OUR DISLOCATION FROM COMFORTABLE HARBOURSIDE apartment to the chaotic streets of Busan’s port district was a bit like a process of re-birth. First funnelled from our doorstep by foot, bus and train to find our mothership – an A330 Airbus at Kingsford Smith – which, along with a connecting sistership, cocooned us for the next 19 hours, squashed into various foetal positions in crude attempts to sleep and relax. Finally we popped out onto our birthing table – the tarmac of Gimhae International Airport – pink and wrinkled, deaf and mute. No forceps necessary.
Within an hour of being slapped to life we were on a city bus bound for Nampo-Dong, eyes on stalks trying to take everything in as we crawled through a traffic snarl beyond compare. The city crept up the slopes of forested hills and mountains, its arteries clogged in a vehicular heart attack – and this was a Sunday afternoon on a holiday long-weekend!
My optical senses were overloaded as I read, at semi-literate kindergarten level, the signage squiggles that surrounded us; and once we’d launched ourselves from the bus our olfactories were bombarded with the aroma of barbequing squid, very welcoming as we forced our way through the crowds to find the needle in our haystack – the Sam Wong Jong Motel.
Fortunately we had booked a room, which meant that Manny, the proprietor, who’d greedily double-booked us, felt obliged to find us somewhere to stay for the next three nights – a task which would have been insurmountable to us, given the late hour and long-weekend circumstances. And so we ended up across the alleyway at Dong Gung Jung Motel, in a room normally reserved for short-stayers. We just had to wait until 8pm when the landlady cleared the backlog of shagging couples, so we could access a room…
While we waited we explored the neighbourhood, and Manny bundled us into his favourite soup joint for our first taste of Korea. Dwae ji guk bap was a delicious initiation, with the kindly chef showing us how to chop our kimchi as he set down bowls of boiling broth in front of us, seasoned with prawn sauce and chilli paste and flavoured with slices of pork belly. Raw garlic dipped into bean paste set it off and we ate enough of it to set up our immune systems for the next three months of travel…
We also managed a quick squizz in the enormous Jagalchi fish market, which was hopping with night life as well as sea life, before collapsing onto our bed – the electric blanket helping us to recover from the horror of a cold shower.
Realisation of where in the world we were came slowly the next morning, as we woke from deep sleep with the parts of us which were in contact with the bed – ears, shoulders, hips – numb from the hardness of it. There’s nothing like a firm mattress and a rock hard pillow to get one up early in the morning. We were out on the street by 6:30am, shocked by the crispness of the morning air and lack of breakfast activity. A lap of the block offered nothing but shellfish vendors servicing the fish market, so we headed off on our excursion, grateful for the dried persimmons we’d bought the night before.
After finding our way to the metro system, negotiating the ticket machine, and locating the correct platform, we were soon shooting off on our way to Mandeok for our initiation to hiking Korean-style.
Now my recently acquired ability to read the Korean alphabet, albeit slowly, was paying off. We were able to overcome our disorientation at Mandeok station, and headed off with some confidence towards our target. Along the way we stumbled upon the only sign of food we’d seen – a small eatery that set us up for our hike. For 4000 won, a very pleasant ajumma prepared us two huge rolls of jip gimbap filled with omelette, tofu skin, ham, sweet dried fish, cucumber and pickled turnip, finished off with a squirt of oil and a sprinkle of sesame seeds, and served with kimchi, mushroom broth and a delicious herb soup full of things we’d never seen or tasted before…
Our hike was beautiful – from city streets we turned onto a likely-looking track which we followed for thirty minutes through pine forest, the fallen needles soft under our feet and the sound of birdsong in our ears – blue pies, woodpeckers, tits and squirrels chirped and flittered all around us. As we climbed higher the view of the city below looked fantastic, and when we reached Seokbulsa it was like another world.
The ancient grotto behind the temple was a blissful sanctuary. Hidden in a large rock crevice were huge bas relief carvings of the Buddha flanked by guardians and bands of disciples. We were alone with just the sounds of the blue magpies and the breeze blowing through the grotto.
Feeling energised by the atmosphere of the place, we opted to press on, up and over the mountain through forests of pine and azalea to Nam Mun, the southern gate of the old fortress whose walls circled the top of the Geumjeongsan massif. By now there were plenty of hiking parties out on the trails, and by the time we’d reached the cable car station the mountain was filled with day-trippers, all resplendent in the latest hiking gear and accessories. Despite the lure of the easy option, plenty of hardy souls were hiking up the strenuous cable car route, so we ventured down in that direction, admiring the spectacular views of the city now far below us.
By the time we reached the bottom, all jelly-legged, we had enjoyed a great four hour hike. Our instincts led us to a train station and we were back at our Nampo-Dong base in time for lunch.
In the neighbouring Jagalchi Market seafood was on the menu and we were lured by the fresh hway on offer. We headed for the Shindonga dining section and considered the live sea produce swimming in colourful tubs. We opted for an array of delicacies, and for 40,o00 won got a feast like we’d never experienced before. Everything was alive until the moment it was sashimi’d and some of it was still wriggling as it was set down before us, the octopus dressed in onion and sesame had to be wrestled off the plate, and the tentacle suckers stuck to our teeth and tongues in protest before being swallowed. The gigantic oyster was superb, and the sea squirt tasted quite similar but with a robust texture – our lunch looked more like something we would admire on a snorkelling trip than on our meal table. The abalone meat was surprisingly bland and crunchy, but its maw was very tasty, and the beautifully sashimi’d flounder went very well with the wasabi soy sauce. All of this was presented with leaves for wrapping, bean paste for dipping, kimchi, sweet potatoes, boiled peanuts, fresh seaweed and cucumber. In one concession to cooking the bones of the flounder were simmered in a kelp soup to finalise every morsel. It was possibly the most deliciously fresh and healthy meal we had ever eaten. Nothing distracted us from our feast – not the lively soju party at the next table, or the bustling market noise around us, our host dressed in the uniform gumboots and floor-length plastic apron loudly imploring prospective patrons to choose from his selection, while his partner prepared banchan in between brushing her teeth and applying liberal amounts of make-up.
A stroll through some other sections of the market afterwards turned up plenty more interesting exhibits. Shellfish were well-represented with clams, mussels, abalone, bi-valves and sea snails of every description; there were rays, squids, cuttlefish and octopi; eels being skinned alive for immediate consumption and even blubbery piles of whale meat. It was ajummas, middle-aged ladies, in charge of it all – all of the fish mongers were women, no-nonsense types negotiating loudly and dispatching the live creatures unflinchingly.
That afternoon we did nothing more strenuous than sit around in Yongdusan Park – a hilltop green space behind Nampo-Dong where the long-weekending masses played under the ginkgo trees. Even in the afternoon sunshine the air was cold and we retreated to our room for a night in, washing down a tasty hotteok (a kind of doughnut stuffed with cinnamon, sugar, peanuts and sunflower seeds) with some warm soy milk along the way.
The next morning dawned similarly fresh and again we were out on the streets early searching for breakfast. We moved off in the opposite direction towards one of Busans seascapes and found a noodle shop near our designated bus stop. A warming bowl of udon with fish cake and dried seaweed saw us on our way – first on city bus number 7 to Amnan, and then by foot toward Dudo for a birdwatching sortie that was more strenuous than anticipated.
We followed the trail around the cliff face enjoying the view of the coastline and spotting some babblers and Daurian redstarts before circling back and following the suspended pathway on the foreshore to Songdo beach – a pretty stretch of sand backed by high rise tower blocks and a mountain. We were so exhausted by the time we got back to Nampo-Dong that we needed a snooze and a big lunch before contemplating any afternoon activity.
Busan had finally sprung back to life by 1 o’clock. In Gukje market a little restaurant called KunJip provided an excellent set menu – for 11,000 won the jongshik included bulgogi and fried sundried fish with no less than fifteen banchan, local side dishes that filled the table; seaweed soups and salads of unidentifiable leaves and vegetables, served with steamed purple rice and congee.
This day in particular was celebrated as Buddha’s birthday and so we took our afternoon excursion to Samwangsa, a large Buddhist temple across town near Seomyeon. Due to large crowds of worshippers it took a disproportionate amount of time to get there, by train then a bus crammed full of aunties wearing the grey pantaloons which identified them as temple-goers.
Samwangsa sat majestically on a hillside decorated with thousands of lanterns and patronised by thousands more worshippers. There was a festival atmosphere as people payed homage, and searched for their personal lanterns all numbered and carrying the prayers of their benefactors. Ladies were available to write prayer inscriptions and there was a lantern-making workshop on the main terrace. It was a very special day on the Buddhist calendar…
It was quite late when we got back to our hotel and we were surprised to find our room empty, and that our belongings had been moved to another hotel! In our absence we had been relocated to the Sam Wong Jang – the place where we were originally booked into. Needless to say that Manny was pretty sorry for his actions by the time we’d finished with him…
THE FOLLOWING MORNING WE SET off for new horizons, first securing breakfast at the noodle shop from the day before after a stroll through the fish market to check out the early morning activity. Angler fish were the main haul of the day, ugly bottom-dwellers, whether promoted open-mouthed or belly-up with their disembowelled maw on display. Just the thing before breakfast – I opted for the tuna gimbap.
We were on our way by 7:30am – into the metro station and onto the Nopo line with a stop-off along the way for some sight-seeing. At Beomeosa station we left our pack with the friendly chaps in the control room, and following their directions, found our way to a bus to take us to the 1700 year old temple complex on the nearby mountainside.
