Into the Wild

6 01 2011

Down the aisle of the bus, a Korean solider checked passports and zoom lenses;  our conversations were hushed to a whisper. He was young, maybe 23. We had been warned, explained in detail the nature of our destination: one of the most heavily armed and hostile borders in the world. The rules were pretty simple, don’t do anything. Our tour guide was a delicate Korean woman. She spoke softly to our group of American and Japanese travelers, summarizing the late history of the Korea’s and the creation of the demilitarized zone. When she spoke of the North and the tyranny over its people, her face took on a quality of maternal concern, her eyes looked past us, discomfort, and something else I couldn’t quite make out through her politely forced smile; we were after all, paying to participate in this rare excursion. When the solider had effectively demonstrated his purpose, he walked from the back of the bus, rifle at side, to the front where he took a list from her then exited. As we drove through the guard posts, she began to recite the rules again. Bracing herself on the seats, she slowly moved down the aisle.

“Spit out the gum please. Keep your gloves on please. Take off that hat please. Stay seated please. No photographs unless I clear you please.”

The drive through the DMZ was peaceful. Unlike most of Seoul, the landscape was untouched, unsoiled. Large game birds ducked in and out of the openings between gray trees lightly draped in snow. The earth was a blanket of white, absent the hallows of imprint: it was beautiful. It stretched for miles to the east and west of our momentum as we approached the camp sign: Joint Security Area.  We pulled into a roundabout. A large building to the north, two smaller buildings east and west of the circular driveway. I had no idea where we were exactly, no idea what to expect as she lined us up in rows of two inside the freezing atrium of the building to the east. We walked up the stairs quietly, no one spoke above a hum, and as we approached the top I suddenly became aware of my gaze focusing on the blue buildings in the foreground. It felt like stepping into a photograph. I had seen it so many times in print: the blue conference rooms, armed sentries, the demarcation line that separates freedom by mere inches. And suddenly we were crossing it. Inside the conference room, a heavy table and chairs, to one side was North Korea, and we had crossed over.

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If you are in Korea and have not taken this tour I encourage you to do so. But make sure you are attending a tour that includes the Joint Security Area; otherwise you may be disappointed. Most DMZ tours will take you into the beautiful expanse of wilderness between the Korea’s, but it’s huge and does not include the actual demarcation line where the North and South actually come together.

The Korea Travel Bureau and Panmunjom Travel Center both run tours to Panmunjeom and the JSA. Both cost 77,000 won, and both leave from the downtown Lotte Hotel in Seoul. For more information, call Korean Travel Bureau at (02) 778-0150 or Panmunjom Travel Center at (02) 771-5593.
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One response

13 01 2011
Joe

nicely done whitney, the tone here is so appropriately terse and direct. i’m glad that you actually took the time to tour the border, and i’m especially glad that you took the time to share it and document it for us. you’re voice as a writer continues to take form, and the diversity of subjects and inspirations in your writing is continuing to push you to find what exists inside you as a story teller and writer.
the pictures are a good touch too 😀 ^_^

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