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July 16, 2013, and it’s off to South Korea at the kind invitation of the National Nature Trust for a conference and a site visit to a proposed biosphere zone reserve in Gangwon province at the eastern side of the Demilitarized Zone. I have been to Korea a number of times since the late 1970’s, but this area will be a first! I am representing the International National Trusts Organization (INTO) and in addition to my conference-y duties, I will meet Sangkoo Yun, who set up the National Trust of Korea and is a former board member of INTO.
In the meantime, I am waiting for pickup at Incheon airport. I am eventually picked up by my handler and driver. The handler had a couple of words of English which just about matched my Korean, if I am allowed to include a couple of car names (Hyundai, Kia et filii) in my vocabulary. On the way to the hotel, I learned that our driver might have been at the Olympic Games – not sure which ones; the word “Philadelphia” kept popping up – where, if I’m not mistaken, he excelled in “bamboo”.
Fascinating journey to the hotel where, even with a gps, we got lost – one of those enormous complexes that stands out from miles away, but no road actually seems to lead into. I have been put up in the MVL Hotel at Kintex, the sprawling international exposition area at the edge of Seoul which, with 12 million people, means it is (as Susi says) out where the rabbits and the foxes shake hands! I will later discover that there is a mall within walking distance, but on the rainy first night, I opt for the hotel. The hotel is merely 3 months old which means it’s waiting…
Waiting for metropolitan Seoul to grow up around it (shouldn’t take long!) and waiting for more than a sprinkling of guests. I counted 3 on that first night, which means that we were outnumbered by staff 4 to 1; and that was only the lobby and the forecourt! Seoul prices are not for the faint-of-heart, but here the MVL forged new ground. The cheapest item in the deli was a minuscule sandwich-ito. I paid my $11,000 won for it ($10) and asked if I could eat it in the bar. Yes, said the waiter, so I sat down and ordered a beer – another $12. When the waiter returned, he leaned over to confidentially whisper, so none of the couple of hundred empty chairs would be able to hear, that this once I could eat here as the bar also made sandwiches, “but the one you are eating would be more than $20” (which made it about $10 per bite!) Later I learned that MVL Hotel stood for “Most Valuable Life”, which the owner obviously intended to have! At least, monetarily.
And the next day, we conference for all we’re worth (which may not be much). The desire is to have the Nature Trust, in conjunction with other players – provincial governments, the army, local communities – establish a biosphere/peace park at the DMZ and have it recognized by UNESCO, a somewhat daunting process as the last application was “deferred” after North Korean objections. It’s complicated, that’s very sure, and four of us – two Germans working on the former Iron Curtain biosphere system, a Vietnamese to bring the perspective of the former Vietnam DMZ and me representing INTO (or as window-dressing, take your pick).
The opening entertainment, an all-woman ensemble playing Korean traditional instruments – lovely music – and then that regiment of those drop-dead gorgeous young people who indicate where the assembled VIP’s should stand with a sort of downward salute; Koreans of a standing who could stand wherever they feel like! We came, we spoke, we conquered (or put to sleep) and were dutifully applauded and I high-tailed it to the subway and my meeting with Sangkoo. Who was every bit as charming as one would expect the Rotary Governor who will preside over the world congress in 2017 to be! He took me to the Seoul Club where the cost of the average woman’s outfit could down-pay a nice Victoria condo. Sangkoo made his pitch to me; and I shuffled off to my modest subway ride ‘home’. From the subway stop, I decided to walk, but the Kintex is so vast I wanted to check that I was going in the right direction. Seeing two night-watchmen, I went onto the plaza and asked about the MVL. “Let us take you…” Turns out the ‘watchmen’ were Seoul police – one at least a captain – and I rode in style back to the circular driveway of the hotel where the four people at the rotunda whose job it is to wait for nothing at all to happen, seemed stunned to discover that 1/3 of their entire guest complement was being delivered/dumped off by a police car. To draw out the deliciousness of the moment, Police Captain and I had our photos taken together!
The next morning, we were hustled across Seoul (yes, to the Gangnam section!) to catch our bus for the biosphere-proposed zone and the small town of Yanggu. Filling up the rest of the 4 motor coaches were members of ItNature, people who had contributed to the National Nature Trust and who had been awarded a trip as a result by ItNature, the charitable organization of a former Korean politician. After several hours, we stopped at the memorial countryside gallery set up to honour a prominent Korean artist who had died in the 1950’s and had lived at the spot. As is habitual in Korea, the visit was preceded, as at every single stop, by the “Group Photo”. What on earth the Koreans do with the skrillions of the things, I have no idea!
