Tuesday 24th May, 2011
I was fortunate enough to get a seat to do the DMZ/ Panmunjom Tour at the last minute. These tours book out months in advance and when I found out we were going to Seoul, Tiger told me about this tour that Barry, her husband did a few years back. On the tour, they take you to the border, where North and South Korea meet. With abit of research, I found afew tour companies that did this tour. I heard great reviews about one company in particular called USO, but unfortunately, they were completely booked out. So I emailed a few other agencies and TOURDMZ got back to me a day before we set out to Seoul. They told me there was one available seat for Tuesday 24th and all I needed to do was send back a reconfirmation email and my name would be down for the tour. I could pay my W120,000 fee on the day. I just had to remember to bring my passport with me. Sweeeeet! I was SO EXCITED!!!
I had to meet at the TOURDMZ Company office at 8am, so I grabbed a starbucks muffin and coffee on the way and headed towards the office which was located in the Lotte Hotel. It was about a 15 minute walk from the Ciara and when I arrived, I was the first one there. The cashier checked my I.D, I paid my fee and then headed towards the tour lounge to wait to board my coach.
We left the hotel just after 8.30am and there were about 10 people on the tour. The tour guide introduced herself and started explaining the itinerary for the day. She told us that in the afternoon, we would be changing buses to do the last leg of the tour, which was visiting the JSA site and that there would be another tour group joining us, so the bus would be full.
Our first stop, was the DMZ- The Korean Demilitarized Zone. The DMZ is a strip of land running across the Korean Peninsula that serves as a buffer zone between North and South Korea. It is 250km long and approximately 4km wide and is the most heavily militarised border in the world.
It was quite surreal being here. The border was all fenced up with barb wire and every few metres, there was a soldier huts, keeping guard, watching North Koreans. Between the roads, there was forest, which was fence off, with a warning sign, stating there were still Active Landmines there. It was a scary thought. As we entered the DMZ site, we had to pass through checkpoints, where they checked our I.D's. We were not allowed to take photos. Not too far, is the 'Freedom Bridge'. In 1953, right after the exchanges of prisoners of war, around 13,000 prisoners of war crossed the bridge and cried "Hurrah for Freedom" The bridge is now called that in their honour.
We then jumped back in the bus and headed towards the site of the '3rd Tunnel'. The 3rd Tunnel was built by North Korea for the invasion of the South and was discovered in the western portion of the DMZ in October 1978, after a North Korean informant tipped off the South. There are rumoured to be another 14 tunnels, which have not yet been discovered in the DMZ.
As we waited for the monorail to come back out of the tunnel, I put on my blue hard hat and wriggled with excitement. I was already rating this tour. This was by far the BEST tour I've ever done. The monorail shortly arrived and we walked on board. The tunnel itself is quite narrow, so if you're a tall person, I suggest sitting in the middle. Atleast you'll have more head room, as that's the highest point. I sat on the side and nudged in closer to the inside as we rode in deeper. You are not allowed to take any photographs inside the tunnel, but it took around 3 minutes to arrive to the platform. Here you can see the hole that the South Koreans drilled when they discovered the tunnel. South Korean Soldiers drilled boreholes into the earth and watched for any spurts of water to indicate that the North was dynamiting the rock underneath. After they were discovered, the North claimed the shaft was a mine- They had painted the walls black to make it appear like coal. I pressed my finger onto the rock wall and looked at my smudged coal fingers. It was so real.
We were then lead by our tour guide inside the narrow walls of the tunnel. The rock ceiling was low and sharp, so fortunately my hard hat saved my head from being repeatedly battered. The walls were rough and wet with moisture. Someone had thoughtfully placed a plastic statue of a pair of cranes (I suppose Japanese cranes are a symbol of peace) and a plastic cup to drink water from a spring in the earth.
As I walked along, hunch backed, a large groups of South Korean soldiers were down there, sightseeing. At the end, of the tunnel, there are two coils of razor wire and a steel door that separated me from the world?s most unpredictable rogue state. At that point, I was just over 150 metres from the Demarcation Line between the two countries. This probably the closest I?ll ever get to North Korea.
We soon took the monorail back up and walked over to the theatre were we sat down to watch a short film about the DMZ. I enjoyed it, but it felt like I was watching a propaganda film, convincing us that Yes, indeed!!! The North Koreans were attacking us. I get it, They're the bad guys!!! I really enjoyed the part where they showed the natural beauty of the neutral land between the North and the South. It has become a wetland that is home to different bird species and animals, such as deer and squirrels. To think that between these two fighting nations, there is peace. If only they realised it.
