Tag Archives: dmz

Stunning views of North Korea

15 Aug

It’s not every day that you go on an adventure with two of your friends, in search of a Fortress, and end up less than 2km from North Korea! Well, that’s exactly what happened to me today! As Im living in rural Korea, more than an hour from Seoul, most weekends are spent on the train to the ‘big city’, to go out, party, meet friends and enjoy all the other amazing things that the city of lights has to offer.

Today, Thursday, is Independence Day in Korea so everyone had the day off. Not wanting to make the long trek to Seoul just for the day, my friend Shauna suggested we explore our Paju in her car as she heard there was a fortress only 20 minutes drive form where we live. Nobody ever explores Paju, so it seemed like a great opportunity to prove to all the ‘haters’ that there really are great things to do in this region.

After 30 minutes driving, and frantic attempts at translating tourist signs which were only written in Korean we eventually ended up in a large car park which doubled up as a drive in cinema and a go-karting track! This was definitely not what we were looking for, but there were lots of other tourists around so we parked and wandered around. (We even got a 50% reduction on the parking fee because her car is so small – It’s the little things!) We were told to hop on a free shuttle bus which would bring us to Odusan Unification Observatory. As the name of the fortress was Odusan fortress we knew we were going in the right direction.

The bus brought us up a steep and winding hill, with pretty stunning views of the local countryside. On arrival at the top we were all seriously excited as the views were phenomenal. The fact that it was a sunny day made things look even better. As it turned out there was no fortress to be found, as the fortress was actually a centuries old fortress, on which the observatory had been built on top of! Oh well, we didn’t mind too much as this place was pretty spectacular.

20130815_131020

Shauna checking out the view

Flag flying high on Korean Independence Day

Flag flying high outside the Odusan Observatory on Korean Independence Day

We paid the dirt cheap 3,000 won entrance fee, took some photos of the gigantic Korean flag blowing in the wind then entered the obseravtory, unsure of what we were going to see. We then proceeded to measure ourselves next to the ‘average North Korean soldier’, admire a photography exhibit of photographs portraying the horror of the Korean war, and eventually went upstairs where we had a private screening of a short movie outlining what could be seen from the observatory.

The obseravtory had  360 degree views of the surrounding area but it was the view to the North that captured our attention. The Observatory is situated at the meeting point of the Imjin River and the Han river, and as they join together the river continues to flow North, into North Korea. Directly out the windows in front of us was a clear, unobstructed 180 degree view of a country we know so little about. The river which divides the two countries is 2km at its widest point and only 460 meters at the narrowest point. AS it is tidal, you could almost WALK across the river bed at low tide. You could pretty much WALK to North Korea in about 10 minutes. MIND BOGGLING.

Visitors young and old enjoying the views from the observatory

Visitors young and old enjoying the views from the observatory

Map outling where we were and what we were looking at across the river and border.

Map outlining where we were and what we were looking at across the river and border.

Fancy sending a postcard from the Demilitarized Zone??

Fancy sending a postcard from the Demilitarized Zone??

The short movie informed us that everything we could see was built by the North Koreans as propaganda; impressive houses and multi stories apartment blocks, all to show how “amazing” life is over there. This would have been more convincing if the houses weren’t half finished, some with no roofs, other just looking empty and uninhabited.

We had a chance to look through binoculars for a few minutes to get a closer view at life in the North and I was jumping around with surprise when I saw 2 men in black walking through a field chatting, and another man wearing white working in a field. You’d swear I had just spotted aliens on Mars or something. I really don’t know why I was so happy to see people, but I guess everything to do with North Korea is exciting when we know SO little about the country.

View of North Korea from the viewing platform

View of North Korea from the viewing platform

Beautiful day in North Korea...weather wise.

Beautiful day in North Korea…weather wise.

I can ALMOST touch it!

I can ALMOST touch it!

Besides my childish excitement, I was also quite pensive as I watched some local South Korean kids posing with plastic soldiers, eating ice-creams and taking pictures on their 500 dollar smart phones, while imagining the lives that similarly aged kids have only a few kilometers away. Will we ever really know what is going on across the border?

(Details: If you are visiting South Korea and would like to check out the Odusan Observatory you can get the Gyeonggi-Line train from Seoul to Geumchon station then get the 900 bus from Geumchon all the way to the Observatory car park, then get the free shuttle bus to the top. More info HERE. Feel free to ask questions and I will do my best to answer.)

