Day 4: DMZ to Sokcho
First off; last night I did a long city walk up to this representation of Korean, sky-scraping, phallic magnificence. Lit up like a Dutch Christmas tree and looming over the city from atop the highest peak in Seoul, the North Seoul Tower (Namsan Tower )stands 480 meters above sea level and boasts a nightly festival at its base complete with street dancers, painters, venders, several restaurants and even a dance club. It’s truly something that’s not to be missed.
And when it started raining on my way up, I thought it might not be the best time to come and see it. But, because of the hordes of people I saw evacuating, I figured that it worked out for a better photo opportunity free from the masses. And, as it turned out, it was just that. I wound up getting some great shots from under my umbrella and it didn’t even rain the entire time I was ascending the hill.
On the way home, I met up with this great couple who were looking for a place to eat and were headed for my general area of town. So we had this great barbecue at a place right down the street from my hostel. It was nice. And the food was spectacular. I am finding that Koreans LOVE BARBECUE! It’s everywhere. And that’s certainly not a bad thing. In fact, as far as Asian cuisine goes, it could have gone much farther south. It could have just as easily been pork testicles boiled in squid ink or something like that.
Walking back to my place, I passed by the Gyeongbokgung Palace which I had walked around earlier. It’s just as grand looking at night as in the daytime – possibly even more so. And the surrounding Bukchon Hanok Village, tranquil as if it was cast back to the 14th century during maritime – the clouds slowly sifting down to blanket the entire town. I ended up snapping a photo from a fence post in front of the main gate. I just had to take the camera out for one last shot before making it back to the hostel to crash for the night. I did a lot of walking yesterday, so passing the [expletive deleted] out will not be an issue.
On to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) which, besides being able to cut the stress, eeriness and paranoia in the air with a katana, is quite a nice place to spend a day. I was told that I had to leave before the day was out because I looked too much like a journalist. But before that, I had an amazing and enlightening day. It was filled with highlights like being questioned by teenie-bopping soldiers about the size of my… camera (yea right, they just had camera envy); I got to enter North Korea (I even got the stamp in my passport to prove it) for about five minutes to photograph the train station that (maybe) will eventually board people on its train that leads all the way to London, England on a 45-day stretch; almost fall into a mine field; and given a full length history that they don’t teach you about in U.S. History class about the fratricidal war that started when the North Koreans got permission from the Soviet Union to invade South Korea in 1949.
Approaching the DMZ on our military escort northward, our tour guide told us all kinds of interesting things. ‘No photos when we pass the Freedom Bridge; no taking photos of the soldiers; don’t leave the tour area; there are mines here and there, don’t worry, I will remind you when we get there; At the end of the tour you can buy 2kg of ginseng for $230.’ Stuff like that.
And all the while, little by little, we’d start to see very strange and slightly more alarming things along the road. The barbed
wire was expected, I guess. But then we started seeing sirens and cameras. Then there were the guard posts all along the river. Then we passed over a multitude of road sensors. Then, in the distance we’d see drilling which, our tour guide would tell us, were the South Koreans digging for finding more North Korean tunnels that may be currently underway to bring in arms and soldiers for their next invasion. Eventually we were seeing military vehicles following us. And then we were stopped, boarded, questioned and smiled at while being told to have a nice day and to enjoy our tour. Pleasant, really.
After the gate, we were instructed that no more photos were to be taken on or off the bus unless expressly given permission to do so. This was a big disappointment for me for two reasons. Firstly, for the cost of the tour, one would expect that photos could be taken. But more importantly, thousands of people come here each year which means that artist’s renderings, notes, personal memories of the place are undoubtedly being jotted down in blogs (like this one) and ultimately a huge mental map can be made from this. And this is not to mention that the area can be seen from Google-maps without a security clearance of any kind.
