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Life after Jeju: Underground in the DMZ

The second half of my South Korean journey involved swimming under powerful Korean waterfalls, visiting sex exhibitions, chilling out on breathtaking islands and embarking on a dark underground journey to the North Korean border.

After my short foray into Japan I passed rows and rows of industrial buildings and hazy, smoke-filled factories as the bus rolled through South Korea enroute to Busan.

It seemed as if the buildings had been squashed into one cluttered landscape and they looked a little awkward as tower blocks stood side by side with office buildings that were decorated with uninspiring hues of grey, peach and off-white.

I was almost tempted to beg the driver to take me back to Japan.

But there was no need. I had already made plans to fly out of Busan and into the famous Jeju Island – a famous slice of paradise within South Korea.

On July 20th 2016, From there I caught a half hour plane ride to Jeju and the first task of the day was to find the Slow Citi hostel, which I had booked for my stay.

The instructions made as much sense as Egyptian Hieroglyphics and I ended up stumbling into some random motel instead.

The helpful man in the motel saved the day by not only telling me where the hostel was, but he also drove me directly to it.

The next day, I went on a mission to find these mysterious Cheonjiyeon Falls that I heard so much about.

Mission accomplished. I ended up visiting Jeju’s holy trinity of waterfalls – Jeongbang and Cheonjiyeon, not to be confused with Cheonjeyeon, which I also visited that day.

All three waterfalls were breathtaking and based in an area known as Seogwipo.

After exploring the waterfall, I then settled down for a meal at a nearby restaurant. For the equivalent of $12 I got what was essentially a 15-course meal consisting of miniature bowls of fish, rice, meat, sauce and vegetables.

It was one of the best and most satisfying meals I’ve eaten in South Korea.

The next day took a more…sexual turn.

You see, my original plan was to go to an art museum (promise). I can’t remember the name, but it was supposed to be interesting.

After a while of getting lost on buses and accepting a pack of melted chocolate biscuits from a generous bus driver, I finally found my way to the large but mainly closed art museum.

I ventured inside anyway to have a look at the one single exhibit they did have open which displayed artifacts from South Korea’s ancient history.

A friendly museum volunteer approached me and began to initiate a conversation with me and told me that she was trying to practice her English. So in the space of a few short minutes, I gave her a few quick English language tips and we spoke about everything from English culture to ancient history.

That’s the great thing about travelling. It’s those random 3 minute encounters and conversations that you remember the most.

Right next to the art museum was Love Island. Intrigued, I ventured into what shaped up to be the most hilarious museum I’ve ever been to.

I think a more appropriate name for Love Island would have been Sex Island.

If your idea of paradise is being surrounded by giant male genitalia, plus human and animal statues engaged in various acts of sexual activity, then get yourself over to Love Island. You’ll Love it there.

It also had a quirky little museum where you could buy all the deviant toys, implements, lubes and lotions that your heart desired.

If for some bizarre reason, you have an odd fetish for watching miniature dolls have sex, you’ll have plenty of opportunity to get your thrills in that department too.

The following day was a little less risque and I spent it chilling on the beach with two lovely ladies from China. We then went to a nearby seafood restaurant where we gorged ourselves on lobster, crab, mussels, clams and stewed vegetables.

In the evening, we sat by the side of the beach watching the sunset.

When I was in Tibet, I met a wonderful lady who said she’d put me in touch with people she knows during my travels.

One of these people was an American man who was travelling with a group of friends in South Korea.

I don’t remember his name. But I do remember how much fun it was to hang out with them that day.

They met me at my hostel and took me on their motorbikes to climb a waterfall and join them for a swim. We then went to an abandoned old Buddhist temple and looked around for a short while, before promptly being chased away by guard dogs.

This is the abandoned tourist where I spent the afternoon with the American tourists

Ah those were the fun times. After that, we devoured a meal of cold, glass noodles, which is something of a delicacy in South Korea.

The next day, I went to Myogaksa Temple for a temple stay in Seoul. Many of the temples across South Korea offer temple stays ranging from one day to a few weeks.

During this time, visitors have the opportunity to meditate, participate in walks, and take part in various crafts and activities.

Some of the temple stays are free, while others charge a fee.

The temple stay I went to was for just a few hours and after navigating my way through the maze of streets and hills in Seoul, I finally found it. I was given a locker and changed into the green robes they give you when you arrive at the temple.

We then went to a lecture about Zen Buddhism before beginning a meditation session. Then we stopped for a short complementary lunch break, before taking part in another meditation session and making beaded necklaces, made from 108 wooden beads. The process of making the beads itself was a meditative practice.

The day was peaceful, eye opening and beautiful, and what it made it even more wonderful was the lovely people I spoke to and interacted with on that day.

Some of the best conversations and encounters I’ve had while travelling have been the random ones.

Like the time I met a lady in the hostel I stayed at. Her plans were to visit a few of the local markets with a friend from South Korea and grab some scrumptious local delicacies to eat. Of course, I was delighted to join them.

