It will always be the oddest tourist attraction I’ve ever been to. I’m glad I saw it, even if it’s just to say how odd it is.
Our tour guide Angie was clearly a wealth of knowledge on the subject, unfortunately it was near impossible to comprehend a word she was saying, but aside from that it would be hard to criticise her friendly if somewhat rhetorical enthusiasm. Angie was everything a good tour guide should be, except if you were back late to the bus, then she lost her fucking shit.
Going through the check point after some ambiguous instructions on whether you could or could not take pictures, and equally unclear were the possible consequences of such an infringement. Passing through scores of military we eventually arrived at a viewing point to see the barbed wired fencing that separated South Korea and North Korea by way of the demilitarised zone. We stopped at a collection of street stalls, and a more permanent looking concrete structure. Inside were shops selling camo gear for kids, a coffee shop and a restaurant which seemed to take ‘security tourism’ to a whole new level. Naturally we whipped our cameras out to get involved but it all just sort of felt a bit strange.
Anyway we continued- after arriving back at the bus two minutes late- which is when Angie gave us a bollacking.
We travelled further into the DMZ. After a another dressing down from Ange about the importance of being prompt (fair enough). We disembarked into an underground tunnel where the North Korean’s were discovered secretly digging into South Korea. Much relevance was given on feeling unwell at any point etc etc etc. So we donned our hard hats and started the single file walk underground with a very real sense of doom of what was about to happen..
350m underground later and you’re at the window leading through to another window into North Korea. Absolutely NO PHOTOS ALLOWED!! So just a quick peek then you’re off back to ground level carried along by the tourist traffic.
Outside much effort had been made to make the DMZ area a pleasant surrounding for tourists; a lovely garden, photo op spots, little drawings of bunny rabbits and baby deer. Typical I feel of South Korea to not do anything half arsed, but to take every consideration and really make it an experience. Commendable, and in any other circumstances it would have really worked. But here it only added to the strangeness and the weird surreal feeling you just couldn’t shake off. The whole thing just felt a bit like Neverland Ranch the day after the Martin Bashir interview, uncomfortable and tense.
Our final stop at the DMZ the viewing point into North Korea which was just spectacular- heavily guarded but genuinely not in an intimidating way. Some forbidden pics were caught being taken and perfect politeness and a gentle reminder to stand behind the yellow line a few metres back were the repercussions.
The North Korean panorama looked green, lush mountainous, misty, romantic, ethereal, vast and completely fucking deserted. If it wasn’t for the enormous North Korean flag blowing in the breeze I might have believed the whole thing was a giant sky sized poster (if such a thing existed).
I don’t know what I was expecting at the DMZ, now I’ve written this it’s sounds obvious that of course it would be that way. It was an incredible experience, but the surrealism just overwhelmed me and I couldn’t comprehend it for what it was. The desire for peace and the unification of Korea was continually expressed. A beautiful hope for this I saw reflected throughout South Korea, something that may not have resonated had it not been for the incredibly bizarre experience of the DMZ.