Archive for the ‘South Korea’ Category

The City of Jeju

South Korea > Jeju

August 2013

Jeju City, with almost 450k people, has been the capital of the island of Jeju since time immemorial. It is served by an international airport and the Seoul-Jeju air route is the world’s busiest —  in 2012, seven airlines served this route, carrying a total of 10.2mil passengers. Jeju Island is blessed with natural beauty and this has been exploited by building other tourism-related ventures. As such Jeju is a very popular holiday and honeymoon destinations for Koreans, and lately for foreigners as well.

It’s divided into old Jeju and new Jeju. The old part of Jeju is to the east of the airport and it has the harbour with a lively seafood precinct at the waterfront. New Jeju has more grid-like streets and hosts most of the government buildings. By the way, these interesting figures are in old Jeju, on a river bridge.

Nearby there’s an underground mall, right underneath a major street. A great place to escape from the summer heat and humidity.

This mall has TV complete with seating, most welcomed by these baseball fans. It’s common to find large TVs in public places, a sort of public service I guess.

Out of the mall, there’s a major market. Since I am a market fan, this is a must-see.

So typical of a Korean market. I’ve been to several in other cities, and they are always like this, so spick and span!

The occasional delivery guy rides in with his bike.

Everything is so prim and proper, and yes, this is the fish market.

It is so clean and odour-free too, that you’d have no problem sleeping here.

A market is a good reflection of the local culture, so it is always interesting to visit, wherever you are in the world.

Huge dried red chillies, which is not unexpected since we have seen how big they grow in the fertile volcanic soil of Jeju.

This end offers a bit of meat, which I suspect is pork. There’s actually another market nearby dedicated to meats.

Fresh catch from the bountiful sea, which surrounds Jeju.

Oranges are also a specialty of Jeju — they proudly claim it’s sweet and unique due to the volcanic soil. Sure, we sample a few, but couldn’t tell the difference from, say, the Thai variety. Sorry, but a hype perhaps?

This section sells honeys and some health products, nothing really fancy. But the items are so well-displayed, that you can’t help but stop to admire.

Done with the market, we walk towards the sea, and chance upon this school … with a lone kid running around the field in the baking hot sun. He seems the only one in the compound, and as he approaches me he shouts something (in Korean of course), and jogs along. Maybe he has just told me to piss off. Strange kiddo!

We arrive at a nice esplanade … looking east we can see the harbour of Jeju. Ferries from the mainland arrive here.

And this looks like the ‘official’ Ground Zero of Jeju.

And soon, planes are landing nonstop right in front of us.

Seoul-Jeju is the busiest air route in the world — in 2012 alone 10.2mil passengers flew between these two places. All the seven domestic carriers serve Jeju: Korean Air, Asiana, T’way, Jeju Air, Jin Air, Eastar Jet, Air Busan.

Planes are always queuing to land at Jeju Airport, and this spot makes a great place for plane-spotting.

The seven domestic airlines mounted 70,000 flights between Jeju and Seoul in 2012. That’s about 190 flights per day on average!

At the end of the runway, there’s a seaside recreation area with lighthouses looking like horses. One is red …

… while the other, white. Quite neat.

In the distance Mt Halla (at 2000m) is omnipresent, though the peak is hidden most of the time, some 18km away.

We go inland … Mr Lee, our driver, wants to show us something magical and mysterious. Suddenly we come to a country road, with cars and buses silently passing by, hazard lights blinking.

There’s an ominous monument, and yes, …

… the Mysterious Road!

Mysterious indeed … the road seems to be going uphill, but the cars are moving along quite nicely … with the engine off. How could that be? Some sort of anti-gravity sorcery?

I stoop as low as I can, and observe — the road seems to be sloping upwards here, but why is that car rolling along quietly with no power … freely going uphill?

Soon several cars with dead engines, obviously carrying befuddled visitors, join in the quiet ritual. I’m indeed puzzled.

