I’d like to quickly preface this post with an acknowledgement that I talk about parts of Korea that I’m not 100% knowledgeable on, and I may get some information wrong, which I apologise for. If anyone notices anything erroneous in what I say, please do come forth and correct me.
Between my return to Seoul and my start of semester again at Dongguk University, there was only approximately 1 week to kill, and I for one was feeling nervous.
Most of the friends I had made in the first semester had returned to their home countries across the globe, and the modules I had left to pick from were… underwhelming. There were only a measly three film options to pick, and two of them I had already completed the semester before. The last remaining one was titled “Understanding Film Production” and I will admit was quite interesting, as it allowed me the chance to actually film on and develop super 8 celluloid film which I had until that point never done.
Other modules I ended up selecting were “Analytic Philosophy and Philosophy of Mind”, “Understanding Language, Neuroscience, and Human Development”, and “History of Modern Art”. As much as I would have liked to do more film modules, I did enjoy being able to take such a varied spread, something that can only be explored to a lesser degree in English universities.
However, I had ample opportunity to help out a friend on independent film, which was a lot of fun when it wasn’t frustrating!
In the second semester of my year abroad, I took up more opportunity to explore Seoul and parts of the Korean lifestyle which I had neglected to do in the first semester, even though a lot of it meant going alone. Even still, some of the times I adventured solo were some of the times I more enjoyed myself, able to solely do and see the things I wanted to do, talk to people I definitely wouldn’t have in a group, and go long at my own pace.
One such time was during a retreat with Templestay, a company which specialises in getting foreigners to experience segments of the daily lives of Buddhist monks. I did mine at Jogyesa Temple, which had the convenience of being very near to where I was in Seoul. There, I participated in activities including guided meditation, and 108 prostrations, both of which Buddhists use to increase mindfulness and mind-body awareness, as well as a necessary discipline for those striving to reach Nirvana. After it all, I was invited to share in their food and although it was vegetarian (maybe even vegan I think) it was very flavourful and rich, to the point where even I couldn’t stomach some of it.
As a person with a very restless mind, I was sceptical going in to the meditation, and although I tried to commit as much as I could, there was only so much I could to try and drain my thoughts and direct my consciousness into taking a break and just focusing on awareness. Even so, I did find a measure of calmness slow me down a little, especially as I had gotten all in a flap about finding the temple in the first place!
As for the 108 prostrations, I had no expectation going in, expect after a demonstration of how each bow needed to be completed, I was nervous, as there are many little details including how to cross your feet, and how to properly move your hands and arms, but I’m pretty confident that I performed them well. 108 did seem like a lot of reps, especially as my legs were aching after 25. By 108 I was sore all over, especially in my spine. The next morning only confirmed that 108 prostrations is nothing short of a full body workout, as my muscles warned me that that day in uni couldn’t possibly be worth all the discomfort I was in.
Another opportunity I wasn’t going to let pass me by was a trip to the Demilitarised Zone being held by an organization that was hosting the event in honour of the successful peace summit between North and South in April.
The DMZ is not as I thought it was, the information on the region I had beforehand was ultimately inaccurate, seeing as even a google search will show images of the famed blue buildings of the Joint Security Area, which wasn’t where I was headed at all. Even more than that, the rumours that I had heard that immense danger could quickly spiral out of control with very little provocation also proved to be false. The scariest thing I saw In the DMZ was areas of overgrown grass and forest that had been roped off from the threat of active landmines still being present, but even seeing that typed sounds scarier than it was seeing them, especially as you are escorted or driven past them, and you can only see them out of coach windows. In the end, the DMZ turned out to be quite a commercialised area with a bunch of fun, day-out type things to do and see.
First of all, the Gamaksan suspension bridge which spans 150 meters across Silmari Valley, and was recently bumped down to the second longest suspension bridge in all of Korea. Probably not the most fun place to be (or to hike to!) if you have a fear of heights, but for me it was nothing but exciting to bound back and forth over the bridge, even moreso as the bridge bounced and swayed over road, river, and cliff. Officially, Gamaksan bridge is called “Gloucester Heroes Bridge”, named so for the 1st1st battalion of the Gloucester Regiment of the British Army who fought, and were wiped out, in the Korean War.
Besides Gamaksan bridge, there is also Nuri Peace Park, which was filled with hundreds of pinwheels which I was told represent Korean dreams of reunification, Imjingak Resort, which was an uncomfortable combination of commercial and historical and serious. There, you will find the Bridge of Freedom where Koreans could leave for the South after the Armistice Agreement as well as southern prisoners of war, and there is a derailed steam strain from the war in the Imjingak Pavilion filled with over 1000 bullet holes, just feet from the razed Imjingak bridge which used to cross between north and south, with only the supports remaining, also pocked with bullet holes. A small section of the bridge remains for tourists to walk up and down, displays and screens with historical information tell the sorrowful story of the events of war that happened there, and in the floor itself there are genuine bullet casings as they fell there during the war, protected via a glass layer.
Next to the train is a huge wall of flags and banners with wishes of reunification written on them, as well as the names of family that they have still in the North. Given the severity of Imjingak and the tidbits of history on offer, it was severely grating to see hawkers selling fridge magnets, t-shirts, and baseball caps just off to the side, as well as an actual theme park just off the carpark.
One more thing I saw at the DMZ was the Third Tunnel of Aggression that South Korea found that goes below the DMZ from North to South, which the North had dug in during the war. It is only 44km from Seoul, and therefore could have had crippling effect on the south had the North Utilised it, as it can accommodate 30,000 soldiers in an hour. There are four discovered tunnels in total. There is a monorail that goes down to the bottom of the third tunnel, and there, I could walk up to the third of three barricades which actually blocks off the Armistice line (line between North and South). People with certain ailments were not permitted to venture down into the tunnel, for example the damp and limited air was particularly harsh on the lungs, especially if you have a respiratory disease such as asthma. I would strongly recommend anyone else headed to the DMZ to heed this advice, as I did not and certainly was not better for it.
Also at the DMZ was Dorasan Station, which sits on a trainline that does connect of the Koreas, and is currently the last stop in the South. Inside the station are many signs that suggest many Koreans are hopeful that it may become the first stop to the future in a reunified Korea. Lastly was the Observation Deck, which also featured a gift shop and a convenience store, so again it felt on a strange precipice between significant and commercial. The deck is equipped with binoculars through which you can see the northern propaganda village, a statue of Kim Ilsung, and the watchpoints of North and South Korea flying their respective flags.
Overall, the DMZ was an eye opening experience that was not rife with tension as I had previously believed, but instead posed a more hopeful question on the future of the two countries. This being said, you do still need to present a valid passport to go there, and in some areas pictures are not permitted, but what are these really but slight precautions in already tense conditions?