Instawalk: A Tour of the DMZ

if you visit Seoul and don’t fit in a day tour of the DMZ, shame on you. IMHO it’s well worth your time to actually see recent (and ongoing) history and step foot into North Korea without having to do one of those wacky tours to the actual country. plus, it’s really intense with those soldiers just staring each other (and you) down! oh, and all the rules you have to follow about where you can stand, what you can do with and without a camera — ack! all around an unforgettable experience.

Panorama of North Korea from Dora Observatory.

sidebar: tours i’ve heard that the tours given by the USO are the best, and they certainly are the cheapest that i’ve seen (i think around $80), but you do need to book early because they go quickly. i was too late and decided to go with Panmunjom Travel Center ($120 for a full-day tour). we had a great — if overly enthusiastic — tour guide and i did learn a lot, so i think they should be a pretty safe choice. plus, the bus was full, so that’s a good sign.

regardless of which company you choose, tours to this area are broken up into two parts: the Panmunjom part and the DMZ part. Panmunjom is the Joint Security Area (JSA), where you can see (and walk over) the border and the soldiers in that very famous setting. the DMZ tour is pretty much everything else surrounding the JSA in the DMZ, including the Third Tunnel and Dora Observatory. unless you’re really short on time or money, you might as well do a combined tour that does both (with lunch in between). our tour also included a chance to talk to a North Korean defector — it’s really something to actually meet someone who defected via China and Southeast Asia and has only been living in South Korea for less than two years.

i couldn’t decide between doing a Storify or a regular Instawalk post, so i’m going to combine tweets and Instagram shots, i think. i hope it’s not too disjointed!

it’s kind of scary once you actually see how close Seoul is to the DMZ, but it’s really scenic once you get out of town. rice fields and small hillocks everywhere. unfortunately no pictures of this part of the DMZ because you’re only allowed to take them in certain locations.

once you get to the JSA, you’ll enter Camp Bonifas, the “good guys” military installation in the DMZ and sit through a presentation (really informative) on the end of the Korean War, the formation of the zone, and events that made the zone into what it is today. then, you switch over to UN buses (you are a guest of the United Nations Command, Military Armistice Commission, Korea, and actually have to wear a UNCMAC visitors badge) that will take you to the border.

if you’re lucky (and i think most tours are), you will get to go inside one of the blue buildings (blue = good guys) which straddle the border, and house some conference tables (and a guard, of course).

you’re not allowed to touch the guard or go behind him (or through the locked door that leads to well, North Korea). but the border, which you can see as the embedded concrete bar in the exterior picture above, is totally crossable while you’re inside the blue building!

oh and of course, you do have to sign a waiver, though i never felt i was in any danger, despite the thick tension at the border:

the tour continues to historically (and currently) significant sites, such as Freedom Bridge (where the following three pictures were taken), Dora Observatory (where the panorama at the beginning of the post was taken), and the Dorasan Train Station, which has twice-daily trains from Seoul and is the last train station in the South on the railroad line that connects the two countries.

you’ll also stop at the Third Tunnel (so named because it was the third such tunnel discovered) where you walk down a long and steep path to a long and squat (be prepared to walk hunched over for a while) tunnel that the North was attempting to dig all the way to Seoul. you will definitely want to wear the supplied hard hat and don’t rush up the nearly quarter-mile access tunnel on the way out. it’s steep and you’ll end up in (even more of) a sweat. oh, and wear shoes you don’t mind getting a bit wet, as you may step in some puddles along the way. seeing the barricades at the end that lead to the border (you’re really close) is pretty damn wild.

oh yeah, and umm, enjoy the movie you watch before entering the tunnels. IT’S A DOOZY — like you’re high on acid, and the acid is full of propaganda.

it’s absolutely crazy to think the two countries are still technically at war, and you can feel the tension at the border (especially with all the camera rules and such — someone, if not you, will definitely get admonished for some reason or another). other than just plain being a cool experience, i actually learned quite a bit about the war. it was also pretty nifty (to me, not the tour guide who was having conniptions about her schedule being all messed up) that we had to wait while two, then three busloads of Korean War vets got priority access to the sites. waiting in the bus seemed like a minimal sacrifice compared to what they went through.

finally, to end off, a shot i was taking (mostly to fool around with an app) on the way back to Seoul.

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