Not North Korea!

Posted by on 30, Oct 2016 in 2016 - South Korea, Asia, North Korea, South Korea, Tilly the Tandem

Not North Korea!

North Korean Border (almost!) 5 days  225km 669m climbed (Grand Total 2213km 8309m climb)

Once a month the South Koreans allow cyclists to cycle along the DMZ which is as close as you’re likely to get to North Korea on a bike.   We’d signed up for this tour when we arrived in Seoul in October and had thought it would be for a dozen or so people.  There were in fact hundreds of us, all in yellow Jerkins, hard hats and electronic ID cards cross checked against your passport before the trip.

You only get to cycle 17km, but it’s an experience cycling next to a barbed wire fence under the eyes of machine gun toating teenagers. To be fair though the Korean guards look about 12 and look so nice I can’t believe they’d say boo to a ghost let alone shoot anyone,  but don’t tell the North Koreans that. 

The south is desperate for reunification. The railway lines and roads up to the DMz are all built and ready, there’s an international station with no trains and a motorway with little traffic. There’s peace ribbons on signposts and peace pavilions and memorials.  They genuinely want to reunite their country. 

The DMZ border though is a bit tacky,  with a fun fair.  It does have some sombre views of a train shot to pieces and the new railway bridge crossing the river into the DMZ proper. 

2 km from the barbed wire is the Joint Security Area where North and South Korean guards stare at each other and negotiations take place in the buildings that straddle the 38th parallel. 2 km on from that and it’s North Korea.

South of the DMZ is a land ready for war. The rivers are patrolled and have barbed wire running for miles almost down to Seoul 40km away. Roads have tank traps ready to be rolled into place – even the cycle path weaves through tank traps and there’s gun emplacements and observation posts everywhere. The nearby town is full of soldiers,  they may want reunification but they’re not taking any chances. It took us over 40km of cycling from the border to get away from these preparations.  It’s not the nicest cycle, largely along a motorway until you reach Book City which is so surreal you have to pinch yourself.  After tank traps, soldiers, barbed wire fences and a river you can’t go near you roll into a small town where a huge designer shopping centre stands surrounded by publishing companies in small industrial units that look like all the architects in Korea got to build the most futuristic building they could come up with.  Its a wonderful place and apparently is also part of the defence against an invasion. The thought is that when the North Korean soldiers roll up they’ll see just how far ahead the south is and perhaps rebel against their leaders.  I’m not sure how successful that would be, but it does look like you’ve landed on the set of a 22nd century sci fi film.  It’s also the place where a Porsche pulled up with an audi and the driver of each jumped out and tried to give us various bottles of wine and snacks and then simply drove off. Yet more signs of how wonderfully generous these people are. 

Our cycle back to Seoul was again in glorious sunshine and as usually featured our least favourite plant in Korea – The PukeBerry.  Well, at least that’s what’re calling it.  It’s a tree with little orange fruits a bit like a crab apple and they grow all over the country.  You can guarantee that if you stop to read the map or take a picture there’ll be a PukeBerry right next to you.  The berrys, once fallen off and crushed by feet / tires etc smell exactly like someone has thrown up, badly and copiously, half a dozen times then got his mates to join in too. It’s really horrible and for some reason they’ve actually planted them in the cities along roads.  Weird.  But there are a number of strange things here; we’ve seen dozens and dozens of golf driving ranges – not open grass fields, but like a huge cricket net about 100m long and raised up at an angle of about 30degrees so the balls roll back and you can put a road underneath!   We’ve seen lots of weird golf as we call it, golf on a cross between a pitch and put and a putting range but with a golf ball the size of a cricket ball and despite all of this and the countless golf shops we’ve not seen a single proper golf course. 

Then there’s the traffic ?.  As a pedestrian you can wait for around 10 minutes to cross two roads if you time it wrongly and even if you get it right then it’s always a 2/3 minute wait, which is a very long time at a crossing.  Cars are king. And no one jay walks or crosses until they get a little green man, even if you can see both ways that there’s not a car in sight.  If you do, then you get some real Paddington stares!  It’s a big no no here.  You can understand it though when you see the cars.  Red lights to them often seem optional. You can turn right on red like the US, but it seems you can just blast your horn and sail through a red if you’re a truck.   Cars edge forward like footballers in the 10 yard marker which can make crossing on the zebra bit tricky, though we’ve found if we just stop Tilly and stare at them they move a bit to let us past.  So, overall they have some terrible drivers at traffic lights who park recklessly and block every dropped curb possible yet drive quite slowly except on motorways, are extremely courteous to cyclists and give you loads of room when passing and are usually very patient too. 

We arrived back in Seoul as the sun was setting and decided to stay near the river so we would have an easy get away back to he airport.  The Hongdae area, where we stayed on our arrival, was so lively we  thought we’d stay there again.  The guesthouses in it have cheap dormitory rooms or very small doubles, often without facilities which is fine, but as this was our last four nights we thought we go for a hotel on the edge of the area with a huge bath and a great view. For some reasons hotels are often cheaper on the Internet but after a bit of negotiation we managed to get a cash deal cheaper than the Internet and chained Tilly up to a drain outside leaving the key with the staff.  

Our room was as usual on the 5th floor.  The Koreans see 4th floors as unlucky.  Many hotels don’t have one, they go from 3 to 5, others have an F floor instead of 4.  We’ve been put on the 5th floor on almost every hotel that has 4 floors.  Our theory is that as the 5th floor is actually the 4th then Koreans still don’t want to stay on it so they put the tourists on that floor.

We got a shock going out later – Tilly was gone!  The manager was quickly out to inform us he’d put Tilly in the restaurant for our stay to keep her safe, which again was so thoughtful though did give us a moments panic.

So for the next few days we became tourists and do the touristy things which involved lots of walking which we now know we hate –  isnt it slow!  Seoul has a real mix of things to see, the old village was like walking back in time a few centuries and then the sculpture park was like being on a set for Star Trek. There’s markets which look like they haven’t changed in centuries and then electronic stores with so many gadgets even I didn’t want to go in. There’s a fabulous subway and people pushing hand carts full of scrap cardboard. Designer coffee shops and tiny restaurants with milk crate seats, glitzy shops and shops that look a hundred years old selling just light bulbs. It’s like a slice from all sorts of eras all pasted together. 

We’ve thoroughly enjoyed Seoul and indeed Korea.  It really has been one of the best trips we’ve done despite our self inflicted problems with the food.  It’s a beautiful ccpuntry, full up with wonderful temples, magnificent views and a really lovely people.  

All that was left for us was to return to the airport over 2 days of cycling retracing our steps.  As we neared our final night right on the airport doorstep a couple came up to us and gave us a beautiful hand fan with the Korean flag on, then walked off. A lovely moment and a lovely way to end our trip.

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