Friday, 21 October 2011

Top Secret

Let me tell you a story about tea. No, no, that’s wrong. It’s about water really. Is it water? They say its water but it’s brown. Maybe it’s brown water? It doesn’t taste like water. Whatever ‘it’ is we have it every day at lunch and I hate it. It’s brown water and the taste is like nothing I’ve ever tasted before and all I wish is that we had real water. But we don’t.

I was told two weeks ago that we would be going hiking with the school on Thursday 20th. This is all I knew. Nothing else was mentioned. So, Thursday rolls around and I’m assuming that we are all going to go hiking with the kids, chase butterflies, play pooh sticks and sing marching songs. I was wrong. This was a staff only trip. Strange, because we left the school at 1:30, leading to the cancellation of three of my classes. No matter. Me, the vice principle, the janitor and the accountant set off together. None of them speak any English. Fun.

We walked about 1km down the road outside of my school when we reached an army base. I didn’t think for a minute that this would be where we’d be heading. There was some commotion as we walked through the front gate. My VP started making phone calls as did the general in charge of the army base. I decipher the reason for the commotion is that I am foreign and I am not allowed on the army base. Several phone calls later, after getting increasingly nervous about the armed soldiers surrounding us we are given the all clear. I was allowed onto the army base to hike to the top of the mountain. I was the first foreign person ever in the history of Korea to be allowed into this army base and to be allowed to go to the top of this mountain. The general approached me, he was a friendly well built and sturdy fellow. He said, (in perfect English) “This is a secret base. Top secret. You cannot tell anybody about what you see”. Weird. “Of course”, I reply.

So here’s what I saw.

There were a few tanks knocking about the base, but we quickly proceeded up a trail into the forest. There was really very little to see aside from some ropes hanging from trees. It was like this pretty much the whole way up, some trees, some birds, some berries that my VP was plucking to his delight. We turned a corner and could see for miles and miles, I could almost see Sachang-ri from up there. In the other direction we could see the top of the mountain, a barbed wire fence with some outpost / lookout buildings on top.

On we trekked. Man, Koreans walk so slowly. My VP was apparently impressed with my ‘climbing ability’ but they were walking at such a pace that they would have been impressed with a snails hiking ability.

We eventually reached the top where the rest of the school was waiting. Apparently they took a car. What? That’s fair. Make the foreigner walk. Now, as I stand on top of the mountain I understand why I wasn’t allowed to talk about what I saw, because what I saw was North Korea. What I saw was the DMZ fence. And seriously, I will not mention what was on the mountain, because I promised I wouldn’t.

We talked a little about North Korea and the feelings the teachers had about reunification. The older generation seemed to have some deep emotions on the subject, talking about how hard it has been, the younger generation don’t seem to care a whole lot. The younger generations primary concerns seem to be purely financial: if reunification happened then what effect would it have on the Korean economy? I imagine it would be similar to what West Germany went through. South Korea would have to deal with a nation that is so astoundingly backwards when they themselves are on a jet plane into the future. It’s an interesting situation. It was a tiring hike and luckily we got a ride back to the bottom with some Korean soldiers who were very welcoming.

When we reached the ground we were taken for some snacks with the soldiers. I did not want to drink, the last time I was in a ‘drinking’ situation with my school they made me drink so much I ended up passing out on my bathroom floor. So, I came prepared.

“I can’t I’m afraid, I’m taking these tablets and can’t drink with them.” (hold up tablets as false proof)
“Oh, we understand.”

Sorted. I didn’t want to offend them but I also didn’t want to drink. After talking to the general (really his English was great) about his time with the UN in India and the Philippians (really interesting), and once everyone had finished drinking we all went for some food, which was pleasant. Although, the amount of courses was preposterous.

Home by 7:30. Duty of socialising with teachers complete. This weekend I go to the JSA and I’m looking forward to writing about it.

They took a photo of me atop the mountain and made me promise I’d never show anyone. Pointless.
It’s a strange old world.

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