Mr Lee joins the queue, kills the engine, and presto! … the car creepily creeps ‘uphill’. So what’s happening? Logically, if a car with no engine running rolls forward, then it must be going down a slope, pulled by gravity. If that is so, then the visual of the road sloping uphill must be an illusion. So what’s causing the illusion? Positions and shapes of surrounding objects? On the other hand, if the road does indeed slope uphill, then there must be a mysterious force pulling the cars up. What do you think?

Enough pseudo-science for the day, we tiredly return to our hotel in new Jeju and look for dinner.

Nothing better than a bowl of ramen with clear seafood broths! Hmmm … Mysterious Road indeed. Actually, just now behind our car, as we rolled forward, there was a bus. Soon we realised the bus was catching up on us, and somebody in the bus shouted at us to start the engine and move away … so I guess it was indeed gravity at play, and the ‘uphill’ thingy was just a great natural illusion. Agreed? 😀



The Volcanic Island of Jeju (Part 3)

South Korea > Jeju

August 2013

Okay, before we leave Seongsan Ilchulbong for good, a Leap of Approval!

We are soon on our way to the 3rd and final location inscribed by the UNESCO World Heritage Site — the lava caves of Manjanggul.

It’s officially called ‘lava tube’ here, but the terms ‘cave’ and ‘tube’ are synonymous. Caves are really big tubes, after all.

Let me try to explain. Several hundreds of thousands of years ago, lava flowed out of the huge magma chambers underneath present-day Jeju Island — some entered caves to flow like thick liquid in a pipe. The Manjanggul lava cave or tube is the remnant of such a cave.

Manjanggul cave is many kilometers long, but only a 1-km stretch is open to the public. So the idea is to walk 1km to the end, make a U-turn and return to the entrance — a total of 2km.

Entrance is a hole in the ground (see diagram above) and we gingerly descend two sets of staircases into a dark and, surprisingly, cool and less-humid environment. It’s like being thrust into a dungeon with climate control in place. It is a truly pleasant surprise as the surface has been hot and humid.

Imagine if you will, red hot lava flowing through this way, possibly up to 1,200°C. Truly terrifying.

As it flowed, it left marks on the walls of the cave. The floor is obviously left-over stagnant lava which had solidified into some igneous rock, most likely basalt in this case — very hard stuff. Walking can be treacherous, so if you plan to visit, please wear appropriate footwear.

On the sides I notice these somewhat parallel lines.

Here it is very prominent.

It turns out these are lava flow-lines. At various times, the lava flowed at a certain height and this was marked on the wall. The many lines indicate the levels fluctuated, and this case continually receding lava levels.

And the floor … lava rock everywhere. Can get slippery and there are sharp edges too, so wear proper shoes. Thongs or slippers a no-no.

When extremely hot lava flowed through a cave, there’s a whole lot of interesting geology to explore, such as these little ‘stalactites’.

The hot temperature of the lava sometimes caused the roof and sides of the cave to melt, and the molten goo dripped down, to form these rock stalactites.

Of course the stalactites could form lava stalagmites on the cave floor … just like in limestone caves, except that here they are sharp hard rocks.

This is a huge passage with the usual markings on the walls … just imagine the amount of red lava which flowed through it. This high-ceiling feature is called the ‘cupola’.

Very spectacular indeed … some say this is the best lava cave in the world which is open to the public. I’m suitably impressed, and I’m not an easy person to impress.

In some sections, there are rockfalls, obviously from after the lava had stopped flowing. Otherwise they would have been swept away by the lava river.

Again the rough lava rock walkway which is sometimes hard on the ankle. So please be very careful if you come here.

Solidified lava from hundreds of thousands of years ago. Amazing stuff!

Here’s more rockfall, and a safe boardwalk for us to amble past has been built.

Now this is a real tube! See the lava markings on the sides.

Funny that the lava rock floor looks like a makeshift cement road.

