Coming Home

It says a lot about the pace of ‘normal’ life when you consider that it has taken us almost a year to write the remaining two posts in the blog. We can now go forth and get it printed!

The previous posts were from South Korea and Japan. We planned to continue heading North to Vladivostok to get the Trans Siberian train back to Europe but some guy called Putin changed the visa rules and we would have had to travel to Edinburgh or London to have our mouths swabbed and our retinas scanned first as part of the new visa process. It seemed easier to re-plan and so we decided to spend our final weeks in the Philippines and Kong Kong instead.

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A thoroughly dreadful sight…

Coming home was hard. I don’t remember much about the second leg of the fight between Dubai and Manchester. I remember Emirates being very generous with Irish whisky. I also remember the air hostess on that leg sounding like Vera Duckworth which was too  familiar a culture shock, I decided to make further use of the airlines generosity. In hindsight, we should have planned our return a bit better. It was the night before the flight home that it really dawned on us, we were returning to Blighty after travelling for 10 wonderful months through 19 amazing countries. We had no jobs, no home and our possessions were in a container in a Lincolnshire farmyard somewhere that we didn’t know (the container was picked up from our house before we left). No wonder I was grateful for Emirates hospitality.

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Leaving the coast of Dubai for Manchester.

Almost a year on, we are now back in a house with our possessions (including the cat) and we are both working. We are very grateful for Tracy’s mum and dad for looking after the cat and giving us a roof, a bed and food for a few weeks on our return. Finding work was the easy part, adjusting to a 9-5 routine was brutal. Two weeks after our return I had a contract in Scarborough. I found myself sitting on a wall outside council offices during a 60 minute lunch eating a cold prawn sandwich from Greggs, staring out across a grey Scarborough Bay amongst the retired folk as seagulls hovered with intent above me.  Two weeks earlier I’d been running across Clearwater Bay in the humid lush green mountains surrounding Hong Kong. A savage return indeed but hey we can’t complain it had been an amazing trip and we were lucky to pull it off!

Thanks for reading.

Paul & Tracy

 

 

 

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Hong Kong to UK

Hong Kong – the final destination before we returned to Blighty.

We spent much of our time in Hong Kong at height, simply appreciating the views of the impressive city below. A highlight of our stay was a Wednesday evening at the races. It seems that most of the city makes the Wednesday evening pilgrimage to Happy Valley Racecourse in the city centre. The atmosphere was electric and we wondered if there was anywhere else on earth that would be as vibrant on a Wednesday night.

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Hong Kong

On another day, we took a ferry to Macau and were glad that we had only arranged a one night stay. When we travelled through Vietnam we identified Macau as somewhere were we might dwell a little longer but it’s quite a harsh place of imposing hotels that house huge casinos and brothels. The old town was more pleasant but there wasn’t much else to hold our attention.

At the weekend, we travelled out of the city to Clear Water Bay where I took part in the “Hard as Nayls” mountain race. I was seriously unfit by this stage but I managed to potter along up the hillsides taking in the amazing views of the sea below and the city in the distance, it was a humid day and I was glad to finish. After the race we walked back to sea level and I went for a swim to cool down.

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Downtown Hong Kong.

In the city centre, we travelled the ‘mid level escalators’, the worlds longest escalator system which takes commuters and residents from the city into the residential districts on the hillside. The escalators run downhill daily from 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. and uphill from 10:30am to midnight. We had fun sitting in the open window of a bar at the top of one of the sections and people watched as, in single file like a conveyer belt, the escalator disposed of all manner of different nationalities illustrating the rich tapestry of international life.

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Where’s Wally? (Macau).

 

It was time to move to a hotel near the airport. It is safe to safe we had absolutely buried our heads in the sand, we hadn’t considered that we were due back in England in two days time. I do remember the hotel had a desk with a phone on it and I sat on the chair imagining what it would be like to be back at work just a few weeks later. It was a very sobering experience to lay on the bed watching aircraft take off at the airport a couple of miles away and think about our impending return to the UK and all the amazing memories we had of the 19 countries through which we had travelled during the past 10 months.

