Yesterday we all feared today’s DMZ tour would be canceled, but we were assured none of that would happen. And indeed, we forged ahead as planned. Or to be more accurate: we crawled ahead with half-opened eyes at 7:15 in the morning. Henry, one of the people I met at the youth hostel, had the brilliant idea of setting the alarm clock 5 minutes before departure time, which was fine by me. In my ray-of-morning-sunshine mode (Olivier will know that one quite well from last year) I hauled myself onto the bus and snoozed for another hour or so. When I finally gave up trying to sleep, we’d arrived at our destination: the demilitarized zone between South and North Korea.
Arriving at the DMZ means passport checks. A fresh conscript (military service is compulsory in Korea) clambered aboard the bus and gave our passports a brief look. So brief, in fact, I wonder if he’d noticed at all had my passport photograph been one of an overweight black woman.
Well, I guess we presented no threat, and were allowed in for our first stop: Imjingak park. Here we had the opportunity to watch Freedom Bridge, which had been used to exchange POW’s after the Korean War. It’s really cold up here, and the morning light made love to the ice crystals on the park’s various wooden and concrete surfaces in the most beautiful way. I could have stayed here for hours with the right camera. Unfortunately, lacking focus on my crummy second-hand model soon made me abandon my attempts to catch the spectacle and I shot some very authentic looking barbed wire instead. We scored some breakfast at the convenience store and back on the bus we went.
Our second stop was one of the famous North Korean infiltration tunnels underneath the DMZ. In the 1970s, a defector from North Korea admitted he alone was responsible for designing at least 20 infiltration tunnels from North Korea. So far, four have been found.
The tunnel itself was nothing special. You’re given a safety helmet and then walk down through a brightly lit South Korean tunnel down to where it intersects the North Korean tunnel. After walking for a good five minutes in a tunnel that is too low to walk up straight (chronic malnutrition creates tiny North Koreans) you come to the first of three concrete checkpoints, beyond where you may go no further. No pictures allowed, though there’s nothing to be seen anyway, apart from some barbed wire and dramatic red lighting.
Next on the list was the Dora observatory, a large deck mounted with binoculars for spying on the North Korean neighbours. You were allowed to take pictures, but only until a certain yellow line drawn way before the edge of the platform, ensuring only giants could actually take pictures of North Korea.
When looking through the binoculars though, you can see the rivalry amounting to comical proportions in the placement of two gigantic flag poles. North Korea has the larger one, by the way.
Our last stop was the Dorasan train station, which has train tracks that extend all the way up to Pyeongyang. You can also get stamps of North Korea here. The actual stamp and ink cushion are covered in warnings not to put those on your travel passport, as an American man who did just that a few years ago was detained in an American airport for two whole days before being allowed re-entry. Oh, and I bought DMZ chocolate. Just couldn’t resist.
After returning to Seoul, I made my way to the Hankuk Kiwon, the Korean professional go players’ institute. It’s a lot different from the Nihon Kiin in Tōō, and it was almost impossible to see anything just wandering around. I tried talking to the few people I saw wandering around, but they spoke no English. Pretty disappointed, I went back to the subway station, thinking about how unwelcoming the Hankuk Kiwon is. And then it suddenly dawned on me that those thoughts where just that: thoughts.
I went back, tried one more time with an old man smoking a cigarette in front of the Hankuk Kiwon. He spoke English, and guided me to the basement floor where a dozen or so professionals where analyzing a game as it was being played. He put me on a chair, reminded me to be respectfully silent among the professionals and even got me a drink. I ended up watching the entire relay of a professional match in the 2011 Korean Baduk League. I didn’t know this, but that seems to be a team league. Today’s match was between a team “Posco Something something LED” and “Hite-Jinro”. Team something something was leading 1-0. The game was An Sungjoon (B) vs Ju Hyeongwuk (W). I enjoyed every second of the game and I’ll treasure this as a reminder of how you are responsible for shaping your own experience.
I found the game record on go4go.net and added it below:
On a pretty bizarre note, I asked the man who had guided me into the room full of professionals for his name. He smiled and gave me his card because I wouldn’t believe it otherwise. He was a 7-dan amateur player who had been teaching go in Mongolia for the past few years and recently returned to Seoul. And now a little reminder of his existence travels with me in my backpack. A piece of paper that says Kim Jeong-Il.