The DMZ


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Asia » North Korea » Panmunjom
October 5th 2018
Published: October 27th 2018
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Another early start as we were heading down to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). After another filling breakfast in the 'pink room', we headed out to board the bus. It seemed to take ages for us to get going. That was a bit annoying as our guides had said it was better to get to the DMZ early. We drove out of the city and onto the Reunification Highway, which connects Pyongyang with the Joint Securtiy Area at the DMZ. The highway runs for around 170 kilometres, but due to the conditions of the road, it would take about three hours or so to reach the DMZ. The route also passes through/besides the towns of Kaeseong and Sariwon, which would visit on the return journey. Construction of the highway began in 1987 and was finished on the 15th April 1992, the date of Kim Il Sung's birthday. I am starting to notice a bit of a theme here. Just after we left the city, we made our first stop at the Arch of Reunification, officially known as the Monument to the Three-Point Charter for National Renuification, which straddles the Reunification Highway. The arch opened in August 2001 to commemorate Kim Il Sung's reunification proposals. The arch comprises of two Korean women dressed in hanbok (traditional Korean clothing), who symbolise the North and the South. Together, these two figures hold a map of a reunified Korea. The arch was pretty impressive and it looked great against the blue sky. Our bus ride to the DMZ was long and bumpy. I hope that if reunification does happen that one of the first things they will do is repave the road. I wasn't surprised to see that there wasn't a lot of traffic about. Whether it is because people cannot afford cars, or because of travel restrictions, or a combination of both, I just don't know. We made another quick stop at a roadside rest stop, where we could buy coffee and snacks. The toilets deserve a special metion as they were particularly ripe.

We passed through a couple of checkpoints and at one we were assigned a soldier, who would be on our bus to make sure that we kept ourselves out of mischief. We were told that in the first area we would come to, we were only allowed to take photos of the two propaganda posters and nothing else. It was strange to see village life and housing so close to one of the most tense places on earth, but I suppose life goes on, people still need to work and eat. The bus pulled up close to the posters and we got off to take some pictures and then headed into the shop. Oh My God! It was like being back in China! The shop was rammed with Chinese people. I made my way over to the poster section as we had been told that this was the best place to get propaganda posters. Despite my best efforts of trying not to get one, I did end up buying one, but I figure it can be gifted if I don't want to keep it. I also got some postcards to write up later on the trip. It isn't very often that you get a postcard from the DPRK. Once I'd had enough of the shop, I headed outside to get some air. We had left the clear blue skies back in Pyongyang, here it was overcast and rainy. I stood around chatting to some of the others until it was time to head to Panmunjeom. We were not allowed to go through the main gate on the bus, so we had to line up and walk through it, and then as soon as we were through we were allowed to get back on the bus, which had just driven through moments before us. The road here was quite narrow and there were huge boulders placed on either side on these kind of pedestals (I really don't know the right word to describe them) that could be removed so that the boulders could come crashing down and block the road. Driving along here was probably the most intense part of the trip, as I could imagine soldiers and tanks rushing through to invade.

After a few minutes the bus pulled up near the North Korean Peace Museum and we headed through the gate. The area was quite nice with lots of trees and flowers. We headed into the building where the Korean War Armistice was signed by North Korea's General Nam Il and General William Harrison, Jr. of the United Nations Command on the 27th July, 1953. There were copies of the armistice agreement on what I presume to be the original tables. We had kind of been slacking at the back of the group, hoping that when the Chinese tour group in front of us left, we would have some time in the place to ourselves. Well, that didn't work out as the soldier in charge of us was quick to shoo us out. We then headed into the next building to look aorund, but it didn't leave much of an impression on me as I have already forgotten what was in there. Back on the bus, we drove closer to the JSA. We stopped near a a huge block with Kim Il Sung's signature on it. This was the moment that I knew I was close to the South a my phone finally had reception and it started beeping with messages. Oh, to be back in civilisation. We headed round to Panmungak, the North Korean building located at Panmunjeon. It was weird standing in front of this building taking pictures of the buildings on the South's side of Panmunjeon after having being told not to take any pictures of Panmungak, as I remember being told the same thing but the other way round, when I stood on the Joint Security Area. It was weird standing there, thinking I was, geographically, so close to all my friends in the south, yet in reality I was so far away as you cannot go from the North to the South or vice versa. I remember standing on the other side and seeing a North Korean soldier come out of the Panmungak building and watching us through his binoculars. Well this time no one from the South side came out to see what we were doing. We headed into the building and upstairs onto the balcony to get a better view of the area. It was funny to see all the places I had been on my previous trip and I had a bit of a reminsce. There were quite a few North Korean soldiers positioned just in front of the line that marks the divide between North and South Korea in the Joint Security Area. None of the soldiers were looking to the South, which I found interesting, instead they were either looking at us or facing each other. Just before leaving Panmungak we managed to get a group shot with one of the soldiers. That was cool, and while it may not be the greatest picture it is a cool memento to have.

