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Visiting the DMZ and crossing the North Korean border

Going on the DMZ tour was one of the most surreal experiences of my life. It was weird, intense, uncomfortable, and unforgettable.

The DMZ, or the Korean Demilitarized Zone is a strip of land running across the Korean Peninsula. It was established at the end of the Korean War to serve as a buffer zone between the ironically named Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), and the Republic of Korea (South Korea). Neither side is allowed to deploy their military in this zone, hence the name. The DMZ is a de facto border barrier that divides the Korean Peninsula roughly in half. It was created by agreement between North Korea, China and the United Nations in 1953. The DMZ is 250 kilometers (160 miles) long, and about 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) wide. It is filled with over a million undocumented landmines.

Within the DMZ is a meeting-point between the two nations in the small Joint Security Area (JSA) near the western end of the zone, where negotiations take place. There have been various incidents in and around the DMZ, with military and civilian casualties on both sides.

How to book the DMZ Tour

There are several companies running tours to the DMZ and the North Korean border. We decided to go with Koridoor Tours, as they work closely with the US Army, which is comforting when you’re entering into a place like this. They will provide a military escort for your security during the JSA part of the tour.

Realize that visiting this part of the world is not a joke.

A ceasefire is has been in effect for several decades now, but a peace treaty was never signed. North and South Korea are still officially at war, and it could start again at any moment. This is not a fun, safe place to be. There have been several incidents over the years, including tourists getting shot and killed near the border. Going on a tour where you’re accompanied by US military personnel reduces the chances of the North Koreans trying anything crazy, but there are no guarantees in life, especially not here.

The demilitarized zone is the most dangerous border one can visit, and it contains the biggest minefield in the world. You’ll literally be right between two million troops on high alert facing each other. One of these two armies belongs to a hostile, unpredictable communist dictator, who’s directly responsible for unspeakable atrocities, including against his own people.

Before leaving the military base on the South Side, you’ll have to sign a waiver that warns you of the reality of the situation: You’re about to enter an active war zone. There is the possibility to get seriously wounded or killed when you enter this area.

With all that in mind, here’s how you book the tour.

  • The best way to arrange the tour is give Koridoor a call to check for availability, and then stop by the office to make the booking itself. You can find contact info on their website. Use the number for “Camp Kim USO”.
  • The tour office is at US military base Camp Kim, centrally located in Seoul, and the tour bus also departs from here. To get there, take the subway to Samgakji station on line 4. Camp Kim is a short walk from Samgakji station. This stop is a couple of stops from Myeongdong, one of the main stations.
  • When you book the tour at the office, you’ll need to bring your passport with you.
  • The tour costs around $75.
  • Be sure to book ahead. Waiting times can run up to a month. Also keep in mind that tours can get canceled or postponed at a moment’s notice, when tensions run higher than usual.
  • When you go on the tour itself, you will also need to take your passport with you.
  • It should go without saying, but once you’re on the tour, follow all instructions, don’t fuck around, no jokes, don’t be stupid.

DMZ, JSA, and North Korean border photos

After waiting for almost three weeks, it was finally time to go.

The weather was incredibly cold on this Saturday morning on the 13th of February. Everyone’s passports got checked, and one by one we went into the bus. Our tour guide was a small South Korean man telling us about the history of all the places we drove by. His English wasn’t too good, which added to the experience in a way.

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Our tour guide for the trip.

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The drive from Seoul took about an hour. This barren, frozen landscape was our view during that time. It was around -20c/-4f. Some of the coldest weather I’ve ever experienced.

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The first stop, the visitor’s center for the “Third Tunnel of Aggression.”

This is one of the four (discovered) tunnels North Koreans dug in an attempt to invade the South. We went inside and were allowed to go up to the part where they sealed it off. I was surprised at how narrow and low this tunnel was, and was explained that due to generations of malnutrition, North Koreans are really small people (especially compared to the average Dutch guy). It was a little claustrophobic, and a pretty good workout, as I had to walk with bent knees during the entire visit. Sadly, no photos allowed inside.

They sealed off the tunnel in an interesting and effective way: a 1 meter(3ft) thick concrete barrier and 10 meters of minefield, three times in a row. Good luck getting through there.

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A public domain photo of the tunnel. They allowed press in after the tunnel was discovered in 1978.

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A mock-up of the area. The green light in the middle is where we are now. The yellow lines mark the DMZ/mine field. The red line marks the actual border.

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This green light is where we’ll be going soon.

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Signs like these constantly remind you where you are.

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I found this in front of a gate into the minefield. At least someone stationed here didn’t lose their sense of humor.

