“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!
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Hey Nathan did you need your passports to enter?
Katherine, yes, we did! See this site for more details:
Great post Nathan! I did one of the tours to the DMZ a few years ago and it was pretty average. This year I’ve got a car so will definitely add this to my list of things to explore than I can now do thanks to my car! The East Coast of Korea has incredibly beautiful beaches (Ulleungdo is just gorgeous in summer…not sure if you have been there yet?)
Having a vehicle really opens up the country! Hope you enjoy exploring this year 😉 I’ve been to Ulleung-do once, it was absolutely amazing! Such a beautiful spot, wish I’d made it back this year.
what a beautiful spot! korea is so weird with prices too. some things are so dirt cheap and then the most mundane stuff is exorbitant.
Oh, your photos always make me so jealous! I’m actually surprised at how blue the water is and clear the sky was to the mountains! Not really what I think up when the side of Korea comes to mind.
Thanks! I was surprised by the water color as well! Around Pohang (also on the east coast) the water is nowhere close to that color.
Brandon Fralic (@bsfralic)
Isn’t the unexpected kindness of strangers incredible? Reminds me of hitching in Turkey – often our drivers would offer us a meal along with the ride. Incomprehensible.
Beautiful photos of the North Korean mountains and sea!
I remember you telling me about that! People really are awesome. We’ve got to hitch sometime/somewhere!
Thanks for the great post, I’ll definitely be adding this to my Korean bucket list! I actually want to have the exact same trip as you, actually, and go to Sokcho/Seoraksan and then to the DMZ. Still haven’t been to the popular one or this one! Thanks again for the tips and great pictures!
If you need a place to stay, the House hostel in Sokcho was wonderful. The owner, Mr. You, was so helpful and wrote out directions to everything for us. Super nice guy.
I had no idea there was more than one DMZ area you could visit. This one looks less touristy and more authentic though. Nice!
This is a great post. I love that he asked for rides for you. I didn’t even know you could get close except for the one closer to Seoul.
Nice write-up of this. I always thought about taking the east coast route to the DMZ. That mountain shot you have was just beautiful. What a beach right next to the border as well? Thanks for sharing this.
I was amazed by how blue the water was there! Would be a lovely spot for a swim, not sure I would ever chance it, though!
That’s the easiest hitchhiking I’ve ever heard and it sounds like they were lovely people. Your photo with North Korea in the background is awesome… almost looks like you could swim over!
Right?? I was expecting lots of awkward conversations and rejections, but that worker did all the work for us!
Evan and Rachel
Wow I didn’t know about “the other” DMZ! haha it looks waaaay more enjoyable than the well known one. I also felt really weird about the gimmicky nature of the place, especially when we sat through a 20 min. Promo video about how beautiful the DMZ is! So weird. We may have to check out Goseong. Thanks for the info!
I remember there being something really funny about goats in that video. 😛
I just remember thinking … it’s the most dangerous wildlife preserve in the world… on one hand, very few humans … on the other hand.. mines. >”<
Tom @ Waegook Tom
This sounds great! I’d never even heard of the Goseong DMZ before reading this, and I lived in Korea for 3.5 years! Then again, I had very little interest in visiting the DMZ after hearing reports from friends who all said it was basically American soldiers saying how they saved Korea…but obviously that was talking about the Seoul one.
Anyhow, it sounds like you had a great experience, and lucky that you got a ride, as you know hitching isn’t commonplace in Korea at all. Great post!
I’ve been to the Seoul DMZ as well and, while the actual tour included more exciting sites, I preferred the laid-back nature of the Goseong DMZ. The Seoul experience is a lot more ‘in your face’ (as your friends found out).
But yeah, we were super lucky to meet that family! I’d never tried hitching before, so it was a pleasant first experience.
If you’re going to be a historical revisionist, just outright say it up front. The KMAG practically were the sole reason why the Korean Army’s leadership were able to survive their retreat from Seoul after incompetently displacing 40,000 ROKA soldiers due to premature bridge demolition. Elements from the 24th ID (19th, 21st Inf Reg) literally delayed the North Korean push to Gyeongsanbuk/namdo provinces. They were outnumbered in Osan, Pyeongtaek, and Daejeon. The amount of sacrifice given by soldiers in the 25th ID, 7th ID, 1st CAV, and the remnants of 24th ID to protect the Busan Perimeter is why the American section at the UN Cemetary is larger than any other allied nation’s. The countless men who died in the cold North Korean winter during the push to the Yalu River say otherwise. The massacres at Hill 303, Pork Chop Hill, and countless others, being outnumbered by Chinese and NorK forces; I could go on and on. I served for four years in defense of the ROK during “peacetime” and was willing to lay my life down for the Korean population. Those who came before me who actually sacrificed their blood, sweat, and tears should not be brushed aside for the sake of revisionistic nonsense. Go figure…when I brought a Korean War vet to a ROKA formation, everyone from the 대령 down saluted and thanked him. Glad to know that stronger men can acknowledge such.
I don’t think it was Tom’s intention to imply that’s not the case. And I don’t see how someone who is neither American or Korean not wanting to visit a Korean/American military installation is offensive.
Regardless, thanks for stopping by, and for the information!
It doesn’t surprise me in the least that expats (ESLs, etc) aren’t interested in military affairs. Most are left leaning and would avoid military service if forced to deploy during war. What does surprise me is why you aren’t interested in learning about why the DMZ exists in the first place, relations between the three militaries (Axe Murder Incident, maintaining the Blue House, guarding the area since 1953), or Korean War history on both sides of the border (Pork Chop hill, etc). The American military has taken the lead in the defense of the ROK since Korea was a 3rd world country. Thank you the clarification and have a good day.
You’re right, I’m not too interested in military history. And since this is a travel blog, not a military history blog, I’m sure you’ll forgive me for not doing a complete write-up of American involvement in the Korean War in this post. Did you even read it? I hardly talk about the history of the DMZ at all. This was mostly a story for my friends and family back home so they could see what I’m up to while I’m over here. Maybe, instead of being offended by the travel content that I’ve posted on my personal blog not having the military focus you’re looking for, you could start your own military history blog and explore this issue in depth.
I have mixed feelings about the DMZ, it’s a very interesting and historical place but they’re using it as touristic spot. Still I think it was worth to visiting it.
I agree, it’s a strange tourist attraction. The first time I went, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it either.
Yes, it is totally a weird experience. When I looked at North Korea it was worth it to just see that this place is real.
Meagan | LifeOutsideOfTexas.com
We were here not that long ago. We actually only left the DMZ 2 hours before the guy pulled his gun there and shot his fellow soldiers.
We didn’t have time to go to the museum. I’m curious if there were explanations in English? It was a bit intimidating driving into the DMZ area because none of the signs were in English and it wasn’t completely clear which way to go. I guess that’s something you wouldn’t have noticed since you were driving with a Korean family. Also it could have been busier when you were there so you just followed the flow of traffic.
It’s so cool that the family offered to drive you into the DMZ. I love that about Korea. The people really are some of the best in the world.
That’s so crazy! It was such a shocking day, even more so, I’m sure, since you’d just been there.
I remember seeing English signs on the road for the museum. It is a little out of the way from the route between the checkpoint and the observatory, easy to feel like you shouldn’t be going that way.
We got really lucky with that family; they were just the kindest people. I’m really going to miss this country!
Well written, great photos. Another place that I’d like to travel to.
Thanks, Ken! It’s highly worth a visit, I’ve heard it’s absolutely beautiful in the fall when the leaves change.