that should be bustling with people totally vacant and unused. The coolest part about the train station was that for 500won you could buy a ticket to Pyongyang, the Capitol of North Korea. The ticket is guaranteed valid for life so one day you will be able to use it to travel to the Capitol of North Korea from South Korea, assuming they re-unify.
Even though the cynical, asshole, realist side of me is just screaming to mock the commercialization of the DMZ (I mean, its a tourist attraction; there were more souvenirs and money grabs than I care to point out – which is alot), I still can’t help but feel a sense of the tragedy and sorrow the war and division of the country has created, nor can I help feeling a sense of hope for the future and a longing to see these two countries re-united. What this means is that I actually have legitimate feelings about something I experienced, or someone in the South Korean PR department is doing a damn fine job. Either way the DMZ was an amazing experience and I urge you to check it out for yourself if you are ever in the position to do so.
Finally we, exhausted, took the KTX high speed train home last night and that’s how I find myself back behind my desk this morning.
That’s all for now, stay tuned for more updates shortly.