Misty Mountains and Little Brown Soldiers

Trip Start Jul 29, 2006
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Trip End Sep 03, 2006


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Flag of Korea Dem Peoples Rep  , Gangwon,
Friday, September 1, 2006

They stand guard on hilltops, in cornfields and decaying bunkers beside a fortified highway, but the North Korean soldiers aren't concerned about a military invasion from the South. Instead, they watch with implacable faces the South Korean tourist caravans that stream through the Demilitarized Zone, the most heavily defended border in the world.

Hostilities seldom ease between the two Koreas, and last week's nuclear test by North Korea is a frightening and far-reaching demonstration of how volatile the region can be. Yet despite Pyongyang's nuclear saber rattling and the constant threat of skirmishes along the DMZ, tens of thousands of South Korean and foreign tourists travel to North Korea every month, crossing into the most politically isolated country in the world to hike it's second highest mountain, Kumgangsan.

The Demilitarized Zone is a scary and fascinating place, strung with fences bristling with razor wire, surrounded with mine fields, and guarded 24 hours a day for the last 53 years. I had been to the DMZ once before but never passed through it, through the no mans land 4 kilometers wide that has remained largely untouched by the surrounding tensions of each side's domain.

The North Korean side is not nearly as fortified as the South. The razor wire and tank traps along the highway south of the zone are rare in the North. Very few attempts have been made by Seoul to penetrate the DMZ, while hundreds of attempts have tried to infiltrate south.

Once through the DMZ and over the border, the tour buses stopped and we disembarked for the immigration post, a tented area clearly provided by Hyundai Corporation, complete with portable toilets bearing English signs for those unclear about the male and female symbols on the doors. But the amenities hardly eased the startling transition from south to north.

From a lush green land we had moved to a moonscape of hills of bare rock, treeless and desolate surroundings peppered with North Korean soldiers in drab brown Stalinist uniforms, sentinels along the highway watching, with small red flags in hand and whistles at the ready, waiting for any trespass or transgression.

Outside the North Korean immigration tent soldiers stood guard beside speakers blaring a greeting song that, to a foreign ear, sounded a lot like a propaganda dirge. Inside, the tent had five or six lines open, one of them for foreigners, and we noticed with overt exasperation that despite the fact they outnumbered us ten to one, the South Koreans were flowing much more freely through the post, while our line barely moved. The Americans in our group suffered particularly keen inspection.

Of the borders I've crossed this was the most unique, if not the most daunting. How ironic that crossing overland into the United States from Mexico can take much longer and be a more trying experience than the one we faced in North Korea. Crossing into Botswana from Zambia was a frustrating and prolonged experience, while the grilling I got trying to enter Australia was really something else.

But none of those borders had the aura of impenetrability North Korea had. As my fellows fidgeted and complained I could only soak in the idea that I was not only about to pass through North Korean immigration, but was already inside the most isolated and deranged state in the world. After years of wanting to I had finally reached North Korea.

What does it mean to go to North Korea? To my thinking, the country represents not the armed and evil state it's made out to be, though armed it certainly is. Rather it was a chance to encounter something so foreign to western thinking, so deformed and unique in its existence as to be a cherry on the top of some great travel experiences.

So the long wait and the impenetrable gaze of the North Korean soldiers became part of the experience, part of the marvel of what was about to unfold on an early autumn weekend in North Korea.

The entire bus caravan, some 12 or 13 coaches, was made to move as a group and so idled until the last person cleared immigration. We occupied two buses, some 90 foreigners in all, and waiting outside my bus, I chattered absently with a tour guide, distracted by the North Korea soldier standing a few metres away, and mesmerized by the portrait of Kim Il Sung--still head of state 12 years after his death--mounted on a massive, glossy new building that clearly had no purpose other than bestowing grandeur on the Eternal Leader.

If only I could have taken a photo. But even taking out my digital camera would have been construed as a trespass and landed me a fine of as much as $100 US. On its own my presence outside the bus warranted an incredulous glare from the nearby soldier. My other camera, a bulky, admittedly strange looking Russian-made panoramic 35mm, was "confiscated" on the southern side of the border, as officials claimed it would attract suspicion from the North Korean officials.

From the immigration area we passed through countryside dominated by treeless, rugged hills beside a rusting railway line heading south. The tracks are laid as far as the DMZ but end abruptly. Not far from Kumgangsan is another glossy, modern building bearing Kim Ill Sung's portrait; a train station built, presumably by the south, in anticipation of the day the two Koreas are reunited.

The road snaked around the barren hills and past small reedy lakes before crossing onto a sweeping plain of rice paddies and green fields banked in the far distance by the rising granite of the Kumgangsan mountain range. From the desolation of the border post area, the landscape unfolded like a scene from a Lord of the Rings movie, panoramic, raw and unspoiled by traffic signs, billboard or even buildings.

The mountain peaks were wrapped in tendrils of thick white cloud, while below, on the lush, immense plain, peasants struggled with their oxen, tended crops or rode bicycles down narrow, dusty tracks beside the fields. Clusters of grey and visibly decaying houses are dwarfed by the landscape yet charming and timeless under traditional Korean tiled roofs. This was a landscape so often depicted, throughout Korean history, in grand pictorials and paintings. The kind of land that inspires creation myths.

And every few hundred metres the ubiquitous lone North Korean soldier stood vigil, with his whistle and red flag like a side arm. Along the highway and dug into the hillsides, groups of battle tanks, field artillery and anti-aircraft batteries aimed their menace at the blue, early autumn sky. In a field beside a dilapidated elementary school, a fading propaganda mural showed smiling peasants standing beside a soldier with his AK-47 raised in the air. More than the mountain scenery and invigorating hikes, this is what I've come to North Korea to experience.
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