The DMZ, or Demilitarized Zone, is the buffer area between North and South Korea where no military exists. The following is my account of our two and a half hour tour written from notes kept in my sketchbook along the way:
2:00 - Our bus tour begins at the tourist stop in Paju city. The bus is full of Korean, Chinese, and Western tourists.
2:01 - As we're pulling away from the lot, a lady interjects that she left her camera in the bathroom. We pause for a moment.
2:03 - We're moving along slowly in the countryside where harvested rice fields are prevalent. The bus driver speaking in Korean points out that photos cannot be taken while in the moving bus, but only at designated stops along the tour.
2:08 - We stop at a South Korean military checkpoint where a young soldier boards the bus to check the passengers and cargo. We have our passports and IDs in hand, but the check is a cursory one consisting of him just walking up and down the aisle looking side to side.
2:10 - We're moving along a very empty road. The driver points out that fifteen more minutes along this road will get us to North Korea, but of course we'll be turning off before then. He informs us that only a handful of vehicles use this road per day, mostly tour buses and military transports.
2:12 - We pass a truck checkpoint where North Korean factory trucks enter to deliver goods.
2:17 - We make our first major stop at a place called "The 3rd Tunnel." We're instructed to put our belongings, including cameras and my sketchbook, into lockers and put on blue hard hats. We sit onto a series of cars on a narrow track (like an amusement park ride) three in a row and fasten our seatbelts. I notice the track leads into a tiny tiny hole in a wall.
2:24 - The "train" begins a slow descent down the track into a ridiculously narrow tunnel. If you are highly claustrophobic I recommend you skip this part of the tour. I'm sitting in a center seat where the tunnel diameter is at it's highest and even my hard hat is nearing the top. Passengers along the side seats are sometimes forced to lean inwards to avoid scraping along the rocky tunnel. The cold dark tunnel is lit by spotlights at points and a green neon light running along the roof.
2:26 - The entire trip is a steep downward decline. Speakers along the side (spoken at English at some points) inform me that this "3rd Tunnel" was dug by North Koreans in preparation for a surprise attack AFTER peace was supposedly established. The South Koreans discovered the tunnel in 1978. The downward decline is explained by the North Koreans needing to drain the water backwards during digging.
2:31 - We reach the bottom point of the tunnel available to tourist access. We disembark the car and find ourselves standing in a narrow rocky tunnel like cave. The roof of the cave is wet with moisture. I walk north along the tunnel, crouching down the entire way to avoid scraping my hardhat against the roof. Again, this is not for the claustrophobic. At one point in the tunnel there are traces of coal along the walls, although I learn that the North Koreans planted these markings in order to use the excuse during withdrawal that this tunnel was for mining purposes. No coal exists in this area. An informative sign in the tunnel reads "Again, we feel the double-sidedness of the North Koreans."
2:39 - I reach the end of the tunnel available to tourists. I wonder what is on the other side of the wall that reads in heavy red letters "RESTRICTED ACCESS." There are only a few points in the tunnel where I can stand upright comfortably and for the record, I am 6 ft. tall.
2:45 - After drinking from a natural spring water faucet down in the tunnel, my group and I begin a walking ascent back to the surface via a professionally drilled tunnel by a South Korean company after discovery of the secret tunnel. After arriving at the surface, we take some pics in front of a statue (pictured above.)
3:00 - We go into the DMZ Theater and watch a short movie about the history of the border. It feels a little propaganda-ish but in the end the hope is that in the future this area will represent the peace that is resolved between the two halves of Korea.
3:23 - We hop back onto the bus and continue along, passing a military checkpoint freely without stopping.
3:31 - We disembark the bus for our next extended stop, a building colored in camoflauge with Korean writing foreign to me. I notice a balcony behind the building where most of the tourists have gathered so I prep my camera and make my way over there. As I near the balcony I notice a yellow line on the ground indicating "no photography past this point," realizing that the balcony view looks into the DMZ and North Korea. I draw a thumbnail sketch of the vast landscape in my sketchbook. Other tourists feed coins into binocular machine and peer over the balcony. A North Korean factory is visible in front of the mountains. Aside from that it the DMZ is very quiet and beautiful.
3:45 - We hop back on the bus and head downhill passing the same military checkpoint without stopping again. The young Korean soldier salutes the bus as we pass by.
3:47 - I see what look like warehouses approaching. I learn that these are storage facilities for trade of goods with North Korea. Dorasan Train Station is visible.
3:49 - We get off the bus for Dorasan Train Station, a small but nicely architectured station. From what I understand it was built during a previous government in order to open travel between the two Koreas. For some reason, government related I have to assume, the station feels abandoned, yet new. We walk in and there are a group of soldiers standing inside. The ceilings are high, the windows are large, the entire station feels like it hasn't even been used. Above the turnstiles a directional sign reads "To Pyeongyang" and the light up board which would normally show arrival and departure times simply flashes the brief history of the station. While taking pictures I wonder if the next time I come here, whenever that may be, this station will be bustling with actual train travelers.
4:04 - We hop back on the bus
4:10 - We make the obligatory souvenir shop stop. A bunch of people smoke. Some go inside to browse. I just walk around outside the bus and enjoy the quiet peacefulness of the area that has resulted from the DMZ. I look up and watch the myriad of birds flying in V-formation and remember learning during the tour that the DMZ has indirectly become a natural haven for endangered animals because of the lack of human presence there.
4:30 - We arrive back at base camp in Paju. I wonder how different this tour will be five years from now, ten years, so on and so on.