Thursday, May 26, 2011

T. Pelle don't read this post, or, my trip to the DMZ

When I decided to go to Korea, I had no intention of going anywhere near the north, you know, the half with the Communists. So a few weeks ago, 2 of my friends sent me a link to a tour company that was going to the second inflitration tunnel at the DMZ and they told me to sign up. So I did. The wasn't bad and I thought it was probably something I should see - like the Statue of Liberty in New York, but with guns and a crazy dictator. The trip started with a bus pick up on Saturday morning and a drop off Sunday evening.

The tour company is based out of Seoul, so we had to be in Seoul at the express bus stop by 8am Saturday morning. Seoul is a 4 hour bus ride from Jinju and the earliest bus leaves at 5:30 - so that was out, which meant we had to leave Friday night. The bad part is that Liezle doesn't get off of work on Friday until 10pm. So the 2 of us and her friend Vera (who rode a bus up from Geoje to meet us in Jinju) got on an 11 pm bus. The idea being that we would sleep on the bus, get a hotel near the bus station and be all refreshed in the morning.

This did not happen. When the bus started, the 3 of us were talking and a man across from us told us to be quiet. So I on headphones and tuned out, but couldn't sleep. Neither could Liezle. We got to Seoul at 3am and started walking around the bus station. Usually there are tons of motels near bus stations. Not here. The express bus stop is close to the ritzy area (where I stayed with mom and Jeff) so no cheap places are close - the motels are near the inner city bus stops. So we walked around for about 30 minutes trying to find a motel with no luck. We then walked up to a man who looked normal (although he was on the side of the road at 3 in the morning) and asked for directions to a motel. He spoke limited English, but enough to understand us. He got out his iphone and looked up motels for near where we were. He then wrote down an area to look for hotels and hailed us a cab. We had to cross the street though, so the cab didn't work. He was very very nice and spent like 10 minutes with us.

Then we got in cab and handed the driver the piece of paper with the motel info on it. He spoke some English and drove around trying to find us a motel. We saw one, but the lights were off, so he parked the cab on the side of the road, and went inside with Liezle while Vera and I stayed with the car. He got the night manager and got us a room. That's one of the nice things about Korea - they will help you. Could you imagine a New York cabbie helping you get a room at a motel and then trying to not accept a tip?

We stayed at the Motel Terminal - a super classy joint, except toally not. There was 1 bed and no couch, so the three of us slept horizontal on the bed. I took a shower before I went to sleep because both of them we going to shower in the morning. It was already 4 am and we set the alarm for 6:30 to make sure we got back to the bus station in time. I freaked myself out in the middle of the night because the headboard was a mirror and I woke up staring at myself around 5am.

The alarms went off and we woke up, got dressed and went to the bus station. We had breakfast at a bakery near the place we were supposed to meet the tour group. Liezle and I split a bacon and onion bagel and a chicken sandwich. Then we went and sat near a mall, which was our designated pick-up area. We were the second pick-up location and Cindy was getting on at the first one because a friend of hers lived near there and she stayed with her the night before. When the bus got there, it was pretty packed. I was the last person on and ended up sitting in the front with one of the tour guides. Her name was Suri and she was really nice, but it kind of sucked that I didn't get to sit with my friends.

We rode the bus for close to 2 hours to an area called Cheorwon (Cheolwon). Our first stop was the Goseokjeong pavilion. There is a small (and pretty crappy) museum called the Iron Triangle Memorial Hall, with some planes and a tank out in front. After you go out of the museum, there is a courtyard type area with a large statue of Im Kkok-cheong aka Korean Robin Hood. In the 1500s, estate lords increased taxation and forced peasants into further poverty. This guy, the son of a butcher, organized towns people to raid government buildings for grain.
Me and Robin Hood
After you walk past (or climb on) Robin, you walk down a bunch of stairs (yay?) to the pavilion. It overlooks like Hantan river and is really pretty. Unfortunetly, we had rainy weather and it was drizzling so the views weren't as great as they could have been. Also, this is when my camera battery died - that's right, 15 minutes into the trip. So that's part of the reason why I am writing this post 4 days after I got home - I had to "liberate" photos from other people's facebooks. The pavilion was orginally built in 600, was destroyed during the war and rebuilt in 1971. Then we ate a super fast lunch and hopped back on the bus.
Me and Carlie on the steps down to the pavilion