This is Turtle Rock, which has become an icon of Manjanggul Lava Cave. It was actually a lava raft — a blob of lava from another tube above this one, which had dropped onto the flowing lava here and floated, whence the term ‘raft’. In the Turtle Rock’s case, it settled down at this spot as the lava flow slowed down, but some minor lava slow still caused the flowline marks on its sides.

These are not lava flowlines, but lava shelves. There were formed when hot lava met less hot walls, and solidified. Depending on their shapes, they can be called lava balconies or lava benches. Great geology!

More lava shelves along the way.

These are not elephant dungs, but lava which dropped here from another tube above.  They are called lava toes.

Another stretch of the cave with very nicely-done metal boardwalk.

Hmmm … a mixture of lava flowlines and lava shelves? The vertical lines are actually lava flowstones — molten bits of the walls and ceiling which drips down the sides.

Now I can see the end of the passage — we are 1km from the entrance, and after 30min of very interesting stroll in the darkness of the cool and damp cave.

What a way to end the show — a 7.6m lava column said to be the biggest in the world!

Time to make a U-turn and return to the cave entrance, but I love these lighted World Heritage Site logos lining the handrails of the boardwalk. Very nice touch indeed!

Another blob of lava which dropped from a tube above this one. These fallen lavas really look like piles of dung.

The stroll back to the entrance is like a rerun of an excellent NatGeo documentary.

Looks like exposed roof — maybe the rockfall happened when lava was still flowing, thus no debris is in sight.

Back to the surface and the heat and humidity hit us hard — but a very educational 2km walk done in an hour. Thoroughly recommended even if you hate geology or geography, or school.

Time to recharge some missing key ions. In this heat and humidity, rejuvenate yourself with this stuff — normal mineral water just doesn’t cut it.

Some 20min later we are back in Jeju City.

And yes, the ubiquitous black lava rock at the beaches. We know what it had been up to!



The Volcanic Island of Jeju (Part 2)

South Korea > Jeju

August 2013

Our next destination, the Seongsam Ilchulbong Sunrise Peak, is location #2 in the UNESCO World Heritage Site inscription for Jeju Island.

It’s located at the far eastern tip of the island, near the town of Seongsan.

Looks somewhat formidable at the entrance, it’s not going to be a trivial climb especially in this weather.

It’s late summer, but the heat and humidity are still significant, so we go to the plaza area to grab some isotonic drink and stock up the chocolates. Quite a bit of breast-beating display here but I don’t blame them.

The plaques are well-displayed, and I need my model here, for the UNESCO World Heritage Site logo, the most prestigious of them all.

Time to ascend — it’s hot and sticky but the ever-present breeze is god-send.

The path is well-constructed and we are indeed in a park. Even your baby can go for a climb.

There’s a fork, where descenders would turn right for another attraction just beyond the grassy knoll. We will go there later.

Some way up and we find a nicely done rest area. There’s another one up the hill, so overall it gives us a feeling of a stroll in the park.

A bit of geology, most welcomed.

The steps are even and wide here, but they get narrower and steeper as we near the top.

A glance back at the town of Seongsan, with the unique volcanic rocks described above framing the view.

Looking at the lagoon towards the south.

The tourist centre, with the plaza, is at the bottom, and a huge car park for visitors.

As we get higher, the view gets better. Interesting chain of hills in the distance.

Another geology lesson. ‘Five thousand years’ is not a long period, there were already advanced civilisations in Anatolia, for instance. Hardly a blink in geological term. But the whole thing rose from the ocean floor more than a hundred thousand years ago, also hardly a blink really.

Our uphill stroll looks to be nearing the end, some 20min after leaving the entrance below. Quite a pleasant climb — the breeze helps a lot.

Stepping over the rocky ledge and … WOW!

There are already spectators here, soaking in the splendid view and enjoying the gentle sea breeze.

An attempt at a panorama, which is not too shabby. You can see the crater shape of this majestic hilltop. It’s about 90m down to the  middle of this huge bowl.

I also take separate pics … the left …

… the middle …

… and the right.

How does a tree end up here?