Beomeosa sat next to a beautiful babbling brook flowing through a ‘sea of rock’ and a wisteria forest. Its old wooden and stone buildings painted intricately and housing national treasures. Novice monks chattered as they disassembled the lanterns from yesterday’s festival, but otherwise the place was hushed. As we left it was prayer time, so tapping and chanting emanated from the halls…
We found our way back to our baggage in the control room at the train station and continued on our way – just one more stop on the metro line to Busan Central Bus Terminal. It was a well-organised bus station and within minutes we were on a bus to our chosen destination, cruising through rural countryside dotted with small farming communities.
GYEONGJU WAS JUST AN HOUR away so we still had the entire afternoon to familiarise ourselves with our new surroundings. By this time my reading skills were beginning to improve, and we were finding our Korean tongues and ears – a few tentative words began sprouting from us and I could understand fragmented pieces of what we heard. No-one was phased when we didn’t understand them, they just persisted politely signing, very effectively if necessary…
We were spoilt for choice of hotels near the bus station – most promising ‘romantic movies’ and ‘fun stay’ with ‘love motel’ flashing in neon. We settled into the more low key Taeyongjang Motel where 30,000 won got us a very comfortable room with all the mod. cons. – flat screen television, our own P.C., a fridge and a hot/cold water dispenser!
We satisfied our hunger at a little shikdang around the corner with a very healthy bowl of bibimbap and mooched around Wolseong and the Tumuli park, a pretty green space filled with tomb mounds of ancient Shilla kings. The Jung-ang market turned up plenty of goodies – we had crispy ya che twigim (Korean tempura), and starved of fresh fruit, we lashed out and bought apples (5000 won for 5 pieces) and strawberries (a large box for 3000 won). The apples were crunchy and delicious, and we gorged ourselves on the strawberries…
That night we were snug in our superior room with soft pillows, and woke the next morning keen for a hiking expedition to Namsam – the holy mountain to the south of the city. Before setting off we found a
very substantial breakfast in an eatery which catered to the local labourers. The dwae ji deopbab (pork and vegetables in chilli sauce) set our mouths ablaze and came with rice, soy sprout soup and ten different banchan – the table was groaning. We left mopping our eyes and breathing fire and garlic, well ready to tackle the mountain.
Finding the bus stop to Samneung was the most difficult part of our day, but after a few enquiries and some well-animated pointing we were eventually on our way, and at our trail head for an 8am start. It was a cloudy day and we even struck a rain shower on our way up through the boulder strewn pine forests, detouring and stopping periodically to admire the ancient Buddhist relics along the way. Rock carvings and statues were variously sat in picturesque clearings or backed by the wonderful views to the river valley below and the mountains beyond.
From the high points of Geumobong and Yongjangsaji where we sat on a sublime terrace next to an eighth century pagoda, we re-charged our lungs with pine-scented air before a steep descent, first perilously down the cliff, then through a bamboo forest to join a stream and complete a four hour loop to Yongjang village.
Catching a bus back was easy, and once in town we jumped off at Seongdong covered market for a look around. Inside was foodie heaven, so we decided that we were sufficiently hungry for lunch. On traditional ondol seating we were served kalguksu (knife-cut noodle soup) and buchu jeon (leek pancake) in the ubiquitous industrial-sized steel bowls – 8500 won well spent.
Later we lazed in the Noseo-ri tumuli park, excited to spot one of our favourite birds – the hoopoe, and had another nose around the city, eventually heading home with some bupyeon, sticky rice flour sweets stuffed with powdered mung beans and sunflower seeds.
We headed back to foodie heaven at the Seongdong market for breakfast the next morning. Answering a chubby-cheeked lady’s “mwo eyo?” with “juk” to get two steaming bowls of porridge – one hobak juk, sticky pumpkin and sweet potato soup, and one pat juk, rice and red bean congee, served with a garlicky gourd kimchi – just the thing to get us on our way.
Across the road from the market we jumped on bus number 11 which took us to Bulguksa, a seventh century temple complex which had been destroyed by centuries of marauding to be rebuilt in the 1700’s. The old wooden structures with porcelain tiles and intricate paintwork sat in perfect harmony with their forested surrounds. In the main hall we sat on smooth timber slabs before the golden Sakyamuni, breathing in the perfume of incense and gazing up at the ornately carved and coloured interior.
In the hills behind Bulguksa we climbed for half an hour through pine and oak forest twittering with shrikes, nuthatches, wagtails and pygmy woodpeckers to reach the grotto of Seokguram, a granite vault housing a beautiful statue of the enlightened Buddha. Unfortunately ugly scaffolding and glass hoardings detracted tremendously from our experience, which was only saved by a monk elder taking his mid-morning prayers at the foot of the holy image…
We re-traced our steps all the way back to Gyeongju, where we diverted to the national museum to gape at the artefacts recovered from the royal tombs around the city. Golden crowns with filigree pendants and jade ornaments were beautifully displayed and a joy to behold.
Next we needed a refuelling pit stop and wandered into the Kuro Ssambap Shikdang along the way. This locally famous restaurant offered a jongshik of Gyeongju specialities, a set menu for 10,000 won per person. Before we’d even had time to remove our shoes to reach our soban the meal had started to arrive and the table was rapidly filling as we settled onto our cushions, confident that we were hungry enough to eat it all – but the plates kept coming and shadows of doubt swept across our minds. The large table ended up completely covered with two dozen different dishes plus rice, soup and a wide selection of leaves like dandelion, sesame leaf and kelp, both steamed and fresh, for wrapping mouth-sized parcels – ssam bap.
Outstanding was the pork bulgogi, soy braised beef and spicy tofu soup which was still bubbling in a clay pot. Each dish was unique in substance and flavour; shredded gourd bathed in alcohol, and raw pickled minnows were two of the more unusual finds. It was a leisurely dining experience as our chopsticks helped us to reach to the far corners of the table so that our taste buds could enjoy new experiences. We almost cleared every plate, only stopping when we just had enough room for the gyeongju bbang (barley pikelets filled with bean paste). We washed it all down with refreshing rice water and staggered home to recover.
WE ACTUALLY DIDN’T RE-EMERGE UNTIL the next morning. Satisfying our dual needs for a morning stroll and breakfast, we grabbed some gimbap at the Seongdong market, pulling up two stools and eating our simple meal at the preparation bench for a bird’s eye view of the art of gimbap rolling. Served with a tasty leaf soup, it was the cheapest meal we’d had (3000 won), and the only one which didn’t come with kimchi!
We wandered off through the market marvelling at the sheer variety of green leaf vegetable matter which was so readily available – Korean food was undoubtedly the healthiest cuisine we had encountered; clean and fresh, varied and wholesome.
After our stroll we went home and packed – this was a travel day, and we headed back to the bus station where we boarded a Kia coach going directly to Tongyeong, climbing aboard with our requisite box of hwangnam bbang (the local speciality of sweet bread filled with red bean paste) to sustain us for the three hour journey.
Our bus headed back to the south then veered southwest, cutting under the mountains via a series of tunnels, and catching glimpses of the sea extending long fingers of water into the landscape.
IT WAS JUST AFTER NOON when we arrived in Tongyeong. Without any useful information about the place, we were reliant on the ajumma at the tourist window to furnish us with a map and advice about our next move. Following her emphatic gestures we hopped onto a waiting city bus which took us to Gangguan, the city’s most picturesque harbour which the downtown area nestled around. But first to find a room – the most difficult aspect of this was rousing attention at any hotel reception desk, and then trying to fathom any sense of understanding to a long and well-meaning explanation to my simple question “bin bang issoyo?”
After some hunting around we came across Songhwa Motel down a random alleyway and we were shown to a room by ‘Johnny’, yawning and rubbing the sleep from his eyes. For the same price it was somewhat more rudimentary than our previous nights accommodation, but it was more than adequate for our needs…
Now we were free to check out the town, and after a quick lunch of the local speciality, chungmu gimbap (parcels of rice and dried seaweed served with spicy turnip kimchi and fiery marinated octopus) we wandered up Nammang-San hill for a view down over Gangguan. It was as pretty as a picture with its fishing boats and turtle ships bobbing around in the sheltered cove.
Inspired, we took a long walk along the waterfront which led along the channel separating the city which sprawled onto the neighbouring island of Mireuk-Do. It was linked by a couple of bridges and an eerie undersea pedestrian tunnel which had been built one hundred years ago by damming and draining the channel.
We wandered back through Seoho breathing in the smell of the sea, as gulls squawked overhead and fishermen repaired their nets. The promenade looked like an aquarium, lined with tanks full of exotic creatures at a never-ending row of seafood restaurants.
We finished off our day with some noodle soup at the Jang-ang market – a dear old lady prepared up two piping hot bowls of pat kalguksu, red bean soup with fat wheat noodles which we watched her make from scratch.
Before it got dark we swung through Dong-Pi Rang, a quarter of the town which had been decorated by local artists. It was very popular on a Saturday night, but the cold air drove us to our ondol heated room as darkness fell and the harbour turned its lights on…
Rather than chase breakfast the next morning, we snacked on the box of mangwae (sweet potato cake puffs) which Johnny had given us, so we got a really early start for our hike to Mireuk-San. We had reconnoitred the bus route the day before so it was a simple matter of hopping on bus number 231, which dropped us off at Yonghwa-Sa at 6:30am – a sure way to beat the Sunday crowds.