The Scariest Place on Earth

8 Apr

With all the recent talk about North and South Korea, I thought I would share this post with you. This time 2 years ago I was living and working in Munsan, a town of about 100,000 only a few KMs from the border with North Korea. Here’s what I had to say about it at the time….

Sometimes as I lie in my new bed, in my new room in a brand spanking new apartment block, it’s easy to forget where I am. From the minute You step outside the door of your 21 storey apartment complex you are gently reminded EXACTLY where in the world I am. I have become so used to seeing soldiers everywhere that I have simply forgotten to write about them in my blog.

I am living in Munsan, which is a city only 20 minutes from the boarder with North Korea. Munsan is the last stop on the train line. If you go any further, and as far as I know only freight trains do, you will find yourself in the depths of a ravaged nation. A country that has been totally cut off from the outside world, has a secretive government and a nation that has been struck down with famine. Today, due to the government’s secretive nature and its reluctance to allow in foreigners, North Korea is considered the world’s most isolated country.

ers on the Train line that operates from the North Korean city of Kaesong, to Munsan, in the South.

ers on the Train line that operates from the North Korean city of Kaesong, to Munsan, in the South.

Soldiers are everywhere in Korea. At the moment I am sitting in a PC Bang, which is like an internet cafe except I’m the only person actually online, everyone else is playing computer games. I am also the only girl and the only perosn not in camoflage uniform! There are probably about 20 soldiers in here, as always.

When I walk down the street in Munsan, you see soldiers everywhere, just going about everyday life. As we are so near to North Korea, there are lots of high fences with barbed wire and look out posts, a lot of which it must be said are no longer in use. But the soldiers remain.

A South Korean Soldier checking the barrier, just north of Munsan.

A South Korean Soldier checking the barrier, just north of Munsan.

Of the three tunnels between North and South that were discovered in the last 30 years, one of them, the third infiltration tunnel, ends only 12km North of Munsan. I’m hoping to do a tour of the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) next weekend, where you actually get to go down into the tunnels and experience it first hand. The tunnel is about 1,600 m long and about 150 m below ground. It is apparently designed for a surprise attack on Seoul from North Korea, and can easily accommodate 30,000 men per hour along with light weapons!! Eeeep.

Don’t ask me how or why exactly, but on Friday the other Munsan teachers and I ended up in a place Bill Clinton famously called, “The scariest place on Earth.” Anyone who knows me and knows my keen thirst for adventure will know I do not turn down offers to go to crazy places, in fact I LOOK for them.

Third infiltration tunnel, DMZ near Munsan, South Korea

Third infiltration tunnel, DMZ near Munsan, South Korea

We had befriended some US military soldiers who happened to live in the JSA (Joint Security Area) situated about 15 minutes north of Munsan and about 5 minutes south of North Korea!! The JSA is the only area in the country controlled by both North and South Korea. It is known to be one of the most isolated places on the planet, with stories of shootings and kidnappings rife. One of my friends said that she heard a story recently of someone’s grandmother who had been kidnapped for 5 days ‘just for fun’. This is no place to mess around in.

So off we went on our little adventure to what was once one of the most terrifying war zones on earth and a place still covered in secrecy and armed forces. The journey there was weird enough. We first had to cross the ‘Bridge of No Return’, a bridge lined with explosives so if any attacks or intrusions were to take place, the military could delay their progress by blowing up the only entrance into South Korea. We had to pass many checkpoints and often show our I.D cards.

We were given a mini tour of the army base, were bought a free breakfast and as the tour buses passed by (with each passenger paying 150 bucks each!) they waved at us as if we were animals in a Zoo or celebrities..it was very bizarre and we felt very out of place. We were been watched at all times, and that we weren’t allowed to take any pictures (Ooops!). It is a weird place, surrounded by mountains and green fields, and one of the first places I have witnessed birdsong and wildlife amoungst the army bunkers and look-out points.

Soldier in the JSA, North / South Korea

Soldier in the JSA, North / South Korea

On exiting one building we heard gun shots and looked at each other with frightened glances. Thank-fully we were told it was just the shooting range/practice range, but it was still somewhat scary. The guys flicked laminated pieces of paper at us, their “licences to kill’. These were no joke, they were real life licences to kill. They also showed us their guns, unloaded of course. A serious reminder of where we were.

