Our Big Asian Adventure v.5: Visiting The DMZ

Freedom ribbons from visiting the DMZ

Off to South Korea! 

Who says a travel day has to be boring? I have lotsof details to report! Today, we’re flying to South Korea and, later, we’ll be visiting the DMZ. The Taiwan airport is actually really nice (now that I’ve had “the opportunity” to spend a little more time there). Eva Airlines, who we flew to Taiwan, has a little Hello Kitty play area for the kiddos. Thing was packed. Kids gone wild.

Asiana Airlines & The Seoul Airport

Our plane to Seoul (Asiana Airlines) looked like something from the early nineties, which was a little frightening. Beige everything, old technology. The flight was uneventful, but I did learn something on the way over: You know what’s harder than eating noodles with chopsticks? Eating them with a spork. Learned this little educational tidbit during our in-flight meal.

When we made our way out of the airport, the weather difference was immediately noticeable. Much cooler here. Thankfully. Jeff did a really good job of reviewing my travel notes and getting us on the right bus downtown. (The airport is an hour outside of the city and it’s an expensive taxi ride.) We walked through a massive street market to get to our hotel from the bus stop. That was kind of fun.

Seoul sign in Korea

Settling In In Seoul

We’re staying at an Aloft Hotel in Seoul and it’s so much better than our apart-hotel in Taipei. It actually has a killer playlist that’s constantly playing in the elevators, bar, restaurant, etc. Kind of makes me laugh, but it’s really good. It also has our very first fun Korean sign! (Something’s wrong with this person’s legs, just sayin’.)

"Do not lean on elevator door" sign

We went to have drinks at the bar and an Englishman started randomly talking to us. Talk about rambling. I felt kind of bad for him because he’d mentioned he was retired and that he’d been traveling for three weeks. But clearly, he didn’t have anyone to share his thoughts with.

It was interesting that he just started railing on Trump to us without any indication of our political affiliations. He’s in good company, of course, but he didn’t ask us a question to feel things out, he just went right in. Eventually, he left us and we decided to just order dinner there.

Bulgogi & Thank You’s

I got beef bulgogi, which I love love love. I also got kimchi with it, which I also love love love. Jeff ordered a burger and requested to have it plain. In broken English, this translated to “only cheese.” And when the waitress brought his dinner out, it was literally a toasted hamburger bun with cheese. No hamburger. This made us all laugh, the waitress included.

I asked the waitress how to say “thank you” in Korean and, when she did, the words “oh my God” just fell out of my mouth. Korean is the only language I can think of that can take two syllables and turn it into, like, five. For real, the word “hi” translates to five syllables. I’ve since practiced “thank you” over and over again and still don’t remember it when I need it. Maybe I’ll have a handle on it by Day #4 here.

We wandered to a nearby convenient store to stock up on water and snacks. There were a crazy amount of food stands that we took a quick look at. Fresh lobster grilling and a “Potato Tornado” stand that looked super popular. It was like splayed potato slices fried on a stick.

Upon return to our hotel room, I found two “crane boxes.” I dunno what else to call them. They’re emergency evacuation boxes that literally have a rope and pulley so you can lower yourself down out of the hotel. Let’s hope we don’t have to make use of those.

Descending lifeline at Seoul hotel

We also have another excellent Asian toilet with all the buttons. This one has an enema setting, not even kidding. Sounds intense.

Got a great view from our room and slept with the curtains open so I could fall asleep to the city lights. Tomorrow, we’ll be doing some Seoul city sightseeing. …Before our next day when we’ll be visiting the DMZ!

Seoul, South Korea at night

Sightseeing in Seoul

For some reason, I feel super tired today. Not sure why. Fatigued, too. Like, not only do I want to take a nap, my body is also just exhausted. But I pushed through. We really only had a few stops today. And we even forgot one. We also skipped one (Cheong Wa Dae, the President’s house) because apparently you need reservations that book up way in advance and you can’t really see much from outside anyway.

Buddha’s Birthday at Jogyesa Temple

Our first stop was Jogyesa Temple, a Buddhist temple. It’s a massive plaza and who knew that Buddha’s birthday was right around the corner? Because of this, the city has thousands of lanterns hanging all over the place. An entire ceiling was created out of lanterns over the temple plaza. From one building to the next to the next. Pretty cool, and very pretty.

As we were leaving to go to our next sight, I noticed some homeless guys getting into a physical altercation behind the temple. I couldn’t stop watching. One was dressed in fatigues and had long blonde hair that was tied back in a pony tail. And he was Korean. Eventually he broke a bottle to threaten his “nemesis” and Jeff and I decided it was time to go. Runaway!

Bukchon Hanok

Walked over a river that was also lined with lanterns and looked like a popular walkway area for locals. Made our way over to Bukchon Hanok Village, a small ancient village kept in pristine condition. Everyone and their dog was dressed in traditional Korean dress, rented. They had rental shops all over the place. So many hills here.

Gyeongbukgong Palace & The Night Market

Stopped at Gyeongbukgong Palace, too. This was in the middle of a bunch of museums and was a whole tourist area. Tons of police presence. More lanterns. Was nice enough, but not of huge interest to us. Stopped for a break and coffee before making the long walk back to the hotel.

