North Korean Wine

North Korean Wine

Category : Food

Tensions are very high between North and South Korea right now, with chances of a political rapprochement appearing slim. Yet not that long ago, relations were good enough for a rail line to be built joining the 2 countries.

For almost a year, starting in December 2007, one freight train a day crossed the border, taking materials from the South to the Kaesong Industrial Region, and returning with North Korean goods. The line never carried passengers, and now looks like it never will, but the shiny, immaculate station of Dorasan still stands on the border, and some of those North Korean goods, the guides say, are still available at the souvenir stands in the waiting room.

It is tricky to get into the DMZ at this point, but a guided tour will give you half an hour or so to wander round Dorasan.  It looks just like a miniature airport building, complete with customs barriers for international arrivals and departures, and although it is standing empty everything is ready to go again at a moment’s notice. It demonstrates the apparent wish of South Korea for peace and a friendly relationship with their neighbours in the North.

And there are indeed some interesting items on sale at those souvenir stalls.

Never one to pass up a shopping opportunity and possible new taste experience, I snapped up some North Korean wine. It’s made from wild grapes, is ‘organic’ in that chemical fertilisers and pesticides are presumably hard to come by in the North, and has so many floating bits that it suggests they don’t have filters up there, either.

But never mind, this is not something you can pick up any time at the local off-licence.

When it came to sampling this, however, I was sadly disappointed. I mean, I wasn’t seriously expecting it to taste like a French wine, but I was hoping it would actually be drinkable. Unfortunately, the sealing process had failed – the screw top was not just loose but also impossible to remove without resorting to brute force and a knife.

I have no idea when this wine was bottled, but it had empathically not survived very long. The smell was atrocious, and a tiny drop convinced me that this was more like battery acid than wine and drinking it might be a really bad move. I’m afraid it went down the sink.

Still, as a curiosity, it was definitely worth a shot.

Underground Emergency Kits

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Seoul is a modern, vibrant capital city in a very unusual position. Although the Korean War ended decades ago, technically there is still just a ceasefire in place rather than peace between North and South.  Without getting overly political, North Korea has not proved to be a particularly friendly neighbour, so a 4km demilitarized zone exists between the 2 countries and both sides are always on the alert.

There is supposed to be a greater concentration of soldiers in and around this narrow stretch of land than anywhere else in the world, and with tensions always high or higher, it isn’t surprising that all sorts of emergency systems are in place. In Seoul itself, a mere 50km from the border, the possibility of attack is ever present, and people need to know what to do just in case.

It has been like this for a long time. I remember in the 1990’s, watching from a hotel window as a weekly drill sent everyone in the city centre rushing into the underground tunnels which act as bomb shelters as well as handy underpasses and shopping centres. In minutes, as sirens wailed, the streets were completely deserted.

On my latest visit, I was fascinated to see that on every subway station platform stand large cupboards packed with gas masks and emergency supplies. Not just one per station, but one per train carriage along the platform. Benches also doubled as holders for ladders which could be used to access the tracks for an alternative escape route…

Amazingly, despite the ever-present danger, Seoul continues to thrive so well it is giving Tokyo a run for its money. I take my hat off to such a resilient people!

DMZ Noodles

Category : Food

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The demilitarized zone between the 2 Koreas is something of a tourist attraction, although one which you have to approach cautiously – tours can be cancelled at a moment’s notice when tensions between the 2 sides rise, and visitors are scrutinised and their documents checked very carefully indeed.

Once you are in the zone, however, it is all a more reassuring experience, with soldiers happy to pose for pictures, and souvenir stands doing a brisk trade in the likes of fake dog tags and bits of authentic barbed wire mounted on special plaques.

My personal preference was for something we could eat, and this ticked all the boxes. Instant noodles are fairly popular in our house, and with daughter #2’s boyfriend currently in the army, camo is also a hit.

So here we are – instant noodles packaged in Korean Army camouflage patterned pouches, a perfect Christmas stocking filler!