Sunday, 24 March 2013

Across Asia With A Lowlander: Part 1d: The DMZ

world-map seoul


It’s been a busy week this week on UTM. For starters I’ve compiled all my India videos into a single, hour-long film. The same too with my UAE stuff and it’s worth watching them because not only do they display my wonderful video-editing skills (?), but they also contain lots of footage that I didn’t post previously.


The written word too has not been left unscathed. I’ve revisited the travelogue dealing with my 2008 pilgrimage to Walsingham, adding some photos so that it hopefully comes alive a little more. All very apt since in a fortnight’s time I’ll be visiting there again after attending a wedding in Norwich. Check out the changes by clicking on the link below:

Nazareth in Norfolk

And finally I’d like the draw the attention of visitors to this excellent photo website. It’s called A Grasp on Life and its author is one of my old students from the George Byron School in Bulgaria. That would be reason alone to promote it, as too would the quality of the images, but what I really like is that a lot of the locations featured are ones close to my heart and thus have been featured or will be featured on this site. There are some incredible images of (amongst other places) the Netherlands, (where she now lives), Bulgaria, (where she’s from), and also the Negev Desert in Israel where I once lived and which will be the subject of a travelogue appearing soon on UTM. Seeing these photos make me really jealous as I wish I could bring places to life in that way, but when I get out my (admittedly cheap) camera, I just seem to end up with bland scenes that do no justice to the incredible vistas before me or pictures of yours truly in a ridiculous hat doing some sort of cheesy pose that should really be incorporated into a Whigfield dance routine. Oh well, until I do learn how to make good photos, I just hope that my words on this website help capture my “Grasp on Life” just as Ralitsa’s pictures do here.

A Grasp on Life

And so on with the show, and a trip to the border with the “Axis of Evil”…

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Flickr album of this trip

Links to all parts of the travelogue

Book 1: Embarking Upon a New Korea

1a: Toyama to Pusan

1b: Pusan

1c: Seoul

1d: The DMZ

1e: Seoul, Incheon and Across the Yellow Sea

Book 2: Master Potter does Fine China

2a: Qingdao

2b: Beijing (I)

2c: Beijing (II)

2d: Beijing (III)

2e: Yinchuan (I)

2f: Yinchuan(II)

2g: Lanzhou

2h: Bingling-si

2i: Xiahe

2j: Lanzhou and Jiayuguan

2k: Jiayuguan

2l: Dunhuang

2m: Urumqi (I)

2n: Urumqi (II)

2o: Urumqi (III)

Book 3: Steppe to the Left, Steppe to the Right…

3a: Druzhba to Almaty

3b: Shumkent to Tashkent

3c: Tashkent (I) 

3d: Bukhara

3e: Bukhara to Samarkand

3f: Samarkand

3g: Samarkand to Urgench

3h: Khiva

3i: Tashkent (II)

3j: Tashkent to Moscow

3k: Moscow (I)

3l: Moscow (II)

3m: Moscow (III)

3n: Konotop to Varna

japan-korea-map 3


16th July, 2002 – Seoul, South Korea

South Korea, although arguably not to be the highlight of our trip, contained at least one sight that I for one was determined not to miss. If the trip from China to Bulgaria were to be looked at as a Grand Tour of the Best of the Communist and Post-Communist world, then surely the best starting point would be the only remaining country on earth where a strict form of Stalinism still prevails, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or for the laymen such as you and I, North Korea.

Travel to Korea's secretive North is possible, (so long as you're not South Korean or American), but it comes at a price. I was desperate to go and so researched the matter somewhat, only to discover that the best deal on offer was a week's trip by rail from Beijing with a Dutch company. And that came to well over a thousand euros, alas well out of my price range.

So with travel to Chairman Kim's domain out of the question I had to settle for the next best thing; a good look at it from the South, i.e. Entry a day trip into the infamous DMZ. I knew that this was more than possible as I'd seen Michael Palin do it once on TV and so straight after my arrival in Seoul I made enquiries as to how to follow in the footsteps of that Monty Python funnyman, and found out that the best way to 'run DMZ' was without a group, and instead just to take a train to the end of the line and then get on a tour operating from there. Such tours went to the Observatory, the Peace Park and a tunnel apparently, but not the truce village of Panmunjeon where one may enjoy the dubious pleasure of entering the meeting room where the peace talks take place, and in there walking around the table, thus actually stepping into DPRK territory. Yes indeed, it would be a pleasure hard to forego but on the other hand we'd be stepping in and out of enough countries in the coming two months, and one should never be greedy now, should one?