Another two more! Note the jagged rocks at the crater rim, there are 99 of them, or so they claim.

Awesome graphics, though the explanation needs polishing up.

And here it is, the summit of Seongsan Ilchulbong, all 180m of it.

The view from up here is to die for! Worth every step of the climb, no kidding.

What a landscape,  sculpted by volcanic activities over hundreds of thousands of years. You know how puny and weak you are when you see something like this before you.

Far away, wind turbines work tirelessly. This wind farm must be the one we saw from Seongeup Folk Village earlier today.

We spend some time up here, watching people as well.

Every traveler should perfect the art of people-watching. It’s a good time-waster.

Well, one final education while people-watching. Again I think the text is rather techie for most people.

Great view of the bowl shape of the top of the hill-top. I’m somewhat impressed.

Time to get down after 20min up here. We have another destination to visit.

Just a bit more than 10min to get down, half the time taken to climb. I look back at the hill in all its black volcanic glory.

Ahead, people move like ants along the fixed pathways — there seem to be something interesting to the right …

It’s a cove, but why are there people down there? By the way this spot looks vaguely familiar. Where have I seen it?

Intense activities as boats come and go.

Then I spot the huge signpost on the roof — ” … Women Divers”. Now it clicks — this is the place where the traditional women divers of Jeju work! I have seen it on telly.

The ‘Mermaids of Jeju’ risk their lives doing deep dives to catch seafood to earn a living, while their menfolk sit idle somewhere. CNN does a good story on them — please CLICK HERE to read.

From the side, the Seongsam Ilchulbong looks fierce, especially with it’s black volcanic cliffs.

Good visit, not before I snap this grand UNESCO World Heritage Site hoo-haa, they are justifiably proud of the prestigious accolade!

Minutes later we are on the road again, heading for our third and final destination — the Manjanggul Lava Caves or Tubes.



The Volcanic Island of Jeju (Part 1)

South Korea > Jeju

August 2013

Jeju is an oft-quoted island, said to be of exceptional natural and cultural splendour, that virtually all Koreans are proud of it — so much so that the Seoul-Jeju air route is said to be the busiest in the world!

However what attracted us to Jeju is its UNESCO World Heritage Site listing and also its induction into the New Seven Wonders of Nature … but what really prompted us to visit Jeju was, while waiting to ascend the famed Table Mountain of Cape Town in a cable car a few months ago, we saw a poster of the New Seven Wonders of Nature, which showed, in addition to the Table Mountain: Amazon Rainforest, Iguazu Falls, Ha Long Bay, Puerto Princesa Underground River, Komodo Island … and Jeju Island! So now we have been to three of them: Ha Long Bay (2006), Table Mountain (2013), Jeju Island (2013). 

So where is this Jeju Island? For one thing it’s volcanic in origin, which gives it a rather unique but interesting geology.  We can imagine it as the peak of a huge extinct volcano which rose from the floor of the East China Sea millions of years ago. In the middle of the island, looking like a festering boil, are the peak and crater of Mt Halla, the highest mountain in South Korea at 1950m. In fact the whole island is covered with fertile black soil and hard lava rocks, and that’s why Jeju is one interesting spot.

The best way to move around Jeju is by car — either self-drive rental or a chauffeured one. We chose the latter, so that I can keep snapping pics.

The UNESCO World Heritage Site listing covers three locations: Mt Halla, Seongsam Ilchulbong Sunrise Peak and Manjanggul Lava Caves. Mt Halla entails a 4-hour hike to the top, so the next best thing is to visit this ancient crater within the Mt Halla complex. It’s called the Sangumburi Crater, and it’s just 17km northeast of the peak of Mt Halla.

Sangumburi is an ancient crater of an extinct volcano which last erupted hundreds of thousands of years ago. The problem with the displays here is the lack of geological information of the site, which is a big pity because that’s the most interesting bit.

Before the walk up the crater rim, serve yourself this pleasant spring water first.