We got to observe the army first hand, the rank system, how ‘higher ranks’ could smoke the junior privates and how their was a huge amount of respect to be found. It was quite a culture shock to us carefree teachers I must say and I was happy to head back to Munsan and my life as a teacher!

Walking in a Winter Wonderland

30 Dec

Murphys Law: Pray for it to snow on Christmas every year since you were a child and it will never snow. Leave the country for 2 winters in a row, and it will snow more than it did it the previous 2 decades!! Typical!!

Ever since winter starting to creep up on us in Korea, the temperature slowly dropping further and further below 0’c I’ve been praying and praying for snow. I even had a bet on with a friend over whether it would snow here on Christmas day, a bet which I lost miserable. But alas, fear not, my years of hoping and praying were not a complete waste of time for alas my winter wonderland has appeared.

Thanks to the snow I have had to queue for nearly an hour to get a taxi to work resulting in me being VERY late for work two days in a row. I have fallen on my ass while legging it down the road trying to make it to work on time, but ending up late, yet again. I have got frost bite on my arse from making too many snow angels and icy hands thanks to attempting to cycle home in the snow without gloves. Despite all these woes…I STILL LOVE SNOW!!

 

Spent all my money on whiskey and beer

9 Dec

 When I go to a country it is not about how many museums I have visited, how many temples I’ve stayed in or how many photos I have taken…it is about how much of my time I can admit to being truly happy. I can honestly say that the last 3 months in Korea has been a chain of one hilarious moment after the other. Great memories with great people.

Cheers!

 

So, in the sprirt of all things liquid, and after just reading a list of the top 10 westerner bars in Korea, as composed by 10 Magazine and listed here on a fellow teachers blog, I have decided to compose a list of my favourite drinking establishments in the land of morning calm. (Silly to call it that really as my mornings are rarely what one wold call calm!!) Most of the bars mentioned are in Itaewon and are…wait for it… Irish pubs. Normally, I would agree with this list as I absolutely love Irish bars. In Korea however, there so many bars WAY cooler than those fake leprechaun magnets that no Irish bar makes it on to my list. Now there’s a first.

Rooftop Bar in Geumchon… The location for our weekly social (to be read drinking session). About 20-30 waygooks gather at this rooftop beer garden every Wednesday for singing, drinking and general banter.

Kats Bar… Our local bar in Munsan and also a favourite among DMZ soldiers. It’s a tiny little place but the cocktails are killer and the tunes are pumping, thanks to our personal playlists!

GoGos… Home to cheesy music, cheap Vodka sets and table dancing, one of the most fun spots in Hongdae.


FFs... Directly below GoGos you will find me here, without fail, from about 4am onwards every Saturday night. They have cheap drinks,a  free drink voucher on arrival and a stage to dance on. Bring it on!

Monkey Beach Club…I’ve only been here once but it was totally awesome. They sell drinks, thai style, in BUCKETS. The bar is lined with tables to dance on and everyone is covered in neon glow sticks. Full moon party anyone?

Oi Bar... Awesome bar in Hongdae with all these private cave like booths and little steams meandering their way around the dance floor and the shell-like DJ podium. Super cool…and 6,000 won cocktails!

Soju Time!

 

 

Ho Bar… Despite many bad reviews, music that is often way too loud to be bearable, I cant not like a bar that stays open until 8am in the morning. You can get a vodka for about 3,000 won too, which is cheap as chips. Plus there is not just one Ho bar…there are TEN Ho bars!! Jackpot.

Intos… This one is in Ilsan and is a seriously awesome international sports bar. They have darts, pool, foosball, air hockey and an array of games such a scrabble and jenga. We spent one whole weekend in this bar, by accident, and the super friendly owners let us take over the music system which ended up in endless Irish songs including RIVERDANCE been blasted out!

Zan Bar… Also in Ilsan, this bar had a pretty crappy atmosphere but they have, wait for it, Tequila shots for 1500 won, i.e FOR NOTHING. Cant go wrong with 1 euro tequila, can you?

Tequila shots

 

I’m sure I will think of more but that is it for now!!

Dear North Korea

23 Nov

Dear North Korea,

I don’t think you know me, but I guess it’s about time for a formal introduction. My name is Janet, and I moved in with your lovely southerly neighbour 99 days ago. It’s, I’m not ashamed to admit, the second longest relationship I’ve ever had, and it’s going strong.

