A little side trip to South (and a couple hours of North) Korea

When I was younger, I had this book called ‘The Travel Book’. Inside were details about every country in the world: what to see, culture highlights, where to go, what to eat – all this information stacked inside this fat A3-sized thick book. It was beautiful and exciting, and I probably opened it at least once a week.

To say that I was obsessed with that book, is a little bit of an understatement. I started writing up lists of countries I wanted to go to, with the top ten countries being literally the most random places a ten-year-old wanted to go to, such as Iceland, Norway, Mexico, Russia, India, Uzbekistan, Cuba and North Korea. I’m sure my parents were both wondering why I couldn’t have been a normal child and would have been satisfied with going to Disneyland. Ok, I was pretty satisfied with going to Disneyland too, but still – if you had asked ten-year-old Bella where she wanted to go, her top places were literally Russia, Mexico and Scandinavia. So far, I’ve only managed to hit Sweden, but I’ll get to the others in due time.

I remember opening the page to North Korea a few times – the capital was Pyongyang, they used the words ‘Great Leader’ a lot, and the photo was a bunch of gymnast girls in complete synchronisation. I thought that that was kind of cool – I did gymnastics, maybe I’ll go there someday.

Over the weekend, I got as close to North Korea as I can get for now – the Demilitarized Zone, which is basically the border of North and South Korea. And coming away from that, I just want to know more. It’s literally that feeling that you get when someone begins to tell you something and then goes “don’t worry.” It’s annoying and isn’t fair.

To me, and most of the people I know, North Korea is just this baffling, not really existent place, that just doesn’t make any sense. When I heard that you needed special permission to enter the country and you had to be strictly guided through Pyongyang, I remember thinking if they even had phones.

Even today, the idea of North Korea is just so mindblowing – yes, we don’t know the population for sure, but Google tells me it’s somewhere around 25 million. That’s kind of a lot of people. Actually, that’s more people than Australia has (which I know, isn’t saying much).

When we arrived at the DMZ, it was raining, about 5 degrees celsius, cloudy and just pretty sad. It was so stereotypical – well at least for me, I imagined North Korea to be bleak, deserted, cold and damp – that it hurts.

First stop was the tunnels. After the Korean War of the 1950’s and the complete separation between the two, South Korea discovered that the North were building tunnels straight into South Korea. For those of you who may not know, the border is very, very close to Seoul. Like crazy close.

They only allow you to walk about 500m down the tunnels, and the walls gradually close in on you, it gets colder and you can actually see that they really did build tunnels to infiltrate South Korea. The North’s military smeared coal on the tunnel’s walls, to try and say that it was originally a coal mine – but, it’s really not that hard to see coal just smeared on the walls. And coal mines generally don’t span two kilometres lengthwise. Weird.

Once we got down to the end of the tunnel, you hit a door. A small locked door, with a little peephole – and nothing has ever been more strange. Barbwire blocked the door and old-looking security cameras followed your every move.

The next stop was an observatory, where you could look out directly into North Korean cities close to the border. It was pretty foggy, so we couldn’t see much, but from what we could see – it was nothing. Barren, bare and bleak.

So maybe that’s as close as I can get for now. But the thing is, what about the people in North Korea? They can’t get as close to the outside world. Ten-year-old me had all these wondrous dreams about travelling to every corner of the world, and access to beautiful travel books and amazing opportunities to actually travel. What about for the average ten-year-old in Pyongyang? Does she have those dreams?

Does it matter anywhere? She can’t get out. This is what scares me the most – those people are never going to have the chance to get out. Maybe one day, I’ll actually go to North Korea, but I may actually have the opportunity to. Will that average ten-year-old have the chance to even venture across the border into China or South Korea? Not anytime soon. And I think I want to help change that. But I guess we can’t all save the world.

But just so I don’t end on a sour note, I also tried pumpkin pie and pecan pie for the first time, over Thanksgiving break, and I officially deem pumpkin pie unnatural – sorry all my American friends. It’s weird.

Bella 冯茵

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One thought on “A little side trip to South (and a couple hours of North) Korea

  1. Dear Bella, Do you know that when Nikki and Robert were very little, we went to Hong Kong and did a tour of The New Territories, which was the border of HK and China (Red China). The border was closed, but we could look across and could see a desolated area, like you describe of North Korea. Now amazingly there are no problems travelling between HK and China. So maybe the future may see Korea united and you could possibly be one of the diplomats to convince them to “Open Up This Border! I can imagine that! Xxxxx Shirley

    Sent from my iPhone


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