As if skiing for Christmas wasn’t enough snow, we went back to Gangwando province for more. The MOE (Ministry of Education) organized another adventurous trip to the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) and Ice Festival. They took us to the DMZ on the east side of the country. The DMZ serves as a dividing line and buffer zone between North and South Korea. It is 2.5 miles wide, which includes the Han River and some land, according to Wikepedia.
We’ve been to the DMZ on the west side, where the U.S. military is based and which is more dangerous because it’s easier for the North Koreans to enter because there aren’t as many mountains as there are on the east side in Gangwando. My good high school friend, Quentin Willard, reminded me of good southern hospitality and took us to Camp Casey, a U.S. Army base where we had Taco Bell! (They have McDonald’s and KFC everywhere in Korea, but not Taco Bell!) He took us to the DMZ, which had an eerie feeling because they had a small amusement park, the tracks for that train that took South Korean workers to the North to work and a few sights and memorials from the war, such a steam locomotive that had hundreds of bullet holes. He also took us to another observatory where we had a clear view of North Korea. Across the Han River, we could see a small village with just a few houses and no lights. This village was definitely a traditional North Korean village where they had no electricity or cars. They lived off of farming and hunting, while they could see the bright lights across the river in South Korea.
The other side of the DMZ was totally different. It’s located at a Korean Army base. It took a long time to get there because there was so much ice and snow. But it was definitely a beautiful scene when we got to the top of the mountain. This part of the DMZ wasn’t as commercialized because not many people go there. The mountains are too hard to get around, which is also the reason why it is not as dangerous as the other side of the DMZ. (So, why are the Americans on the more dangerous side?) The mountains can protect South Korea from the North. Although there are huge mountains on this side, the river is much narrower. Some native teachers, who we went with, said that they saw some North Korean soldiers on the other side. Both sides are definitely worth seeing if you get a chance. But, they also used to do day trips to Pyongyang, North Korea. They recently opened the borders to Americans. That would be an interesting trip. Click here to find out more.
Again, the MOE never ceases to surprise us. Because that was the first weekend of the Ice Festival, there weren’t any hotels in the small downtown area. So, we got lost in the snowy mountains trying to find our “hotel.” We actually stayed in log cabins with 20 other native English teachers. It was a blast! We got up early the next morning because our day was filled with being on ice. We were told that we would go ice fishing and fishing with our bare hands for freshwater mountain trout. They gave us the poles and string, but no bait. They said the fish don’t need the bait. We just had a small fake fish with a hook. It worked for some people who caught a fish. But some of us were just freezing our toes and fingers off. After warming up in a rest area, we had an appointment. There was a lot to see and do at the Ice Festival, including an ice castle, ice sculptures and games on the ice such as ATVing, ice soccer, ice skating, etc. But, we had to hurry because we had an appointment to go fishing with our bare hands! I had just realized that we were supposed to do the polar bear plunge and catch the fish!!! They gave us shorts and a t-shirt and we shakily walked to the pool area where others were sitting down, preparing themselves to be freezing. The announcer tried to warm us up to jumping into the freezing cold water, so he asked someone to dive in! A Korean man dove and then one of the native English teachers dove! He’s SCUBA diver, but the water was freezing cold. He did the count off. Everyone jumped in! But, Randy, two other native teachers and I took a few more seconds to have the courage, but we did it! I didn’t even try to catch a fish with my bare hands because all I wanted to do was get out of the ice cold water. While our toes and bodies are freezing, they led us to a hot foot bath. The water was extremely hot, it took a few minutes for me put my feet in all the way. After a while, we were all fine. Some teachers caught one fish, two fish and even three fish! But, needless to say, bare-hands fishing and polar bear plunging is a one-time experience. Thanks to the MOE, we can check that off of our list of things to do before we die – wait, that wasn’t even on my list!