Saturday, September 12, 2009

Obligatory Korean Tourist Spot #2: The DMZ

The DMZ is actually a huge tourist destination in South Korea. The only other time I've been in such a large group of foreigners was at the Irish pub in Itaewon a few months ago. You have a variety of options (lots of private Korean tour groups offer trips) but we (me, two coworkers, and another foreign friend of ours) opted for the USO tour.

The process to get in was a bit arduous. You have to submit your full name and passport number (for a passport check) a couple weeks in advance. You also have to bring it with you the day of, to confirm you are who you say you are.

So my day started at about 4.40 in the morning; I woke up and got dressed, since we had to be in Seoul by 7.30 AM. We filed in to the USO office and milled around for a few minutes before they told us to queue up, passports open to the picture page.

We piled on to two coach buses, where a tiny Asian grandfather gave us the rundown of the day: first we'd take the bus to Fort Bonifas, where we received a short briefing on the history of the Korean war and the basic rules to follow while in and around the DMZ.

The entrance to Fort Bonifas.

We piled back on the bus and there we were, tourists at the world's most militarized border. We had an American military escort/tour guide with us on the bus, who answered questions about the DMZ and also pointed out various sites of interest along the way (there's a one-hole golf course, for example). We got to see one of the buildings where the North and South held peace talks after the war, which technically involved stepping in North Korean territory.

Our tour guide.

North Korea also brings tourists to the DMZ. But not nearly as many and not nearly as often.

That's right, I was in North Korea.

This was probably the number one photo op on the tour, since this is the closest most foreigners will ever get to North Korea. Plus, the ROK soldiers look like such badasses that it's hard not to get your photo with them.

Then back on to the bus to the souvenir shop (yes, a souvenir shop, I got a t-shirt), after which our military guide/escort was relieved of his duty with us. We went to a lookout tower afterwards, largely unremarkable because it was foggy and you couldn't see all that much of North Korea.

Those buildings and hills you can kind of see in the distance are North Korea. That's the most of the DPRK you or I will ever see.

After we gawked at the North, we piled back on to the bus and had mediocre, mass-produced Korean food for lunch at a "restaurant" that seems to exist for the sole purpose of feeding tourists. Usually Korean food is made fresh and right for you (if it doesn't actually cook right at your table); this was like the high school cafeteria version of Korean food. Unimpressed and unsatisfied, I bought a snack bar and some biscuits at the pseudo-grocer's attached to the eatery.

Our last stop was one of the incursion tunnels that the North tried to dig under the DMZ. South Korea has found four of them so far, there might be more. Ideally, the tunnels would lead directly to or near Seoul and could deploy infantry from the North into Southern territory in one hour. A comforting thought, living out here in Uijeongbu. First was a movie about the DMZ, then a small, two-room museum, and then the tunnel itself.

The entrance of the Incursion Tunnel.

The entrance was walkable, but steep, and we had to don hard hats to enter. Interesting note: the tunnels were blasted through granite, of all rocks. (Which I noticed with my keen cave eye and then confirmed on Wikipedia. Go team geology!) It was, for the most part, just a giant tunnel, without any sort of signage or displays to spice it up. We walked for a while and then it just terminated at a small steel door, through which we could see light on the other side. Then we turned around and walked out the way we came.

Rice grown in the fields at Daeseong-dong, a village within the DMZ.

North Korean soju.

The whole trip was surreal. Here's a busload of big fat foreign tourists, and on either side of the road there's minefields. There are strict rules about where we can take pictures and where we can't, and they don't hesitate to confiscate cameras if they catch you being sneaky. South Korean guards were posted everywhere, looking very serious, and we weren't allowed to attempt any sort of communication with them, not even pointing. A lot of us laughed and joked around, since there are actually funny stories about the DMZ, but we had to sign a waiver before we left saying that we understood we were entering into "hostile territory" and ran the risk of "injury or death."

Was the Berlin Wall ever as big a tourist attraction?

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