Our Week in Seoul and the Demilitarised Zone

We set off from Jeonju to Seoul by train. The journey took about two hours and cost 34000 Won each (AUD$36). We arrived in Seoul at Yongsan train station and then had a short two stop metro journey to our Airbnb stay. The Korean trains are sleek, comfortable and efficient. They are not as super cool as the Japanese and Chinese Bullet trains but none the less they are a joy to travel on.

This metro trip should have been simple but, for the second time on our journey, I forgot the little green carry bag we lug around with us, and left it on the metro train when we got off. It hit me I had forgotten the bag as I was on the platform, at the same time a lady in the train yelled out to me and picked the bag up and came towards the train doors – the train doors chose this moment to slam shut. I had my large backpack on my back and small backpack on my front but was still quick enough to get my fingertips inside the closing door. The door closing lights were flashing and the door closing buzzer was buzzing, but I held on. The doors reopened, the lady hurriedly passed me the bag and the doors slammed shut again – the bag was saved – for how long though I wonder!!!

The notorious green bag

Our Airbnb place was at Geongdeok and cost AUD$70 per night. The place was close to the metro entrance and a large supermarket, so it was conveniently located.  The Airbnb place was a comfortable studio with cooking facilities and all the basic necessities.

This would allow us to finally do some home cooking. Seriously, we were over Asian food and needed a change.

It was funny wandering around Seoul as about half the Korean population has a strange look of Hawkeye Pierce about them, with of course the occasional Radar thrown in!!!

Our main tourist aim for Seoul was to visit the DMZ (Demilitarised Zone) and the JSA (Joint Security Area), which is basically the border between North Korea and South Korea. Yes, South Korea runs tours to these places, but you can only go there on a tour.  On our first day in Seoul we tried to book a tour and were shocked that some of the main tour companies had a three week waiting list – that’s right, you have to book three weeks in advance. Di kept searching online and eventually found two tour companies that allowed you to lodge an interest to go on a tour in five days time – we submitted our interest. One company replied and said sorry they were full. The other company said they had a spot for us on a tour from 11.30am to 7.30pm – we gleefully accepted it. It is not a problem getting to the DMZ the problem is getting in the JSA as there are only a certain number of people allowed each day. The tour was a bit pricey at 92,000 Won (AUD$100) each – no lunch included, but I thought it would be a fantastic travel experience.  I was just so happy to be going to the JSA and who knows Kim JONG-UN may just give us a wave!!!

Seoul is a huge city with a population of about 10 Million, which is more than Tokyo and New York. It is easy enough to get around as the metro system is pretty good and it did not take Di and I long to master it.

Di has little interest in war history details and I have a bit of a passion for it. Thus I often go to these war historical sites and museums by myself and happily set off for the Korean War museum alone.  The Korean War Museum is next to the Samgakji metro station. The museum is enthralling and details the progression to the Korean War and the subsequent war and its aftermath brilliantly. The Korean War is probably one of the most futile wars in history, as when the cease-fire was called three years after the war started, absolutely nothing had changed, the country was still divided and the border was in exactly the same position. The only difference being the devastation and loss of life on both sides. The cease-fire continues to this day.

The War Memorial is free to enter, though you can leave a donation, and took me about three hours to wander around. The highlight being the Tear Drop, which is a collection of 1300 DOG tags, from South Korean and United Nation troops killed during the conflict, that are shaped as a tear drop. Every few seconds you hear the sound of dripping water and the floor below the tear drop radiates and ripples out like a drop of water in a pond – it is very moving!

Dog tags

Di has been struggling with the intense heat and stifling humidity for the past few months in Asia, there have been record high temperatures and, as such, she has struggled with strenuous activity in the middle of the day. Thus when I suggested we hike up Mount Inwangsan on a day with 38 Celsius and 90% humidity the look she gave me could strip paint off a wall – I took that as a ‘no’. So I set off alone.

Mount Inwangsan is a small mountain on the outskirts of Seoul and gives you pretty good views of Seoul.  The trail up the mountain follows an old fortress wall and is pretty easy to follow.

View of Seoul at the top

I caught the Metro line 3 to Gyeongbokgung Station. I exited the metro from exit 3 and if you look to the left you can see the mountain. I then walked straight up the road I exited from. The road and the mountain begin to converge, I walked about twenty minutes until I came to a road tunnel, I crossed to the other side of the road at the last traffic lights before the tunnel. Then walking towards the tunnel turned left up a very steep small street and followed that street to where the hiking trails start. I took the Jarak-gil trail that follows the rim of the mountain and the fort wall. At the actual entrance to the trail there is a police box with a police officer in it and he records you entering the trail.

The trail has many, many steps and, of course, is steep; so make sure you have water as there are NO shops.

