I’ve sadly been a bit out of touch with this blog for a while. Partly that’s because I haven’t been doing much travelling, and have been focused on work and have gotten into a bit of a routine in Bangkok. But after a 9-month hiatus, I think I am ready to tackle the blog again, and hopefully with a bit more regularity.
At the end of October, I had to go to Seoul, South Korea for a few days to meet with customers for work. Although I didn’t have much time to get around and see much of Seoul, from what I did see I really liked it. If I had to sum it up, I’d say it’s a mix between Singapore and Bangkok. It has the lively shopping areas and street food like Bangkok, but with the structure, order, cleanliness and reservedness (is that a word?) of Singapore.
Near where I was staying is the Meyeong-dong area, which is a large shopping/tourist area with dozens of criss-crossing narrow walking streets and alleyways with shops on either side. At night it’s full of locals and tourists walking, shopping, and eating at the tons of restaurants and street food carts along the roads. While the area had a lot of large name-brand clothing stores like Guess, Louis Vuitton, Forever 21, Polo, etc., I have never seen so many make-up and skin care stores. Literally every block had at least 5 to 10 make-up/skin care stores, and every one of them were busy! Very strange….
The North Korea Border
After the customer meetings, I decided to stay for the weekend and go on a day trip to the border with North Korea and the De-militarized Zone (DMZ). It was a big group tour where we were all loaded onto a couple of buses, which isn’t normally the way I like to tour things but that’s the only way you can go see the DMZ. It was about a 2-hour drive up to the border, and the guide on the bus spent that time educating us about a lot of things related to the Korean war, North Korea, and what we would be seeing that day. I’ve never really learned much about the Korean war, so it was all very interesting information for me.
Our first stop was at a military camp near the border in the Joint Security Area (JSA). The camp is run jointly by the US Army, the South Korean military, and the United Nations. From there, we got on UN buses with a US Army guide who took us a few miles further up to the border. We walked thru a large 3-story building that was eerily empty. It was built for the purpose of allowing families who had relatives in both the North and South Korea to meet in designated rooms there, under the joint supervision of both North and South Korea. However, it was only used once shortly after it was constructed, and after that the North has never allowed to leave the country for those kinds of visits (at least not at that building).
Beyond that building is a group of about 4 to 6 little wooden buildings painted bright blue (the United Nations color of blue, to be exact). They are just single-room buildings, and one of them was used to sign the ceasefire of the Korean war. We went inside it to see the inside and the table at which the negotiations and signatures happened. In the middle of the room, you can literally stand there with half your body in South Korea and half in North Korea (sort of…).
Beyond the blue buildings is the North Korea side, and a large imposing building. The curtains were closed on all of the windows of the building, but occasionally a North Korea military person would open one of the curtains and look down on us with binoculars. It was very creepy, to say the least, but fascinating at the same time. We were allowed to take pictures of the building and the North Korean military guys in and around it, but we were specifically instructed not to flip them off or do anything provocative as they like to take pictures of that kind of behavior and use it as propaganda against South Korea, the US and other western countries.
We then went to another part of the JSA where there is the “bridge of no return”. This is a bridge across the river that demarcates the North/South border. At the end of the war, prisoners of war were brought to the bridge and given the choice of whether to stay in the country they were in, or cross the bridge to the other country. Once they crossed the bridge, there was no going back. Particularly thinking about North Koreans who were captured in the South, and still had family in the North, that had to have been a heart-wrenching decision to cross that bridge back to the North.
Next we drove to another area where there was a tunnel discovered that the North Koreans had been digging under the DMZ after the war ended in an effort re-invade the South. There have been a total of 4 tunnels discovered since the 1970s. We went down into it, and it’s an amazing feat of engineering. I don’t remember all the stats on depth and length, but we walked down a 45-degree sloped decline for a good 20 minutes to get to the tunnel, so it’s very deep below ground. Then we walked thru the actual tunnel another 20 minutes or so until we got to a poured concrete barricade that the South had installed to seal the center section of the tunnel. When the tunnel was discovered, apparently the North Koreans painted parts of the inside rock walls black and rubbed coal along them, and tried to justify the tunnel by saying it was a coal mine.
Our next stop was on top of a hill with a set of binoculars where you could look out over a valley and pretty far into North Korea. Several things that were fascinating about this. First, you can very clearly see where the border is, as there is not a single tree or shrub on the North Korea side – they have clear-cut every ounce of wood for heating and cooking as far as you can see; the hills and mountains are absolutely barren, whereas the South Korea side is very lush and green with trees. At this site, you can also look directly at one of the “propaganda villages” on the North side. From a distance, it looks like a small city with office buildings, apartments, etc. In reality, it’s just built that way to make it look like the North is prosperous. The buildings are all concrete, with painted-on windows and doors, and there is just a skeleton crew of people that live there to keep it clean, turn lights on and off periodically so it looks like things are happening there, etc. It was very, very bizarre to look at.
Northernmost Train Station (in South Korea)
Our last stop was at the northernmost train station in South Korea. It’s a beautiful new train station that doesn’t seem to get a lot of use. The South would love to be able to use it, as it’s an important connection for getting goods between them and mainland China. However, the North effectively stopped allowing trains from crossing there into North Korea back around 2007, so today that station is as far north as you can go on a train in South Korea. Our guide made a really interesting point: South Korea is geographically a peninsula, surrounded on 3 sides by ocean. But with the lack of any ability to move goods over land to the north, South Korea is effectively an island, with the air and sea being the only options for it to move goods and people to/from outside the country. Fascinating!