To say that I have a fascination with communism and the countries that adopted it is somewhat of an understatement. Ever since childhood it has intrigued me, what was it about, why did it fail, how much did it actually fail..? These questions bothered me almost as much as the bigger question as to why did it have such a hold on me personally? The fact that once we left South Korea we'd be on a solid dose of Leninland in all it's forms was no coincidence, and I hoped perhaps to be able to answer those questions by the end of it all. In the meantime however, I was excited, about to take my first swig of socialism for the trip, and I couldn't wait.

The train out was a local stopping service, full of carrier-bag laden housewives who alighted at the innumerable small stations situated by vast company-owned apartment block complexes in Seoul's suburbs, that in their dull grey uniformity, looked like they should really be in the North rather than here. Except for the odd army base, the place was monotonous, boring and far too normal. It was hard to believe that a mere fifty kilometres away lay a vast Red Menace that, if it wished to, could obliterate these nondescript suburbs in minutes.

Finally however our train pulled up at it's destination. Well, almost. We were at the station of Kumcheon, the stop for the Peace Park and the place where we were to get our passes to go into the DMZ ('De-Militarized Zone' – an area that vies with Jerusalem – 'City of Peace' – as the most unaptly named spot on earth) proper. We had an hour to spend here so we fell in with a shy young Korean girl called Chi, (or something along those lines), a university student from Seoul who was visiting the DMZ for the first time too. The sun beat down and we wandered amongst the various monuments that made up the Peace Park, a place that despite it's name must surely rate as one of the most scary and surreal tourist attractions on earth. For a Peace Park, there was a surprising lack of any peaceful message here apart from a vague desire for reunification, (on Southern terms of course). Instead, we were treated to an unnerving cocktail of anti-Northern propaganda, various memorials to those who fell in the 1951-3 war, (the one to the US fallen being by far the largest), a railway carriage selling North Korean products, and a large building containing a hamburger restaurant and a shop selling DMZ souvenirs, a swimming pool in the shape of a reunified Korea, a barbed wire fence by the railway track with messages in Korea pinned upon it and a small amusement park with rollercoasters and merry-go-rounds. Oh well, if your country has been ideologically ripped in two and thousands killed in the process, then why not make a fun family day out from it all. As I said, this place was weird.

dmz01  dmz04 dmz03 dmz02 The DMZ Peace Park: family fun in a warzone

Keeping an eye on Chi's watch we decided to lumber back to the station in time for out train onwards, only to find that said vehicle pulling out of the station that we were walking towards. “Oh no!” said a crestfallen Chi, “my watch must have stopped!” There was nothing for it but another hour in the Peace Park whose meagre attraction we had already exhausted. We turned around and walked back to Monumentland.

“I'm so sorry,” said Chi, blaming herself for us missing our train.

“Oh, it's nothing, after all it's as much our fault for not wearing [or even having] watches.” But she was having none of it and was only satisfied when she had presented us with her watch. Once more I was more than taken aback by the kindness and generosity of the people of the Orient, and ashamed to think that had she been in Britain, she would probably have not even felt guilty about us missing the train.

We passed the time by fully exploring the emporium of tack next to the burger bar and later when we finally boarded our train, along with our original luggage, we carried some North Korean postage stamps, a tourist guide to that said country and a plastic DMZ moneybox capped by two smiling border guards, one communist and one capitalist.

The railway line onwards, deep into the DMZ had only been reopened that year and if the place north of the border was Leninland, then this area immediately to the south was surely Propagandaia. Our humble local diesel train pulled into the vast and deserted expanse of the brand-new Dora-san station, a place so laughingly pointless it is unbelievable. Now it is empty as the line doesn't continue to the north, but even if the peninsular were ever to be reunited, then it would be no better as this enormous construction of concrete and glass serves no community whatsoever. Inside the sparkling forum little models showed us the station full of trains going to Pyongyang and beyond, whilst one wall was covered with the text of US President George W. Bush's speech that he had made whilst on a visit to the station, where he expressed his desire for peace and a peaceful reunification through South Korean President Kim Dae Jung's 'Sunshine Policy', (a process that he incidentally proceeded to bugger up completely soon afterwards by naming North Korea in his 'Axis of Evil').

