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Part 1 – DMZ and JSA day tour

DMZ Cosmojin Tour site

DMZ Cosmojin Tour site.

Earlier this year in May, I visited South Korea and joined a day tour to North Korea. OK, it was only about 5 metres over the North Korean border via the Demilitarized Zone 🙂

I joined the DMZ and JSA day tour through a company called Cosmojin. The tour cost ₩137,000 per person (approximately AUD$160). The booking was processed online and I had to provide a copy of my passport so they could register it with the UN. They also needed my credit card details just in case I did not show up on the day and they will deduct my credit card for a “no show” fee.  The tour fee was collected during the course of the tour. You can either pay cash or with your credit card (they do have a wireless EFTPOS machine on the bus). I don’t understand why they don’t have an option for people to pay via the website since they have our credit card details anyway. This would saved time instead of our tour guide walking up and down asking people for money.

The below itinerary was emailed to me:

Pick up place – Amethyst Center – Lunch (Bibimbap) – Imjingak Park – Unification Bridge – ID Check – DMZ Exhibition Hall – The 3rd Infiltration Tunnel – Dora Observatory – Dorasan Station – ID Check at Unification Bridge – Slideshow and briefing at Camp Bonifas – Joint Security Area – Freedom House – Military Armistice Commission Conference Room – UN Guard Post 3 – Bridge of No Return – Itaewon (around 19:30) Lotte Hotel (if group tours desire an alternate drop off location it may be accommodated – the email failed to mention extra cost involved for alternate drop off).

1. Hotel Pickup

DMZ & JSA bus.

DMZ & JSA bus.

We were picked up at 10am in front of our hotel by Cosomojin’s mini bus. The bus inside was quite roomy and comfortable. They drove us to the Lotte Hotel where we boarded onto a coach where the rest of the people on tour where waiting. There was a bit of a delay due to late arrivals of other passengers, after 20 minutes we were eventually on our way. Our tour guide introduced himself as SP (aka Sexy Person or Special Person as he jokingly explained what it really stands for, however I have forgotten what his Korean name was. So we all called him SP). He is a comical, skinny middle aged man who is softly spoken and has a slight American accent. While pointing out the major attractions of Seoul as we drove by he started to brief us on the itinerary for the day with the Amethyst Center being our first stop.

2. Jeil Amethyst at Yeoeuido Dong

Jeil Amethyst.

Jeil Amethyst.

Around 11:50am we arrived at the Amethyst Center. The Amethyst center was located in Yeouido-Dong. Yeouido-Dong district is known as the ‘Manhattan of Seoul’ and home to some famous landmarks like the National Assembly, National Assembly Library63 building, International Finance Center, major TV stations like KBS and MBC and financials companies. The Amethyst center was on level 3. Before we were allowed to browse and shop they showed us a video of Korean made Amethyst.

Amethyst gem stone on display.

Amethyst gem stone on display.

 

Surprisingly South Korea has the best amethyst quality in the world (from what the video said). More information on Amethyst gem can be found on Wikipedia. All these gem stones have “healing powers”, if you believe in them. Unfortunately I wasn’t quite interested so this segment was a quick toilet break for me 🙂

3. Unification Bridge

As we travelled further away from Seoul and towards the north, reality hits when you see the highways and borders along the coast were fenced up and soldiers were patrolling the highway. The feeling is hard to describe… from a bustling vibrant city to a war zone within minutes. I mean you won’t feel it until you are there and knowing that you are in a war zone. We reached our first ‘road block’ at the Unification Bridge around 12:55pm. South Korean soldiers were on guard at the Unification Bridge. The bus driver showed the solider some papers and then we proceeded across the bridge.

Now a bit of history of the demilitarise zone (DMZ). The demilitarise zone is approximately 992 square kilometres. Panmunjom, an area within the demilitarise zone, was established as a venue for negotiation between South and North Korea in accordance with the armistice agreement signed on July 27, 1953 after the Korean War. Civilian access to the DMZ is strictly controlled. A visit to the DMZ requires an ID card, passport or other types of documentation for identity check purposes. More information of the demilitarised zone can be read at The Guardian written by Justin McCurry.

Soldier guarding post.

Soldier guarding post.

Soldiers patrolling along the highway.

Soldiers patrolling along the highway.

Unification Bridge road block.

Unification Bridge road block.

4. Lunch at Gyeongui Highway Transit office (1pm)

After crossing the Unification bridge, our first stop was at the Highway Transit Office where we had our lunch. The food on offer for everyone on the tour was bibimbap (the word literally means “mixed rice”) and you could upgrade to a bulgogi (which literally means “fire meat”) beef rice by paying extra ₩10,000 (Approx AUD$11). The ‘restaurant’ is not your typical restaurant, more like a canteen. An open area seating with a main counter. We were given a large plate where you scooped your own dishes into your place – very military style. The food is OK, nothing special – edible. You get a bit of rice, tomatoes, eggs, fried fish cakes and kimchi for your bibimbap meal.

Gyeongui Highway Transit Office.

Gyeongui Highway Transit Office.

Transit Office foyer.

Transit Office foyer.


Dora Restaurant.

Dora Restaurant.

Bibimbap lunch.

Bibimbap lunch.

5. Dorasan Station

Dorasan Station.

Dorasan Station.