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Packing to leave for Blighty.

All good things come to and end and the next day it was time to head to the airport for the flight from Hong Kong to Manchester via Dubai, the only conciliation was that we had booked flights on Emirates A380 and being a bit of a plane buff, I was quite excited about that.

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Japan to Philippines – Night Imposters, Cockfights and Terror Buses.

We were disappointed not to be able to get a Russian visa. The plan had been to travel North to Vladivostok from where we would take the Trans Siberian Express to Moscow and then catch a cheap flight back to the UK. Instead, we decided to travel to the Philippines and Hong Kong to spend the last few weeks of our travel adventure in the sun.

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Taxi

We flew with Philippine Air from Osaka to Cebu on a plane that encountered significant turblence somewhere over the China Sea. We were grateful to reach the stability of a bed and we stayed a night near Cebu airport in a hut up a track in a rough part of the city. The next day we were quickly out of there, taking a ferry to the more pleasant surrounds of the beautiful island of Bohol.

We stayed about three weeks on Bohol first at Panglao, then at the brilliant Nuts Huts adjacent to the River Loboc (see video here) before travelling by bus to the more remote East of the island at Anda. Anda is a coastal village with nothing much there, apart from a square surrounded by a few ramshackle shops and eating places. It was a quiet place at the end of the island perfecting for taking it easy for a few days.

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Some of the staff from East Coast White Sands, Anda.

In Anda we stayed at a great resort called East Coast White sands.  The hotel had a private beach and two lovely swimming pools. For parts of our stay we were the only guests, which was good apart from the night when I woke up and could hear someone moving around outside our apartment at 4am. I knew all the staff had gone home and I was already concerned that we had been left without security in an eerie location. I also knew there was a shanty like town just over the wall outside our apartment. The folk that lived in the ramshackle wooden huts seemed ‘rum fuelled’ friendly as we walked past during the day but at 4am as I gripped the bed sheets by my chin, I was sure that someone had scaled the wall to rob the perceived wealthy westerners that were alone in that remote location at the otherside of the wall.

I woke Tracy and when we did have the courage to venture outside clutching an empty cola bottle (the only weapon available) we found nothing more than a clutch of cats on the roof. We decided to catch our breath and ventured across through the dark to the decking at the back of the swimming pool. The grounds were deathly quiet but our way was dimly lit by low level path lights. As we reached the decking which in the daylight, looks out across the sea below, we suddenly heard the motor of a boat strike up beneath us. It was too dark to see but the boat pulled away with some urgency, revving off into the night. By now we were petrified. I had heard someone stalking our apartment, we were the only guests, all the staff had gone home and now it was confirmed we weren’t the only people awake in the vicinity. It seemed certain that as we had come out of apartment, our assailants had run down the cliff side and into their boat before storming away.

East Coast White Sands at Anda, Bohol.

DCIM231GOPROWe retreated back to the apartment and stayed awake until sunrise. The first of the hotel staff arrived shortly after the sun had risen and I reported the incident without delay. With some ambivalence, the staff found the issue funny and explained that the motor boat was more likely to be an illegal fisherman that had seen us appear on the decking high above. Apparently, the fisherman get in trouble for fishing in those parts and we were likely to have been mistaken for a state official. The staff at the hotel were great, on a Sunday they took us for a walk into the local hill villages, we stopped at some of the settlements to gather food to cook in the evening and we pulled coconuts from trees to drink on the way back down the track to the hotel. On the way back down,  we encountered a small snake and I was suprised at how alarmed the staff looked as they all hastily moved away from it.

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Foraging

After the island of Bohol we travelled on to Dumagette, a student city on the island of Negros and then we took another boat back to the island of Cebu where we took part in a traditional easter march where statues of religious figures were paraded through the streets by candle light. We visited Oslob to swim with the whale sharks, a fascinating experience if slightly touristy. We then moved on up the coast by terror bus, to Alcoy where we stayed a few nights at a complex that had a nice pool with views across the sea below.

