Christmas Eve has always been a special day for me, as Christmas is a time for family, fun and not working. Especially in Christian countries. From playing Lego at home in Bangor (Northern Ireland), to having our annual family party at my Granny’s flat in “The Cregagh” in Belfast to my later adventures in travel, it’s a day when I’ve always felt happy.
By the time Christmas Eve 2011 crawled up on me, I’d already walked, flew, ran, bussed and travelled more miles than I could ever have dreamed of as a quiet Bangor kid.
Indeed the previous year I had been on the famous Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in Peru, the year before that I was working and partying in the land down under. But 2011 stretched my dream just a little bit further…
The day began with a 6am alarm call. Panny Yu and I had a lovely double bed in the cosy Fully House hostel in the Hyehwa district of Seoul. The weather outside had almost reached freezing point, but we got up and made our way to the starting place of today’s adventure. We were to meet on the 6th floor at the plush Hotel Lotte situated in Euljiro 1 Il- Ga station.
It was only a few stops down from us on Seoul’s clean and modern Subway (call it a Tube, an Underground, MRT, MTR, Metro, whatever you want…) and this hotel is self dubbed “The Best Hotel In The World”. Shocking! I wonder how many claim that title.
Getting up on Christmas Eve 2011 we were preparing for a new experience – Visiting the DMZ. That is to say the De-militarised Zone – the 4 kilometre border zone between the known, touristic and fashionable South Korea and the unknown enigma that is North Korea. On Christmas Eve 2011 (24th December) Panny and I would cross the border into North Korea. I was quirky, upbeat, lively and inspired.
Of course, I’m not always politically correct on my writings or reports, and nor do I ever mean to be. That’s never been my point. If there’s a world that combines comedy, reality, ignorance and opinion, I’ll happily live there. I say this, specifically in this post, as there are no such countries as South Korea or North Korea, in an official sense. I just like to call them that based on the obvious geographic split. It makes the divide more obvious in my mind than The DPR of Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) and The Republic of Korea, both countries names sound more alike to me than using the geographic names.
I draw parallels with my own country Northern Ireland – Korea (containing 2 countries) and Ireland (containing 2 countries). Northern Ireland is divided and separated from The ROI (Republic of Ireland/Irish Republic/Southern Ireland/The Free State – all monikers which it has been labelled by). Some people refer to South Korea as “Korea” and I don’t like that – it’s unfair and disrespectful to those in North Korea. Similarly I don’t like the way people label the Irish Republic, as “Ireland”. Sorry, but I’m from Ireland too, Northern Ireland. Political debates were hardly going to be absent from this crazy day out, but on with the journey…
We got out of the subway at the Hotel, The Lotte Hotel, pictured above, as posh as they come. Not one for the muddy, weary and under dressed traveller like Panny and I, but never the less we bundled our way past gleaming chandeliers, waiting porters, over dressed businessmen and into the gold plated lift bound for the 6th Floor…
Some introduction for an amazing day ahead.
We got to the tour reception on the 6th Floor and were on the list, our place had been booked by me on e-mail about 3 weeks before. We signed in, paid, handed over our passports for photocopying and even got a free coffee.
That’s pretty much a “Ticket to North Korea” right there… even though I booked it and paid for it, Panny’s name appeared on it, possibly because she is Asian. That’s a woman’s prerogative though.
I filled up my water bottle from the fresh stuff in the office too and we went down to the back car park, where we waited in the snow and frost by our bus.
Our bus was actually already there, it had a big sign on the front saying “DMZ Tour”, I had kind of wanted a dodgy burnt out wreck with a ripped bit of cardboard with “Pyongyang Express”, written on it, but this was some dream just to be doing it, no matter how…incidentally it was a “Number 658…”
The bus quickly became full, was vibrant, cosy and warm. Once on board the bus, the excitement of the journey sank in! Panny took a window seat and was happy to be hot.
Panny had got me a “Korea” (including both countries so perfectly correct I might add) guidebook – it had been her own copy she used back in 2004 when she visited South Korea. However that time, she had looked up options of doing the DMZ Tour and crossing into North Korea only to be refused as it was a US tour and her HK passport wouldn’t allow her to do it. Perhaps she hadn’t properly researched or planned it that time, as I knew we would have no problem doing the tour. The cost of the tour ended up being less than 100 Pounds Sterling which included transport and lunch, and we were bussed around everywhere – there wasn’t much walking on the day!
I also thought that the reason for Panny’s non-visit to the DMZ and North Korea in 2004 had been fate – she was meant to go with me in 2011. Took this photo of us on board the bus as we left our Seoul behind! The bus left around 8:45 am. Food and drink on board was perfectly acceptable, though neither of us wanted to eat at that time, but I did bring my hot coffee on board.
Our tour guide was a local lady – excellent in English – her name was Kyung Yi Park.
The list of who was on our bus.
Just loving it – the sensational view from our bus window on Christmas Eve as we headed into sparse countryside away from Seoul. At the front of the bus were mostly Japanese tourists, behind us a mix of Chinese and “Western”.
The amount of snow on the ground seemed to get deeper and thicker as we neared the DMZ – part of the Christmas magic I guess…
I was reading my book and taking notes from the excellent briefings and speeches from Kyung Yi Park. The day’s schedule was outlined in the pamphlet I had picked up, I had researched some of the places, but Kyung Yi Park confirmed the days events, of which the Dora Observatory was the only omission, probably in the wake of Kim Jong Il’s death…did I mention that? A timely time to be going to North Korea or what!?
I had put on Facebook that I was “heading to North Korea in a few hours”, of which a comment was “job interview?”, sadly not, not sure I would succumb to an inward looking society so easily…
The views continued to be stunning all the way. Catch a kid happy with a White Christmas. Santa Claus was coming to town…
At certain points, photos and videos were banned. I took this one just before the passport check for entering into the DMZ. Our first stop was up next – the city of Paju, where there is a mini-museum, some information on the DMZ and you can actually enter the Third Tunnel. Amidst the madness of it all, Panny and I were now inside the DMZ…
Started at – Fully House Hostel, Hyehwa, Seoul
Ended at – Inside the DMZ, in the city of Paju
Transport Used – Bus
Nationalities Met – South Korean, American, Japanese
Key Song –
CHRISTY MOORE – NORTH AND SOUTH OF THE RIVER:
My Videos –
AT LOTTE HOTEL, BEFORE BOARDING THE BUS:
ON BOARD THE BUS WITH AN INTRO FROM THE TOUR GUIDE:
JUST BEFORE PASSPORT CHECK ENTERING THE DMZ: