DMZ Tour- Part 2

Okay, onto the second half of my DMZ tour.  After visiting Panmunjom, we drove past the point of the axe murder incident and also the bridge of no return.  We weren’t allowed off the bus because this area is pretty dangerous still (maybe it’s the landmines?) but they slowed down enough for us to get some photos.

The ax murder incident happened in 1976 when a group of US and ROK people went in perform a routine trimming of a poplar tree, which blocked view of United Nations Command checkpoint center.  Then a group of 15 or so North Korean soldiers came and told them to stop trimming the tree because Kim Il Sung planted it (which is completely false).  During the incident 2 US Army soldiers were axed to death.

Memorial for Ax Murder Death

Bridge of No Return- used for prisoner exchange after the Korean War

The Military Demarcation Line runs through the middle of the bridge.  After the Korean War, prisoners were brought here and were allowed to decide if they wanted to go to the north or south, but once they crossed the bridge, they would never be allowed to return.

After this, we headed to the Third Tunnel, one of 4 underground secret tunnels dug by North Korea to have access to do a surprise attack on Seoul.

The North Koreans painted the insides of these tunnels black, in case they were found.  They could pass it off as a coal mine.  There are many theories on these tunnels, some saying many more are to be discovered.  Others say these are decoy tunnels and the real ones are much trickier to find.  Anyway, to visit the third tunnel, you have to be in good health and ready for a long walk at an 11 degree angle down this hallway to get to the actual tunnel (it’s a bit rough on the way up, even for those in shape).  Then you have to put on a hard hat to walk through the tunnel.  The tunnel itself is quite narrow, usually 2 people could walk on it, going in either direction, and if you’re tall- watch out!  I saw one guy in his 50’s turn around because of his back.  Unfortunately, photography was prohibited in the tunnel so no pictures, however afterwards at the tunnel gift shop, I took a photo of some DMZ rice.

After the exhausting tunnel walk, we got back on the bus and went to the Dora Observatory, where you can look through those view finder/binocular thingies at North Korea, including Kaesong village (where North Koreans are working for a large South Korean company).  Photos here were mostly prohibited too, but they allowed a picture of the observatory itself.

Thus ended our tour of the DMZ, however the tour itself wasn’t over.  We then switched buses, went just outside of the DMZ to have lunch, where I bought some North Korean beer for my aunt’s husband.  (South Korean beer isn’t that great, but I’ve heard Koreans and foreigners rave about this stuff).

After lunch, we headed to our last stop on the official tour which was Dorasan station.  This train station once could take supplies and passengers into North Korea, but these days Dorasan is the last station people can go to.  It’s mostly tourists there now.  I believe the decision to close off the station was a decision both by the North and South for political reasons.  There used to be tours that used the train to go up to the highest mountain in all of Korea, Baekdu mountain.  But a few years ago at Mount Kumgang, a 53 year old South Korean tourist was shot when she accidentally crossed a military border.  This tourist spot had been opened since 1998, with over a million visitors, but now pretty much all tourism to the north from the south has shut down.  I went off on a tangent there but here are some photos of Dorasan station.

I think everyone really enjoyed the tour.  It costs a little bit more than the other ones, but if you’re interested in history and have all day to spare, I would highly recommend the Koridoor USO tour for a visit to the DMZ.

DMZ Tour- Part 1

Before I came to Korea, one of the things that I knew I had to do was to go on one of the DMZ tours.  After further research, I decided on the USO (United Service Organization)/Koridoor tour, since it is the only one that can get you access to the JSA.  On Tuesday, I arrived at Camp Kim USO just before 0730 when the buses were to depart.  They check your passport 3 times throughout the trip, so do not forget it if you go!  (I think military ID works, but not any other kind of ID).  This tour also has a strict dress code that’s enforced- no sleeveless clothing, no tight stretch pants, no short shorts or skirts, no flip flops, no baggy pants, etc.

