Kaesong City Trip.
Written by Tom Arkwright
Next stop North Korea! Kaesong City here I come!
At 6am on a Sunday morning who’d have thought that I’d be on my way to Kaesong. The normal event for quite a few Expats I’m sure, would be to catch the subway home after a heavy night drinking or indeed being fast asleep tucked up in bed. But nevertheless, Kaesong was definitely a trip well worth getting up for.
Having been on a previous Adventure Korea trip to Geumgangsan (North Korea), I was both excited and curious as to what Kaesong would have in store. Reading an itinerary is one thing but actually experiencing it is another.
As pointed out by The Adventure Korea Team, an early start meant an early rise. As a result a suggestion was made to stop in a jemjilbang near the pick-up point. Accompanied by fellow travellers this proved to be a great idea, as we all made it to the bus on time. With no delays, we set off to cross the border at the DMZ and head into North Korea.
Whilst crossing over the DMZ, you may start to wonder what sort of atmosphere you might witness? ‘The Nothing’ and ‘The Emptiness’ provide only an eerie atmosphere that may later surprise you when the bus arrives at Kaesong. After crossing the 38th Parallel and arriving in North Korea - although pictures are restricted at this point – I strongly recommend that you take a good look around and absorb the surrounding landscape. An interesting landmark is that of the industrial complex that the North Korean citizens commute to on a daily basis in order to work.
Gradually getting nearer to Kaesong it becomes obvious that you are not the only one fascinated by the surroundings. ‘Big Brother is watching you,’ is a term that I am sure we are all familiar with. On this occasion it works in two ways. Not only are the guards watching your every move ready to wave their red flags, but curtains are twitching and eyes are creeping up from the windows of roadside houses and nearby buildings. Just like us, the North Koreans are wondering; ‘What is going on?’ So do we ignore them? The answer is quite simply ‘No.’ Give them a friendly wave to say hello and a reciprocal gesture might be given back in return.
Out of the eeriness and into the beautiful countryside of North Korea, our first destination was Bakyeon waterfall. A nice and easy walk (all be it up hill) means that the Waterfall is quite easily accessible and although you can’t go in the water, it provides a great setting for pictures. If you carry on up the mountain you will arrive at Gwaneumsa Temple. Along the way you can look down from the top of the waterfall aswell as see various messages imprinted in red on the sides of numerous rocks.
After visiting the temple and the waterfall, it’s time to enter Kaesong City and have lunch Kaesong style! On entering the building where we were to sample the culinary delights, I was somewhat surprised by the décor. It seemed at this point that I could infact be dreaming as the dining room was laid out as if we were royalty. Such a great setting and the food was both traditional and delicious. It is at this point that I should mention that for an extra cost of $2 you can sample some traditional cold noodles. On top of this for the alcohol connoisseurs amongst us, a North Korean beer is on offer for a similar price but with the added bonus of being a large bottle.
Free time to roam – but within the small restricted area – allows you to see what sorts of things the city has on offer. For example; Possibly the strangest department store I have ever seen, a very large gold statue of Kim Il Song at the top of a hill, and Namdaemun Gate similar to the one sadly burnt down in Seoul.
Back on the bus and moving onto three other destinations - Sungyang Seowan, Seonjukyo Bridge, Goryeo Museum – the trip seems to become more and more interesting. The reason for this is that whilst travelling you can again see a variety of buildings and North Korean citizens emphasising life on the ‘other side.’
My favourite part of the tour probably has to be Seonjukyo Bridge. Various storytales and legends surround this area, most notably one involving a bloodstain still remaining imprinted on stone. There is also a nearby wall that is low enough for you to see the North Korean citizens doing what looks like their normal weekend routine. An image that I can honestly say will be imprinted in my mind for a long time.
Suggesting that North Koreans live in a time warp might sound like a harsh thing to say but reality bites - back dated to the 1940’s living in the past or infact participating in ‘The Trueman Show’ - the clothes that they wear and the movements they make depict this.
Cultural differences aside it was nice to witness some children having a friendly game of football (soccer), symbolising some sort of comfort in their lives that you genuinely cannot fake. Annoying, was the fact that pictures of this event were impossible to take. However, even if you were lucky enough to get hold of a picture customs may have penalised you for it. From experience, I can say that deleting some of my pictures (whilst in line waiting to go through customs on the North side) was the best decision I made. I was stopped because of a picture I forgot to delete, and as you can imagine a very unpleasant feeling followed. Luckily they let it go and I am here to tell the tale.
If I were asked to compare Kaesong to Geumgangsan, I would be honest and say that the two trips are too hard to compare as they are completely different. The only similarity that I can think of is that both trips include a waterfall. However, if it’s an argument over which waterfall is better then I think that both trips are obviously wrong for you!
I would ofcourse recommend both trips, but Kaesong was certainly an eye opening experience and gave me a great insight of what life is like on the ‘other side’ through a different perspective to that of Geumgangsan. A 6 o’clock start may not be for the faint hearted but it is well worth the agony of the early morning rise. So throw off your quilt and join Adventure Korea on an adventure that could prove to be both thought provoking and life changing.