So we were in South Korea, in the middle of one of N.Korea’s flare up’s and we damn well wanted to make sure we went to the DMZ. We rang our concierge to ask about tours, and they sent a lady up to our room armed with pamphlet upon pamphlet.
Her name was Candy Bang. We really liked Candy Bang, and for reasons other than her unreasonably cool name.
She recommended the cheaper tour ( a reflection on us? Haha probably…) but we were pretty unsure, so we said we had to think about it. The more expensive one was about $80 USD but you had access to the room where you can cross the line into (technically) North Korea, and the other one just kinda went around the edges I guess? We chose the more expensive one, because we figured it was a once in a lifetime thing, so we should make the most of it. And it was worth it. Every penny.
So we rang back Candy Bang, and gave her our passports and got super excited. The morning of the tour, we woke up early and got on a little bus, which took us to a hotel in the city, where we waited for a bit while a lady double checked our passports, and then we got on a bigger bus.
This is where we met our guide, who, for lack of memory, we will call Cute old jumper lady. It was a little while out of Seoul, and she told us about the bridges that are set up to explode if North Korea invades by land.
The first time you could see North Kora was pretty exciting. Well, in real life it’s just bare hills across the way a bit but it felt exciting. The sleepy couple across the aisle from us disagreed, and showed it, by closing their little bus curtain pretty much right after that was pointed out to us.
What they missed, was the fact that there are no trees that you can see in North Korea. Just bare land. It’s interesting and weird and a little bit scary all at the same time, a bit like North Korea.
Our first stop was at Imjingak, a park built to console those who lost people due to separation during the Korean War. It is also where the Freedom bridge lies, which was famous for being the place where POW’s and returning soldiers would cross the Imjin River from North Korea. There are a lot of memorial statues, and thousands of ribbons tied to fences from people mourning the loss of loved one’s stuck in North Korea, or just simply wishing the war would end.
This park was the first time we saw South Korean soldiers and their big, plastic counterparts. It was all very sad and very surreal.
We then got back on the bus and ended up at a small café, and were given some Bibimbap. Each table was set up with a burner ( which we loved, because it was just like the ones I grew up camping with and which I made Ryan search NorCal for when we were going to Burning Man!) Each burner had meat and noodles and there were side dishes of sauce and Kimchi and other excellent tasty things. Yummm.
Next stop: the real deal, the DMZ. We stopped right outside the official gates and were given lots of instructions. Severely, like our life depended on it. Cos, you know, it might. We were not allowed to carry anything except one phone and/or one camera. A South Korean then soldier came on board, checked that we all had our passports, then a few minutes later an American soldier came on and checked our passport detail for detail against a list he had.
We were also given special tags. These were to let the North Koreans that would be watching us know that we were not big mean non-visitor types.
We are then driven into the DMZ parking lot, we get off our bus, walked 2 by two into the little visitor centre and given an outline of more stuff we can and cannot do on the tour. And a contract to sign saying that we’re cool off suing anyone if we get, like shot and stuff.
The rules, were pretty simple: Don’t do anything stupid. Don’t go waving your arms, not pointing, not drastic or sudden movements, no yelling etc. Just go, look, come back. ok!
We were then given 4 minutes so that we could pee. Literally. And we all did- no-one wants an international peeing incident. Then it was on to one of their big green buses with cute old jumper lady still with us and the pretty jovial American Soldier from before joining us and off we went.
Jumper lady tells us that apparently there is more tanks here than usual, because of the current political situation, and other tours were not held in days previous because the risk was deemed too high. Yay?
We offloaded from the bus, told to walk two by two, which was fine, except this weird old german lady kept on trying to walk next to me and force Ryan ahead of me in a weird and grumpy fashion. I did not like that Lady. ( Fast forward an hour and she was complaining that she didn’t think the DMZ was going to be so ‘boring’. yeech.)
We were then lead into the meeting room, where North and South Korea have joint meetings, sometimes. There is a table in the middle of the room that is split in half, closest side is South Korean, farthest is North Korean, and behind it is a door to North Korea. This door is now guarded by a South Korean Soldier, as previously North Koreans had used it as an opportunity to snatch tourists.
