Yesterday, Yoomin and I planned to visit the DMZ – the Demilitarised Zone – to see how close we could get to the border with North Korea. The idea of visiting the border of two countries still technically at war is quite alien to me, but fascinating at the same time. And so, after a lovely breakfast of rice cakes and leftovers from the night before, we set off, but not before Yoomin’s mum insisted we take a walk in the nearby park together.
Did you know that there is a drive to collect acorns for squirrels? It was midday on a Monday and people were scouring the ground for acorns to put in acorns banks. How adorable! I threw an acorn at Yoomin playfully, and she missed all her attempts to hit me back. Just thought you should all know. There was a swinging bench that stood up to the strain of Yoomin and I trying to use it as an actual swing, and further along, a lady was playing croquet in weather I would consider far too cold to be worth it. Bowls in Alton, boules in Paris, and croquet in Seoul. Here’s hoping for cake-eating contests in Bangkok.
To get to the DMZ, we needed to catch a train out to Munsan, a town near the border. You could instantly tell we were in the countryside after stepping out into Munsan – although they still had plenty of live squids outside seafood restaurants furiously circling their cylindrical tanks. Yoomin had the idea to eat before we travelled any further, as it would be a long time before we would have the chance again. I dithered on choosing a place, and we ended up going to where Yoomin originally suggested.
“It’s like Chinese food, but Korean style. You won’t get this kind of Chinese food in Hong Kong,” she said. The restaurant itself felt very local. We sat next to a fridge that housed packed plastic containers of kimchi, presumable maturing. A man behind us slurped his soup and let out a loud, satisfied “ahh!” once finished. Our table had a thin plastic covering that had been picked off in places either by wear or bored fingers. As a result, it was smattered with tiny divots. The owner ate her lunch of dumplings on the table next to ours. There were few other people in the restaurant. The shelves were cluttered with pots, plates, bottles, and chopsticks, to the extent it that felt like a storage room were it not as well-lit from the open front door.
Yoomin ordered for us. I let her take the lead on everything that day because pastoral Korea is even more intimidating for a non-speaker. When the food arrived, I was relieved to see recognisable food, I’m embarrassed to admit. It’s not that I’m not adventurous, but it’s always nice to know you can be cultured without having to risk missing a meal. Noodles in what was very close to an onion chutney with soy sauce, sweet and sour pork, and seafood soup with plenty of spice.
“For most Korean people, this is not spicy. For me, it is enough,” she told me. I agreed – it was right on the verge of edible and intolerable for me.
Before we left, I went to wash my hands. It was immediately obvious from the toilet that the restaurant was also the family house. The sink-side cups were filled with toothpaste and toothbrushes. It made the dynamic of the place more understandable.
After lunch, we had to catch a bus that was almost too small for me to stand up in, and then walk through rice fields whilst navigating industrial-sized lorries that took up more than half the dirt road. At the other end was the final stretch of motorway which we walked alongside for the last ten minutes or so. I had complete confidence in Yoomin’s sense of direction.
The tone of the DMZ was oddly dissonant. On the one hand, there’s an ever-present undercurrent of sadness. We passed memorials to those South Koreans abducted during the war with large statues and prominent plaques. ON the other hand, there’s an amusement park, complete with a Ferris wheel, next to the gondola station. Tonally, it felt like enough time had passed that it was proper for some entertainment at the tourist site, despite the seriousness of the location. Something about commercialising a hard border still sits uncomfortably for me. Then again, it has meant I was able to visit in the first place.
The car park was almost empty. They were collapsing tents for what had been an event we’d just missed. This meant there was no queue to the gondola, which was nice. Again, unexpected was the Dunkin’ Donuts overlooking the DMZ on the second floor. Something about commercialising a hard border felt uncomfortable to me still, but it did mean I was able to visit it at all in the first place. As we lurched out of the terminal on our way to the other side of the river, a lady with a camera hastily offered to take our photo for sale afterwards. She almost got caught in the closing doors.
The view from the gondola was pleasing; a river is the main divider of the civilian accessible-DMZ and provided a nice contrast in the late afternoon lighting. All South Korea was bathed in a warm glow, while “North Korea” was shaded and cold. The rice fields were scanned by birds of prey, who peeled off to frame itself against the dramatic mountainous backdrop. Ahead of us, far below, were layers of razor wire and giant red triangular signs which read “MINES.”
There’s not much to be said for the other end of the civilian area, where we exited to gondola. There is a small area you can walk up to have a better view of the surrounding area. I got the distinct impression that if I threw a rock over the fence, I would start a war. Ultimately, we didn’t stay for too long. The short hike up to the top of the viewing platform posed a problem for Yoomin after her bout of covid affected her lungs. At the top were three different points of note: a tiny lighthouse, a wooden pavilion, and a rusted sign with ‘20’ faintly visible (signifying to American pilots where they were).
A final stop at a second, much nicer café on the DMZ side of the river, and we went back to the main side of the area. It was getting dark quickly by now, and colder too. There was no clear way back to the station, since Yoomin really didn't want to take the bus. Instead, we sang ‘Oops I Did it Again” to the music from her phone whilst we waited for a taxi.
There was a brief detour when we missed the train station to transfer from, but otherwise the trip home went smoothly. However, it was no smooth exit for me from Yoomin’s home. My card was declined buy every ATM we visited, so I couldn’t take out any cash at all. Instead of an easy trip to the hostel, I had a stressful evening of contacting banks, changing plans, and the relief of simple freshly baked bread and a fried egg courtesy of Yoomin’s mum.
Her parents scrounged the 200,000 won for my trip, and I paid them back with a transfer. One sincerely grateful farewell and a taxi ride later, I arrived tired and stressed at Hongdae, to my hostel. The night ended there more or less.