Had a nice nap and then got up to hit the night market. We tested a bunch of foods out, though nothing super authentic. Some kind of breaded, fried chicken and dough pieces with a sweet and sour sauce on it. A corn dog-type thing filled with mozzarella cheese. A chicken skewer with sauce. And, last but not least, a Potato Tornado! It was just okay. Got some additional snacks for the room to unwind and hit the hay for the night. Tomorrow… we’ll finally be visiting the DMZ.


Visiting the DMZ

Welp, today’s the day we’re visiting the DMZ! The DMZ is the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, and the most heavily armed border in the world. It kind of turned out to be the exact opposite of everything I thought it would be, both good and bad.

Gearing Up

I slept horribly. I was anxious and waking up every hour through the whole night. Even had a nightmare about visiting the DMZ, if you can believe it. Usually my dreams don’t realize themselves that specifically, but… it was pretty specific. The entire time this tour has been booked, I really haven’t been concerned about the excursion. But evidently, I’m getting a little concerned. These adventures always sound like a good idea to me to… until I’m on them. Maybe I should just stay home and read the book instead.

We were supposed to meet out tour guide in the lobby of our hotel and, when we went down, there was another group also waiting for a pick-up. Our guide came in and started asking them if they were visiting the DMZ; they all shook their heads. Jeff and I raised our hands and started walking away with the guy. Jeff turned to the other group and said, “Bye, guys! See you on the other side,” which prompted some laughter.

I thought we’d be going on a small-group tour, but no. We were going with an entire bus load of people. A big bus. Usually my least favorite types of tours, but in this instance, I welcomed it. Surely, there are slower and/or dumber people than me on this bus, right? Fingers crossed.

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

One thing to note was that the tour emailed me more than once to ensure we brought our passports… for visiting the DMZ. You should always bring your passport everywhere when traveling since it’s your primary form of ID, but the insistence made me wonder. Like—we’re not actually crossing the border, are we? Not signing up for allathat.

Then, they made a little announcement that certainly clarified things, but didn’t bring me any comfort whatsoever. They told us they “lost” a couple tourists recently. Of course they had to report it and people thought they ran away and crossed over.

Jeff tried to comfort me by saying that, surely, they just hopped on the wrong bus, but even then. I don’t want to hop on the wrong tour bus in the DMZ. Whut. The group’s solution was for us to fill out some personal information so they could keep track of us all and they gave us these lanyards to wear with the group’s phone number in case anything happened.

(For the record, this company was highly recommended. I also later saw everyone was wearing these lanyards, from all different groups, so… maybe they weren’t the only ones who “lost” people.)

Freedom Bridge & The Carnival

Seoul is only like thirty miles from the North Korean border. Part of the ride, you’re driving along a highway that’s lined with barbed wire on one side. And the guy is super casual with telling you that, “If you cross, you’ll get shot.” Got it.

He also tells us that you can fairly easily tell the difference between the two sides because the North Korean side has no trees. For one, they have limited resources and have cut them all down, but also… they cut them down to better see defectors… and then they take aim.

We get there and the guide has to go get our tickets for a bunch of stuff, but we can roam around. Can visit Freedom Bridge, go up to an observation deck, look at an old shot up train, and—of all things—wander around a carnival that happens to be there.

The carnival is not in use, it’s just… there. It’s like Pripyat only not radioactive. Not a big fan of just roaming around on our own while visiting the DMZ, but there are more people than I can count there, so… safety in numbers. By the way, Freedom Bridge is where they used to exchange prisoners. It’s now filled with tourists and there are cameras everywhere you could imagine.

We meet back up at the bus and the guide apologizes for being a few minutes late. He tells us peak tourist season just started and all the Chinese tourists come up. He said it’s not the DMZ Korean tour guides are scared of, but Chinese tourists. With that, we continue on our journey to the Third Tunnel.

In The Demilitarized Zone

Little did I know, our DMZ experience was about to get even more interesting. The formal DMZ is about 4 kilometers wide and, while I thought we were there at Freedom Bridge, this time, we went into the area. They do passport checks and everything. So… wasn’t expecting that. I guess you’re technically leaving South Korea in some sense then, right? You also get to drive in zig zags because they have all these barricades set up the whole way through.

Something to know about visiting the DMZ… because the area has been largely untouched for so many years, it supposedly has an abundance of wildlife. From what I could see, tons and tons of birds. They’ve recently announced that hiking trails will be opening in the area. (Have fun with that, people.)

There are also actually two “unity” villages in the border area. They don’t have to pay taxes, but… they live in the DMZ. Sometimes you just have to weigh your options. All along the roadsides were “no entry” signs indicating mine fields. They told us you can’t access the Third Tunnel in the winters because vehicles might slide down the hillsides… and into the minefields.

Train station through North Korea when visiting the DMZ

An Unused Train Station

Before the Third Tunnel, however, a stop at… a train station. Yes. At one point, an entire train station was built to take South Koreans through North Korea to get to their intended destinations. (South Korea is cut off from all other countries via land borders, right?)

