Tuesday, February 27, 2018

A visit to the DMZ, a military base and Naksansa Temple

As I mentioned in the last blog post, the Koreans did a really smart thing in creating tours for the media to see things other than the Olympics. One of the most popular tours, from the media I spoke to, was the DMZ tour. I did not think that I would have time for this tour, but when the USA men's hockey team failed to make the medal round, it opened up a free day for me. I checked with the tour desk at the media village and they said that they could get me in, so off I went.

The first stop on the tour was at the DMZ museum. This museum was established in remembrance of their painful past, but today they are trying to make it a place to celebrate peace and ecology. The DMZ (which is basically a buffer zone between North and South Korea) is 160 miles long and about 2.5 miles wide.

Our tour guide was excellent as she quickly guided us through the building. We only had 30 minutes in this museum because we had to be at our next stop precisely on time.

It was interesting to see all the old signs warning people that they were entering the DMZ.

Our guide told us that when the soldiers from South Korea would face the soldiers from the North, they would always wear their sunglasses in an act of defiance. That is depicted in this exhibit.

It is rumored that Kim Jong-un has littered the DMZ with more than one million landmines to keep people from crossing the border out of North Korea. One of the displays in the museum has you walk over a glass floor with many landmines under the glass. It really is unnerving.

You might be wondering what you are looking at in this photo. It looked to me like a giant light panel. And sure enough, that is exactly what it is. This was designed so that the South Korean's could send messages to the North but just over the border of the DMZ. They are had giant speakers for which they would blare music towards the north. If it weren't so sad, it would almost be comical the way that the North and South Koreans try to torment each other (and they admitted as much).

Our next stop was really amazing. We were given exclusive access to the military base called 717OP. The base is normally restricted to the public, but just for the Olympics, they opened it to us on certain dates. (Many of my friends went on the tour and were not allowed into this facility. It really depended on what military activity was happening on that day.)

As part of this tour, any photography was STRICTLY prohibited. And when I say it was not allowed, I am not talking about the rules in a museum which many people ignore. This was serious stuff. Before we were granted access to the base, we had no less than 3 checkpoints where heavily armed soldiers got on the bus to check our credentials. We were told to leave all cameras and phones on the bus.

So...my goal here is to try and share my experience with you all without photos. I know, I know. This is so not me, but...

After getting through the checkpoints, we were escorted by a military vehicle up to a vista. At the top of this mountain was a small base. We entered the base and had to climb up many flights of stairs to get to the top. This building was designed for short people, because anyone over 5' 8" had to lean over as they went up the staircase. Once at the top of the stairs we entered their "briefing room" that was incredible.

The briefing room looked like a theatre with lots of seats all facing a massive window that looked out to North Korea. I asked our guide if this was designed for the purposes of our tour and she said that it was not, it was an active briefing room.

One of the soldiers got up and started presenting to us. He pointed to the vast landscape in the distance, which was really pretty. There was the coastline, decent sized mountains and even a large lake. Below him was a 3 dimensional map where he pointed out different parts of the landscape. On either side of the room, there were two large monitors. Those came to life, and the soldiers barked a command to another soldier who was standing at a large television camera. The second soldier then zoomed in to reveal a military facility way out in the distance. And then with another command, he was swung the camera around to show another military facility. This went on and on. They even showed us a stone wall on the side of a mountain. At first it looked like any other mountainside, except when he zoomed in further, it revealed yet another bunker, which had been carved into the rock. It was really fascinating. And yes, I wish I could have taken photos!

After the presentation, we were allowed to roam around that room and ask questions. At which point, the soldier manning the camera was just panning around and showing different scenes out in the distance. We could see numerous North Korean soldiers moving around. And at one point, he zoomed in on one soldier who, at first sight, looked like he was dancing. And then I saw that he was doing some kind of karate type exercise. He then got down on the ground and started doing one-armed push ups. We all laughed and said "Does he know he is on camera and he is showing off?"

There was a man in our group who has lived in Korea for 65 years and he was saying how he had never been allowed to see this place. He felt so fortunate that they opened it for us, and it made me appreciate it even more.

The next stop was a small fishing town where we were going to have a traditional Korea fish stew (but not me because I am now allergic to almost all fish - Boo!)

I was back to taking photos again. This photo is the building where we had lunch.

The first floor on the building looked like an aquarium, but was home to future food source.

Outside the building, they were selling the dried fish.

This was not looking very appetizing to me, and kind of made me happy to be allergic to fish.

I took a bunch of photos of this and then went upstairs for my vegetarian lunch.

After lunch we had half an hour to walk around and explore the marina.

I walked onto the seawall and took this shot looking back at the fishing boats, the shops and the restaurant.

When looking the other direction on the pier, we had a nice view of the ocean. I was surprised to see how similar this coastline looked to the coast of Northern California.

Our next and last stop was a visit to the Naksansa Temple. We were delayed getting to the temple due to heavy snow fall that was piling up on the roads. But I was happy knowing that this snowfall on the temple buildings would make for some unique photos.

We climbed up a long hill and finally arrived at the site of the temple. I saw this pretty building with a large drum and framed this wide shot to get the architecture and snowfall.

As I walked around, I was looking for interesting photo opportunities and saw this one out of the corner of my eye. Our group had all walked up a pathway and turned to the right, but I noticed this one lantern in a corner to our left. I went that way and got close to the light. I was walking around with my Canon 5D MK IV camera and the Canon 24-70mm lens. I shot this at f/4 to create separation between the lantern and the background.

As I turned back to follow the group, I saw this roofline with a really nice repeating pattern.

A couple of people from the US Olympic Committee were on the trip with me and I offered to take their portraits here. As you can see, the lighting was really nice and I like the background as well.

Once I took theirs, they offered to take one of me.

More of the temple grounds.

The people believe that stacking rocks will help them achieve peace, so there is this long wall lined with endless rock formations. My wife loves these, so I took some photos for her.

At the top of the hill, there is a large monument, but since the weather was so bad it did not make for a very good shot. But I saw that some of the small buildings at the base of the stairs had reflective metal tops. I climbed a small wall and shot down into the reflection, using the snow and water drops to create something different.

As I walked down the hill, I saw another one of these lanterns that I liked so much. This one had a light dusting of snow on top of it and was nicely placed in front of this temple building. (And no, that is not a Nazi symbol on the temple.)

I was approaching the exit of the Temple (accidentally going out the back way since I was no longer with the group), when I saw this monk. I asked him if I could take his photo and he agreed. I love the colors he was wearing and his gentle smiling face. And you have to love that mixed with the tennis shoes.

It that was the end of a long day of touring. We arrived back at the media village around 5:45pm and within 30 minutes I was repacked and heading to shoot the mass start long track speed skating.

Now I am sitting on the airplane and heading back to California (now being finished at my home). My goal was to write this blog and edit photos from the closing ceremonies (which I did). The closing ceremonies blog and a couple of others are still to come.

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Doug Lange said...

Thank you for taking the extra time for these blogs. While I enjoyed watching the events on TV, your blog connected me to the Olympics and Korea in a genuine manner that the network programming was unable to do. I hope you get some much deserved rest:-)

Unknown said...

here is a korean film showing that briefing room (from 2016 but I think it did not change too much):

and some fotos of it from times when taking them was ok: