The one thing I really wanted to do in Korea was visit the DMZ. For some, that might be a morbid wish. But, for me, traveling is the instrument that allows me to see for myself what otherwise can only be seen through others.
Ever since first hearing of North Korea, I have wondered how it can be true that an nation can live so closed off from the rest of the world, and how a leaders’ pride can make his people suffer to the point of starvation. I know we live in a fallen world, but sometimes you just have to witness the corruption with your own eyes to believe it (and hope it doesn’t in turn corrupt you).
Unfortunately, I’m just going to have to keep that wish in my back pocket. As it turns out, children 10 and under are not allowed on the DMZ tour. Why not? I mean, it’s not like it’s the most heavily militarized border in the world with palpable tension and hostility or anything.
Okay, so you can’t take your kids to the DMZ, you can take them to visit the Blue House, the office and residence of the president of the Republic of Korea. Not nearly as thrilling, but a bit more safe nonetheless.
To get yourself near the president’s residence, you must register online two weeks in advance, providing name, date of birth, nationality, and passport number. All visitors are required to join an organized tour; and tour guides only speak Korean. (although the security guards could say “no pictures” in perfect English…)
Our time slot was for 10am on Saturday morning, and we were kindly requested via email to arrive 20 minutes early. Ha. We were sprinting to make it there just shy of 9:59am.
Luckily, we were allowed to still go on the tour. But, we had to wait in a very long line. The Blue House website says that tours are given at 10am and 11am on Saturday mornings (afternoon slots are available as well). However, it seemed like the tour times were rolling and the 10am and 11am times were just so that everyone wishing to go on the morning tour doesn’t show up at the same time.
After a passport check, we boarded a bus to take us something ridiculous like 1 kilometer up to the Blue House gates. Note: we brought our stroller along, and it was not a problem to put it on the bus. But, I noticed that strollers were available to borrow once through Blue House security if you’d rather leave yours at home.
Upon entering the Blue House grounds, each person was given a souvenir gift to commemorate the visit. Adults received very nice ceramic mugs with an artistic representation of the Blue House. Children received a small canvas folder with a notepad. Thank you very much, Korean taxpayers. I’ll think of you as I sip my brown rice green tea.
Everyone then had to go through security, which was much like airport security minus the pat down and are-you-carrying-anything-suspicious questions. Understandable, but we thought it was kind of stupid to be given a free gift and then have to x-ray it.
Next, we were ushered into a small auditorium and shown an introductory film about the grounds. No propaganda in the English subtitles, but we did see Hilary Clinton in the film. No other footage available?
The security guards then led the group up to the palace grounds. Though the film stated that we would be able to take as many pictures as we wanted, in actuality, we were told that photography was permitted in only three places (sorry, I can’t remember what the three places were – I’m sure I have shots from 6 or 7).
At the risk of stating the obvious, the grounds were amazing and full of autumn color. The best fall foliage of the trip was seen here and at Gyeongbokgung. Nothing but the best for the president, I’m sure.
I didn’t think we’d actually be allowed up close to the Blue House itself. Surprise, surprise, we were paraded quickly by and ordered not to take any pictures until around the expansive front lawn. I was a bit starstruck. I’ve seen the Blue House in so many Korean movies and TV shows.
The last part of the tour (or what I thought was the last part) showcased the foreign guest house where visiting heads of state are quartered (ha!) and entertained.
The Blue House website states that the tour lasts approximately 60 minutes. Perhaps this means from after security to the final returning of visitor badges. I think our whole experience from start to finish was almost two hours.
And then, just when we thought it was finally over, the tour continued on to other buildings adjacent to the Blue House grounds. Everyone in our party of 9 wanted to be done, so we ditched the last part of the tour.
All in all, I think the Blue House was one of the most exciting parts of our trip. I haven’t even been to the White House in Washington DC, and now I’ve been to the Blue House in Seoul. And how can you go wrong with a free tour and a quality free gift?