Getting Chosen to Go on a (Free!) Cycling DMZ Tour

During our first month in Korea, we stumbled into an amazing opportunity to go on a free DMZ tour. They even included transportation and food. Many Koreans have never traveled to see the boundary to the north. Yet not only does it represent war and terror, but it also represents beauty and hope. Moreover, the experience opened up a world previously closed to me before. Come see for yourself!

How We Got Chosen for a Free DMZ Tour

But how did it start? Well, I got a text from the HR rep of my hagwon about a week after we left for our individual branches. He asked if Danny and I would want to go on a cycling DMZ tour. Our bank (KEB Hana) had a contest; if we threw our names in, we could be some of the small group of expats chosen. They gave us breakfast, lunch, bike rental fees, and the cost of attending, all covered. We just had to show up and look pretty. Well, why not? I thought. We entered our names, but we wouldn’t get chosen. I forgot about it a week later.

But fate struck us some gold. Low and behold, one random day while at school, I received an email congratulating us on being accepted. Thank goodness I didn’t plan something else for us on that day! Danny and I talked the plans over, we followed up with our HR rep, and made plans to meet up that morning before walking over to location for the bus.

Morning of the DMZ Tour

The hosts from the bank were handing out a light breakfast as we approached. Little did I know, a “light breakfast” included samgak kimbap, half a sandwich, some fruit slices, two smoked eggs, and a drink. I had already eaten half a bagel thinking it would only be a snack. There was no way I was eating all that food. We received our name tags and sat around. We waited for the rest of the participants to show up.

Us with our passes for the free DMZ tour

People loaded onto three buses dependent on the language spoken and headed out of Seoul to the most northern point of Korea. The ride took an hour and many people slept, but one of our guides gave us some background about the DMZ. The traffic sped along quickly enough since we left early.

Walking Through the Third Tunnel of Aggression

Our first stop was the Third Tunnel of Aggression, one of four tunnels North Korea has attempted to use to get soldiers into the South secretly. We were briefed by a soldier, and then we began our descent 25 stories under the earth, about 78 meters if I remember right. We were crowded two-by-two into a tight tunnel that was supposed to have a diameter of 2 meters. Let me tell you, it was not tall enough for this man to stand up in. We made our way to the first of three barriers that the South had erected as a blockade for any future use.

Regretfully, we couldn’t take pictures down in the tunnel. We learned that the engineers of the tunnel painted its walls with coal powder to “disguise” it as a coal mine; this, even though the area is entirely composed of granite. Obvious, much? Yep. Very clever.

We entered the tunnel at its furthest creep into the South. There, we drank some refreshing water from a tapped spring. Across the way from that point you could still see the holes the engineers left so that they could slide dynamite into the wall and continue the tunnel’s advance. All around, ice slicked the walls and floor. Water beaded from the ceiling. Every so often, the clunk of someone’s helmet could be heard hitting the supporting girders that had been put up since the tunnel’s discovery. Like I said, the tunnels were small. You almost felt jealous of the children, walking behind them. After our exit, we got to watch a short movie that detailed more history of the event. However, we were more excited for what came next.

Seeing the DMZ from Dora Observatory

The second destination of our DMZ tour was Dora Observatory, an outpost that keeps watch over the border between the two nations. From its vantage, you can see the two Peace Villages within the DMZ’s boundaries and Kaesong a bit past the North’s fence. Incredibly, a soldier gave us a special presentation (which wasn’t planned, but entirely cool) using a miniature model of the area. He pointed to one feature and then another while explaining its importance. Sadly, he said we couldn’t take pictures of it; see a pattern, here? However, through this, he detailed some history of the villages. He also explained some of the events in the past year concerning Kaesong and its closure along with the South’s future  hopes for the area.

We had a few minutes to peer out binoculars and scopes right outside on the terrace. The view in total was incredible, but it was strange to see how denuded the North’s mountains were. Compared to the verdant and lush greenery of the DMZ itself, it looked exhausted and grey. The gross lack of basic necessities the North’s citizens have has led them to cutting down the local forests, destroying the ecosystem for fuel.

Panoramic view during our DMZ tour of the DMZ area and North Korean mountains

We didn’t have long to gaze around though. As we were on a time table, we rushed off to our next destination after only five minutes.

Third Stop of the DMZ Tour: Lunch at Unification Village

A lunch at Unification Village was the next stop for our DMZ tour. When we arrived, we took our shoes off for the traditional restaurant and began to get to know a few people sitting with us. It was a nice little affair, chatting with other expats. We don’t often get the chance to simply meet other foreigners.

The few I talked to had interesting stories from various parts of Korea. One from Daegu talked about his adventures with an Ultimate Frisbee team he joined. It traveled a lot, but due to their busyness he hadn’t actually explored much. As a side note, though he is from Texas, he said he had to google what “Ultimate Frisbee” was; do they not play that down there?!

Danny and I usually don’t eat out too much, so having the chance to eat at a traditional place where you sit on the floor was a nice change of pace. Glancing around and seeing everyone in avid conversation with people they wanted (or didn’t want) to talk to was fun.

