I knew that I wanted to see more of South Korea than Seoul and following a random tip from a random American expat I met on the metro, I decided to head to Sokcho. I had asked the girl, who was teaching English in Seoul, where she recommended I go for a day trip. Not only did she recommend going to Sokcho, but she told me it was her favorite place in South Korea and recommended the very cool hostel/hotel I ended up staying in.
Sokcho isn’t a big place. It’s a couple of hours from Seoul by bus and when the bus is coming in you will be astounded by the gorgeous mountain scenery of the place and then if you are clueless as to what to expect (as I was) you will be very surprised to descend quickly to the Sea of Japan. Sokcho is located in Gangwon province and has a population of about 84,000. Despite this relatively small size, however, the city sprawls out for a fair distance in seemingly all directions. In the summer months it is a favorite holiday destination for people from Seoul, but in the winter it is a blissfully empty place.
In addition to the Sea of Japan and the very nice beaches in Sokcho, there are a couple of other draws that bring people. One is Seoraksan National Park and the other is the extreme proximity of Sokcho to the DMZ between North Korea and South Korea.
Arriving in Sokcho, I had no idea where the The House Hostel was located in relation to the bus station and since the weather was nice, I decided to walk. Not knowing at this point the sprawling size of Sokcho, I got extremely lucky and picked the right direction to head. I walked along the beach enjoying the snow on the sands and the many odd fish sculptures along the sea shore. It turns out that Sokcho is quite well known as a place for fresh fish.
Leaving the beach, I walked towards a large iron bridge and noted the thousands of fish drying on the roofs of nearly every house I passed. When I see a big bridge like that, I know that I should walk across it. So, that’s what I did and I found myself in the most interesting little warren of streets and fish shops I had yet seen in South Korea. There was something very different about this place but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Later, I was to find out that the island village I’d come to is called Abai and that it is populated almost exclusively by expats from North Korea who had escaped from Kim Jong Il’s insane country. Abai was the setting for a popular Korean TV drama called “Autumn in My Heart.”
While I was happy to be seeing this very interesting place and still wondering why it was different, I wanted to find The House Hostel and realized it was not on this little odd island. After about an hour of wondering around (thankfully I travel with just my satchel and it isn’t very heavy), I found that there were three ways to leave Abai 1) take a boat to somewhere 2) walk back across the bridge (I hate backtracking) or 3) take the very cool hand drawn ferry boat back to the mainland. You can easily guess which option I chose.
The ferry man used a metal hook and a cable to pull the boat across and as I stood watching he motioned for me to grab a hook and help him out. I was more than happy to work side by side with this North Korean ferry man to reach my destination. The cost of the ferry was 500 won, about half a Euro.
One other note about Abai is that it is famous for something called the Abai Sundae. Don’t expect ice cream though, it’s made of squid intestines, pig blood, kimchi and other things I chose not to eat, but the girl who recommended Sokcho told me it was one of the most delicious things in South Korea. In this case, I chose to avoid not take her advice.
I made this trip back in 2012…it seems like it was aeons ago. I considered finding a way into North Korea, but at the time it was beyond my budget in both time and money and I had a new child at home and was just learning what it feels like to have another human completely dependent on your choices – so I opted to go to the less visited DMZ in Sokcho, South Korea. This was after my first trip to Seoul and before my trips to the Penis Park in Samcheok and Busan in the South.
I should start out with a rather silly confession. When I was a pre-teen there were two shows I watched I Love Lucy, Gilligan’s Island, Little House on the Prarie, and M.A.S.H. I can still tell you the names of every character on each show and outline the plots of nearly every episode even though it’s been more than 25 years since I would watch those shows after school and before bedtime. For those who don’t remember the shows, Little House on the Prarie was the story of the Ingles family as they homesteaded on the Great Plains in the 1800s, Gilligan’s Island was about a group of castaways from a Hawaii sailing tour, I Love Lucy was about a funny lady from the 1950s, and M.A.S.H. was the story of the U.S. Army 4077th Mobile Surgical Unit during the Korean War.
Don’t worry, this post has nothing to do with most of those shows (though my psychological makeup probably has a lot to do with the show) and not much to do with M.A.S.H. aside from the fact that every preconception I had about South Korea, North Korea, or all of Korea was pretty much based on an American TV show made in the 1970s about a war that took place in the 1950s. This is probably the reason I was so surprised to find an ultra-modern nation rather than rice paddies and water buffalo as I had subconsciously been expecting.
In any event, since the Korean War had played such a large part in my childhood development through M.A.S.H, I knew that I would pay a visit to the DMZ that sits between North and South Korea. DMZ stands for Demilitarized Zone and is an area where it is prohibited to have weapons, armies, or military facilities. The two Koreas are technically still at war but they signed an armistice back on July 27, 1953. The Korean DMZ is a 248 km long and 4 km wide (155 x 2.5 miles) swath of land that runs between Kim Jong Ils wacky North Korean regime and the ultra modern South Korean industrial state. This is the world’s largest DMZ and it has been active for more than 50 years now. The amazing thing about the DMZ is that since no humans have been in it for most of the time it has existed, nature has almost fully recovered and it is filled with wildlife, forests, and more despite once being ruined by the horrors of war.
