Between a ROK and a Hard Place


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Asia » North Korea » Panmunjom
June 22nd 2004
Published: May 17th 2017
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Seoul to Yantai

Book 2 route map

Thursday 17th June –Sokcho – Seoul

Our first task was to find an Internet café so we could print out our Russian invitation letters to take them with us to the embassy tomorrow. We managed to find an Internet place with a printer and printed off some copies, so that was easy for once. We than went for a walk around Itaewon, there are yanks everywhere, and lots blacks as well, who aren’t soldiers, with their “rap” clothes and beaded hair. Naturally everyone thinks we are Americans too. You can use both Korean won and USD everywhere including the McDonalds. For tea, we had hot dogs and then wandered back to our hotel, avoiding the hookers, Tony is not allowed out by himself!!

Friday 18th June –Seoul

Today we visited embassies at least that was the plan; we will start with the Russia, then try the China and Mongolia. We have a map that shows the Russian embassy located in two places, so we enquired at Tourist Information and set out for the one they circled. We caught the subway to the right area and then spent half an hour wandering around looking for the embassy, eventually we asked at a post office, where a nice Korean man walked us to the Police station, where he looked up the information on their Internet. Turned out the embassy had moved and was at the second place on the map (typical of our luck). Thanking the man, we jumped back on the subway to our next destination.

Arriving at City Hall Station, we caught a cab to the Russian embassy. In keeping up with Korean tradition, the cab driver was useless and although we had the address written in Korean, he still didn’t know where to go. He made a few calls on his mobile and got Tony to talk to whomever was on the other end, but I think he eventually got fed up with us and dropped us off outside a school (and still charged us W2000 AUD2.50). Luckily there was a map further down the street, and once we rounded the corner, we saw a sign written in Cyrillic, we had found it at last!

We asked the guard how to get in, and he gesticulated for us to go around the front of the building, via a small park. As the embassy didn’t open until 230pm (it was 2pm) we had to sit in the park for half an hour. Finally, we lined up in the embassy with about 10 other people. We noticed people filling out visa applications, so we grabbed two and started to fill them out, a young Korean man who worked for a travel agency asked us if we needed help, so we showed him our letters of invitation and to our dismay he said we MUST provide the originals, as the letter was for a six month visa. We would also have to provide a medical certificate which includes an AIDS test) for any visa longer than 3 months. He was so helpful, he then went and got a bull-necked Russian man and presented our situation to him explaining why we were unable to produce the originals (no address to post them too) but the Russian just went NO, he had no intention of listening and no intention of helping. So no Russia for us on this trip, what a disappointment, but if all Russians are like that, also a relief, too bad it cost us $500 to get our letters.

Feeling despondent (especially Tony) after wasting nearly four hours for nothing, we hoped that we would have better luck with the Chinese Embassy where we were now headed. This time it was clearly marked as a subway exit, so we found the right road and what appeared to be the right building, but do you think we could find the entrance? Spent another half hour wandering around before we gave up totally it was nearly 4pm and we were fed up so we decided to get visas in Beijing, at least we seem to be able to find things in China!

I was getting hungry now, and as we were in a main shopping district, decided to check out some restaurants, everywhere we went there were people waiting for tables, we finally got in to “Thank God it’s Friday” and looked forward to a big steak dinner, but the prices were ridiculous $37 or more! We just had a beer and then left as we can’t justify spending that much money on one meal, no matter how good the meals looked, all these places were crawling with young Koreans, how can they afford these prices is anyone’s guess.

We ended up back in Itaewon, eating at the Pizza Hut, where we both had a pasta bake (mine full of vegetables). We then collected our washing which we had dropped of that morning W5000 ($6) and staggered up Hooker Hill, collecting a few beers on the way and laughed at a tubby hooker siting in the street!

Saturday 19th June –Seoul

It rained all night and I could hear water dripping down the window amongst the banging of doors and loud arguments, I expect rooms here are normally rented by the hourly. As a result our room has increased in price to W30,000 ($37.50), it is the weekend and there is more demand for our room t seems, we will be gone in a few days (as we no longer have to wait for visas) anyway.

