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Published: October 1st 2017
Geo: 37.9622, 126.885
Our day started earlier than usual -- at 07.45h, when we were picked up by a driver at our hotel and taken to the Koreana Hotel, to board a large bus for the tour of the DMZ. Half of the people on the bus were Japanese, while the other half were from all over (Sweden, US, New Caledonia, UK) -- so we had the tour twice: once in Japanese and once in English.
I'll start with my overall impression: the trip to the DMZ was interesting, but not a wow! Maybe it would have been different if we could have done the full day tour which visits the "peace site" of Panmunjeon...but we couldn't, so let it be.
During the bus ride up, we learned a bit about the history of the DMZ from the South Korean perspective. The story began in 1910, with the Japanese invasion of Korea. (Korea, we have learned, is kind of the Poland of Asia ... buffeted by China, Japan, and Mongolia, it has been invaded over 900 times in its history as a nation.) The guide said that Japan requested permission for its army to cross Korea as the first step of a war
against China ... but, when Korea said "No!", Japan invaded anyway. For the next 35 years, it ruled Korea as a colony. At the end of WWII, Japan was forced out of Korea, which was divided, like Germany, into zones of influence ... but, in this case, one for the Soviets and one for the US. Two separate governments were established. In 1950, the army of the North invaded the South, taking Seoul within three days. For the next three years, the country was devasted by the war. The war did not end but is currently in armistice, and peace is tenuous at best. In order to try to lessen the chance of invasion (by either side), the DMZ was established, reaching about 2km to the north and 2km to the south of the demarcation line (roughly the 38th parallel). Although there are a few villages in the DMZ, it is essentially a no-go zone ... except for the animals, which have sought refuge here, away from humans (if not from their land mines).
But the DMZ is now a major tourist attraction -- and nowhere was that more evident than on our first stop, Imjingak. Here, we left the bus
to see the Freedom Bridge (where prisoners were exchanged) and take photos of prayer ribbons and an old locomotive which is described thus: "The locomotive was originally the property of North Korea. After Seoul was restored during the Korean War, the Allied Forces obtained it and used to carry war supplies. Then it was left to rust for half a century as a visible symbol of Korea's division." What amused me about the area, however, was the (closed, because of the weather) small amusement park, with a tilty-ship ride, go-cart track, monorail and other carnival rides. It's a bit hard to synthesize the memories of the war with the amusement park.
Our second stop was the Third Infiltration Tunnel -- the highlight of the tour. This is a tunnel that was almost certainly dug by North Korea for a surprise invasion of the South, avoiding the million land-mines that inhabit the DMZ. It is one of four tunnels that have been found ... but there are probably others that remain. We donned helmets and hiked down into the tunnel, then walked along the tunnel to the first barricade. The ceiling is very low ... suggesting that soldiers, even when goose-stepping, must
be very short. Or maybe they were going to transport them, sitting down, on rail lines, like cars that carry coal miners. There wasn't much to see -- a tunnel is a tunnel, after all. But there were some amusing aspects of the trip:
Like ... the tunnel walls were coated with coal, so that North Korea could claim it was just an old coal mine ... never mind the fact that, according to the South, coal is never found in granite rock. (A search of the World Coal Institute website reveals no hits for "granite", so maybe they're not lying to us). Apparently, North Koreans think South Koreans are not very bright. Of course, the signs in the tunnel say that coating the walls with coal demonstrates the "double-sided" nature of the North Koreans. Sigh.
And ... I did not quite get part of the argument for how we know the tunnels were built for an invasion of the South ... like, the fact that the dynamite holes are facing South seems to have little to do with whether or not an invasion was planned. Wouldn't you dynamite the same way whether you were building a tunnel for an invasion
or building a tunnel for a coal mine? Maybe I'm missing something.
The walk back up to the top was not all that bad -- a bit tiring, but short. Back on top, we took photos of the statues outside, then left for the new train station. This station was built by donations from South Koreans (including our guide) as is planned to be a train station by which one can reach not only the north, but China, Russia, and Europe beyond. It is a lovely, lovely station. I wonder if it will ever be used except as a tourist stop.
Our last stop was supposed to be the observatory, but it was too snowy for the bus to climb the hill, so we did not get to see the largest flag pole in the world (it probably would have been too hazy anyway). Instead, we stopped at the "unification" village -- where the population was attracted by a major tax break and a waiver of military service -- to visit the gift shop. They did sell North Korean wine, along with locally grown soy products, but we did not purchase.
We were forced to stop at the amethyst shop on the way
home -- and were delayed because some of the Japanese tourists were making purchases. No matter -- we still arrived back in town by 2pm. Our guide offered to take us to a Korean BBQ restaurant, and, since we had not yet had BBQ, and wanted to have BBQ, we took her up on her offer. How else would we have decided where to go? The restaurant had no english on the signs or menu, so it clearly was not designed for tourists. The food was good ... but I would not know quality BBQ. It seems to me to be all about the quality of the beef...
On our way back to the hotel, we stopped in Avenuel, the upscale shopping building to wander around the floors and be amused by the prices. I hoped the window displays would be interesting, but they weren't. I also hoped for good people-watching but was disappointed as well. We thought about having coffee there, but, instead, headed back towards our hotel to stop at someplace closer to home.
In the evening, we went out for Vietnamese food, then returned to the hotel room to view some more of Keegan's Irkutsk and Mongolia pix.
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