Published On: Sun, Sep 23rd, 2018

The Great Train Journey – part 5

SXM flag at Imjingang Railroad Bridge - 20180905 MJGH

By Hilbert Haar

Seoul is a city of 10 million, roughly 250 times the sizes of Dutch St. Maarten. Entering South Korea is not a problem, because Europeans do not need visa. Finding your way around town is another matter. Mostly everything is written in Korean, a language I do not speak and I am not able to read either. Somehow, there is always somebody around willing to help out; a young man tells us the cheapest way is to go to town by train the easiest, and more expensive option is a taxi. We take the easy way out and 40,000 won (a bit more than $35) later we arrive at the Sunrise Inn, our home for the next week or so.

I won’t bother you with details of the accommodation – it tends to get boring; let is suffice that the inn was adequate for our needs.

One thing we have been doing on this trip is walk the streets. It gives a better feel for a place, a better opportunity to discover the little unexpected things than when you travel by bus or taxi. In July we kept it moderate: 71.3 kilometers in 31 days, a daily average of 2.3; but in August we covered close to 250 kilometers on foot, a daily average of 8 kilometers; one day we walked close to 18 kilometers – and we still wondered what made us so tired.

Phone booths in Seoul - 20180831 HH

Though you’ll see a lot of Koreans on the street at any time, many of them choose buses, the subway, a car or a scooter to go from A to B. Everyone and his uncle seems to have a smartphone – this is Samsung-town – but then I notice something odd. There are still plenty pf public phone booths too.

Gwanjang covered market - 20180901 HH

Wandering those streets in Seoul, we came across the Gwanjang Market – the oldest covered market in town (established in 1905). It has more than 5,000 shops and stalls and provides employment to 20,000 people. There is an astonishing offer of food; in fact, food stalls dominate this market – and people are eating everywhere, at all times of the day and night.

After the market, we visit the National Palace, another amazing place. Koreans get free entrance if they dress up in traditional costumes – and many answer that call. The costume-rental businesses that are established outside the vast palace grounds are doing brisk business.

Guus Hiddink - 20180902 HH

Sixteen years after he led the South Korean national soccer team to the fourth place in the 2002 World Cup, Guus Hiddink still is an icon in this country. No wonder I came across a photo store that put a display outside with several pics – one of them, of course, being Guus Hiddink, who is an honorary citizen of South Korea.

For us vegetarians the Korean cuisine is a bit problematic, because almost all dishes contain meat or seafood. That’s how we ended up in Emoi, a Vietnamese restaurant, and in Tutti Cuccina which is, obviously, Italian.

The highlight of our visit to the seventh country on our trip is a tour to the DMZ, the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea.

We go to Injingak, a site developed as a beacon of hope for the reunification of the two Koreas. The steam engine of Jangdan station, the bridge of freedom and the National Monument for abductees during the Korean war all make a huge impression. It is also a testament to the senselessness of war.

Dorasan Station - 20180905 HH

A second stop on this half-day tour takes us to Dorasan Station – another beacon of hope for a better future for the two Koreas. For about a year, between 2007 and 2008 – freight trains passed this station into North Korea’s Keasong Industrial area, until the north closed the border again.

Now the station is a mere symbol: the train from this point to Pyongjang is not gonna leave any time soon.

Our third stop will bring us as close as possible to the North Korean border. In Paju, we have the opportunity to go into the so-called Third Tunnel of Aggression. It was built by North Korea in the seventies, and discovered – after the detection of an underground explosion – by the South.

We enter the tunnel through a 300 meter long walkway that is sloping gently downwards. Then we enter the tunnel, wearing yellow hard hats. Photography is prohibited in this area. While the tunnel is described as being two meters high and two meters wide – I soon discover that the math does not add up. I am 1.93 – plus a bit for my shoes – but I cannot walk upright through the tunnel. So I put my hands on my knees and waddle like an injured duck towards the North Korean border.

I’m sweating buckets but, at 68, I’m surprised by my endurance; long distance running on Orient Beach is paying off in unexpected places.

The trip into the tunnel is 265 meters. At that point, South Korea has built three concrete barriers to prevent the North from using it to enter their country. The first barrier has a small square opening in the center and allows me a peekaboo at what lies behind it – a whole lot of nothing. But, here, 73 meters under the ground, I am as close to the North Korean border as I will ever get. Just 170 meters further down the tunnel, the territory of dictator Kim Jong-un begins.

So far, South Korea has discovered four invasion tunnels – the last one in 1990. There could be as many as a dozen more that have not been detected yet and the South still employs experts looking for them.

At the end of the tour, a ten-minute video brings the horrors of the Korean War to life. It is impressive and depressing, making me realize how lucky I am to have lived in an era and in countries that have not seen such destructive military action in nearly seventy years.

Will the two Koreas ever reunite, like the two Germany’s did back in 1990? The South is keeping all hopes alive – the way Jose Lake Jr. keeps hammering at independence for St. Maarten – but I think we’ll see a lot of political sabre rattling before that day arrives.

It feels odd, after this visit, to prepare for the next stage of our trip that is on the schedule for the next morning: a flight on VietJet Air to Hanoi, Vietnam.

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Photo caption: Interesting place to raise the St. Maarten flag. In the background is the Imjingang Railroad Bridge that leads to Dorasan Station and from there into North Korea – once the north opens the border again. Photo Myriam Haar.

Photo caption: Something you won’t see in St. Maarten anymore, but Seoul has them in abundance: public phone booths. Photo Hilbert Haar.

Photo caption: The Gwanjang Market in Seoul – more than 5,000 shops and stalls – and plenty of fresh food. Photo Hilbert Haar.

Photo caption: Guus Hiddink on display in Seoul – a hero the country is not likely to forget. Photo Hilbert Haar.

Photo caption: Impossible to catch that train to Pyeongyang in North Korea from Dorasan station right now. Photo Hilbert Haar.