From the map board we chose a trail which took us via the Yonghwa temple and the hermitages of Guaneum and Doseol, before climbing to the peak of Miruek-San – a solitary granite outcrop towering 460 metres above the island studded sea. The views were tremendous – the site had been used for over a thousand years as part of the fire beacon system which stretched all the way to Seoul. We had summitted early enough to marvel at our location while it was still serene, but as we began to contemplate our descent the cable car swung into action and the maddening crowds started to engulf the pathways and crags, their near-future intentions indicated by their attire – hi-tech hiking gear, or Sunday best…
Checking the direction posts we opted to hike down the back of the mountain to Mirae-Sa, a centuries old temple in a pretty garden and forest setting. The trickle of hardy hikers turned into a stream as we made our way down. One group was soldiering up with one of their party members on piggy back with her leg in a cast, two other members of the group were using her crutches as walking poles – and lower down we came across the wheelchair abandoned in the forest!
From Mirae-Sa we continued to walk downhill until we met a main road, and followed that until we came to the fishing village of Il-Run. There we came to a bus stop, and waited… and waited…
I had plenty of time to decipher the bus network diagram. However, working out the schedule was a different matter; even the local hikers who filtered in to join us at the bus stop couldn’t figure that out – everybody was waiting expectantly for something which, when it finally turned up, came from the opposite direction – there was disappointment all round…
Eventually a saviour arrived – a number 139 which quickly filled to capacity with Gore-tex and grannies. We sped around the scenic coastline back to the city, jumping off at our stop just after 1:30pm. After such a meagre breakfast we were starving, so we dived straight into the fish restaurant recommended by Johnny for some barbequed catch of the day. The 6000 won saeng son gu-i included two fresh fish, two sun-dried fish, soup, rice and five banchan. We ate every skerrick and were amongst the last diners to vacate the lunch only venue.
We thought we’d go home for a rest, but our host had other ideas and we ended up going for a ride in Johnny’s Samsung car to General Yi park for a history lesson. A statue of the great man overlooked the site of a sea battle which took place in 1592. We strolled back to Gangguan and joined the queue at the best ‘honey cake’ shop in town where 1000 won bought a piping hot dough ball stuffed with red bean paste and soaked in honey toffee with a sprinkling of sesame seeds – ggul bbang. A nice way to finish the day and end our short stay in Tongyeong.
IT RAINED ALL THAT NIGHT and we left the next morning decked out in our rain gear. We began our morning of bus hopping with a city bus back across town to the terminal, where we quickly threw down some gimbap before jumping on an express to Jinju, an hour away to the north. The weather began to clear along the way, and the sun was coming out by the time we changed buses for one going to Hadong – another hour distant. We sped along the Namhae Expressway then struck off to the north when we reached the Seomjin River. In Hadong we changed buses one more time, joining a scrum of grannies boarding the bus to Hwagae with a great commotion. Now we followed the river for the last half hour of our relay, heading to the foot of the Jirisan mountain range through rich agricultural country of persimmon orchards and tea gardens.
HWAGAE WAS A VILLAGE AT the confluence of a smaller river – an old market centre. We climbed off the bus, again without any logistical information, and wandered down the main street looking for hotel signs. We settled on the Gabi Motel – expensive at 40,000 won, but very clean and luxurious by our standards.We picked up a map of the region at the reception desk and set off to explore.
The herb market across the bridge was an obvious starting point – we poked around amongst the oddities, wondering at the assortment of fungi, barks, twigs and dried leaves, flowers, buds and roots. There were jars of honey and pickled plants as well as rustic pottery and plant nurseries. We drank some unidentified tisane as well as a sample of very fine wild green tea, then had lunch in one of the little eateries. Jae cheop guk, marsh clam soup, was the local favourite, so that’s what we had. I enjoyed a large bowl of it with ban chan, Dave had it as a side dish with bibimbap. The tiny clams made the soup delicious, but many lives were lost to satisfy our hunger…
It was just midday, and looking at our map we made a plan to spend the afternoon hiking up the Hwagae valley. It was five kilometres through cherry orchards and tea plantations to the temple at Ssanggye-Sa, an active monastery dating from the eighth century. Along the way we stopped in at the ‘tea cultural centre’ to learn about the local brew. Hadong cha was a very small scale wild tea production, with the plucking only taking place for two months of the year, and the tea named and graded by the period in which it was plucked – we were there during the choong jak harvest. We were treated to a pot of semi-fermented yellow tea by the kind young lady who manned the museum – we whiled away an hour learning how to brew, pour and savour this rare variation of a common beverage.
Re-invigorated by the tea we continued past Ssanggye-Sa into the Jirisan National Park for a pleasant two hour detour to Buril Pokpo, a waterfall high in the foothills. It was a stiff climb through bamboo and maple forest, and the signs warning us about what to do in case of bear attack kept us moving at a solid pace. We passed few other hikers at that time of day, and it was well past 6 o’clock when we finally completed our 15 kilometre marathon – time to tuck ourselves into our toasty warm ondol quarters for the night.
WE WOKE THE NEXT MORNING still undecided about our next destination. All was quiet in Hwagae when we stepped out, taking a stroll around town we barely saw another soul. We studied the timetable at the bus stand then hatched a plan – there was a bus to Gurye in ten minutes so we hastily threw our things together and bought two tickets, chatting with a delightfully multilingual Mr. Kim as we did so. He was going to Seoul, and our chariot took us further up the Seomjin valley with dozens of smelly grannies, all with short perms and pant suits de rigueur.
In Gurye we made a smooth transition to a Suncheon bus which took us back down through the hills for a scenic 45 minutes to the big smoke.
SUNCHEON WAS A PLEASANT CITY and we opted to base ourselves there for the night. A quick scout around saw us at the unattended reception desk of Hub Motel where we took the courageous step of phoning the number on the desk. Two one-way conversations ensued, but we achieved the desired result – the manager turned up from her interrupted shopping trip and we checked into a bright and comfortable room for 30,000 won – just 10,000 won more than the ‘short stay’ rate.
By now it was 9:30am and breakfast was our next priority – two big steel basins of bibimbap were just what we needed. With some piquant little condiments of kimchi, spicy dried anchovies and savoury soy bean sprouts, our bodies were up and running again – refuelled and ready for our next escapade.
We went back to the bus station and put ourselves on an express bound for Yeosu, a city on the tip of the deeply indented peninsula to the south. There we managed to find a city bus (‘shiti bosu’) to take us to the town centre where we checked out Jinnamgwan, the largest wooden pavilion in the country, got another history lesson on the legendary General Yi, and information on which bus stop to attend for our onward journey. We continued via a bridge from the mainland to the island of Dolsan-Do, a mountainous extremity which took almost an hour to traverse.
Finally alighting in the beautiful seaside village of Hyangiram we ran a gauntlet of ajummas selling kimchi to reach the gates of the spectacularly located hermitage there. Up a steep flight of stairs and through several rock crevice passageways, Hyangiram perched on a cliff face above the sea. We climbed a precarious trail above the hermitage to reach Geumobong – a rock crag with breathtaking views of Dadohae Haesang National Park – along the coast, to the hinterland, and out to sea.
On our way back to the bus stop we allowed ourselves to be accosted by the previously mentioned ajummas, sampling their special gat kimchi made from bitter mustard greens (which was genuinely delicious) and even a bowl of dongdongju, a local rice wine also surprisingly delicious…
We retraced our steps, with a few variations on different bus numbers, back to Suncheon, well satisfied with our excursion. It was 4:30pm by the time we got home – quite late for lunch, so we were pretty hungry as we sniffed out the simple restaurants near the goods markets. The sundae guk bap was strongly recommended by one friendly proprietor so we gave it a go, diving in to the bubbling hot soup with gusto. The blood sausage was the real deal with genuine intestine casings. Also in our cauldrons were tender pieces of pork meat, heart, liver, lung and intestine – it was not just edible but delicious, served with a whole tray of ban chan and rice – all for only 6000 won. We finished it off with baekseolgi (white snow rice cake) on the way home.
We were grateful for the rice cake leftovers the next morning – all the eateries were lifeless when we set off early for a birdwatching outing to Suncheon Bay. A city bus with a lady driver took us there in just twenty minutes, so luckily it wasn’t a big investment in time, because it began raining soon after we arrived and we had to abort our plan due to the persistent inclemency. It was a pity – as we sat in a shelter by the eco-centre listening to the sound of hundreds of oriental reed warblers singing from the beautiful marshland, it had promised to be very worthwhile…
We went home and packed, enjoyed some chamchi gimbap (tuna sushi) for breakfast at the same place we had breakfasted the day before, and headed for the bus terminal.
THERE WAS A KUMHO COACH travelling westward at 9:30am so we rode on that for 30 kilometres to Boseong as the rain continued to fall. Boseong didn’t really appeal, so on the spur of the moment we hopped on a waiting town bus to Hwaycheong, down by the sea. We passed lovely tea growing country along the way before the driver set us down at a random junction in the rain. We were still travelling ‘off-piste’ – arriving with no information about the place which we had landed in.
We marched off aimlessly to find the waterfront and several minbak operations – being semi-literate was very helpful in these situations. We tried a few and settled on Bichi Minbak, where we were shown to a room by a woman wearing gumboots and a floor length rubber apron. For 30,000 won it was quite basic, but one entire wall of the large room was a picture window which looked out over Yulpo beach, just what we needed for whiling away a rainy day.
It was really so wet that we couldn’t venture any further than necessity required, so we wrote the day off as a rest day and watched the rain fall on the beach which was only patronised by flocks of sandpipers and wimbrels making use of the full moon tide. The highlight of our afternoon was lunch at one of the nearby pork restaurants. The local pigs were fattened on fresh tea leaves, though our foreign palates couldn’t really pick up on that nuance. We just enjoyed the tasty mok sal neck chops, cooked with fat mushrooms and onion on a barbeque built into our table. A thoughtfully provided pair of dressmaking scissors was useful for cutting the chops into bite sized pieces before wrapping with shredded shallots and chilli paste in lettuce and perilla leaves to make conversation-stopping mouthfuls.
