Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The DMZ

While this story begins with my first jimjilbang (Korean bath house) adventure, we'll leave rehashing that for another day.  For now I'll just say that the best thing to do within 24 hours of meeting someone in real life for the first time is to bathe naked with them and then visit emotion-laden war memorials.

So I went to the DMZ and survived.  I know there has been a lot of nervousness in America about North Korea's recent actions since Kim Jong-Un took leadership, but people in South Korea continue to go about their daily business and tour the DMZ along with us foreigners.

Once we got past the massive biking tour that was going on (I've seriously never seen so many people biking on a road together before), we had a chance to explore Imjingak which is a "resort" that has a bunch of Korean War monuments.  The environment is actually really, really strange.  On one hand, you have a somber collection of monuments and sad stories...
Please notice this place has a Popeyes Restaurant.






A peace memorial.
Soldiers standing on Freedom Bridge, the place where some 12,000 prisoners
of war returned after the Korean War came to a halt.

A smile didn't really feel appropriate.
But this was the place that really choked me up.  I stood looking at this train, and reading about the "Day the trains stopped," and I just couldn't help myself.  I'm currently in a country that is actually torn apart by a civil war.  Regardless of whether unification is wanted by either side, it gives you a heavy heart to think about a people who once shared a land and a culture but who are now at odds.



There was a common theme of, "It is our hope for reunification," but I didn't really feel hope looking at all of the monuments, just a chest-deep sadness.
And right beyond these flags, barbed wire curled at the top
of high fences.
These ribbons apparently represent messages from families to
loved ones they were separated from or who died in the war.

It's like another world was lying at the other end of the bridge.
 An art collection for peace, beside the pavilion holding the Peace Bell.




And right next to that, a uniformed soldier at his post...


But even with all the somberness, there was an amusement park playing loud Korean pop songs right next door.


And I have no idea what these two were doing, but I captured it.  Maybe they were infected with the strange atmosphere?


I heard some say that the idea is that if people from North Korea look to the South at Imjigak, they will see all the happy people in South Korea and want to come there.  For me that concept seems uncomfortably strange, like a very weird way of masking true intentions or feelings.  But I am not a part of the collective conscious as someone who grew up outside of it and without Korean roots, so I really can't say.

After Injingak, we actually headed into the Civilian Control Area by the DMZ which required us to show identification and a soldier mounted the bus and actually checked. 

We had lunch at this place, eating food all grown in the village which is famous for its rice, tofu, and ginseng.




Then we headed to the Third Tunnel, which the North Koreans apparently dug to attack Seoul.  We were told we would be able to see some of the "mine field" signs up close here, but "Make sure not to go beyond them!"  There are actually soldiers that are still attempting to clean the area up.  In fact, the Bridge of Freedom was apparently expressly built to transport POWs at the pause of the war because they could not cross through the mine field.


The courtyard...

I thought this was quite an interesting monument, with the
two halves of Korea on either side.



 We watched a short 8-minute clip about the tunnels dug by the North into the South and what a interesting experience it was.  It was very patriotic and as a critical outsider looking in, it again gave off that feeling of being somewhat, but not entirely, disingenuous.  Like a mask was involved.

We then toured a small museum with artifacts from the war.








Eventually we went into the tunnel.  We were not allowed to take anything with us and had to wear helmets.

The tunnel went down much deeper than I expected.  The rocks were cold and wet, and got more so the farther we descended.  As we walked along the path (which had the slightest gradient so water could not stagnate) ,we could see the remnants of the blast holes left by dynamite sticks.  At the very end of the tunnel, a location that meant I actually was inside the DMZ (something impossible for civilians above ground), we could look through a tiny window of a thick, solid, steel door and see a gap to the other side.  There was razor wire in front of it.

Kind of terrifying and creepy and strange and out-of-body-experience-ish all at once.  Here is a diagram of the tunnel:


We trekked back and before we ascended I took a drink of DMZ spring water from a little fountain they had.  It was very cool and fresh.  I drank water from a tunnel underground in the DMZ.  Seems like a bucket list item.

Then we hopped on the bus once more and headed to Dora Observatory where I actually saw the Industrial Complex and apartments in North Korea.

It was... indescribable.

There are soldiers standing on the deck to prevent you from taking pictures beyond a yellow line drawn on the ground.  They do not want any military positions/etc. on the ground beneath the Observatory to be revealed if the pictures are posted online.


I really can't begin to describe what it looked like through those binoculars (500W for something I will never forget).  There were the picturesque mountains in the background, but when I turned my binoculars on the apartment buildings, they were all blue, with identical square windows that were like large, gaping black holes.  It looked and felt like a ghost town.  Like it was dead or sad or just... empty. 

Gaping is probably a good word for it.  I just felt like there was a gaping hole there or somewhere in my chest or somewhere in someone's heart.  I can picture it very vividly in my mind.  Just blue rectangles, a few stories high with those square, gaping windows lined up next to each other....



On a lighter note, I found these chocolates in the shop there:


Finally we headed to Dorasan Train Station, our last stop of the day.  Dorasan Station is a train station that is meant to be part of the Trans-Asian Railway which would connect all of continental Asia together.  It is the last stop in South Korea before heading into North Korea and it currently sits with no trains running, but ready for that day.


Again, other than the tourists, it feels abandoned or cold.



After fighting through crowds in the bus terminals and subways of South Korea, this emptiness is haunting.

You can buy a "ticket" to Pyongyang and go out to the actual station.  Talk about haunting:



The famous sign of the distance between the two capitals.
Again, the smile belies my true feelings.
To Pyongyang.
To Seoul.  And not a single train in sight.



I do hope that some day the differences between this/these two country(ies) can be resolved for the betterment of all involved.

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