Richelle visits North Korea

… well, close enough to take a picture. My last full day in Korea I woke up super early (6:45) to take a tour of the DMZ (de-militarized zone). I was picked up in a van at my hostel and driven to a bus containing tourists to see the DMZ. There were 4 English speaking tourists and 4 Japanese speaking tourists. The English speaking tourists contained a male flight attendant from Amsterdam that was half Dutch and half Brazilian (he spoke Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish and English fluently), and a young couple from Slovakia. We took an hour and a half bus ride to the border where we boarded a different bus to go on our DMZ adventure! This bus was full of Chinese tourists up front and we stat with our English speaking tour guide “Mark” towards the back. While we were sitting on the bus waiting to leave all of a sudden this Chinese girl freaked out and started screaming at, what I can only assume was her boyfriend, in Chinese. They then launched into an explosive verbal fight. Randomly the two of them stormed off the bus screaming at each other the entire way. Maybe one of them left something important on the other bus? No clue. For the first part of the bus ride it was almost impossible to understand our tour guide because the Chinese couple, who were seated in the row in front of ours, were fighting so loudly. Finally the Slovak guy leaned forward and said “Can you please shut up for one moment.” super awkward. I’m not sure if they understood what he said but they sure got the meaning. They glared at each other and whispered under their breath for the remainder of the ride.

The bus ride to the actual border was a very interesting experience. We weren’t allowed to take any pictures of the “military territory”. We finally arrived to the location where you could see North Korea. We could pay $.50 to look through a microscope and see the North Korean side of the DMZ, which I did. You could see all the houses housing their military, their flag and an industrial complex. What I thought was most interesting was that you could not take a picture unless you were standing behind a line so that you could not get any of South Korean territory in the picture! Therefore, all my pictures are crappy but I’ll still show everyone anyway.

Richelle and North Korea!

While we were taking photos I saw some military men in training taking a class in the building next door! -But I didn’t take any pictures because I was afraid I’d get in trouble.

We then boarded the bus to the 3rd tunnel. I had never learned about this before but in the 60’s and 70’s North Korea began tunneling under the DMZ into South Korean territory! 4 tunnels have been intercepted but South Korea is under the impression that there are 15 more! (I don’t know how they know this but that is what they believe). The 3rd tunnel is the longest and most extensive and was headed right towards Seoul. While tunneling under the granite, using explosives to carve out the tunnel, the North Koreans accidentally hit a water main, which is how South Korea found it in the 70’s. The South Koreans used a giant drill machine to intercept the tunnel, which is how you can view it today. The North Koreans tried to convince South Korea it was an old coal mine by rubbing coal all over the walls of the tunnel, which I find very entertaining. In order to see this tunnel we had to put on hard hats and walk down a ridiculously long steep slope. The tunnel is really really far underground so it felt like we were walking forever! Finally we entered the actual tunnel, which was much smaller. I am 5’4″ and I had to bend over almost in half at some points to get through, and even banged my hard hat a couple times because it was a few extra inches I wasn’t accounting for. I felt bad for my other English speaking friends because they were all around 6 ft tall. The walk back up from the tunnel was excruciatingly difficult. It was very hot and we all had on puffy coats and hard hats which we took off about half way up. Apparently “Mark” the tour guide gives these tours 3 times a week and never needs to go to the gym- I can see why. I decided to buy an overpriced water afterwards- you got me DMZ!

The last stop was the Korean train station which was built to go through North Korea, into China, and onto the rest of Asia should North and South Korea ever unite. Because of the “tensions” between North and South Korea, there are no running trains at the moment. What I found really interesting was that the whole emphasis of the tour was that North and South Korea need to unite as one country again because they are one people with one culture. I had no idea that the Koreans were so passionate about reuniting.

At the train station we had the opportunity to take a picture with a soldier. Since we weren’t allowed to take pictures practically anywhere, I thought it would be a good opportunity to prove to the world that, yes, I actually visited the DMZ. I gathered near the soldier to take a photo but every time I tried to approach him Chinese tourists would run up in front of me. I know it’s not in Chinese culture to wait in lines, but I was in Korea, not China, and I didn’t want to be rude. Eventually my tour guide started yelling at the Chinese tourists “It’s her turn! Stop it! She’s been waiting forever!” But their either didn’t understand or didn’t care. Eventually the soldier grabbed me and pulled me away from all of the Chinese tourists for a photo. Still a Chinese guy tried to get in the picture and my tour guide had to yell at him and refused to take a picture until he got out of the way. After my little photo op, the soldier took a few more photos with the aggressive Chinese tourists and then told them that it was his turn for a break and a new soldier would be over soon. He walked over to me and asked me if I spoke any Korean, and I said no. He then asked if I could email him the picture of us? Maybe I’ll get around to it.

