As close as it gets to North Korea
Wednesday February 20, 2013
We left the best for last on our last full day in Korea.
Jia recommended the tour run out of the USO by a company called Koridoor and so we booked directly with them. They cost is $80 USD so somewhat steep but it seemed worth it as some tours don’t include the infiltration tunnel.
Farrah, Chantelle and I got to Camp Kim at 11AM to check-in but we didn’t get on the coach bus until 11:30AM. Our guide introduced himself as Vincent, gave us a low down of the itinerary and then asked us to make a decision on dinner (bimbimbap or bulgogi). After that we all passed out.
3rd Infiltration Tunnel
Our first stop at 1PM was the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel. They made us watch a movie and Vincent walked us through a museum in seriously 3 minutes. From there we walked across the parking lot to the actual entrance to the tunnel. We put on our yellow hardhats and walked down hill a good 300 meters until we got to the the bottom. The real tunnel itself is probably only 200 meters in length that you have to walk through. What was really annoying about the tunnel was that it must’ve been made by really short people (I guess that makes sense since North Koreans are supposed to be a lot shorter in height because of malnutrition) so I constantly banged my hard hat on the ceiling. Once you get to the end of the tunnel you get to see the third barrier the military had placed to block off the tunnel and a tiny hole allows you to see the second barrier. So the whole story behind the tunnel was that the North Koreans were clearly trying to dig their way through into South Korea but as a cover story they painted the tunnel walls with coal dust. When they were discovered in 1978, they claimed they were digging for coal but none of that makes any sense because they found dynamite marks (which are marked in yellow down there) pointed in the direction of South Korea and the fact that geologically there is only granite in the area. Idiots! The scary part is that South Korea has only found 4 of these tunnels when they suspect there are 20 more like these scattered along the DMZ. No photos are allowed in the tunnel so unfortunately I couldn’t get any pictures.
Dora Observation Center
Our second stop was the Dora Observation Center. The only thing we were there to do was to take a look from a high vantage point what the landscape of North Korea across the border looked like. The sad thing was that we were only allowed to take pictures behind this yellow line and not where all the binoculars were lined up. We did however use the binoculars to take a closer look at the North Korean flag pole and the fake village of Gijongdong. It was so ridiculously cold up there though. We were all freezing our asses off. It was really cool to see everything from the high ground though. We also got to spot the DMZ area from left to right, the industrial complex of Kaesong which I was surprised to hear from Vincent actually produces cheap goods for the South Koreans. Right when we were there we could see a ton of trucks lined up across the main highway that were meant to transport the goods back to South Korea in exchange for USD (how ironic). I guess the South Koreans do try to provide the North Koreans with a bit of economy and at the same time they get dirt cheap labour.
Dorasan Train Station
From there we went to Dorasan train station. Now this is a station that acts as the last stop before North Korea. In 2008, the line was actually open between Dorasan Station and Kaesong to transport goods but with the switch to a more conservative government and some other political stuff, they shut it back down. We paid 500 Won to get a commemorative ticket and a chance to see the platforms themselves so that was kind of neat. Once this is linked up, it’ll be able to go up to North Korea, connect into Siberia and China.
Joint Security Area and Camp Bonifas
Last but not least was the tour of the Joint Security Area (JSA) itself that is most well-known. We entered into Camp Bonifas and right away a US Captain or something came on board to give us a quick and to the point brief about what was going to happen. He was essentially assigned to our bus as a security escort for the entire duration of the tour. From there we rolled into the visitor center where we went into a theater to sign basically a release that says we agree to enter hostile territory where we could die and to hear an official briefing by the US military about the history of JSA and the joint operation between the Republic of Korea Army and US Army sanctioned by the United Nations Command Security Battalion. These army guys were the real deal. They spoke lightening fast so I could only catch half the details and very much how you’d expect an American soldier to act.
The Blue Houses
We hopped on a special UN bus and made our way to the Freedom House. Along the way Captain West pointed out a few things like the active mine field, electric fences, explosive laced roads, observation towers and entrance to the Freedom Village. The coolest part was to come. The Freedom House was apparently built to reunite families of the South and the North but it was never used that way because the North Koreans couldn’t trust their people to not defect. In 2 single files (yes very specific), we walked to the back exit of the building and we were finally staring down at the blue buildings and some North Korean building. Standing outside were 5 Republic of Korea soldiers in some serious stance. They must’ve been there for over an hour standing still like that. I don’t get how they don’t get cold out there. We first went into the main armistice agreement building and inside were 2 more guards. Captain West explained to us a bit about how the meeting room was used and then allowed us to roam around and take pictures for 10 minutes. The only rules were that we had to stay a good 40cm away from the soldiers standing guard at all times or else they’d push us away, we couldn’t take pictures of the Freedom House from the inside (I still don’t get that) and we couldn’t pass the guard who was standing at the North Korea exit of the conference room. Captain West said it was pretty rare to see North Korean soldiers to be posted inside the room or even outside unless there were people visiting which was contrary to what I thought. So I guess they don’t have North and South Korean soldiers looking at each other all day long. These soldiers are also trained at the highest level of taekwondo so their stance is some sort of ready position (fists at the side) so they are ready to attack at all times. Their sunglasses are also supposed to show no emotion or something like that. The coolest part was that since the demarkation line itself crossed the center of the conference table, we were at one point straddling both North and South Korea and then afterwards fully in North Korea albeit only 1.5 meters hah.
