The idea was to go hiking in Seoraksan National Park before the rainy season would start. But why drive from Seoul to the East Coast in a couple of hours when you can take oh, let’s say, ten days? As befits our way of traveling, we soon left the highway and wandered about on narrow, mountainous roads, intrigued by some of the brown rectangles (indicating cultural sites) on our regional map scored at a tourist information center.
The Peace Dam was allegedly to stop a massive flooding that the North would initiate to flood Seoul. However, others consider it nothing but a white elephant. Construction started just before the Olympic Games in 1988, was finished only in 2005 and they are currently repairing the dam so you can’t drive on it right now.
Around it is an impressive International Peace Art Park with tanks in bright colors, turned into artsy musical instruments or chained to the ground.
Our wanderings also brought us to a part of the DMZ that is not mentioned in our guidebook. The Demilitarized Zone is the intensest militarized areas in the world. It’s the line running from the west coast to the east coast that divides North and South Korea. The Korean War (1950-1953) never ended with an official peace agreement but with an armistice, which continues today.
From Seoul you can visit the DMZ with guided tours, but here, near Yanggu, we could visit an observatory and the 4th tunnel by ourselves. That sounded like a plan. Getting a permit was easy, at yet another tourist information center (They have zillions of them in this country, just fabulous. Most is in Korean but there’s always at least one map in English.).
Thus we got our peek into North Korea. We photographed while driving along the never-ending fences topped with barbed and razor wire, but in the observatory tower we were not allowed to. A soldier explained in English what mountain peaks were looking at, and indicated the guard posts.
It’s such a contradictory image: incredibly rich forested mountains, heaven for wildlife, including for some previously endangered bird species, yet on two sides run these horrible fences and are guards constantly on edge. In a way it’s surreal, yet all the military vehicles and soldiers are testimony to the fact this is not some sort of video game but reality.
The following day we went to the 4th tunnel. The first three are north of Seoul, but all four were dug by the North Koreans with the idea to one day start an invasion from underground. The 4th tunnel was only discovered in the early 1990s.
South Korea closed it off underground somewhere in the DMZ, and has used its part of the tunnel for tourist purposes and so we checked out the 1.7 by 1.7-meter long and wide tunnel dug by using dynamite. No photos underground though.
What can we say? Throughout our journey we have so often concluded that borders are one of the stupidest things mankind ever came up with, with this one currently being the worst manifestation of them all.
After having taken in the seriousness of life on this planet, it was time for a lighter note: the beach. And then: a hike in Seoraksan National Park.