River gives me my requested wake-up call at 4 AM. I’m wide awake and feeling much better. I dress in a nice dark suit, put on my trenchcoat and gloves, and head out the door into pre-dawn Ansan. Ross, River, and I meet at Brant’s apartment. We walk to the subway station, where we meet Derek. It’s an hour’s ride to the USO. On the train, I conk out asleep. We get to our stop and exit the station. The sun is starting to peek out from behind some buildings, and we walk in the frigid air to the USO. I feel like I’m in familiar territory again. All the buildings are tan and brown. Inside the USO office, they have some more great tours that I’d like to go on, and some literature that I’ve been wanting to get (like a book on translating Korean menus). I’ll have to make another trip there sometime when I have money. We piled into the bus around 7 AM and headed off. We all slept on the hour’s drive to our first stop. Suddenly, things started looking more threatening and military. We got to a bridge that was lined with concrete blockers that the bus had to slowly weave through. We got into Panmunjon and filed out into a building where a soldier gave us a quick but thorough Powerpoint presentation and also gave us the rules. We can only take pictures when they say we can take pictures. We can’t make any gestures to the North Koreans (not even waving or smiling). We always have to stay with the group.

Our first stop was a nice modern building that the Hyundae family built for family reunions between the North and South. It has yet to be used for that purpose. When the soldier told us to leave our bags and camera bags on the bus, River thought he meant cameras too. So when the soldier asked the group if anyone forgot her camera, River raised her hand with three others, and they went to go retrieve their cameras.

UN and North Korean Compounds

Our next stop was right outside. We climbed a winding staircase with a low overhead (I bumped my head) to a pagoda that had a nice view. The U.N. buildings in Panmunjon are painted blue. We are surrounded on three sides by North Korean buildings. There’s an imposing gray concrete building in front of us staffed with North Korean guards. It’s supposed to be a recreation center, but there’s no recreational equipment inside. Brant gives me his camera, and I do my best to get some decent shots of the North Korean guards.
We are then led to the blue building where negotiations take place. The building itself is divided between North and South. Standing guard are two intimidating ROK (Republic of Korea) Guards. They’re dressed in military gear with helmets and big black sunglasses and black gloves. What makes them intimidating is not their dress, it’s their stance. They stand in a ready Taekwondo position which locks their elbows to their sides with their fists slightly raised in a fighting position. After the presentation, we made sure to get our pictures taken with the ROK Guards. We then stepped over into the North Korean side of the building to get more pictures taken. Yes, I stepped into North Korea. The tension at this site is so palpable. It’s also so interesting because it’s a place where history is currently happening.
Standing in North Korea
We then get back into the bus and head to a lookout point on the very northern edge of the U.N. section. From there, you get a great view of the North. To the left is Propaganda Village. It’s a village that’s all facade buildings that also houses a humongous speaker system that blares propaganda to the other side. In the village is the world’s largest flag pole with a North Korean flag so large that it almost falls apart from its own weight. There are also large signs, like the Hollywood sign, that say things in Korean such as “Yankee Go Home” and “Our General #1.” We are also right in front of the Bridge of No Return, where prisoner exchanges have taken place and other bits of history. Needless to say, we got some great pictures of the area. I hope one turns out, which I took of a North Korean looking at us through binoculars from an outpost. Wish we had zoom lenses. This is the ultimate tour for someone with a zoom lens.

Brant, myself, and Ross with North Korea in the background

We got back into the bus, escorted by large Humvees, and we went close to the Bridge of No Return and saw the spot where in the 1970s, two soldiers were attacked with axes by the North Koreans while the U.N. tried to chop down a tree that was blocking their view.

The Bridge of No Return

We headed up to eat lunch on the base, a pizza and spaghetti buffet. We also did some souvenir shopping. We then went on the next section of the tour. The tour we had been on so far is forbidden for South Koreans. They are not allowed in Panmunjon without special permission. The next leg of our tour was the places that the South Koreans were allowed to go.

We went to an observation point on top of a mountain. No, you can’t see seven states there, but it does have that Chattanooga tourist trap feel (that I like so much).

River with Veterans

While we were waiting to go inside for the presentation, a busload of Korean War veterans came out. They were very curious about our little group and started asking Ross questions about England. They then wanted pictures with River, and I took them. That was really cool, especially after watching that movie last week about the Korean War.

Inside the Korean soldier gave us the lowdown on the area, using a train set model. We were given more rules, like to only take pictures behind the yellow line.

Outside, the view was beautiful if not for the dour mood behind the reason for the observation point. We could clearly see Propaganda Village and more of the North itself. We could almost see the first real city of the North. River and I noticed a cute Korean boy holding a South Korean flag while looking at the North. I asked the boy to turn around and hold his flag up for us to take his picture. It frightened him a bit, but his family got a kick out of it. The soldier then cut in. We were taking pictures in front of the yellow line. Fortunately, the camera wasn’t confiscated. I was told that they usually do that. So we ended up with a beautiful picture of a Korean boy waving the South Korean flag in front of North Korea. I would almost enter that into contests.