Prepping for the Bike Race

Imjingak loomed ahead on the schedule, so we arrived to prepare for our DMZ tour’s cycling event. We had a few minutes to scout around so Danny and I saw the Bridge of Freedom and a few other monuments dedicated to the Korean War. (Learn more about them by clicking the link!) We received bike gear, then, and waited.

At first, it appeared like this event was a race and we hadn’t been told! We were reassured several times it wasn’t a race, even when they tried to separate us into groups of ability. This ultimately didn’t work out too well since packs of children and mothers somehow made it to the front to slow down the rest of us more-able bikers; in fact, it seemed like many of them weren’t all too experienced with riding bikes at all, maybe because Seoul’s a metro area.

The Race Begins!

But eventually it started, and we all raced through the gates. The first branch of the trip was entirely on loose gravel and rocks, and I was afraid the wheels would slip if I went too fast. Thank goodness they gave us mountain bikes (even though a part or two fell off during the course of our ride)! Even so, we kept pace through several dips and climbs. Soon, we made our way onto an actual road that turned bridge. We crossed the river that snakes through the DMZ for an amazing view, which led some to (illegally) stop and take pictures. I almost wished they lied about the race because Danny and I were almost always toward the head of the pack.

Imjingak at the start of our cycling tour
After we cycled along the DMZ, we got to explore Imjingak a bit more. This is from the top of the station’s lookout.

The entire course was about 17-km. We turned back and continued along the fence on more even albeit dusty terrain. The rice paddies sailed by and we saw many cranes that inhabit the DMZ darting past us. The wilderness was only marred by the many times we had to stop due to slow bike traffic.

Halfway through the course, we reached the furthest away point where we could finally take pictures. The military disallowed the use of our cameras most of the bike ride. However, as I said, this did not stop many Koreans from getting their phone out mid-ride.

As we headed back, an appointed stop allowed us all to feast on ChocoPies, drink water, and use binoculars to see more of the surroundings. Nearby a young man sat on a bench holding a cloth to his battered face; he had fallen off his bike somehow, probably on one of the many treacherous descents. We found out later he also broke a bone, poor guy. The rest of us climbed back on our bikes and headed back to Imjingak. At one point, a man alone on a tandem bike swerved in front of us four different times as we tried to pass him on either side. This only reinforced our ideas about people’s spacial awareness here. In due course, we made it past the finish line and rested for a bit before our ride back to Seoul.

Danny and I were among the first back so we got to look around and see a few things. We also both received 5,000 won vouchers, so we got a free bag of Korean ginseng candy. We looked around this northern-most village in Korea, the most north anyone can go without government permission, and everyone seemed to be living their lives without a care. Generally, no one in Korea bats their eyes much at all about North Korea and its antics.

On the bus ride home, we drifted off to sleep a few times in the utter quiet.

View of DMZ wilds during the cycling part of the DMZ tour

A Reflection on the DMZ Tour

The entire experience was incredible and strange. Many of the soldiers and signs along the DMZ referred to it as a “paradise,” an odd thing to say. After all, mines are everywhere. Furthermore, they call it a de-militarized zone, but many soldiers dot the boundary and keep it heavily militarized indeed. Due to lack of human habitation, many species like the leopard or bear have begun populating the 4 km track of land that spans beaches, mountains, fields, rivers, and marshes. The land is diverse, and so are the species that live there. Overall, it provides a haven for over 2000 unique animals.

South Korea actually tried to get it labeled as a wildlife preserve or a World Heritage Biosphere. Sadly, their efforts were thwarted by a North Korean government that says this would violate their 1953 agreement.

DMZ with lazy river snaking through
The DMZ has actually become a sanctuary for many wild animals.

Moreover, every Korean I speak to eagerly awaits this day of unification. They want one Korean government and a united government so much. I suppose the separation hasn’t been too long ago, only 63 years really. The memory probably still haunts many older Koreans’ minds. At first, I thought it seemed strange they hadn’t just accepted that there were two countries now. What made them think of every Korean as part of a large family? Meeting this idea face-to-face has been odd since I don’t think I feel any analogous emotions. I know I certainly don’t feel that about my German or Irish ancestry. Sometimes, I’m not sure I even feel that about Americans at large, since we’re so diverse. But if a civil war of some kind split my country in twain, would I desperately want it to be reunited? Probably!

I wonder what it must be like to have family in the North, not knowing whether or not they are still even alive. If I knew some of my relatives were there, I’d probably do everything I could to solve the division between North and South.

So How Was the DMZ Tour?

I loved the entire DMZ tour, actually. We were shuffled along at times, but even so, I understand the difficulty of corralling so many people. KEB Hana Bank and Grace Travel made this tour all possible for us. So let me quickly say: Thanks for helping us discover more of Korea! We appreciate it greatly.

UPDATE: For a few more candid photos, check out this other review. Danny and I made it into quite a few photos! 🙂

What About You?

Do you want to go on a DMZ tour? If you have already, what was your favorite part? Would you have any fears traveling so close to North Korea? And why do you think South Koreans remain so calm about their proximity? Let me know in the comments below! I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas.

 

 

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