The Creepiest Day Trip in the World

I hung up the phone and thought,

“Isn’t some sort of cosmic bad luck to take a tour to North Korea on April Fool’s Day?”

Yet-no joke-that was the date available, and since Jacob and I had to switch days in order to leave Ryder behind-you have to be at least 11 or 12 (I’ve seen both quoted) to enter the DMZ, or demilitarized zone- I couldn’t be particular about the dates.

I couldn’t help but be uneasy, not because of the country we were going to per se-after all, as I learned, this tour is the most popular tourist attraction in South Korea-but because I knew we’d be surrounded by people with guns and escorted by people with guns (mostly American). Guns scare me more than North Korea does.

North Korea is one of the least visited and least understood countries in the world, and now that I’m back I can’t say I understand their side of the story any better-the only North Korean I saw was standing guard at a building too far away to even see his face-so I didn’t get any inside details or anything like that. However, it’s clearer to me the South Korean side of events.

I hopped out of the hotel struggling to put my last boot on, having grabbed an apple for breakfast and nothing more. A fancy car was awaiting in the driveway, punctual on the dot. I’d set three alarms to make sure I didn’t miss this.

The two guys in the back of the car said they were from France, but upon further probing I learned they’d actually grown up in Guadaloupe, the place I will always connect to Ryder’s conceived-in country. We didn’t get to chat long though because they were whisked away to another bus as I was escorted to a hotel where my passport was taken. I was given a very specific seat number on the bus taped to my passport and was told I could sit nowhere else, even if I switched buses.

My seat was at the very back of the bus, up one. My seatmate was a skinny, dark hair –bleached yellow introvert, an exchange student in Japan. They seated the nationalities next to one another, so he was American.

We all sat silently-were they apprehensive, like me?

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The tour guide greeted us:

“Good morning, have you eaten breakfast?”

Then she explained, “During the war, there wasn’t much to eat and it became common courtesy to ask one another if we’d eaten.”

“Well maybe that explains things,” I thought of the girl who worked in our bed and breakfast who, every time I came home, asked if I’d eaten dinner. I said yes normally, but the night before I’d said no. In the States, that’s often a way to ask someone if they’d like to eat together, but she merely replied, “Really?! You should have eaten, it’s late!”

The tour guide continued, “You are very lucky to be on this tour today. It gets cancelled frequently, especially in winter. Because there are so many land mines, if the road was slippery and we went off the road…”

The way there was mostly admonitions about when to take pictures, (at the bridge of no return, only face forward! Once we leave the second passport checkpoint, no using your phone even to take notes!) and when to switch to this bus then that one.

She then talked about people who were not dressed modestly enough could not go inside, because they might be used for North Korean propaganda. I have no idea what that might entail, other than I’ve read North Korea has a dress code and perhaps they portray Westerners as evil for breaking it? I just looked it up, and they have fashion police and a strict dress code-but it includes getting your hair cut every fifteen days if you are a man, and never wearing pants if you’re a woman. I think the dress code, in retrospect, was purely out of respect of the UN dress code. Anyway, I nervously looked down at my pleather pants, the only ones I’d brought with to South Korea. Would they be considered a no-go? Would I have to do the walk of shame back to the bus? But there was a girl who raised her hand and admitted wearing shorts and the tour guide said, “Don’t worry, I have long skirt for you.” Well, at least they had a back up plan. My pants didn’t end up failing the test.

When the US soldier came through the bus checking each passport, he examined mine so long I started to frantically think: “Did I put the number wrong on the application? Do they think I’m not who I say I am?” The words were on the tip of my tongue but I waited. Finally he moved on.

South Koreans have mandatory military enlistment. It’s normally the ages of 19-21 years old. They are so young. They don’t get paid but $100-$200 a month, enough for cigarettes said our guide, but all their living needs are taken care of.

The top moment of the tour for me was when we filed into a little building around a table where people convene and have meetings, and the tour guide said, “Those of you on that side of the table have crossed into North Korea. The cement block out the window shows the dividing line.” I was on “that side of the table”.

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South Korean soldiers facing North Korea

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On the North Korean side of the table

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South Korean soldier

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Lunch of bibimbap, a feast for one

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Ribbons leading to a barbed wire border fence

 

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Rocks gathered from battlefields all over the world: The Civil War is but one listed

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Memorial to those who died in the Korean war

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The bizarrely shaped gift shop

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Taking a panoramic shot made me sweat since it was so loud and this area was so tense

After we finished up at the Joint Security Area and ate lunch, many members of the tour went home, but I’d upgraded for the full day option, so continued on to the portion of the tour that included walking along the third tunnel. Four tunnels have been discovered dug from North Korea to South Korea that could hold up to 30,000 soldiers per hour. The North Koreans deny having made them and claim it was South Korea.

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A group of schoolchildren heading into the tunnel. Note the pictures above their heads that depict people being carried out of the tunnel via stretcher. It was a steep hike.IMG_0736

Really glad they provided these helmets. Asia makes me redefine my 5’4 height as stooping-for-low-ceilings necessary.

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The end of the tunnel, blocked by three cement walls built to blockade entry from an invasion.

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  Our tour guide demonstrates photos from when they accidentally discovered the tunnels

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Perhaps the weirdest thing of all: an entire fake train station was our final stop, with the markings of a train all the way from Seoul to London on the map.

South Korea and North Korea were just one land-Korea, for thirteen centuries. They share a common language, history, and religion: Confucianism.

Amethyst is the Korean gem, which symbolizes soberness, an important value of the religion. I find that amusing for two reasons: First, Koreans appear light hearted to me, and second they are apparently the heaviest drinkers in Asia.

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According to our tour guide, who was a soldier for four years and has made his career educating people on this subject, the division is only political. They long for reunification and it is the dictator whose whims are arbitrary, merely seeking to preserve his own power, that prevent that. There are 10 million family members awaiting them in North Korea.

 

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South Korea is full of rice fields, while North Korea is mountainous-and treeless, because of the need for wood. That’s North Korea from Dora Observatory.

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Peace Memorial

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  Money collection: Am I cynical to see no way this will really help reunification?

Despite my cynicism about the money collection, I walked home with the sincere belief that reunification is only a matter of time and the division between Koreas will only be a blip in world history, though overthrowing the dictator does seem a daunting task with a country some say is the most militarized in the world. I also walked away with relief to return to the land of the sane, where I don’t have to feel like someone is watching my every move. Though I was obedient and followed directions, my thoughts were still my own. No outside source can determine that.

 

Details: This tour was 137,000 won. I booked through http://cosmojin.com/eng/dmz-jsa-tour.asp and I thought the guides were very knowledgeable.

Kalli Hiller

Article by Kalli Hiller

Kalli Hiller is a voluntary vagabond who, with her husband Jacob, has traveled full time for the last eight years.

Kalli has written 361 awesome articles for us.

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