I made friends with a nice girl who works for Google and we chatted a little on the way up.  As we got closer to our destination, I started to see chain link fences with barbed wire.  Apparently this is to keep North Korean military from swimming their way down (not defectors, although some of them have probably tried it too) and sneaking into South Korea.  We start seeing these fences maybe an hour or less after leaving Seoul, reminding us that Seoul is pretty close to the border.

Once we get to the DMZ border, we are made to wait a little bit and two army guys come on the bus and inspect our passports yet again.  They are our escorts for the rest of the trip, until we leave the DMZ.  The DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) is a strip of land which divides the Korean peninsula in half(ish), it’s 4 kilometers long (2 belonging to the South, 2 to the North) and 240 km across going from coast to coast.  The Military Demarcation Line is the actual “line” that separates north and south.  So the DMZ is the barrier around the MDL.  I don’t want to bore you with a lengthy and poorly written history of the DMZ, but basically it started out like this- the 38th parallel came about after WWII, dividing the northern Soviet occupied space with the southern American occupied land.  Then of course the Korean War started and in July of 1953 an Armistice Agreement was made, creating the DMZ, stating the rules for the area (what weapons can be there, etc), and other stuff.  The armistice agreement is just kind of like a cease fire though, not a peace treaty.  Technically these two countries are still at war, and are still negotiating, making this the longest war in U.S. history.

Anyway, as soon as we arrive, the mood on the bus becomes more tense.  The bus driver knows his way around and is careful to stay within the lanes- no crazy driving here like in Seoul!  Everyone is to stay on asphalt at all times unless they tell us we can walk on the grass.  Usually the open grassy areas are fine, but other wooded areas have land mines everywhere.  In fact, the DMZ is lined with tank traps, electrical fences, landmines, and of course two armies ready to pounce at any moment.

Our first stop is at Camp Bonifas, which is a joint U.S. and ROK (Republic of Korea, aka South Korea) army camp where we were given a 20 minute briefing about how to act and what to expect.  We also had to sign a waiver saying that we would follow the rules and understood we could get harmed or possibly even killed while there- eek!  After our briefing, we board different buses to take us to the JSA (Joint Security Area) at Panmunjom (판문점).  We first walked into the Freedom House (built in 1998, used for meetings and exchanges), which we were unfortunately not allowed to take any pictures of due to security reasons (there were lots of points of the tour when this was the case).  The security reasons they gave were so that our photos of their camera placements wouldn’t get online, thus North Korea having access to their location.  Inside the Freedom House, we were told again (maybe this was the 5th or 6th time) to not point at, wave, make any kind of motions towards the North Korean soldiers in any way.  I wonder if some stupid tourist has ever tried it.  Anyway, here are some pics of the JSA!

The ROK soldiers here have to always be in that  modified Tae Kwon Do stance and have sunglasses on, so the North Korean soldiers can’t see what’s going on.  Also, we were not allowed to go around the table on the side of the flag.  I was standing on the North Korean side while taking this picture.  Mics on the table in this room record everything.  Official meetings are still sometimes held here.

North Korean soldier

Our Koridoor tour guide and one of our army tour guides said this is the first time they had ever seen this many North Korean soldiers out here.  I counted more than 10, less than 20.

The ROK soldiers have to wear the sunglasses and also stand halfway behind the buildings like that so the Northern soldiers can’t “read” them

They believed the reason for that was perhaps because of this above group of people touring the JSA from the North side!  Some guy did confirm that it was a tour group, but for some reason they were all wearing the same color.  Apparently the JSA tour in North Korea costs around $10,000 and that probably doesn’t even include getting to North Korea.

After the tour group went in the building a few of the soldiers started to do a very strange march, zig zagging or something weird.

There were also some soldiers on the top of the building looking down at us with binoculars.