Once in the militarized (and yet entitled ‘demilitarized’) area, we skipped the first stop to get ahead of the crowd that was already there and went ahead to the next stop. There we entered the third (but not most recent) tunnel that was discovered on –or under – South Korean soil. I was surprised at how well I did in there. You’d think I would have knocked myself clean out after a few steps. But, alas, I only hit my head once. In fact, I think it’s because I am so tall that I did so well in there. I am constantly looking up for objects that have taught me a lifetime of lessons in the form of goose-eggs on the old noggin. In fact, I was behind a crowd of the shorter measure and they were doing pretty badly. But then, when have they had to watch their heads? Suckers! Tall guy’s revenge!
This tunnel was discovered by drilling down into the ground 400 meters and filling the holes with water. Because the stratigraphy below the soils along the Korean Peninsula is mostly made of very hard rock layers such as limestone, it must be blasted instead of drilled by hand tools which are all that would fit into a tunnel. So when blasting, it would be apparent because the water would shoot back up out of these boreholes and therefore indicate the location of the attempted infiltration.
Once found, they knew they’d been successful in finding others that had similar evidence and drilled down to all the locations they’d found to be blasting areas and, in total, found four tunnels to date – that they’re letting us know about.
And speaking of what they’re telling us; I kept returning to the feeling that most of what was being said was some hard-lined propaganda. I know that the North Korean leadership must be guilty of brainwashing its citizens into hating the South Koreans in a manner describable similar to the way that the Japanese government kept feeding good news to their people even though they were losing the war after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. But the things that they were feeding us were a little ridiculous.
One (again, very young) soldier told me, as I was overlooking the Dora Observatory, that all of the nice houses that I was seeing 12 kilometers in the distance were all facades and that inside them all were barracks used by military and people that the government paid to live there. He also said, when I made a remark about the hillsides being very beautiful, that it is important to note that there were no trees on the mountains – that the people were forced to cut them all down and use them as firewood because the government didn’t pay them enough to support their lifestyle.
In a discussion that I had with another youthful combatant, I found out that in the past all the electricity in the country went to power the electrical fence on the North Korean side of the DMZ. They said that now South Korea sends electricity over to their factories, that they employees from the North and that they pay them more than they would make if they made goods for their home country because the government requires them to turn over 50% of their wages if they work for a foreign government – hence their ability to work for South Korea in the first place. But when I started inquiring about this further, I found out that the south pays the northern workers US$7 per day, that all the workers live in these homes and essentially it’s the south that turns off the electricity when the workday is done and that they think it’s “good” to send this money and electricity over there and help out the government. They seem convinced that because of this nice thing that they are doing, the north will eventually become peaceful and invite them to have a unified peninsula once again.
Another soldier came up during this conversation and asked me if I was a journalist. I didn’t respond. He told me that journalists were not allowed here because it was the property of the United Nations and UNESCO and they didn’t want journalists here because all they publish is about how South Korea uses the DMZ – ultimately an area which should not be used as a tourist depot because of its hazards, in my opinion – as an attraction or to profit off the viewing of some other, impoverished nation. I asked the young man if South Koreans were getting tourist dollars from the viewing of North Korea and he said ‘yes.’ And then I replied, “Well, that kind of makes it true, doesn’t it?” Then I was asked to leave. Clearly I was asking too many questions for their liking.
I started to ask something about speaking to a U.N. representative to speak for themselves, but not only did I think that route to be fruitless and a waste of time, but I already knew that it was the Koreans – and not the United Nations, who ultimately stand independent of the press and who don’t generally have the reputation of getting bad press for supporting in times of war – that didn’t want journalists entering. After all, they might be writing something like this! HAH!
Little did they know, though, that I’d already gotten all the photos I could ever want from the observatory. And in these photos were two that I am particularly proud of. Apparently, at some point in time, the North and South Koreans started erecting taller and larger flags. North Korea would calculate the size of South Korea’s flag and put up a larger one. This would be followed by the same action on the other side. On and on it went until they have what we see in the photos here.
At this point the North Koreans have a flag that’s nearly 650 lbs., spans 18 by 36 meters and sits on a pole 160 meters tall – proof that the world’s largest pissing contest does have its fringe benefits after all.