The thing is actually pretty large, and in pristine condition. Because it’s never been used. It has digital signs for a train scheduled to go to Pyeongyang. No photos of most of the exterior allowed.

You can get passport stamps here, but the guide specifically told us not to put it in our actual passport because you might be detained later. (You get a little ticket you can use to stamp.) Like Israel passport stamps, I guess? Where you’re restricted from going to other countries if they catch that you have one? I dunno, but another bizarre sight up here.

The Third Tunnel

Now, the Third Tunnel. The tunnels are labeled “First, Second,” etc. in the order in which they discovered them. The Third just happens to be the most impressive. Of course, North Korea never admits to anything and tried to say this was the South Koreans, but it was actually an escaped defector who was working on the tunnel that pointed it out to South Korea. They also tried to say they were just mining and painted to tunnel walls black to mimic anthracite, but no. Just… no.

Anyhow, this thing is super deep and it’s a huge time and energy investment. No cameras allowed. You have to lock all your stuff up before entering. It’s three quarters of a mile down at an 11-degree angle. This doesn’t seem like much, but it’s a lot when you have to go back up it. It’s also dark and gets really damp and wet the further you go down. We descended one portion of it, and then another tunnel—smaller, darker.

Claustrophobia

After going quite a ways, I decided to turn around. The air was getting dank, the tunnel is small, and you’re way deep underground. You get a little claustrophobic. It takes forever to get there, and for what? A retaining wall that you hit and just have to come all the way back up for. Jeff continued on. Apparently, I didn’t have much further to go, but there really was nothing to see.

There are so many people, too. On the way back, I was in a “fast lane” of sorts, and found entertainment—trudging up the incline forever and forever—in hearing, literally every few seconds, the hollow thunk of someone hitting their hard hat on the overhead pipes. Yes, you’re also crouched down a bit the whole time. Was relieved to get out and sit for a few afterwards. It’s an entire workout, that place.

A Glimpse Into North Korea

The final stop was a museum with an observation deck and telescopes. Another massive hill to get up. You can see right into North Korea. Supposedly, they constructed a fake, propaganda village to flaunt their prosperity, but folks caught on when all the lights throughout the village went on and off every night at the same time.

They also got into a tit for tat with South Korea over whose flag was flying the highest. Eventually, South Korea just dropped it, so North Korea’s flies quite a bit higher there. Cool to actually see it. The third largest North Korean city is within view.

Deer of the DMZ

As we were making our way back to South Korea, we had to slow down for a deer that was crossing the road and, sadly, either side of the road was cordoned off for land mines. I never heard an explosion, so I guess the little fella made it out just fine.

Oh, also, Jeff grabbed a postcard for the ol’ collection. The most hilarious postcard everrr—two baby deer munching on some foliage with “DMZ” across the top in some awful, graffiti novelty font. It looks so peaceful, it’s hilarious. And that was it. We weaved our way back through all the barricades and cleared passport control again to get back to South Korea.

Our DMZ postcard

Got a little history lesson on the way back. I find the whole bit so interesting since my dad was stationed in Korea when I was a baby and my granddad fought in the Korean War.

Feels good to be in a place (not North Korea, but South) that has a longtime alliance with the United States (at least for now). Pretty sure Taiwan and the US are buddies, too, but definitely sure we’re not friends with China, so I have the slightest bit of unease being in Hong Kong. (Let’s just say if something dumb happened, I wouldn’t be granted any favors, right?)

Back in Seoul After Visiting the DMZ

After visiting the DMZ, we were dropped off in downtown Seoul near Town Hall. Some folks on our tour stayed on the bus to continue on to a whole ‘nother tour. So glad we only did the half-day tour instead of the full-day because I’m spent.

One thing I’d mentioned to Jeff is that, in comparison to the other Asian cities we’d visited this trip, Seoul was super modern and lacked a lot of the slummy buildings we came across in HK or Taipei. He reminded me that it’s very much a newer city and, during the Korean War, went back and forth between North and South Korea, so the city was pretty much decimated.

We do regular checks on our travels to see which place, of the places on a given trip, are our favorites and Jeff had Seoul pegged as #1. I’ve currently got it at a tie for second with Hong Kong; Taipei is first. But we’ve still got another day, so anything can happen.

Searching for Sambas

Walked back to the hotel and found a place to get some lunch/dinner. Strolled around this mall in Myeongdong for a bit. Jeff has been in pursuit of forest green Adidas Gazelles or Sambas or… something like that. But it’s a pursuit we’ve been on around the world. We’ve seen some things close to them, but have never found them. He had a pair in Belgium when he was a teenager and, ever since, he’s been looking for another pair just like them.

Tomorrow, more sightseeing in downtown Seoul. This will take us a little more off-the-beaten-path than our first day, so looking forward to it. And, I’d say visiting the DMZ was one of our more interesting tours.

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2 comments

  1. I enjoyed reading this! Props to you for taking such good notes, esp when cameras weren’t allowed. I’m so bad at doing this.

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