Just to clarify, when no tour groups or people are out there near the blue buildings, only 2 soldiers stand out there.  The extra ones were for us.  Also, when a tour group from either side goes in JSA, the other door is locked so they can’t get in.  So that way only one “side” is in there at a time.  The JSA is the only area where North and South Korean soldiers face each other.  Another interesting fact is that South Koreans can’t go easily on this tour.  They have to file all this paperwork and it takes 3-6 months to get approval.

Our young and energetic Koridoor tour guide was as excited as we were about what we were able to see.  She called us a lucky group!  More DMZ stuff on the next post.

Busan Adventure Part 3

The last installment of this series.  During the weekend we had some good Korean bbq, had some fun at noraebang, and did a bunch of other stuff.  But one of the highlights of the trip for me was going to Yonggung temple (용궁사).  Yonggungsa was originally built in 1376 and is quite different from other temples because of its being situated on the coast.   You can check out the above website for all of the historical info, but this is one of the most beautiful temples I’ve seen in Korea.  Arrived in late afternoon, very serene and peaceful.  Here are a few photos:

throw coins and if yours reaches the bowl, a wish comes true. i’m 99% sure one of mine got in

golden piggies- always good for wealth luck

hundreds of tiny little buddha figurines

huge golden buddha that lots of people were taking their picture with

goddess buddha of mercy

 

Here’s a video that gives a better idea of how big the place is:

 

I’m trying to decide whether to put all of my pictures on facebook or elsewhere (flickr or picasa).  What’s the best way to organize digital photos?

Busan Adventure Part 2

Okay, day two of my Busan trip started with us moving to lodging with a view of Haeundae beach.  It was a great view from the 8th floor and there was even a Starbucks just a few steps away!  Haeundae is the most famous beach in Korea, attracting over 500,000 tourists each year (busy season is in August).  Lucky for us, this weekend was the Haeundae Sand Festival so we got to see some pretty neat sand sculptures.  So since I’m tired, I’ll just post a few choice ones for you:

(the  Shinsegae department store in Busan.  The biggest dept store in the entire world, even bigger than Macy’s in New York)

There was a hoola hoop contest on the beach.  This guy was interviewing people to try and mess them up.

I’m going a little out of order but on Monday, we did stop into the Busan aquarium.  Biggest in Korea, had some strange fish.  Lots of strange eel I hadn’t seen before.  One more post to complete this series.

Busan Adventure Part 1

This weekend was a holiday weekend (Memorial Day on Monday, basically the same concept as in the U.S.) so I decided I should take advantage of it and go on a trip.  Went with a meetup group to Busan, which is South Korea’s 2nd largest city right on the bottom right of the peninsula.  First off, we traveled by KTX which is a high speed train that travels throughout part of South Korea (around 200ish miles an hour).  So getting to Busan took only 2.5 hours, as opposed to perhaps 5.5 hours by car (if you’re lucky and get to drive in the bus lane, or if traffic isn’t bad). 

We had 8 people in our group so we were able to reserve 2 tables which featured 4 seats facing each other.  The leg room is similar to an airplane.  Actually so are the bathrooms and the guy selling food on a cart.  Some people are always going to be facing the backwards direction of the train.  Those prices are a tiny bit less than forward facing seats.

After arriving at a nice ocean view hostel (my first time staying in one), we decided to visit Jagalchi fish market 잘가치 시장 (part is inside part is out), which is the country’s largest fish market.  Let me say this- if you don’t like fish or can’t stand the smell, then this is definitely not the place for you!  However if you can tolerate it, you’ll get to see some pretty amazing varieties of fish.  Mostly ajummas’s (middle-older aged women) sell the fish while their husbands are doing the fishing, so you’ll see mostly women in this area.  There are also tables for you to sit down and pick what fish you want for them to cook right there.  We decided to eat at a large restaurant in this area that has traditional sitting (you have to take off your shoes and sit on the floor, raised platform).  We ordered some really fantastic sashimi and also some cooked fish and scallops.  The side dishes were pretty amazing too, including muscles, shrimp and other stuff.

photo of the inside portion of jalgachi fish market (these photos taken with my iPhone 4)

 

After dinner and wandering around the fish market, we took a short cab ride to Yongdusan Park (용두산 공원) to visit the 118 meters high, Busan Tower.  I am a little bit (or a lot) scared of heights, but had pretty amazing 360 degree views of Busan.  The sun was just beginning to set, which made for a pretty scene, lights coming up for the evening.  You could also see the port’s massive operations, which is pretty interesting.

