|Today we had an early start. We were there when they opened the breakfast room doors at 6:30 and quickly ate breakfast. We had a 7:20 start, so we needed to be in the lobby with our luggage and checked out. We were ready to go in the lobby about 7:00. At 7:05 our guide identified himself, Stefano Hong, who will be our guide/driver for three days. We are now on a private tour. We loaded the luggage in the van, and were on our way to the DMZ.
On the hour and a half trip out to the DMZ, Stefano talked about the history of the DMZ and Korean politics. He wanted us to get to Imjingak Park where he wanted to be first in line to obtain the tickets for the first bus tour @9:20.
The armistice that put a halt to the Korean War (1950-1953) divided the Korean Peninsula into South and North Korea. The two sides are separated by the Korean Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, running along the 38th parallel. In accordance with the ceasefire, the DMZ serves as a buffer zone between South and North Korea to prevent direct military conflict. From the Military Demarcation Line, the South and the North created a buffer zone of two kilometers on each side. Because of the high risk of military conflicts in the area, a phase line was established to control civilian access.
We arrived about 8:40, and Stefano got in line for the tickets, then he had us walk around the area since the ticket office did not open until 9:00. We walked up a hill to a building called Imjingak that was built in 1972 with the hope that someday unification would be possible.
We walked out on The Bridge of the Freedom, where South Koreans had crossed when they came back to their mother country from North Korea. We also saw the Gyeongui Train Line which was destroyed during the Korean Conflict in 1950. There was a steam engine that was riddled with bullets from the Korean Conflict that we walked around. We then climbed the stairs to the top of Imjingak to have a view of the river that used to separate North/South Korea and is now the southern border of the DMZ.
We met back up with Stefano once he had obtained our tickets for the first bus tour. The place was hopping with a lot of buses and individual families arriving in cars to see the park and the symbols of the hoped for reunification. Stefano took us back up the hill and talked about the various statues and memorials, plus the hopes of many South Koreans as seen on written pieces of paper. They were trying to locate family members who were separated when the DMZ was established.
We hopped aboard the bus. Our tickets had assigned seats - ours were seats 1, 2 & 3. We took a short trip across the river into the DMZ. Everyone on the bus had to produce their passport for the armed soldiers who boarded the bus at he border. Our first stop in the DMZ was The 3rd Tunnel. This is one of four tunnels found by the South Koreans that were dug by the North. The third tunnel was discovered in October 1978. It is only 12 km from Munsan and 52 km from Seoul. The 1.635 meters-long tunnel which is 2 meters high and 2 meters wide, is capable of moving a full division (10,00-18,000 men) per hour. It was designed for an invasion of South Korea. The North made it look like they were mining for coal. Then North Korea insisted that it was designed for a surprise attack on the North by South Korea when it was found. But it was proven that North Korean’s insistence was false because traces of the blasting inside the tunnel were in the direction of the South.
Once we arrived, we had to place our items in a locker, grab a hard hat, and board the electric train that would take us down to the tunnel. The train tracks had been laid in the tunnel that was made by the South when they drilled down to find the tunnel made by the North. It was a steep descent, very low (hence the hard hats), but you were ok in the train car and as we descended the cooler the temperature. The ride took about 10 minutes to go the 300m down. At the bottom, we walked the tunnel route single-file, usually hunched over like Groucho Marx, so as not to hit your head. We marched out to where it hit the North line. You could then see through a window into the North zone. Then you turned around and marched back to the train for the ride up. Quite a experience.
Back on the surface, we took some pictures by the DMZ sign (this is quite a major tourist trap here). I asked two young ladies if they would take our picture. Then they asked Jean to have their picture taken with her, which she obliged. (This is shades of our visit to China where in Tiananmen Square we were approached by Chinese people asking to take a picture with a Westerner. Most people had never seen an ugly Westerner before and wanted proof to show to friends.)
Our next stop was Dora Observatory located a short hop from the Tunnel. It is the part of South Korea closest to the North and allows one to look across the Demilitarized Zone and catch a glimpse of North Korea through binoculars up on the roof, and then sit in the 500-person capacity observatory while watching a film. You can see the North Korean guard towers, and all the way to the city of Gaesung which is the 3rd largest city in North Korea.
Back on the bus to nearby Dorasan Station. This is the is the northernmost train station in South Korea. It is 700m distant from the southern boundary line of DMZ, the civil control zone. President Bush visited Dorasan Station on February 20, 2002, then this unfinished station of the North-South Korean reconciliation opened on February 12, 2002. Because Dorasan Station is the northernmost station in South Korea, it will be where customs and the entry of Chinese and Russians, and any goods, as well as the North Koreans will pass through. That is if the Gyeongui Line Railroad connection is ever completed and traffic becomes possible between the two Koreas. Probably not in my lifetime.
On the way back, we stopped at a local supermarket that sold products grown in the DMZ. Some of the abandoned US military bases have been turned into small villages that use the rich soil of the region to grow items such as rice, ginseng and soy beans.
Upon our return, we disembarked the bus and walked over to a Korean BBQ restaurant for lunch. Our lunch consisted of BBQ pork slices, with red salad leaves and bean paste used to make lettuce wraps. Also on the table were small dishes of small prawns, pumpkin/potato mash, mushrooms, bean sprouts, kimchi, seaweed, vegetable soup, and cabbage salad. It was quite delicious and filling. After lunch we shared a vanilla cone, before meeting up with Mr. Hong.
We now had a 5+ hour trip to Gyeongju. Jean and I read and slept a little along the way. At one rest stop there was a Krispy Kreme store! We each bought a donut for later tonight. We arrived in Gyeongju about 6:00. Instead of going to the hotel right away, we said it was ok to explore the area a little. It was very crowded, and Mr. Hong had trouble finding a parking spot since most of the parking lots were full. But he prevailed and found one along the street
We toured the Daereungwon Tomb Complex. This is the site of ancient tombs of kings from the Silla Period in Korean history. During the Silla period, as the dynasty grew, and repelled an invasion from the Tang Dynasty, it eventually united the Korean pennisula and was the beginning of the Korean people. The Silla capital was Gyeongju, and it is here that there are over 50 tombs of kings, queens and the wealthy class. Many had been raided over the centuries, but a few had not.
In the complex, you can enter Cheonmachong Tomb. This was excavated in 1973, and they found many gold relics, including a crown, bracelets and other relics. You can enter the tomb and see how the relics were found. The relics of gold are replicas. The originals are in museums. We left the complex and walked over to another park to see the Cheomseongdae Observatory, the oldest astronomical observatory in Asia.
Afterwards it was now 8:00 pm and it was time to go to our hotel. We were staying at the K Hotel, which was an upscale hotel, but it didn't have all of the normal amenities, such as tissues and a clock. We quickly settled in having our donuts, and then crashed.