“Why would you want to go there? Stay in Seoul…..go shopping!”
That was what my Korean born work colleague said to me, with a look of disgust on her face, when I mentioned that during my trip to South Korea I was taking a day tour to the DMZ and Panmunjom – the Demilitarised Zone and Joint Security Area between North and South Korea. So why did I want to go there?
From Seoul, there are basically two areas of the DMZ available to tourists – The half day DMZ Tour which includes Imjingak, Dora Observatory, Dorasan Station and the 3rd infiltration tunnel. Then there’s the half day Panmunjom Tour which includes Camp Bonifas and the Joint Security Area, right on the border between both countries which is only available to certain passport holders. I had combined them both on a full day tour which included lunch and the coach picked me up nice and early at 6:45 am, from outside a subway station conveniently located near my accommodation.
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It was kind of eery on that foggy road with barely any traffic, knowing that I was heading to the worlds most heavily defended border between two countries and the Cold Wars last frontier. You see, the Korean War (1950-1953) never officially ended but an armistice proposed a cease-fire was agreed upon between armed forces and not governments,so I was heading to the front line of two countries still, theoretically, at war.
The first stop, after about 1 hour on the road, was Imjingak Park. The coach pulled into the huge foggy car park and the first thing I see are a few stalls selling hot food and kitsch souvenirs. We are given about 15 minutes to look over the area and the guide tells us what time to be back at the coach and reminds us what coach number we have (there are many others parked in a row). Built as a park of reflection where families and friends of those separated due to the division of the two Korea’s, there are several building and things to look at including a couple of restaurants and viewing area. The park is also the original site of the ‘Bridge of Freedom’ and railway which once crossed over it.
The Gyeongui Train Line was destroyed during the war in 1950. The bombed train, which sits at end of the railway and barbed wire fences overlooking the north, has a plaque which reads:
“This steam locomotive is a symbol of the tragic history of the division into North and South Korea, having been left in the DMZ since it got derailed by bombs during the Korean War. After having been recognized its historical value and having become Registered Cultural Heritage in 2004, it is exhibited at the present location. According to the train operator at the time, the train was backed due to the intervention of the Chines Communist Forces on the way to Pyeongyang to deliver war materials and it was finally destroyed at Jangdan Station. More than 1,020 bullet holes and its bent wheels show the cruel situation at the time”
Adorning the barbed wire fences that traverse the border are thousands upon thousands of coloured ribbons each with written messages of hope from South Koreans to their families and friends in the North who have been separated.
I was getting hungry and since I’d had an early start I headed to one of the stall selling souvenirs and hot food. I pointed to something on a stick and the nice smiley Aunty removed them from the stick into a polystyrene bowl and ladled some steaming hot broth over the top of them. Im still not too sure what I was eating, some kind of tofu skin perhaps? But it was warm and tasty and a bargain at KRW1,000 / AUD1.05
Just before we departed I climbed the lookout to get a better view of the whole area and the Bridge of Freedom that extends to the North but as you can see, the fog had yet not lifted and the bridge couldn’t even be seen, let alone the North…..