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Easter Procession.

On the second day I had a wander into the local village, leaving Tracy by the pool. I found the local cockpit where a cock fight was in full swing. Curiously, I decided to try and gain an entry, I thought I’d be rebuked on the basis of my western face but I was surprised. There is nothing underground about cock fighting in the Philippines,  I was welcomed with open arms, the doorman even asked me if I would like him to place a bet for me. I politely declined and went it to witness a hundred or so Philippino faces sat in a small, roofed, bamboo amphitheatre of terraced seating. I shuffled in uneasily on the bottom row and saw the first pair of cocks introduced to each other before their owners took a few paces back and then released them for the fight. The cocks stalk each other nervously but when they do come to contact the contest is over quickly. After the first fight I’d seen enough, the noise from the baying crowd added to the unpleasant spectacle. I retreated back to the hotel thanking the doorman for his hospitality. A cultural experience indeed. It was common as we travelled through the Philippines to see people on mopeds clutching either live chickens (possibly on their way to slaughter) or dead chickens (on their way to the cooking pot).

 

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Cockrels

It was then time to take the death bus back to Cebu city. Without any exaggeration we traveled on more than one bus where grow adults were in tears and sometimes vomiting because of the hideously crazy style of the bus drivers. I don’t know if the drivers are on commission to get to the destination three hours earlier than scheduled but they each do their very best to achieve that target. Screaming round those coastal roads was a very frightening experience indeed.

We dwelled in Cebu City for a few days before our flight to Hong Kong. I took part in a half marathon which was another great experience and we spent some time in the shopping mall which was a bit of a central hub of the community. It was then time to move on to our final destination, Hong Kong via Cathay Pacific.

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Watch “Nuts Huts, Loboc, Bohol, Philippines.” on YouTube

Nuts Huts, Loboc, Bohol, Philippines.: https://youtu.be/ahPaz7KE0N4

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South Korea to Japan or Busan to Osaka.

**STOP PRESS Mako gave birth to a baby girl this morning – congratulations the Harper’s!!**

We had to accept defeat in our quest to be secure a Russian visa. The Trans-Siberian dream was put on hold for a later adventure. We decided instead to look at the Philippines and Hong Kong as destinations to visit before returning to the UK but first it was time to visit friends in Japan. We travelled from Seoul on a bullet train bound for Busan in the South East of the country where three days later we could sail on a ferry across the Sea of Japan to Osaka.

Busan

About to Board the Fast Train.

About to Board the Fast Train.

The Korean KTX bullet train sped along smoothly at an average of speed of 152mph mph. We sat in a carriage which doubled as a cinema. There was a huge projector attached to the ceiling and a retracted screen half way along the carriage, although during our journey there was nothing showing. Busan was a larger city than we had anticipated, a bustling metropolis which dominates the coastline in the South East. We visited the Jalgachi Fish Market and wondered how it was possible to sell so much fish. There were hundreds of stalls selling all manor of sea creatures, the colours, shapes and sizes were an impressive sight. On the the upper level there were sea food restaurants but £18 for a bowl of fish soup seemed excessive so we avoided that pleasure in favour of a walk through Gamcheon Village, the part of the city where traditional Korean life and architecture have been preserved.

The colourful Jagalchi fish market.

The colourful Jagalchi fish market.

The colourful traditional houses in the village perch precariously on the hillside affording glorious views out to the sea port below.  We walked through the village following a map issued to us by the tourist office, at each of the major sights there was a stamp which we could impress and then keep as a souvenir. We enjoyed lunch in a roof top cafe before a late afternoon walk to the shopping mall. Shopping malls in Asia have been generally been impressive but Busan’s Lotte mall tops them all. The mall comes complete with a roof top garden that was a good tourist destination in its own right. There were binoculars in the garden and we could see the ferry in the port below that we were due to take to Osaka in two days time. After Gamcheon, we walked back into the city and I was interviewed for a Korean English speaking radio show.