From there it was onto a bus for the short drive up to the Observatory. Gazing out of the window at this seemingly peaceful and tranquil land, it was hard to believe that virtually every square centimetre was mined, and all the shrubs bristled with machine guns and infinitely more frightening modern military equipment.

Sliced through the greenery was a huge highway, lined with ornamental lampposts, each complete with a stylised outline of a unified Korea, completely devoid of cars and stopping abruptly with a huge sign declaring that the South have done there bit, and now the North must link up.

Apparently, two kilometres north, there is another empty highway that also stops abruptly at the border, with a large sign declaring a remarkable similar message.

dmz06 The Reunification Highway: not unifed

Our first stop was the Observatory, a military-green building overlooking the Land of Juche, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. This was what I'd come to see and hungrily I gazed across at the vista that the Observatory provided. Before me lay a vast, almost deserted valley, punctuated only by two villages. The first of these, the guide told us, was inhabited, the second, the one closest to Panmunjeon, was not. Or at least, that is what the South Koreans said, though from that distance, (several kilometres), it was impossible to tell. “We know that it is deserted because all the lights come on automatically at the same time every evening,” continued our khaki-clad font of capitalist wisdom. “They are boasting to us that they have electricity you see.” Who knows? Not being there at eventide then certainly not I, though I could believe it. Obviously the village's only purpose was propaganda since smack in the middle of it stood the world's tallest flagpole, proudly flying the red white and blue colours of the North.

dmz05 The Observatory

“And there is the South Korean village,” explained the guide. “It is called 'Peace Village' and unlike the North Korean one people actually live there. It is a farming community.” 'Peace Village' boasted a flagpole almost as big as its northern brother and inhabited or not, it had obviously been built for the same purpose. The only place of any real business, Panmunjeon, was hidden in the greenery.

I could have stood for hours gazing at this forbidden land. Even without the ideological split, it was naturally a spectacular scene, but the fact that it showed a gap between two halves of a country that had proved unbridgeable in almost fifty years made it all the more haunting. The barren landscape and concrete block buildings reminded me strongly of gazing at Albania from the Greek island of Corfu back in 1996. Stalinist and isolationist, Albania shared much in common with North Korea just over a decade ago, and a viewer at that time may well have thought Korea's divisions far more mendable than those of Albania with her neighbours. Times change however and one does not even require a visa to enter the Land of the Eagle these days. Let's hope that Korea goes the same way.

Taking photos of the North was irritatingly forbidden so after a while we fell into conversation with one of the guards, a young man who'd volunteered to do his military service on the DMZ. He talked enthusiastically of the recent World Cup, and when he found out the Lowlander's country of birth, like most Koreans, he treated him like a king. “Ah! Holland, Gus Hiddink! He is the biggest hero of the Korean people!”

dmz07 dmz08 With the guards at the Observatory

Our next stop on the Magical Mystery Tour of North Korean Menace was at one of the infamous tunnels discovered underneath the DMZ heading towards Seoul. This was conveniently close to the Observatory and situated adjacent to a round exhibition hall where we were treated to a video on the course of the Korean War. And thus, background established, we were loaded onto a tiny train, given hard hats and then descended into the depths of the Third Tunnel of North Korean Aggression.

Several months before coming here, I'd read an interesting book about North Korea, (North Korea through the Looking Glass: Kongdon Oh and Ralph C. Hessing), which had covered the subject of the tunnels in depth. It reported how South Korean soldiers had seen smoke rising from the ground one day, and dug down and intercepted a tunnel. Since then several more had been found, some, (including the one that we were now visiting), discovered through evidence given by defectors. These tunnels, continued the book, were big enough for a whole division of infantry and even small tanks to pass through and launch a surprise attack on Seoul. It was scary stuff indeed!

Or perhaps not. Upon reaching the tunnel, (which was extremely deep underground), I was more than a little surprised. A division of infantry and small tanks could indeed traverse this tunnel quite easily, but only so long as we are talking about the armies of the Lilliputians. The tunnel was so small that the Lowlander and I struggled to walk down it two abreast. Now, I know that I'm no expert, but this looked like no serious military threat to me. For a start, it was so deep underground that for them to have ever got to the surface, it would have taken many more kilometres of tunnelling and if they were detectable at this level, then what hope did they have nearer to the surface? And on top of that, how long would it take a soldier to walk its length? Two hours perhaps, probably a lot longer. Apart from the initial attack it would be useless, as by the time reinforcements had got down it, the war would be over, let alone the position still be ok. No I, (and the Lowlander too), were more than a little unconvinced. Was this yet another piece of propaganda devised to help convince us of the evils of Mr. Kim's regime? The convenient location certainly pointed to that, as did the fact that the pick marks, coming from the North Korean direction were highlighted, made it seem like they were trying just a little bit too hard. Perhaps the North Koreans had built tunnels under the DMZ, (I doubt not that the South Koreans had too), or perhaps not, but I for one was certain that this was not one of them. Still, real or not, it had been an entertaining experience and we felt not cheated at all as we ascended back to the surface.

