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Return Flight Part 2: Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Incheon airport interior

The interior of the Incheon airport, one of the largest in the world. Since I was to laid over for almost eight hours, I booked a free tour into the city for something to do and to put my “feet on the ground” so I can say I’ve visited Korea.

We flew directly over Borneo, the Philippines, and Taiwan (including Kaohsiung, Chiayi, and other places I’ve lived before). We seemed to be following land as much as possible, based on the in-flight pathfinder app. Then we crossed the East China Sea and headed for Korea.

Across mud flat

The mudflat of Incheon Harbor. The Incheon airport is built on an artificial island in the harbor, which is one of the shallowest harbors in the world. Tides change the height of the water by as much as 14 feet, and when the tide is out, it leaves a large mud flat with channels for the receding tide.

We landed at Incheon, a city on the western coast of Korea not far from the DMZ. Incheon is most famous as the site of a major battle of the Korean War, which I’ll talk about shortly. The airport was built on an artificial island built up in a tidal flat in the harbor.

Stranded boat

A small fishing boat stranded in the mudflat at Incheon Harbor, left by the receding tide.

I deplaned and walked through terminal. It was about 7:00 in the morning, local time. At least this flight stayed mostly to a south to north trajectory, so that I was only two hours ahead of Jakarta. But I had left the southern hemisphere behind. No more Southern Cross. My carry-on items were getting heavy, dragging on my arms and shoulders.

Hovercraft

A hovercraft and transport ship heading under the bridge to Incheon Harbor.

I saw the desk I was looking for, advertising free transit tours of the local area. I had read about this when I researched what to do in the Incheon airport when I found I would have an eight-hour layover here. I looked through the offerings, and the man at the desk looked at my next boarding pass and suggesting taking a 10:00 one-hour tour or a five-hour tour. I’m glad they didn’t have any three-hour tours. That could have been disastrous. And if you get that reference, you are a child of the 1960s and/or 1970 reruns. So sit right back . . . He gave me an immigration card filled out for the one-hour tour to a local temple.

Bridge pylons

Pylons to the new bridge across Incheon Harbor to the airport. This bridge and the airport itself are considered to be among the engineering marvels of the world.

Taking this tour would mean leaving the sanctum of the inner airport. I waited in the queue to get through immigration, and took my items downstairs and finally found a trolley. The lady at the tour desk at Door 8 said she would try to get me in the 9:00 two-hour tour, because that one was better. I ate some doughnuts at Krispy Kreme and waited.

New City

Once we crossed the bridge and approached Incheon City itself, we saw this New City which has been built to house over one million people.

At 9:00 my tour group assembled at the desk and we were led at a brisk walk across the terminal to the far end by our guide, Nikki. We met up with two German men, both with walking braces, and we boarded a small tour bus. We drove out of the airport and onto a toll road, which led along a roadway built on top of mud flats. The tide was out, and here it can change up to 14 m between high and low tides. I could see small streamlets leading throughout the flats where the water runs back and forth in the tides. Then the roadway arched up and turned across the main bay entrance onto a long, high bridge with amazing architecture. Huge pylons supported a modern suspension structure. I had seen documentaries about this bridge as one of the modern architectural marvels of the world.

Blue bridge to new city

A bridge from the airport freeway across to the New City near Incheon, Korea. It was nice to be driving on the right side of the road again.

It was foggy in the early morning, and on the other side of the bridge a large group of new buildings, some very tall, emerged from the mist, an entire new city built for South Korea’s growing 50 million population.

Incheon tour bus

Our tour bus from the airport to the sites in Incheon, Korea.

We did a U-turn back to the main city on the left of the highway. Nikki told us that Incheon is now a city of 3 million people. We turned toward hills and wound up to the base of a hill with a beautiful set of Buddhist temples at the top. This was the Heungryunsa Temple complex. She said that there were 108 stairs leading to the top and that local people would kneel and bow down at the top 108 times to bring a blessing to their families.

Streets of Incheon

From the main highway we turned into Incheon city itself and wound through the streets to the hilltop above the city.