After lunch we were driven to Dorasan Station, which is the northernmost railway line in  South Korea. Located 56 km from Seoul and 205 km from Pyeongyang. It was the only railway connection between North and South Korean but due to political issues it was closed in 2008. The station was used to transfer freights from Kaesong Industrial Complex in North Korea. Kaesong Industrial Complex is an industrial park established as a joint venture between the North and South Korean governments to allow South Korean companies to manufacture goods in North Korea. Weird right? Both countries are at war with each other but still they share some economical ties. As our tour guide explains to us that “money talks”. Most of the goods made in Kaesong factories are mainly shoes and clothings. No, the Samsung Galaxy S6 is not made there 🙂

The Map of The Interconnected Gyeongui Railroad Line (Munsan-Gaeseong).

The Map of The Interconnected Gyeongui Railroad Line (Munsan-Gaeseong).

Dorasan Station is now just a popular tourist attraction in DMZ. If you have been to the aftermath of an Olympic site, that’s what the area feels like. It is quiet, open, spacious and tidy. Inside the station is spacious and has a lot of empty seats (obviously). There is a small counter selling souvenirs and a stand where you can stamp (not on your passport) showing that you have entered North Korea. Highly not recommended stamping on your passport as I do not know what would happen when you enter other countries.

One of the fascinating things about Dorasan Station is that the train line is connected to the Trans Eurasion Railway Network. If one day North and South Korea ever manage to heal their war wounds, South Koreans can take a train from Dorasan Station and travel to China, Russia or even the far west of Europe.

Trans Eurasian Railway Network.

Trans Eurasian Railway Network.

Dorasan station waiting area.

Dorasan station waiting area.

Ticket Counter.

Ticket Counter.

Artwork.

Artwork.

Custom area.

Custom area.

6. 3rd infiltration tunnel

3rd Tunnel surrounding.

3rd Tunnel surrounding.

The third infiltration tunnel was about a 10 minute bus drive from Dorasan Station. The South Korean army have discovered 4 tunnels around the DMZ area. If you are interested about the history of each tunnel, you can read more on Wikipedia. As I was told the third tunnel was only discovered when the South Korean soldiers saw smoke coming up from the ground. It was believed that the North Korean soldiers were cooking inside the tunnel which gave away their secrecy. So far four tunnels have been discovered, but the South Korean army believes that there are more and are still actively searching the DMZ for other tunnels.

Map of 3rd Tunnel.

Map of 3rd Tunnel.

Before walking down to the tunnel, we were directed to the DMZ Media Hall where our tour guide SP briefly explained to us about the history of the divided country and the flourishing ecosystem in DMZ. He warned us that anyone taller than 5’2″ will have trouble walking in the tunnel as the height of the tunnel is quite low. Because of the low tunnel height, SP went on and jokingly stated that these tunnels were definitely not built by the South Koreans as they are taller. (The average height for South Korean men is 5’9″).  SP advised us that tall people will have a difficulty time walking in the tunnel as you will need to bend down or lean side ways to prevent your head from hitting the tunnel ceiling. A hard hat is given to everyone and must be worn at all. I can assure you that you will need it as I had hit my head a few times on the hard rocks. Beside height restrictions, fitness and health is another matter you will need to consider. The path down is an easy walk , however there will be a section closer to the end of the passage where you will be walking on rubber and the air flow is not so great.  It becomes very cool and damp towards the end of the tunnel – you may wish to bring a jacket whilst walking down. The walk back up is on a 30 degree slope and there will be a slight struggle walking up. I was able to burn off  quite a lot of calories from my bulgogi lunch 🙂 This is probably the least fun of the tour for many unfit people. I did see a tram line and a platform at the bottom of the tunnel entrance but it seems like that it is out of order or could be reserved for some other usage.

End of 3rd Tunnel.

End of 3rd Tunnel.

Down below of 3rd Tunnel.

Down below of 3rd Tunnel.

Walking back up on a 30 degrees slow.

Walking back up on a 30 degrees slow.

A pond and garden out side of the tunnel.

A pond and garden out side of the tunnel.

Water wheel.

Water wheel.

Click here to read the second part of the article.

Note: As you read this article, ‘demilitarized’ is spelled with an ‘s’ or ‘z’. I purposely mix it up for Search Engine Optimisation reason 🙂

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  • Oscar

    Hi Angela,

    I had to email a color photo copy of my passport to Cosmojin in order to proceed with my reservation. I was advised that this was needed to check with the UN. I am guessing they need to ensure that we are of non South Korean national or spies 🙂

    Is it safe? I hope so. Nothing has happened. I was also reluctant to hand over such information. Then again it’s probably the same as when you check into hotels and need to hand over your passport for them to obtain a copy on file… Who knows how they dispose our details.

  • Angela

    Hi,
    Is it really safe to just send them our passport and card details via email if I book a tour from Cosmojin? I couldn’t book it via website so I can only book via email. Just thinking if this is safe to just pass the important details without a system :X

  • Oscar

    North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has ordered his troops to be fully armed and ready for combat operations, ratcheting up tensions already high after his army traded fire with South Korea across the demilitarized zone.

    I am guessing DMZ tours will be put on hold for the time being.

    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-08-20/n-korea-holds-emergency-meeting-after-trading-fire-with-south