NOTE: Since we were going to a place with soldiers and guns and stuff, this was not a tour where we could take pictures at our leisure. Cameras were only allowed where and when they said so. If you’re wondering why there aren’t pics of here or any headstands there, it’s because I didn’t want to get shot okay? Enjoy the story.
You ever hear that joke by Dave Chappelle about being taken to the ghetto? He talks about once how on his way back after a show his limo driver got a phone call and had to “make a stop real quick”. Dave didn’t know where he was going at first until he looked out the window: “Gun store, gun store, liquor store, gun store… ‘WHERE THE FUCK YOU TAKING ME?’”
Yea. That was the thought going through my head on our way to the DMZ. As our tour bus brought us closer and closer to the most militarized place in the world, I looked out the window and saw military blockades, landmine warning signs, armed soldiers… Fuck! I was being taken to the ghetto.
The fact that this was a tour did nothing to dissuade the tension that built through the day. Everything seemed innocently casual as our tourist group departed that morning from Seoul. About half an hour in during our drive up north, we got our first warning. “If you look to your left you will see the Han River. This river runs through both North and South Korea. You may have noticed the lookout stations and barbed wire fencing. That’s there to prevent North Korean spies from coming in through the water. They have been spotted and caught here before. Therefore swimming in the river is forbidden, and anyone spotted in the water may be shot.”
Our first tour stop was the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel. Of the rumored 90+ tunnels that North Koreans have dug into South Korea, this is the 3rd one they’ve found. Getting to the tunnel involved first descending a series of long ramps. The deeper we moved into the earth, the colder, danker, and dimmer it grew. Upon reaching the mouth of the tunnel, I realized that my earlier notions of spacious, cavernous exploration must be put aside. These tunnels were barely 5 and 1/2 feet tall. No spelunking here.
Head ducked, back stooped, knees bent. This was much less about exploring a tunnel than it was about enduring it. Most of the view in these cramped quarters was the people shuffling along through it – single file lines of tourists crawling forwards and back. The monotony was almost hypnotic.
Back into the daylight, we continued our tour with a few brief stints at various important landmarks. First, the Dora Observatory where we got amphitheatre seating and a full view of our northern neighbors.
Next was Dorasan Station, one of the few railway networks connecting North and South Korea. Transportation operations had been ceased here for a while, but they’ve restored the station as a tourist spot. No guns here – works for me.
From this point on we parted ways with our original tour bus and joined up with another tour. We were now headed for the Joint Security Area – the location of the actual borderline. This place is that comes to mind when people think of the DMZ – a nondescript line, a few simple buildings, and soldiers pacing back and forth from both sides. However, the only reference I have of the DMZ is the scene from Planet Bboy where North and South Korean soldiers solve their differences through a breakdance battle.
I doubt we’ll be seeing any of that there.
Arriving to the site involved a bit of a process. Our bus made its first stop near the entrance of Camp Casey (U.S. military base), where an armed American soldier came on board and checked our passports. He now became our permanent escort. We switched to yet another bus which took us further into base. Our next stop was an auditorium in The Freedom House where we sat down to a short documentary of DMZ history. Significant events included the axe murder incident in 1976 where North Korean soldiers killed two American soldiers (on base!) with axes over a dispute involving the cutting down of a tree. Wild shit.
Completely put at ease by the film, we were ushered to the back steps of the Freedom House. This was the view.
So this is it huh? Hi North Korea!
From here on out, it became quite regimented. We had to stay put, make no sudden movements, not point at anything, and only take pictures when allowed. After a few minutes we were taken to one of the conference rooms. This is where officers from the North and South come together to talk about things. The building and furniture were literally divided down the middle. Half marked the North, the other half marked the South. We were even allowed to cross this invisible border.
So guess what this means? I’ve technically been to North Korea.
Well… no headstands here for me. I’m not going to be part of some future warning video about a dumb tourist getting shot for standing on his head. Later North Korea!
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