After the film, we got back onto our tour bus and headed to the Dora Observatory. From here, you can see the Gyesung City and Songak Mountain in North Korea. One interesting fact is that in North Korea, all the trees are cut down in the mountains. This is so that the North Koreans can spy and check on their people. I guess that what you get for being in a communist country- No trees!!! The Dora observatory was a great opportunity to see 'The Other Side' The unfortunate thing was that you weren't allowed to take photos except from the yellow line, which if you are short like me, well..... you can't see anything from there, not even on tippy toes!!! Luckily, I had my very tall bus buddy take a photo of me and North Korea in the background.
We then went to the Dorasan Station. This is the closest train station to North Korea on the Gyeongui railroad line. The station itself was like a ghost land. I happily bought myself a souvenir train ticket to North Korea for W500. It even has a North Korean stamp on it. I might use it one day when they two countries unify. But my train ticket might cost me a lot more when that happens lol.
It was now around 1pm and lunch time was long over due. We went back to the DMZ and Korean BBQ had already been ordered for us. We each sat on individual tables and all our BBQ ingredients. I got talking to some of the people on my tour and we all agreed how awesome this was. I was still so excited! Even more excited to see my photos and everyone back home about it. After lunch, we changed tour buses. We got on with a group of Japanese tourists and surprisingly, they were really loud lol. We were now heading to our last destination of the tour- Panmunjom.
There was a whole security procedure when we arrived. Our passports were I.D checked twice (each time we changed buses) and the zoom on my camera was also checked. You were not allowed to have a zoom bigger then 100mm. I knew this from when I first emailed the company, so I came prepared. The dress code is also very important here too. You are not allowed to wear ripped or faded jeans, thongs or sandal type shoes, singlets, hats, or clothing with inappropriate logos. Anything that seems abit 'casual' I figured.
At the entrance, our tour coach was not allowed in, so we had to change into one of the JSA buses. On board was the tour group, our guide, a South Korean Soldier Driver and a South Korean Soldier to protect us. He was holding a gun and was wearing a bullet proof vest. Our Tour Guide told us that now, she was no longer in control. We were now under the orders of the Soldiers so if they told us to run, we better get the hell out of there and RUN!!!! Hmmmm, now would probably be a good time to feel a little 'concerned'
Again, we were not allowed to take photos of the ride to the site of Panmunjom with the MAC Building. There are 7 buildings all together, but the main conference building, which is under the control of the UNC, is open to visitors from both sides. This is the only place in Panmunjom where people from both sides can cross the Military Demarcation Line and is one of the reasons that it attracts the attention of tourists, like me, from around the world.
Once inside, there was a North Korean Soldier Standing there. He looked so stiff. So mannequin like. I was thrilled. This was crazy. insane even. I had my photo taken with a North Korean Soldier. This is definately going to be something I'll be telling the grandkids hahahaa!!! We couldn't stay that long, so back outside the MAC Building, we were told to get into a straight line and buddy up. we were then quietly told to turn to our left. Right in front of me, was North Korea. Our guide then told us to slowly and carefully and without making any hand gestures or sudden movements, to take as many photos as we like.... I went photo crazy!!! C'mon North Korea, give me a smile!!!
As I took photos, I could see a North Korean Soldier looking back at us. He pulled out his binoculars and stood there, staring. Watching the tourists take photos. I wondered, what they think of all this??? He then slowly walked behind a column and stood out of sight. It was such a strange feeling being there. Never in my life had I imagined I would in the middle of all this and be witness to the indifferences these two countries are suffering.
After our moment with North Korea, we got back on the JSA bus and headed back to the main gates, where our Tour Coach was waiting. We drove passed the 'Bridge of No Return'. It got it's name from the prisoner repatriation operations. The prisoners were exchanged across this bridge, but once they crossed the bridge, they were not allowed to cross back to the other side and hence the name of 'Bridge of No Return'.
I later learned that while we were taking photos, the Soldier driving the JSA bus doesn't turn off the engine, incase North Korea decide to attack and we have to speed out of there. It's quite scary to think that at any moment, anything could've happened.
That was definately a great way to end the DMZ/ Panmunjom Tour and I am ever so glad, I had the opportunity to do it. I DEFINATELY recommend doing it. Even if the Military doesn't interest you, it's the stories, of sneakiness and family hardships that unfortunately, are what has made the DMZ exist.