North Korea – DMZ

The North
파주시, South Korea


I did not have a successful nights sleep. After falling asleep at 10pm, I woke at 2.30am and that was it. I could not sleep. When it came to 6am and time to get up, I had been solidly awake for the past 3.5 hours. How annoying.

The guesthouse had lots of free food, so I made some peanut butter sandwiches to take with me for breakfast, with some kiwi. Then I headed off back on the metro.

One thing I had not noticed yesterday were all the emergency boxes everywhere, filled with gas masks. Not quite sure what emergency they are planning for. But these boxes were everywhere!

And even at 6.30am, on a Saturday, the tube was surprisingly busy. I was only going a couple of stops along.

But once I was back outside, the streets were deserted. It was just getting light and it was cold. This street was full of small 2-3 storey grey buildings and it looked so similar to the Beijing hutongs.

I was headed to the USO building. This is a military services organisation and they run tours to the North Korean border. Starting at 7am…! But I arrived in plenty of time.

It was about an hours drive to reach Camp Bonifas – the U.S. Military base near the border. Here our passports were checked and we were given a briefing of the area by an army man. There were so many rules about what you cannot do I was a bit lost.

North Korea and South Korea are technically still at war. There was a truce agreement entered into in 1953 where the border, known as the Military demarcation line was decided upon. The line is marked by white markers, about 1m high and spaced about 10m apart). A 2 km section of land on each side of the line (so 4km in total) was marked on each side of the line, and this whole area is known as the demilitarised zone (DMZ). This stretches the full width of the country. We were loaded onto a bus and driven into the DMZ. We passed a couple of anti-tank sections on the road. Apparently these can be exploded and slow down tanks. And passed by several watch towers which are used to watch the border.

We entered the Freedom House which sits meters from the border. At the back of this building is a road called Conference Road and here the border is marked out by a small stone line. Several buildings across over the line and are used for conferences.

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The representatives from the north sit still in North Korea and from the south, in South Korea. There is a table which runs across the border, so that they can remain in their country. We were told to stand in a row along the back of Freedom house. Everyone was too scared to move – the army guys were scary and there were so many rules, we weren’t sure what to do. No photos to the left, right or behind, only infront. No pointing, gesturing, smiling, etc towards North Korea. And no stepping out of line. Several South Korean soldiers were standing next to the buildings on the south side. There was one North Korean solider standing on the North Korean building on the north side. It was a bit strange seeing someone from North Korea. We went inside the main conference building. Again in here were 2 South Korean soldiers.

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We were able to cross over into North Korea inside this building and stand on the north side. Back on the bus and we drove over to a lookout point. Again we were right on the border. But this time with a great view across the land – and properly into North Korea. Both North and South Korea maintain peace villages.

In South Korea, this is Daeseong-dong. The people who live here receive large areas of land to farm on, earn c$80k tax free (which is a lot for South Korea) and receive various other benefits. In North Korea this is Kijong-dong, and unofficially called propaganda village. The buildings are small converge tower blocks. It is thought that no one lives here. Apparently at night the lights go on and off at certain times and are bright on the top floors and dim on the lower floors – leading people to believe that the buildings are empty shells. Each village has a flag. North Korea built their flag pole taller than South Korea and it holds a 300kg flag!

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The whole time we were there the village had a loudspeaker playing – it was playing words (which I didn’t understand) and songs. Apparently these have only just started up again due to the recent tension and it plays day and night.

From the lookout point, we could see the village and the flagpole. It was pretty cool. We drove past a couple of other landmarks. The bridge of no return.

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This bridge was used to return members of each country following the war. And the site of the 1976 axe murders – whilst cutting down a tree, two American soldiers were killed by North Korean soldiers. The DMZ is a large nature reserve. There are various rare species which live here as well as some animals which only live here. We saw a water deer – also known as a vampire deer. We then drove back to the army base. Here there was a small shop selling various souvenirs, including North Korean money (of course I got some…!).