You can see Cute Old Jumper Lady in the first picture here!
Sorry for the fuzziness of the fist pictures! It was, to be honest, a little nerve-wracking and also felt really intrusive to be standing there taking photos of this guy and his fists. The last photo here is out the window, where you can see the rocks is the South Korean side, and the cement the North Korean.
We were only given a few minutes in the room, before heading out, again two by two back onto the steps. We were then allowed to take photos of the North Korean Building. This is where two things happened. Well, they happened in my brain.
1. Ryan tried to take a bunch of photos of me, which is cool, I obviously would want a picture of me standing in front of North Korea, but I couldn’t work out what expression i should have on my face. Surely i shouldn’t be smiling? But then if I just looked really sad that would be weird. So I ended up with this:
Weird confused Conor.
The other thing that happened was scared the bejesus out of me. Seriously. So I had this idea in my head that someone official had said that the North Koreans weren’t allowed to change the direction that they were looking if they could be seen by us.
If you look realllly closely in the above photo you can see a North Korean soldier standing in front of his building, almost directly above the middle South Korean soldier. I was looking at him. He was looking sideways. As i was looking at him he turned his head and looked at us, or rather, what i felt like, directly at me. Then he looked back to the side for a few seconds, then verrrry slowly put his hand down and picked up a small to medium sized, shaped, black object.
A gun, is what my eyes told me.
Nope! Just binoculars! How hilarious. I am so grateful that my disbelief that something bad would really happen stopped me from acting out what i thought was actually happening. Thanks, brain, suck on it eyes.
Here’s some more pics.
The funny thing about the South Korean soldiers in that situation at least, was that they were solid, un-moving, ready to attack. The American soldier though? Laughing, making jokes, swinging his hands back and forth, walking around. I believe I may have even heard a whistle.
Also interesting to note is that the South Korean soldiers are there as part of their two year mandatory military duty, and are paid as such… as in not much- whereas the American soldiers are there as part of their job, and they get (apparently) really good danger money.
We were then put back on our bus, and drove back past the massive North Korean Flag that was built as some kind of weird flagpole war and used to be the the bigges in the world. It’s now only the third biggest, sorry North Korea.
We also passed the Propaganda village and the freedom Village. Both extraordinarily interesting places.
The Propaganda village, also known as Kijong-Dong, and within North Korea, The Peace Village, was built in the fifties and is believed to be a completley fake village to let the world know that North Korea can built most excellent villages and also to encourage South Koreans to defect to the North.
Freedom Village is the only village within the DMZ, it has around 200 residents who are direct descendants of the people who owned the land before the Korean War. These people are farmers, there is a strict curfew they must adhere to, and they must spend at least 240 nights in the village.
Cute Old Jumper lady said that they are apparently constantly in danger of being grabbed by North Koreans, that the produce they grow is some of the best in South Korea, and that they make about $80,000 USD a year, tax free. Worth it?
There were points ont he way back when cut old jumper lady would tell us that we were not allowed to take photos, and people sneakily took photos, but what was funny, and slightly annoying is that the American soldier later told us that we could have, and he had no idea why she said that.
We were dropped off at the shop, which was a mix of a eclectic souvenirs and a bunch of stuff that was made in the Khesong joint production facility. This faicility has both South and North Korean workers in it and had just the week before been shut down by North Korea.
We bought some North Korean bank notes, small souvenirs and, obviously, some North Korean Brandy.
And then that was it. We drove back, eavesdropping on some Aussie kid who was talking about his visit to San Francisco, and the awful bored lady complaining a lot. Even though it seems like we just kinda sat on a bus a lot then walked two by two a bit we were exhausted afterward.
Good thing we only had to get the subway back to our hotel, grab our bags, catch the subway back to the city centre and walk around for 2 hours trying to find our new hotel…
This was our last night in South Korea, but we will be back. Definitely. We both fell head over heels in love with Seoul. We will be back.
Next up: Back to Cali! & Coachella!