Hiking near the DMZ, Baengmagoji, Cheorwon via the DMZ Train and visiting Korean War ruins06 Dec 2014
Visiting the DMZ is one of the most popular tourist activities when visiting South Korea, however most people get bus tours from Seoul and go on a closely guided tour including Panmunjeom and a few other sites. There's nothing wrong with these tours, however I'm not a big fan of being herded like a sheep to the most popular place so when I heard of the DMZ train it sounded like a much better option.
The DMZ Train
For tourists wanting to visit the DMZ more independently Korail has recently launched the DMZ trains, these offer daily direct services from Seoul Station to either Dorasan Station (part of the traditional tour route) or to Baengmagoji.
These trains are not the only way of reaching the destinations, however other routes require navigating a couple of changes in obscure stations (Dongducheon, some old details here: http://koreantrains.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/types-of-trains-in-korea-1-commuter.html) on the edge of Seoul where little English may be found and information is scarce online.
The train route:
On the train the staff organise entertainment, which to a non Korean speaker was all very confusing but very interesting to watch and try to work out what the hell was happening however it helped pass the time in between chatting to a middle aged Korean lady in semi broken English.
The interior of the trains can only be described as psychedelic:
I first attempted to buy tickets from the machines in Seoul Station a few days before however they never manged to complete the transaction, for some reason I had to go to the ticket office, however this went without issue but it helps to have the times and train number written down if you're not a Korean speaker. My train was full and seemed to sell out a day or two before so I'd recommend booking in advance.
If you wish to take a more organised approach there are bus tours into the DMZ which match the train times, tickets are sold on the train and next to the station.
Baengmagoji is interesting as it marks the northern end of the South Korean Rail network on an old line that once ran deep into North Korea. Now the terminus is located just outside the military line of control (the buffer zone around the DMZ) and can be explored freely (or at least mostly as we'll see later). It's close to several significant Korean War sights (my reason for visiting) and also a great hiking area.
My intention was to walk from the station to the former headquarters of the the Korean Labor Party (i.e. the North Koreans), a ruined building with a notorious past including the torture of many South Korean people who objected to the North Korean invasion, helpfully there was a decent map outside the station which showed many possibilities for exploring the area (I basically followed the black line:
Korean Labor Party Headquarters (Nodongdangsa)
Around 35-40 minutes walk from the station is the former Korean Labor Party Headquarters, it's an imposing building and is quite a contrast to the beautiful natural surroundings:
Despite taking a route along the road with no footpath the walk from the station is quite easy and interesting, along with the military checkpoints going into the DMZ (which you can't go through on foot) and passing military patrols keeping a close eye on me there is also an area of mines and some tank defense obstacles to block the road in the event of an invasion, all set in a really amazing landscape of rice paddies and stalks:
White Horse Hill Battle Memorial
My next stop was back towards Baengmagoji, one of the most intense battles of the Korean War was for White Horse Hill, a major vantage point within the DMZ. There is now a very small museum and memorial to commerate those who died.
As soon as I started photographing towards the DMZ a friendly solider appeared and calmly watched my every move:
After this I passed time walking around the village of Baengmagoji before catching the train home. If I went again I'd love to hike more, in the time I had I could have taken a more scenic route through the fields to Nodongdangsa, from vague comments online I understand there to be various military paraphernalia left around in the area between the station and Nodongdangsa including a hilltop observation point which can be visited. I'd thoroughly recommend exploring this area to anyone who's looking for something different in Korea rather than the usual bus tour to Panmunjeom.