DMZ Day Part One: Torres del Paine Rears Its Head

This is the first of many blogs from the most eventful day I’ve had in Korea, in nearly eight months since moving here. October 6, 2012…you were a beast of a day.

First glimpse at the checkpoint. Totally not supposed to have taken this picture.

It begins, far earlier than I would have liked, in the dark. The morning in not even close yet. The chill of autumn in the air has not thought of releasing its grip on the night, at 4:30 AM. We fell asleep at about 1:30, but I was awake the whole night. The slightest movement or beep and I thought it must be time to go.

The walk to Gojan Station reveals which of the 24-hour restaurants actually live up to their name, lights blazing even at this hour. The first train of the morning is full of people half-drunk, half-asleep. Some appear to be going to work on a Saturday. Most are fighting sleep. A man across the aisle falls asleep heavily on the woman next to him, and her insistent poking cannot rouse him. It’s a hilarious scene to watch.

There’s no amount of caffeine that could rouse me, especially after an hour on the subway. We wander through an unfamiliar part of Seoul to the USO, unsuccessfully finding an open coffee shop. I forgot. Coffee in Korea is for the evening, not the morning rush. Damn you, Holly’s Coffee. Damn you for being part of the Land of the Morning Calm.

Inside the USO we meet the first of several passport checks, and signed posters of Toby Keith and Montgomery County. They have marvelously comfortable recliners in the living room of the place, with a flat screen TV playing incessant Fox News. It feels…cheap. Cheaply American. Like a distilled version that leaves out all the diversity.

But they have coffee. Weak, and shitty. The box tells me that if I’m not active-duty military, I’d better cough up a donation. I scrounge up 1500 won, the 10,000 note not lost on me as my paltry coins clonk on the bottom of the box. Look, it’s the week before payday, and this tour cost 96,000 KRW. I’m not swimming in cash.

Soon enough, it’s time for the bus and another passport check. Then we’re out over the Han on the airborne beltway of Seoul, rocketing toward the DMZ at 65 mph. The city melts away and I find myself staring out the window, the military embankments growing more and more prevalent the closer we get. The haze is unlike anything I’ve seen in Korea, but that may simply be due to the fact that I work second shift and rarely wake up before ten o’clock.

The city dissolves into the haze, into the razorwire, into the countryside. Korea is a country of razorwire. It surrounds the apartment buildings in my neighborhood. It protects the sea from wanderers in Oido. It encircles the Han river as we go North, with sniper’s nests growing in frequency. Are we truly going toward a De-Militarized Zone, or to the most militarized zone on Earth?

I’m feeling jumpy. One doesn’t set foot in hostile North Korea every day. Despite the fact that thousands go on this tour without any problem, there is always the possibility. An international intrigue at the border both excites and terrifies me. I try to focus on my notebook, on my impressions.

To calm my nerves, I turn on my ipod. This little piece of technology has followed me on four continents, through the roughest and the most amazing parts of the last five years, following me across trains and buses and airplanes and sustaining me through all those transitions. I’d just bought Babel, the new Mumford and Sons album. Their first major album carried me, quite literally, through Chile and Patagonia. It was my constant companion through that crucible, that furnace…the changes and the moments that defined who I am, on this bus heading for the border in October 2012.

“Keep the Earth below my feet…”

Just remember, that soil is no different than anywhere else. It’s claimed under some random assignment of territory, but North Korea is still just the Earth below our feet. Remember that. Just earth.

The first glimpse of the border is remarkably similar to some of those checkpoints through which I passed in Chile and Peru, the ones with “NO ORINAR HAY CAMERA” emblazoned on the wall, which everyone pissed in front of anyway. Except with more guns. Way more guns. And just like that, we’re in the DMZ.

I fumble with the ipod as it’s battery beeps to tell me it’s failing. Accidentally, I click through to the “notes” section. Before me, a spontaneous account of another travel day, the first trip to Torres del Paine National Park in Chile, seventeen months ago. “Rainbows follow us everywhere…” I wrote to myself, listening to Mumford and Sons first album. “Magic and rain and change.”

Which was the greater adventure, the DMZ of Korea or the far-flung park of Patagonia? From the safety and comfort of this air-conditioned and Gangnam-style bus, I know the true answer. It lies 20,000 km to the South…silent and monolithic as ever.

The bigger advenutre

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