“It will be $270 for two days.”
My friend Cody and I stared at the car rental associate. Seriously? For a crappy little sedan?
We had plans for the weekend of heading up the east coast of South Korea to Sokcho and, from there, going to the Goseong Demilitarized Zone. Since public transport to the DMZ itself is nonexistent, we’d been told we should rent a car. However, dropping over $130 each for the privilege–plus whatever gas, tolls, and parking would amount to–was not gonna happen.
Nevertheless, Saturday morning, we took an intercity bus to Sokcho and spent an amazing day exploring Seoraksan National Park. On Sunday, we caught a bus to the DMZ registration office and trusted to luck that the whole thing would work out. How were we to know that our day would be made amazing by the generosity of complete strangers…
From the bus’ last stop, we walked a ways up the road and found the office easily. Inside, we got the necessary forms and filled them out. When we gave them to the staff, however, we were informed that we had to have a vehicle or be riding the bus. We’d been planning on hitching, but hadn’t expected to need to arrange a ride beforehand. When it became apparent we were pretty clueless, the man working with us asked us to wait. We stood to the side while he helped other people. It wasn’t until the next group came up to the counter that I realized what he was doing.
He was asking each group if they had space in their car for two extra people. Us.
Pretty embarrassing. Cody and I decided to let him know we would just take the bus. Just as we were about to say something, the couple he was talking to nodded in our direction and smiled. We had a ride!
Introductions were made, smiles exchanged, and we headed out with our saviors and their two hilarious children.
The drive towards the border was beautiful. Small farming villages lined the way, then stopped abruptly as we crossed the line beyond which citizen development is limited. Barriers loomed along the road, wired with charges ready to blow and topple them into the path of an enemy advance.
We breezed through the checkpoint and made our way to the observatory. As soon as we stepped out of our car, I was struck by the contrast between the Goseong DMZ and the popular one outside of Seoul. When I’d visited the Seoul DMZ and JSA over two years ago, everything had been so strict. Once inside the Goseong DMZ, however, tourists pretty much have free run of the place.
Reminders of where we were stood everywhere, though. From hilariously and terrifyingly labeled bathrooms to fighter planes and tanks, there was no doubt we were at the border with the North.
The view from the top was magnificent. The sea was such a brilliant blue; the white lines of surf crashing onto a spotless beach. In the distance, the North Korean landscape stretched–a patchwork of brown and green starkly contrasting with the verdant colors of the South Korean countryside.
We found an ideal viewpoint from which to grab a picture with our new friends. Memories 🙂
To the side of the observation deck–down the hillside and by the sea–stands a white Buddha, gazing into the Hermit Kingdom.
After the observatory, we were all a little hungry. To our surprise, the gracious couple who offered us a ride also insisted on buying us lunch. Say what you like about the state of the world; people blow me away with how generous they can be. We enjoyed a satisfying meal together and carried on with exploring.
Our last stop was the excellent DMZ museum. I highly recommend spending some time there. The exhibits are full of interesting trivia and memorabilia from the war. I was amazed by how little I know about what happened in this place I call home.
Perhaps the most sobering exhibit was near the end of the museum route. The room was dark; its stillness shattered by the boom of explosions and flashing lights on the floor. Each flash lit up a looming silhouette on the wall. What I first mistook for swords were nothing of the sort; they were crutches.
Another explosion thundered and the floor flashed. I looked down and found myself standing on a land mine.
While the mines in the exhibit were under a glass floor and (hopefully) nonfunctional, the experience still packed a wallop.
We emerged blinking into the lobby and headed to the final part of the museum. After the grim nature of the previous exhibit, this one was a beautiful change. A room filled with trees awaited us. Each tree was adorned by thousands upon thousands of notes from Koreans and foreigners alike–pleading for peace and expressing hope for reunification.
With our Korean family, we headed back out of the DMZ and towards Sokcho. It had been a long, exciting, wonderful day, and Cody and I were both exhausted. We exchanged contact info with our new friends and bid them farewell. The ride back to Sokcho was a blur, as we both nodded off in our seats to the jostling of the bus.
Korea, I <3 you.
From Sokcho, take the 1 or the 1-1 bus towards Daejeon. Only every other bus goes there, so check with the bus driver to make sure it’s going to the right place. Get off at the last stop, there is a tiny bus depot and a gravel parking lot. The bus fare is 5,000 won.
From the stop, walk north along the road for about 15 minutes. There, you’ll find the registration office for the DMZ. Inside, get in line 1 or 2 and buy the registration form (3,000 won). Fill it out, then head to one of the other lines (3 and up) and pay the fee requested (varies, but it’s cheap). You’ll get a stamp and you’re good to go!
I recommend having your own transportation. That makes it easy. Hitching is possible (we did it!), but it’d be much easier to just have a car. There also appeared to be a bus option, but I’m not sure of the details for that. Have fun!