Monday, 11 February 2008

Mount Geumgang - Part One

I had some money to spend on a trip to another country after my trip to Hong Kong fell through. This was entirely not due to anyone else’s stupidity, but mine. The backup plan turned out to be a trip to North Korea and more specifically, the Geumgang Mountains.

I am going to divide these posts up and spread them over the whole week because there is just so much to say and so little space to say it. I will try to keep it as brief as is comfortable. On that note, let me start…

First of, I somehow managed to get the day of the week wrong. I suppose it is a symptom of not having to worry about it while not working. I had the same problem while flying because we would work any day of the week. Luckily, I realised my fault at midnight, not exactly great for getting enough sleep.

I managed to get up at 5 am on the correct day and headed of to Seoul to the appointed meeting place. It really is no fun to have to wake up that early in the cold of winter. There are no buses running and all the taxi drivers are either asleep or not driving around the outskirts of town. At least my suitcase has wheels and using leg power, I arrived, 20 minutes after leaving the house, at the ticket booth, ready to buy my ticket to Seoul and start the adventure to the other party of this long running, no violent war of the Far East.

The bus was empty, very empty. I think we were about seven people on the bus. I will not bore you with the trip to the meeting place from this point. All you need to know is that I bought a Cream Cheese Bagel at Dunking Doughnuts along the way and munched on it while staring at the almost empty train. It is a strange thing to see so few people about in Seoul.

Following the directions mailed to me, I found the meeting spot easily and found that I was to ride on the bus without all the foreigners on it. There were only four non-Koreans on my bus. I suppose that is because we were the only Outlanders who did not book as part of the group.

After sitting listening to an audio book for a while the driver told me to go sit with the other three Weagoogins. Can’t have a foreigner sitting with the Koreans now, can we? That was also the end of my nice window seat. Ah well.

The trip to the border was not all that exiting because I could not really look out the window, you see. We did stop at a few resting areas along the way, all next to a Hyundai Oilbanks (Petrol Station). This was not surprising, seeing how Hyundai has a virtual monopoly on tours to this location.

A disappointing thing about the trip was catching glimpses of things through the window that I would have loved to have had a better look at. This would have been easy if I had my original seat. Luckily, the scenes that would unfold in the mountains would surpass all the little things that passed us. It is too bad the scenes in the mountains came with the culture that I was missing outside, but I am already making devious plans to get back to this area. Mua-ha-ha-ha.

It took us about 4 hours to get the final stop before crossing the border. It is an official stop where we picked up our guides and handed in all the banned electronics for safe keeping. We had an opportunity to get lunch and buy a few snacks, not that snacks were needed. You just need to spend five minutes with people from China, Japan or Korea to know they do not travel without enough snack to feed a small country.

We four outsiders had the option of changing over to the bus with all “our kind”, so to speak.

I am only joking about the foreigner thing. I think they were keeping us together because we do not understand Korean. The guide for that bus was able to speak more English than any of the other. I am just making the situation look worse. It was mostly funny.

The best part about leaving the South was that the Soldiers at the border were just too eager too wave us on our way. They must be very bored there. The one soldier actually came running out of one of the buildings, without his helmet, to wave at the whole bus full of foreigners. We were all having a good giggle about this.

Before you can go in to the North, you have to cross the DMZ, the Demilitarised Zone. Everyone calls it DMZ-ee. The British form just does not sound that good. You also have to pass through the border control on both sides. The Control in the South side is a nice, new, large building where they scan us and smile as we go through.

The North is a tent playing the same friendly Korean song repeatedly. Here strange officials with up-turned pots on their heads look at you with suspicion. I suspect they will get thrown in a labour camp if they smile at us. Why did this little South African ever do to them? The 37 or so soldiers were forced by the Evil English to fight in the Korean War.

From this point, you can feel the tension. You are always afraid of doing something wrong and getting in trouble. It reminded me of the good old days working for Qatar Airways. On the North side you are only allowed to take photographs in certain directions and at certain locations. It’s a pity because we were not allowed to take photos of the soldiers at any time. They look so much like Communist Russians it is not even funny. It would have made a great photo with one or two of them standing there at attention all day long, holding a red flag just in case you do something wrong.

On the way to the village where we stayed, the Unification Village, we passed through mostly abandoned villages the official explanation is that the people don’t like the tourists passing them every day.

The Unification Village is a village that was build by the Hyundai Company. The companies owner had great hopes of using it to improve conditions in the North and helping unification, but all they have done so far is make money out of tourism and built a railway that can’t be used yet. I’m not shooting down their intentions; it just didn’t seem to happen the way they expected it to. I must admit that the expected rip-off on prices doesn’t exist here. Everything is very reasonably priced.

Funny really strange thing about this village is that it is basically a little bit of South Korea in the North. For all practical reasons I have not been to North Korea yet. My passport certainly doesn’t show it. Some of the workers there are supposedly North Korean, but I have my doubts. How are they going to explain to these people that the South has food and brand new everything while their families don’t have anything and are dying of hunger?

Tomorrow it will be on to our first meal inside the “camp” and then the first part of our first full day in the “North”.

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