Before long we realized we were headed in an unintended, so we turned a corner in hopes of finding something else on the map. What we found instead was a bike and pedestrian path along a road headed to the local lake, with a gardened margin between us and the apartment buildings nearby. This filled me with a bit of nostalgia, as despite the humidity and somewhat less zealous mowing, the landscaping reminded me a lot of my childhood in California, particularly some of the interesting Asian plants you see as ornamental species in California that you never see back East. We also came across some outdoor exercise equipment, which was something a lot of parks had when I was a kid, albeit much simpler than the ones the Koreans have now.
Laura had forgotten her sunscreen and was worried about sunburn, so we decided to turn back, but I saw some interesting rooves up a side street and prevailed upon her to briefly investigate. What we discovered in fact was a Buddhist abbey, which near as we can figure using Google Translate is called the Hundred Fuzzy Rocks. There were in fact quite a collection of rocks, artfully arranged to look careless, and pavement that consisted of flat rocks embedded in grass, perhaps the meaning of the "fuzzy rocks" name of the place. The buildings had traditional tile rooves, glazed black, with many sculptural details featuring dragons. The under-beams had a lot of the same sea-green paint we saw on the pavilions here at the hotel, with additional painted floral details. The walls had sliding doors, ornamental grids over semi-opaque windows, and other surfaces featured vivid painted iconography in the Zen and Mahayana styles. The only clue as to the life inside the buildings was several clogs left on the stoop outside the doors.
At one point, we were surrounded by a flight of dragonflies. Uncharacteristically for her, Laura didn't squeak or flinch. They zipped around quite fast, but not aggressively. It seemed like we'd stumbled across the dragonflies coming to do a happy homage to the monastery.
We made our way around to the back of the monastery, where we discovered a sacred well, presided over by a statue of some famous bonze. There were ladles for collecting water, and a pile of won coins as offerings for the privilege. I had no need for sacred Buddhist water, but I left some coins anyhow. It was then that an elderly nun, in a grey work habit with shaved head, came out from one of the building to greet us, saying Anyeong haseo (the Korean greeting, roughly "Peace be with you"), repeatedly bowing with clasped hands. We returned the greeting, with bows, complementing her in English on her lovely abbey and thanking her for the visit. We figured this was a good time to gracefully exit, so we started back down the hill. I left a business card in their mailbox, again with complements and thanks written on the back.
We returned by a slightly different route, following the recreational trail along the elevated railway, which afforded Laura some shade from the sun. We passed an elderly lady sitting on a park bench, whom I greeted with an Anyeong, but she turned her head in a gesture of mild contempt. Whether she dislikes Westerners or we were simply disturbing her wa, it was in clear contrast to the happy reception the Buddhist nun had given us at the abbey.
We stopped at a CVS, got some food and metal chopsticks set for use in our room, and headed back to the hotel to rest up. We later reemerged at dark and walked in a third direction, this time finding much more in the way of consumer goods and services. We even discovered a little alley mall, in which some of the shops were beginning to close, but remained quite busy. In Korea, business hours can stretch well into the wee hours of the night. No restaurants appealed to Laura, and we were both still shy about wandering to places without English signage or picture menus, but it was still a vibrant place to visit and a nice find. We got more noodles at the Sun-mart and headed back to the room for a late dinner.
After a short sleep, we were up at five in the morning to catch a cab to the train station. Along with Laura's coworker Miki, we were headed on the KTX to Seoul Station in Seoul (we had breakfast here--Laura accidentally ordered me a ground shrimp burger, mistaking it for a breaded chicken patty) to meet our tour group for a tour of the DMZ at Paju, the site of the infamous Third Infiltration Tunnel ("The Third Tunnel of Aggression", as the Koreans call it), which is also near Panmunjeom. We were picked up along with a Vietnamese family and delivered to the tour bus. Our guide, Grace, was probably a Christian and really happy to have a priest along for the trip, though for the first part of the tour she thought Laura and I were siblings, not married.