This was very similar to Buddhist temples and monasteries in Taiwan. Different landings on the steps had statues of the Buddhas, including the Amitah Buddha (Amita Fwo or Maitreya, the Buddha of Enlightment symbolizing the achievement of Nirvana by the original Buddha, Gautama Siddhartha), Mi Lwo Fwo (the fat, laughing Buddha of prosperity), and others. All the statues were painted gold or coated with gold foil, and decorated with smaller Buddha statues. The landscaping and rocks were beautifully manicured and peaceful. At the top landing were a series of temples and a large golden bell with log striker. It was tempting to ring that bell, but Nikki forbade us on pain of expulsion.

Nikki and group

Our tour group at the Heungryunsa Temple in Incheon, Korea. Our guide, Nikki, is the in the center with dark pants and a white blouse.

This temple complex has been here for many years. It was destroyed by the Japanese in the 1300s and rebuilt. It has weathered many storms of time and ideology. Nikki called out that we needed to move on to our second stop – this was a short tour, after all. She made the last person who returned to the bus sing a song.

David at Incheon temple

David Black at the Heungryunsa Temple complex in Incheon, Korea.

We drove a short distance to the Battle of Incheon Memorial. In 1951 at the height of the Korean War things were going badly for the South Korean forces trying to prevent the northern invasion. They were driven back to the southern tip of the peninsula and Seoul had fallen when the United Nations stepped in, led largely by the United States military. Under General Douglas Macarthur’s command, the combined UN forces planned a counteroffensive. First, the North Korean advance was stopped. Then, in a strategic move, the forces attacked at Incheon behind the enemy lines. They planned many “excursions in force” at other spots to look like they were the real landing site. Incheon’s geography wasn’t good for an invasion – all those mud flats to cross with landing craft. But that was why they chose here – it wasn’t expected. Landing craft carrying U.S. Marines and other forces came ashore at three places and the attack was successful, cutting of the North Korean supply lines and forcing them to pull back.

Fat Buddha 2

A statue of Mi Lwo Fwo, the laughing Buddha of prosperity, at the Heungryunsa Temple in Incheon, Korea.

Then Macarthur made his greatest blunder. The North Koreans had tried to reunify Korean under their communist leadership. Now Macarthur saw the opportunity to do the same under United Nations control and he drove on the advantage, pushing the demoralized North Koreans back past the original border between the two halves of the country.

Main temple

The main temple at the Heungryunsa Temple complex in Incheon, Korea. The entire series of temples sits at the top of a long stairway overlooking the city and is a very peaceful place.

Mao Tse Dung warned the United Nations forces that they should not approach the 38th parallel, the traditional border between Korea and China. When UN forces got close, the Chinese army poured across and reinforced the North Korean line, making it a whole new war. The UN forces were pushed back to the original border, and after two years of stalemate, the two sides signed an armistice that stopped the fighting but not the war and established the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separates the two countries now. Technically, the Korean War never ended. No side lost, no one surrendered.

Golden gong

A golden gong/bell in a pagoda at Heungryunsa Temple in Incheon, Korea. Nikki, our tour guide, repeatedly threatened us to not ring the gong. But it was very tempting. I wonder what it sounds like?

My wife’s brother, Dan Bateman, was in the Colorado Air National Guard for years and served two tours of duty in South Korea at the DMZ. He’s shown me books and photos of the area and I would love to visit sometime because this kind of history fascinates me. The North Korean government wants us to think that everything is fine there, with happy and productive people. They have built an entire city within view of guards on the south side of the DMZ with people living there to prove how progressive and modern North Korea is.

Stairs to memorial

The stairs to the Battle of Incheon Memorial. The Allied forces stages a successful surprise attach behind the North Korean lines by landing at the shallow Incheon Harbor where they weren’t expected.

Except it’s all a fake. The buildings are like Hollywood sets with fake fronts. Lights are turned off and on at random to appear as if people live there, but no one does except a few random “citizens” who are walking about but are trucked in and out every day. We have binoculars and other surveillance equipment that can see the pretense easily, but they keep it up. The leadership of North Korea appears to be as hollow as the buildings of this town. Dictator Kim, son of the original Kim who attacked in 1951, is spending millions of dollars on rocket systems and nuclear research that his people desperately need for food and basic services in an attempt to join the “big league” of nuclear nations where he can set his own terms.

Scaling the sea wall

A statue of Allied forces scaling the seawall during the Battle of Incheon in the Korean War.

Nikki spoke of her hope to one day see a reunified Korea where she can visit the north and perhaps even travel to Europe by train. Much would have to change before that could happen, but then we never thought the Soviet Union would break apart as quickly as it did. Much has changed in twenty years.

