Trip to Seoul and the DMZ

Over the weekend, we traveled to Seoul – the capital of South Korea. Seoul is a massive city packed full of people, buildings, and vehicles. The subway map alone is enough to confuse even a smart person with 9 different lines weaving in and around each other. That being said, it is quite easy to get from one place to another using public transportation. Along with two other teachers, Leah and Alex, we departed Busan Thursday night after our classes finished on the KTX train. The KTX is similar to Japan’s Bullet Train and travels at speeds of over 300 km per hour (186 mph). The trip from the Southeast corner of the country to the northwest corner of the country takes 2 1/2 hours via KTX compared to a five our flight accross the U.S. Needless to say, there is quite a difference.

All three nights we couch surfed (an online travelers network of people to stay with while traveling) with the same couple. David and Stephanie were very kind and they are also teachers, but in Seoul. David is in charge of their art program and Stephanie heads their theater department. They were nice enough to meet us at the subway station and show us how to get to their house.  The first night we all just crashed because we were exhausted from the week plus traveling after a 10 hour work day.

Friday morning, we headed out early to Demilitarized Zone, first meeting at the Lotte Hotel. Quickly, for those who do not know, the DMZ is the 4km deep strip that runs accross the Korean Penninsula that separates North and South Korea. It was created by the USA and China/Russia signing an armistace agreement. Just a note – South Korea did not sign because they knew this meant there would be two Koreas and they wanted to remain unified. Anyway, since the 50’s, this area has been heavily patrolled by the Korean militaries respectively as well as by US and other UN troops. Tunnels have been found at various points in time where the North Korean Army has dug under the DMZ in an attempt to set up infiltration points for another attack. We visited the “3rd” Tunnel (meaning the 3rd tunnel that was found) and the Dora Observatory.

The first stop on the tour was Dorasan Station – the last/first stop on the subway line in South Korea. What is truly amazing is that the South has created a completely ready-to-go subway station, with ticket counters, doors, chairs, railway, etc that would be ready to take people to and from North Korea in a moments notice if the borders ever open up. This is an amazing show of optomism considered the circumstances. Here I was able to get a few photos with some Korean soldiers and look at some of the interesting unification artwork that is posted in the station. The goal of South Korea is to one day extend the “Trans-Korean” railway (it does not exist unless the borders open) to the Trans-Siberian and Trans-European railway, connecting South Korea to western Europe. I later asked our tour guide, who had spoken so optomistically about reunification during the tour, whether she thought it would actually happen or not. Her response was, “that is another matter.”

The first thing Ashley and I did when we departed the bus at the 3rd tunnel was to get lost from our tour group. We were slightly occupied with taking pictures and realized the hundred Koreans around us were not our tour group. It took us quite a while to find them and it was only when our tour guide came running down the stairs with broken English that we were able to re-unite with our group.

The 3rd Tunnel was quite impressive, although it seemed more like a Disney tour to begin with as we borded a monorail and put on helmets. As we dropped deeper and deeper underground (250 meters, 750 feet) it stopped feeling like a Disney ride and we slowly grasped what this could have meant if the tunnel was not discovered. It is estimated that thousands of North Korean troops (with artillery) could have marched through the tunnel in just an hour, thus putting a huge army suddenly outside the capital city of Seoul with no prior warning of an impending attack. The tunnel is split by three massive concrete and iron barriers that have windows in them to see through. Visitors are not allowed passed the armed guard at the third barrier, but you can see through all the way to the first. Ashley was having a laughing attack most of the way down the tunnel since the tunnel was not very high and when people walked they would consistently bump their head (with a helmet on). The funny thing is that Koreans tend to overact some things, so every time they bumped their head it would be followed by some sort of high pitched half whine/ half cough, sounding something like KEOUWWWWWWW (in high pitched tone).

The second stop on the tour was the Dora Observatory. From this observatory point, we looked out over the DMZ, which by reason of no one being allowed there has turned into quite a nice nature preserve (aside from the thousands of land mines). We were able to see into North Korea from here and see the treeless mountains and their black tower, which claims the title as the largest flag pole and flag in the world. It definitely seems like a Lord of the Rings feeling with the two huge flag poles facing off against one another on each side of the DMZ – one black with a red flag at the top for North Korea and one white, with a white flag on top for South Korea. There are also two villages located within the DMZ – one for the north and one for the south respectively. The South Korean village is state supported farming community to take advantage of what little farming land is available in South Korea. The northern village is said to be a propoganda village with no one living there, meant to show a high living standard, even though this is far from the truth.

The last site we stopped to see was the Freedom Bridge, a bridge that was built so thousands of POW’s could cross back into South Korea after the war. It has been closed ever since. There is another bridge, referred to as the Bridge of No Return, in which POW’s and others were given the chance to cross back into North Korea after the war. If they crossed, they could not return and if they chose to stay, they would not be able to go later. This led to many families being permanently separated as thousands did not want to return to North Korea. For those families who have relatives living in North Korea, there has been erected a monument in their honor where people come to honor their ancestors/family members during Chusok (the holiday which just happened here). Families bring food, say prayers, bow, and light incense to honor their separated family. It is the closest they will ever get to seeing there family again.

That afternoon we met a guy from England that walked around with us as we checked out an ancient Korean Temple and walked around markets in town. Later, at night, we visited the Rocky Mountain Bar – the Canadian foreign bar – in honor of our friend and co-teacher Alex who is from Quebec, Canada.

Saturday, I went to the Korean War Memorial with our hosts David and Stephanie, while Ash, Leah, and Alex went to an art museum. I can honestly say I learned a TON about the Korean and Vietnam wars. It is shocking to me how we never learn about two of the most relevant wars of our time in school. There were huge statues, lots of historical interpretive pieces, and of course some bigger military pieces. They went to great lengths to showcase their more up-to-date military pieces as well, with gas masks, sniper weapons, bomb technology, anti-aircraft artillery, night vision and heat sensing goggles. That night we enjoyed a dinner at the Mexican Restaurant, Los Amigos. Oddly enough it made me feel very at home. This is possbily because the guy singing was a Texan, not a Mexican and most of the guests were foreigners. Mainly though, I think it was the delicious chips and salsa. They didn’t even have those in Peru!

Saturday night was our “night on the town” as we visited the ice bar, otherwise known as Sub Zero. The bar was in the basement in a trendy part of town. When we walked in the greeter/bar tender provided us with parka ponchos and gloves. We then entered what I can only describe as a large freezer. The bar was made of blocks of ice. The walls were all ice, as well as the ceiling. There were ice sculptures around the room and even our glass/mugs were made of ice. The room was accented in different colored lights, which made it look pretty neat. The funniest thing was, however, that we were the only ones there – by that I mean “0” other people. The bartender even decided he didn’t want to sit inside and went back out to the warmer greeting area.

Sunday was a day of rest for all of us. We checked out the Cultural Arts Museum and saw traditional dances and historical pieces, then shopped around at the foreign market and English bookstore. Yes, we finally found one!!! We borded our speed train back to Busan later that evening and we were back home by 11pm, ready for a 10 hour teaching day starting the next morning. What a weekend!

2 Responses to “Trip to Seoul and the DMZ”

  1. stubbemand says:

    Love the pics. Makes me miss you soooooooooo much. Gee I feel that you are so safe especially when you mention “LAND MINES”. Tell Ashely to behave and not piss off the homies. I can’t wait till we get a plan and get to see each other.

  2. Dori says:

    very interesting. did you take pictures of the DMZ?
    love the ice bar pics

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