This evening, I returned from a week long Korean adventure. We started in Seoul for a few days, drove to Busan down the east coast of the peninsula, stayed there for a few days, then drove back to Seoul to fly back to Jeju. It was a road trip of epic proportions, on which I was joined by the Michael Chu. I shall now briefly chronicle my experiences.
The trip began last Sunday, March 22, 2015. We thought our flight was scheduled for the late afternoon, so we headed to the airport a few hours early, hoping to grab dinner there. When we arrived and went to check in, the kind and very confused woman behind the Eastarjet counter informed us that our flight was booked from Seoul to Jeju instead of the other, more correct way. The return flight, too, was scheduled for the opposite direction. This began a several hour long emotional, physical, and psychological roller coaster. It reminded me of the stages of grieving you learn in Psychology 101. At first, we just couldn't believe our stupidity, and we laughed quite a bit, and started to consider options to get to Seoul. We put ourselves on standby at a rather hefty price, and waited for an opening on a flight, since all of the flights for the entire night to Seoul were full. We went downstairs to 7/11, bought a beer each, and sat and waited for the first flight. The first flight came and went with no space for us. We then realized that we could be in for a long evening. Both of our moods worsened, and we grew quiet, considering the prospect of spending a night in the Jeju airport. The next flight came, and they had one spot. We considered going separately, but decided to stick together. We were still pretty sour, and we decided to grab some Dunkin Donuts for a snack/energy. This was the first of far too many trips to Dunkin on this trip. The third flight came, and luckily, they had a spot for us! We got our tickets and sprinted to the gate, nabbing two seats next to each other, and finally we were on our way.
It's funny now to think that all of this happened before we even got on our way. We felt a little bit doomed. It seemed like a bad omen for the rest. There were a few more hiccups, but nothing too major. We made it to Seoul and got some Mexican food, had a few drinks, and hit the hay. The following day, we met up with Kathleen and Greta from KIS, as well as Kathleen's friend Tammy. We spent the day and evening with them, which was lots of fun. We went to bed in anticipation of the Demilitarized Zone tour the next day.
It's been several days since the tour, and I'm still processing it. It was unreal in every way. The tour began with the news that there was a large fire in the DMZ, so a portion of the tour had to be cancelled. We missed out on the tunnels built underneath the DMZ as well as one of the observation decks. At first, this seemed like another blow to the trip, but it turned out to be an incredible tour regardless. We began at an observation deck looking over into North Korea. There was several little farming huts along the river, and through the binoculars, we saw some North Korean citizens working in the fields. Michael and I talked quite a bit at this point in the tour about what life could be like for the North Koreans. Those people could easily see the highway across the river. They had to know that not everyone lives like they do. The poverty was pretty noticeable in the rundown and abandoned buildings we could see. It started a day full of a lot of pondering.
We then visited the site of a train bridge that goes through the DMZ into North Korea. There was a train salvaged from the DMZ after the Korean War that was preserved in its original state. It used to run North-South through the whole united peninsula. It was covered in bullet holes and torn to shreds. If that's not a microcosm for the way things turned out, I don't know what is. We then visited the last train station before the North, a completely operational station that is never used. It was kind of eerie to see the same turnstiles and ticket machines you use in Seoul, but to know that they are never used.
The crown jewel of the tour was a trip to the Joint Security Area, the actual line between North and South Korea. We drove to Camp Boniface, the UN base on the South side where US and Korean soldiers were based (I assume as well as others). A soldier came onto our bus and checked all of our passports. He then briefed us on what we would be doing, and reiterated to us that we could only use our cameras when he said so. We drove through the DMZ's defenses: a wall of C4 for blowing up vehicles, barbed wire entrenchments with land mines, and spacious fields farmed by a small village in the DMZ. The village had under 200 inhabitants, and it was only inhabited by those alive at the time of the schism or direct descendants of those people. We drove to the Joint Security Area, and went from the bus into a large glass building. We were put into 2 single file lines and lined up on the inner steps of the building. The soldier told us that we would be under constant surveillance by North Korea when we stepped outside, so we were not to gesture, point, or do anything else that could possibly by used by North Korea as propaganda against the UN Security Forces. We then filed through a set of glass doors to outside.
We were lined up on the steps outside, and suddenly there it was. There were several little blue buildings sitting on the Military Demarcation Line (the MDL, the border between North and South), and the line was clearly visible as a concrete slab. Eight or nine soldiers stood on the South side, and there was one North Korean soldier standing on the stoop of the building on the North side. He seemed very uncomfortable, as he couldn't stand still. The soldier told us that they call him Bob, and it's always him or one other guy on duty there. The South Korean soldiers were the most intimidating humans I have ever seen. They stood in bulldog poses with dark sunglasses, and we were told not to step behind or in front of them. A woman made that mistake, and she was quickly moved back to the side by the soldier. It was the swiftest karate chop movement I have ever seen. The American soldier then informed us that all of the South Korean border guards are blackbelts in either judo or tae kwon do.
We were led into one of the small blue buildings which houses diplomatic discussions between the North and South. There were a few tables, two guards, and a door leading to the North. The MDL passes right through the house, so we technically stood in North Korea when we went to the other side of the building. We stood around for a while and took pictures, were lined up, and led back away. We were then put back on the bus and driven to the site of the ax murder and the bridge of no return. Then we went on the bus and drove back to Seoul. It was all kind of a whirlwind.
The JSA was the most intense thing I have ever been a part of. It felt like at any moment, someone making a wrong move could set off a fire fight. You could feel the tension in the air between North and South, and the American soldier's nonchalant demeanor seemed out of place. I asked him if he felt uneasy taking groups around, and he said no, that it had just become his daily life. It was indescribably surreal and tense. The more I thought about it, the dumber it felt. A stupid concrete slab marking an arbitrary line stands between families, countrymen, and peace. It sparked a lot of thinking, that's for sure.
The following day, we got the car and headed for Busan. The drive along the east coast was beautiful and very relaxing. We jammed out all day and stopped a few times to look at the beach or other random things. We made it to Busan to find that the AirBnB we booked was the penthouse of a swanky apartment complex (the 47th floor), and we lived in style for two days. In Busan, we checked out markets, the beach, and met up with my friend Nick from Loyola who is teaching in Busan. We also ate sannakgi, the most inhumanely disgusting thing I have ever seen. It's octopus sashimi, and it's still moving and writhing and sticking to the plate as you try to eat it. I forced myself to try one bite. Michael ate the whole plate and enjoyed it. Never again.
We drove back up to Seoul, stopping at an awesome cherry blossom festival in the mountains along the way, and spent two days with Kathleen and Tammy, did some shopping, and flew back here to Jeju. It was an incredible trip, and I started to feel some serious anxiety about leaving this country in a few months. The drive was stunning. The people are great. The country is just a good place. I got back to Jeju tonight, and it was clear and warm. The stars were out and the moon was shining brightly. I will definitely miss it here. I suppose that's part of life though. You leave a little piece of your heart in each place you grow accustomed to. I've got a few months left including a trip to Nepal and a trip to Australia, and I intend to make the most of it.
That's about all I have for now. Thanks for reading, folks, and be in touch!