Boy with flag

Our next stop on the tour was entering one of the four tunnels that the North was digging to infiltrate the South. The one we were in was built during the 1970s. We put on hard hats and took a slow rail car into the tunnel.  The space was cramped, and we frequently heard the coconut shell noise of hard hats hitting the sides of the rock. We went through the tunnel, and you could see where the North had stuck dynamite in to blow out portions of the rock. They had also painted the rock black to make it look like it was an old coal mine. When the tunnel was discovered, the North quickly denied it and blew up the tunnel from the Northern border up. So we reached the end of the tunnel at the Northern border, where it was a wall blocked with razor wire. I wanted to get as close as I could, and I got close enough to where I was touching the razor wire. I then acted as a cover to fellow guerrilla photographers who were getting illegal pictures of the inside of the tunnel.

River was next to me through the journey back to the tram. I squeezed into the middle of a three person car and sat patiently for the long journey back up. Bored, I turned to River to ask her a question about her fiance.

“Excuse me?” said a voice that was much deeper than River’s.

The whole time I thought River was next to me, but it was a man in a very similar coat. I apologized for mistaking him for someone else.

Our last stop was a newly built railroad station connecting the North and the South. Both sides had agreed to build a railroad connecting the two countries so that someone could realistically take a train from Busan, on the southern tip of Korea, to England. The North has not progressed far on its side of the rail, but the South has finished its side and has built a nice train station. It’s funny because even though the station is not functional, it has a working concession stand because of all the tourists coming in to look at it. There were a few articles of interest, including a rail signed by George W. Bush at the commencement ceremony, wishing for the eventual reunion of the two countries. The most significant part, in my opinion, was the station sign that said “To Pyongyang.” We got our pictures with South Korean soldiers in front of that sign.

Train Station

Again, we slept most of the way back into Seoul. River was very tired, so she went back to Ansan. Brant, Derek and I decided to take a stop at the Itaewon tourist area. Itaewon is where the U.S. Army base is. In the station, I went to the tourism office to finally get some subway maps in English. There was a lady in there who obviously had just gotten off the plane and had no idea how to work the subway or anything. I told her what to say at the ticket counter. And I talked to the Koreans behind the desk, asking them if they had various maps. I left and then remembered that River needed a map, so I went back in and asked for another one. The Koreans girls said that my accent was very good and asked how long I had studied Korean.

“Oh, two months.”

“Two months? Wow!”

They all covered their mouths and giggled.

We went to a popular foreigner bar outside the station and had a drink. There were not many Koreans inside. It felt familiar and alien at the same time. After we finished our drinks, the waiter came by with another round.

“Why are you giving us drinks?”

“They’re from someone at the bar.”

We were puzzled as to who would have bought us drinks. When we were halfway through, a large bearded man came up to us and said, “I bet you’re a bit confused. I ordered that round of drinks for the table behind you. They got the wrong table.”

“Oh well, thanks for the drinks anyway.”

While doing laundry, I was bored so I turned on my computer. It worked!! The monitor works now! So I spent the day configuring it and loading Windows and my programs on it. I had planned on cooking Brant and River a home cooked meal of pasta alfredo, but it was too much of a hassle. The meals I could make cheaply in the States are more expensive to make here. It’s cheaper just to go out, even if you’re cooking Korean.

March 1st is Korea’s Independence Movement Day. So I had the day off. Christina called and wanted me to come over. This was a brave new step for me — doing the subway and getting a taxi to take me to a neighborhood in Korean by myself. It worked. Christina was walking down the street as I was stepping out of the cab. She, Glen, Chris and I just hung out in their apartment all day watching “Undercover Brother” and music videos. We made burritoes too, and they were pretty good. We got some Korean beers in big plastic bottles, almost two litres each. It was a nice lazy afternoon with friends.

When the taxi dropped me off at Pyongchon station, I decided I had a lot of time to kill, so I wandered around Pyongchon before taking the subway back to Ansan. Mostly, I was looking for gift ideas for Anastasia’s birthday next month. I’m so fascinated by the seafood restaurants. They have aquariums on the outside advertising the real life swimming ingredients on the menu. There were eels, flounder, big ugly fish, live octopus, large crabs. bigger uglier fish, some squishy things that looked like balloons… Korea doesn’t need a tourist aquarium. They just need to walk by the seafood restaurants. I have found that there are two major seafood markets in Seoul, so I gotta make a trek there sometime with a camera.

Also, Korea has a lot of Christian churches. You can tell at night by the sea of red neon crosses on buildings.

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