To be honest, if I had known what the DMZ was going to be like from the North side, I think I would have skipped going. I was really looking forward to it, but it didn't live up to my expectations. It was just such a different atmosphere compared to doing the same trip on the South side. When I visited from the South side, I felt that the US soldiers were totally hamming it up and making it out to be so much more dramatic than it needed to be. A friend, who'd been to the DMZ from both sides, had told me the North was a lot more chill and I was looking forward to that. However, the large groups of tourists just took away any sense of atmosphere. Who knew I would actually love the drama? Not me, as I usually hate drama. Also, I felt the US soldiers went into the history and workings of the area a lot more, which I found interesting.

We went to a restaurant in Kaeseong city for lunch. This place was really nice. All the tables were beautifully laid out with lots of small golden coloured covered dishes in front of each person's seat. There was also a larger golden dish, which was filled with rice. It was fun to open the smaller dishes and see the different things that we had to eat. I really enjoyed this meal, simply because it was beautifully presented and it was the most authentic Korean cuisine that we'd had so far on the trip. It was all the kinds of banchan (side dishes) that I used to get in the South. We also got to try some soju, which I think was home brewed as it had quite a kick to it.At this restaurant, there was also the option to try Boshintang (dog soup), since I have had it before and didn't think it was that great of a meal, I declined the opportunity to have it again. Some of the group tried it and most found it okay. We headed to the Koryo Museum, which is located in Seonggyungwan. This was the highest education institute established during the Koryo and Joseon Dynasties. It opened in 992 to teach Confucianism and prepare young men to enter the civil service. The current buildings date from the early 17th century. As soon a we entered the entrance gate and walked along the path to the central area, I was reminded of all the old buildings that I had visited in South Korea. Everything was pretty much the same. We wandered around the buildings and our guide pointed out somethings of interest. I like the poster that told people how much they were worth especially that animals were worth more than some types of humans.There was also a mock up of the inside of a royal tomb. We got to hit up the gift shop after our tour. This place sold lots of amazing DPRK stamps.

Our next stop was Sariwon and I enjoyed the drive there. It was nice to see the streets filled with ordinary people going about their daily business. The streets also seemed a lot busier than those in Pyongyang. We arrived at the folklore street and headed up the hill, which had a pagoda perched on top of it. There were quite a few steps, but it only took about 10-15 minutes to reach the top. We were rewarded with some great views of Sariwon and the surrounding countryside. I loved that the sun was starting to go and the subtle changes it made to the colour of the sky. I liked seeing the mountains that were on one side of Sariwon, it really reminded me of South Korea. When we came back down the hill, we headed over to the old couple and their middle aged daughter that sold home brewed makgeolli. I decided to partake in some. The woman poured it into a cool, wooden cup that looked like a leaf. The makgeolli was interesting, there was an overpowering taste of gasoline to it. Very strange and to make matters worse that was all I could then taste when I burped. I wonder if it always tasted like that or we had just gotten a dodgy batch. We tried to head to the toilets across the road, but we were informed that they were out of order. So we had to drive to a local hotel instead. I really liked this area of Sariwon as there were lots of people out and about on the streets. To me, it definitely felt more real than Pyongyang. The hotel was very quiet and I felt like maybe we had been made to go there to see a nice looking building in Sariwon. It was deathly quiet though. We saw no one there apart from a bloke on the reception desk. I felt like the lights had only been turned on when we arrived and that the place was probably in darkness the rest of the time. I felt this about a few of the different restaurants and stores we went to.

Back on the road, we headed back to Pyongyang. We stopped at the toilet stop we had been to earlier, however on the other side of the road this time. The bathrooms on this side smelt a lot cleaner. I got a coffee, which I had to drink very quickly because if I didn't the it would have spilled all over me on the bumpy bus ride. Once we were back in the city we headed to a restaurant for dinner. Finally, we were getting to have some BBQ. The restaurant was rammed when we went in. I think the other people were Chinese tourists. We were each given an individual plate of meat, that we cooked on the BBQ. That was quite a different experience for me as I am used to it being totally communal. The meat we had was duck meat and it was phenomenal. It just tasted so good. We washed the meat down with beer and you could choose between cold noodles (naengmyeon) or bibimbap to go with your meal. Since I am not a fan of bibimap, I went for the cold noodles, which were also very tasty. Back at the hotel, we headed down to the Noraebang to belt out a few tunes. Since most of the group was leaving the next day, it would be our final evening together. It was a really fun evening and a great end to the day.


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