In the evening the tide chased the waders back up onto the sand and the weather cleared enough to permit a stroll to the stone pier at the other end of the beach. Cockle collectors also retreated from the mud flats and the lights from towns across the bay became vaguely visible through the sea mist.
Yulpo was lifeless the next morning – it wasn’t until 9 o’clock that any breakfast was available. Hollow legged we walked along the beach just waiting out the hours until we could eat. Seen as it had been so good the day before we returned to the Ddeurak Shikdang to get the day underway. The doenjang jjigae at 7000 won per head was exceptional – it came to the table bubbling madly in a clay pot with chunks of tofu, melon and cockles in the soy paste flavoured soup. With our rice came numerous side dishes carefully prepared – quail eggs with green chilli, dried fish, crispy fried seaweed and pickled fresh tea leaves, just to name a few.
The clouds were lifting and the sun was shining as we stepped out of the shikdang and wandered over to the bus stop across the street. Our reason for stopping over in the Boseong region was to visit the tea gardens in the nearby hills, and eventually a bus came along to take us to the Daehan Dawon plantation.
It was around 11am when we arrived – perfect timing for an iced green tea latte before a hike around the plantation. A network of trails led us through the verdant tea bushes, plucked to look impossibly beautiful, like fat green caterpillars curving around the hillsides. And the shelter belt of forests – maple, yew trees, bamboo groves and tall cedar which made the air smell fresh and alive. Photo opportunities abounded and the place was busy with leisure seekers – less of the hi-tech hiking set and more of the super-sized sun-visor type, frolicking in a politely restrained Korean way…
We gravitated to the cafeteria for lunch. Looking out across the tea gardens we tried out the jajang myeon, the thick green noodles flavoured with green tea and served with black bean sauce, and bibimbap with rice cooked in matcha powder.
We walked part of the way home along Nok Cha Ro admiring the views of the neighbouring estates which rolled down toward the sea, until a bus came along saving us from the fear of being crushed against the roadside guardrails by the passing traffic. When we got home Yulpo beach had been transformed by the weather. The mud flats were dotted with cockle collectors and the clear skies meant that we could see the rugged peninsula across the bay.
I was so well caffeinated that I barely slept a wink that night, my problem compounded by the incandescent street lamps shining through our window for which our thin fabric blinds were no match.
BEATING THE BREAKFAST HUNGER PANGS, we departed early the next morning, yawning as our bus wound its way back up to Boseong. In the town we found a small eatery, the only one which was open, run by a friendly old couple. When travelling one should never anticipate what (or when) the next meal may be – its always better to remain open to any possibilities. At that early hour kimchi jjigae was the only item available, but it turned out to be a really good breakfast. In our claypots we found pork, tofu, and of course, kimchi, stewed to a thick perfection and accompanied by rice and seven varied ban chan dishes. We almost couldn’t eat it all!
A stroll around town while we waited for our onward connection revealed that Boseong was populated by very friendly folk. In the market a lady making injeolmi, sticky rice cakes flavoured with crushed tea leaves, sent us on our way with cans of tea and a bag of her freshly made confection. They were all gone by the time our bus to Mokpo left at 9am following the more scenic by-ways on its one and a half hour journey westward.
MOKPO WAS A FAIRLY USER-FRIENDLY city. Once we had roused the woman in the information booth from a deep slumber we got a map and found a bus to take us into town, and then a 25,000 won room in a hotel which seemed to be called U-Mi Jang, just near the train station. We spent the afternoon getting to know Mokpo, normally an anonymous port city, but at that present featuring in news items around the world as the base of recovery operations for the terrible Sewol ferry disaster.
We wandered down to the docks and checked out the seafood markets, but the local speciality here didn’t appeal – stingray sashimi carefully prepared over some weeks so that ammonia from the urine in the skin of the animal fermented into its flesh. It was big business, with one entire market devoted to it. We had dumplings for lunch, tasty kimchi mandu dipped into soy sauce with green onions. An energy booster to help us climb Yudal-San, the craggy granite hill in the city’s downtown which offered us panoramic views over the city, its ports, and offshore islands. It was another really nice day and it felt as though the weather was turning a corner with the spring chill beginning to ease off.
We planned a big hike for the next day. Wolcholsan, Korea’s smallest national park, was striking distance away, so we headed off as early as possible. A city bus took us on its first run of the day to the bus terminal, where we hastily found some breakfast gimbap before catching the first bus to Yeong-am at 7am. We arrived there at 8am to find the next bus on to Cheonghwang-Sa wasn’t for another hour, so we did the unthinkable and took a cab for the last 4 kilometres to our trailhead – the driver could never have imagined what an elite group of people he had just joined!
The national park rose impressively as a single granite massif above the surrounding plains. We hiked up and over it, following a trail for 12 kilometres to the other side of Wolcholsan. It was a sublime hiking experience, only made possible by the network of steel stairways and, at one point, a 50 metre long suspension bridge which spanned a gorge to join two thin ridgeways. We summited Cheonghwang-Bong at 809 metres after two hours of spectacular climbing to enjoy the panorama of Wolcholsan falling away down rugged granite capped ridges to the surrounding fields and towns. We shared the pleasure of our location with five other souls, all of us eyeing off the trail ahead, visible to the distance as it snaked down the western ridge…
It soon became busy with hikers, not all of them as fit as their apparel suggested, in fact the most athletic was a man of about fifty who passed us on the summit. He was wearing shorts and a singlet and carried nothing – not even water. Extraordinarily we passed him further on as he was making his way back for a return journey!
The final stage down to Dogapsa was positively choked with people, mostly couples or even lone hikers, but also large groups who frustratingly refused to give side. No matter how congested the way became, Korean hikers were always ready with a friendly “annyeong haseyo”, greeting us and each other tirelessly as though we were all bonded by a common love of nature.
It was plain sailing from Dogapsa, we wandered across the temple grounds, and then to a road for the final 3 kilometres to Gurim where we easily picked up a bus back to Mokpo. It was past 3 o’clock when we stumbled back to the Jung-ang market, the scene of yesterdays mandu lunch. We headed straight to the pork hocks we’d spotted the day before, ordering two clay pots of guk bap from the friendly couple in the eatery with the best display. After our six hours of hiking exploits we must have looked famished – not only did we get our pots filled with potato noodles, mushrooms and pork, but amongst our ban chan was a bonus pork terrine and a freshly made pajeon. We could really taste the love in this meal.
WE HIT THE ROAD AGAIN the following day on the 8:30am express bus to Gwangju. After attracting the attentions of the ubiquitous English-speaking lunatic at the Mokpo-Yok bus stop, and a camera crew whilst buying our bus tickets, we left Mokpo behind.
Zipping along the expressway we watched rural Korea pass by our window until it suddenly morphed into the metropolis of Gwangju. Arriving there was like landing at an uber-organised airport, but at lightening speed. We were back on our way within minutes, safety belts fastened in the front seats, on the next leg to Namwon.
The distant mountains of Jirisan filled more and more of the front windows as we sped closer to them, arriving in Namwon at the exact minute of the schedule.
We got our bearings with the help of a fairly vague tourist map, did some provisioning in case we were again entering a land without breakfast, and waited at a likely-looking bus stop for something going our way. The passing bus drivers were most helpful – one even leaping from his seat to write on Dave’s hand the bus number that we should take – 114. Soon we were on our way again, this time up into the mountains, our GPS telling us that we had climbed to 460 metres when we reached Unbong.
FLYING BLIND WE LOOKED FOR a room, unsure of how far we were from where we wanted to be. A lap of town revealed nothing and it was painfully difficult to attract any attention at the few minbak we found. We ended up in a 30,000 won ondol room above a busy restaurant called Gabeul Shikdang, with elderly staff much more intent on peddling their special kimchi to the patrons than glancing in our direction, or answering our questions about a room. Once we put our bag down we lunched elsewhere.
We hadn’t tried japchae yet, so we gave it a go when we saw it on the menu board of a little eatery in the deserted main street. After prolonged sounds of chopping and frying from the kitchen, the lady chef came to our table labouring under the weight of what she had prepared, setting it down with a knowing smile of our impending enjoyment. The potato noodles fried with vegetables, squid and pork, served with fried rice and various side dishes was the best version of this Chinese namesake we’d ever tasted from there to Indonesia. Hands down.
Next we set off on a reconnaissance mission to find the trail head for the following days activity. Just twenty minutes walk from the ghost town of Unbong we found utter pandemonium; a frenzy of hiker chaos. Hundreds of buses, thousands of people all clad in the standard poly-tech uniform, poles flailing in a mass of Sunday afternoon exodus from the national park. We were going against the tide – just the two of us seemingly walking to our doom when the heaving masses hastened in the other direction. Fearing injury, we retreated, past the veritable circus of vendors selling everything from tree roots to whole spit-roasted pigs. We had found the path.
Looking for a more peaceful way to spend the afternoon, we then found the Dullebogo Way which ran around the base of the Jirisan mountains. Thirty minutes in the opposite direction and we were resting in a grove of hornbeam trees, sitting in the shade beneath the cool rustle of the leaves, listening to the sounds of cuckoos and orioles.
