Have you noticed I’m blogging up a storm?
Well, just when I thought I was out of the woods with spring allergies, BAM!
I was fine on Sunday, and it’s been an unusually rainy spring. I’ve also been taking allergy pills regularly. Then on Monday, allergies came back to bite me in the butt…which meant staying home and blowing my nose repeatedly in private.
Before we go into actually explaining how our visit to the Demilitarized Zone went, let me give you a little background.
We have tried to go to the DMZ and the Joint Security Area (the border with North Korea where the important meetings and negotiations happen) ever since we got here. If you haven’t been living under a rock, you’ll know that ever since we moved to South Korea almost two years ago, things have taken a turn to the tense. Due to the election of a rather…em, impulsive American president, the rhetoric has gotten a bit…uncomfortable. Needless to say, that means that the DMZ and the JSA have experienced last-minute closures and we’ve been kind of caught in the middle. Sadly, the tour companies that operate the DMZ routes cannot guarantee that these will be open, so last-minute cancellations happen. It’s also important to remember that the JSA is closed on part of the weekends and public holidays, so it’s not exactly easy to go when we have time off.
In total, we had attempted about 3 or 4 times to schedule a tour that would take us to the DMZ and the JSA. We were set for Saturday, May 12. Tickets to Seoul were booked. Instead of going for the weekend and adding the costs of feeding ourselves, booking a place to stay and having fun in Seoul, we decided to go for the day and come right back – quick turnaround, but it will allow us to keep the finances in order for the very busy months to come.
About 4 days before going, we received an email from the tour company saying that the JSA would be closed and we had the option of either canceling or just going to the DMZ. Given that our time in Korea is so short and we don’t really know when will we make it back, we decided to book the DMZ tour and make the best out of it.
Silver lining: in the midst of the JSA being closed, three Americans detained in North Korea were released and are back with their families. I’ll take it! You can read more about it here.
We scheduled a flight out of Jeju at 6:40 am. Checked in online with the Asiana app so we wouldn’t have to waste time at the airport. We had two small backpacks, so security was easy. We had to be at a certain train station at 8:30am. Our plane landed at 7:40am. Stress o’clock!!!!!! We didn’t know that apparently there’s an express train you can take to the city which would have taken less time. Lesson learned. The tour company called us twice, but…we made it to the train station in question and they were not there yet! Phewwww!!!!!! Within a few minutes, they arrived…a bus full of foreigners like us (mostly college kids on study-abroad programs, I suspect) who wanted to catch a glimpse of North Korea from the safety of the DMZ.
The day was rainy, cloudy and foggy. Our tour guide warned us that we might not be able to see much, but we would stop at different viewpoints. Getting to the DMZ takes about an hour by bus. Once you’re about halfway through the barbwire and the walls begin. We stopped at four different places:
- The Freedom Bridge/Imjingak Park
- The DMZ Museum/The 3rd Tunnel (more on that later)
- The Dorasan train station
- The Dora Observatory
It was surprisingly busy, given that the weather was really not conducive to being outside and walking around (we, of course, had decided to leave our umbrellas at home at the last minute!), but given that many of the past times we had tried to book a tour everything was full weeks in advance I guess it makes sense.
Normally, we stay away from prescribed tours and do things like these on our own, but we’re not sure that’s possible in this case so prescribed tour it was. In total, we spent about 20 minutes in each place.
The Freedom Bridge used to be an exchange point for prisoners of war during the conflict in the 50s. It does have a checkpoint, after which tourists are not allowed. Eventually, this bridge leads into North Korea. It’s not the only bridge in the area – we took some pictures of others. The other side from our point of view (when you cross the bridge and the river dividing the land) is North Korea. There are, of course, the ubiquitous peace message ribbons and South Korean flags along with historic landmarks. And of course, it wouldn’t be South Korea without a convenience store, a skincare store, and a coffee shop. All these three things are part of the Imjingak Park plaza – God forbid access to snacks, skincare and coffee would be compromised in this country! It’s so comical.
After the bridge we headed to the DMZ museum, where of course there are some models and timelines about the development of the Korean War, the division between the two countries, and the efforts for peace. I personally don’t have the most knowledge about the Korean War (tsk tsk – I’m supposed to be a history teacher!) so I found the exhibits pretty informative. I did find a bit contradictory that the exhibits in the museum give a less propagandistic version of how the conflict went down. The video we were shown about the tunnels made me a bit uncomfortable – it was just strange how they chose to not mention the outside powers that were meddling on something that was essentially none of their concern and turned a local issue into a satellite Cold War issue where people that didn’t need to be involved were. Rant over.
The 3rd Tunnel was sure interesting. We went down on a monorail and came back up on a monorail. It’s all solid rock so I can only imagine how hard it was to dig in the 1950s. According to South Koreans, this and three other tunnels were dug to prepare to invade Seoul from the north. When you walk to the end, you can see the Military Demarcation Line from underground. Sadly, no pictures are allowed.
We actually thought the Dorasan station was the coolest thing we saw. It’s the last train stop in South Korea before you connect to the North by rail. It’s not fully functional yet so there’s an air of “what it could be” when you’re there. You can buy tickets for KRW 1,000 (which we are keeping for our scrapbook) and get commemorative stamps for free in a postcard. Once you step onto the station, it’s really eerie – it’s empty and you’re not sure if you’re allowed to take pictures. You keep waiting for a train to show up. None did in the time we were there.
It is incredible to realize that in that station lies the possibility of completely connecting Europe and Asia by train. The hope and the dream is to connect the Inter-Korean rail to the Trans-Siberian rail in China and into Europe, which would just be amazing. When I shared that with a friend, he just said: “imagine the trade opportunities we’re missing out on”. Trade, travel…you name it. It would be amazing to see in our lifetimes.
Last stop of the day was the Dora Observatory. In good conditions, you are supposed to be able to see a lot, including a large North Korean flag and an even larger South Korean flag! As you can see, however, visibility was almost none that day so we could only see a few feet ahead of us.
On the way back, we stopped at a local restaurant for a bulgogi stew lunch, and then Cam and I went back to wander around Itaewon for a few hours before catching our flight.
And that was it! This was our experience peeking into the border with North Korea. If you want a good read into the experience we were hoping to have, click here: JSA Tour
Maybe one day. Or maybe miracles will happen and this will be no longer necessary.
We have some Shanghai friends coming at the end of the month, so we’ll be sure to show them some of the beauties of Jeju – we are hoping for U-do on a different season!
Until the next adventure!