The Number 1 Bus to North Korea

It looked ominous. Suddenly we were surrounded by dozens of tanks and army personnel carriers. On every street corner soldiers stood guard. The sound of the tanks rumbling was only superseded by the occasional screech of fighter jets overhead.

The tranquility of our ride on Bus Number 1 along the east coast of South Korea had come to an end.  I guess we shouldn’t have been surprised, as Bus Number 1 from Sokcho heads up to the North Korean border. The destination for the day was the Demilitarised Zone in Goseong, also known as the DMZ. The observatory there is the closest to North Korea and the northernmost point of South Korea.  More than one million people visit this area on an annual basis. Visitors can see the Geumgangsan (Diamond Mountains) and the Haegeumgang in North Korea, and unlike many other observatories, there are no restrictions on photographs.

As luck would have it, the South Korean army was staging a military exercise, and this underlay the seriousness of the ongoing tension between North and South Korea. Looking out the window of the bus was like traveling back in time, as the villages had a 1950’s appearance.  This region is a long way from the modern mega-cities that are in other parts of the country.  The road winds its way north, past farmland and beautiful beaches. However there are constant reminders of where we are, as the beaches are fenced off with barbed wire and there are a number of observation lookouts along the coast. The threat of invasion from the North is still extant.

 After an hour’s bus ride we arrived at the last stop, a little bus depot on the side of the road. We then had to walk the last fifteen minutes to the DMZ registration office. It was a quiet day with only a few visitors and the souvenir shop vendors looked sleepy.  Once we registered ourselves, the officer ordered a taxi to take us to the observatory.  To get there we passed the border crossing between the two countries. There is a multi-laned highway leading up to several check points, however they are not operational. There is nowhere you can access North Korea from South Korea.  After passing a military checkpoint, where the car was carefully inspected including the boot, we were cleared to access the observatory.

There is a time limit of one hour to be on the site.  We were lucky to get the best taxi driver in Korea on the day, and he drove us right to the top of the observation point, saving us the walk up the hill from the carpark. He lent us his good binoculars then left while we explored the surreal environment that is the DMZ.  The first thing that struck me was how peaceful it was, after all it was still an active war site.  The weather had turned and we found ourselves looking into North Korea on a grey, misty day.  The sound of tank artillery from the distant military exercise by the South Korean’s gave the experience a poignant soundtrack. Up here at the observatory it was quiet, with only a handful of visitors, although the big viewing platform with many seats and mounted binoculars hinted at how many people frequented this place. However, it wasn’t just people looking across the border, also facing the one party dictatorship of North Korea were giant statues of Buddha and Mary; a symbolic gesture of the openness of South Korea.

The ride home on Bus Number 1 offered the same adventurous view as the journey north.  More tanks and army on the move, but by now we were used to them.  This was only an exercise and I can’t imagine the terror that the local population went through during the active War in 1950 – 1953.  I see the old people and know that many of them have families across the border, that they may never see again. A sombre feeling juxtaposed by the peaceful landscape that we were passing through.

Back in Sokcho, we finished the day off in the Abai Village, eating a delicious North Korean meal of Ojingeo Sundae (오징어 순대) stuffed squid sausage.  The village consists of a small group of houses and shops located on what used to be a sandbar offshore from the main city of Sokcho. As the North Korean army retreated from South Korea in 1950, a large number of North Koreans ended up trapped on the southern side of the newly established border between the two nations. With nowhere else to go, what began as temporary accommodation eventually became permanent.

My hope is that in the near future the Korean people will once again be united to live in peace and as one nation, and that Bus Number 1 will take passengers all the way to Pyongyang.

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The Hiker and the Heavenly Maidens

The sun’s rays transformed the water into a river of gold, the trees danced in the breeze and the path leading up the mountain beckoned me to explore the Park’s treasures. It was springtime in South Korea, a perfect season to experience the beauty of Seoraksan National Park. I was staying in the small town of Yangyang in Gangwon province, near the park, and it was here I met a local woman who offered to be my guide.

We set off from the Osaek Hot Springs and headed towards Daeseung Falls.  The track followed a mountain stream and I stopped frequently, not because it was an arduous walk, but the mountain views took my breath away.

My guide pointed out a waterhole in the river and commenced telling the Korean myth about the Woodcutter and The Heavenly Maidens. In the story, the heavenly maidens descend to Earth to bathe in a secret waterhole in the mountains.  They are spotted by a woodcutter who steals the clothes of one of the maidens, preventing her return to Heaven.  While listening to the tale it dawned on me that I was familiar with it. My wife, who is a storyteller, told this story to school students when we had previously visited Korea.  It was one of her favourite myths and here I was, in the very place of it’s birth. Not only was the landscape beautiful, it now felt magical.

Too soon my guide had to return home, so I hiked on by myself. Seoraksan National Park is a popular destination for Koreans and foreigners alike, especially in Autumn when the leaves change colour and the park becomes a spectacular kaleidoscope of Autumn hues.  Hiking in Spring however has the advantage of the park not being so crowded, so for much of the time I was on my own.

As I was walking along I couldn’t stop thinking about the story, and at one particularly deep waterhole imagined that perhaps the maidens also came there to bathe. Although the track to the actual setting for the waterhole in the myth, the Twelve Angels Bath (십이선녀탕) was closed due to maintenance, I sensed the whole area alive with the presence of the maidens.

My daydreaming was interrupted by the sound of voices. I turned around and saw seven catholic nuns approaching. Wearing their traditional habits, they appeared to be floating towards me. Was I dreaming or had some heavenly maidens stepped out of the story and come to visit me? We greeted each other and the nuns proceeded to climb down to the water, take off their shoes and soak their feet. I couldn’t believe the myth was unfolding in front of my eyes.  Unlike the woodcutter in the story, I had no intention of stealing their shoes, but being a photographer I wanted to take a few photos. They nodded their assent and asked me to come and join them to share some fruit. Together we sat, our feet cooling in the waterhole, eating watermelon and enjoying the sunshine.

Eventually it came time to leave and continue my journey. I was saying my farewell when they said, ‘Stop, we a have a gift for you.’ They all stood up and sang. Their voices, pure as the snow melt soared up the mountainside and into the heavens.  Tears welled in my eyes and I felt blessed. After we parted, I could not stop smiling for the rest of the day.

Seoraksan National Park is a truly magical place, with its sublime landscape and great hiking trails where you can meet cheery hikers and if you are lucky, perhaps a heavenly maiden!

I am a lazy artist!

I’m happy to use whatever gets the work done the easiest and quickest way.  Granted, ‘easy’ and ‘quick’ are relative terms. The idea of achieving results in a shorter time and with less effort has always appealed to me, a decisive factor in my early adoption of digital photography.

In 2001 I purchased my first digital camera, a secondhand Kodak DC220, a 2 (!) megapixel beast of a thing. My film cameras started to gather dust from that point on. Not only did digital photography offer instant images, something that I hadn’t experienced since shooting Polaroids in the 1970’s, it also allowed image manipulation without the need for a dark room.  I was sold!

Nowadays I have a camera that has wifi and I can transfer my photos onto an iPad and edit my images on the go.  This has made a big difference to my travel photography, as I carry my ‘dark room’ in my bag!

In this spirit, I am always happy to try new ways of working with photography and image-making. So this weekend I am exploring the latest instant digital print making method, which kind of takes me back to my early photoshop printmaking methods.  I’ll be posting some images that have been made with the Prisma app.  I should point out, that I am not a fan of heavy manipulated photos but I see this app as creative printmaking method rather than a photo editing tool.

Besides, it’s easy and quick!