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A statue depicting the Koreas divided.

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The next stop was Dorasan Station, the most northern train station in South Korea.

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This sign has the names of all the donators that made the construction of the trainstation and railway possible.

This station will be connected to the north when/if ever the North and the South are unified. Currently, a small train runs here a couple of times a day from Seoul carrying tourists and people who work in this area. It is mostly symbolic at this point.

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Our guide was passionate about this train station and what it stood for.

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Some day, maybe, the train stopping on this platform will take you to Pyeongyang in the North.

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The security area, waiting to be used.

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It was a strange place to be. We were the only ones here.

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This soldier’s job is to stand here all day and make sure no one decides to take a stroll up north.

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A road gate for customs, waiting to be used.

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The third security checkpoint into the actual DMZ. The bus had to zig-zag around the blockades in the road.

Once we were past this, our bus was the only civilian vehicle on the road. Every now and then, a military jeep would pass by, but that was it. Just a big, empty highway, lined with fences and razor-wire separating us from the barren, mine-laden wasteland. Everyone in the bus was quiet at this point.

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According to signs everywhere, the South is ready to unify.

The next stop was Camp Bonifas, a military base near the JSA. No photos allowed here.

The base is home to “the most dangerous golf course in the world;” a one-hole golf course surrounded by the minefield. Yes, there are reports that at least one lost golf ball exploded a landmine.

Once we arrived, we went into a briefing room where they showed us a short movie about the history of this place. We then got briefed about the areas we were about to visit. A couple of other US Army personnel joined us in the room and they really made sure we all understood the gravity of the situation. Everyone had to sign a waiver, stating “The visit to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom will entail entry into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action”.

The rules were strict and clear, and we were reminded of them several times during the visit inside the Joint Security Area. No pointing, gesturing, communicating with North Koreans in any way, shape, or form. If you have to sneeze or cough, look the other way. Give them zero reasons to do anything, and give them no material for propaganda. An innocent wave or a weird face can be put on a propaganda poster saying “Imperialist pig desperately begs North Korean’s glorious leader to be liberated from his evil Western capitalistic captors.” It sounds insane, but it has happened before. This is also the reason why all the soldiers in the JSA wear blackout sunglasses to completely hide their facial expressions.

We left the briefing room, and went back into the tour bus. Our South Korean guide was replaced by a member of the US Army, Private First Class Lim.

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Our guide for the final part of the trip. Thank you, sir.

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Our new tour guide checking everyone’s passports again.

Before leaving the base, the bus went through a checkpoint, and a heavy gate slowly opened. After that, we passed through an anti-tank blockade; a narrow gate made of reinforced concrete, padded with C4 explosives. We were now on the only road leading to the JSA. As our new tour guide threw the bus through corners at high speed, I realized once more me that the area on both sides of this narrow road was filled with landmines. The bus was escorted by two Humvees, driven by the soldiers who joined us earlier in the briefing room.

From here on out, there were strict rules about photography: only take photos when specifically allowed, and when you do, only take photos facing the North. This is to prevent North Korea from gaining intelligence about the area.

The South Korean soldiers working at the border hold the most prestigious job in the South Korean military. They need to be at least 1.8m (5ft9) tall (taller than the average South Korean), and they all have a black belt in Taekwondo.

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So here we are. The actual border. The sand is the North side, the gravel is the South side.

The icy wind was howling around us, and yet you could almost chew the air. Not a word was spoken. The tension was tangible. It was a very surreal, uncomfortable place to be.

I asked what would happen if any of us would try to walk across the border. We were told that “all these soldiers will try to stop you, because once you’ve made it across that little concrete slab, they will grab you and there’s nothing we can do anymore.”

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The tower on the right side of the picture is a North Korean guard tower. “They’re currently monitoring us and taking video and photos of us.”

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The North Korean soldier at the top of the stairs is looking to the South all day every day. “We don’t know who he is, but we have named him Bob.”

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Inside the negotiation building. Taken from the South side facing North. The door behind this soldier opens to North Korea. His job is to make sure no one goes through it.

20160213-140631-dmzAnother South Korean soldier inside the negotiation building. They were still like wax statues. You couldn’t even see them breathe. Taken from the North side facing the South.

The border from inside the negotiation building. Technically, I  have now been in North Korea.

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The next stop was an observation post in the JSA. We are now looking into North Korea.

The soldiers driving the military escort jeeps following the bus earlier joined the tour group and stood around us. They were constantly scanning the area and were on high alert.

