1st Kaesong City Tour 27 April 2008

After spending an awfully long and noisy night in a jimjilbang, we awoke (those lucky few who had actually managed to get a few minutes of sleep), dragged ourselves around the corner to the waiting bus, and were away on time at exactly 6am. After a breezy drive to Imjingak, we raced passed the waiting South Koreans to the front of the line to get our visas first. Our little group of 20 foreigners showed passports and were given visas that we were told to protect like our lives depended on it. We then put unnecessary items in lockers, including anything that could be used to contact the outside world while in North Korea

We stood around for a good 45 minutes while the locals got sorted and moved on through the customs line ahead of us, now that's not the way it's supposed to happen. Oh well, we got through the x-ray machines, picked up a group of South Koreans who hogged the back of the bus, and departed South Korea for the day. We were off.

The drive through the DMZ was strangely peaceful. You notice the military presence at the beginning and end, but when you look passed the road, it's an array of flora and fauna.

The North Korean customs side took a bit longer to get through for some people. I didn't have a bag, so was able to waltz right through, (the no bag idea was great at first, but there were a few things I wish I had taken in the end). While we were being sorted our buses were also being searched to make sure we didn't try to sneak in anything dodgy. Like we would. Realistically, the foreigners are probably more worried about the consequences than the South Koreans, so are less likely to do anything wrong. At least that's what I thought.

After picking up our North Korean tour guides we got in line and were off towards the BIG CITY. We drove passed the city and the three guides, Seokjin included, pointed out a few things on the way, like some interesting buildings and signs. The tallest building is an apartment building, at 20 stories. The whole place looks pretty run down. The locals dressed conservatively, as they walked or rode their bikes around the streets of Kaesong. There are very few cars. Most of the vehicles we saw were in our own convoy. We had 10 buses and 5 SUVs for the 300 of us allowed to enter for the day.

Our drive continued slowly out of the city and into the beautiful countryside. I must admit, not having the technology and the population issues of the South has really helped keep a fresh, clean environment up there. Our first tourist stop was at the gorgeous Bakyeon Waterfalls, where, after a short walk up a wide path, we could see the falls. Off to the left, where there were fewer people, is a large rock; perfect for photo shoots if you hurry before the rest of the group realise what you are doing. After a decent amount of time there we climbed some stairs and tried hard not to slip on what appeared to be slippery wet rocks in the rain. We made it to the top of the falls and got a great look at a big red propaganda sign gorged into a massive rock. After a short hike through the bush we came to Gwaneumsa Temple. A small, very secluded temple with an interesting prayer cave. The local North Koreans weren't so keen to have their photos taken, but the Buddhists at the temple didn't mind as much. We headed back down the path to the buses for a slow steady trip back to the city for lunch.

Our 10 buses were split between three restaurants, and after hearing a bit about the other two, I think we got the best deal. The food sounded the same but the location was what was important. Food first. We sat down to 13 individual golden bowls of food. No sharing sides up here. We had the usual rice, soup, some meat and vegetables. What was different was there was no regular kimchi like you find at almost every meal in the South. We had various vegetable dishes, fried fish, sticky sweet rice, an egg, and one watery kimchi. The food was delicious. The service was pleasant, the women, although they didn't speak a lot to us, were polite in their manner, and smiled when we tried to ask for something. We were given tea and one shot of soju with lunch, but you could order more of course. And they were cheap. The beer apparently even tasted good. The restaurant itself was gorgeous. A huge hall decked out like we were diplomats on official business; not just tourists.

After we ate, Seokjin told us to go out and take photos, we were allowed to take three photos in this area; one of the restaurant, one of the department store across the street and one of the huge gold statue of Kim Il Sung. Now, the good little boys and girls did this. They went straight out after lunch and took the three legal photos and that's about it. There are always rule breakers, and it's so hard to stay within the boundaries when you can't see the line you are crossing. Or you think the rules are a bit ridiculous. Anyway, I'm pretty sure there are a fair few photos that don't fit in the legal shot category mentioned before. Also, a group of us went shopping and freaked out Seokjin about the contents of what we got. It's amazing the propaganda they sell up there. But luckily South Korea is a lot more open-minded about what people read, so they didn't mind us bringing books back.

We were quickly ushered onto the bus for a three minute bus ride that, honestly, we could have walked (if we were allowed to , of course), to Sungyang Seowan, which has been made into a museum. It's small, but is placed right on a hill, overlooking part of the city. This was really difficult for a few photographers to fight the urge to take more illegal photos, but we were being watched, and sometimes even stopped, with cameras checked and photos deleted if necessary.

Next stop was the Seonjukgyo Bridge where Jong Mong Ju was executed in 1392, and you can still see his blood on the bridge. Right across the street from the bridge is the Pyochungbi monument, where you can see two large turtles. A male and a female. For luck you should rub the nose of the turtle of the opposite sex to you. From the front it's a little hard to tell which is which, and I thought it was hilarious watching the South Koreans on the tour, pushing to rub the noses as they were listening to their guide explaining about the turtles, only to hear right at the end which was which, and almost all of them had it wrong. The switch was so funny to watch. Men pushing one way, women pushing the other.

Our final tourist stop was the Goryeo Museum. It had a few interesting artifacts in it. The models and pictures depicted a slightly different side of Korea from what I'd seen in Seoul museums. We also had time to do a bit of shopping before heading back to the DMZ. There were a lot of teas, ginseng, drinks, books, and stamps for sale.

Our drive back to customs went through the Kaesong Industrial Complex. We didn't stop here; just passed through. At immigration, we took all our things out of the bus again and lined up. Having no camera with me (as my brother was in charge of photography), I went straight through, but had to wait ages while almost everyone with cameras had them searched for 'illegal' shots. I don't think any AK people lost photos. On the outside we waited for our bus. When everything else had been completed so precisely and to schedule all day, should buses 6 and 7 be finished their checks before the foreigners bus number 5? That's a bit odd. Our bus was checked more thoroughly than the South Koreans' buses. Not surprising really. Not sure if they like us all that much.

After the final check we said goodbye to our North Korean guides and got on our bus, and lined up for what looked like a bus race. Disappointingly we were rearranged back into single file to go through the gate into the DMZ, and on to immigration in the South.

On the whole, other than the really early start, this was a huge eye opener. I still feel like we didn't get to see a lot of the 'real' Kaesong. As most of the people we had contact with were employed as tour guides of some kind, or were from South Korea. The people on the street, that we could see from the bus still seem more like extras in a movie set rather than the real people that live and work in Kaesong. Nothing seemed to be open. Children were wearing what looked like school uniform even though it was Sunday, and we had been told there was no school on Sunday. Adults were dressed conservatively and in a style similar to that of the 50s. Making me more convinced that it was set up. It's sad to think that they are living so poorly up there. Yet so close by, in South Korea, there's almost anything a foreigner could want.

I'd recommend this trip for anyone with a big wallet, who can survive well on little sleep, has a strong heart,an open mind, and does not have a trigger happy finger on a camera. It's an amazing experience. It's one that I will never forget. It's made me a lot more greatful for what I have, and I'm sure you'll feel the same.

A small note, as foreigners you will need both your passport and your alien registration coming and going through South Korean immigration, apparently a Costco card is not accepted.