I was so hyped when I woke up on our last Saturday in Seoul because it was finally DMZ Tour Day! First, I had to take my obligatory morning picture from the hotel balcony though because rain or shine, this view never failed to please my eyeballs.
For me, it was LITERALLY a sight for sore eyes.
What a weird saying, though.
So let me tell you some things about the process of visiting the DMZ.
There are areas that you can visit on your own, such as the Dorasan Peace Park, but if you want the real nitty gritty experience, you need to book a tour with a legit tour agency, and there are numerous reputable ones in Seoul with easy-to-navigate websites.
This part is VERT IMPORTANT, class, so pay attention: If you want to experience the infamous “crossing over into N.Korea” that maybe you’ve seen Conan O’Brien do or your favorite travel YouTuber, than you must make sure the tour package you book includes the Joint Security Area (JSA). I have heard that people often make the mistake of just booking the DMZ portion of these tours, expecting to visit the iconic blue blue buildings where world leaders have been known to meet.
I highly recommend going balls-to-the-wall and booking the full day DMZ/JSA tour because honestly, if you’ve come that far, why wouldn’t you want the FULL EXPERIENCE? We booked ours through VIP Travel and I really recommend them!
Another important thing to note is that there is a dress code for the JSA. To be honest, it varies a bit depending on what website you’re culling your research, but from what I saw in my investigative Internet travels, the consensus seemed to be: no shorts (“over-the-knee trousers”), no sleeveless shirts, no shirts with slogans on it, no ripped jeans, no unkempt hair. One website said, “Dress as if you are meeting your partner’s grandparents for the first time.”
I seriously latched on to that HARD, lol.
Several FAQs for the JSA portion of the tour also warned: “no round-neck shirts.” WHAT. I fucking dwelled on this for weeks. I made Henry and Chooch bring collared-shirts with them but all of my collared shirts are long-sleeved and I didn’t want to wear long sleeves on a day that was 95 degrees! So I brought this dressy shirt that is nice enough to wear to work, even though it has A ROUND-NECK.
Henry kept saying I looked fine but I was still nervous.
The whole reasoning behind this is that South Korea doesn’t want a bunch of slobs in Anal Cunt t-shirts loafing around the JSA where ROK soldiers can easily snap a picture to use as propaganda, like, “Hey, North Korean civilians, this is how disheveled the rest of the world is.” I guess that has happened in the past!
We had to meet bright and early at Hotel President which is right near Gwanghwamun Plaza. Remember how I told you in a recent post that this an area where protests are usually held because it’s so close to the Blue House? Well, on this day, there were protests against Japan because of the current trade war and I felt so GUILTY that we had visited Tokyo while Japan is being a big ass bully to my beloved angel baby South Korea and I honestly had no idea this was happening until that morning. Ugh.
(The picture in the article I linked was taken on this same day.)
The travel agency’s office was on the 3rd floor of Hotel President. We had to check in and have our Passports checked and I was waiting for them to give me some kind of strap-on collar for my dress code-violating shirt but no one said anything, so I finally let out a cleansing exhale.
Anyway, we had some time to kill so we grabbed some refreshments from a nearby convenience store (honestly we could have just lived off of convenience store meals the whole time we were there, South Korea knows what’s up when it comes to making food convenient and actually delicious) and then found the I Seoul U sign so Henry grumbled because he had to walk a few more yards in the sweltering heat in order to take our picture, and he didn’t want to “get sweaty.”
(He was so angry that he had to wear jeans and a button-down shirt that day. Wait until you see it.)
Well we were waiting for our bus to come (a “luxury coach” that made me feel like I was on a TWA European vacation in the 90s again with my grandparents, lol), and older woman in our group struck up a conversation with me. She was from England, visiting her son who has lived in Seoul for the last year. He was SUPER TALL and handsome and reminded me of one of the guys from the original line up of Emarosa which means absolutely nothing to you, Reader, probably. Chooch was obsessed with how tall this guy was (he had to have been at least 6’9″). I’m going to guess he’s in Seoul as a teacher. Anyway, super nice lady!
I was anxious to see how the rest of the group would shake out because there is usually always The One who is super abrasive/offensive/loud/know-it-all-y (ahem, Ghost Tour Donna). There were about 25 of us on the bus – a Chinese group that had about 5 members, the British mom and son, an elderly couple (the husband had crutches and when he walked past Henry after boarding the bus, he said, “Oh good, a big guy. He can carry me” PAHAHAHAHAHA), a dad and his two teenage daughters that Henry determined maybe were Italian, a quiet couple, and about 8 Korean Americans – parents with their adult-aged son, and a group of kids who were maybe 18 or 19 and at first I thought they were with the older Korean family but then I think they may have just been there on their own? I just kept trying to push Chooch in their direction so they could be friends but he was like, “Please don’t be weird.”
