Today was our first cultural excursion of Culture Week (or of all of February as a matter of fact)! We would be visiting the area around the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone–border zone that divides both halves of the Korean peninsula) with a pre-orchestrated tour that had planned stops throughout the day. To start off our day, we all met at 시청역 (City Hall Station). This stop was about an hour away from my home station which was a little bit annoying seeing that we would need to go up to 파주시 (just south of the 38th parallel) anyway… which is actually close to me! I live literally two stops away from the city! For once, we would be going somewhere close to my home and yet I had to meet everyone somewhere else… Oh well, I was able to write some blog posts during the hour train ride.
We took a shuttle bus to our first location which was also being shared with several other English speaking foreigners who booked our same tour guide and then another separate group of Japanese tourists that had their own tour guide. We ate breakfast on the shuttle bus and then mostly tried to sleep till we arrived at the first place: 임진각 (Imjingak). 임진각 is the last settlement in the city of Paju right before the DMZ. Most tours make this place a pit-stop because it has a lot of famous statues and monuments from the Korean War.
임진각 has the bridge of freedom (a bridge that South Koreans used to return after the signing of the armistice agreement), a peace bell, a pool shaped like the Korean peninsula, observation deck/lookout, and a bombed-out steam locomotive still standing on its original tracks. Also… a bit more on the touristy side… this area also includes gift shops, a convenience store, fast food places (like a Popeyes!), and even an amusement park called Peace Land! I mean I guess that is Capitalism for you… I could never imagine why anyone would want to build a theme park near a zone brewing with so much tension and memories of pain and anguish… it really beats me…
I think my favorite place of the large settlement was the barbed wire with all of the colorful prayer ribbons tied on. These ribbons had messages of hope and reunification on them–many were written by individuals with family members or loved ones still living in the North. It brought up images of hope but also sadness as no one knows how long it will take for these people, these two counties, to be united once again.
The next place on our itinerary was 도라산역 (Dorasan Station) on the 경의중앙 subway line (The one I take from Korean classes back home!) This is the train station that is the closest to the border of North Korea (about 17Km I do believe… according to our tour guide!) Currently (as you could probably guess), this train station is not in use. A train does come into the station about twice a day but this train is the DMZ tour train (owned by the Korean Government) and is not actually public transportation. You cannot take a train on the 경의중앙 line and end up at this station.
At the station, we were able to pay for a fake ticket and gain access to the station platform (which was called 통일–unification–platform) for about $1. The air felt kinda eerie as it looked just like any other outdoor train station platform except for the fact that there was no one there.
Our next stop was 도라산전망대 (Dorasan Observatory) which looks out across the demilitarized zone. On the very top floor, there are special viewing areas but because the dust was really bad today (or maybe it was actually fog this time; I have no clue) it was pretty hard to see anything. All of the photos we took up there literally looked like they were taken in front of white backgrounds but nope… that is the color of the sky!
I also took some time to go to the gift shop and buy some products only available at the DMZ tourist stops–and that would be all food products of course. I bought these DMZ soybean chocolate and chocolate eggs as well as this special Choco Pie (famous Korean snack) that is made with ingredients grown around the DMZ. The reason that the choco pie became a famous snack to buy at the DMZ is because there is one famous North Korean refugee that escaped North Korea by car by crossing the 72 hour bridge (or also known as the Bridge of No Return– it is named the 72 hour bridge because it was only built in 72 hours). He was shot countless times while crossing the bridge but still happened to make it to the other side alive. When he made it to South Korea, the first thing he wanted to eat was Choco Pie and so the CEO of the snack brand vowed to give him free Choco Pies for his entire life! It was a really interesting story.
The last thing we did for the day was going underground and walk through the Third Tunnel which was a secret tunnel that the North Koreans built trying to find a secret passage from North Korea to Seoul for sudden sneak attacks. We were not allowed to take our phones inside to take any pictures so I have nothing to share besides my words! We had to wear yellow hard hats and walk down to get to the tunnel. The ceiling and the walls were quite moist and the tunnel was quite low. I was able to stand up straight most of the time (without any worry of hitting my head) but I am only five foot three or so…anyone taller than me probably had a sore neck after walking through the tunnel. At the end, there was a sign and viewing area for looking into the North Korean side of the tunnel. Something that we noticed which was interesting was that we could see an actual plant growing on the other side! There was life! Walking down to get to the tunnel was not too difficult (besides the fact that it kinda hurt my knees…I love having weak joints!) but walking back up was pretty exhausting.
Once we finished exploring the tunnel, we walked around the area and took lots of group photos (We had to take a banner photo in front of the iconic DMZ letter sign.) before heading back into the bus for our return back to 시청역. I was able to pretty much sleep the entire way back which was much needed seeing that I could not go home right after we arrived… I was going to do community service!
Usually, the Wednesday squad consists of Shada, Kaitlyn, and I but Josh had nothing to do for the rest of the day so he decided to join us. We had about three hours to kill before community service so we chilled at this cafe in the subway station called Tammy’s House or something like that. While we were there… I tried finishing my workbook but it was hard. I just wanted to hang out and talk with the others. While we were there, Josh and Kaitlyn were getting really existential and asking really deep philosophical answers and it was interesting to see how their answers more often than not differed. Today, I learned, that Kaitlyn is such a nihilist at times! One of the questions that I remember vividly was “Are Humans or Animals More Free?” Kaitlyn was on team animals since they are not constrained by society and its rules/standard while Josh argued that they cannot even understand the concept of freedom with their small brains. It was such a fun conversation! I love hanging with them two!
We did our community service which ended up probably being the last one for a while (We could not go the following week because of orientation and now that school is starting soon… I do not know if I will have the energy to do community service every week.) I really enjoyed spending the time helping out with my fellow NSLI-Yians and the kids have really begun to open up to us~ It was fun being able to have more conversations with them today. It was probably the best service yet! I will definitely miss it…
That is all for this blog post! I hope you enjoyed~ I put in a lot of effort into this blog post to make it interesting and educational at the same time. Honestly, it is probably one of my favorite ones. Well, until next time!
- Emma 엠마