The path up the crater rim is well laid and on a fine such as today’s, the view is breathtaking. As usual the peak of Mt Halla is hidden by the omnipresent clouds.

As we reach the rim, we can see a depression to the right, which is the crater proper.

And as always there’s a legend attached to something this grand.

A bit long-winded, but as legends go, this one is pretty much run-of-the-mill.

The deer statue, associated with the legend above, for  the hunters, though deer here is now totally protected.

The crater is surrounded by forested hills such as this one.

The crater is 130m deep while its circumference is slightly more than 2km. It is richly inhabited by local flora and fauna, some rarely found elsewhere, thus making this site a valuable living laboratory for scientists.

Peak ‘A’ below is Mt Halla, some 17km away, not so inspiring as far as mountains go. Fertile countryside this, thanks to the volcano ashes.

We stroll on the beautiful path along the rim, which incidentally is about 440m above sea level. Anything to the left is strictly protected.

Back at the entrance area, I find huge lava remnants on display.

These huge lava balls were ejected during a volcanic eruption, I’ve seen much smaller ones flying out of the active Anak Krakatau a couple of years ago. Very spectacular.

Strolling back to the main gate, it has been a wonderful morning walk. Thoroughly recommended for Jeju visitors.

I glance at this huge Jeju map, an island of plain shape but of extraordinary features — 70km left-right, 40km up-down, packed with 580,000 people, tourists extra. We are at the green patch just to the top-right of Mt Halla, which sits in the middle of the map. Our next stop is a folk village down the mountain, on the way to the coast.

After a quick drive through pastures, we arrive at Seongeup Folk Village, an open-air sort of display of  traditional houses of Jeju. Of course there’s a village wall and we just have to climb it.

Good respite from the weather for the guards on duty here.

Lots of lava rocks being used for construction — they are black and very hard. The wind turbines at the back sort of spoil the ambience, but what the heck.

I’m pretty sure there used to be an awesome moat here in the good old days.

The traditional houses of Jeju, design originating from many hundreds of years ago. No entrance fee, but some of the houses sell traditional stuff. You can go in, take a look, but no compulsion to buy anything.

They made full use of the lava rocks. Stacked them together, then sealed them with some sort of mortar or cement, to withstand the cold, wet and windy weather of Jeju.

And how could you miss this — the famous black pigs of Jeju, only found here.

Stinks like hell, but they say the meat is nutritious — of course I have no way of checking this out. Cute critters though.

Jeju is synonymous with these ‘grandfather’ figures, made from lava rocks. Only two types — one with right hand above the left (a learned grandfather), another with reverse positions (a simple grandfather). Note their mushroom-like ‘phallic’ hats — they are considered gods, placed at entrances for fertility and protection, and to ward off evil spirits. Heard this before, right?

In which case I better show this grandfather photo taken at Sangumburi just now. 🙂

Back in Seoungeup, this white fellow has become my walkabout friend. Again note the lava rocks used for the house.

The thatched roof, made of wild weeds, is very interesting indeed …

… especially the way the edges are knotted. I wonder if the black rope is a modern addition to the technology. Anyway it’s designed to withstand Jeju’s wet and windy climate.

Fertile soil is everywhere, thanks to the legacy of the volcanic ashes of yore.

We soon reach the open sea, and straight ahead across the East China Sea, just 230km away, the Japanese island of Kyushu. And of course the never-ending lava rocks. They go right into the sea, so the eruptions of Mt Halla ages ago must have been very violent.

A photogenic spot ideal for photography, as I keep admiring these volcanic rocks.

In the distance, our second query beckons — the Seongsam Ilchulbung Sunrise Peak, the second item in the UNESCO World Heritage Site listing.




The Seoul B-52

Korea > Seoul >War Memorial

December 2010

This is truly a pleasant surprise. On a fine bitterly cold morning last week, we took a walk (yeah, crazy idea at -5C) from our hotel in Yongsan towards Itaewon, and there next to the road, sat a B-52 in the compound of the War Memorial of Korea. I’d always wanted to see this (in)famous beast up close, so I just couldn’t believe my luck. I was excited like a kid!