dmz09 Going underground in the rather suspect spy tunnels

Back up top there was another party waiting to go down, this time a group of immaculately turned out US Army Officers. This got me thinking about their role in this whole mixed up affair. Are they the heroes or the villains? Are they the ones preventing a Northern invasion and stoutly supporting their allies in Seoul, or are they the ones at fault, their presence the main obstacle to peace on this troubled peninsular. This lot, laughing and joking as they boarded the train that would take them down to see the handiwork of the enemy (???), looked neither hero or villain, and perhaps that's what they really are, like most things in life, part boon and part hindrance and wholly hard to define.

Our tour was now largely over. We'd seen how evil the North could be and had that satanic state laid before us, and so it was of course time to buy the T-shirt. The selection at this emporium however, several kilometres away from the border turned out to be far less inspiring than that at the Peace Park, and so we settled instead for some noodles that turned out to be so bad that I'd seriously consider defecting the the North if I was forced to eat them on a regular basis. Then it was back onto the bus for a short trip through a maze of military bases and then onto the smart new Reunification Highway, which as I mentioned earlier, was so far failing to live up to its name, back to Dora-san station and the train back to Seoul.

As we passed back into normality through the capital's nondescript suburbs I got thinking about what we'd seen which had certainly been surreal if nothing else. The division of Korea, more complete than the Berlin Wall ever was, fascinates me and is one of the great tragedies of our age. If one thinks of all the outcomes of the Korean War, there is perhaps, none more tragic than the present one. Should the South have won there'd be a united capitalist country akin to Japan or the present South Korea, and if the North had won it would be united and socialist, probably having undergone reforms like China and Vietnam and fast-becoming a prosperous Pacific-Rim state. Yet as it is, the threat of each other has held both countries back. The Red Menace has given to governments of the South excuses for year to oppress their own and real democracy and freedom are only just arriving there now. What's more, the North's claims that Seoul is just a puppet of the US do ring true and the Americans involve themselves in the running of the country far more than an outside power should.

And then there's the North, cut off from the world, reportedly starving and impoverished, definitely lagging far behind her neighbours, gripped in a personality-cult dictatorship of staggering proportions, the presence of the South making any Chinese-style reforms a proposition not worth the risk for the ruling elite.

And how will it all end? Who knows? The only sure thing is that all of the possibilities seem unlikely. Sudden Northern collapse and revolution, the North invades the South, the South invades the North, Southern collapse and revolution, continued stagnation and stand-off, a slow opening-up to the outside world by the North? All seem improbable, yet one must happen. The question is, which one?

Returning to Seoul our day was far from over, and despite the exertions of a day on the frontline we were ready for more. And besides, we had a task to carry out...

The day before, the Lowlander had suggested that since we were in Korea, why not sample the dish for which the country is most infamous, dog. Now to tell the truth, I'd never thought of this myself, (but isn't that why it's best to travel with someone else, far less predictable?), but once he'd suggested it and I'd had time to get the idea of cute Labrador puppies out of my head, I was enthusiastic. Besides, after spouting off for years on the evils of vegetarianism, how could I refuse this dogmatic challenge?

Accepting the idea of consuming canine was one thing however. Finding a woof woof to wolf was another. Although Korea has a reputation as a dog devourer's paradise, I'm afraid to say that this is a myth. “Dog?” said our cute hotel receptionist, “I never eat dog. My father sometimes... No I don't know where is dog restaurant.”

Chi at the DMZ was equally elusive. She even seemed ashamed of Korea's reputation as the globe's hot-dog capital. “I've never eaten dog,” said she, “I don't know what it tastes like, sorry.” She did however write down the hangul characters which we now presented to the underworked lady at the Central Station Tourist Office.

“Dog?” she queried. “You have dog?”