Notice the guard tower right of center. Our guide stressed that we shouldn’t point, gesture, or make sudden moves in that general direction, for our own safety. It’s an odd feeling standing here, surrounded by North Korean land and being watched by North Koreans in their guard towers. The surrounding hills look harmless enough, but they are filled with artillery, bomb shelters, and soldiers. The stillness makes it all the more disturbing. It’s an eerie place to say the least.

We were told to be quick taking photos and we were ushered out of here after a couple of minutes.

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The Bridge of No Return on the right side, and Propaganda Village with the enormous flag pole on the left.

The Bridge of No Return was used for prisoner exchanges at the end of the Korean War in 1953. The name originates from the final ultimatum that was given to prisoners of war brought to the bridge for repatriation: they could either remain in the country of their captivity or cross the bridge to return to their homeland. However, once they chose to cross the bridge, they would never be permitted to return, even if they later changed their minds.

Propaganda village, or Peace Village as the North Koreans call it, is a fake village that is supposed to show the virtues and success of North Korea. It was built in the 1950s to encourage people working close to the border to defect to the North. The reality is, the buildings are empty shells, and the windows and doors are painted on. It used to be lit up at night, but due to crumbling infrastructure, they lost power to the place a couple of years ago. It has one of the tallest flag-poles in the world, carrying one of the biggest flags in the world, the North Korean flag. The flag is so large, that it needs to be taken down when it rains, because it will tear apart under its own weight.

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The monument commemorating the victims of “The Axe Murder Incident” from August 18, 1976.

This monument marks the location of a tree once blocking the view from the South. A work party accompanied by security forces went down to cut it down. They were ambushed by a group of 30 North Koreans and hacked and beaten to death with axes, knives and clubs. The North Korean attack was broken up when a UNC soldier drove his truck into the fight. Two American Army Officers were murdered and, a ROKA officer, three Korean Augmentees to the US Army (KATUSA) and four US enlisted men were wounded.

Three days later, the US and ROK military responded with an incredible show of force that sent the North Korean forces fleeing into the hills. The tree was blown up by engineers surrounded by special forces, while bombers, attack helicopters, gunships and fighter jets thundered through the air.

For further reading on these events, click the boxes below to reveal the stories. It’s an interesting piece of history, and “Operation Paul Bunyan” is one of the coolest true stories I’ve ever read.

The Axe Murder Incident - August 18, 1976

The Axe Murder Incident - August 18, 1976

On Wednesday 18 August 1976 at 1040 hours in the morning, a United Nations Command (UNC) work force of five Korean Service Corps (KSC) personnelLt Barrett Captain Bonifasaccompanied by and UNC security force, including the Joint Security Force (JSF) Commander, Captain (P) Arthur G. Bonifas of Newburgh, New York, First Lieutenant Mark T. Barrett of Columbia, South Carolina, and one Republic of (South) Korean Army (ROKA) officer started to prune a large tree in the vicinity of UNC Check Point #3.

This tree partially obscured the view between UNC Check Point #3 and UNC Check Point #5. In addition the un-pruned tree was also blocking the view of the “Bridge of No Return” from “Freedom House.” Shortly after the KSC work force arrived at the tree and began to cut it back, (North) Korean People’s Army (KPA) personnel appeared at the work site. For a short time, the KPA security force observed the pruning without apparent concern. Suddenly, the KPA security force commander demanded that the JSF commander cease pruning or there would be trouble. Captain Bonifas did not order the operation stopped.

Senior Lieutenant Pak Chul of the KPA, seeing that he was losing control, took off his wristwatch, wrapped it in his handkerchief and put it in his pocket. Another North Korean rolled up his sleeves. Lieutenant Pak then shouted “MI KUN UL CHU KI GI CHA.” Translated, it means, “Kill the U.S. Aggressors.”; the UNC security force was attacked by a superior force of 30 KPA guards wielding pick handles, knives, clubs, and axes. Senior Lieutenant Pak jumped on Captain Bonifas from the back forcing him to the ground where Bonifas was beaten to death. 1LT Barrett was also attacked.

The KPA soldiers used the mattox and axes the tree trimming detail was using prune the tree as weapons. The North Korean attack was broken up when a UNC soldier drove his 2 1/2 ton truck into the fight and over Captain Bonifas to protect him. The UNC Security Force then withdrew but not before two American Army Officers were murdered and, a ROKA officer, three Korean Augmentees to the US Army (KATUSA) and four US enlisted men were wounded.

The UNC’s response to the North Korean attack in the JSA was the planning and execution of “Operation Paul Bunyan.”