Me and my soldier friend

North Korean Soldier on the left, South Korean on the right

Pushing the halves of North and South Korea back together

You can purchase North Korean alcohol if you so desire.

On the long bus ride home we passed by the river that separates North and South Korea. It was amazing seeing such a huge body of water with no boats or anything! Apparently in the winter when the river freezes, North Korean soldiers will walk out over the ice towards South Korea! The river looked like it could have some pretty good beach space in the summer but it was surrounded by a barb wire fence with guard posts!

I got dropped off in the Myeongdong area and had to find my own way back to the hostel. I pulled out my handy-dandy business card and I was pointed in the general direction of my hostel. I finally made it to the back entrance of the huge market and using my directional skills (aka heading towards the Seoul tower) I made it back to my hostel! Yay for not getting lost again!

At this point it was around 2pm and I hadn’t eaten ANYTHING all day. I had to leave before breakfast was served at the hostel (aka toast). Monica and I planned to meet up at around 2:30 and grab lunch. When I left the hostel to meet Monica I realized it was snowing! The snow was coming down hard and by the time I made it to the main street the ground was covered in an inch of snow! Monica and I took the metro to this artsy district with a lot of fun shops, restaurants and graffiti art. We were completely soaked and the snow was not only sticking to the ground but also to our clothes. We ducked in a cute restaurant and I was so hungry I was about to resort to cannibalism. We were served this weird white cold soup with slushy ice floating in it. Monica decided it would be a good time to play a little joke on me and tell me that it was our entire lunch. Of course I didn’t know what to think- very funny. She ordered a giant hot pot with noodles and chicken for us to share. The noodles were literally impossible for me to pick up with chopsticks and I was so hungry I just wanted to dig in with my hands! The meat was also really hard to get off the chicken bones and I was trying to be polite using only my chopsticks but it was a giant fail. Monica eventually informed me that using my hands to eat the meat wasn’t rude and I dug in!

weird white ice soup

So good but impossible to eat!

frolicking in the snow!

We then took a bus to meet up with her boyfriend for dinner (but only after frolicking in the snow). I stuck my tongue out to catch some snowflakes and Monica yelled “Richelle don’t eat the snow it’s bad!” whoops. I guess we’re not in America anymore. The bus was a poor choice. A ride that should have taken 40 minutes took almost 2 hours. I feel asleep for a portion of it (it was a long day!). We finally arrived and met Monica’s boyfriend outside the restaurant.

We had a traditional Korean dinner with all of the dishes in the middle and a little bowl of rice. Some things looked normal like kimchi but other things were not so normal. There was a plate with whole cold fish just sitting there with the heads and skin. I dubbed them “scary fish” and was afraid to eat them. Monica yelled at me and told me they were amazing so I decided to try a bit. They were actually very soft and I dug in with my chopsticks and ate pieces, skin and all. They were very good! After dinner we had some plumpricot (apricot) tea, the same tea that we had at the traditional house.

most beautiful restaurant ever

the lovely couple

all the dishes

scary fish!

with my plumpricot tea!

After eating we wandered around Monica and her boyfriend’s school in the snow. I threw a snowball at Monica and she called me a “child”. Well, I guess we’re all children in America. Eventually we said goodbye to Monica’s boyfriend so he could go back to the library and study (for what?! They were on winter break!). We then went to a cute little coffee shop to hang out and chat for the last time since I was leaving for China the next day. I was really hoping to get some of that grapefruit tea but they didn’t have any :( Instead I got citrus tea (which was very good and had orange rinds in it) and a slice of tiramisu. The coffee shop was full of students who were all studying (what are you guys studying?! You’re on break?!- I guess I’ll never know). We had a great time talking and eating desert but eventually it was time for me to go home.

The last thing I wanted to do was pack up all of my things when I got home but I had to wake up at 6:45 to leave for China the next morning! I was afraid to leave the comforts of Korea for the land of the unknown but it’s all an adventure right?



About Richelle

Expat, traveler, and spicy food lover, I've spent the last few years living in China and traveling around Asia. In my spare time I enjoy salsa dancing, exploring night markets and stuffing my face with street food.

4 comments on “Richelle visits North Korea

  1. Thank you, Richelle, for your blog. It is so fun to read, and I am getting an education at the same time. I was concerned that you might not like the foods, as they would be so different from ours in the US. (That would be my worry if I were visiting Korea and China.) However, they sound very delicious. Hope you find a cord to transfer your pictures to the computer. They will be very interesting to see. Thanks, again, for sharing your experiences. Ruth Ingram

    • Wow, thanks so much for reading my blog! I’m glad you enjoy it! Hopefully I’ll get a post started on China today because I’m a week behind!

  2. Pingback: Korea | Richelle Gamlam Photography

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