“You want to buy dog?”


“What about dog then?”

“We want to eat dog!”

“Eat?!” She looked angry. We were fast learning that most Koreans were not only not dog devours, but were in fact rather ashamed of their countrymen who were, in much the same sense as the average Englishman is disgusted by his aristocratic fox-hunting brethren. She was however, there to help us, however distasteful that task may be, and so she guided us to an area of town famous for its canine cuisine.

Once there however, we were little better off. “No dogs here!” was the answer at all the restaurants that we tried, accompanied with a look that suggested that they'd prefer it if we left their establishment. Eventually however, after traipsing round every brightly-lit street in the block, we were directed by a pharmacist to a tiny establishment down an alleyway. We checked the hangul characters above the doorway. They matched! We bent our heads and entered the low doorway into a small, traditional-style eating house with a pleasant ambience and enticing smell coming from the kitchen. The waiter, surprised to see two white men, approached us uneasily, unable to speak a word of English. We however just showed him the note that we'd got Chi to write, stating 'dog soup'. He nodded and showed us to our places.

dog dinner Dining on dog

And so we did dog, and very nice it was too. A fine spicy stew with meat more akin to rabbit than anything else that I've ever eaten, washed down with two glasses of Korea's most average of ales. And for those who ask, 'How could you do it? Think of those cute little fluffy things!' then I shall explain. Think of a brown-eyed golden retriever or droopy-eared and loving spaniel then yes, you're right, enjoying your spicy dog soup might be difficult. But if you picture in your mind one of those annoying, small yappy dogs that old ladies favour then you'll realise that by far the best place for them is in your soup, and you start to feel positively like your actually doing the world a favour. And thus, with our bellies full of Fido, we headed out into the neon night, read for our next dose of Culture Korea, this time one of my suggestions.

As mentioned earlier, whilst in Japan, I'd developed a taste for bathing as a leisure activity. Unfortunately however, when the Lowlander had visited Toyama, I had but arrived in the country myself and hadn't yet discovered this fine mode of relaxation, and thus he was sadly ignorant of what in my mind is the highlight of the Orient. Now however, he was out East again, for his second and potentially last time, and thus this was not an opportunity to waste!

Heading out to a spa resort however was out of the question due to time (and money) restrictions. So, it would have to be the next best thing, something that is as rewarding culturally however, if not as sumptuous as the full-blown oncheon experience. We were to go to an urban bath-house.

Bath-houses differ from the oncheons in that there the water is but that from the tap heated up, and are consequently not jam-packed full of minerally goodness. What's more, they tend to generally be more basic and less well-kept although this rule is far from rigid. They come in all shapes and sizes from the hundred year-old tiled-roof pavilion with lime-encrusted tubs, to fabulous palaces of pleasure with palms, saunas, Jacuzzis and baths heated to a myriad of different temperatures. Most city centre ones however are remarkably similar. Occupying the lower or basement floors of a building, they contain baths and sauna at the very bottom whilst on the floors above are the sleeping rooms, for it is these establishments that provide much of the city's cheap, short-term accommodation. Vast dark halls, filled with beds are the order of the day, occupied by lorry drivers, travelling salesmen, low ranking delegates in town for a conference and less legal types. There's usually a TV room as well, thick with cigarette smoke, and next to that, a cheap and basic canteen.

The baths that we found were no exception, and after a small altercation with the doorman who didn't want to let us it, (one normally books for the night, not by the hour), we were both naked and soaking in a deep hot tub, the aches and pains of a day in Propagandaia slowly drifting away. “So what do you reckon?” I asked the Lowlander.

“I wish that we had these in the Netherlands!” he replied. Praise indeed!

And so it was all clean, refreshed and clear-headed, we boarded the Metro that evening back to our hotel. Not everyone was in the same state however. One girl, further down the coach had obviously had more than a little too much to drink and required three of her male friends to hold her upright. I smiled to myself, remembering the countless times that I've been in her position, (though never on the Seoul Metro I must add), and all I can say is that when I woke up the following morning, I was glad indeed to be me and not her.

Next part: 1e: Seoul, Incheon and Across the Yellow Sea


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. NICE BLOG!!! Thanks for sharing useful information about Touraeas and being one of best Tourism Website agree that this blog is very useful for the Tourism are Searching for best tourist Places , I would really like to come back again right here for likewise good articles or blog posts. Thanks for sharing...Cheap tour packages Bangalore.