Visiting the DMZ and JSA

IMG_1567When visiting Seoul last October, the top place on my list to visit was the Joint Security Area (JSA) at the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The Panmunjom area of the JSA is where South Korean and North Korean military forces basically stand face-to-face. This is a surreal experience and one I am glad I was able to see.

The only way to visit the JSA is through an authorized tour company. I ended up going with Koridoor Tours since it was recommended by the USO. Koridoor is also only one of a few companies that offers tours to the JSA. Koridoor offered a few DMZ tour options but I went with the only option to the visit JSA (Full-day DMZ/JSA tour).

On the day of the tour all participants were required to arrive to the Koridoor tour office early for identification verification. You have to show your passport (or military ID) for entry into the JSA. Once everyone was verified we all filled up the bus to head to the DMZ.

My tour started with a visit to the JSA. When we arrived to Camp Bonifas are passports were verified by a military escort. The tour was then directed to the JSA Visitor Center for a 20-minute briefing by another military escort. The briefing explained the history between the North and South, plus expected behavior of visitors with a lot of focus on not defecting to North Korea.

Once the briefing was over the tour moved to a military bus for the JSA visit. One thing to be aware of, you are required to leave all purses and bags on the Koridoor bus for the JSA portion of the tour. The bus ride around the JSA was relatively short (about 30 minutes). Even shorter was the time at the Panmunjom (literally around 10 to 15 minutes).

At the Panmunjom you actually are able to enter the famous blue buildings where discussions are held between South Korea and North Korea. Inside the building you are able to cross the Military Demarcation Line where you can stand in North Korea (for about 5 minutes).

The feeling at the Panmunjom is very tense. South Korean soldiers are standing guard watching the North Korean soldiers (and vice-versa). Interestingly there were very few North Koreans soldiers standing guard the day I visited. This was commented on by others on the tour who had previously been to the JSA.

After the JSA tour we were taken back to Camp Bonifas for a short break before heading out on the rest of the tour with Koridoor. Of course there is a gift shop where I bought a JSA t-shirt and North Korean currency. Funny enough, every stop of the tour had a gift shop.

Berlin Wall

Section of the Berlin Wall at the DMZ

From the JSA we then visited the Dorasan Station. Dorasan Station is the most northern train station in South Korea and is less than 1000m from the boundary of the DMZ. The station was opened in hopes of a reconciliation between both North and South Korea. There is hope the station will one day connect both countries, and connect South Korea to railways in Russia (and beyond!).

One compliant I have with this part of the tour is we had to pay an additional 1,000KRW in cash to go out on the platform. As much as that irritated me, it was fascinating to go out onto the platform because you could hear the propaganda music being played from North Korea towards the South. This was crazy to hear!

Next, we moved on to a Korean Restaurant at the DMZ for lunch. Lunch is not included in the tour and for good reason. The food at the restaurant is absolutely disgusting. The lunch I purchased at the DMZ was the worst meal I had in South Korea and literally resembled cafeteria food. Many people recommend online to bring your own food, and I wish I had listened to this suggestion.

After lunch we headed to Dora Observatory. The Dora Observatory is on the South Korean side of the DMZ. If you visit on a clear day you’ll have great views of the DMZ, South Korea, and even parts of North Korea. One thing you can kind of see from the observatory is a North Korean propaganda village, where no one actually lives. It was a little overcast on the day I visited, so you couldn’t make out much of North Korea.

The last place we visited was the DMZ Theater and the Third Infiltration Tunnel. The tunnel was discovered in 1978 and was created by North Korea to surprise attack Seoul. The tunnel was considered an act of aggression from North Korea by the UN and has since been sealed off. Interestingly this is one of four tunnels discovered so far along the DMZ. It is estimated there are up to 20 more hidden tunnels along the border.

