My sister, Kiana, came to visit Nicole and I in Korea. It’s the first part of her multi-week Asia adventure. She flew into Incheon and took the bus to Seoul arriving Thursday. Nicole and I took a bus up after work Friday and met her in Itaewon for some weekend shenanigans. Our first night we walked around Itaewon and got some drinks. We didn’t do too much since we arrived around 11 and we had big plans tomorrow…to visit the DMZ!!
Visiting the DMZ
The three of us woke up early at our hostel in Itaewon and hailed a cab to Camp Kim, the US military base in Seoul where the DMZ tour leaves from. We arrived at the base a few minutes early and were directed to sit in the waiting room. There were several corpulent Americans as well as so regularly sized Americans and some foreigners all sitting on large leather recliners. The group next to us brought a bunch of Krispy Kreme donuts. I was jealous. After a few minutes of waiting and small talk, our tour leader arrived and led us to the bus. We boarded and drove the hour north to the Dora Observatory. Leaving Seoul and heading north, Korea really starts to empty out. Most trips around Korea, especially city to city, you see little farm towns or rice patties. However, its very unusual to see nothing at all. There’s always something on the horizon. The closer we got to the DMZ the more sparse the landscape became until eventually we were just driving through forest.
After an hour we reached the Dora Observatory. Its an observatory in South Korea that looks out over North Korea. We could see a small propaganda village, built by North Korea to look something like a Korean version of Pleasantville. It was meant to attract South Koreans and make North Korea look like a worker’s paradise. South Korea erected a flag pole near their side of the border so North Korea erected an even larger flag pole on their side of the border in their propaganda village.
The Third Infiltration Tunnel
From the observatory we took the tour bus over to the Third Infiltration Tunnel. North Korea built literally dozens of tunnels into South Korea in a plan to one day invade. South Korea routinely finds these. This was the third tunnel they found and, I’m assuming, the most impressive. South Korea found this tunnel and North Korea claimed they were only mining for coal….under the DMZ. It’s not a very good excuse.
The tunnel was pretty far down into the Earth, 74m to be exact. We walked down the sloping path built by South Korea to reach the tunnel. Once we reached the North Korean tunnel, the space got a lot smaller. I had to walk hunched over to avoid hitting my head on the ceiling.
Dorasan Train Station
Our next stop was at Dorasan Train Station where we got to see the train, an extension of the Seoul subway, that leads to North Korea. I was surprised that there was an actual train running directly between North and South Korea. However, it is not currently running across the border, only from Seoul to Dorasan and back. We got a few pictures inside the station. It was really nice and clean. If the train route was completed and ran from South Korea, through North Korea, into China, it would be the longest train route in the world. It would be possible to ride the train from Busan, South Korea, all the way to Lisbon, Portugal, more than halfway around the world. Perhaps one day this will become a reality.
We visited a random building, with a Korean restaurant in it where we ate delicious bibimbap. The building had a bunch of Korean hikers in it drinking Soju as well as a bunch of South Korean soldiers. Aside from that, the building was virtually empty. I found out later it was the Department of Korean Transportation.
Our last stop on the DMZ tour was at Camp BONIFAS. Camp BONIFAS is a United Nations Command post just 400m south of the DMZ. We had a briefing once we arrived on the camp and its history. We also signed a waver saying something along the lines of if we are taken by the North Koreans we’re probably not coming back. After signing our lived away we boarded another bus and drove to the JSA or Joint Security Area. The JSA is basically the border between North and South Korea. It includes several UN buildings in light blue and several North Korean buildings in metallic silver. Inside the JSA, one half of the room is North Korea and one half is South Korea. Two South Korean soldiers are stationed in the building at all times.
Returning to Seoul
After our tour of the DMZ, and some ice cream for Kiana and Nicole, we boarded the bus and returned to Seoul. Back in Seoul, we took Kiana out to Hongdae to see the sights and meet up with some friends of ours. We ate some traditional Korea BBQ in Hongdae since she had never eaten Samgyupsal. She loved it. After dinner we walked over to Praha Castle a bar that looks like a giant Czech castle.
After some drinks, we decided to fire off some guns, bb guns that is. A few stops up the road we found a little bb gun shooting range. They’re all over Korea and a favorite past time for many of Korea’s younger population.
Brunch and Palace
The next day, we had brunch at Craftworks in Itaewon and took an Uber car to Gyeongbokgung Palace. Nicole and I visited the palace last year, but it’s a great place to take visitors to Seoul. Kiana loved it and we spent the afternoon there. We happened upon a big festival weekend in Seoul so the palace had several activities for tourists to do. Kiana, Nicole, and Nicole’s friend Nikki, and I all tried on some traditional Korean palace guard costumes and took a few pictures. We also happened to be at the main gate for the changing of the guard ceremony.
Lunch and Leaving
After the palace, Nikki took a subway back to her apartment in one of Seoul’s suburbs. Nicole, Kiana, and I took the subway back to the hostel and packed. We ate some Mexican food and bought a few foreign groceries, such as hummus and sour cream, then took a bus back to Gwangyang, or so we tried. All of the buses to Gwangyang, all two of them, were sold out, so Nicole and I had to take a bus to Suncheon then a cab back to Gwangyang. Lesson learned: always book a bus home early.