|Yes, they have Popeye's at the DMZ. Yes, the serve "remonade."|
Pro tip: Do not go on a DMZ tour hungover.
For years, I have dreamed of going to the DMZ. As an international affairs nerd, how could I not? Even though the constant, and rather annoying, claims that Korea is the "only divided country in the world" are entirely wrong (um, Cyprus and Ireland to name a few), the allure of being so close to North Korea gave me little chills. Anyhow, the schedule worked out and we were headed to the DMZ on Friday morning with a pick-up of 7:15am. I generally think this is a heinous hour but especially if you are out until 5am the night before. Needless to say, I slept a lot on the bus.
After the hourish bus ride up to the DMZ area, we hop off the bus into a large parking lot. From here, we are to climb a small hill to view "The Bridge of No Return," some large bell, and apparently, a Popeye's Louisiana Kitchen. Yes, ladies and gents, you can quench you appetite for gumbo and fried chicken at the DMZ. To be quite honest, the scenery was fairly stark, as the North Koreans have cleared all trees from their side of the line. There was a broken-down train from the Korean War, an area where people (I think) wrote messages to family/friends in the North, and a memorial laden with empty soju bottles. I guess pouring one out for your homies is an international phenomenon.
|Pouring many out for the homies.|
So it's off to the tunnel. I can dig a good tunnel every now and then, plus we were technically walking into North Korea (well, really in that general direction). The tunnels were dug by the North Koreans some odd years ago for a surprise attack on Seoul. As the story goes, an NK defector tipped on the SKs that the tunnels were there. The SKs, of course, didn't believe him until some SK troops were digging a hole for something and popped into one the tunnels. Then they found 3 more (the NK said there were about 20 in total...ruh roh!). After putting our stuff up in lockers (of course, you aren't allowed to take anything down), we make the descent into the....Third Tunnel of Aggression!!! We don required hardhats (which I didn't understand the purpose of until later) and begin the roughly 500 meter trek downwards. The way down was fine, as all walks downhill are. Then we hit the actual tunnel. Oh, I thought we were already in a tunnel. Yes and no. Turns out the first part was made by the SKs to gain access to the actual tunnel. Surrounded by dripping ceilings and scaffolding, we make our way into the actual third tunnel. Then I realize what the hard hats are for, as I slam my head directly into a low-rigged scaffold. Hunching my way to the end, the roughly 250 meters toward North Korea seemed like a damp, craggy eternity. Then we made it to the end. The end is a big wall in the middle of the tunnel. On the other side of the wall are 2 more severely reinforced walls to hold the NKs at bay for as long as possible. Peering through the tiny window in the first wall I couldn't help but get a little giggly, "Oh! North Korea is on the other side of the other side of that door!! Eeee!!!"
The trip back through the actual tunnel was fine, although I managed to smack my head a couple more times (thank the gods for the hardhats). And then it came. The base of the SK tunnel toward the ground. I couldn't see the exit from there but I knew it was up there; 500 meters up there. I was cursing myself at this point for being so foolish and staying til dawn the night before. I really could have used that energy. And so the ascent began. I was rather proud of myself, as I did not take advantage of the various benches placed on either side of the tunnel about every 75 meters. And then I saw the light of day and sprinted to the finish line. Phew. And then I visited the gift shop and bought a DMZ travel mug. And so was my adventure into the Third Tunnel of Aggression!!!!
Onto the observation deck (I'm really not sure what the official word for this is, so observation deck will have to do for now.) This is really what I was looking forward to. Not that being far down in the ground pretty darn close to NK wasn't super cool, this was actually seeing the inside of NK. So here's the deal. You aren't allowed to take pictures past a certain line, so tall people really have an advantage here (me, I had to resort to standing on my tip-toes trying in vain to snap pics of the propaganda village). I did it! Sort of. Then we made our way over to the binoculars. You pop in a 500\ coin and bingo! Front row viewing of NK "industry", the two big flag poles, and the propaganda village. A PROPAGANDA VILLAGE! I was in heaven, to say the least. So cool! Now, from what I could see of actual NK, not much was going on. It was in the middle of the day on Friday, so in any normal place there should be people hustin' and bustlin' about, but not in NK. After about 20 minutes taking in the sites of the industrially dead NK, we head back to the bus for our final stop of the day: Dorasan Station.
Dorasan Station was built fairly recently in preparation of the impending reunification of the two Koreas. This station hopes to become the hub for Pyeonyang-Seoul train travel whenever this reunification thing actually happens. People may enjoy the newly christened DMZ Natural Wildlife Park (which will eventually become overrun and the only wildlife it can support are the heartiest, and usually scariest, of squirrels) then hop a train back to the NK capital of Pyeongyang. Some day... And after touring around the station (by touring around I mean going to the bathroom then waiting outside), we settled back into the bus and headed back to Seoul. Despite the day being entirely devoid of war games and military parades, I enjoyed my experience on the DMZ, maybe one day I will actually be able to make it past the line and into the country. I hear it's the best way to meet a president!