We drove up the Han River, the shores of which are stretched across with barbed wire and studded with guard towers, this despite the fact that South Korea controls both sides of the Han. This was done in response to a 1968 assassination plot by North Korean commandos, who swam up the Han, climbed ashore, donned ROK uniforms, and then attempted to kill President Park in the presidential mansion. As we drove further north and left the Han River for the Imjin River, the barbed wire and guard towers remained, but now the far shore was in fact North Korea, mostly obscured by a humid haze, but whose hills have been garishly clearcut for fuel.
Our first stop was Imjingak, the site of the "Freedom Bridge" and an exchange of POWs in 1953. Of interest there was also an armored locomotive destroyed in the war, the bulletholes and ripped metal of which testify to the violence of the conflict. Nearby is a peace bell, the tolling of which, to the Korean mind, will help speed unification. For 10,000
W, one can toll the bell seven times. Despite the area being crowded with tourists, no one thought it was a good use of their won. Being right on the DMZ (a four-kilometre no-man's-land where military presence is forbidden), there is a tall barbed wire fence, one section of which hung with hundreds and thousands of lengths of ribbon, on which were written prayers for the deceased, peace, and unification.
There was also a gift shop selling, among other things, North Korean soju, for around 20,000
W. These bottles looked a bit rough, with their labels a bit peeled and faded, suggesting their route to South Korean gift shops was a long and interesting one. Unlike soju in South Korea, which is about 20 percent ABV, this stuff is 40 percent (80 proof), the same as most liquors in the U.S. We decided to pass for the moment, for though it would be a unique souvenir--very few of anything make it out of North Korea--we weren't sure it would make it past U.S. customs when we returned home. A good call, in fact, as there is a U.S. embargo on any North Korean goods and it would have been confiscated on reentry.
Next we went to the Third Tunnel, dug by the KPA ostensibly to invade the South, or at least to rattle South Koreans' nerves. Four tunnels have been discovered so far (as many as 21 may exist), this one in 1978. Almost a kilometre on the Southern side, it extends more than 1.5km on the Northern side. Before we could go into the tunnel, we were made to watch a short film detailing the violence of the war and the continual provocations of the north. The tone then abruptly changes to speak about progress towards unification (an increasingly tiresome word) and hope for the future, shows wildlife enjoying the DMZ in the absence of people, and then ends on a note about the eternal vigilance of the DMZ. The indignation and stridency, though understandable, was nevertheless obnoxious.
In the tunnel itself, it's forbidden to take photos, so on Facebook I used a photo I found on Google that is pretty representative of the original, Northern excavation. To go down into it, one first dons a hard hat and shuffles down the 500-meter gallery the ROK dug to meet the Northern tunnel, at a roughly 11 degree slope. Here it's humid, but relatively cool. At the bottom of the Southern tunnel, there is a spring, again with ladles, which Koreans are very keen to drink from, though what magical powers the water conveys is not clear to me. The Southern tunnel is fairly spacious, but when it terminates with the Northern tunnel, things get considerably more cramped. Rarely taller than 165cm, with scarcely enough room for people to pass side by side. At this point, the tunnel is dripping wet, the air much more stale, and warmer. Finally, at roughly ten stories below the surface of the earth, you come to a concrete barricade, which has a hole allowing you to see the second of three concrete barricades the South erected to neutralize the North's use of the tunnel. At this point one is well under the DMZ and a mere hundred metres or so from official DPRK territory.
The climb back out, needless to say, was physically rather challenging, leaving Laura and I both red and drenched in sweat. Our recent workout regimen is probably the only thing that saved us. Back outside, beyond the low walls and landscaping, one sees dozens of upside-down red triangles, each marking the location of a land mine. UNCOM, the U.S., and the ROK planted about 30,000 of these mines as they withdrew from the DMZ, though they have since removed about a third of these. Designed to be "humane," these "ankle mines" are relatively low-power and will only blow off a foot, maiming instead of killing a hapless soldier. At one point, I saw a park bench located maybe 10 feet from a mine marker.
