Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Asia 2014: South Korea - Day 2: Part One

You can find Day 1 of our South Korea trip here.

The second day of our trip consisted of a painfully early wake up call in order to wolf down a quick breakfast and make our way over to the nearby Lotte Hotel by 8.30 am. As we had booked a tour of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), we had to locate the office of the tour agency in order to register our attendance. Once we had finally found the right place inside the super swanky hotel, we were given the number plate of our coach and told to quickly make our way over.

Once we had boarded and it was time to leave (around 8.50 am), the majority of the coach pretty much just fell asleep whilst our tour guide introduced points of interest (such as the outline of North Korea across the moggy river). She also explained the history behind the DMZ, including the events that lead up to the Korean War. Eventually, we arrived at Imijingak shortly before 9.30 am.

The village of Imjingak is the most Northern village of South Korea that civilians can freely roam. This location is extremely important to many Koreans - whether originally from the North or South - due largely to the Bridge of Freedom and Mangbaedan.

The Bridge of Freedom/Freedom Bridge plays a very important part in the lives of many Koreans. Many families were separated between the two 'halves' of Korea due to the Korean War. The bridge is probably the closest to the North that South Koreans can get, allowing them to leave messages and wishes for family members in North Korea.

The Freedom Bridge takes its name from the return of 12,773 prisoners of war in 1953 in the first exchange of prisoners after the armistice agreement that ended the Korean War.

The other place of importance at Imjingak was Mangbaedan. It was hard to get a photo straight on since we only had 20 minutes to explore the whole area, and there were a very large number of tour groups. You probably realised from the photo of the buses though, right?

Anyway, the Mangbaedan Memorial Altar is where North Koreans living in South Korea can pay respects to their parents, family members, or even ancestors in the North on new year's day and other holidays such as Chuseok (the Korean thanksgiving).

After a truly rushed browse of Imjingak, we boarded the coach for the Demilitarised Zone. Unfortunately, the whirlwind photo pit-stop type experience meant that we missed out on seeing a train car that came under heavy fire during the Korean War. There was a slight hiccup on our way into the Demilitarised Zone as our tour group did not appear on the registered lists for entry into the DMZ. Luckily, things were quickly resolved and the South Korean soldier left us on our way after quickly checking all of our passports.

On arrival, we were ushered into a lecture hall and shown a video on how the North had built tunnels in attempts to infiltrate the South over the years since the Korean War. It explained how the Third Tunnel was discovered in October 1978 through information provided by a North Korean defector.

Anyone heard Bar Bar Bar by Crayon Pop?... Couldn't help but think of that once we'd donned our hard hats. Unfortunately, we were instructed not to bring any personal belongings including cameras into the tunnel.


Brief explanation of the Third Tunnel:

The Third Tunnel sits roughly 44 kilometres from Seoul, which was what made the discovery all the more important. At a depth of roughly 73 metres, the tunnel is over 1.6 kilometres long, 2 metres high, and 2 metres wide. The tunnel is said to be capable of moving a full division per hour, plus their weapons; leading to beliefs that it was designed for a surprise attack on Seoul. Even though they have only managed to find four tunnels so far, the South Koreans believe there to be plenty more. It is said that the North Koreans denied building these tunnels. The South Koreans countered that the excavation of the tunnel using dynamite left marks facing towards South Korea, and that the tunnel slopes so that all water drains towards the North to ensure easy extension of the tunnel into the South. According to the explanations we received on the tour, the North then smeared coal along certain parts of the tunnel in order to pass it off as a coal mine. The South deny this to be true, since the tunnel is made up entirely of granite.

We went into the Third Tunnel via a small monorail trail. With no doors, we relied on our seatbelts to keep us in place whilst we slowly chugged our way down underground. Once we'd arrived, we were left to make our own way down to the other end of the tunnel. How was it? Let's just say if you're claustrophobic, I wouldn't recommend it. The further in towards the end of the tunnel, the lower down the ceiling of the tunnel became. Along the way were small plastic showcases displaying information regarding the tunnels. Once we reached the end, we were faced with a big slab of concrete with a small window to allow us to peer into the other side. A little freaky if you imagine a North Korean posted on the other side with plenty of ammunition, and you with no quick way out of there. As there were a large number of people behind us, we took a quick peek and made our way back.

Once everyone was ready to make our way back up to ground level, we were given a choice between taking the monorail, or walking up the second tunnel. To make the most of it and experience everything, we took the second tunnel and walked up the steep incline. I had never felt so unfit in my life. Luckily there were seats dotted every few hundred metres!

Back on ground level, we were ushered into the main building, which was basically a DMZ museum.

Who says you can't stand inside the DMZ?!

Eventually we set off for the Dora Observatory, where we finally got a little closer to the tension...

Here at the most Northern point on the Western front, we filed into the large lecture hall where we were shown an extremely patriotic video that explained the actions carried out by the North against the South, alongside landmarks of note on the horizon, such as the North Korean flagpole.

I found the story behind the flagpole rather amusing... The South Korean government built a 94.8 metre tall flagpole with a 130 kg flag in the Southern half of the DMZ. In response to this, the North Korean government a 160 metre tall flagpole with a 270 kg flag on their half of the DMZ... People call it the flagpole war, but I just wonder why adults tell children not to fight over the small things... and yet... here we are...

Using the binoculars in the photo above, you were allowed to see the North Korean landscape. For all those who didn't want to pay but wanted to take photos, we were made to stand about 10 metres back and take our chances there. It was at this point that I began to wonder why the DMZ seemed to feel a bit like a money-making scheme...

After this photo, the soldiers drove off in the van, and we set off for the gift shop to see what sorts of things you could find as a DMZ souvenir... There were plenty of DMZ t-shirts, miniature models of guards, North Korean won and liquor... as well as foods produced in the village within South Korean side of the DMZ.

As there was an opportunity to purchase North Korean won, we got some for my Dad... but I can't help but think it's a bit strange that South Koreans have these available all packed up for sale? Who gives them the stock..? Surely they must have some sort of supplier..?!

Anyway. We also went to Dorasan KORAIL station and Camp Bonifas afterwards, but I'm pretty sure you're all exhausted from the endless scrolling and my shoddy outfit (they said no skinny jeans and only t-shirts with collars, okay?!), so I will wrap things up here! Hope you enjoyed the slight glimpse into tour group life/the North-South divide (this sounds so weird coming from England... Watford Gap, anyone?). I digress.

Thank you for reading alllll the way here. Part Two to come hopefully by next week!


Disclaimer: The amazingly beautiful and professional shots featured in this blog post are not my own. They have been used with kind permission from Kin :) A few of my own photos do appear, but the majority do not belong to me.

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