Video killed the radio star – not in my world.

The second day in Busan was spent at the United Nations War Memorial Cemetery. We arrived late and had to whistle stop our tour, but the 2,300 memorial stones of lost soldiers in the well kept, peaceful gardens were an emotive illustration of the loss of life during the Korean War. The memorials are set out according to the nationalities of the buried service members. The thousands of names on the wall of remembrance were a further reminder of the world’s brutal history.

British War Memorials.

British War Memorials.

The next day, we boarded a ship bound for Osaka The vessel had seen better days, a theme that seems to have accompanied us on all our sailing adventures. There was a noticeable lack of passengers on the boat which lead to a noticeable staff apathy and it quickly became apparent that this would be a journey rather than any kind of cruise.

Osaka Bound.

Osaka Bound.

We were two of only three Westerners aboard the ship. In the evening  there was some token entertainment laid on by way of a magician and a singer who doubled in the respective roles of manager and ships receptionist. We were given a tiny cabin with two bunk beds and were grateful that the other bunks were unused. The room was boiling hot, it was going to be too hot to sleep. Other people on the corridor had left their cabin doors ajar in an effort to disperse the heat. Our cabin was placed opposite a traditional Japanese style room with about ten mattresses on the floor. The occupants were well stuck into bottles of raki and sojo which were fuelling a rowdy party which prevented us from leaving our door open. By 1am the heat and the noise were too much to bear so I staggered round to ask the singer/receptionist if we could move. The receptionist pretended not to be able to understand my English until I asked to speak to the manager, I was a little worried that the magician might reappear but thankfully I secured a key to another cabin and we then managed to get some rest.

Magic, pure magic.

Magic, pure magic.

I awoke again at 3am and decided to take a walk to the upper deck. By chance we were sailing under the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge, the second of four impressive bridges that were promised on the route. I was alone on the rear deck in the still of the night, the only noise coming from the distant ploughing of the ships engines. It was eerie standing on the deck close to 3am as the ship sailed gracefully under the massive concrete structure just meters above my head. The bridge was huge and I watched it become smaller as we sailed up sea towards Osaka before It was time to return to the stuffy cabin to try again to get a little more rest.

Osaka.

The Harper Family.

The Harper Family.

We arrived in Osaka to be met by our host Richie. I lived with Richie in Liverpool whilst studying there at University. After University, Richie did his own world adventure and he ended up in Japan trying to look for work teaching English. Thirteen years later, he has got more than he bargained for, a job, a house, a car, a wife, a child and another baby on the way! It was good of the Harpers to put us up especially with Richie’s wife Mako being in the later stages of pregnancy. We had a fun time entertaining Richie’s son. Sean has been raised bilingually, Richie speaks English to him and Mako speaks Japanese. One morning the three year old humbled, perhaps humiliated me as, during a quiet moment before breakfast he turned and said to me, “you can’t speak Japanese can you?” my negative reply was met with the the unspoken pride of an adult as he wryly smiled,  and knowingly nodded his head!

Humbled by a three year old.

Humbled by a three year old.

It was coincidental that the Sumo was happening in the city whilst we were there. We spent an interesting afternoon watching the bouts and trying to understand the traditions and rituals which precede the fights. Those wrestlers are huge, the ethics of the sport did cross  my mind. It is known that wrestlers have lower life expectancies and many succumb to weight related conditions like diabetes.  The bouts are short, it takes seconds to bound an opponent out of the ring but I was nonetheless surprised at the dexterity and balance of the colossal figures that stalked the bamboo ring.  It took a while but I plucked up the courage to ask a wrestler for a photo, I feared a slam dunk but I got a friendly (if sweaty) handshake and a good one for the album.

Fat blokes.

Fat blokes.

The food in Japan comes near the top of my ultimate world list. We were taken to a sushi sashimi restaurant where you order by digital key pad and a plastic train trundles your fish to the table (now we know we are in Japan). We ate yakiniku, meats and vegetables grilled on a table top hot plate, a sociable way to eat and at it’s height included world renowned kobe beef which melts on the tongue. Apparently the cattle are regularly massaged and fed the greenest of grass in order to achieve that melt in the mouth meat moment.

