Immigration - South Korea
Going through immigration in South Korea, ready for our transport into North Korea!
This blog is about our recent weekend trip to North Korea! I'm sure most of you have all heard about the latest commotion over the recent tragic shooting of a S. Korean female tourist in North Korea? (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/25634009/) Well, that is actually the same tour that we were on - about a month earlier. Now the tours are temporarily suspended until the North agrees to cooperate with the South in further investigating this unfortunate murder. We went in the middle of June - and although overall we thought the S. Korean company Hyundai Asan played too much of a role in creating this tourist destination / tour - we were quite intrigued by this communist country and feel lucky that we got to take part in such a unique and educational experience.
We started off the weekend trip on a Friday evening - REALLY late. Our bus left Seoul around 11:30pm and we drove all night - to get to the Northeastern border where the Kumgang-san (Mountains) were located. About 7 hours later, after a long and sleepless drive, we got to the border crossing. Here, we had to get off our bus, go through customs, and
then load onto another bus - the one that would take us through the DMZ and into N. Korea. Although I was so tired...I have to admit this was definitely one of the most exciting parts of the trip! It was really scary to cross through all the barb-wired barriers, through lines of military men, to finally arrive at North Korea's immigration office. Once here, we actually felt like we stepped back into time about 30 or so years...as everything from the tent that the immigration officers were seated in to the porta-potties lined up outside all just seemed a bit outdated. We desperately wanted to start snapping away pictures - however, the posted signs saying "NO PICTURES" along with the N. Korean military strategically standing EVERYWHERE in sight was intimidating enough to make you want to follow all rules of Mr. Kim and his unique country.
Well, after going through an intimidating immigration process, we all gathered together on the other side of the tent waiting for the rest of our group - while of course N. Korean guards stood watching over us and our every move. I was really nervous to go through immigration because the name
of the academy where I work here in Korea was incorrect on my N. Korean ID that our tour company had prepared for me, and yet they told us that anything that was incorrect on the ID's must be lied about as if it's true - or else you'll be fined! I was really nervous to say the least... Well, that was until I found out that our friend Chloe (from the U.K. by the way) had to claim that she was Nigerian - as her ID stated! Suddenly lying about the name of the academy where I teach English didn't seem so bad at all!!
So, after immigration and quickly wolfing down some noodles for lunch - we headed over to the mountain that we were to climb this afternoon. This mountain was quite high and the weather wasn't the best either, as I'm sure you can see from the photos, yet we still almost made it to the very top a couple of hours later. Then, after trekking back down, we hurried back to the hotel to take hot showers and change our clothes for the N. Korean acrobatic performance we were going to see!
we arrived at our lovely hotel soon after, and even though we were tempted to stay and take a nap (remember, we hadn't slept in over 24 hours at this point), we hurried so we wouldn't miss the show. The acrobats were from Pyongyang (the capital city of N. Korea where Kim Jong-Il resides), and the show they perform is famous in their country. And after seeing it, we now have no doubts why this is so. I've seen quite a lot of acrobats and astonishing feats in my time (Cirque du Soleil comes to mind here)...but I can assure you that this show was nothing of the sort. In fact, most of these "tricks" were so dangerous (For example - synchronized spinning from the top of the theatre suspended by nothing but a rope around the girls' necks), that I had to cover my eyes quite frequently. Some other incredible / yet stupidly dangerous tricks involve a girl flipping off and landing back on a piece of flexible board in mid-air...a man soaring off of a swing to be caught mid-air at the top of the theatre...jumping rope on a unicycle while having 2 or 3 people balancing on
Climbing the mountain with a cute red umbrella
After the show we had some dinner - a delicious all-you-can-eat buffet for only about $10 / person. It was quite a spread too...pastas, beef, tuna sashimi, etc...hardly something you'd expect from a country that receives aid from outside sources. But just another reason for us to believe that we weren't really in a N. Korean village interacting with real N. Korean citizens in their everyday lives, but instead, in a S. Korean tourist spot that just so happens to be in their neighboring communist country. Afterwards, we had some drinks at a local bar. Again, the owner at this establishment was definitely Korean - but after hearing his superb English and learning that he had spent 30 years of his life in New Zealand - once again we knew this man was not N. Korean, but again from the South (N. Koreans are not allowed to leave their country under any circumstances). After playing a few rounds of "Titanic," we then turned in for a desperately needed night of sleep.
The next morning we had an early buffet breakfast at our hotel, before starting our next hike. At this point we had two options: a
short flat walk around a lake, or a longer steeper hike that led to some beautiful waterfalls. Well, for me, I was so tired and sore from the hike we did the previous day, that this choice was a no-brainer - "Let's do the easy one!" But, as I soon learned, the waterfall hike was really famous and breathtaking...and so with a little persuasion, I changed my mind. Was pretty glad I did too... As you will see from our photos, some of the views we came across on this hike were really gorgeous. And the water was so clean and clear, we actually could drink it straight from the spring about halfway through the course!
After this hike, we had some free time for lunch, shopping at the gift shops, and anything else we wanted to do. Well, after lunch, we decided that we wanted to venture out and find this huge billboard-sized picture of Kim Jong-Il and his father (also the previous leader of N. Korea) that we had seen on our way to the mountain hike the day before, and take a photo of it! So, we wandered down the small road where we knew the
picture was... Although we felt somewhat safe because we were careful to stay within the borders of where tourists had to remain, it was still exhilarating to walk freely so close to where actual N. Koreans were living and going about their daily business. At one point, we came to a crossroad that was considered N. Korean ground only...so even though we had to cross over the small road to continue on our way, it was really exciting to stop and wait for a couple of citizens on bicycles to walk by us. Of course we were not allowed to make any sort of contact at all with these citizens...and surprisingly enough, they didn't even look up at us. They're very well trained, I guess...
We also stopped and looked across this river we came to...and could make out a really run-down building, maybe a school, in the distance. There were also some people hanging out outside of it. We were pretty far away, and so Larry tried to take a picture...but when a North Korean guard who apparently had been watching us started blowing his whistle and holding up a red flag, we just quickly mumbled sorry and
Larry & Melanie
Luckily we couldn't see how high we were.
headed off. As you will see though by our photos, this little incident didn't stop brave Larry (or stupid, you make the call) from taking more "illegal" photos! In the end, we did end up getting our photo of the communist leader family portrait - although we had to have an employee from the nearby hotel take the picture for us. We heard that if we were caught taking the photo ourselves, not only would the picture be deleted, but our camera would also be confiscated. So, definitely not worth it!
Well, finally we got back on our bus and went back through immigration. I was nervous again to go through immigration- only this time, not about the misprint on my ID, but instead over the fact that Larry took some "illegal" photos, and if our camera was checked we would have to pay a fine. Well, luckily that didn't happen....so of course, he took more on the bus while we drove away.
Later, that evening we arrived back in Seoul - safe and sound!
We hope you enjoyed our little adventure!
Larry & Melanie
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