We didn’t do anything particularly special that day. But it was a moment frozen in time that will be forever stored in my box of cherished travel memories.

Towards the end of my trip, I went on a DMZ tour. DMZ is an abbreviation for what is known as the demilitarized zone.

This is the strip of land that separates South Korea from its controversial neighbour, North Korea.

You see, here is a thing I neglected to mention in any of the blogs I wrote about South Korea: it is still technically at war with the North.

No peace treaty was ever signed between North and South Korea, and as such, the war has not officially ended and instead, the two sides remain in a state of cease-fire.

Known as the world’s most dangerous border, the DMZ is the only ‘peace zone’ that exists between the two countries.

It is the barrier that divides the Korean Peninsula roughly in half. It was created by agreement between North Korea, China and the United Nations in 1953.

In South Korea, you can book tours to the DMZ and experience for yourself the surreal environment which comes complete with distant sirens that can often be heard from a distance.

Some of the more expensive tours include a visit to Panmunjom – the home of the Joint Security Area (JSA).

This is the infamous area where North and South Korean forces stand face-to-face. I heard many stories from JSA tourists of North Korean soldiers jeering at them when they visited the DMZ.

It is often called the “Truce Village” in both the media and various military accounts and no citizens live there.

Under very strict conditions, tourists can visit this ‘village’ and quite literally stand in-between the 2 countries.

Unfortunately, because of poor planning, I was unable to book the JSA element of the tour but I did see the DMZ, which included a tour of the DMZ theatre, infiltration tunnels and the Dora Observatory and Propaganda Village.

I stood waiting for the mini bus to take me to the DMZ and was afraid it would not turn up due to the heavy rainfall that day.

Thankfully, a tour bus did arrive and so the journey began. Soon, the skyscrapers and modern industrial buildings gave way to a desolate and barren landscape which signalled that we were drawing nearer to the DMZ.

The bus crossed the Unification Bridge and went through a few checkpoints where we had to produce our passports, before we entered the DMZ.

When we first arrived, the first stop in the tour was the DMZ theatre where we watched a documentary about the history of the zone.

After the snapshot, we were taken through the infiltration tunnel.

Visitors aren’t allowed to take anything into the tunnel, so we were required to put our things in a locker before making our way to the tunnels.

So what are the tunnels?

Well, since November 15, 1974, four tunnels crossing the DMZ have been discovered by South Korea. Once unveiled, the North Korean government claimed that the tunnels were blasted for coal mining, despite there being no coal in the tunnels.

South Korea believes that they were in fact used for military invasion. To get to them, we had to climb down a steep underground pathway towards the narrow, claustrophobic tunnels, which were wet and slippery.

Visitors were given a hard hat to navigate their way through the tunnels, due to the low ceilings.

If you have either a head or some hair, or both, you’ll definitely be grateful for the hard hats if you should ever visit the DMZ!

The narrow, damp tunnels eventually led to a brick wall which blocks any further descent into North Korea.

Next up was the Dora Observatory and the Propaganda Village. It was there that I got my first glimpse of North Korea.

From the Dora Observatory, you can peer at what appears to be a quaint village frozen in time. North Korea calls it a Peace Village, while its southern neighbour calls it the Propaganda Village.

It is said that the village is lifeless with no living residents, interiors or windows. Apparently, the village is comprised of just hollow, empty buildings, that have been built to look like a thriving and prosperous town and give the appearance of normal life. Like many people in the West, I’ve never been to North Korea nor have I ever set foot in the village, so I can’t say for sure.

What I do know however is that although you are allowed to peer into North Korea with fixed binoculars, you are only allowed to take photographs from behind a yellow line – and this is strictly enforced. The military police will force you to delete your photos if you break the rules. Unfortunately, I went on an overcast day when the entire village was almost obscured from view.

What I did observe is the strange siren calls and a Korean announcement from across the border, which sounded like one of those distant war sirens from a bygone era.

It was a strange clue as to what communist life may entail across the Korean border.

After taking a tour of the Dora Observatory, we were then transported to an old, abandoned railway station, which was originally built to provide an easy transport route from South Korea to North Korea and was previously used for freight trains carrying goods between the 2 countries.

However, it was abandoned in 2008 when the North Korean government closed the border crossing after accusing South Korea of creating ‘confrontational’ policies.

This is the empty station that used to schedule trains between North Korea and South Korea

Walking around this abandoned station was a little eery. Display boards still advertised times for trains that would never arrive. Platforms stood empty in this ghost of a station that was merely an echo of its former self.

I stood and waited for the ghost train to North Korea and after a few minutes decided it was time to call it a day and explore the rest of the station.

The DMZ tour pretty much concluded my South Korean adventure. After a couple of days it was time to bid farewell to South Korea, which had given me so many magical adventures.

Next stop: Thailand.

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