Great food and maybe the reason why the Japanese live so long?

Great food and maybe the reason why the Japanese live so long?

Despite the pleasures of raw fish and melting meat, my favourite food was found during a visit to a Japanese curry restaurant chain Ichibanya or Coco’s curry house . Any trip to Asia should be preceded by a Google search to see if one of these establishments is in town. The restaurants are traditionally Japanese housed in a small room where it is possible, perhaps best, to eat at the bar. The curries are served according to preferred spice strength. The resulting curry sauce is amazing, the experience could only be bettered by consuming the curry with a hangover – its that kind of comfort food. One night in Kyoto we met another friend from Liverpool. Dave’s a Scouser and Scousers do things differently. There is no shortage of ‘different’ things to do in Japan and so it was that Dave had arranged for us to eat in a restaurant run by ninjas. A Ninja rolled out to meet us, another Ninja did magic on us half way through the meal and a female Ninja later chased us down the street to thank us for coming, a most bizarre and entertaining evening!

Dave in full flow with a real Ninja.

Dave in full flow with a real Ninja.

I reluctantly accepted an invitation to play five a side football with Richie’s friends. I tend to avoid football with concerns about picking up an injury that would interfere with my love of running but this would be a justified exception. It was fun to step out under the glow of the floodlights on the five a side pitch in the night of Osaka City Centre watched only by Tracy and the skyscrapers that surrounded us above. It’s a long time since I stepped on to a football pitch but I was happy with my performance, scoring goals and running repeated rings around Richie, leaving him to flounder and demand the presence of a referee! Tempers were diffused to a degree in the post match fish restaurant where we enjoyed more raw fish, oysters and sea bass.

Keeping a close eye on Harper.

Keeping a close eye on Harper.

Japanese onsens are an accessible luxury that I wish were a part of British culture. Hot baths, cold plunge pools and saunas are frequented in a similar way to a public swimming pool in the UK but like everything else in Japanese society they are far more refined. It was great to visit Richie’s local onsen and laze about in the scented hot pools, scrub myself with salt in the steam room and chill out with other locals in the large sauna watching the TV. I left the onsen having never felt so clean. The onsen has two sections male and female and participants use the indoor and outdoor pools fully naked. I was lucky that Richie could explain the stringent etiquette involved and I wondered how Tracy would be faring alone at the other side. It is important to have a through shower with soap and water before getting onto the pools. A dirty Englishmen stepping dry into the pools or a latent sud of soap polluting the waters could result in the entire place having to be evacuated and drained.

Glico man in Dotonburi.

Glico man in Dotonburi.

We visited Kyoto where we walked along the river beneath the green mountains which are flanked by  traditional Japanese trees and bamboo forests. We visited Tenryu-Ji temple before evening fell and we moved to Gion for a bit of Geisha spotting. Geisha are notoriously difficult to see on the streets of Kyoto. The girls breeze through the pedestrian streets like spirits of the night. There is a small window of opportunity to see the Geisha as they leave their homes as dusk falls and they walk the short distance to the entertainment venues where they work. We didn’t see any Geshia during our first visit to Japan four years ago, which for me, only had the effect of heightening the mystery which surrounds their aura. I was then elated to almost collide with a Geisha as she rounded a corner shuffling hurriedly along the street in her wooden slippers. I paced unobtrusively behind trying to get a photo whilst marvelling at the mystery of the ghost like figure making off in the first of the evening night. Two more Geishas walked along the same street some time later and we observed from a respectful distance as they breezed by.

A brilliantly mystical sight.

A brilliantly mystical sight.

We had a great time with the Harper’s but it was time to move on. During our trip to Osaka we planned the last legs of this amazing trip. We booked a flight from Osaka to Cebu in the Philippines and then a flight on to Hong Kong 28 days later. We will spend 8 days in Hong Kong before returning to the UK. The only pleasure to be gained from the previous sentence is that we managed to book a flight on Emirate’s A380  which should negate some of the sadness about the returning home.