Sleeping on the floor, Korean ondol-style felt a bit like camping out, but with a hot shower, fridge and television. Anyway, it was no less comfortable than a hard bed and we woke well rested for the day ahead. We didn’t have to rely on anyone else to get our day underway – we breakfasted on the goodies that we’d bought the day before; bananas and sul bbang (spongy steamed bread), and simply walked to the trail head. Able to set our own agenda, we set off at 5am, dawn was just breaking and the moon shone overhead. The swarming masses had miraculously evaporated and we were two lone figures walking past the tarpaulined stalls, the only reminder of yesterdays mayhem.
The trail to Baraebong climbed steadily and relentlessly, royal azalea blooms lining the path the higher we went. From the region of the peak we could see entire hillsides cloaked in pink. Most of the shrubs were perhaps a week past their prime, but it still looked very pretty, and large bees with black and yellow stripes buzzed everywhere.
Checking the mountain profile board we identified our target for the day – the distant Segeol-San at 1200 metres sitting majestically along the spine of peaks to the southwest. The ridge line was dusted with shades of magenta and although it was a fairly demanding route the swathes of flowers softened it somehow, the harshness of the undulating track periodically sprinkled with freshly fallen petals. Considering that an estimated 10,000 people had engulfed this beauty spot the day before, there was amazingly little rubbish – the hiking club tags being the only real evidence…
We reached Segeol-San after four and a half hours, having passed only two other groups of hikers and were able to enjoy the fabulous views of the entire Jirisan mountain range in solitary splendour for an hour or so. The mountains disappeared to the horizon in ever paler shades of blue to the apex of Cheonwangbong and beyond.
The sun was high for our return, but our altitude kept the air cool and pleasant. We met progressively more hikers as we neared Baraebong; large groups picnicking amongst the floral shrubbery and stragglers still labouring up the mountain looking desperately upward.
We arrived back in Unbong at 2:30pm looking for a lunch venue. Our rice crackers and dried squid snacks had sustained us well but we were ready for something more substantial after our nine and a half hours of exertions. The noodle dish, guk su hit the spot. In the eatery next door the previous day’s, the chatty chef prepared us two big bowls of chilled noodles with a very spicy dressing and soy sprout soup. Satisfied, we then hobbled home to clean off the dirt and relax. From the landing outside our room we could look knowingly at the mountains above us – with our binoculars we could pick out the trails and peaks we now knew intimately, and even see the pink flushes of royal azalea.
We slept well that night, drifting off to the sound of frogs croaking in the adjacent padi field and waking to the rooster crowing.
IT WAS AN OVERCAST MORNING when we took the bus back down to Namwon. We grabbed some quick gimbap (only 1200 won here!), then caught a bus going to Jeonju, wondering at our luck as rain began to sprinkle as we motored out of Namwon. It poured down as we headed north along a road hemmed in by forested hills, the driver talking quietly on his phone for the entire one hour journey.
We had some trouble getting our bearings in Jeonju. Outside the bus terminal we got on the correct city bus, number 79, but in the wrong direction. We were still struggling with traffic driving on the right side of the road! So we ended up having a long city tour before finally being set down near the ‘hanok maeul’ area of town. Accommodation options were limited – we found a few unattended and expensive guesthouses before stumbling across the Gyongwongjang ‘love motel’ in a nameless alley. After ducking under the car-shielding streamers, installed to ensure complete discretion, and establishing that we wanted a room for sleeping in overnight, rather than for a quick shag, we settled into a very romantic room with a full-length mirror alongside the bed, a red light above the door, and two porn channels on the wide-screen television…
We settled in then headed off, umbrellas raised defiantly, to figure out exactly where we were and check out the old ‘maeul’ quarter of town. It was a bit like walking through a film set – traditional hanok buildings, cobbled streets, five hundred year old ginkgo trees. We found our way to Omokdae, a pavilion on a hill overlooking the maeul where we could sit on the polished wood floor watching the rain fall as jays and redstarts flittered around in the dripping trees.
For lunch we found the Jongro Hwayguan, which specialised in the dish Jeonju was famous for – bibimbap. At 10,000 won this was the mother of all bibimbaps, the one that all others would be judged against. Our brass bowls had twenty ingredients arranged on top of our rice and hand-made sauce, and there were ten side dishes to go with it – the star being a simple serving of lettuce leaves with a creamy dressing made of fresh strawberries.
We easily whiled away the afternoon mooching around the streets and alleyways, poking around in the shops and resting in the old Confucian school. Eventually the rain eased, then dried up, and we finished the day with a plate of twigim – the stuffed tempura chillies were particularly good.
Dave woke with a fright to his own reflection. It was still early so we revised our plan and decided to walk the three kilometres to the bus terminal to begin our days outing, thus maximising our chances to have breakfast, and minimising the risk of missing the 6:40am bus to Daedun-San. We were there in plenty of time to catch the bus and we were lucky to find some take-away gimbap to throw down the hatch before it pulled out of platform 10 – we were the only passengers.
As we drove north the morning fog thickened, and after an hour we were looking up through it at each passing mountain wondering which one was ours. Daedun-San was impressive when it came into view at the bus stop, momentarily free of cloud.
Our trail began at the cable-car station, mercifully lifeless at that time of day. There was no sign of any other punters, and except for one lone hiker we summited the peak of Macheondae at 878 metres in wonderful solitude. The actual climb, which took an hour and a half was quite exhilarating. We first scurried up a steep gully to a rock pinnacle which supported one end of a fifty metre long suspension bridge. The mesh decking enhanced the view of the gully far below which we had ascended earlier. But the best was yet to come – above the spire of rock which the other end of the bridge was attached to, we could see through the mist a narrow steel stairway joining two ethereal-looking crags. The long red cable-suspended stairway sat perilously over a chasm and as the swirling cloud thickened it seemingly led to heaven. The scenery was beautiful, with gnarled pines clinging to rocky crags it was like a classic Chinese watercolour painting.
But at the summit the cloud was thick, and although we gave it an hour of waiting time we could see nothing below us but the white drifts blowing gently upwards…
It took only an hour to descend back to the earthly realm. A trickle of hikers were puffing and grunting their way up, but perhaps the clouds had kept the numbers down. Signs warning that the bridge could only hold two hundred people and the stair sixty at any one time evoked an alarming image; and a tumble down any of the rock-stacked steps, would have sent hikers falling like skittles. Also worrying was the presence of a dongdongju vendor, set up with tables just below the summit – that perhaps explained the inclusion of “the drunken” on the list of people forbidden from climbing the Samseon stair.
With an hour to wait for a return bus we decided to take an early lunch at one of the many shikdang below the cable-car station. The dolsot bibimbap was made with mountain vegetables, all sorts of strange shoots and leaves, and a nice doenjang bubbling as satisfyingly as our bibimbap was sizzling.
So we returned to Jeonju well fed and fit only for an afternoon of relaxing around the maeul. That included reclining in the Omokdae pavilion with like-minded snoozers, and snack-tracking around the streets – kkwaebaegi, cinnamon pretzels from a hanok shop; bungeobbang, goldfish-shaped bread with red bean from the Nambu market; and mandu from a street cart at Pungnam Gate before heading home via an amble through the trendy Gaeksa district.
Transport connections weren’t so smooth the next day. Again we had to walk to the bus terminal, the same ajumma at the Hanshik Boonshik made our breakfast, and we were on a bus to Jinan at 7 o’clock. There we had to wait for a bus to a pot-luck destination which turned out to be the northern end of the Maisan Provincial Park.
The twin peaks which were the showpiece of the park rose from the hills like a pair of horse ears – thus the name Maisan.
We walked up a forested path to the saddle between the ears, but found to our disappointment that the usually scalable female ear was closed for track maintenance. Over the saddle we continued on to two temples – Unsu-Sa which was very picturesque with its several hundred year old pear tree in the courtyard; and Tapsa which was decorated with spires of cairns stacked up by a mystic a century ago.
We found an alternative trail to return by, something a little more taxing and off the beaten track. We enjoyed some nice vistas of the surrounding hill country, and even startled a deer along the way…
Jinan was a nice little town, so we lingered there on the return trip. We bought some tasty rice cakes with ginkgo nuts and sunflower seeds, then walked to a pavilion which we saw on a hillock. As we were beginning to notice everywhere, this town was in the grip of election fever and the campaigners were out in force, bowing deeply to the passing traffic in neat rows of party faithful.
A bus took us back to Jeonju in time for a late lunch. We thought we’d try another of Jeonju’s local specialities, kongnamul, a simple dish of soybean sprouts jazzed up in a stone pot with purple rice and side dishes – the waiter even helped us to assemble it correctly. Thereafter followed our routine afternoon mooch around town. On a sunny day, people-watching was a good activity – there were lots of honeymooning couples, easily identified by their identical dress; groups of ladies carrying parasols; fashionistas dressed Gangnam-style; and small children yet to grasp the Korean social policy of never staring at foreigners. We bought a moju ice cream, made from rice wine flavoured with cinnamon and ginseng, and sat watching the parade.
That evening on television we tuned into the Korean equivalent of Maeve O’meara on a quest to find the best guksu on Jejudo. Our own inspired quest the next morning was a failure, and we ended up having kongnamul again – this time at the only lively eatery in the Nambu market. Patrons sat in a row along the kitchen bench, chef being careful not to splatter us with garlic. The gentleman next to Dave was so particular that he brought his own seaweed laver, and the guy next to me slurped, grunted and smacked his lips with such gusto that his enjoyment was infectious.
