Hello friends and family and strangers! I hope you are well.
I didn’t update you all last week about my shopping trip to Myeongdong because I got caught up with others things, mainly lesson planning. However, I’m giving you a rain check on that post because talking about this past weekend’s trip to the DMZ is just way more exciting.
Visiting the DMZ wasn’t just at the top of my list for things to do in South Korea, but at the top of my list of things to do in life. Ever since I learned about North Korea in college (yeah, the public education system in grades 1-12 failed me), I have been absolutely fascinated with it. North Korea is one of those places that holds my heart. I know this is crazy. I know I may sound naive, but it’s the truth. My heart goes out to its people. I think the tragedy that is happening in North Korea is largely downplayed. It’s a modern day human rights travesty, and I have always wondered what we are doing about it. We read about labor camps in our history books, but don’t learn about the labor camps in North Korea. It doesn’t seem fair to ignore the events happening right in front of our faces.
Anyways, I could go on and on about how awful it is that people are being treated poorly just because they live on the wrong side of the fence, but I’m not going to do that.
But obviously, as you can see, I was fascinated about seeing a place that has held my interest for years.
I started the trip bright and early in the morning at 7:15. I nearly missed my bus actually and arrived right before it pulled out. The funny thing about this is that I stayed the night in Seoul so I would avoid this. But of course, this didn’t matter.
I decided to go on the DMZ tour with WINK because they do both DMZ tours. Did you know there are several different types of tours for the DMZ? They all go to different places. There is also a JSA tour that is only for certain foreigners. Even South Africans aren’t allowed on the JSA tour! I’m going to do this tour another time because there wasn’t enough time to do both.
First of all, the DMZ is a whole lot bigger than I thought it’d be. In my mind, I thought we’d stop at one place, hang out there for a few hours and then head to the next part of the tour. No. No. No. Our tour consisted of driving to a place, stopping for 30 minutes, getting on a bus for 15 minutes, getting off again for another 30-45 minutes and repeat.
There are SO many places you can visit on the DMZ tours. Here’s what we did though:
Our first stop on the tour was the Imjingak area with the Freedom Bridge.
I’ll be honest, I still have no idea what this bridge is about because we literally only stayed there for about 30 minutes and I spent half of it wandering around God knows where. I thought we were going to stay longer so I didn’t feel the need to rush it. If I would’ve known we weren’t going to stay here, I probably would’ve been more intentional.
Despite the length of stay, this was a really cool area and was a great introduction to the DMZ. It had high fences with barbed wire wrapped around it and tons of official looking memorials. There was even an amusement park, which let’s be honest . . . feels kind of wrong.
Which leads me to the next area . . .
The Third Tunnel
Did you know that North Korea created tunnels underground into South Korea so they could possibly invade them? Because I had NO idea. The South only found 4 tunnels, but they suspect that there are more. There is also a whole underground world in North Korea that even has a two lane road. That’s comforting, right? The last tunnel, the 4th tunnel, was discovered in 1990. That wasn’t too long ago. I suspect that they are overdue for discovering something new.
You can actually visit some of these tunnels on the DMZ tour. My tour with WINK led me to the 3rd tunnel, which I kind of got the suspicion is the most popular tunnel to visit. We were also planning on visiting the 2nd tunnel, but didn’t have time.
To go underground, you can either hop on the railway or walk. Since the train was not running, we had no choice but to walk.
Thankfully, our group was the first at the spot. Everything was empty, meaning it was not at all crowded on our way down. First, we watched a short film that was incredibly dramatic and then had time to roam.
The tunnel is super long and goes deep into the Earth. It was quite exhausting. Everyone warned me that it was going to be tight inside the actual tunnel, but it wasn’t too bad. I think it helps that it was virtually empty when I walked down.
The tunnel goes all the way to the North Korean side, and stops right before you cross the boundary. A creepy door on the North Korean side leads into what almost seems like a dungeon.