With the sun down, then went to a nightlife district near one of the universities (forget which one). Went to this place called the Dugout, which was a nice little bar, lots of expats there.  The manager (perhaps owner) had perfect English and accommodated us nicely (which isn’t always the case).  Didn’t stay out too late since a lot was jam-packed in the next day.  More to come later.

“Do You Know South Korea?”

Yesterday I went out to a few places, including my first visit to Itaewon, which is kind of an international neighborhood.  I had to wait a little longer for the subway to get there, because apparently there was an accident and few cars derailed one stop from where I was getting on.  No injuries, but it did slow down the process a bit.

After taking the long ride, once I stepped out of the subway exit, I almost freaked out because I saw some many westerners in Itaewon.  It’s a bit of a culture shock if you can count the number of westerners you’ve seen so far on two hands.  I’ll have to go back and explore it during the day, but I did see there were quite a few restaurants, including some unhealthy fast food that I may crave in a month or so- KFC and Taco Bell. Itaewon is the place where a lot of military folk hang out too, so there’s a mix of them, teachers, other workers, people running restaurants from other countries, etc.  Korea in general is a pretty homogenous society though, so this neighborhood is interesting to see.

Anyway overall I had a good time.  I had to make sure to leave in time to get back home because the subway here stops operating so early- ridiculous.  I was really tired though so it didn’t really bother me.  The nice Welsh girl I met told be about this neat video called “Do You Know South Korea?”.  This is how you are supposed to use vimeo.  If only I had the time and patience.  Hopefully I will in two months when my work schedule changes. 

Dok D’oh!

Recently, things seemed to have turned a tiny bit sour between Korea and Japan.  They were doing so well too, after the earthquake and tsunami.  I heard on the news a week or so ago that South Korea donated more to the disaster relief than any other country (over $19 million, I think).  This is a pretty big deal, considering the bitter history in the past century between these two countries, but South Korea is putting all that behind them and acting like a good neighbor. (photo borrowed from dokdo-takeshima on flickr)

So the reason why things aren’t exactly 100% peachy between the two is because of a little thing called Dokdo.  Well actually it’s two things.  The Dokdo territory consists of two small islands- Dongdo and Seodo (with some other tiny nothings around) that have been part of the territory/history of Korea since around 500 A.D.  Recently, Japan approved middle school textbooks for the 2012 school year, which show Dokdo belonging to Japan and not to Korea.  Even after WWII, Koreans were using Dokdo for various reasons, building a lighthouse there in 1954, so it’s pretty clear that Dokdo belongs to Korea and has belonged to them even despite the hardships of wartime.  On the Dokdo website, it says that there are officially three residents on the island, but several hundred people use it as their permanent address, maybe as a way to claim Korea’s authority over the land?

photo borrowed from gossing2

Dokdo isn’t just about drawing a line down the middle of the ocean and dividing what’s mine and yours, the sea around Dokdo has some great maritime resources, which makes it all the more valuable.  Besides the manned lighthouse there is also a fisherman’s lodge, docks, power plants, helicopter pad, and more stuff. 

Anyway, right after Japan made that announcement about the textbooks, Korea’s donations to the Japan earthquake/tsunami relief immediately started to go down.  They’re a little upset, but who can blame them?  Anyway, it’s important to remember it is the Japanese government, not most of it’s people, who are trying to claim the islands as their own.  I would like to go check it out sometime, although it’s really not that big.  We’ll see how this conflict is resolved in the next upcoming weeks or so.

borrowed from 임프레자

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