To be completely honest, I could have easily skipped this part of the tour. The DMZ Theater played the most American and South Korean propaganda video I have ever seen and heard. It actually was a tad uncomfortable watching this video (and I was not the only person who felt this way). I also ended up skipping the Third Infiltration Tunnel because it is supposed to be very claustrophobic with a steep incline. A few soldiers who were on the tour complained about the tunnel afterwards being a PTSD trigger and being difficult to walk.


Overall the Koridoor tour to the JSA and DMZ was a great experience. There were a few downsides to the tour, but the experience at the JSA is something I will always remember. Visiting the JSA and DMZ was a fascinating experience! I’m so glad I was able to visit here, especially with the current political climate.

Things to Note for visiting the JSA

  1. You need either a Military ID or Passport to go on the tour. Some Passports may be restricted from visiting the JSA.
  2. There is a dress code to the JSA (though it was not fully enforced on my tour).
  3. Currently tours are being restrictedand not visiting the Bridge of No Return and Point of Ax Murder. My tour last October missed these locations.
  4. This is a tour that can’t be booked at the last minute since all visitor information is submitted to the JSA in advance.
  5. Tours can be cancelled without much notice if there is an official meeting or ceremony being held at the JSA. Also, this means there is no refund for missing the JSA.

Life in Tianjin

TianjinA few weeks ago, I finally was able to share some big news about moving to China! Now I want to show you more of where I live.

Some of you may already be familiar with Tianjin, while others may not know much about this Chinese city. Tianjin is a 2nd tier city in China and is basically the maritime gateway to Beijing. The Port of Tianjin is the 10th busiest port in the world and is growing every day. Tianjin is a popular cruise destination due to the close proximity to Beijing and parts of the Great Wall.

From Tianjin there is a bullet train that takes about 30-minutes to Beijing, which costs around $9 USD. There are multiple trains a day and three different stations you can utilize. This makes it super convenient to go to Beijing for a weekend trip. Besides the train to Beijing, Tianjin offers bullet trains around China. I’ll be visiting Chengdu from Tianjin later this year!

Tianjin is home to a few popular tourist destinations including the Tianjin Binhai Library and Tianjin Eye. One place I have visited a few times is Ancient Cultural Street. Even though Cultural Street is touristy, it is fun to look around at the shops and people watch. The street is a replica of Qing Dynasty architecture. I personally prefer shopping here for trinkets versus shopping at Pearl Market or Silk Market in Beijing.

Another interesting part of Tianjin is the Haihe River and various waterways around the city. During the warmer months you will see a lot of locals and tourists walking along the Riverwalk. There are also tours along the Haihe River during the warmer months. During the wintertime the river actually freezes enough for both ice skating and ice fishing (two things I’ll pass on).

I live where I work which is a university campus in the Beichen area. This is convenient since I don’t need to worry about traffic before heading to teach. The only downside is the campus is about a 30 to 40-minute taxi ride from Downtown Tianjin (depending on traffic).

Unfortunately, as we joke on a daily basis the campus is best described as being in BFN. Before I moved to Tianjin I was told the view from my room was a pig farm. Luckily the pig farm disappeared before I got there, along with the smell. Much of Tianjin is still going through a beautification process because of the National Games that were held in Fall 2017.

The one awesome part about living in China (especially for someone from the Seattle area) is the cost of living. For me the cost of living in Tianjin is extremely inexpensive. I probably spend around $6 USD for a 30-minute taxi from where I live to Downtown. An hour taxi ride this last Spring to Ikea cost me about $20. Most meals are costing anywhere from $10 to $15 and this includes alcohol and lots of food. Whenever I go out with my co-workers we typically are ordering 4 to 6 dishes.

I moved to China!

Cultural Street

I know it has been a long time since I posted but there is really a good excuse as to why I’ve neglected my blog. Not only did I move once last year, I moved twice! First was from Miami to Washington State, then followed by my big move to China.

