It’s not every day that you go on an adventure with two of your friends, in search of a Fortress, and end up less than 2km from North Korea! Well, that’s exactly what happened to me today! As Im living in rural Korea, more than an hour from Seoul, most weekends are spent on the train to the ‘big city’, to go out, party, meet friends and enjoy all the other amazing things that the city of lights has to offer.
Today, Thursday, is Independence Day in Korea so everyone had the day off. Not wanting to make the long trek to Seoul just for the day, my friend Shauna suggested we explore our Paju in her car as she heard there was a fortress only 20 minutes drive form where we live. Nobody ever explores Paju, so it seemed like a great opportunity to prove to all the ‘haters’ that there really are great things to do in this region.
After 30 minutes driving, and frantic attempts at translating tourist signs which were only written in Korean we eventually ended up in a large car park which doubled up as a drive in cinema and a go-karting track! This was definitely not what we were looking for, but there were lots of other tourists around so we parked and wandered around. (We even got a 50% reduction on the parking fee because her car is so small – It’s the little things!) We were told to hop on a free shuttle bus which would bring us to Odusan Unification Observatory. As the name of the fortress was Odusan fortress we knew we were going in the right direction.
The bus brought us up a steep and winding hill, with pretty stunning views of the local countryside. On arrival at the top we were all seriously excited as the views were phenomenal. The fact that it was a sunny day made things look even better. As it turned out there was no fortress to be found, as the fortress was actually a centuries old fortress, on which the observatory had been built on top of! Oh well, we didn’t mind too much as this place was pretty spectacular.
We paid the dirt cheap 3,000 won entrance fee, took some photos of the gigantic Korean flag blowing in the wind then entered the obseravtory, unsure of what we were going to see. We then proceeded to measure ourselves next to the ‘average North Korean soldier’, admire a photography exhibit of photographs portraying the horror of the Korean war, and eventually went upstairs where we had a private screening of a short movie outlining what could be seen from the observatory.
The obseravtory had 360 degree views of the surrounding area but it was the view to the North that captured our attention. The Observatory is situated at the meeting point of the Imjin River and the Han river, and as they join together the river continues to flow North, into North Korea. Directly out the windows in front of us was a clear, unobstructed 180 degree view of a country we know so little about. The river which divides the two countries is 2km at its widest point and only 460 meters at the narrowest point. AS it is tidal, you could almost WALK across the river bed at low tide. You could pretty much WALK to North Korea in about 10 minutes. MIND BOGGLING.
The short movie informed us that everything we could see was built by the North Koreans as propaganda; impressive houses and multi stories apartment blocks, all to show how “amazing” life is over there. This would have been more convincing if the houses weren’t half finished, some with no roofs, other just looking empty and uninhabited.
We had a chance to look through binoculars for a few minutes to get a closer view at life in the North and I was jumping around with surprise when I saw 2 men in black walking through a field chatting, and another man wearing white working in a field. You’d swear I had just spotted aliens on Mars or something. I really don’t know why I was so happy to see people, but I guess everything to do with North Korea is exciting when we know SO little about the country.
Besides my childish excitement, I was also quite pensive as I watched some local South Korean kids posing with plastic soldiers, eating ice-creams and taking pictures on their 500 dollar smart phones, while imagining the lives that similarly aged kids have only a few kilometers away. Will we ever really know what is going on across the border?
(Details: If you are visiting South Korea and would like to check out the Odusan Observatory you can get the Gyeonggi-Line train from Seoul to Geumchon station then get the 900 bus from Geumchon all the way to the Observatory car park, then get the free shuttle bus to the top. More info HERE. Feel free to ask questions and I will do my best to answer.)