The awesome and fearsome Boeing B-52 Stratofortress bomber, with the iconic Seoul Tower in the background. This is believed to be one of the only three B52s being displayed outside the USA. – the other two are in Darwin (Australia) and Duxford (England).
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You can climb up to view the flight deck …
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… but only if you are not acrophobic, otherwise vertigo can set in. :)
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It’s quite a nice spot for a pose, esp. in the bright morning light.
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Details on the displayed B-52, moved here March, 2009. Actual model is ‘Boeing B-52D-65-BO Stratofortress’; C/N 17221, original USAF S/N 55-105.
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Yes, I go up to peek into the cockpit, but the lighting is bad. Looks cramped inside there, considering the huge size of the plane.
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I glance at the wingspan of 53m. This ‘D’ model started flying in 1956. It played a major in carpet-bombing Vietnam during the Vietnam War (1955-75). Bad, bad bird!
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The huge fuselage is almost 50m long, shorter than the winspan.
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It has a short stubby nose, and the flight deck has two floors – only the pilot and co-pilot occupy the top floor. The bottom floor is the office for the navigator, electronic warfare officer, and radar navigator cum bombardier.
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On each wing, two pods carry two powerful Pratt & Whitney engines each. Cruising speed is 850km/h, up to max altitude of almost 50,000ft. Combat radius is 7,200km, while ferry range is about 16,000km.
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The wing is huge and long, and the weight of the four engines plus the fuel will make it sag when not flying. So it’s necessary to install a small landing gear, called the outrigger, at the end of the wing to support it when the plane lands and is on the ground.
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Massive main landing gear. This mafaka weighs more than 200 tonnes when full of bombs.
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That’s where they store the fireworks, which brought misery to thousands of unfortunate people down below.
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The four engines on the port wing.
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Close-up of the outrigger at the tip of the port wing.
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There’s a pod at the wingtip next to the outrigger. Am not sure what it is for; some radar stuff, or extra fuel?
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The fuselage is slender top-bottom, so when you look at the B-52 from the front, it looks rectangular.
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The majestic tail and stabiliser.
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Tail repainted with reg. USAF 50-1512. So now I can tick off B-52 from my list of planes to see. :)
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A Visit to DMZ in South Korea

Korea > Seoul > DMZ

16 December, 2010

It’s about -10C as we make our way out of metro Seoul. Traffic is bad as more people drive to work today to escape the extreme cold when using public transportation … and this is a rare sight – two European cars side-by-side in Seoul.
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Mr Han proudly displays his credentials in his Kia MPV cab, though I wonder what sort of English test he went through. His English is pretty horrendous, but he makes it up with his niceness. :)
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It’s less than an hour away to the North Korean border via this modern expressway, but do not allow those billboards fool you. They are camouflaging huge concrete structures which can be quickly toppled to provide a potent barrier to invading North Korean tanks and troops advancing towards Seoul.
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Note the direction to Pyongyang, capital of North Korea (it’s just for show, you can’t really drive there, hahaha!). This is the so-called Freedom Highway, to emphasize the fact that if North Korea is ‘liberated’, its ‘freed’ horde would come streaming along this way to Seoul. I tell Mr Han, not necessarily a great idea since Seoul, already bursting at it seams trying to accommodate its own citizens, would be swamped with millions of poor, hungry and unemployed North Koreans. He agrees.
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I’m reminded by the fact that we are in a war zone by the chatter of an army chopper crossing the expressway.
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We round a hill, and there in front of us, the territory of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), separated by the Republic of Korea (ROK) by the Imjin River DMZ. At the nearest point this expressway is just 2.5km from the North Koreans. Needless to say, the river bank is heavily fortified and manned by armed troops.
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By the way, I even spot a new Kia model (complete in black camouflage) being test-driven on this not-so-busy road. Business as usual, no problem.
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Suddenly the traffic disappears and we are left alone in a desolate part of the road to Pyongyang.
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Fortifications on the Imjin river bank is a stark reminder of an unfinished business.
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The highway goes on to the famed border village of Panmunjom (and eventually Pyongyang, if you can make it), but we have to exit to Imjingak. With the current very high tension between the two Koreas (thanks to the shelling of Yeonpyeong just 3 weeks ago), the whole place is on ‘amber alert’ here, and we don’t think we can go far if we take that straight road.
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Imjingak is a rather clever commercial exploitation of the whole DMZ thingy. This is where visitors come to have a feel at the cold war tension between the only divided state in the world. The DMZ proper (with its fences, border posts, armed guards, landmines, etc.) is just 3km away beyond the hills.
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There’s a rail bridge across the Imjin river here, called the Bridge of Freedom for obvious reason, and at the other side (which is South Korean territory), a station is built very close to the DMZ. The train line goes all the way to Pyongyang, but of course no trains ply this route. So this modern functional station is idle, except for daily visits by tourists in special shuttle buses from Imjingak.
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South Korean army posts dot the surrounding, and as the notice in the pic above warns, ‘Do not come close or take pictures’, so I snap this one from afar with a zoom lens. :)
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There’s a heavily fortified area where visitors can soak in the tense atmosphere. The Freedom Bridge crossing the Imjin river can be clearly seen. The heavily fortified DMZ area is just about 3km away over the wooded hills.

