Some important logistical notes on traveling to the North/South Korean border.
You must apply to go (you can do this via email), and you must do it at least 72 hours in advance if you are from the United States. However, the wait time and application process is slightly different for certain countries; the list of countries is available on most tour websites. Booking is also done by email (i.e. there is no “book” or “reserve” button on a website that does the trick) so allow for time change issues and a wait for responses. I started this process a week before we left and found that most tours were sold out already.
While many companies offer trips to the DMZ, not all companies offer trips to the JSA (only those affiliated with the USO), which is the actual border and trust me when I say, this is the place you really want to visit. Technically, the JSA is in the DMZ, but they are referred to individually. I did not find any companies that offered tours exclusively to the JSA. All of the tour company websites that I visited (and I visited a lot of them), offer either trips to the DMZ or trips to the DMZ and JSA. Tours are not done on Sundays, Mondays, or holidays. Lastly, there is a dress code.
The term DMZ refers to a collection of areas that are not the actual border-the DMZ consists of the freedom bridge, the third infiltration tunnel, Dora observatory and Dorasan Station. The term JSA (joint security area) refers to the area in Panmunjom where the two sides meet for diplomatic talks and where you can stand and look right at North Korea (and stand in, North Korea, momentarily). Koridoor is known as the cheapest DMZ/JSA option, but they were sold out, so we booked with TourDMZ for $130 per person.
As a result of all of these restrictions, the only option we had was to do the tour on our first full day in Seoul, jet lag and all. We had to find our way there by 8AM, but thanks to the jet lag, we were bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at 5AM. I think the front desk told us it would take 15 minutes to get there by subway so we gave ourselves an hour.
Seonjeongeung subway station is mere steps from the front door of the Ramada. The station itself was impressively immaculate and fairly deserted/quiet at that time of morning, which was nice as we felt no pressure to figure out the ticket machine quickly. The subway stations in Seoul are immaculate (as is Seoul itself) and they all have free, clean bathrooms in them and ticket machines with an English option.
There is a really wonderful app called “subway korea” that helped us trip plan, while offline, with times, highlighted routes, stations in English, etc. The front desk told us what our starting and ending station names were, but the app highlighted what line we needed to take, where we needed to transfer, and what time our train was coming. We didn’t have to fumble much with the machine to get our tickets, it was really user-friendly.
The subway station was our first encounter with the fabulous $0.30 coffee machine. Korea is lousy with them, nearly every subway has one (if not all) as do restaurants, hotel lobbies, etc. The coffee was often free (hotel lobbies and restaurants) and available in a variety of mixtures such as americano, cappuccino, mocha, hot chocolate, etc. I REALLY miss them. They delivered the perfect little cup of pep.
Figuring out how to get to the train we wanted was a little more challenging than the ticket buying process had been. Thanks to a very kind non-English speaking Korean man who tried to help (and eventually just walked us to our train), we ended up in the right spot with a few minutes to spare. The train cars were just as clean as the station, full of riders with their faces buried in enormous, tablet sized, Samsung phones. That’s a thing in Korea.
The meeting place for most tour groups to the border is the Lotte Hotel by City Hall. It’s a really modern part of town, with lots of skyscrapers and sculptures and whatnot. There was not one homeless person, piece of garbage, or spot of graffiti in sight, which, coming from San Francisco, was an impressive sight indeed.
The hotel is attached to the enormous Lotte Department store which is a pretty fancy number itself. I’m guessing it costs a good $200-300/night to stay there. All of the tour company’s are housed on the 6th floor. We found ours, showed our passports, paid, then had an hour to kill before departure.
We went outside to find some street food. There were lots of food tents/stalls, but none of them appeared to be open, causing a mild panic in our food obsessed group.
We followed our noses a little further down the street and happened upon this delight:
We walked away with a delicious, sweet ketchup drizzled, hot dog on a stick:
Along with fish balls on a stick, a slug of krab on a stick enclosed in fish cake, (all ketchup drizzled as well) and a gimbap for the bus.
From there we went back into the hotel and ordered overpriced coffee from the terribly precious café, along with a sweet roll filled with sweet cheese and blueberry. That thing rocked my world, and we would end up seeing them everywhere (but never having one again, oddly enough).
The first stop, the Freedom Bridge, came about twenty minutes into the ride. The tour guide (a perky young Korean woman) was speaking the entire time, but I was pretty out of it and didn’t hear or understand all that she said. The bus pulled into a parking lot that was packed to the absolute gills with tour busses; our tour guide told us we had ten minutes to explore. The Freedom Bridge area is sort of spread out, so it’s like the Hunger Games, you just have to pick a direction and own it. There was some sort of two story structure behind us, that had loads of people standing atop it, but with our ten minutes we chose to go the other direction.
I still don’t know what that structure was. We walked instead to some sort of mini wood bridge with museum type photos on either side of it. No time to read the captions, or room to, because so many people were milling about and posing in front them.
There was also a piece of a train that people were standing on for photos ops,
another long wood bridge with a wall at the end of it, covered in South Korean flags and other mishmash, a pretty pond down below the bridge, and a barbed wire fence with thousands of ribbons (written on with marker) hanging from it. There was also a ribbon salesperson, should you want to write your own and hang it. No idea what any of it meant, no time to figure it out.
We stayed at the next stop a little longer because there were a few items of interest to be seen. A big old DMZ sign greeted us in the parking lot, next to which is a sculpture of a split globe with sculpture people pushing it on either side (and real people posing as though they were pushing it, on either side) and a balcony observatory pay binoculars which are aimed at some North Korean hills. There is a sectioned off area for photography, (you can’t get near the binocular spot with a camera) and anyway, we had our own binoculars and the view was nothing spectacular. A group of school kids were there on a field trip, and the guards posed for photos with them (and only them, I tried and was denied).
I think we had ten minutes there and then were corralled into some movie room, where we watched a pretty cool, but slightly nauseating/seizure inducing movie about the history of the North and the South. From there we were tortuously walked through a lame museum of things (led by our tour guide who was explaining what we were looking at) and then, we were led to a monorail. That’s right. We had to surrender our belongings into lockers (cameras especially) and then, we were loaded onto an extremely slow moving monorail (maybe a misnomer, it was more like a kiddie train) that took us down into the tiny quartered infiltration tunnel number 3, the third tunnel the South found that the North had built to infiltrate them, right under their feet (duh).
Once at the bottom of the tunnel, we were free to walk the tunnel. We did that for a bit, but honestly it was pretty boring. We just walked like hunched over cattle, to the right, while other people walked back to the monorail like hunched over cattle, to our left. I liked listening to all of the different accents and languages going the other way, and one of us did squeeze a fart towards the North, so, there were some successes.
There was one more stop before lunch and then the cool tour began. Dorasan station is the northernmost train station in South Korea, built to connect the South with the North, but it has never been used. The station sign shows that Pyeongyang is the next stop, and you can pay to have your passport stamped (with a Dorasan station stamp). The coolest thing about Dorasan is that it has a post apocalyptic twelve monkeys feel to it.
Now, on to the fun stuff.