From Beijing I travelled in style to Qingdao. I’ve never been on a bullet train before and it was surprisingly exciting watching everything go past so quickly, whilst enjoying the comfortable seats with ample leg room. The top speed I noticed was 300km an hour. I’ll see in a week’s time if Japan can beat it.
I was in Qingdao to catch the ferry to South Korea. There’s not an awful lot to do otherwise. It is home to Tsingtao brewery, which has an ok tour, until you get to the tasting section, where you realise that for all of the signs waxing lyrical about it, it is just larger, bog standard larger.
Obviously, having an international port means that it is by the sea and it was nice sitting on one of the tiny beaches with the fresh sea air. I have to go back to Patagonia for the last place that I have walked beside the sea.
I was little bit worried about the ferry namely because no offices seemed to exist for the company and I was told by a hotel right next to the port that it is not running anymore. Upon visiting the terminal I found a huge space, which was deserted. It didn’t look great.
I needn’t have worried. I had a reservation and returned to the state of the art terminal hoping that someone would be there to give me a ticket. Hidden right at the back, in near darkness were three ladies sat behind computers. The boat did exist. Or at least the ticket did. A few hours later, I was sat on a wooden bench waiting for it to depart. There I met Deniz and a South Korean man called Sungjin.
It took an age for the ferry to leave, but once it did time passed quickly and seventeen hours later we had arrived at the port of Incheon. Home to the longest bridge I have ever seen and also the happiest immigration officers.
I came to South Korea on recommendation of a guy I met on a bus in Bolivia. He persuaded me to go to Japan and said if I was going to go there, then I should stop in South Korea, for one reason, to visit the DMZ (Demilitarised Zone) and JSA (Joint Security Area). I took his advice and booked my tour a few weeks in advance so as to give the US military plenty of time to check passports etc. The day prior I took a trip to the Korean War Memorial Museum, which is a functional, but very interesting museum detailing the history of the Korean war as well as more ancient history.
Tour day came around and I was very excited. First stop was to Dorasan train station, which was built as part of the train line that ran from south to north. It’s the last station in the south and lasted just one year, closing in 2008. Now it’s just a flush station with nothing but a couple of tourist trains from Seoul, which then return later in the day (note to anyone reading this for information, I think you can only do these as part of a tour). No photos were allowed. Other than at Dora observatory this was the case for the rest of the DMZ. The South really don’t want anything strategic leaking out.
From there it was onto Dora observatory, the first place where you get a look into North Korea. It’s kind of interesting, however, the weather wasn’t kind in terms of a clear view. As part of the agreements, two villages are allowed to exist inside the DMZ. The North Korean one is known as a propaganda village, with very few if anyone living there. They do have the fourth largest flag in the world though. They were temporarily outdone by the South Koreans, but then they built theirs even bigger. The South Korean village on the other hand does have people. They are paid around 80,000 dollars a year, tax free and are exempt from military service. They do have to put up with continuous propaganda announcements from the North Korean side though and have to live their for eight months a year.
Last stop as part of the DMZ was the third infiltration tunnel, which is part of a series of tunnels, which the North Koreans built, then disguised as coal mines in preparation for an invasion of Seoul. To be fair to them, they’ve built it with far more consideration for the foreign tourist then the Viet Kong did. I still had to hunch a little bit, but it wasn’t a crawl on your hands and knees job. Built 400m under the ground and at a length of over 1500m, it’s pretty impressive, but the crowds were big and after a while, even with the history, you realise that it is just a tunnel.
I was a little disappointed at this point. It was interesting, but it felt a little anti-climatic. Then we moved onto the Joint Security Area. A US soldier boarded our bus and upon arrival at Camp Bonifas we went into a conference room, where we were asked three questions:
Do you have any weapons on you?
Are you under the influence of drugs or alcohol?
Do you plan to defect?
With no hands raised we then signed a declaration, listened to a brief history of the DMZ and JSA and then were loaded up into military buses and taken to the blue buildings where the Korean armistice agreement was signed. With half of it being in South Korea and the other in North Korea it is also a place where current negotiations are held.
We lined up following the soldiers strict instructions, getting ready to head into the buildings. Then the plan changed as the soldier with us noticed that there was a tour group on the North Korean side. It was time for some propaganda. “Take as many photos as you like,” he said, “just don’t point, or wave.”
We walked outside and, it’s weird to say, but I was overcome with emotion. There was something about seeing the South Korean soldiers lined up facing the North Korean side, whose soldiers watched back, both in the open and concealed behind curtains with binnacles. Then there was the other tour group. It’s just very strange being so close to people and being told that you are not able to communicate in any way. Not that from the picture I took, they looked that welcoming.
Although, the sad reality of the situation is that they were also under instructions and were, like us, being used as propaganda tool. At one point they were allowed to wave, a camera poking out hoping to capture the moment the westerners waved back. No one waved. As lovely as the US soldiers were you didn’t want to get on the wrong side of them.
Next we walked into the blue house and I got to spend five minutes standing in North Korea. I also had a photo taken with one of the South Korean soldiers, who are apparently selected for their height and their attractiveness and have a way of standing quite unique to the JSA area. As we were in there, North Korean soldiers approached and stood on either side with the exact same stance. “More photos,” our US soldier demanded.
As we left the North Korean tour group were having a group photo. The soldiers were all in position for maximum effect, staring down the South Korean and US soldiers only metres apart. The whole thing was so surreal. Remembering the axe murder caused by soldiers cutting down a tree and the defection of a Soviet man resulting in a large gun fight, it reminded me that there are no rules here. Everything feels like a game.
Not that long ago, North Korean soldiers had crept over the border, planted land mines on a training route, causing two South Korean soldiers to lose their leg. It’s watching two nuclear powers in an extreme exercise in power on such a small scale. Everything goes down to the smallest detail. For example they now have to have scheduled toilet breaks during any talks as there was one time when negotiators went eleven hours without going, out of fear of seeming weak.
From there we went to another observation point, where we got a much closer look at the North Korean propaganda village, complete with van moving into position to blast out messages and songs. Last stop was the bridge of no return, which is now overgrown, but whose history stands strong. It was then time to head back to Seoul.
There was still time in Seoul to head to the Bukhasan national park, which was pleasant enough particularly for the sight of every South Korean hiker wearing pretty much the same clothes and having identical gear, as well as the palace, which again was nice, but didn’t interest me to much having just come for the forbidden city. All in all a good time was had by all and it was time to head to Japan, where I would meet with Adam and Paul.