The fortress wall is like a mini Great Wall of China, a lot smaller and shorter, but it follows the same principle. I followed the trail and took a few happy snaps. A few minutes later I was confronted by two young unarmed soldiers. They asked me politely, in broken English, if I had taken photos. I said yes. They then asked to see my photos.

Along the wall are pillar boxes where machine guns can be fired from. The soldiers explained I could take photos of the wall but these photos could not include the pillar boxes as they could still be used in a conflict – bear in mind the wall faces North Korea, which is only 40 kilometres away. I obliged and deleted the photos – they did not ask me to delete the photos from my deleted photo file which I found strange.

The peak is about two kilometres from the entrance of the trail and is pretty much all up hill on numerous (insert expletive of your choice) steps – it is thirsty work and the sweatometre on my shirt reached ‘sweat fast flowing’ level. The rewards though are quite stunning views of both Seoul and the surrounding hills/mountains.

On the way to the peak I passed several soldiers and several lookout posts but none of the soldiers asked to see my photos. At the peak there are several military buildings and more lookout posts (facing North Korea). I wandered around these posts taking photos of the views and NOT of the soldiers or the posts and nobody seemed to mind.  The view, though a little hazy, was very stunning of Seoul.

For my descent I chose to continue down the other side of the mountain rather than returning the way I came up. On this leg of the hike I took a photo of the trail which included a military building in the distance. When I walked past this military building, I saw it had two camouflaged anti-aircraft guns in it. The soldiers near there allowed me to pass without checking my camera so I continued on.

The arrow is pointing to the camouflaged gun placements

Eventually you come to a road and there is a policeman and a police box, the descent was about another two kilometres. Once you reach the road turn right and follow the weaving road downhill until you come to several large unit blocks. In the middle of those units there is a large set of steps leading down. Take those steps to the road below and walk downhill to a set of traffic lights and then on the left is the Dongnimmun Metro station Line 3.

Once we left South Korea, I felt this hike was the best thing I did in South Korea – I recommend it for the experience, the views, the hike and its novelty.

Obviously there are tensions within South Korea due to the threat of neighbouring North Korea and Seoul’s close proximity to the border means they must take precautions. However, I never felt unsafe or that the ‘threat’ was in your face, it is all low key. Please bear in mind we were there when Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump were having their warmongering rant over Guam, so it was a period of heightened tension.

The only noticeable ‘war’ things we saw, apart from when we went up Mount Inwangsan, was that each metro station is labelled a ‘shelter’ and are very deep to enter (they stop short at calling them Bomb Shelters). Once you are in the Metro there are gas masks readily available on each platform – other than that it was business as usual.

Gas Masks

Di and caught one of those Hop On Hop Off buses that do loops of cities and all the main places. We caught the Metro to Gwanghhwamun station, Line 5, where the bus starts from. There are actually three different routes the buses take and we chose the Palace Tour which costs 12000 Won each (AUD$13).

The bus had literally gone 100 metres when we came to the first stop, Deoksugung Palace – we should have walked.

Again, I could not shake the feeling that Korean Palaces are okay, but so plain compared to the rest of Asia. The Palace grounds contain two National Treasures; a gate and a bell.

The guards at the front of the Palace were the ones sporting the colour, and while we were there a changing of the guard occurred, which added to the colour and heightened the visit.

Changing of the guards

We hopped on and off at a few places that were okay, there are 27 stops in all and it takes over two hours without getting off. Changgyeonggung and Changdoekgung Palaces are side by side and separated by about 100 metres and are worth a stop.

The last Palace, though, is by far the best and perhaps the only one I would say you must see and that is Gyeongbokgung Palace. This is an extremely large Palace and is stop number 27 on the bus tour and ironically about a 100 metres from where you start from.

There was a changing of the guard occurring when we arrived at Gyeongbokgung Palace and it was again a brightly coloured affair with horns, drums, marching and lots of ceremony. This palace is also where the locals like to come dressed in traditional clothing. This is one aspect of Korean life that we found very special, the younger people love dressing up and visiting national monuments.

Gyeongbokgung Palace also has several large lakes and these make for some very good photographs.

The mountain overlooking Gyeongbokgung Palace is actually Mount Inwangsan and from the Palace you can see the fortress wall zigzagging along the ridge.

We walked back to the start of the Hop on Hop off tour from there. It is a pleasant walk past monuments and children playing in water fountains.

I enjoyed the Hop On Hop Off Bus and for AUD$13 it is a relatively cheap way to spend the day and see some sights of Seoul. You do have to pay to get into the Palaces but the cost was between 2000 Won and 4000 Won or AUD$2.10 and $4.20.