With our bags packed we took the erratic bus number 79 back to the bus terminal and dubiously caught a bus to Yuseong, after having our request for “Gongju” denied at the ticket window. We couldn’t find Yuseong on our map, but the bus seemed to be heading north, so we crossed our fingers and hoped that my “Gongju” didn’t sound like “Chongju”,”Gwangju”, or “Chungju”.
It wasn’t a very direct route, but we seamlessly changed buses in Yuseong and were in Gongju by 10:30am.
THE BUS TERMINAL WAS CLOSE to the city centre so we just walked across the bridge spanning the Geumgang River into town. Downtown Gongju was manageably compact. We took a room at the Geumseong Jang, welcomed by a toddler waving to us at the front door and a very friendly lady host.
Keen to check out our locale we headed straight out to explore, first stumbling across the local bus stand (handy for tomorrows excursion) and then the Sanseong market, which was the best we’d seen since Gyeongju. Maybe it was seasonal, but Korea wasn’t well endowed with fruits, and it had been days since we had consumed any, so we were pleased to find Gongju’s market fruitful and we returned home laden with bags of apples, bananas and Korean melons, chamway, a small striped canary yellow melon, sweet like a honeydew – we bought eight for 3000 won.
We dined on a crispy dolsot sanchae bibimbap then spent the afternoon recreating in the Gongsanseong fortress which enclosed the hill which the city was hidden behind. After breaching the west gate we followed the stone ramparts through the forest learning about its Joseon history along the way. At the Yeongeum-Sa we took a prolonged rest by the river under an ancient ginkgo tree. Pheasants foraged in the surrounding forest and we enjoyed our fruits with the bottle of moju we’d souvenired from Jeonju. The low alcohol liquor promised to be beneficial to our well-being. Maybe it was more to do with our convivial environment, but we were feeling quite uplifted by our respite.
The next morning we embarked on an expedition to Gyeryongsan National Park, putting our plan into action early with breakfast at an all-nighter. At 6am the other patrons were rowdily smoking and drinking soju, and we ordered the only item available from an extensive menu board – deung bbyeo hae jang guk. A quick google search revealed that we were getting a hangover cure. When it came to the table we understood why the waiter double-checked that we wanted two servings – we each got a furiously bubbling clay pot full of thick broth and piled high with meaty hunks of pork spine. Ploughing in we dipped our condiments in wasabi as instructed and fortified our soup with steaming rice – the best meals are often unexpected.
Now well-placed for climbing a mountain, we smugly boarded the 6:40am bus to Gapsa at the local bus stand. We drove through heavy fog to reach the trailhead, arriving at Gapsa unable to see, or therefore size-up our climbing objective. The trail started off rising gently past the Gapsa temple complex and up the adjacent valley, then gradually got steeper until it became a physical endurance test. We were soaked with sweat by the time we reached Yeoncheon-bong at 760 metres, having broken the cobwebs which indicated that we were the first to use that route for the day. It was very peaceful climbing, quiet and still except for the birds, and we were lucky enough to spot a pair of mandarin ducks along the way.
Looking down from Yeoncheon-bong we were astounded by how high we had climbed. The cloud had cleared to a haze and we could now see the range of peaks we had yet to scale. We undulated our way across to Gwaneum-Bong at 816 metres, and from there looked incredulously at the trail ahead – it clung to the tip of the jagged spine of peaks to Sambul-bong. Stairs plummeted down the exposed rock faces to climb again at the next crag, and twisted pines struggled for purchase on the smooth granite. There were plenty of hikers out by then and the pathways were dotted with drips of perspiration, big splashes as everyone sweated under layers of Goretex, gloves and rucksacks filled with full course meals to be set out at strategic view points. The rugged beauty juxtaposed to the human activity made it an even more amazing spectacle.
We completed a four and a half hour loop back to Gapsa, then able to see up to the lofty heights of Gyeryongsan, and our GPS revealed our starting altitude to be just 150 metres, so the breakfast jang guk had really worked wonders.
We bused back to Gongju, and jumped off at the market looking for lunch. Attracted by a menu board with ‘국수’ on it, we were bundled upstairs by an old lady to a cosy ondol room. We randomly chose the bibim guksu and were presented with enough fuel to climb another mountain. Two big basins of noodles dressed with spice, cucumber slivers and sesame seeds accompanied by a soup chilled with crushed ice, and ban chan which included dotorimuk, acorn jelly.
Unable to resist the rice cake shop, we then bought some injeolmi, the local speciality, and headed back to the fortress for the afternoon. We didn’t go far past the west gate where a changing of the guard ceremony took place every hour. I nearly got run through with a sword, but it was an otherwise restful way to spend the afternoon.
The next day was a lazy Sunday, so we tried to stretch out the morning as much as possible. We didn’t venture out for breakfast until 7:30am, but still we had to hunt around to find an achim eatery. In the market we found a noodle joint and leisured over two big bowls of mandu guk, big fat dumplings in an egg drop and vegetable soup garnished with care and attention – five star cuisine for 5000 won.
It was 10 o’clock when we walked back over the bridge to the bus terminal and stepped straight onto a bus to Cheongju with barely a break in our stride. At least we took a circuitous route, sticking to the back roads and passing through the new city of Sejong, still like a shell under construction. In Cheongju we bought onward tickets to Songnisan, already clued up about the odd spelling of this destination, thus avoiding confusion and a chicken dance with our map. The one and a half hour ride was very scenic, meandering with streams through the hills. The towns along the way were very quiet, with everyone out on their Sunday excursions, and when we reached Songnisan we found them there as anticipated…
THE CAR PARK WAS FULL of buses when we pulled in at 2pm and the hiking fraternity were already filtering back from their exertions. We easily found a room – even doing some negotiating over the room rate at the Hanguk-Jang hotel. None of the weekending crowds stayed overnight, they just bused in for the day or had a quick shag, so the street which we found the hotels in was whisper quiet. When we ventured back out for lunch, the restaurant street, by contrast, was all go! With hiking poles stowed in rucksacks and Goretex unzipped, everyone was enjoying a meal and unwinding with some soju.
We slipped into the shikdang with the best aromas emanating and studied the menu board – this was a very slow procedure, so chef made a recommendation and we sat. The restaurant had been taken over by a large hiking party; there was a pulsing disco and karaoke going on in the back room where hiking boots were piled up in front of the not-very-soundproof door, and the overflow crowd made merry with a big pot of maekgoli and bottles of soju in between devouring the remains of something delicious at a table top stove. For us this was no romantic dinner for two. But the entertainment faded into the background when our meal arrived. First came the ban chan – ten dishes including quail eggs with pork, eggplant, sweet and spicy anchovies, garlic shoots with prawns, and fern shoots. Then a stove was set up and a jjigae placed between us. It was filled to the brim with all kinds of mushrooms – fresh shitake, paengi (enoki clusters), king oysters, baby oysters and fresh woodear. Slivers of pork, vegetables and tofu added colour and flavour to the assembled masterpiece which took a few minutes to bubble to life. Needless to say it was absolutely delicious. With the odds stacked against us, we did manage to eat it all – including the morsels being added to our spread by members of the hiking party from their cooler boxes of home cooking. When we finally sat back to wipe the kimchi from our lips, chef came to ask if it was delicious with genuine care and pride. Our splash out was 30,000 won well spent.
It had been raining on and off since we left since we left Cheongju, so we were feeling a little pessimistic about our ambitious plans for the following days hike in Songnisan National Park. Nevertheless, we found a trail map, planned a route, checked provisions and park opening times, all as a steady stream of soggy hikers made their way back to the bus park past vendors selling all kinds of edible souvenir treats – plump sweet dried persimmons, local mushrooms, berries and twigs. Satisfied with our findings we arrived home dripping under a single umbrella, to be met with a towel by our attentive ajumma host.
It rained heavily through the night, but by 6am conditions had improved so we set off anyway. Our next obstacle was nourishment – the doors of the ‘CU” (“open 24 hours”) were firmly chained shut, so we had to do several laps of the village to find a grocer to sell us something to suffice as breakfast. We climbed a mountain on rice crackers, red bean cakes and three boiled eggs.
From 350 metres we ascended Munjangdae (1054 metres) in around two hours after lingering in the Beopju-Sa temple to give the weather a chance to clear. The temple buildings were beautiful, rebuilt since the 553AD Silla originals in the 1600’s, and featuring a six metre tall Buddha statue plated with 80 kilograms of gold.
The peak of Munjangdae was a collection of megalithic granite boulders. Wind and cloud roared around us as we stood alone on the exposed bald rock which sat like a wart on the mountaintop. Through the swirls of cloud we could see the nearby ridges, but not the entire range, and we walked off through the clouds as we continued on past the peak of Birobong. Here we were supposedly at the geographical centre of the country. The rain which fell there the previous night would have ended up in either the Sea of Japan or the East China Sea depending on which side of the peak it fell upon. Remarkably it wasn’t until we were well into our descent did we meet any other hikers – after five hours on the trail the only other people we’d seen were a few monks on the road between the temples. The skies cleared as we teetered our way back down the path less travelled to join a stream which babbled over waterfalls, pokpo’s, into crystal clear pools.
It was 2:30pm when we collapsed into the first shikdang on the road into the village. The sky was clear and blue, and we could now see the mountains we had climbed as we devoured a jjigae and a haemul pajeon alfresco on a shady ondol bench. Even the removal of Dave’s hiking shoes didn’t detract from the excellence of the pajeon, fried crispy with leeks and squid. We sat for quite a while allowing our meal to re-energise us and enjoying the comfortable pine forested setting.
