Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Operation Alda, or, The Great Korean Adventure

Between July 17th and August 10th I have been travelling around the world. It would be challenging, I suppose, to find two more different regions to explore than Canada’s Northwest Territories and Seoul, South Korea, but those were the two main points of my journeys.

Yellowknife from "The Rock" in Old Town
Phase one of my travels was me meeting my family in Yellowknife. My parents decided to visit the Northwest Territories given that I am living up here for the moment and without me here they would likely never find a reason to head this far north.

Alexandra Falls near Enterprise, NT

I was happy to play tour guide to my family, but it also gave me an excuse to travel through the territory myself. We spent a few days in Yellowknife before driving down Highway 3 towards Hay River. The trip was marred by the incredible fire season that the region has been enduring. The highway in and out of Yellowknife has been frequently closed between Behchoko and Fort Providence. We arrived to a blockade and thick smoke, but got lucky and snuck through on to Hay River and later Fort Smith. The scale of the Northwest Territories is really difficult to fathom. Whipping along the highway between the few towns on the route gives a pale impression of its size. I was pleased to cross the legendary Mackenzie River, see the road from Yellowknife and pass through an active forest fire. The bison even cooperated and posed for pictures.

Highway 3 between Behchoko and Fort Providence, NT

After showing my parents around the South Slave and Fort Smith, the community I currently call home, I returned to work for one day and then flew from Fort Smith to Edmonton to Vancouver, and the next day I crossed the Pacific Ocean and met with my dear friends in Seoul, South Korea.

Korea is the first country I have visited outside of North America. My globetrotting experience is decidedly limited. I would probably never have visited the country without the kind hospitality and guidance of my friends.

Side-streets in Seoul

Some general observations, if I may: Korea is a beautiful country. It has a landscape like nothing I have ever seen before. Unlike the Rockies or Appalachians the mountains bend and slop erratically with no discernible pattern. The fields and meadows glow a vibrant green. Seoul is an incredible city. I remarked on a few occasions that it was like stepping into the future. I expected crowded, noisy and dense. While the city was dense in was relatively peaceful and it was rare to be inundated with people. Ironically the big thoroughfares and avenues were often scarcely peopled, but the side streets where businesses or markets sat thronged with humanity. English is fairly ubiquitous in the city. Though I was almost never without my friends I managed well enough in English and the tiny amount of Korean I picked up during the trip. The food and the markets and businesses were some of my favourite things.

Largest Palace in Seoul, typhoon clouds mask the mountains.
I did visit the DMZ during my trip with one of my friends and technically stepped into North Korean territory. It is vaguely horrifying the contrasts between the nightmare-state of the North and the South. It was unsettling to be carefully observed by a North Korean guard with binoculars and see a gaunt labourer take a smoke break. The whole northern region of the Republic of Korea is militarized and prepared to respond in the event of North Korean aggression. It is a sword of Damocles that hangs over the country.
North Korean guard eyes tourists through binoculars.

Visiting a foreign country definitely shines light on to your preconceived notions of how life “naturally” should be structured. How Koreans work, live and play offered a somewhat stunning alternative. Unfortunately there were dark sides to the country, though those rarely affected me directly.

The best part of my trip was spending time with my three friends from university and getting insight into their lives in that foreign land. I gained an appreciation for what has kept them there for three years. The trip was made all the better through insider context from people with a similar worldview and experience to my own. I highly recommend visiting the country, though perhaps not in the peak of summer, sweet mother of God was it hot...

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