The scariest part of the entire ordeal wasn’t the walk, but seeing the gas masks on the sides of the walls, along with instructions on how to put them on. I think this was what made me realize how dangerous the DMZ is, and how close it is to such a dangerous country. Watching documentaries and reading books about a country don’t really help one comprehend the reality of the situation. It wasn’t until I walked right to the boundary, next to a sign that read “Gas Masks” that I finally started to understand that North Korea is a REAL country with REAL people and REAL weapons.
The walk up out of the tunnel was quite strenuous, and many of the people had to rest just to continue the climb. It was also getting SUPER crowded. One of our guides said that about 80% of the people on the DMZ tours are Chinese tourists. And there were TONS of them walking into the tunnel on our way out.
I also ran into some South Korean military men on the way up, as well as in other places throughout the tour. From the looks of it, a lot of those in the army take field trips to different places in the DMZ. It was interesting seeing these boys pass us in their gear. The weird thing is knowing that many of them are probably younger than me, as most boys join the military right after high school since South Korea requires all men to join the military for 1 1/2 years. I kept thinking about how all the male students I currently teach are going to be required to join the military as well. I hope they’ll be okay.
After walking through the tunnel, I walked around the gift shop for a bit and then walked a little more outside. By then, it was raining, which was just as well because our bus left soon after the rain started.
Next was . . .
Unfortunately for us, it was way too foggy to see much. All we could really see was a bridge out in the distance. However, they reassured us that North Korea was behind the fog, and after watching another cheesy video, we looked out beyond yonder.
We only stayed for a very short time before heading back on the bus.
Our next stop was Dorasan Station.
The trains at this station once went to North Korea. The station was empty though. Guess it’s not exactly a weekend hotspot anymore. . .
There wasn’t much to see in this area, and most of us just used it for the bathroom and to roam.
After this, we drove for about an hour to another town where we ate lunch.
Everyone was starving, as the tour started early and most of us hadn’t eaten breakfast. I chose the bibimbap.
In this area was a statue dedicated to the North Korean Robin Hood and a pretty sorry museum about North Korea. It was rundown and could be walked through in about 3 minutes. Not sure what that was about.
The real cool thing about this area was the beautiful canyon. In the summer, you can go water rafting. I would love to visit again when it’s hotter and go kayaking.
Our next stop on the trip was Cheorwon.
The fog lifted after lunch, which was wonderful because we headed to another Observation Deck. This time, we could actually see the North Korean side. The real highlight was when I paid 500 won to look through one of those binocular type things and saw the North Korean houses clearly. I could even see people walking around! In the distance, there also seemed to be a group of people firing guns at something. It was fascinating!
This observation deck was also way cooler than the last one because they had a nicer museum and the views were just all around prettier. They also took us up via monorail, which I thought was weird considering how it wouldn’t have been a long way up anyway. But oh well.
I was also surprised to see a huge cross facing North Korea that I believe lights up at night. How cool is that?!
On our way to the next stop, we passed a rundown building that they assured us was the Labor Party Building. It was legit something out of The Hunger Games. One interesting thing about this area is that it was all once North Korea.
Our last stop on our journey was White Horse Ridge.
White Horse Ridge is where a bloody battle was fought during the Korean war. Many men lost their lives. Ultimately, the South won and conquered the land. However, it’s called White Horse Ridge because after the war, the hill looked like a threadbare because of all the bombing.
For this area, we had a Korean tour guide, who was absolutely adorable. He could barely speak English and because he really struggled with it, there were times when he would stop talking in the middle of his sentences because he didn’t know what to say. Our whole group got a kick out of that.
This concluded our tour to the Cheorwon and Imjingak areas of the DMZ.
Overall, it was a very informative tour, though we moved in haste. I wish we could’ve spent more time walking around, but now that I see how far apart everything is at the DMZ, I understand why they didn’t allow us to walk around much. Even though we left at 7:15 am and got back to Seoul at 7:30 at night, we still weren’t able to see everything the WINK tour guide planned for us.
There’s always next time!