The next day dawned crisp and clear. We were on the move again, catching the first bus back to Cheongju to link with transport to our next destination. Luckily there was time to wolf down some gimbap before the 9 o’clock service to Danyang, three and a half hours away to the northeast. It was a long ride with regular stop-offs along the way. We revived ourselves with a ‘nok cha latte’ in Jecheong, so we were firing again when we finally reached our destination.
THE DAY HAD WARMED UP nicely when we alighted in Danyang, and although the riverfront promenade looked like a construction zone, the mountain setting of the town was beautiful. We wandered for a while looking for suitable lodgings, settling on the waterfront Prince Motel after extended negotiations over the room rate with our hotelier Mirim. We got a nice room for 33,000 won per night.
The next priority was lunch, and just a few doors down the street we found a restaurant offering olgaengi guk, river snail soup – one of the local specialities. A quick google search revealed that there was no schistosomiasis in Korea so we plunged in. The little spiral shaped gastropods were a lurid copper green on top of the bubbling spinach soup, looking almost too pretty to eat. They had a firm texture and lent a delicate flavour to the soup. Other diners had all chosen the same popular dish, and in her spare time chef sat amongst us skillfully unwinding snails from their shells whilst watching a Korean soap opera on the wide screen television above our heads.
There was still time for an afternoon excursion, so we went back to the bus terminal and jumped on one of the hourly buses to Guinsa. A thirty minute ride through the hills took us to a monastery complex unlike any of the others we’d seen. Tucked snugly into a narrow gully, the temple buildings stacked themselves up the slope nestled into the surrounding forest. This temple, which revered Sangwol Wongak, the founder of this particular sect, was equally dedicated to him, along with the Buddha, and his golden statue was one of the focal points for the many pilgrims. We also met many elderly ladies on the stiff twenty minute climb up to his hilltop burial mound, a serene place of quiet prayer and reflection. The complex was large with several prayer halls humming with the sound of devotional chanting; and hundreds of gigantic kimchi pots were stored around the dining hall. There were very few tourists at this holy place and we were welcomed warmly by the devotees. Deeming Nirvana to be beyond our reach, we returned to the real world on the penultimate bus of the day back to Danyang.
We easily found breakfast the next morning at an early morning gimbap joint on the main street, ahead of an expedition to the nearby Sobaeksan National Park. A bus took us ten minutes to the park entrance at Darian, from where we set off for Birobong, the highest peak in the Sobaeksan range. From a starting altitude of 350 metres we climbed to a fatiguing 1439 metres in seven kilometres to reach the summit. On top, above the treeline it was like an alpine pastureland with grasses, dwarf pines, yew trees, and flowering royal azalea shrubs. In every direction as far as the eye could see, mountains disappeared in layers to the horizon, and although we saw few hikers on the way up, a steady stream passed by the summit as we sat and rested for an hour or so. No-one but us even glanced up at the fighter jets buzzing overhead…
We had by now concluded that we two were the prime age for this activity in Korea. Most hiking enthusiasts were between forty and sixty years old – some were younger, but not really with their hearts in it like their older compatriots.
The gradients were good for a quick descent and we completed our five and a half hours on the mountain just in time for the 1pm bus service back to Danyang for a leisurely afternoon of rest and recovery. A mooch through the somnolent market turned up some good eating – first a plate of maeul daneul sundae, a mound of delicious blood and intestine sausage with a simple salt dip and a spicy red sauce. We circled around a bit before coming to rest again at a noodle shop, this time trying out kong guksu, buckwheat noodles in a chilled soup made of pureed soy beans. With its garnish of sesame seed and mung bean powder it was deliciously nutty – like nothing else I’d ever tasted. The hands of a master had made this soup.
We spent the remainder of the afternoon trying to gather information about our plans for the next few days – but we gave up after receiving conflicting information from the two tourist offices.
So, flying blind the following morning, we optimistically fuelled up at the reliable gimbap joint, then surveyed several bus stops around town, getting some help from a nice lady going to Guinsa, and a bus driver. A local bus took us half an hour away to a back door of Woraksan National Park, dropping us off at the Jebibong trail head with the driver pointing us in the right direction. This was a very different hike to that of the previous day. The rough track ran straight up the side of the mountain with out any preliminary warm-up. There were great views almost straight away, and our route was visible in the distance dramatically climbing up a sheer ridge via a series of steel stairways – as usual making the inaccessible accessible.
As we climbed higher through the gnarled pine and oak forest we could see down to the Namhan River winding through the deep gorges of Chungju. Once out of the sun on the rock face, we entered the cool of the forest for the second half of the climb, reaching the peak of Jebibong after just over an hour. It was a lovely, peaceful spot with butterflies, tits and bees flitting around us, and the view way below.
Getting back down was a bit of a scramble in parts, but our three hour round trip was most enjoyable, and we only met one small group of hikers as we neared the bottom.
Getting a return bus from the roadside was quicker and easier than we expected, and we were back in Danyang for an early lunch. We returned to the noodle venue of the day before and, feeling adventurous, randomly chose two items from the menu board. Dweiji kkeop degi turned out to be an appetising plate of pork skin dressed with a spicy sauce – a good taste, but a bit rubbery, and I avoided the nipples. Sate jjigae was a giant cauldron of pork and tofu in a flaming hot pot which came with rice and side dishes. Fortunately we had ordered a ‘small’ one, so we did manage to get through it all.
We elected to make another trip to Darian in the afternoon, getting off the bus in Cheondong to check out the limestone cave there. Although the very deep and squeezy cave was obviously a popular local attraction, we were fairly underwhelmed by our twenty minute self-guided tour – and even more underwhelmed at having to wait two hours for a return bus.
Even though we stalled until almost 8 o’clock before heading out the next morning, we still couldn’t find any eatery opened for breakfast except our friendly stalwart. We filled up on guksu, which on this occasion presented itself as a hot noodle soup, then we went for a walk along the riverside promenade. It was pleasant in the morning cool and we strolled for several kilometres, partway through a tunnel of pink rose bushes.
WE HAD PUT SOME THOUGHT into which route we should take to our next destination, Gangneung, but had come up with no information to help us decide. In the end we followed an interesting-looking train line on our map to a dot labelled ‘Yeongju’, and headed for there. It was an easy one hour bus ride away from Danyang to Yeongju, and a little more effort to zero in on the aforementioned dot – the train station. We walked quite far in the direction of the train line until we finally found some hotels…and the train station.
Ddeu Ran Motel was a simple affair with a friendly manager and a 30,000 won ondol room which suited us fine for the night. We picked up our train tickets for the following morning at the station office, then fell into a mandu shop for a plate of life-saving kimchi dumplings. All of a sudden summer had arrived, and it was sweltering walking around the shadeless city on our afternoon of exploration. We could only amuse ourselves buying melons in the covered market for so long, so we lingered over a meal in a restaurant attached to a butchers shop. We had to rouse the lady chef from a deep slumber to prepare us a couple of bowls of yuk hoe bibimbap, happy to wait while she conducted extensive slicing, chopping and slivering to produce a work of shredded vegetable art topped with a mound of lean and tender raw beef marinated in garlic and sesame, and finished off with a raw egg yolk. The ban chan included a selection of carefully prepared vegetables, seasoned lotus root, walnuts and pumpkin seeds with black sesame, and a scrumptious but unidentified chewy fish shaving. Chef was wide awake by the time she set this feast down in front of us, and was so keen to please she was almost constantly in attendance , her eager face nose to nose with mine questioning “mashissoyo?”. She even gave us a second helping of the seasoned beef to finish off our meal. We were much better placed for mooching once we emerged from there, the shadows had lengthened sufficiently to offer some shade, and we wandered in and out of the air-conditioned stores. Far from needing the ondol that night, we slept with the window opened and the fan on.
Our only prospective challenge the next morning was finding a good breakfast ahead of our journey, but that turned out to be quite easy. A small eatery around the corner from our hotel which catered to the fluoro-clad labour force provided a hearty cheong guk jang, a bubbling hot pot of pungent fermented soy beans served with ban chan including spicy fresh mackerel and a wheat gluten dish – all for 12,000 won. We left with the labourers – they to their truck, us to the train station for our 8:40am departure.
Our Korail locomotive arrived right on time en route from Daegu. We disrupted a soju and ‘chicken hof’ party to take our seats, the tipsy elderly participants practising responsible service of alcohol as we pulled out of Yeongju to roll through the rice fields of Gyeongsangbuk-Do. The countryside was beautiful, the rail line cutting through bucolic scenes of rural simplicity, unmanufactured hanok villages backed by the Taebak Mountains. The ‘chicken hof’ set had all flaked out by the time we reached Bonghwa, and were sleeping open-mouthed as we enjoyed the train ride. The wriggly rail lines on our map turned out to be scenic meanderings through mountain valleys with periodic halts to set down hikers, and the pine-clad slopes looked very appealing.
All the twists and turns eventually woke our fellow passengers and the soju began flowing again, the tipplers remaining quiet and orderly, the guard not the slightest bit bothered by the goings on. After the Taebak junction we entered a 16 kilometre long tunnel which included a spiral to take us down from the mountains, and within half an hour we had reached the sea at the port of Donghae. North of here the tracks were laid almost on the sand at the back of the beaches, protected by rolls of barbed wire from the dastardly North Koreans. Looking from the window it felt more like being on a boat than a train! Perfect timing for another ‘chicken hof’ and a tipple before we reached Gangneung.
WE HAD ARRANGED TO DO some ‘Couchsurfing’ in Gangneung so we were met at the station by our obliging host Youngmi – so began a very busy afternoon.