And on to the closest lookout point – they require you to do up your seatbelts on the winding mountain roads where the DMZ is at its narrowest – 780 metres. For the uninitiated, the barbed wire and lookout posts are at the Civilian Control Line (CCL). Half way across the DMZ, is the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) and in the distance, one can see the opposing North Korean outpost. Photos are not allowed, and the South Korean Army really does try to control, but in these days of the ubiquitous cell phone, I suspect that a few dozen seep through per day.
It’s quiet now, and the landscape, after 60 years of exclusion of humanity, is truly gorgeous. (There is a claim that the DMZ is the most pristine example of Temperate Zone biome anywhere on the planet.) Gone are the glory days of psychological warfare; when loudspeakers thundered propaganda from both borders 24 hours a day. Unlike the North Koreans, the South does not conscript women*. Corporal Lee informed us that the North Koreans built a swimming pool and had their female soldiers swim naked – binoculars could provide quite a festive view. The South Koreans then staged their Miss Korea pageant at their outpost! But now it’s all as quiet as the clouds seeping into the lovely valleys.
We were to be taken to another place designated for the biosphere, Duthayon, but the army closed the area “due to heavy rains”. What do heavy rains matter in an uninhabited site? I naively enquired. “The rains have washed the mines out of the riverbanks and they’ve floated down the streams”, I was informed matter-of-factly, as though to a rather dim child! More about mines anon…
Skipping over the details of our group photo-ops (four busloads of people and, I believe, as many cameras), we arrived at Tunnel #4. Some years ago, a North Korean defector told his South Korean inquisitors that North Korea had bored ten tunnels under the DMZ. The South Koreans had found 3 only, so they went on a diligent search. Only one other was found; near Yanggu. According to the soldier-guides, only about 3 to 4 metres could be excavated a day, using dynamite, so Tunnel #4 must have taken nearly 10 years to excavate! As my friend Hoan stated, “surely very many must have died using dynamite in such small spaces”.
Our life in the area centred around the hamlet of Yanggu, a small farming community. We were fed the day’s meals at a sort of community hall, wonderful nourishing meals prepared by area farmers’ wives. The same meal, basically, morning, noon and night – but nonetheless wonderful – and I particularly enjoyed the playful interactions with the people of the village. Rice wine and rice liquor just make one so fluent in the other’s language!
We attended pottery school (actually, I think for most of us it was pre-school!) but Soon Tae Yoon, the documentary film-maker who was accompanying us, showed us why he followed an artist’s existence and the rest of us clearly did not!
We were delivered to a wildlife centre where I fell in love with the goral, a sort of mountain goat which, at least in Korea, was endangered, with only about 800 left in the wild. I asked what its predators were? “Land mines!” There was the Korean musk deer which even as adults retain their spots. Owls, gorgeous owls – and hawks. Some are there for rehabilitation from injuries, some to be re-introduced, especially the goral which unfortunately is not a prolific breeder.
An evening performance by a Korean flautist and singer in traditional dress; a delightful entertainer, and where we were asked to say a few words to this traditional community where a word or two of Korean (no car names) brought howls of appreciation and vigorous applause. The rest of the buses stayed at a tented camp and, as we were about to leave, they unrolled huge space-blankets. I asked what they were for. “Star gazing”. I must have looked blank because Mi, the charming group leader took my hand and we lay down on the space-blankets. “But it’s cloudy”, I said. “So…you imagine them!”
And off we went on a ten-minute drive to our “pension”; the four of us and our two Nature Trust escorts, Namue and Ina. The driver, equipped with the electronic equivalent of a Swiss army knife – dash gps, portable gps, tablet, 2 cell phones – meandered over mountain roads becoming more and more frustrated that our pension was not exactly heaving-to on the horizon. And nor was any other building, hut, shed, barn, lean-to, or igloo. After about 3/4 hour, we doubled back and eventually found a narrow track, partially paved, and wending through enormous puddles (I hoped that no mines had been able to float this far; if so, they were intrepid mines indeed). And we pulled up at Pension Le Ciel. In the middle of a very scenic nowhere. It turned out to be rustic and charming – before turning in, a couple of beers on the deck with Uwe. And so…to bed.
In the morning, back to Yanggu which turned out to be a drive of, oh, six minutes! Paul Theroux talks and writes about “The Tao of Travel”: my special moments have always been the “wow” of travel. And so this little bit of rural Korea was! I loved it, loved the people, the landscapes, the animals – I hope their biosphere treats them well.
* Conscription is for 2 1/2 years. More than one South Korean young woman volunteered to me that they would be willing to be conscripted for a year if that would shorten the term for the men.