We are in a bit of a love-hate relationship which can be testing at times to say the least but I’m in love and that is the bottom line. SK has found me the first job in my life that I actually immensely enjoy, a boss I actually get on with and best of all an awesome pay check at the end of each month.

SK is motivating me to be all that I can be. SK is helping me to learn a new language which before our tremulous relationship I would have never deemed possible. A language with a new alphabet, letters I find hard to comprehend and sounds I’m still unsure if my mouth will produce.

Through our whirlwind relationship, I  have made some of the most amazing friends I have ever met. People that make me laugh for hours on end. Be it dancing on tables, drinking foul Korean liquor by the bottle, climbing mountains, or simply kicking it in  Geumchon, they have made my time here nothing short of amazing, never a dull day with my munsan girls.

Don’t get me wrong, SK does have problems too. Like eating dog meat (really my love, there is no need for it), producing a foul smelling dish in the form of Kimchi, and constantly confusing me in culture and etiquette classes. However as the famous saying goes, sometimes in life, opposites attract.

The first week of our relationship was a rollercoaster. I was unsure if it would work out. I was unsure if the language barrier would keep us apart and our cultural differences would prove to much of a climb to get over. However, 99 days in I can honestly say…I’m in love. Life is great here and I would like it to stay that way.

I need you to back off your younger brother and start showing human decency. Stop fighting for heavens sake! I thought you got all this tension and fighting out of your system when you were both children over 50 years ago. You’re a grown man now and need to start acting like one. Stop shouting and start talking. Listen. COMPROMISE. Show a little compassion and maybe you guys can resolve this 50 year hatred and be friends again, be family again, the way things should be!

Hope this letter finds you well,

Janet

The Scariest Place on Earth

3 Oct

So don’t ask me how or why exactly, but on Friday the other Munsan teachers and I ended up in a place Bill Clinton famously called, ” The scariest place on Earth.” Anyone who knows me and knows my keen thirst for adventure will know I do not turn down offers to go to crazy places, in fact I LOOK for them.

We had befriended some US military soldiers who happened to live in the JSA (Joint Security Area) situated about 15 minutes north of Munsan. The JSA is the only area in the country controlled by both North and South Korea. It is known to be one of the most isolated places on the planet, with stories of shootings and kidknappings rife. One of my friends said that she heard a story recently of someones grandmother who had been kidknapped for 5 days ‘just for fun’. This is no place to mess around in.

JSA Gaurd

So off we wnt on our little adventure to what was once one of the most terrifying war zones on earth and a place still covered in secrecy and armed forces. The journey there was weird enough. We first had to cross the ‘Bridge of No Return’, a bridge lined with explosives so if any attacks or intrusions were to take place, the military could delay their progress by blowing up the only entrance into South Korea. We had to pass many checkpoints and often show our I.d cards.

DMZ Checkpoint, South Korea

We were given a mini tour of the army base, were bought a free breakfast and as the tour buses passed by (with each passenger paying 150 bucks each!) they waved at us as if we were animals in a Zoo or celebrities..it was very bizarre and we felt very out of place. We were been watched at all times, and weren’t allowed to take any pictures (All image here are stolen from Google!!). It is a weird place, surrounded by mountains and green fields, and one of the first places I have witnessed birdsong and wildlife amoungst the army bunkers and look-out points.

The DMZ, South Korea/North Korea

On exiting one building we heard gun shots and looked at eachother with frightened glances. Thank-fully we were told it was just the shooting range/practice range, but it was still somewhat scary. The guys flicked laminated pieces of paper at us, their “licences to kill’. These were no joke, they were real life licences to kill. They also showed us their guns, unloaded of course. A serious reminder of where we were.

We got to observe the army first hand, the rank system, how ‘higher ranks’ could smoke the junior privates and how their was a huge amount of respect to be found. It was quite a culture shock to us carefree teachers I must say and I was happy to head back to Munsan and my life as a teacher!

Soldiers still patrol the border at the DMZ

Casino Jack and the United States of Money

12 Sep

Today I opted out of running a 34km marathon (no surpriese there!) and instead decided to attend the 2nd annual DMZ Documentary Film Festival which was much more my cup of tea. The festival screens a lot of films with a theme of peace and others concentrating on the quest for justice.

Although not attended by huge audiences, (in fact my 2 teacher friends and I were the only foreigners in this particular screening!), It can’t be from lack of trying. They provided a free shuttle daily from Geumchon station to Paju book city, had guides in both Korean and English and seemed to be well organized.
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