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Watch “A trip to the Joint Security Area in the de Militarised Zone in Korea.” on YouTube

A trip to the Joint Security Area in the de Militarised Zone in Korea.: https://youtu.be/FXn8ykuba1U

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South Korea and Two Feet in North Korea

The intense Asian heat that we have enjoyed and sometimes suffered disappeared during the four hour flight from Da Nang to Seoul. The air in Seoul is clearer, thinner and fresher,  just cool, crisp and refreshing, we were already enjoying South Korea.

Friendly folk in the old town.

Friendly folk in the old town.

We stayed at the brilliant Beewong Guesthouse in Seoul’s city centre. The Guesthouse was comfortable but our room was tiny housing nothing more than a bunk bed, a desk and a television.The adjacent bathroom saved us from the misery of certain claustrophobia.  The staff at the guesthouse were young, friendly and helpful. There was a real Asian feel about the place, most of the other guests were from Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.

Seoul at night.

Seoul at night.

We spent a lot of time in Seoul at the immigration office. We desperately wanted to obtain a Russian visa so that we could travel back to Europe on the Trans Siberian Railway. Sadly, the rules now require UK Nationals to apply in the UK unless they have official residency elsewhere. We were so determined to get the visa, we even attempted to blag an alien registration card. The card would have given us enough residency status in Seoul to allow us to apply for the Russian visa. After a five hour wait, we were duly despatched from the immigration officer’s desk. It was the pitying shake of the officer’s bowed head that confirmed that we were not going to be given residency status in a country where we had arrived less than 48 hours earlier, not to mention we didn’t have jobs or a permanent address!

A Traditional Tea Stop.

A Traditional Tea Stop.

We consoled ourselves by taking a hurried decision to book a tour with the United States Army into the demilitarized zone on the border of North and South Korea. At its most intense, the trip would take us to  Panmunjeom, here we could stand face to face with North Korean Soliders on the other side of the world’s last real frontier. We were a little anxious about safety before booking our tickets, we didn’t really know what to expect. The US Army was conducting its ROK drills whilst we were in South Korea and North Korea had fired a missile into the sea just a few days earlier to signal its disapproval. We had to balance the dangers against my deep fascination with the closed kingdom. The chance to see and step foot in the the country that the world knows so little about trumped any potential harm and so we travelled to Camp Kim to book our tickets. The next day we were on a North bound bus.

The De Militarized Zone.

The De Militarized Zone.

The barbed wire fences with wooden look out towers are there to spot North Korean defectors who might sail down river and they began well we before we entered the DMZ. As we drove into then DMZ through the first security checkpoint we noticed massive concrete boulders ready to be moved into the road to prevent tanks from moving South in the event of a North Korean attack. Security was extreme and it made us quite nervous as we drove further towards the border. It felt like we were entering a war zone and we began to wonder what we had let ourselves in for. We had even been given a strict dress code. I had to wear a pair of black trousers because my only pair of jeans are ripped. Ripped jeans and shorts are not allowed because the US Army believes that the North Koreans would take photographs of my tatty clothes and then use the photographs as propaganda to show to the North  Korean people, to illustrate how the poor people of the West can’t even afford decent clothes.

The Joint Security Area Visitors Centre.

The Joint Security Area Visitors Centre.

We arrived at the Joint Security Area, the place where South meets North and where North and South Korean soldiers stand face to face with each other across the border. A United States soldier boarded our bus and thoroughly checked our passports to prove our identity. The solider fitted his stereotype, a broad man made broader by the padding from his extensive Army uniform. He wore a cap and a pair of dark sunglasses that completely obscured his eyes. He didn’t take the sunglasses off during the entire tour and his direct military form of speech in sharp, direct, assertive bursts completed his authoritative demeanour. I was glad that he was our chaperone, he looked handy.

The soldier.

The soldier.