We are shown a simple motion sensor technology still in use at the DMZ. Stones are embedded in the fence, which will fall off if the fence is disturbed or cut. The falling stone will hit the metal railing at the bottom, thus making a sound audible to patrolling soldiers.

And yes, armed guards are on constant patrols here too. I can imagine how jittery the situation is in the DMZ proper just 3km away, with the enemies within sight, all armed to the teeth, and a battle could start at any time. The DMZ is a border strip some 250km long and just 4km wide.

Through the barbed wires and fencing, I spot something interesting – a huge flock of White-fronted Geese, wintering here from the even harsher winter of eastern Siberia. Here they are feeding on loose paddy in the fields. Yes, so close to North Korea, but the government gives incentives for farmers to plant the crop here, rather than idling the land.

When the geese take flight, they make an awesome sight. The DMZ is a 250km by 4km strip untouched by human development. It makes an ideal conservation site for flora and fauna, and birds take full advantage of it. There are many endangered species living in peace in the DMZ, where they are free to come and go. Such irony.

As a wave of geese fly away, maybe to North Korea, I see a wall of colourful ribbons to my right.

These are ribbons of hope and well wishes left by visitors from all over the world.

I found a pair of English messages, most likely typical of what’re written on the other strips. Unification? Maybe not so fast. I visited poor East Germany (and East Berlin) when it existed. Instant reunification in 1990 caused prosperous ‘West Germany’ to suffer socio-economically. South Korea could fare even worse. So maybe best is to keep North and South separated initially, and just let them be friendly parties. Help North to ‘catch up’ first before attempting reunification.

Behind me there’s a relic of the terrible Korean War of 1950-53.

The story tells it all.

A short stroll away, a portion of the original Freedom Bridge is preserved. Just before armistice of the Korean War in 1953, thousands of refugees from the north straggled here to escape the communists at the last minute.

Nearby, this monument cum altar was built for people like them, as a place to offer prayers for loved ones, dead and alive, left behind in North Korea.

Indeed a poignant memorial for the only divided state in the world today.

As I said, Imjingak is a clever exploitation of the ‘aura’ of the DMZ. There’s a tourist complex here, with the rooftop providing a platform to observe North Korean territory with powerful binoculars. It’s particularly deserted today, save for our black MPV, thanks to the heightened tension due to the North Korean shelling of Yeonpyeong just 3 weeks ago. To venture closer to the border, visitors must leave cars here, register and board special buses for a fee, but the tour has been curtailed due to the prevailing ‘amber alert’.
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Malaysians gawking into North Korea. By the way, we Malaysians require no visa to enter North Korea for 30 days, but must have North Korean contacts first.