We boarded the subway just after 10am, we have a few sights we wish to see. Our first stop was Samgakji Station and the War Memorial of Korea. This was also a brilliant museum here which featured planes, tanks, military equipment and a submarine, which all provided plenty of Kodak moments. The place was crawling with school groups and its gets a bit tiring after a while when every kid says “hello” and giggle all the time. Once we were inside the actual museum (W3000 – AUD3.75) the crowds dispersed and we had relative peace and quiet. The museum consisted of 3 floors with a large section concentrating on the Korean War, we both learnt quite a bit. It took three and a half hours to go around, but the displays were amazing and exceptionally done.

When we left the museum, it was raining, so neither of us felt like doing anything but sitting in a movie theatre. After lunch at McDonalds we found our way to a cinema we had sighted yesterday and bought tickets to see “Shrek 2”. Tickets cost W7000 ($8.75) and we are in the second row, which doesn’t matter much as the cinema is tiny and the screen small. “Shrek 2” was hilarious and just as good as the first. When we left the cinema, it was still raining so rather than risk having our eyes gouged out by some Asian’s umbrella, we decided to go back to Itaewon. The rain was even worse there, much harder and we got soaked; we put all our other plans on hold, we just wanted to go back to the hotel and stay out of the rain. At least it keeps the hookers off the streets!

Sunday 20th June –Seoul

We slept in until about 10am as we have no concrete plans for the day, we just intend to take it easy. First stop was the Internet cafe to catch up on emails, which took about two hours. Next it was on the subway to Samseong station, where the largest underground shopping mall in Asia is located, this place was hectic, so full of people that we just couldn’t stand it for long, so we just went to a (very crowded) bookstore and managed to pick up a Lonely Planet for Mongolia. The bookstore was massive and had a very large English selection which included magazines, but these were twice the price you would pay in Australia ($9 for a TIME, $12 for a CLEO) so we didn’t buy any.

We got back on the subway and despite the rain travelled to Namdaemun Market where I managed to buy three t-shirts W11600 ($14) which I badly need. There were a few stalls open at the market but a lot of shops were closed as it’s Sunday.

We then headed back to Itaewon, where we had tea at the Pizza Hut because we had a voucher. On the way home, I managed to buy some cargo pants from a street stall for W18000 ($23) badly need these as well. Tony finally found a golf ball for his brother, so I bought one for Dad too. Went back to our hotel and ate leftover pizza and drank beer. Tony went out to get more beer and was accosted by the tubby hooker, he was back within three minutes!



Monday 21st June –Seoul

We slept till 11am this morning, we must have needed it! We lazed around for most of the day, probably the best day weatherwise in Seoul for our whole stay! Left the hotel about 4pm, as we were hungry and had an early dinner at the Outback Steakhouse; it was a bit expensive for us, our meals cost nearly AUD60, but will be the last “proper” meal until we hit Eastern Europe in a few weeks.

Tuesday 22nd June –Seoul – North Korea – Seoul

Up early today as we have a tour booked to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). We had to be at the tour company’s office (Korea Tourist Bureau) at 10am, but as usual we were early and had about a 50-minute wait until the bus came. Our bus left at 1030am and there are about 12 westerners on board, all the rest are Japanese. Because of this we have 2 guides, an English-speaking guide and a Japanese speaking guide – the Japanese guide speaks Japanese much better than our guide speaks English – she is really bad & it’s painful to listen to her.

Our first stop was the Odusan Observatory (here we found our favourite ice cream “Dippity Dots” and we enjoyed them so much we were late getting back on our bus) which was just outside the DMZ, this is the only place where South Koreans can “see” North Korea, and offers telescopes where you can see the UN post, North Korean propaganda signs etc. There was also a video that we watched explaining how the North and South got divided. Here at least we were divided into two groups so we only have to put up with the Japs on the bus.

From the Observatory, we then drove to the Unification Bridge, which was our first check point to entry to the DMZ. A guy came on board the bus and checked all our passports before we could proceed; the checkpoint was a typical military post and surrounded by miles and miles of razor wire and South Korean soldiers. We then drove across the bridge (the bus dodging barriers that were to reduce speed; it was like a bending race) and into the American Military Camp – Camp Bonifas.

We were then taken to have lunch, as it was now 1pm, at the camp’s restaurant. Lunch was good an all you can eat buffet, which was mainly western food (Mashed potatoes, BLISS!!) so we ate heaps and made sure we got our money’s worth (W70,000 AUD$87.50). After lunch, we went to a hall where we had a briefing (the English speakers had to wear headphones). The briefing was about the Joint Security Area (JSA), what had transpired there (the most chilling was the murder of Major Bonifas and Lieutenant Bennett at a routine ‘tree felling’ duty, where they were ambushed by 30 North Korean soldiers) and we were instructed on how we were to behave in the JSA. We are only allowed to take photos where we are told.