Next up – a train station at Dorosan. This train station is the final stop before North Korea. It is hoped that trains will run across the border and the station already has signs for trains to Pyongyang ready. But for now it’s just a tourist attraction. For lunch we stopped at a canteen style cafe.

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They served Bibimbap which was in pre-made bowls (with carrot, spinach, mushroom and seaweed) then you added your own rice. Plus there was cabbage salad and slices of orange. It was ok – as exciting as vegetables and rice is. I’m not a massive fan of the chilli sauce they use. Where is the sriracha?!

After the truce was decided in 1953, North Korea still dug tunnels beneath the DMZ to try to enter South Korea. These tunnels were apparently designed for a surprise attack on Seoul from North Korea, and could accommodate 30,000 men per hour along with light weapons. Four such tunnels have been found and it is believed there could be 20. When found North Korea claimed these to be coal mines. The third tunnel is now open to tourists. The third tunnel is 76m underground. To get down to it, you have to walk down a long South Korean made wide concrete tunnel. At the end of the concrete tunnel is the beginning of the third tunnel. This tunnel is 1,635 metres long, 1.95m high at its maximum point and 2.1m wide.

You could walk some way along it, until the border point – here it is blocked off with barricades. There are holes in the rock where dynamite could be placed. I thought it was going to be very claustrophobic, but actually it wasn’t too bad. The last stop was another lookout point. This one wasn’t as good as the one right by the border. Whilst you could see far, as we were a few kilometres away from the border, it was not as clear. Then we headed back to the city.

We got back about 3pm and I jumped on the metro to Itaewon and met my friend. The streets here are full of trendy shops and cafes. We stopped off for cake at one of the vegan cafes – Plant.

We shared a salad (leaves, black rice, pumpkin and vegan cheese) it was so good! And some cakes – peanut butter and chocolate. And red velvet with strawberry. Wow!! So delicious! And I was so full.

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From here we wandered around a bit more, then caught a bus into Hannam-dong. This is a largely residential area, with some embassies. But there is a random museum dotted in the middle which has a light exhibition on. My friend had some free tickets, so we went to have a look. There was a really long queue. Largely girls of a similar age to us. Like a selfie brigade. They were all dressed up, lots of make up, all armed with a smart phone and busy taking photos of themselves and each other. This continued inside (once we eventually got in)! It was cool.

There were 9 rooms, each with a different light design. A couple were a bit boring. But the others were all interactive and you could play with the light.

From here, back on the bus and to another trendy street in a different part of Itaewon. From here there was a great view of Mountain Namsan with the Seoul Tower on top. We were still full from the cake earlier, so rather than have dinner, we stopped off at a traditional rice wine (makgeolli) bar.

This fermented drink comes in white bottles which look like bleach bottles. It is a milky colour and slightly fizzy. We got a selection of different ones and they came presented so nicely in different coloured small cups, on a wooden platter. With free rice crackers!

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They all tasted slightly differently, some sweeter and some fizzier. It was actually ok (i was expecting it to taste rather horrible!). We also ordered some cooked vegetables, which came as a mini pancake, all cooked and stuck together in a rice batter. Was really good. But didn’t manage to finish it all!!

It was about 8pm by now, so we caught the bus heading back to Dongdaemun, but got off early in Myeong-dong to have a wander around. This is shopping central. There was everything. All lit up. And crowds and crowds of people. Food stalls lined every street. Each stall with something different – meat on sticks, pancakes, fish-shaped red bean filled desserts (I used to love those), dried persimmon (but so expensive), syrup covered sweet potato on sticks (so good), cups of fruit, octopus. Mainly just meat things.

We went into a large chemist shop (the local Boots equivalent). The main thing here – face masks. Koreans are obsessed. So much that the first 4 aisles of the shop was just face masks. And not the face masks we get at home. These are face-shaped wet-wipe style things that you put over your face and leave for 20 minutes. And they aren’t that cheap either – at about £1 each. But they use them every day. So I bought a few to try out! From here I caught the metro back to my guesthouse and got back about 9pm. What a long day!

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