So, I wanted to visit the DMZ. I was going to go to the DMZ from Seoul but when I saw glossy tourist brochures and realized it would mean riding a bus with a tour guide and then taking an escorted walk into the (Panmunjan) area before getting on the bus again for an awful tourist lunch, I decided that there had to be a better way. I figured I would find it even though when I asked in Seoul, nearly everyone told me that this was the only way to see the DMZ.
In Sokcho, I looked at the maps and realized that I was actually closer to the DMZ than I had been in Seoul. I asked the proprietor of the guest house about it and he told me that if I took the number one bus to the end, then hitch hiked, I would be able to get to the DMZ and the Unification Observatory in Gangwan-do. From Sokcho I would go to Goseong and then onwards by thumb past Hwa-jin-Po Beach and finally, I would have to walk a bit and I would be at the Unification Observatory which sits on the South Korean Side of the DMZ and overlooks the mountainous coastline heading up the North Korean coastline.
Of course, I wanted to visit North Korea since I had been fairly interested in Kim Jong Ill and his wacked out claims to have invented the toaster, shot 18 holes in one in a round of golf, and of course his prolific movie making, opera writing, and novel penning which defies human capacity. The problem is that to go to North Korea is way more money than I could possibly afford. This was probably as close as I’d get. I was nervous about hitching to North Korea, I thought about trying to find cheap car hire, but ultimately the idea of hitching appealed to me, so I decided to go for it anyway. This might be my only chance to see it before it disappeared in a cloud of nuclear smoke.
I got on the number 1 bus and rode it to the end of the line at Goseong. From there I got out and stuck out my thumb and a father and daughter picked me up. They didn’t speak any English but they understood that I was heading to the DMZ. They took me up the coast through the concrete tank traps and along the barb wired Hwa-jin-Po-Beach where they dropped me off and I walked along the cold winter shoreline which was lined with barbed wire every inch of it’s beautiful length. Since the two countries are still at war, this is to protect against invasion, though in the summer months they open up the barbed wire gates to allow families to enjoy the gorgeous sand and shoreline. In fact, during the active war, this part was under North Korean control and Kim Il Sung used to bring his rotund son Kim Jong Il to play on these very shores.
From there, I caught a ride with two guys who were taking a weekend leave from their military duty and had driven overnight to come up and see the DMZ. These Korean soldiers were big guys, much taller than me and even though we didn’t have any language in common we ended up having a fun day together going through checkpoints, climbing to the Unification Observatory, and walking through the Gangwon-do DMZ museum.
At the observatory, we looked out over Mt. Geomgangsan and Heageumgang. Gangwon-do is the only divided province in the country with half belonging to the North and half belonging to the South. Looking at North Korea to the north there were mountains, coastline, and an empty road leading into the distance. Not a human soul in sight. And I might add that there were three other visitors at the DMZ observatory and they were all Korean. No tourists except me sandwiched between my new Korean soldier friends.
We had a light lunch of wet noodle fish kabobs dipped in sauce at the small restaurant at the observatory and one of the Korean soldiers bought a souvenir scarf which he then surprised me by presenting to me as a gift. It was a sort of traditional paisley pattern orange bandana with a map of the area of Gongwan-do showing North Korea, South Korea, and DMZ plus the towns that exist. No towns exists in the DMZ and to the North they are hidden in the folds of the incredible mountains.
Our final stop of the day was the DMZ Museum which is the only DMZ museum in the world. The museum presented a history of the Korean war, the separation of the country, the creation of the DMZ, and the hopes for peace and unification some day. There was something very special about going through this museum with my new soldier friends and each of us writing our wishes for peace on the leaves of the peace trees inside. The museum detailed the entire DMZ, had a large collection of relics from the active part of the war in the 1950’s, as well as lots of information about North Korean attempts to tunnel under the DMZ, infiltrate beaches with mini submarines, and sabotage the South Korean government with spies.
The tunneling in particular is amazing since these weren’t like mineshafts but more like underground highways being carved out to move huge numbers of troops, armor, and equipment. From the DMZ and the world under Seoul, I can see one thing…Koreans love to dig tunnels. If this were middle earth, the Koreans would be the dwarves, though I was certainly the dwarf next to my tall new friends.
Grand total for the day was about 15000 won or $15 U.S. versus the nearly $100 a tourist trip from Seoul would have cost. So, I saved $85, made some new friends, had a unique experience, and didn’t have to ride a bus with a bunch of annoying blue haired baby boomers. All told, this day was a huge success.
As a bonus, I guess I could combine my childhood TV with my experience and write a new series called “Little House on the DMZ”. At the end of the day, my friends dropped me off in Sokcho and headed back to their base while I suddenly had a new understanding about Korea, the Korean War, and the DMZ. I still hoped that at some point I would see a rice paddy or a water buffalo though…