Thursday, October 21, 2010

The DMZ, posted just one month after we went there!

Our first day in Seoul started with a cab ride from our hotel to Itaewon, which is the "foreigner" district of Seoul. Have I mentioned how cheap taxis are here? They start at 3000 won (about $4), which covers the first three kilometres. It’s a twenty minute walk from “downtown” Buan to our apartment, or a $4 cab. I think the next time I get a cab in New Zealand I’m going to think the driver’s joking when they tell me the fare.

A lack of alternatives and my desire to avoid Korea’s attempt at a French bakery lead me to get breakfast from KFC. This had mixed results: awful, awful chicken, but hilarious still-drunk-at-eight-in-the-morning Americans yelling at the staff. They kept demanding to see the manager but he was hiding out the back and refusing to come out. After trying to eat as much of the chicken as I could without actually tasting it, we met up with Dan and Nid and found our tour group.

Our tour guide was the most Americanised Korean I’ve ever met, with his baggy t-shirt, short pants (frowned upon here), and baseball cap. He introduced himself Forrest Gump style: “My name is CK. You can call me CK.” But he wasn’t finished. “It’s not stand for Calvin Klein or these things. It stands for ‘Crazy Korean’. It’s a nickname come from state of Hawaii.” CK’s introduction inspired me to start writing down exactly what Koreans say, rather than a best guess of what they mean. This also goes for responding to questions. For example, when my co-teacher asked “Are you Ms Lee?” - meaning “Do you know Ms Lee?” – I replied “No, my name is Thomas. You know that.” (Ms Lee is Anna’s co-teacher.)

We all brought our passports along like we were supposed to, but this turned out to be a bad call. CK told us they would be checked by a soldier, which sounded cool but never happened. And one member of our group just got waved through after forgetting theirs. This wouldn’t have bothered me except that mine got drenched in the storm later that day in Seoul despite being in the inside pocket of my bag.

After an hour or so we pulled into a big carpark area where we had to change busses. There was a small temple, an old train that had been bombed in the war, and a view of the rail bridge to the North that Nid told us was used in one of the Bond films. There was also a fence where you could tie a ribbon with a message written on it.

None of these messages beat the one I found a few days later written on a tile at Seoul Tower (same thing but with tiles instead of ribbons)…

Do I have to?

There were also a few food places and souvenir shops. And a small amusement park. Called Viking Land.

I have absolutely no idea.

So, ya know, all the normal stuff that a country builds to commemorate one of the saddest parts of its history. After looking around this area we got on the second bus and set off.
On the way, CK told us that the area inside the DMZ is actually prized farmland. So much so that, after sitting empty for some time after the war (don’t mention it), the land on the South side of the DMZ was given to the families of soldiers who had died in the war. The ginseng grown by these farmers is considered the best in the world. Although they’re officially South Korean citizens, the people living inside the DMZ don’t have to pay tax, or do military service.

Next we went to the observatory, which we are told has a great view over the DMZ and into the North Korean countryside and the city of Kaesong, where North Koreans are employed to work in factories by South Korean companies. We didn’t get to see the view though, thanks to the fog. We did, however get to “sit where high ranking generals sit” and watch a film explaining all the things we would be able to see if it had been a clear day.

After some photo ops with South Korean soldiers, landmine warning signs and a picture of the First Division’s mascot we moved on to the Third Tunnel.
Actually the mascot is worth dwelling on for a second, especially when you consider that the First Division is the one which guards the DMZ.

He looks like he should be selling sugary cereal.

Our next stop was the Third Infiltration Tunnel, discovered in 1978. There have been four of these tunnels under the DMZ and into South Korea found so far. North Korea initially denied digging them, and also claimed that this tunnel was a coal mine which went off course. The black patches they spray-painted onto the tunnel walls to support this claim can still be seen, and are about as convincing as they sound. Most recently North Korea has claimed that they should be entitled to the revenue the South receives from operating the tunnel as a tourist attraction, on the basis that they dug it.

We weren’t allowed to take photos of the tunnel, but here’s one I got off wikipedia of the entrance.

After discovering the horrible, low-ceilinged tunnel that the North had built using dynamite and manual labourers (mainly POWs from the South), South Korea built a machine specifically for constructing another tunnel to allow tourists access to the North Korean one. This tunnel slopes down at an angle of 11 degrees (which is much steeper than it sounds) for a kilometre or so to meet the North Korean tunnel.

The Third Infiltration Tunnel itself must have been a horrible place to be: dark, damp, narrow and miserable. We shuffled along it for about 300 metres before reaching a huge door. Through the small window in the door we could see the wall that the South constructed to block the tunnel off. This was an amazing experience: looking through the door into the most reclusive and secretive country on Earth.

Next stop was to see a film about how North and South Korea (who totally weren’t at war or anything) got together and talked about how groovy it would be to built a nature reserve in the middle of Korea. They closed off a 4km wide strip around the 38th parallel and let nature do its thing (of course this had nothing to with the war which is still technically happening and was just a cool idea to help nature). This was the actual line this film took. “Look at this great nature reserve called the DMZ!” – and almost no mention of the war that created it or the hopelessly divided country on either side.

After the “documentary” we went to Dorasan Station, which was built by South Korea as part of a joint North-South plan to build a railway from Seoul to Pyongyang. North Korea pulled out of the deal and now the cleanest train station in the world is just sitting there waiting. The rain was so bad at this stage (it was the main item on the TV news that night), that the bus driver refused to drive the bus all the way to the station, so we had to dash through the storm to get inside. On the wall as we entered was a promising sign: “Not the last station from the South, but the first station to the North.” This hope was rather dashed by the sign below it: “Tracks To Pyongyang”. It doesn’t, after all, say “Trains to Pyongyang.” We got souvenir train tickets from Dorasan to Pyongyang, which CK told us will be good for a free ride if the line ever opens.

Our last stop inside the DMZ was the Reunification Village, which was really just a small grocery store selling North Korean products. We got some beer, which turned out to be awful, and some chocolate proclaiming to be “the only chocolate in the DMZ.” We also discovered that the soju which the previous tenant had left in our fridge was in fact North Korean, when we found some in the store.

The trip back to Seoul was more like a boat ride, the weather was that bad. Once we got there we were delivered to the government ginseng store, which started out educational and turned into a hard sell. Koreans are very proud of their ginseng, which apparently has magical powers. Korean ginseng is better than ginseng from other places because it looks like a person. I really wish I was making this up. The guy selling it had a Britney Spears style headset so his voice was amplified even though there were only about thirty of us. We got to try a sample of the ginseng, which tasted fine but didn’t give any of us superpowers. Well, except the amazing ability to drop our jaws when we heard the price: $190 U.S. for a small box! I wouldn’t pay that even if it actually did the things they said it did.

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