After that we stood at the top of the steps of the Freedom House and spent another 10 minutes taking pictures of the blue houses and the North Korean behind. Earlier there wasn’t a North Korean guard standing there but there was one now. Captain West also pointed out that to the left of him was actually a guy behind the glass with binoculars watching us so we shouldn’t hesitate taking photos of them. It’s really too bad I didn’t bring my 70-200 to really zoom in. Rules: No pointing at the North Koreans or again taking photos behind at the Freedom House.
From there we went to checkpoint 3 tower to take a look down at checkpoint 4 where the axe incident murder occurred and some other stuff in the distance. We took a bus ride around to look at the Bridge of No Return and then headed back to the visitor centre to conclude the tour.
We swapped back on our own bus and headed back to near the Dorason Station for dinner at some cafeteria. I could only stomach half of the meal and then had what must’ve been 5 tangerines because they were so good. Let me tell you though, I was feeling like crap for most of the tour though. Luckily I was able to pull through.
The Real Gangnam Style
At 7PM we pulled into Camp Kim again. We decided to check out Gangnam as our last destination for our trip. We would’ve felt pretty dumb for not visiting Gangnam if we didn’t. It’s all your fault Psy. But in truth it was pretty cool there. The shopping area underground once you get off the subway is huge. From what I saw the prices there were really good for clothes. Too bad of course almost all of it were for women.
Farrah then decided that we could visit a Dr. Fish (where tiny fish nibble at your feet to eat off the dead skin). It took us a long time to find it as we first got out of the wrong exit and then had to consult the wifi for more directions. We eventually found our way but we had to go through a stretch of Gangnam outdoors. I don’t know what was wrong with me but the cold really got to me and by the time we got to the second floor of the cafe with Dr. Fish I was in an uncontrollable shiver. I literally couldn’t stop. To add to that the Dr. Fish part of the cafe was closed as this was around 10:30PM. All I could do was drink some warm water and try to warm up.
Since there wasn’t much we could do and it was getting pretty late, we got on a cab and headed home.
From what I can remember seeing of Gangnam, it was a complete transformation from the other neighbourhoods we had seen prior. It was very much a New York style neighbourhood with tall sky scrappers surrounding the area, lots of bright lights, wide muli-lane streets and tons of stores. It really is the nice, posh and modern part of Seoul.
The night wasn’t all that great for me but better than the previous night. No puking. Just a bad headache so I popped in a tylenol. The big question was whether I’d be able to fly the next day or not…
I’d like to thank Chantelle for taking care of me especially the past couple of days while I was sick. Not sure how I would’ve survived without you! <3
Tips & Tricks
- DMZ – Is it even a question?? I don’t have experience with the other tour operators but Koridoor did a pretty great job. My only gripe was that Vincent didn’t have the greatest english. Be sure to book this as early as possible once you can decide on the date of your tour and plan your trip to Seoul around it. By the time we wanted to book we found that a lot of dates (especially weekends) were already taken. Their booking system is a bit weird. You have to fill out a form which gets submitted but after that you have to wait for someone to get back to you to confirm that you’re in the tour. However if the tour date is full, it won’t take you to the form to begin with. Payment is a bit tricky. You have to pay 4 days prior to the tour and it’s either done by 1) Cash in person so that’d mean making a special trip to the USO office. Oh and one last thing, since only one meal is served on this you might get very hungry along the way so don’t forget to bring an extra meal or snacks.
- Bus 750A to Seoul Station
- Subway to Samgakji Station
- Koridoor DMZ Tour
- Walk to Camp Kim USO
- 11:00AM Check In
- 11:30PM Bus departs
- 1:00PM 3rd Infiltration Tunnel
- Dora Observatory into North Korea
- Dorasan Train Station
- 3:15PM Camp Bonifas – Briefing, Freedom House, Conference Row, Checkpoint Charlie, Bridge of No Return)
- 5PM Dinner
- 7PM arrival back at Camp Kim
- Subway to Gangnam Station
- Underground shopping
- Walk around the streets of Gangnam
- Failed attempt to find a Dr. Fish
Addresses & Directions
- USO Camp Kim (Koridoor Tours)
- Address: USO #104, Galwol-dong, Yongsan-gu, Seoul, Korea 140-807
- There a few ways to get there when they send you the instructions but the easiest is this way:
- Take the subway to Samgakji Station Exit 10
- Once you leave the exit, walk straight for 7 minutes and you’ll see a walled compound to the left. Keep walk until the next opening and you’ll see a USO sign. Turn left into the building.
- Price: $80 USD
- Dr. Fish in Gangnam (it’s in a cafe called Namu Gunul 나무그늘)
- Gangnam Station Exit 10
- Walk 5-7 minutes straight from the subway exit
- You will eventually comes to a BSX (Basic House) on your left and a large crosswalk on your right. The cafe is located on the second floor above BSX
- Price: 2,000 Won for Dr. Fish
Check out the next day
And that’s a wrap! Our last day was a transit day from Seoul back to Toronto but standby is always a surprise waiting to happen. Check it out here: Day 8 – Goodbye Seoul