Have you ever had people say to you "hmmm.. I'm not sure if that's the best idea" ? Let me tell ya, I definitely have. Regardless of how many people advised me against going to South Korea, I decided to make Seoul my next destination anyway. It may have been a tad risky, but I’m beyond thankful that I made this decision, for this experience has truly changed me. You see, this was my first trip as a solo traveler! Very exciting, I know.
This trip was definitely one for the books. Although South Korea was wonderful, I really wanted to see the part that maybe wasn't as glamorous. I was ready to drive away from the flashing city lights to see a new sort of attraction that I never thought I would ever see. Hours away from Seoul, and through the countryside lurked an ominous northern neighbor that I had heard so much about. You know how it is, sometimes when you hear so much about something, you are left dying to experience it for yourself.
I only decided to take the DMZ tour the day prior to embarking on this adventure. DMZ stands for the "Demilitarized Zone." This is the space that separates the North and South where no military weaponry is allowed. I knew that going here was something I wanted to do, but just kept putting it off (you know, just in case). It was a little difficult to find a tour company that was available on such short notice, but I was lucky enough to come across a tour on VELTRA which took last minute reservations and had a great tour guide who spoke English and really knew her Korean history. On a crisp, bleak September morning, the day finally came. I WAS GOING TOO SEE THE INFAMOUS NORTH KOREA!
Imjingak is the northernmost city in South Korea that people can explore without the need of military access. This was the first stop on my tour and we were free to roam around and see all the historical artifacts and monuments.
One of the most amazing things I came across here was The Stones of Peace Wall. I didn't manage to get a picture of it, but it's pretty much exactly what you would imagine: a wall with a lot of rocks. It seems so simple, but the message honestly left me feeling so inspired. The plaque reads, "This sculpture is made from stones collected from battlefields all over the world that have witnessed the suffering and grief of war. It is my sincere wish that the bringing together of these stones from 86 battlefields in 84 different countries will be a stepping stone for the reconciliation of the Korean People and mark the beginning of a century of peace and harmony for all mankind." -Lim, Chang-Yuel
Right around the corner from the Stone Wall was a very different sight: a seemingly endless wall covered by an innumerable amount of vibrantly colored ribbons. This sight automatically filled a more somber setting with so much joy. All of these ribbons have written wishes for peace. They all have dreams of eventual unification and hope that one day the North and South can cooperate as one nation. These prayer ribbons initially left me in shock, but led me to truly understand the desires of the Korean people.
The next stop on our tour was Dorasan Station. Like the Wall of Stones, it is exactly what it sounds like: just a normal train station (except for the fact that it's empty). There really wasn't much to do or see at this point and it only functions as a tourist attraction. It has its own gift shop and everything. The only thing that sets this station apart from the others is that no trains run through it. Although it is prohibited for trains to pass through currently, the station remains in tact with the intention of using it WHEN North and South Korea reunite.
They tend to avoid using the word 'if' when they speak of reunification. Instead they use 'when.'
This station is the closest station to North Korea and lies on the only track that connects the two countries. Perhaps this empty station will someday be filled with travelers, but that day is not today.
Yeolsoe Observation Deck
From this observation deck, I was able to take my first (and probably last) glance at North Korean soil. Standing on the edge of this deck was absolutely captivating. Although most of our vision was impaired due to the fog that hid the details of the landscape, this moment was incredibly momentous. This is it. RIGHT THERE! THAT is the ominous, terrifying, threatening, and crazy country that I have heard so much about. It seemed impossible to conceptualize at the time. The lush green land that stood before me was forbidden for me to ever enter, and this is the most I will ever see with my own eyes.
Even now I am still having difficulties wrapping my brain around how close I actually was. This experience was beyond me and I can't believe I was actually there. Seeing my "current location" on google maps was absolutely mind boggling and all I have left now is my foggy panoramic shot and fading memories.
The 3rd Infiltration Tunnel
Although we couldn't take photos during the actual experience, this was probably my favorite part about exploring the demilitarized zone.
After the Korean War came to a close, North Korea was secretly building underground tunnels with the goal of invading Seoul. There were multiple tunnels that were discovered, but it is thought that there are even more that we may not know about yet.
The tunnels that the North Koreans built, were deep into the ground and relatively short. We had to walk down a pretty narrow ramp to get there and they made sure we were wearing some cute little hard hats so we wouldn't injure ourselves. At first I thought this idea was a bit silly. Were the hats REALLY necessary? It turns out the answer to that question is hard YES! Although I am short enough to walk through the tunnel standing straight, I hit my head multiple times and would be lying if I didn't feel embarrassed after my casualties. My friend who was with me was well over 6 foot and seemed to struggle a bit more than I did. I'm a rough 5'4 and should consider myself lucky that I wasn't waltzing around like the Hunchback of Notre Dame .
The tunnel was pretty straight forward: a direct shot with scaffoldings lining the structure. The walls were glistening with what appeared to be an uncomfortable slime, and the whole adventure was a bit eerie. As I continued down the darkened path, all I could think about was the original goal for the tunnel construction. The North Koreans literally made this tunnel with the intention of attacking Seoul, the city that was then my temporary home. Right where I was walking is where North Koreans were once working hard to carry out their secret plans.
The furthest we could go obviously wasn't as far as the tunnel was constructed (that would have led us into North Korea). We were inching closer and closer to the North Korean border, but at a certain distance we were face to face with a dead end that had been blocked off for safety purposes. We reached our final steps and stood with wide eyes in astonishment. Realizing where we were standing was almost impossible to comprehend. My friend and I peered over to touch the furthest point when no one was looking (you know, just to say we did), but had to eventually turn around to make our way back to surface.
In contrast to the eeriness of our tunnel adventure, our ascension had a rather polar vibe that left me quite puzzled. They had speakers throughout the tunnel and they were blaring HUNTER HAYES! Excuse me, what? I was looking around wondering "Who is in charge of this playlist?!" Don't get me wrong, I love a good Hunter Hayes song; but I just walked in a secret North Korean tunnel that has restricted access and could potentially lead to a life threatening country... and that's the music they chose to play?! Apparently they made this music selection to appeal to tourists (ha), but that doesn't make some energetic country music appropriate for this kind of scenery. Maybe they try to distract everyone from realizing where they are.
Suddenly I started to hear a slight sound in the distance. It was growing, and slowly becoming louder and more prominent. My ears started to ring when I quickly jolted, "THAT'S THE SIREN!" I was so confident that this was it. I just made it back from the border but NOW they are coming. What do I do? Where do I go? I guess I'll just follow everyone else, but no one will want to help a random tourist in time of crisis. I was just about to jump from my bed when I realized I was going crazy. That wasn't an invasion siren.. It was just an ambulance passing by.
I guess this experience made me a bit more paranoid than I thought it did. I left feeling at ease, but that obsolete paranoia grew as time passed. I knew I had to leave my room or else my nervousness would eat me alive. I continued on to have another astounding night at Seoul Tower and in Myeong-dong, but during the rest of my trip, North Korea was in the back of my mind.
I tried my best not to let it consume my thoughts, but I cannot explain the relief I felt when my plane took off two days later. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in South Korea; however, when I was standing in line to check in for my flight, I felt as if I was finally escaping the sense of paranoia I had been experiencing the last few days.
In spite of these feelings, South Korea really was amazing. It felt great to cross another country off my bucket list and I feel like I learned so much about the culture, the political climate, and myself. Although some times were more uncomfortable than others, I wouldn't trade this experience for the world. I mean, how many people get to say they've actually seen North Korea?