Preparing for moving to China was a huge challenge. The Z-Visa (Work Visa) kept adding additional requirements throughout the few month long process. Every time I turned around there was something new or additional I needed to complete. Obtaining my visa was around a four-month process with the paper work, authenticated documents, and medical exam.

On top of the documentation, the San Francisco Chinese consulate was one of the first in the United States to require a personal appearance and fingerprinting. This required me having to make a short trip to San Francisco just a few weeks before I needed to be in China.

My work ended up leaving most of the visa process to me to figure out. Now I feel like an expert on obtaining Z-visas since I literally learned the ins and outs of the entire process! I’m glad I don’t have to reapply for my visa again since now I have a Chinese residency permit!


So now you are probably wondering where and what I do in China! Currently I’m working as a professor for a university in Tianjin that partners with an American university. And no, I’m not teaching English!!! I’m teaching hospitality courses with most of my focus on beverage and wine.

Besides working, I’ve had some time to explore Tianjin and go out a bit. Besides exploring Tianjin, I luckily had some time to go on vacation during two of the semester vacations. For Golden Week in October I visited South Korea and for Chinese New Year (also known as Spring Festival) in February I visited Japan. I plan on writing about South Korea, Japan, and Tianjin soon!

Most of this last year has been working, which took up a lot of my free time. Now life should be a bit easier since I’ve created most of my classes and lectures.

Traveling (Or Moving) with a Cat! – Cat Friendly Hotels: Part 2

One thing I learned while traveling with my cat, a lot of hotels are not cat friendly. After a long day of driving, nothing would have been worse than pulling up to a hotel and finding out the property wouldn’t accept a cat (or anymore pets for the night). When traveling with a cat some planning is required.

Hotels may limit the number of pets per night or only have specific cat friendly rooms. Even though I would have liked to drive as far as I could each day, this just wasn’t plausible. In the end, I carefully planned my route and booked flexible hotel rooms a few months in advance.

Here is my follow-up post to Traveling (Or Moving) with a Cat! – Be Prepared: Part 1.

Checking out the View in Miami

Finding Cat Friendly Hotels

Personally, I felt the hardest task was finding a hotel that accepted cats. A few times I found an interesting hotel that said it was pet friendly, but then I would discover pet friendly only meant dog friendly. It was easy to come up with dates, but finding hotels was easier said than done.

There are a few pet friendly hotel search engines. I actually used these as jumping off points for further research. Here are a few search sites I utilized:

The best discovery during my research was finding chains that are entirely pet friendly and accept cats. This helped with finding hotels easier and planning out my travels. The hotels ranged from budget to luxury, and even extended stay properties. The following is a list of cat friendly companies:

  • Candlewood Suites
  • Drury Hotels
  • Kimpton Hotels
  • La Quinta Inns and Suites
  • Loews Hotels
  • Staybridge Suites

Before and After You Book

Before I even started making reservations, I called all the hotels I was interested in to double check cats were accepted. Some websites would say pet friendly but ended up only accepting dogs. It’s best to double check by calling hotels directly.

Another step I took was reading reviews. I always check reviews before traveling, but I especially looked closely at reviews regarding pet experiences. A few review sites actually changed my mind on hotels. There was one hotel I had originally planned on staying in Oregon. After reading numerous reviews online I decided against making a reservation. Some of the reviews noted problems at check-in with pets or the hotel no longer had a pet room available. Checking out other pet experiences is a huge help in finalizing plans.

Once I had reservations, I called each property again to add my cat to the reservation. This is extremely important and if you forget, you could be denied a room when checking in. When you do call make sure to ask for the name of the person you spoke to and add this to your travel records (you may need this info when checking in!).

Even with calling, I did encounter a problem when checking in at the La Quinta Ft. Lauderdale. After I booked the hotel I called and confirmed twice about having a cat. Both employees on the phone noted there was no problem bringing a cat to the property and this information was not needed by La Quinta. Looking back, I realized I made a huge mistake by not writing down the name of either desk agent I talked with.