Landing craft

A landing craft for the Battle of Incheon. This acts as both boat and tank, able to cross both water and mud while carrying soldiers to attach the beaches and seawalls at Incheon Harbor. The attack was successful and turned the tide of the war, cutting off the North Korean supply lines.

I didn’t have time to read all the displays and dioramas. As the son of a World War II veteran and a student of history, war battles and strategy fascinate me. I was the last one on the bus (barely) and had to sing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”

Incheon memorial gate

Gateway to the Incheon War Memorial.

We drove back to the airport and I got my bags out from behind the tour desk where I had stowed them, worked my way upstairs and through the queue at security. I didn’t even have to take off my belt or shoes. I asked at the information desk where my gate was. It was Gate 12, so I walked that direction, past a procession of traditionally dressed Koreans.

Korean war items

Artifacts from the Korean War, on display at the Incheon War Memorial.

This airport is supposed to be one of the best in the world, with cultural events like this procession and the tours I had just been on. But I wasn’t terribly impressed with the layout. Just another big space full of people waiting in lines and overpriced duty free shops. There has got to be a better way to manage travel without all this waiting in lines and waiting around at gates. Security should be more automated; putting in people as guards only slows down the process. I even had to wait in line again for another set of guards to recheck my passport and boarding pass for the third time after I had already gotten through the security check.

Silver building at airport

Part of the Incheon Airport in Korea.

I had three hours still before my flight. I ate lunch at Taco Bell upstairs, then waited at the gate and waited some more. I sent photos of my Friday activities in Yogyakarta to Becca and the boys and tried to sleep some, with my aching right leg elevated on the luggage cart, but it wasn’t very good sleep. The benches here are hard. There’s got to be a better way to design a waiting area. We’ve gotten better at designing airplanes (at least the First Class sections – the Economy Class cattle car sections haven’t changed much in 40 years). Why can’t we redesign airports to facilitate transportation instead of waiting, which is the opposite of transportation? Even the waiting is poorly designed. I read an article a few days back about how airports will use smart technology to transport luggage and people and become destinations in their own right, with retail shopping and entertainment. Not big cavernous spaces full of bored, waiting people. I’ve seen enough of these in the last two days.

Pink flowers

Pink blossoms and manicured gardens at the Heungryunsa Temple in Incheon, Korea.

Waterfall

A waterfall at the Heungryunsa Temple in Incheon, Korea. The entire complex and gardens had a very Zen, peaceful vibe to it, and it was well worth my time to take this free tour from the airport. If you get a chance, go for it.

Standing Buddhas

Standing golden Buddhas behind the main temple at the Heungryunsa Temple complex in Incheon, Korea.

Tour group at fat Buddha

Our tour group in Incheon, Korea at the Heungryunsa Temple. We were a mixture of Americans, Europeans, Australians, and Indians.

Zen stairway

A very Zen style stairway up the hillside behind the Golden Gong pagoda at the Heungryunsa Temple in Incheon, Korea.

Confucious altar

The altar to Confucius in the Heungryunsa Temple in Incheon, Korea. All the writing and characters here were Chines, not Korean. This temple dates back almost a thousand years when Chinese culture (as the Central Kingdom) heavily influenced Korea.

Golden altar

Golden altar inside the main temple at the Heungryunsa Temple complex. The layout and decor of these temples was very reminiscent of the temples I’ve visited in Taiwan, except with more of a Zen feeling – perhaps representing Korean Buddhism as a mixture of Japanese and Chinese influences.

Across temple roof

The gardens and temples at the Heungryunsa Temple complex are beautifully designed and maintained. It was very peaceful here.

Gray buddha

A gray Buddha statue at the entrance to the Heungryunsa Temple in Incheon, Korea.

Looking down on fat Buddha

Looking down on the Mi Lwo Fwo statue and across to the New City at Incheon. The Heungryunsa Temple is set on a hillside above the city with an amazing view down. All the levels are interconnected with stairways and the whole complex has a very Zen feel to it

Flowers and double Buddha

Orange blossoms and a double facing golden Buddha at the Heungryunsa Temple overlooking Incheon, Korea.

Airport procession

A mock wedding procession a the Incheon Airport. This airport tries to be a cultural center and does provide excursions around the city for passengers who have layovers, but in the end it is still a big cavernous space for waiting around, not really a place that accommodates transportation.

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