Trip Start Jul 05, 2010
Trip End Jul 23, 2010

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Friday, July 16, 2010

Today was the most anticipated segment of the trip for not only me but almost everyone else on the trip. DMZ day.  I had serious trouble sleeping last night because of nerves and excitement all mixed together. I managed to get about 5 hours of sleep and woke up ready to visit the DMZ.

We left our hotel at 7:50 this morning after double-checking to make sure everyone was dressed appropriately and had their passports.  At the DMZ, you have to wear closed toed shoes (to run for your life), long pants, and a collared shirt.  We boarded a bus and drove about 10 minutes away to wait for 30 minutes while our passports were registered as going on this trip.  We boarded another bus, along with about 7 Japanese tourists to drive up to the northern part of South Korea.

We drove out of Seoul and started seeing the areas that were blocked off to civilians.  Barbed wire everywhere, and lots of guard posts. I tried to take a couple videos from the car, but it went too fast and doesn't really show what it was like.  We were driving along the Han-gang River, and we would pass armed guard posts about every 200-300 meters.  This is where the tour guide first pointed out that the land across from the river was indeed North Korea. At this point we were allowed to take any pictures that we wanted, but we were going very quickly so it was hard to get anything good.

Before we got to the military base, we were briefed in English and Japanese by two tour guides. They told us that when we arrived to the DMZ, we would get off our civilian bus and board a military bus which would take us to the area. We were also told that we had to leave everything on this bus except our camera and our passport. No bags allowed, no video cameras allowed.

We first pulled into a parking lot where we passed a amusement park ride that looked a lot like The Flying Dutchman at Six Flags. We were all kind of confused about the amusement park atmosphere, and we were told that we could get off the bus for 15 minutes and look around.  The barbed wire was right beside us, and there were several places to look at (including The Freedom Bridge, some weird statues, and other things I didn't get a chance to look at).  It was a rushed experience. Rushed experiences are sort of becoming the theme for this trip. I purchased a pin here so that if I didn't see another gift shop, at least I would have something from the DMZ.  We then got back on our civilian bus and continued on our way. 

We eventually arrived at the actual military base, where we were told we could not take pictures. We drove up to the first checkpoint, with the bus having to weave back and forth through barriers (so the other side couldn't escape quickly). At the first of three checkpoints, a Korean solider got on the bus to check all of our passports.  We drove a little further and got to the second checkpoint, where we once again had our passports checked, as well as our cameras and shoes.  The cameras were checked to make sure no one had a 100x+ zoom lens, and the shoes were checked to make sure they were closed toe.  

We had a 20 minute briefing at Camp Bonfas, where we were still not allowed to take pictures. We were also allowed to take no notes.  We were told over and over to make sure we don't wave, don't point, don't make any communication to the other side. By this time everyone is pretty tense...they do a really good job of scaring you to death.

We get back on the bus and drive through a final checkpoint. At this point we are told to still not take pictures, and they also add that we should never put our hands in our pockets because the North Korean soldiers said tourists were not allowed to do that.  So that's a nice final scare.  We all file off the bus and the Americans were put in two lines on the left, and the Japanese were put into two lines on the right. We were lined up as straight as you could be, and everyone was kind of wide-eyed with anticipation.

A solider ushered us up some stairs through a building. As we approached the top of the stairs, there it was. The part of the DMZ (though technically it's the JSA) that you see in all the pictures. We didn't pause and walked straight out in our two lines into one of the conference rooms where North Korea and South Korea meet to discuss things (though they haven't met there in a bit due to tensions).  It was just the American tourists for the moment, and at that point I didn't know where the Japanese tourists were.  At this point, we are literally between where the South Korean soldiers stand facing the North Korean soldiers. We were allowed to be in the room for 5 minutes, and we were told we were now allowed to take pictures. Everyone started taking pictures like crazy, trying to get whatever shots they could in before we had to leave.  I made sure I walked over to the North Korean side, just so I could say that I have been in North Korean territory. I peered out the window to look at the cement barrier between the two sides, and was about a foot away from a North Korean soldier. 

Before we knew it, it was time to stop taking pictures and leave the room. We got back in our two lines and were ushered out of the room.  They lined us up on the steps behind the conference rooms where apparently the Japanese tourists had been lined up waiting on us to leave. They went in the room after we left and we were allowed to stand there and look at North Korea.  As soon as we walked out, North Korean soldiers ushered out about 20 North Korean tourists (I use the word "tourists" lightly).  They were filming us and snapping lots of pictures, and we were finally told we could take pictures again. So once again, it was a picture taking madhouse as everyone tried to snap whatever he or she could.   It really had to be a funny site to see.  After the Japanese came out of the conference room it was time to get back on the bus. We got on the bus, and they drove us around the building and right past where we had just been standing at the line, and we were allowed to take a few more pictures.

They then drove us past the Bridge of No Return and the spot where the tree was cut down in 1976 which resulted in several UN soldiers being murdered.  We then were allowed 15 minutes in a gift shop, where everyone went a little crazy.  We then had to leave the base, stopped to eat lunch on the way, and made our way back to Seoul.

It was the most tense experience I think I have ever had.  I'm really glad I had this opportunity - it was awesome.  
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