Korea 2008 Day Eight: DMZ

by Kara on October 15, 2008

Today was quite an unusual day. We started by going to the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone). We took a train up to Dorasan, but we had to get off the train one stop before that so they could record our passports and we could buy our tour tickets. Then we had to go through a metal detector and have Korean soldiers check our passports again. Then we boarded a different train for the short jaunt to Dorasan (probably so we didn’t have any weaponry hidden on our other train).

A group of school children readies for a tour of the demilitarized zone in South Korea.

A group of school children readies for a tour of the demilitarized zone in South Korea.

At Dorasan, there was a huge, beautiful modern train station, which was mostly deserted. There were signs for the tracks to take the train to Pyongyong, but of course there is no train to Pyongyong yet. Despite all the defense measures in the DMZ, it is clear that the South Korean people are just waiting for reunification. Everything is all ready to connect the South to the North, including beautiful new highways. Koreans call their country Hanguk or Dae Han Min Guk. One of the meanings of the word han (as close as it can be translated in English) is “beautiful sadness”, which describes Koreans and their country pretty well, I think. Reunification seems such a remote possibility right now, but I remember believing that the Berlin Wall would never come down too. So maybe it will happen in my lifetime. I hope so.

After disembarking from the train, we got on a bus for the tour. Unfortunately, the tour was in Korean (because of where we bought the tickets), so a lot was lost on Stephen and me, unfortunately. The first stop was the “3rd Tunnel”. This is one of the tunnels that South Korea has been finding since 1975. The North Koreans were digging tunnels under the truce line to facilitate invasion of South Korea. I don’t have the exact figures, but Stephen thought the tunnel was about 300 meters under ground. There is a path that the South Koreans built down to the tunnel, but Hyundai paid for a second tunnel with a little open train to lower people down to the North Korean tunnel. Once we got down to the bottom, we were able to walk all the way through the tunnel to the 3rd barrier (there are two more barriers beyond that, closer to the North Korean side, but obviously they don’t let tourists go anywhere near them. The North Koreans had spread coal on the walls so that they could claim it was an abandoned coal mine. The only problem with their story is that the geology of that area is mostly granite – there is no coal anywhere near their tunnels.

Next, we went to the observatory closest to the truce line. Stephen found out the hard way that he wasn’t supposed to take pictures there. A soldier wanted to look at his pictures and make sure there was nothing forbidden on there. Luckily, he hadn’t aimed his camera toward North Korea, so the soldier let him off the hook. The telescopic viewers there weren’t very good and the day was quite overcast, so we weren’t able to see the North Korean flag that one can normally see on a clear day.

Finally, we went to the Dorasan Peace Park, which I don’t think is completed yet because it looked a little sparse. The only brochure about it was in Korean and the drawing in the brochure made the park seem lush and beautiful.

After that, we got back on the train, and once again had to switch trains at the next station. We took that train just two stops, into Munsan. When we got there, they were having some sort of emergency drill (in case of North Korean attack), and we weren’t allowed to leave the train station for about 15 minutes. Finally, we were allowed to leave, and we went for lunch. We had haemeul pajeon – seafood pancakes. Yummy!

This is the gravesite of the founder of the Heunghae Bay clan. The grave is approximately 600 years old. Newer monuments were added more recently. The table is for laying out food for ancestors.

This is the gravesite of the founder of the Heunghae Bay clan. The grave is approximately 600 years old. Newer monuments were added more recently. The table is for laying out food for ancestors.

Next came the most interesting part of the day. We took the bus to Osan and walked to the graves of some Bay family ancestors. The land is owned by the Bay clan, but development has encroached around it, making the grave sites a little difficult to get to. After the first one, we had to tramp through the woods (no path), up and down hills to get to each successive grave. But for the last one, we had to walk a little bit through the town, because it was “too hard to get to” from the previous site. As if the other ones were easy! Anyway, the oldest grave was around 600 years old. The original stones are still there, but quite weathered. The oldest one was the 12th generation from the original ancestor, and the founder of the Heunghae Bay clan. For comparison, Stephen is the 33rd generation from the original ancestor. Stephen’s Dad goes there several times a year to weed and clean up around the graves (14 times this year, 19 times last year, 16 times in 2006 – yes, he keeps track). At each grave, he and Stephen had to bow completely to the ground twice, and I had to take a picture of this at each site. I know Stephen was a little less than thrilled about it, but I think it really meant a lot to his Dad to be able to take Stephen there and have him participate in paying respects to their ancestors. At each grave site, there were two stone guardians, which were also original and very weathered. I thought it was pretty neat that we were able to go there, as Stephen may never have an opportunity to visit that area again (but we are now armed with lots of maps if we ever go again).

After that, we had an extremely long bus ride followed by a really long subway ride. We stopped at a restaurant for dolsotbap (hot pot rice) and dubu-jjigae (tofu stew). The dubu-jjigae was delicious. I wasn’t so crazy about the dolsotbap because it had chestnuts and jujubes in it – I like plain old rice.

Dubu jeongol (tofu hot pot) is a tasty Korean dish.

Dubu jeongol (tofu hot pot) is a tasty Korean dish.

The good news is that tomorrow, we are on our own. There are three more places Stephen’s Dad wants to take us, but other than those three spots, we are on our own if we choose for the rest of the trip. Friday he is taking us to Deoksugung, which is one of the palaces. They are having an exhibit of South American art at a gallery there that he wants to see. He also wants to take us to Dongdaemun (the South Gate) and Dongdaemun Market, as well as an Aquarium.

But tomorrow is my choice, so Stephen and I are going to Insa-dong, which is the arts district and to Bukchon, so Stephen can take pictures of the traditional houses (hanok). I can’t wait for a day on our own! Yay!

Check out more of Stephen’s pictures of South Korea.

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