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 The sound of the tanks rumbling was only superseded by the occasional screech of fighter jets overhead.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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