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Exploring South Korea: Billings student visits land of beauty, bustle, cold war
Mandy van Eeden has been traveling much of her life. Photo courtesy of Mandy van Eeden Mandy van Eeden’s mother, Jeani, stands in front of a display about a brutal ax murder at the DMZ. The husband of a friend’s sister’s was a victim of the attack, and the van Eedens made an offering where he was killed. Photo courtesy of Mandy van Eeden A model of two soldiers stands in the museum of the demilitarized zone, which separates North and South Korea.

Going from wide-open, big sky Montana to South Korea - 50 miles away from communist-run North Korea - makes me feel lucky to be living in Billings, with so much open space instead of a land of wedged-together buildings and a packed-in population.

I have been traveling around the world since I was 6 months old. But, with all the countries I descended upon, I had never been to South Korea.

My mother flew with United Airlines for 40 years and made frequent trips back and forth from Korea each month. Because of my love of markets in Asia and my passion for fresh culture, I visited South Korea over the summer.

My mother and I left July 19, with a short stay in our apartment in San Francisco, and then we departed for South Korea. Traveling for me is a lot different than the average teen. Since my mother is a retired flight attendant, we always fly standby - which means that, if a seat is open on the plane, we take it. Flying standby can be gratifying (90 percent of the time we get first class) and abominable (we almost always get bumped out of the Pacific).

This trip turned out awesome for flights, first-class round trip except for a terrible night's sleep in the Honolulu International Airport (airport staff never turn off the "Tiki" music).

Into the heart of Seoul

We arrived in Seoul, South Korea, at 2 in the morning, our time. The drive through the massive city along the Han River took an hour.

As I sat on the bus, I remember Koreans waving and looking up from their handlebars at the flight crew in the bus. Seoul is like a spread-out version of Times Square with a thick layering of advertisements. For example, Seoul is known for its huge skyscrapers assembled with 100-foot TV screens on the side.

I looked out the window of the Ritz Carlton, our hotel, and watched Korean music videos and hilarious Korean soaps on one of the major business buildings. The city just stretches on as far as you can see with its many hearts and downtowns.

One of its main hearts is known as Itaewon. Thousands upon thousands of tourists and Koreans shop there. As you walk down the main street of Itaewon, you pass small shops with elderly Korean women sitting in front of their shops. It's a system of security for the black market in designer purses.

Black-market shopping

I walked through small alleys, turning left, then right, walking up stairs through corridors and underground in the underground market to find a purse salesman. Two levels underground in Itaewon, I found the infamous "bagman."

When I entered his business (underground with walkie-talkies and tension running high), a dozen women from India were tossing around hundred-dollar bills and Chanel, GUCCI and Prada bags.

How the bag black market works is you show the bagman a picture of the designer bag you want, and bagman will run a level up or down (it depends where he hides his bags), maybe to a different underground market, remove some bricks from a wall or something and check in his illegal designer-bag storage if he has your bag.

Also in Itaewon, you can get school shopping done in less then an hour. Go to one of the many underground markets (Itaewon underground market No. 2 is best), walk through one of the many racks of clothing, sit down and point to what you want on the walls of designer clothing - with super-inexpensive price tags.

Itaewon fades into a less-busy section, which holds ancient palaces, statues, amazing villages, odoriferous flower markets, royal guards, princesses and gorgeous Korean architecture. Traditional parades occur every day.

This area also includes one of the most interesting establishments in Seoul - the grocery store. The grocery store is a building with up to seven levels, each level is the size of Wal-Mart and contains different restaurants, cultural food and products on each level. Fruit in the Korean grocery store is hand-raised. A box of 15 apples costs $112 (massaged apples); dried fish, $90; dried seaweed, $20.

As you walk out of the grocery complex, another flight of worn stairs carries thousands of Korean businessmen, crying babies, pickpockets and crazy taxi drivers. The drivers need global-positioning devices in the taxis to find a certain location in Seoul.

I am a 6-foot blonde; you can imagine how I stuck out in Korea.

My mother and I got lost (on more than one occasion) in one of the métier districts. I followed her in circles under the bustle of the city twice the size of New York. In a dark alley, we finally found solitude in an infinitesimal traditional Korean restaurant. The meal was cooked in a fire pit in the table. I barely survived my raw, cold crab - which the non-English speaking waitress tried to motion to me that I would not enjoy it.

Exploring the demilitarized zone

On July 24 my mother and I went with a certified tour bus into the demilitarized zone. The demilitarized zone is a 248-km.-long buffer between North and South Korea. The DMZ was established during the Korean War (1950).

After the two sides settled into a stalemate along the 38th parallel, a ceasefire was agreed upon in 1953. Large numbers of troops protect either side of the line from potential aggression from the other side. The two countries are in a cold war.

It is in and along the DMZ that most armistice violations have occurred. It is in and along the DMZ that I visited.

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The Imjingak tour bus picked up my mother and me in the heart of the Kangnam business district in Seoul. Once we crossed the Han River, our tour guides introduced themselves and began preaching 50 years of DMZ history (in both English and Korean).

The bus continued north parallel to tall barbed wire fencing next to the Freedom Highway. It started to rain just as we entered the civilian control area; it was time to take out my passport for a Republic of Korean soldier. Once the soldier checked the entire bus, he confirmed the bus and motioned for the barbed-wire steel gate to be lifted. We entered the DMZ.

There were yellow spikes and barriers all over the road. Soldiers were walking next to the barbed wire, looking out from war bunkers. I started filming, and, within seconds, both tour guides were yelling at me in Korean. I presumed this was my cue to stop filming.

With the tension high, no photos are allowed in the DMZ other than a few locations. Therefore, I covered my camera with my hat.

The bus drove through fenced-in land mine areas up to Mount Dora observation platform. We were shuffled inside a large auditorium with huge windows facing North Korea. An ROK soldier lectured in Korean for a very long time, then saluted and paced away.

Our group was then led outside by an English-speaking ROK soldier. I paid 500 won to look through binoculars and see North Korean military personal, the city of Gaeseong, and the Geumgangsan Diamond Mountains. It was the most beautiful view I have ever seen; yet I was not allowed to take pictures.

Tunnel crawling

Then our group was forced to put all our belongings in a locker in Paju-si. We had to wear bright yellow hard hats and take deep breaths as we walked down the steep decline into the third North Korean infiltrate tunnel (found in 1978).

When I reached 150 meters below the surface, there was a well, a railway and a small dark tunnel leading forward. I crouched on the mud floor and started crawling the 2 kilometers of the tunnel.

I will never forget the smell, barbed wire and explosive evidence of dynamite in that tunnel. Ten thousand soldiers can move through this tunnel in one hour. It is thought that North Koreans built more than 20 tunnels for infiltration use, and only four were discovered.

For the rest of the tour, we visited famous locations, the new train station, and the land mine areas. The DMZ is definitely a place to see, with so much history.

Mandy van Eeden is a senior at Billings Senior High. She writes for the Bronc Express, and her hobby is traveling.

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