Next stop was the border crossing for the Dorasan Train Station. Through our guide’s broken English, I came to understand that there was a small portion of North Korea that we could enter if we paid a small fee, promised not to take off running down the train tracks and made sure we stamped back in with our passports. Photos were allowed here. But I didn’t see anyone from the North Korean army there. Wonder why.
Then, after a quick bite of steamed bugs and chicken guts on a stick while taking a walk through this great park with awesome bamboo sculptures and what appeared to be a pinwheel farm, I hurried back to the bus for the ride back to Seoul.
Once we reached Seoul we were all herded into this huge ginseng sales pitch in an attempt to get us backpackers to spend basically our entire travel reserves for a huge, inconvenient package of compressed roots, we enthusiastically boarded the bus for the last leg of the tour – being dropped off in the middle of downtown Seoul. What a relief. No stress there. Pay up, get out. Good luck finding your way around suckers!
It was okay, though. I knew where I was and it was easy to find the national bus terminal because I had my handy-dandy Lonely Planet and I actually read it. So that got me sorted and after a huge plate of curry chicken at this sweet restaurant overlooking the shopping district, it was off to board the Dongbu Express headed for Sokcho where I hoped to be dropped in enough time that I was assured a room at a coveted hostel (per Lonely Planet, anyway).
The “House” Hostel, Sokcho, was where I was headed. And once in town I snapped a couple of cool night shots and was off down the main drag to find this place. I read that its atmosphere and service was top notch. And while I could have slept in a bunker under fire, I’d just as soon have the good energy of a nice, clean place.
It was all that it was advertised to be. The owner, yu, is a great little guy who immediately sits you down and gives you a map, scribbling all over it the directions, bus numbers and routes to all that Sokcho has to offer. That, alone, was a tour in itself. But it was nice to have. And the book was spot on. They pipe in the coolest of light jazz and plush waiting room furniture greets you just as the subtleties of this peaceful place set in.
Everything is clean, they are all private rooms with their own private bath. All the amenities that Korea just throws in there (free shampoo, laundry, internet, cable, etc.) were included as well. They have this miniature husky, Gulumi, perched happily outside in the open-air vestibule. Famous, old black-and-white photography line the quirky-painted walls of all three floors in the joint. And its chock full of the coolest people that pass through this part of the world.
But beyond all the niceties, I was hungry, tired and slightly dazed from the long day on my feet and humping it through four-foot-tall tunnels. So I dropped off my bags on the cushy, full-sized bed and headed down the road to the first thing that smelled tasty. And that wound up being this really great “Korean Buffet.” Which is nothing like the phrase offers to western ears.
Basically, you sit down to eat at a table that’s made of an old oil drum with a bolted-on metal top that has a huge hole cut into it. In this hole sits a small charcoal pit and griddle. Atop this fixture, you’re expected to grab your fill in variously seasoned meats (pork, chicken, beef and/or fish), cook it over a slip of tin foil and guzzle it down with rice wine.
The locals look right at home cutting up the meat with scissors – cigarette in hand – and scooping up conglomerations of veggie-meats rolled up in a piece of romaine lettuce and, of course, swilling back shot after shot of this white, viscous mixture that remains on the breath for days (so I’ve noticed).
I, of course, looked like an ape with live chicken running around on my table to these people. And clearly that was too much for the cook who came out several times to cut up my meat, drag what meat I thought was cooked back off my plate and back onto the bbq for more cooking and select for me the “correct” portions of all the veggies, sauces and meats. It was a little comical. I grabbed way too much on the first go, so I wrapped up my “take away” and was laughed at for being too much of a pansy to finish it – even by the wait staff. It was great.
Then I went and passed out.
No post for Day five. Only spent the day eating hunting down camera shops, eating local foods and editing photos for the journal. A nice, lazy day in the mountain town on the coast of the chilly beaches in northern South Korea.