Di was exhausted after her long day out playing tourist and I just had to buy her the biggest ice cream EVER!!!!!!!!!!

Thus our big day at the DMZ and the JAS had finally arrived and I was sooooo excited!!   We caught the metro to the Samgakji metro station, yes the same one where the war memorial is. From there it is a 300 metre walk to Camp Kim (US Base) and the Koridoor tours office at USO. Yes, these tours are just inside the military base.

We found out that South Koreans cannot go into the DMZ, without authority, and they are NOT allowed on these tours – the tours are just for foreigners. There were actually two tours leaving at 11.30am and we were on tour B, there were 21 people on each tour. We also learnt that only 4000 people each day can visit the DMZ and the JSA far less. Chinese tour groups are NOT allowed to go to the JSA but Chinese can go as individuals. There are also many nationalities that are not allowed in the DMZ, the tours provide a list of these.

To go on the tour there are dress regulations and you cannot wear anything that looks shoddy or old, for example jeans with holes in them – sorry, they do not care how trendy it is, you cannot wear your best going out flip-flops, you have to wear shoes. Men cannot wear their muscle shirts, sorry they don’t care how bulging your bicep is – shirts with collars are what is required. Ladies cannot wear flimsy revealing garments either. The reason given to us for this is that North Korea will take photos of the tour groups and if they are dressed poorly they use this as propaganda to show to their people how badly dressed and obviously downtrodden we all are.

We signed a waiver stating that we understand the tour can be cancelled without notice, we also had to have our passport with us at all times and it was checked twice before we departed. It was all so exciting!

It takes about an hour and twenty minutes to get to the DMZ. Along the way you know you are getting close to the North Korean border as the road is lined with barbed wire fences and military lookout posts.

Eventually you enter a military checkpoint with lots of saluting and you drive around a few concrete blocks and you are in the DMZ.

The Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) stretches across the Korean Peninsula. It is part of the border between North and South Korea and separates the two countries.  The DMZ is an area two kilometres from the border in both North and South Korea where only specified military is allowed – it is a buffer zone and has been in place since the cease-fire in 1953. There are two towns in the DMZ (one in each side) but only people from those towns can actually go there, these towns are supposed to represent progress to peace. Despite the DMZ there has still been over 500 South Korean and 50 US soldiers killed in the DMZ since 1953.

Our first stop on the tour was to a tunnel – Tunnel Three. Since 1953 South Korea has uncovered four massive incursion tunnels burrowing under the DMZ into South Korea. These tunnels were unearthed between 1974 and 1990 and were suspected of being a preparation to invade South Korea. The tunnel we would were able to go into was unearthed in 1978.

After viewing a video of the tunnel we were briefed as to how difficult the walk through the tunnel is and people with asthma, claustrophobia, knee replacements (not stopping me), hip replacements, bad backs, etc etc should not go down. We discovered there is a small tram to take those on the first class deluxe tours down the access shaft but that of course costs more, on our tour we walked.

The tunnel access shaft was very steep and went down 400 metres very quickly. We had to wear helmets – yellow for walkers and blue for those who could use the tram. The access shaft is large but steep and you feel like you are on the verge of running it descends so quickly. Di chose not to go and she stayed up top and watched us on the many cameras showing the descent. You are not supposed to take photos but I managed a couple at the start.

Once at the bottom of the shaft you enter the tunnel. The tunnel is only 150 cm high with rocks jutting out along the 400 metre walk. I was near the front and it was nearly comical hearing the helmets continually striking the jutting out rocks. With the tunnel ceiling being so low I was walking in a hunched over crab fashion – let me tell you 400 metres up and back of this was tough. To make matters worse there is water dripping through the ceiling and there are several large puddles – me and my Keens Gortex Hiking boots stormed straight through the puddles but those with hush puppies or Pier Cardin sandals were not impressed.

The ascent

Photos were not allowed, but got a few sneaky one’s – The descent

The end of the tunnel is now concreted off some 100 metres from North Korea and you can look through a small window and see the North Korean concreted end some 200 metres away – you then turn around. You are now walking back past those coming along the tunnel and things get a lot more cramped – you are though serenaded by the dinging of the helmets colliding with the rock ceiling.

The walk up the access shaft is tough. It is hot down there and it is a steep incline, I was appreciative of Di waiting for me with a bottle of water. The tunnel history and the experience of going down there was fantastic – I loved my day so far.

We then went to a lookout and a viewing platform and you could view North Korea and the North Korean DMZ settlement across the border. All the time we were on the viewing platform we could hear an old time Korean singer blaring from across the border. Apparently this music is played continually by North Korea and even sometimes by South Korea – it is just a big game!!!