The next stop on the tour was the observation post up the hill, where one could hire a pair of binoculars for 500
W for two minutes to peer into the North. It was a very humid, hazy day, and apart from some road traffic and unremarkable buildings, not much could be seen. We did see the DPRK flagpole, the 160m-tall response to a similar 100m flagpole the ROK erected, though the air was entirely still so the flag just hung limply. (So far, we have experienced almost nothing in the way of wind or breezes since we got here last week.) An interesting feature of the observation tower is a yellow line painted on the pavement. Visitors may take photos behind the line, but past it, any clicks will result in one or several ROK soldiers seizing your camera and phone and minimally erasing all the data on it, something our tour guide Grace observed happening to a Chinese woman the week before, which sadly robbed her of all her vacation photos and was met with disconsolate sobbing. The exact reason for this rule wasn't explained, but I imagine a spy could report back to the North what activities can be observed from the tower if allowed to use focusing optics. The South Koreans are very worried about spies.
Next was Dorsan Station, the last station on the Gyeongui Line headed to North Korea. Built in 2006-07 during the 1998-2008 Kim-Roh thaw with the North, it was meant to carry raw materials to the North to be manufactured at ROK-owned factories there, which would then be sent South again for sale, as well as carry managers and experts to the factories. After only a few trips back and forth, the North then closed off the line in response to the election of Lee Myung-bak, whose hawkish, conservative posture the DPRK found antagonizing. While Lee has left office (to be replaced by another conservative, but less strident, president, Park Geun-hye, daughter of former strongman president Park Chung-hee), and the North has agreed the line should be reopened, for the moment it sits more or less empty, only delivering sightseers from Seoul and immediately returning them. Not only is Dorsan Station an expression of Southern hopes for reunification and rail links to Russia and Europe, we were also told it had the cleanest restrooms in Korea. Were this proved to be true, this would only be from disuse, and though fairly clean, the reputation turned out to be a bit of an exaggeration.
Finally, after trundling back down the Imjin and Han Rivers to Seoul, one last stop was the Ginseng Centre. Traveling up the elevator to the fourth floor, we saw the Korean equivalent of the Western missing 13th floor: since the word for four is similar to the word for death, the fourth floor is instead labeled the "F" floor. Huh. Now, exactly why all these tours pass through the Ginseng Centre is never stated, but it is a mildly pressured "educational" opportunity to by Korean ginseng, superior to all other forms of ginseng, miraculous in its applications, and would obviate the General Resurrection if everyone would just use it. Few if any of the tourists, up from before dawn, tired, and hungry, took the bait. Our only guess is the tour companies are all paid by the Ginseng Centre to make them their tours' final stops. After what must have been a disappointing visit for the ginseng peddlers, we were dropped off at Seoul's city hall, where we caught the metro and then the KTX back to Cheonan and Asan. And not too soon: I had developed some awful blisters on my left foot, and one on my right, and was visibly hobbling. I have perhaps been pushing myself a bit hard every day since we got here, in new, unbroken-in shoes.
After a nap in the room, we went to dinner with three of Laura's coworkers at the Korean barbecue place around the corner, which previously I had walked past, wistfully observing young, jolly patrons enjoying soju and roast bits of meat. This was exciting to me, as I had yet to have a dinner out since we got here, and apart from hotel breakfasts, all my meals have been coming from convenience stores. The fare of a Korean barbecue is galbi, slices of marinated meat cooked (bought in 150g or 300g increments) over a charcoal brazier set right into the table. The hostess, or the guests themselves, cook the meat, which is beef, pork, or chicken, which they then pick off the grate with their chopsticks, place them in a lettuce or sesame leaf, and then pile on any number of toppings and accompaniments (banchan), roll it up into a parcel, and then consume in one or two bites. Some of these banchan included old kimchi (a bit strong for our table's taste--we novices before the newer stuff), jeom (a kind of pancake made with egg and scallions), a cabbage and miso-dressing slaw, peppers pickled in a red bean paste, pickled onion, crumbled seaweed and sesames, garlic cloves (for roasting on the grate), a couple varieties of gochujang (an aged, sweet chili-garlic paste), and herbed sesame oil. To wash it down, and cut the heat from some of the accompaniments, we had Cass beer, a commercial brand of lager which we might sniff at back home, but here it was welcome refreshment.
Full up to our eyes in galbi and banchan, we headed back to the room for an early night.