Source

The UNC's response: 'Operation Paul Bunyan ' - August 21, 1976

The UNC's response: 'Operation Paul Bunyan ' - August 21, 1976

The UNC’s response to the North Korean attack in the JSA and the ax murders was the planning and execution of “Operation Paul Bunyan”, cutting down the tree.

The primary American combat ground unit in the Republic of Korea is the US Army’s 2nd Infantry (Indianhead) Division (2ID). Elements of the division were normally deployed tactically in camps north of Seoul to the DMZ and in from of the west coast about 40 kilometers. On any given day large elements of the division are in the field training for combat – 18 August 1976 was no exception. Upon notification of the murders at the JSA, all units of the UNC including I Corps (ROK/US) Group, all ROKA units, and the 2ID then under the command of Major General Morris J. Brady, were alerted and told to prepare for action. Some 2ID units were in the field training, and were above the Imjin River and its tributaries.

This proved to be no small obstacle, for about 20 kilometers east of Panmunjom several bridges over the river had been rendered un-crossable due to high water from the previous three days of rain. The only bridge available to get back south for units training in the Santa Barbara Range area was the bridge at “Little Chicago.” By the morning of 19 August 1976 those elements which were required to return to base camps to prepare for combat had done so and were deployed to their war positions to await orders.

Meanwhile, the governments of South Korea, and the United States conferred on all possible courses of action. All of us stationed in Korea at the time knew we could not let the North Koreans have their way, or there would be much more trouble later. Once the decision was made by governments involved, the planning for “Operation Paul Bunyan” began. The US Air Force moved in units from the Continental United States (CONUS), Okinawa, and Guam to Korea; and the US Navy moved the 7th Fleet consisting of the USS Midway carrier battle group to Korean Waters.

All units of the 2ID continued to improve their war fighting capabilities by moving to their war positions or locations designated by the Division Commander to support the operation. Battalion Ammunition Officers throughout the division were ordered to distribute their units “Basic Loads” and prepare for re-supply operations.

From 18 August 1976 through the morning of 21 August 1976 tensions along the DMZ were particularly tense. The North Koreans tried several times to shoot down US military aircraft patrolling just south of the southern boundary of the DMZ. The defensive radar sites were scanning very high amounts of increased activity on the Northern side of the DMZ. Soldiers of the quick reaction force of the 2d Battalion, 9th Infantry (Manchu), 2ID, waited on a helicopter pad just minutes away from the JSA at Camps Kitty Hawk and Liberty Bell.

Meanwhile elements of the 2ID Division Artillery were positioned at firing point 4P1 (North of the Imjin River) and at (South of the Imjin River) Camp Pelhem in Munsan Ni/Songuri; the home of the 2nd Battalion, 17th Field Artillery (DS). In addition, firing batteries from the 1st Battalion, 38th Field Artillery (DS) had also deployed to positions close enough to support Operation Paul Bunyan.

Elsewhere in the 2nd Infantry Division area, tensions were very high. All personnel were preparing for combat, even the biggest duds turned into soldiers. The troops were especially interested in what was happening at Panmunjom while we prepared for war, the mood turned from shock after receiving the news of the murders to “Lets go cut that damn tree down.” If the North Koreans really wanted to make an issue over it – we would be only to happy to oblige them.

On Saturday 21 August 1976, everything was ready. All units who were to participate in “Operation Paul Bunyan” were in position and personnel briefed.” Coordination between ROK military and US military units was well exercised.

At 0645 hours, the UN JSA Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Victor Vierra gave a message to the “Joint Duty Officer” (JDO) to be handed to his KPA (North Korean) counterpart. The message stated that at 0700 hours this day a UNC work force would be entering the “security area” of the JSA and commence to pruning the tree in vicinity of CP3. In addition, the message stated that should there be no interference, the work force would depart the JSA compound.”

At 0700 hours, Task Force Vierra entered the JSA security compound and moved directly to the Poplar tree next to CP3. Along with the work force was approximately 60 ROK Special Forces soldiers forming a ring around the 16 engineer soldiers from the 2nd Engineer Battalion, 2ID, cutting the tree. In addition, Company A, 2nd Battalion, 9th Infantry (Manchu), 2ID moved into position as a quick reaction force to support the Task Force Vierra. Behind the 2/9th was a forward observer from the 1st Battalion, 38th Field Artillery (Steel Behind the Rock), 2ID waiting for orders to fire a massed artillery strike. Behind him were AH-1 “Cobra” gunships orbiting just out of site beyond the ridges, then F-111 Fighter Bombers, and behind and way above them were B-52 Stratofortresse’s.