North Korea across the DMZ

The viewing platform is okay, but really you could be looking at any country in the world. When we were leaving the viewing platform Di saw some soldiers and ran over to take some photos. The German girl next to me asked if Di was allowed to take their photo – I said they will shoot her if it is not, there was no shot ringing out, so I guess she could, which was the cue for others to start taking photos – I am so proud to be married to ‘cannon fodder’!!

Are we at the JSA yet??? No, we then had a lunch stop – lunch costs 7000 Won and we had the local Bibimbap. Bibimbap is like a rice salad with sautéed vegetables, seaweed, egg and sesame seeds – it was yummo!!!!

We were now finally going to the JSA – yay!!!!  Panmunjom is the area known as the Joint Security area. It is the connection within the DMZ where North Korea and South Korea physically meet face to face, yes the guards stand there looking at each other. It is also where defectors from either side cross the border. There are several conference centres on each side where meetings between the UN and North Korea can take place.

South Korea allows tours there for a couple of reasons. Firstly it shows that South Korea does not hide things and allows freedom of movement – even though South Koreans are not allowed to go there. You feel like a pawn in an episode of Game of Thrones such is all the political intrigue.  It is also a huge money spinner for the government.

We arrived at the JSA entrance and a US Army Staff Sergeant entered the bus, we were told he would then check our passports and then escort us through the JSA – this did not happen. What happened was that he said ‘as at 1200 hours the JSA area has been closed to all tours for the remainder of the day due to an incident.’ He then said ‘enjoy the rest of your tour’ and got out of the bus.  We could see the female tour guide sitting near us and we saw the expression on her face go ‘oh @##$#@!@#!!!!!!!’

The bus started to drive off amid the stunned silence and the movement of the bus seemed to jerk everyone out of their silence and all started asking questions of the guide at once. The guide was worried about facing our reaction more than whether the Third World war was about to start. The bus pulled over and she ran back to the US Army Staff Sergeant and then came back to the bus with him. The Staff Sergeant explained that a surprise defection had occurred and as such the JSA is always closed for the remainder of the day once they know it is happening. The defection was a South Korean going to North Korea – go figure!!! The defection was legal and peaceful and he is sorry but ‘thems the rules’. Have a nice day!

Yes I was heartbroken – Di’s reaction ‘oh well’. The bus was very silent as we made our way to our final destination an hour earlier than expected.

South Korea has built a railway line to the North Korea border in preparation for the day when the two countries are unified. We visited the brand new fully operational train station (Sounds like the Death Star scene from Star Wars) and we were able to purchase souvenir train tickets to Pyeongyang, the North Korean capital for 1000 Won about one Australian Dollar. To be honest though the zip had gone out of the tour and we were all just going through the motions.

Getting our tickets to North Korea

On the platform ready for the train

We made a brief stop at the Peace Land once out of the DMZ. This is where the original political bridge to North Korea was before the DMZ and JSA were constructed. The park has a viewing platform where South Koreans can look over to North Korea. When North Korea retreated from their 1950 invasion of South Korea they took with them hundreds and thousands of South Koreans against their will. These people were either the young or the intelligent, this spit families and the descendants of those taken are still held.

The South Koreans place colourful ribbons and streamers along the barbed wire fence of the DMZ for their lost loved ones. The bridge that led to North Korea is now concreted at the DMZ and there are flags and pictures taped to the wall. I feel there is a genuine desire by the South Koreans for unification with North Korea.

I enjoyed my day to the DMZ and especially loved the tunnel experience – was I disappointed at the JSA, of course, but it does happen – hence the signed waiver at the start.

Our South Korean adventure was over. Did I enjoy South Korea, from a tourist perspective, it is rather bland and not as colourful as many other Asian countries. From a traveller perspective, yes I did enjoy its difference to other parts of Asia. South Korea is kind of a poor mans’ Japan – there are many similarities to Japan but just not as good as Japan. The South Korean people are friendly enough, but they seem very wary of foreigners, and this may be because of their history of struggle and, the fact, tourism from the West is not huge like other parts of Asia. I also found South Korea to be more expensive than I thought it was going to be. Overall, South Korea, well basically Seoul is worth a stopover.

The adventure continues ………………………………..

 

 

 

2 Comments

  1. Becky

    Lovely pictures! I’m currently in Busan but I’m thinking about visiting the DMZ when I’m back in Seoul in a couple of weeks, not sure if I’m brave enough though! 😀

    Reply
    1. meandering_wanderers@outlook.com

      Thanks Becky! Interesting times with the North Korea right now. I would imagine if the South Korean Government thought it was unsafe they would stop the tours. We were surprised how many schoolkids were at the DMZ, and this was around the time Trump was going off about payback. Would love to hear if you end up going and the feeling about what’s going on.

      Reply

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