A little after 8am, we set off for Paju which is about a 90 minute drive north of Seoul. It’s easy to forget sometimes how close Seoul really is to the North Korean border! Our guide for the day introduced herself using her Korean name but told us to just call her Lee. She stood right in front of our row of seats to give us the run-down of the history between the two Koreas and it was captivating. Because I was sitting right there in front of her, we kept making eye contact and when she told us that South Koreans still to this day work hard to keep their freedom, her eyes started to well up and then I started to cry, and this was only when we were about 20 miles outside of Seoul, so this should be a good indication at how emotional the day was going to be for me.
As Lee gave us the run-down of the day’s itinerary, she warned us that there was always a possibility that the JSA portion could be canceled without notice. In fact, we had a difficult time even booking this tour because our free days were so limited, and our first two tries we were told that the JSA tour wasn’t being that offered day because of military exercises. So this was the only day we able to book and I had my fingers crossed so hard that it would go as planned. I could always say, “Oh well, next time” but I honestly hope that the next time we visit, the JSA isn’t there anymore because the two Koreas will have reunified. That’s the ultimate wish!
Our first stop was supposed to be the Dorasan Observatory, but since it was still early in the morning and foggy, Lee did some itinerary shuffling and we ended up visiting the area of the DMZ where the Third Tunnel is located. We had to go through a Passport checkpoint first, where a South Korean soldier boarded our bus and walked by as we all held up our Passports and I internally swooned because he was so hot.
There are very strict rules, obviously, when it comes to photographs and videos in places like this, but true to South Korean form, there were loads of Instagrammable photo areas as well!
Before going into the tunnel, Lee took us inside a building that had several informational exhibits set up, and then we got to sit in a small theater and watch a short movie about the Korean conflict and the discovery of the tunnel.
Essentially, several decades after the Korean Armistice Agreement was put in place in 1953, four tunnels dug by North Koreans in an effort to infiltrate South Korea were found in various locations. Nowadays, the third one is literally a tourist attraction which blows my mind.
Oh shit, you still can’t see Henry’s magnificent DMZ button-down!
The tunnel is accessible by a MINE TRAIN THING!!! I was so excited to get on it! We had to first put all of our belongings in a locker (no photos allowed) and don HARD HATS! Then we finally got to board the mine tram thingie! It was so slow, a real elderly tram, but the 7 year old in me was still excited to ride it. Lee told us that the tram isn’t always working so she wasn’t even sure we would get to enter the tunnel that way until we arrived. I would have been OK going down the foot path but…MINE TRAIN THING!
Here’s a diagram to show you the relation of the tunnels to Seoul. The third tunnel is so close! When the tunnels were discovered, sticks of dynamite pointed toward Seoul were allegedly inside.
When the tunnels were discovered (and there is thought to be around 10-12 more!), the North denied it of course and claimed they were tunnels meant for mining, and even rubbed black coal dust on the walls to cover their asses!
Once the monorail brought us into the tunnel, we were allowed to walk single-file 265 meters (whatever that means, I’m a dummm American) until we reached a divider with barbed wire and other necessary precautions in case the North attempts an invasion. Really harrowing and surreal to be in there, knowing that it was dug with such malicious intentions.
It was really narrow in that tunnel and we had to loop back and pass the people behind us, so we were essentially walking should-to-shoulder with the people on the other side and it was overwhelmingly tight down there. Any more time spent down there and I might have had a panic attack.
On the way back out of the tunnel, we sat across from the Maybe-Italian Family, but I should note here that Henry is the one who deduced that they may have been Italian and he is also the one who said that about the guys who live two houses down from us but recently I learned their last name and IT SOUNDS GREEK TO ME, HENRY.
Do I look presentable enough to meet a nice Korean man’s grandparents?
We had some time to mill about after walking through the tunnel (yes, I did smack my hard hat off the top of it at one point, thank you very much), and I was excited to buy a magnet! It doesn’t take much to please me. We also got some snacks and cold beverage. Lee was very concerned about our hydration levels since it was such a scorcher out there that day. Lee was the best!
Henry’s shirt was half past Hopper from Stranger Things Season 3, more toward Trapper Keeper. In either case, same decade.
After our time here, we boarded the bus* again and headed to the Dorasan Station, which I will talk about from my makeshift podium in the next post. SORRY, BUT THIS WAS AN ACTION-PACKED DAY FULL OF LEARNING.
*(We had assigned seats! I loved it! On one of the trips I took with my grandparents, everyone wanted to just keep sitting in the same seats every day on the bus but the tour guide we had for that trip – her name was MYRNA – was like, NO, WE WILL BE ROTATING SEATS THROUGHOUT THE TRIP and she fucking enforced it, too! Try telling a busload of old people (and teenaged me, who loved sitting in the back!) that they had to change their seats every day. It was pandemonium and eventually, everything came to a head and people started yelling at her and then she started yelling back until she eventually burst into tears and it was just a spectacular sight, one which I remember with way greater detail than any of the actual sights we saw on that European tour and I definitely have referenced it quite a few times over the course of my dumb life.)