When visiting Seoul, I wasn’t overly prepared with an itinerary. It was on my first day there, sat in a hotel room with my best friend who had come over from Hong Kong that I actually started looking through a guide book to get my bearings. To my surprise, one of the top recommended things to do was a tour up to the border between South and North Korea. A few frantic emails later and we had booked ourselves onto an early morning departure the next day.
Now for someone who travels a lot, I had no idea that Seoul is only 55km from the border. It’s a shockingly close distance for a major city to be placed from such a volatile nation. Our tour was taking us to the DMZ, or Demilitarisation Zone. It’s a 4km wide, 240km long buffer between the two countries, marked by land mines, barbed wire and armed guards. As we got closer to the official entry point we went through numerous checkpoints and were required to show our passport to soldiers who came on the bus.
It was bizarre. Everyone on the bus became more solemn and stoic, there was definitely an element of fear, or maybe it was just because the situation was so unknown. For me it was comparable to visiting Auschwitz ten years ago; a feeling of something being not quite right, almost as though I shouldn’t be playing tourist in a place with such global cultural and historical significance. The car park for the tourist coaches had an old abandoned fairground ride, as though somebody once thought that the site of one of the world’s most fragile relationships just really needed a bit of fun.
You are strictly told to stay within a specific area once in the DMZ and it’s not just for show; there are signs for land mines everywhere. We were taken to the third infiltration tunnel, one of four tunnels that have been discovered running under the DMZ from North Korea to launch surprise attacks on the South.
The tunnel is extremely small and claustrophobic, and as a 5ft 9″ woman, I had to walk hunched over for the entire way down but a hard hat saved me from a concussion. There are dynamite holes all the way along which is really alarming, and then there’s the walls. The North Koreans covered them in coal dust so that if they were caught digging, they could say they were mining for coal! I touched the walls and the dust is still there, clinging on.
The main drawer to the DMZ is the viewing point looking into North Korea. Sadly we had dense fog and literally could not see a thing. The huge map above our heads told us that we would have been able to see houses, flag poles and roads across the border and I won’t lie, I was hugely disappointed that we couldn’t see anything. There was also a strict box where we could stand and take photos; due to recent shelling we were allowed to use cameras right at the edge and soldiers were literally walking up to people who ignored the rules, taking their cameras and just walking off.
Our final stop at the DMZ was Dorasan Train Station, a railway line destroyed during the Korean War was reconnected in 2003 and it is essentially ready to transport people from South Korea over to Pyeongyang 205km away. The train station has departure boards, a waiting area and signs towards platforms but absolutely nobody was going anywhere north of where we were stood. We had reached the end of the line.
The whole experience was extremely surreal, a little scary and totally unique. The political landscape there will continue to develop and change and the DMZ won’t always be as it is right now. I’ve seen a piece of history, and that is very special.