We then boarded a United Nations bus and we were accompanied by a gum chewing American soldier. We passed through another checkpoint, passing the world’s most dangerous golf course which has only one hole and is surrounded by land mines. We are in Panmunjeom, which is where the armistice was signed.

On arrival at the JSA, which was a small cluster of buildings built across the North/South border, we were told to form two lines and were taken to Freedom House which was a pagoda from where you could take pictures. From here you could clearly see the North Korean side and their main building on the border, Panmun-gak, from where a North Korean soldier watched us the whole time with binoculars. We were then taken to the conference room, the top half is in North Korea and the bottom half is in the South. Two guards were placed in the room, standing with their arms out from their sides and fists clenched, in a taekwondo stance. You were allowed to photograph the guards but not allowed to touch anything in the room. I had my photo taken with the guard at the top end of the room, so I was officially in North Korea for about a minute. We were only in the room for about five minutes but it was incredibly interesting.

Back on the bus now and on to checkpoint three, this time we were accompanied by a Humvee, and here we could take photos of the North Korean flagpole, one of the “empty” propaganda villages and the propaganda signs (neither of us could see them). From there we went onto the site where the “tree-felling” incident occurred (the deaths of Bonifas and Bennett), the bus wasn’t allowed to stop, so we had to be content with photos from the bus.

We also passed the “Bridge of No Return”; where POW’s were released after the Korean War and had to decide if they wanted to stay in the North or the South then and there, as once they crossed there was no going back.

Then it was back to the briefing hall where there was a souvenir shop where we spent about half an hour, Tony bought a few things and I bought a golf ball for Dad. That was basically the end of our tour, so we changed buses and returned to Seoul. It took just over an hour to get back to Seoul, we arrived around 530pm, both very satisfied with our tour. No tea, still full from dinner!!

Wednesday 23nd June –Seoul – Weihai

We have a ferry booked today to take us to Weihai, China so we left our hotel and “hooker hill” for the last time, what a funny place, just before 11am, even though we don’t have to be at Incheon until 4pm. It was necessary to change subway lines twice (neither of them were crowded, which makes carrying the backpacks that much easier) but it was a little confusing trying to find the Incheon line, eventually we changed lines again (why wasn’t that on the map)?

The ride to Incheon was a long one, about 50 minutes so we didn’t arrive till after 1pm. We caught a cab to the ferry terminal spending the next 20 minutes buying our tickets which cost W120,000 ($150) for a private cabin - YIPPEE!

With four hours to kill till departure, we decided to leave our bags at the terminal and catch a taxi out to the Incheon Museum and Incheon Landing Memorial. It was a lot further than it looked on the map and the cab ride cost W5400 ($6.75). When we arrived, we discovered the museum closed for renovations so w ha to be content with the landing memorial which was free at least.

The landing memorial commemorates the US forces (led by General MacArthur) landing at Incheon, which ended up turning the Korean war in favour of the allies. Most of the exhibits were like those we had seen in the war museum, but it was still interesting. We spent about 45 minutes there before catching a cab back to the ferry terminal.

As it was only 4pm, we still had an hour to wait before we could board, all the seats had been taken in the waiting hall so we had to wait outside. You can tell this ship is headed to China, by the pushy and rude behaviour of the passengers (although they are mainly Koreans) lugging huge boxes full of goodness knows what. After passing through immigration we boarded the ferry and went to find our private 4-berth cabin, must be because we are westerners, all the Asians are jammed in like sardines.

We had just received the key to our cabin and settled in when an Asian lady knocked on our door and babbled at us. We couldn’t work out what she wanted, but she motioned for us to get off the seat, when we did she lifted the entire cushioned seat up and pulled out two huge luggage bags that obviously belonged to her, God knows how they got there or even when she had time to put them there, we just stared at her in amazement as she went on her merry way. Maybe they were smuggled goods? Another surprise was when I went to the ladies’ toilet to find about 15 women all doing their washing in the hand basins! These people are so weird, it’s a 20-hour journey, can’t they wait? Our cabin is very basic with no toilet, but it does have TV with English movies and at least we have it to ourselves. We spent most of the night in our cabin, Tony has made numerous visits to the shop for beer and chocolate bars.







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