Don't Tell Mom I Went to the DMZ

Trip Start Aug 25, 2012
Trip End Feb 25, 2013

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Saturday, February 16, 2013

One of the last things I wanted to do before leaving Korea was to go to the DMZ.  For those of you not in the know, the DMZ is the Demilitarized Zone that protects the border between North Korea and South Korea. The entire zone is four kilometers wide, two kilometers on the south side and two on the north. This is a very serious political issue, and a tourist attraction, all at the same time! So, I gathered up a couple of friends and we made our plans to journey to Seoul to join the DMZ trip.
I woke up at the crack of dawn to grab the bus to get from Shin Pyeong into Seoul. I had a lot that I wanted to accomplish and I didn't want to waste a minute of time. I was walking towards the bus as the sun pulled its weary face over the horizon and I enjoyed a quiet, sleepy ride to the bus terminal in Seoul. My first stop would be to Insadong, which is a neighborhood of Seoul that specializes in traditional crafts and souvenirs.
I got there just as the stores were opening so I was one of the first people through the doors. I wandered around a bit and then started spending money. I found a number of things that I have been looking to buy for a while, and maybe a few things that I didn't really needed... but did want. I was rather pleased with my purchases and packed my stuff away in my bag to get onto the subway again.
I met Doris and John at Seoul Station to meet up with our tour group.  Soon we were collected by our tour guide and loaded onto a bus with a handful of others.  We drove through Seoul to get out of the city, heading north. As we wove through traffic our tour guide explained the history of the north and the south and the conflict that has gone on between them.  I listened quietly, trying to store the information away in my mind.
We got to the edge of the DMZ and switched from our mini-bus to a larger bus with a few other tour groups that would take us to the rest of the locations that we were going to visit.  The first stop on our tour was Dorasan Train Station.  The railroad was constructed just a few short years ago and was supposed to run all the way from South Korea into North Korea.  The hopeful plan was that this railroad would eventually run all the way through Asia and into Europe, eventually ending in Germany.  Unfortunately that will never happen if the train can't get through North Korea.  As it stands, the train does run twice a day from Seoul to the DMZ.  People are able to buy round-trip tickets to visit the train station, or you can just take the DMZ tour.
Next we went to the Third Infiltration Tunnel, which is exactly what it sounds like.  In the late 1970's North Koreans tried to dig tunnels under the DMZ and into the South Korean side, but the tunnels were found and the project abandoned.  Now the tunnels are part of the tour and people can go visit them.  We were instructed to don yellow hard hats and walk down a long, cement ramp into the earth to get to the tunnel.  Once we were down there we found a surprisingly crude tunnel blasted out of the stone.  In order to walk down the length of the tunnel we had to crouch, trying not to smack our heads on the jagged bits of rock that protruded from the tunnel ceiling.  Water dripped down the walls, pooling on the uneven floor. Once we got to the end of the tunnel there was a barbed wire barricade in front of a metal door with a small window. When we looked through the window we could see a similar door and window set up. One door on the south side, the other door on the north side.
The last stop of the tour was Imjingak park and the Freedom Bridge.  The bridge stretches over the border and, at certain times, people could cross the bridge to freedom on the south side. At this time there is a massive gate that separates the two sides and on the south side the gate is covered with ribbons and signs about unification.  
After the tour was over we were dropped back in Seoul, but we were not done yet.  Doris, John, and I grabbed a quick bite to eat at KFC and then jumped back on the subway. We got off in Gangnam and walked out into the cold streets.  After a bit of walking we got to our destination, a Doctor Fish cafe called Namu Gunul. Doctor Fish are the tiny fish that eat the dead skin off of feet and hands, it is pretty popular in Asia, but not legal in the US do to health and safety concerns.  At this particular cafe you can order coffee and snacks and then go soak your feet when you are finished noshing.
We ordered a massive waffle plate to share and a round of coffee drinks as we waited our turn for a soak. Once we were ready an employee led us over to the tanks and instructed us to take our shoes and socks off. We washed our feet thoroughly and then got ourselves ready to go. This particular cafe had two tanks of fish, small fish and bigger fish. The small fish are called garra rufa fish and they suck on your feet and release an enzyme that is supposed to be good for your skin.  The larger fish are called chin chin fish and they actually eat the dead skin off of your feet with their teeth.
The three of us lined up at the edge of the tank of smaller fish, preparing the dunk our feet on. The smaller fish swarm around your feet, darting between your toes and around your heels. The feeling is more like a tingling sensation, barely tickling as they move around. It is almost like the sensation of right when your feet are about to fall asleep... not painful enough to be pins and needles, but oddly tingly. 
After getting our fill of the first tank we decided to move over to the second tank.  This one was a bit more intimidating as the chin chin fish are about 10 times bigger than the tiny garra rufa fish. As you lower your feet into the water the chin chin fish eagerly swarm up to you and as they bite you it feels like you are being bitten. One or two of the fish is interesting, but when more fish come over to nom at your feet it begins to feel incredibly intense. It doesn't hurt, but it absolutely feels like you are being eaten by fish. Doris and I squealed and squirmed as we struggled to keep our feet in the water. Honestly, it was difficult not to just jerk your feet out as more and more fish came over for a bite. We took turns, dipping our heels into the water and dunking out feet all the way in. We were trying to keep it down but it was hard not to splash about a bit as the fish polished our feet.
Finally we had had enough and we rinsed our feet off again and dried them to don our socks and shoes once more. As we were finishing a pair of girls were shedding their shoes and we watched with curiosity as they dunked their toes into the tank with the chin chin fish. I was secretly pleased that they had the same response, giggling and squirming as they struggled to keep their feet in the water.
I do have to say that I was more than pleased with how incredibly soft my feet were after a visit to the tank. If they had this cafe anywhere near where I lived I can honestly say that I would be a regular. 
Finally we were ready to go and so we disappeared back onto the Seoul subway. It was getting late but I made the second to last bus back to Dangjin. All in all it was an incredibly productive and enjoyable day. I am glad to have these memories to look back on.
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Mom on

I found out you went to the DMZ! The unification photo, with you in the middle, is one of my favorites. One more great, once-in-a-lifetime experience to add to your memories. Thanks for telling us all about it.

Benny on

I can't wait to hear your thoughts about the DMZ and especially about South Korea's hopes for reunification. Also, I want fish to nom my feet too - even though I'd be super ticklish.

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