It’s a bit of effort climbing up to the top, passing two floors of fancy restaurants and shops.
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Pretty decent view from up here, and the mountains on the horizon are in North Korea. A tip: if a mountain is bald, then it’s most likely North Korea because the trees have all been cut down for cooking fuel by the impoverished people. Suddenly I hear bursts of gunfire … trrrrr! … trrrrr! … trrrrr! … coming from beyond the hills. Hopefully just a live exercise, but it hits me that we are indeed in a hostile war zone. War can break out at any time.
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The rail line curves into the core DMZ area and on to Pyongyang (220km away), ready to service traffic between it and Seoul (60km behind me), if that ever happens. There’s even a spanking new, functional Korail station just before the border, but is now still deserted.
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Another South Korean army post, next to the frozen Imjin river. Patrols by foot and jeep are very frequent.
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A useful map to orientate clueless visitors. Shows how close we are to the hostile border.
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On the other side of the Imjingak visitor centre, there are funfair, memorials, sculptures, statues and Korean War-era military hardware such as tanks and planes on display. They have done pretty well in making this spot a major tourist attraction, but nobody’s here today for obvious reasons … except foolhardy us!
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Saying thanks to the Americans for their very significant Korean War role …
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… plus a special one.
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It’s getting dark, we have another place to visit, and soon we are back on the highway which skirts the edge of the Imjin river, heavily fortified since the other river bank belongs to North Korea. This is a stretch of the river DMZ.
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Our destination is the Odusan Observatory, built atop a hill overlooking the Han and Imjin rivers, and North Korea beyond them.
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At Odusan, I view the confluence of the Imjin river (which we followed from Imjingak to the right) and the mighty Han river. Bottom right and extreme left are South Korean territories, the rest in front of us, North Korea. The Han river then flows into the Yellow Sea straight ahead (when it’s not frozen like today) and is the site of several previous naval skirmishes between the two sides.
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At the narrowest point, it’s only 3.2km separating North and South. From Odusan, I train my lens on North Korea. Scattered white buildings, but no signs of activities. No traffic, looks like a ghost town, these are probably show buildings only. I saw something similar when I crossed the border from West Berlin into East Berlin in 1988 – vacant buildings.
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Below me, at a promontory where the two rivers meet, an army installation. Not surprised if they have artillery down there, ready to pound North Korea.
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I look to the south towards Seoul and on the horizon, there’s a new city.
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This is Paju, home to LG Display with its huge modern LCD plant. If war breaks out, Paju could be the first casualty. It’s virtually a bordertown.
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As the Sun sets on an extremely cold winter evening, the rivers and mountains at this dangerous frontier make a surreal picture.
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I glance back at North Korea, and the dusk makes it look even more mysterious. I wonder how a battle here would be.
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Look, the mountains still have trees, so they must be in South Korea. :)
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It’s probably -10C now, colder when the occasional wind blows, but I quickly take off my beanie for a photoshoot with North Korea, just 4km behind me – the closest I’d ever get, until I make a trip to Pyongyang itself one fine day. :D
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Brief DMZ visit done, Mr Han punches the GPS in his warm car to take us back to Seoul. What can I say, it has been a soul-searching trip, pun unintended, to see first-hand the only separated state in the world, and a hostile one at that.
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As we glide along the modern expressway back to Seoul, the intimidating fencing and barbed wire reminds us the fact that the two Koreas are still at war, and that the heavily-armed North is just a stone’s throw away from dynamic Seoul, across the river literally. They are holding Seoul at ransom, while their own capital Pyongyang is at a relatively safe distance of 250km away. I do hope they’d become friends one fine day, after all they are the same people sharing the same proud history and traditions for almost 2,000 years. They are just unwilling victims on the superpowers’ chessboard.
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Please click HERE for a full list of stories from 2004. Pleasant viewing, thanks!

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