Discover the haunts of chilly Cheorwon

Discover the haunts of chilly Cheorwon

by Ian Henderson
Groove Korea

The winter months are often viewed as a lackluster time for domestic travel, but there are several destinations that strangely lend themselves to being experienced during the peninsula’s deep winter freeze. The small town of Cheorwon in Gangwon Province is such a place, partially nestled in no-man’s land right beneath the DMZ. The old town’s scattered remnants make it one of the most haunting locations in the country.

The settlement had once been a major transportation hub; its railway serviced the entire length of the peninsula, connecting the country along its east-west axis from Seoul to the sea. Now the lonely station of Sin'tanni is the end of the line, flooding the whole area with a feeling of eerie solitude. Among the rusting industrial components at the now-defunct Woljeongni Station (which once served the Seoul-Gangwon line) sits a train destroyed by American artillery. A sign hangs from it with the words “The iron horse wants to run” scrawled across, giving a sense of life to the long-dead relic, and conjuring thoughts of reunification.

One of the reasons this location exudes such a post-apocalyptic air is its location, situated at the edge of the Iron Triangle, an area framed by Gimhwa, Pyeongchang and Cheorwon. This was the command center and front line of the North Korean Army, an area that saw the highest number of casualties and some of the fiercest fighting. The monument erected nearby after the Battle of White Horse and the Battle of Triangle Hill is a testament to this history, having traded hands 24 times over the course of the war. From atop the hill, the whip- ping wind drowns out all city sounds as one takes in the endless vista of frozen rice paddies, all dotted with ruined buildings that lead the way up to the impenetrable barbed-wire wall.

The derelict buildings are truly the highlight of a trip here. These are the silent remaining witnesses to a city wiped off the map. One of several banks in the area re- mains, the Old Cheorwon Financial Cooperative No. 2, as well as the community’s icehouse, which was originally a Japanese restaurant during the colonial occupation. Both have giant holes from shelling and are pockmarked from bullets.

In better condition is the former Agricultural Inspection office, which has been re-fitted with new windows, giving it a sense of life — a place where one could almost expect to see somebody walking around inside. Also still standing are the jagged ruins of a Methodist church, with its roof long gone and large chunks of its walls blown away. Curiously, the tile work of the floor remains mostly unscathed, highlighting the absence of the people who once lived, worked and prayed here.

Last but not least is the giant, three-story building that once housed the Communist Party Headquarters. This Soviet-style structure is missing its roof, but the four walls remain standing, dripping with icicles. The thousands of artillery and bullet scars remain as evidence of the battles it endured. The building also served as the torture and interrogation center for anyone deemed to be against the ruling party. It was apparently a veritable house of horrors in its day, and the cries and screams of the tortured captives could be heard echoing throughout the countryside. Visitors can walk around the outside of the building, but not inside or on the land behind it, which is said to still be rife with chains, artillery and human remains.

Not far away is the famed Seungil-gyo Bridge over this section of the frozen Hantan River. Signs still stand to alert people of the weight limits for the trucks and the tanks that once rumbled across its arches. In warmer seasons, the Hantan also offers some of Korea’s best rafting. The desolation and abandonment of the area has had some positive effects as well. More than 110 species of birds migrate to this area for the winter, drawn by the fall- en grains and warm springs. These include several spe- cies of ducks and long-necked white cranes, which are fascinatingly juxtaposed against their bleak surroundings.

The area also houses the second infiltration tunnel dug by North Korean forces. Some of the region’s sights also lay in this security zone, so a passport is a must if you would like to see either.

Getting There
Most of the sites are spread out and public transportation is infrequent, so bringing a car is recommended.
For public transportation:
1. from Seoul’s Suyu-ri Bus Terminal (from Suyu Station, line 4, exit 4, walk straight and turn left at KB Bank), take a Dongsong-bound direct bus and get off at Dongsong Station (1 hour, 40 min). Transfer to a Goseokjeong-bound bus and get off at Goseokjeong (15 min).
2. A taxi takes 15 minutes from Sincheorwon to iron Triangle Battlefield.

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