Zone offers an unforgettable experience

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 February, 2011, 12:00am

Just about everyone has heard of the DMZ - the 250-kilometre-long demilitarised zone that marks the northern border of South Korea. But the PLZ - the Peace and Life Zone - is a new development that is special.

Next to the DMZ and connecting the east and west coasts of the Korean peninsula, the PLZ contains natural wonders and historic monuments, hiking trails and specially built observatories. It can be tackled in one fell swoop, travelling from east to west or vice versa, or sampled piece by piece. But wherever visitors land in the PLZ, they're assured of an unforgettable experience.

The easternmost section of the PLZ is one of the most varied and fascinating. Starting at the Unification Observatory - which grants a bird's eye view across the border into North Korea - the trail heads south, taking in stunning ocean views on the way to Hwajinpo Lake, which in winter acts as a homing point for migratory birds such as the mallard and Bewick's Swan. At 1,708 metres, Mount Seoraksan is one of the most distinctive landmarks in the region, and it is surrounded by a national park whose autumnal colours are reckoned to be the most beautiful in the country. And the trail takes a philosophical turn at the village of Manhae, which commemorates the works of the 20th century Buddhist poet Han Yong-un.

Moving westward, two contrasting sights sum up what the PLZ really means to Koreans. Close to the very edge of the DMZ, the Fourth Infiltration Tunnel - which was discovered in 1990 - is open to the public, and a nominal admission fee includes entrance to the Eulji Observatory and a war memorial, and the tunnel itself. To the west, the Bangsan Porcelain Museum is a striking reminder of Korean craftsmanship. During the Joseon period, Bangsan - the source of a superior white clay - was the centre of an industry committed to producing porcelain for the royal household. The museum is well interpreted, and visitors can try their hands at throwing a pot or two. It's also worthwhile trying out the local delicacies in the PLZ, especially the wild vegetables that are served with soya bean paste stew and grilled fish.

The third section of the PLZ trail is known as Hwacheon, meaning Flower River. Rare otters and cherry salmon are often found in the lakes and rivers in the area, and it is also home to a wide variety of unusual plants. The starting point for exploration is Peace Dam, which holds crystal clear water. The mountains surrounding it are popular with mountain bikers and, as there are no special tourist destinations or events in Hwacheon, it is the beauty of nature itself that makes the region so special. Perhaps Hwacheon's best-known landmark is the centrepiece bell of the World Peace Park near the dam, which was cast from used cartridge cases and weighs a mammoth 37.5 tonnes.

Further west, the Dujinaru Ferry is one of the more intriguing curiosities of the PLZ. Before the Korean war it was one of the prime ways to cross the Imjingang River, but it fell into disuse for years. It has been revived as a tourist attraction, with a replica sailing boat from the Joseon period providing a pleasant 45-minute cruise along the river.

The western end of the PLZ is marked by the peace observatory on Ganghwa Island, making a fitting conclusion to this unusual trail.