Hantan river from the pavilion

Goseok-jeong pavilion

Under an wisteria arbor
Our next stop was the second inflitration tunnel. Tours to this tunnel are allowed only in groups, unlike the other tunnels (although I think you might only be allowed to go the third one now). The entire area of Cheolwon is restricted and we passed through numerous check points the entire weekend where we weren't allowed to take pictures. We drove up a road and could briefly see the fence that seperated South Korea from the DMZ, or the MDL (Military Demarcation Line). Then we got to the tunnel. The 2nd Tunnel (so named because it was the second one found by people in the South - clever huh?), which was made by North Koreans to invade South Korea, was discovered on March 19th, 1975. This tunnel is 3.5km long and sits 50~160 meters below the surface. There have been 4 tunnels found so far, with an estimate of possibly 40 tunnels in total. This tunnel was found in 1975. You have to wear a hard hat to go inside and you're not allowed to take pictures inside the tunnel. At the end of it - about half a kilometer - there is a locked gate, a manequin of a South Korean solider and a video camera. The camera is to monitor that no one actually tries to go past the gate. The gate is very close to the DMZ boarder line, but you can't see North Korea from here.
In a hard hat in front of the tunnel. I bumped my head once, but I wasn't close to being the only one.
After the tunnel (which was somewhat anit-climatic) we went to the Cheorwon Peace Observatory. The bus stopped at the bottom of a hill and the guide said it was a 7 minute walk to the observatory. He lied. It only took about 15 minutes, but was straight uphill. This then became a running joke because everywhere was a 7 minute walk. I started timing him; usually the walks were around 10 minutes, so it just seemed weird that he didn't use 10.

The observatory overlooks the Iron Triangle Battlefield.  It is the area that connects Gimhwa, Pyeonggang and Cheorwon. This area had the highest number of casualties during the Korean War, especially in the Baekmagoji and Oseongsan battles.  The Iron Triangle Battlefield was the headquarters and frontline of the North Korean Army. This area had the unique natural advantage of being a difficult target for Allied forces to attack, so remained an easy area for North Koreans to defend. We watched a short video, looked out some binoculars and over the balcony into North Korea. There were no soldiers or anything to see - it's too far away. Apparently you can get a bit closer in other areas because you can take a tour of the building they use for peace talks, but that's further south I think. Then there is another small museum where you get a small idea of how it was for people during the war. It also had a graphic about the lines between North and South Korea. At the end of WWII, the line was the 38th parallel - straight across. Now it's an S curve between the 38th and the 39th. South Korea ended up with more land, but lost a bit in the northwest. There are still "fights" over some islands on both coasts.
Statue of Mary on the road to the obervatory
Looking into North Korea
Military posts along the fence (MDL) under the observatory
Camel back mountain in North Korea. This is where you can see the NK observation posts when you look through binoculars.
Our third stop was Woljeongri Station (Cheorui Samgakji Observatory). It is located at the spot where the fiercest battle was held during the Korean War. There are remains of a train that used to make frequent trips to North Korea. This train track marks the partition line of the Korean peninsula. In front of the train there is a sign saying "the iron horse wants to run". This area also has an observation point into North Korea, but it's overgrown with trees so you can't see anything.
"The iron horse wants to run"
Next to this is a wild bird musuem. Because the area of Cheorwon was basically destroyed by the war, and is heaveily militarized now, there aren't a lot of people. It has become a zone for migratory birds and there are cranes everywhere. It is also famous for rice. There was a small statue of a girl near the museum and I asked the tour guide about it. He said he had been there 20 times and had never noticed it. The sign basically told them story of a girl who had a father with an illness. She got water from this well and offered it in prayer everyday and then her father survived.
Offering water to the gods
Our second to last stop on Saturday was The Communist (Labor) Party Building. It was constructed in 1946 and used as the headquarters until the break of the Korean War on June 25. Many people who were here during the anticommunist movement were later tortured and killed. Behind the building lies remains of people, bullets and iron chains. It was a pretty creepy building with bullet and mortar holes in the walls. You can't go inside anymore because the structure is starting to fall down.
Front of the Labor Party building
Locked fence - thanks to Carlie for this picture
After the Labor building, we went to Odaemi Village, which is in the northeast region of Gangwon-do, and is settled next to the southern demarcation line.The area of Odaemi Village was one of the fiercest battle fields during the Korean War. This is where we stayed the night. We stayed in a large building spilt into multiple rooms. Our room was further split - we had a large open area with a kitchen sink and a mini fridge, a half bath, and 2 bedrooms. There were 3 other bathrooms in the hall (2 girls and 1 boys) along with 2 other bedrooms. Each bedroom fit 5-8 people and there were a few smaller units outside. I stayed in a room with 5 girls - me, Liezle, Cindy, Vera and their other friend from South Africa, Carlie (she teaches in Osan).