We drove into the JSA and entered the visitor centre where we watched a film about the conflict (the countries are technically still at war).  We then had to sign a disclaimer absolving the United Nations, the United States and South Korea of any blame in the event of us getting our heads shot off. The etiquette was drilled home to us – there would be absolutely no gestures of any kind with the North Korean’s, photographs were permitted only in a forwards direction and only when the soldier said so. It was likely that when we approached the border, North Korean officials would come down the steps at the other side to take pictures of us. One member of our group asked if we could take return pictures of them at that point. Soldier Cherrybon, in his assertive American accent replied “Sir ,if they point theirs at you, you point yours straight back at em”. I couldn’t help but wonder if the solider had realised that the question was about a camera not a gun.

The disclaimer.

The disclaimer.

We made our way through the building where we would go outside to the border. At one point the solider stopped our progress and asked us to line up in double file. We were to move through this part of the building quickly and not stop, even to tie a shoelace. I was last in line and I noticed a South Korean solider ahead waiting to open the door that would take us outside. My heart was racing a bit now, there was no doubt the security of the visit was serious but i never really doubted that we would be safe. Another South Korean solider ‘fell in’ behind me as our procession walked outside, his presence behind me was further unnerving.

Our group of approximately ten people lined up to face the border. It was so intense but so fascinating to stare across at the lone North Korean soldier who stood rigidly at the other side. We noticed movements behind the tinted windows on the North Korean side and it was explained that that it was behind the windows where the North Koreans would be observing us and taking our photographs.  The US soldier and two of his collogues faced us the whole time to make sure we complied with the rules that had been drilled home to us earlier. Behind the US soldiers there were a handful of South Korean “ROK” soldiers standing in menacingly tight takwondo poses, staring towards the solider on the other side. The soldiers closest to the buildings stand with their bodies half behind the concrete walls to ensure a hasty retreat in case of enemy fire and when a South Korean soldier has to open the door of the building which leads to the North, a colleague holds on to their trailing arm to make sure they are not pulled across the border. It was disappointing that the North Korean officials did not come down to visit us but the experience was amazing nonetheless.

ROK & US soldiers face a single North Korean soldier across the border.

ROK & US soldiers face a single North Korean soldier across the border.

We stared across the border for about 5 minutes until we were directed down the steps towards the border itself. There are buildings with single rooms which straddle the border where peace negotiations have infrequently taken place, half of the room is in the North and half in the South. We entered the South facing door and were able to pass freely to the other side of the room – at last we were technically in the North Korea. Another intimidating ROK soldier stood guarding the North facing door in case any of us decide to defect to the worlds most secretive state. We were told that despite his steely, silent stance the ROK solider was there for our own protection. The entire place was intense but incredibly interesting.

Tracy , technically standing in North Korea.

Tracy , technically standing in North Korea.

After leaving Panmunjom we retreated back through the peace building to the bus. Later in the day we visited Dorsan Station, a station which has been built ready for the day “when – not if”, the country reunifies. We also visited viewing points where we could look across to North Korea through powerful binoculars. I was able to watch lines of North Korean people working in the distant fields, it was amazing to gaze into the regressive state that is so closed to the outside world. I completely got lost in my thoughts as I looked across towards the mountains and when my voyeurism finished, everyone was else was almost back on the bus.

Staring across the frontier.

Staring across the frontier.

We spent the rest of the time in Seoul exploring the city, visiting the Palace, eating food off personal grills and drinking Sojo, strong rice wine. One night we couldn’t get served in a bar for being ‘straight’. Seoul, in my view is a fashion conscious, cool, ordered city of fun. Seoul’s style transcendences the district of Gangmam, everyone seems dressed in fashionable clothes, the night life is bright and plentiful and a definite feel good factor abounds. It is difficult to reconcile how such a modern, hip, happening city can exist so close to the world’s most regressive, closed state but there is no doubt South Korean’s aren’t phased about the threat of the North, when you spend time in Seoul you forget that a regime which threatens global security is but 50 miles up the road.

 

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