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Published: January 25th 2019
We set a 5.30 am alarm for our trip to the Demilitarized Zone and were in Reception awaiting collection bang on time. Unfortunately, Reception took a phone call to indicate the trip organisers were running late, though only by ten minutes. Ho hum. We were first on the bus so managed to bagsy the front seats. We stopped at various other pick-up points where feeder buses brought in more travellers, often after lengthy waits. Our driver clearly didn't like hanging around but our guide, Gemma (I'm pretty sure that wasn't her real name!), was quite relaxed about it all. In the end the bus was reasonably full and Gemma gave us all a potted history of the N and S Korea split and the various moves to re-unite the two countries. You can look up the history if you're bothered but one of the more interesting snippets for me related to military service. Apparently, in South Korea the military service lasts 21 months but in North Korea it lasts 11 years! Imagine spending that length of time in military service when you're in your prime and just want to have fun. As a result, all the factories in North Korea are
run by women who just want to get married and have babies but all the young men are occupied elsewhere!
Our trip to the DMZ was itself organised with military precision. We had to take our passports which were inspected by a fearsome Army man after our coach had to swerve to avoid another that seemed unsure how to navigate its way through all the barriers. Angry words were had by the drivers! It seemed as though the Powers That Be didn't want us to spend too much time on the ground, exploring, so we did everything at a trot!
We visited Imjingak Peace Park which was built for five million people displaced by the various splits and divisions in the country as a whole. It was busy with tourists, all moving at a great rate of knots. We saw the Freedom Bridge and a train which had been blown up on the tracks that linked the two countries. We visited an infiltration tunnel dug by the N Koreans which was 435 metres into southern territory before being discovered. The tunnel was 1635 metres long, 2.1 metres wide and the incline leading down to it was steep. We
had to wear hard hats as it was way less than than two metres high in some places and the resounding bangs as heads periodically hit the roof gave me the giggles. It gave a whole new meaning to 'crack on'! All the bangs and dings were generally made by the taller men and the ensuing expletives made me laugh all the more. I was behind Steve and if he banged his head I just ducked a little further to avoid the low bit but the groups of men didn't seem to grasp this concept and we could often hear a series of rapid fire hard hat bangs, close together. If there were four of them it was a bit like Beethoven's 5th - da da da daaaa, da da da daaaa, and if there were only three in the group I took to humming the final 'daaaa' myself, for completeness, which moved my giggling up a notch to Almost Hysteria! After spending ages bent almost double we finally reached the end of the tunnel which had been sealed off with concrete in three places by the S Koreans. They had, however, left a viewing window in the first wall
so we could all peer through to the second wall where they had placed a lit-up plastic plant to enhance our experience so that was ... thoughtful?? We could only appreciate the aesthetic illumination for about thirty seconds, though, given the growing crush of people behind and the constant need to keep moving. And then we had to make the return journey back up that steep incline. We were told there was normally an escalator but it wasn't working on this day. I saw no signs of that and I don't think they make escalators long enough so the journey back, with rest stops, took forever. Was it worth it? Of course not, but it had to be done anyway, given we were there!
We paid a visit to the Dora Observatory which offered lovely views across to North Korea. We were told that many of the buildings we could see over on the other side were 'pretend' shells of structures, for show. While we were there a lady approached me to have her photo taken with me. Don't know who she thought I was (Pierce Brosnan's wife maybe?)! Anyway, did wonders for my self-esteem especially as I was
looking less than attractive after spending 90 minutes bent double in a tunnel. We went to Dorasan train station which had been opened many years ago when reunification was on the cards again. That, of course, never happened so the train station has never been used. Today it is still in perfect, pristine condition and is only visited by tourists (and the elder George Bush, many years ago when he was still alive).
On our return journey out of the DMZ we passed the Unification Village, originally meant to be populated by people from the north and the south but now only South Korean farmers live there. The land is only good for growing rice, soy bean and ginseng so they are given concessions for living in the area. We saw no farm animals during all our time in Korea (well, two horses later on but I'm not sure they can be classed as farm animals) and we saw very few people working the land. It was odd.
We stopped at a ginseng factory for a 'retail opportunity' on our way back to the city. It wasn't for us, so we played hookey for that bit. The growing
tensions between our coach driver and the one who almost crashed into us earlier escalated to almost fisticuffs in the car park so I think we got the more entertaining experience!
The journey back to Seoul followed the river which divides the two countries. Gemma told us that many people have escaped to South Korea from the North, often by travelling via other countries but occasionally by walking across the river when it is frozen. An assassination attempt on one of their VIPs in the distant past was made by men walking across the frozen river so it is now fenced and patrolled. Unsurprisingly, we were told that only one person has defected from the south to the north, and that was someone running from credit card debt. He must have been desperate! I gather he was returned anyway.
We were dropped back from our trip at City Hall, just a block away from our hotel. Those who had joined the trip from the outskirts in the feeder buses were left to make their own way back, not easy using the underground and involving two changes in some cases! We took a stroll down to Namdaemun Market for
a new camera card and an off-the-shelf pair of glasses to replace the ones I trod on! We'd heard you could get anything at the market and indeed you could, but I was cross that I paid the equivalent of £3 for my glasses and saw them later at a third of the price! As we strolled back to our hotel we were approached by two men looking for the market. Lucky for them they asked two people who knew exactly where it was! How to explain that to them in an alien language was more difficult but sign language and shouting (why do we do that?) did the trick.
We felt we had seen Seoul in some detail and enjoyed it for its difference and history. I think it has the same issues as other big cities - the traffic, the drunk and homeless people down at the train station, the rat I saw in the gutter, the beggar who cadged cigarettes from everyone in the smoking area at the train station and who ended up with more than me ... ! I didn't feel I had got to know the people though and the language barrier was
the biggest obstacle to that but it wasn't helped by the seeming indifference to us as visitors, even from the hotel staff who spoke good English. I couldn't get them to engage in general conversation at all. My Old Man adoptee on this occasion was the Bell Boy (Bell Old Man?). We often passed a few words when I wandered down to watch Seoul go by and he was the nearest I got to inter-acting with anyone.
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