When I checked in, the employee at the front desk made a big deal about having a cat and only one room left for pets. The front desk agent told us this had to be on our reservation and we were lucky the hotel property even had a room that could accept a cat. This was obviously different from what I had previously been told on the phone. At this point, I will say I was irritated since I called the hotel twice about a cat and let the employee know this. Once I had mentioned I had called twice about adding my cat to the reservation, her tone suddenly changed and she backtracked on having only one room left. The outcome of this situation could have been different and I definitely realized the importance of noting the name of employees.

Hotel Policies and Pet Fees

When staying at a hotel with your cat, it is important to know all the pet related policies and pet fees. This can help make your travels a bit more relaxing when you have all the information upfront.

Proof of Vaccinations: Some hotels may require you to show proof of recent vaccinations or the health certificate at check-in. As I discussed in Part 1, make sure to visit your vet before traveling.

Pets in the Lobby: This is a policy that varies from hotel to hotel. Some hotels require pets to be leashed or in a carrier. One hotel I stayed at would not let pets walk through the lobby. Make sure to know where you may be required to enter the building with your pet.

Pets Left Unattended in Hotel Rooms: Most hotels require someone to be in the room at all times. Some hotels may not have this policy or may have a policy stating the pet can be left alone for under an hour.

The Dreaded Suitcase

Pet Fees: When it comes to pet fees, most chains do not have a standard policy. First check the website and next call to confirm. This helps with avoiding anything unexpected. Some hotels have refundable fees, while others are non-refundable. Even in the same chain, I found different pet deposits and cleanings fees.

Some hotels charged $25 a night, while others in the same chain charged $75 a night. Other hotels charged non-refundable cleaning fees of $100. Then I came across one hotel that charged nightly fees and a cleaning fee.  It’s really important to know the fees ahead of time so you can plan accordingly.

La Quinta was one chain that I encountered that did not charge a pet fee at any of the properties I stayed at. Supposedly there are handful of La Quinta properties that do charge a fee, which is why I recommend calling hotels before booking.

In the Hotel Room

If you let your cat out in the room, make sure to know where your cat can hide (under the bed, behind furniture, A/C units). I personally did not let my cat out in the room. A few hotels had some mystery openings under the beds and the bedframes could not be moved. I just wasn’t taking a chance with my cat becoming stuck.

Instead of letting my cat roam the room, I used a Play Pen for my cat. This made cleanup easier and she seemed content hiding in her own space. I discussed the Play Pen in more detail in Part 1.

As noted above, make sure you or someone you are traveling with is in the room at all times. Almost all hotels have a policy stating someone must be in the room when a pet is present. This of course makes it difficult for meals. Often times I had to pack up my cat and find a drive through, or one person would go grab take out. One hotel we could order delivery pizza, which made dinner simple. Check to see if the front desk can recommend any delivery services.

Hiding your Pet

I don’t recommend trying to hide your cat when checking into a hotel. Not only is that on the unethical side, you could get caught and kicked out. Who wants to try and find a new hotel room late in the evening?

Where I stayed

During my drive and move from Miami to Seattle, I stayed at 7 cat friendly hotels. I did end up switching plans twice when I made great time. Luckily two of the properties I selected had 6 PM cancellation on the same day as check-in. I ended up changing hotels and driving quite a bit further both times.

Here are all the hotels I stayed at, plus the 2 properties I was able to cancel last minute:

  • Candlewood Smyrna – As of May 2017, the pet fee is waived for Platinum Elite members of IHG
  • Best Western Gainesville
  • Best Western Ogden
  • Best Western Valdosta
  • Holiday Inn Express St. Louis Riverport
  • La Quinta Cheyenne
  • La Quinta Ft. Lauderdale
  • La Quinta Kansas City (near the airport)
  • La Quinta Kennewick


Have you traveled with your cat before? What are your cat friendly hotel travel tips?