We walked to a nearby store and got drinks for later, then came back and watched a demonstration on how to make tofu. We ate it in various stages and it tastes pretty nasty at each one. The sauce you put in it was ok though. Then we had dinner. They had lots of food and it was pretty good - pork and rice and noodles and veggies. Then we watched a movie called "tae guk gi" or "brotherhood of war". It was a very good movie and I highly reccomend it. I thought it did a good job of not saying that South Korea was perfect throughout the war. It is long though.
Store front
Rice field across the street from our place

Tofu - stage one

Tofu - stage 1 with sauce

After the movie we went outside and had a huge bonfire. It was chilly that night so the fire was welcome. We brought marshmallows with us, but I have yet to be able to find graham crackers here (they don't have them in South Africa either - none of the SAs knew what I was talking about). I ended up using chocolate filled oreos in lieu of grahams and chocolate. Not the same, but not bad. Then we went back to our room and played Kings for a few hours.
Sunset over rice fields - thanks to John for this one
Vera, Liezle, me and Cindy eating toasted marshmallows
Kings (aka King's cup and ring of fire) - that's John to my left
The next morning (after 3 hours of sleep - bringing my total for the weekend to 5), we had breakfast (a pb&j on toast with a fried egg on top) and headed outside. A large group of people signed up for the trip to bungee jump. This is the only bridge in Korea where you can bungee jump. So we all went to the area and watched 30 people jump off the bridge - it took like 3 hours. I can say that Korean sunburn feels the same as American sunburn. Luckily one of the tour guides had sunscreen so my face didn't burn. I had decided before I left that I wasn't jumping, so I held cameras and videos for people.

After jumping, we went back to the place we stayed the night before and had lunch. We had a make your own bibimbap which was good. Then, they also had tofu from the night before prepared in another way. This way apparently was made with vomit or dead fish and it literally made me gag. Liezle looked at me and was like, "are you ok" and I could only shake my head. Good thing I had a huge bottle of water next to me.

After lunch we walked down the street and got ice cream from the store. Then we walked to Baekmagoji "White Horse" Battlefield. It was a 7 minute walk. This was one of the bloodiest battlefields during the war. During a 10 day battle, about 14,000 people died. It was called "White Horse" because due to the smoke, rocks and blood they said the hill looked like a white horse lying on its side. The battle was mainly with the Chinese army who provided reinforcements to the North Koreans. At the end of the battle, they found some of the dead Chinese handcuffed to chained to machine guns by their own people so that they couldn't run away. At one point, both side ran out of ammo and went into combat with the sabors on the end of rifles. There was also a large machine gun used by the Chinese that was preventing the South Koreans from reclaiming the hill, so 3 guys ran up and used grenades and sacrificed themselves to blow up the gun. They are called the 3 heroes of Baekmagoji.

This was the only place where we had a proper tour guide. A solider (whose last name is OK and whose first name is Kay - thus Kay OK) was our guide. He was really nice and let us take pictures with him. The memorial is supposed to be set up like a bird. There are 3 areas - a remembrance/prayer area (the head), a knowledge area (the wings) and a hope area (the tail).
Standing at the "head", the white peak is the "wings" and the tall thing in the back is the "tail"
Wall inside the memory/knowledge (middle) section made from bullet shell casings
Me and Kay OK. In the background is the DMZ and North Korea
Bell pavilion. The bell is a dragon. I'm at the tail and Liezle is under the head. When the bell is rung, the dragon is yelling at North Korea. It's rung twice a year - Korean memorial day in June and some day in October.

Liezle in front of the 3 sisters peaks. Her head is blocking a 4th hill, which is the hill the observatory from the day before is on.
After touring the memorial, we walked back to our "house" where we all were given a bag of Cheorwan rice, and got on the bus to go home. We drove back to Seoul, then Liezle, Cindy and I got on a bus back to Jinju. We made it home around 11 pm. All in all, it was a fun weekend. Not sure if I will go on another tour, because there were about 40 people and I don't really like people. We met a few nice ones and basically pretended the others weren't there. I guess it all depends on where they're going if I will join again. So now I am safe back home and you can all breathe a sigh of relief that I was not captured by a commie. I will post the group picture taken by the tour company when they post it. If I remember.

1 comment:

  1. Too late. I have read it. I am glad they did not capture you so I can choke you when you get back! Hard headed woman!! I still heart you though!