As the engineers began cutting down the tree there was little to no reaction from the North Koreans. They were totally taken by surprise, and had no clue about what they should do because of the show of force made by the ROKUS forces was so unexpected. It has been said that although the engineers planned to cut down the tree their chain saws failed so instead they blew the tree up to bring it down. Some of the photo’s however clearly show where chain saws have cut the tree, so I’m not sure how accurate these stories are about the chain saws failing.

When the engineers had completed there mission of cutting down (blowing up) the tree, Task Force Vierra, the JSA Security Force and all vehicles departed the JSA compound.

However, “Operation Paul Bunyan” was not over, only the overt part of the operation had been completed. Over the next few weeks the units of the 2nd Infantry Division and UNC Joint Security Force – JSA remained on a high state of alert to counteract any military action taken by the North Koreans.

It has been reported (unconfirmed as of 9 Jul 2012) that Major General Morris J. Brady got shot down while flying his own helicopter taking a hit in the tail rotor drive shaft while over-flying North Korean territory.

Participating Units of “Operation Paul Bunyan”

8th United States Army
I Corps (ROKUS) Group
51st Signal Battalion, I Corps
2nd Infantry Division
Task Force Brady
Armored Task Force – 1st Battalion, 31st Infantry; 1st Battalion, 72nd Armor
2nd Aviation Battalion
52nd Aviation Battalion
1st Battalion, 9th Infantry (Manchu)
2nd Battalion, 9th Infantry (Manchu)
4th Squadron, 7th Cavalry
2nd Battalion, 17th Field Artillery (DS)
1st Battalion, 38th Field Artillery (DS)
6th Battalion, 37th Field Artillery (GS)
Task Force Vierra
JSA Security Force
B Company, 2nd Engineer Battalion
D Company, 44th Engineer Battalion
1st ROK Division Reconnaissance Company
1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry
1st ROK Special Forces Brigade
38th ADA Brigade
Various US Air Force units (F-4s, F-111s, B-52s)
US Navy 7th Fleet & the aircraft carrier USS Midway
2D Discom
S&T BN
2 MED BN (directly supported medevac choppers attached from 498 Air Ambulance Co)

Source

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The end of the tour marked a quick drive by the The bridge of no return. It was last used in 1968.

In closing

If you ever find yourself in Seoul and you’re willing to accept the risks involved, by all means, do not miss this.

It’s one of the strangest, most surreal places on earth one can visit.

As fascinating and adrenaline-inducing this experience was, I was really glad to be out of here. The general mood in the bus on the way back to Seoul reflected that, as everyone was quiet, and visibly relieved.

It’s hard to imagine that an insane place like North Korea exists in this day and age, and it was strange to be so close to it. Anyone who’s done some research about what goes on there will conclude that this country is bad for the world. Besides the constant threats and provocation to surrounding nations, the atrocities that go on inside the country are hard to fathom. Starvation is so bad that people have resorted to cannibalism, and stories and drawings from escaped labor camp prisoners are straight out of horror movies.

The sad thing is, we haven’t heard the last from North Korea, especially now they’ve achieved some level of nuclear capability. The more you read about the situation, the more you realize what a tragic stalemate it is.

Even through North Korea has zero chance of winning an all-out war, it will be a hard, nasty battle to fight. The main reason ROK and US forces can’t just march in there and take over, is the devastating artillery barrage that will be launched directly at Seoul when that happens. That’s some classic cold war-era military strategy right there.

If the regime collapses, there’s the danger of nuclear weapons falling into wrong hands. There’s also the chance of complete anarchy and a civil war, which can lead to all kinds of problems. Even in the unlikely event of a peaceful unification, it will not be easy. The cost of bringing North Korean infrastructure into the 21st century will run into the trillions, and then there’s the issue of 20 million starving, brainwashed North Koreans to deal with.

At this point, I’m not even talking about the complicated mess involving conflicting interests between the superpowers. When a power vacuum emerges after the collapse of the regime, what will China do? What will Russia do?

Allowing the country to stay in existence seems like the lesser of all evils, but the question is, for how long.

Further reading

If you’re interested in all things North Korea, I highly recommend you check out this website. It contains a wealth of information: http://freekorea.us

Good books to read:
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea
Dear Leader: North Korea’s senior propagandist exposes shocking truths behind the regime

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About Dick

Dick is a guy from Rotterdam, The Netherlands. He quit his job when he was 29 years old and traveled the world for over one and a half years. On this website, he posts his travel photos and experiences, and shares his general thoughts.

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