First to a dubu restaurant for lunch where a spicy hotpot was the centrepiece to a large array of ban chan. Youngmi was an English teacher who spoke our language fluently so this was a good chance to try to identify some of the strange things we had been eating! One of Youngmi’s students Seung Yeon also joined us and together we then drove out to the beach to burn off some of those dubu kilojoules.
Gangmun Beach was just beautiful on that sunny afternoon – the water was clear and blue, the sea breeze was cool, and the sand was backed by a pine forest with a walking trail which we followed for several kilometres. Although rolls of razor wire and unmanned pillboxes were a strange addition to the scene of seaside weekend activity…
Next we drove to Youngmi’s brothers house and from there walked to the river where Gangneung’s premier festival ‘Danoje’ was in full swing. It was all happening – we watched traditional dance, high school k-pop, and a parade led by shamans with representations of the mountain god, and followed by all the dance troupes taking part in the month-long festival. There was colour and noise and enthusiastic audiences everywhere. The crowds were amazingly well-behaved; no littering, no jostling, and extremely honest – bags and valuables could be left unattended to reserve seats without any second glance.
It wasn’t until after 10:30pm that we actually arrived at Youngmi’s house on a small farm plot in the southwestern outskirts of the city. The bed was very welcome by the time we got to it, and we slept late the next morning, exhausted from the sudden heat. We met Youngmi’s 82 year old mother whom she lived with, and an aunt and uncle who farmed the adjoining plot. So began another busy day.
First we got a lift with Youngmi back to the city – she went to church and we went back to the Dano festival grounds for more music, dance and noise. We saw shaman priestesses performing ritual cleansings with fire, song and lots of heavy percussion; and folk dancing troupes performing with even louder drums and gongs wearing giant pompom hats or twirling long ribbons from the tops of their heads.
At around 2 o’clock Youngmi came to rescue us from the sweltering heat. It had reached 35 degrees in the festival arenas and we were melting. We met Pan, a fellow ‘Couchsurfer’ from Shanghai and drove to a shikdang in the suburbs to recover. This particular restaurant specialised in an acorn jongshik, and the dishes presented to us ranged from a simple jelly to an acorn pancake, acorn dough in a delicious soup, and a very elaborate acorn noodle dish – a wonderful meal to share.
Youngmi’s life ran at a very hectic pace and the rest of the afternoon was a whirl of social activities. We raced off to the bus station to collect Alex, a Swiss ‘Couchsurfer”, who we offloaded to another host over a patbingsu in a coffee lounge. Then it was back to the train station to scoop up another ‘Couchsurfer’, Nicole, a Chinese American, who would join our group for the night. We drove back to brothers house in the city and spent the evening together at the festival – this time to the sanctuary of the theatre to watch a performance by a Mongolian troupe.
Everyone was pretty tired so it wasn’t such a late night, by 10 o’clock Dave and I were ready to crash, while Youngmi, Pan and Nicole were set up for the night on a yo spread out on the living room floor.
We took charge the next morning, disturbing the sleeping mass on the floor at an appropriate hour and preparing breakfast to ensure the timely departure of our assembly. Old Mum looked really happy to see the back of us as we all piled into Youngmi’s little Kia to motor off through the rice fields back to the city. We dropped Pan off at the bus terminal so she could continue her journey to Seoul, then to Youngmi’s school for a meet and greet, then to the ferry terminal in Anmok. Youngmi had to get back to work, Nicole intended to spend the day at the beach, while Dave and I had a ferry to catch at 9:30am.
At the boarding office we organised our return tickets easily thanks to Youngmi’s phone reservation and climbed aboard the Sea Star for the three hour voyage to Ulleung-Do, an island out in the Sea of Japan. Everyone paid close attention to the safety video which included a graphic image of the Sewol on its side just before it sank – worst case scenario. A cool change had come through and the sea was very calm, but with poor visibility as we sailed into a heavy mist.
WHEN ULLEUNG-DO APPEARED IT LOOMED large out of the sea, the extinct volcano rose sheer and inhospitable out of the deep blue waters. Unfortunately our ferry didn’t dock in Dodong, but at the next harbour, Jeodong, a rather inconvenient five minute bus ride away – once we found the bus stop in the tangle of alleyways and then waited half an hour for a bus to show up. Anyway, by 1:30pm we had found ourselves a room at Sonchang Motel in Dodong harbour and were sitting in a neighbouring shikdang waiting impatiently for our lunch of ttagaebi bap to come to the table. We were pretty hungry after our seafaring and for 15,000 won we expected that it would be good, and chef didn’t disappoint. With our various seaweed and crispy anchovy ban chan came a delicious barnacle risotto topped with flaky kelp laver. Squid shot around the barnacles in the fish tanks by the front door while we ate, and although it was a case of quality over quantity, that meant that we could comfortably set off on an afternoon of active exploration.
The harbour front was exotically picturesque, like we had really landed in the remote faraway place that we had. The crystal clear water was the blue of the deep sea, and as we walked around the rock cliffs formed from molten lava, we could look down into it to see the bounty of the island – sea cucumbers, urchins, star fish and kelp gardens clung to the rocky sea floor. The way was indented with caves full of the impossibly blue water, bridges and tunnels linking the path lapped by the sea. Hugh black-tailed gulls squawked from the cliff faces, the rugged tufa allowing mosses and pine trees to add lush green to the amazing scenery. We walked as far as a lighthouse from where we could see the harbour of Jeodong, where we had arrived, then returned to reconnoitre for the following day.
We got our bearings in Dodong, the village really crammed into a pirates cove watched over by jagged cliffs and accessed by narrow streets and alleyways strung together up the slope. Way up in the forest behind the village we found the yuksu gwang jang, a mineral spring where we drank from a gargoyle trickling water from the core of the earth, fizzy and sparkling with the rich taste of minerals.
We were keen to set off early on a hike the next morning so we had scrounged an assortment of odds and ends to make a passable breakfast. Sesame crackers, sweet fried red bean bread and soy milk got us on our way before 6am on a track above the village to the islands highest peak, Seongin-bong. It wasn’t long before it started to rain, but we had reached the forest so we were able to wait and decide at a rest stop under tree cover with a wonderful view looking down to Dodong pressed into its little cove. The rain eased and we continued on, in the forest the track was dry because the rain couldn’t penetrate the thick canopy of hemlock and beech, and we hiked unhindered all the way to the summit at 984 metres. The way was lush with a carpet of ferns and sanchae, the sought after mountain greens; and woodpeckers hammered out our climbing tempo.
The views from the summit were mostly obscured by vegetation but we could see the jagged peaks of the ancient caldera and we descended into it rapidly on long flights of rickety wooden stairs. On the way down we quenched our thirst at a mountain spring, passed a pair of primeval Korean beech trees hollowed by the ravages of time, and stopped to enjoy an eye-popping view of the Nari basin which was scooped out way below us – the floor of the crater and the only flat land in the island. Clouds rolled in from the sea over the lowest point of the old volcano wall, evaporating magically into wisps.
Once the trail had dropped to the pumice floor of the basin, the forest still remained our rain umbrella and we rested again at a spring, this one with a foot spa fashioned attractively for hikers to utilise. It was unimaginably pleasant to sit, chatting with an amicable trio from Seoul, with our feet dangling in icy cold spring water. Our blood vessels recoiled at the shock and our feet shrunk in horror and pain, but the beauty of our location overwhelmed all else, and we walked off on very invigorated feet.
When we finally emerged from the forest at Naribunji the first thing we saw was a bus stop with a service due in just twenty minutes… So we completed our six hour hike in the rain, miraculously without getting wet!
The bus ride back to Dodong via the northwestern coast of the island was very scenic. The road was an engineering feat, perched on rocky beaches, tunnelled through old lava flows and corkscrewing up and down the mountainsides.
We were back in Dodong for a late lunch, prowling the side alleys for something good. The menu board of a small shikdang caught my eye and we decided to try the ojingo bulgogi. A husband and wife team disturbed from their own lunch sprang into action – she to the kitchen chopping, and he to the harbour to get a fresh squid. It came to us in a wok, marinated with a spicy sauce, onions, leeks and chillies ready for the flame in our table to cook it to our liking. Amongst the usual ban chan of dried fish and quails eggs we found some of the mountain vegetables we’d seen on our hike – leaves dressed in liquids and pastes which made us understand their popularity. In a show of great timing a raspberry delivery man arrived as we were mopping up the last of the chilli sauce – so we got mountain raspberries as well!
Plans for an afternoon activity dissolved as the weather turned cold and gusty, and we retreated from a harbourside bench to the shelter of our room grateful to have been able to make the most of our day.
We had a much later start the next morning. We had determined that we couldn’t repeat the dreadful breakfast of the previous day, and having to catch a bus anyway, we waited for some eateries to open for business. Dave got some rather expensive gimbap (3000 won!) and an upset stomach forced me to fast ahead of catching the 8 o’clock bus service as far as Taeha.
After rain through the night the weather was vastly improved as we followed the same coastal route which had brought us back the day before. Disconcertingly our driver had a rip-roaring argument on the phone as we were negotiating a precipitous seaside stretch just after the first corkscrew, precursing some erratic driving and mobile phone abuse. Alarm was registered as he turned the bus around twice and his phone rolled around in the aisle where he’d thrown it. But he stopped and recomposed himself, and we continued without further threat to our well-being – at least as far as Taeha where we got out…
The small village looked as though it could be sealed like a submarine when weather conditions determined it necessary, and it was still sleepy at as we wandered through looking for a path to the lighthouse. It didn’t look like a place that tourists would come to, but we found a funicular railway line and a path snaking up beneath it which we followed to our target of the morning.
The path was lined with chrysanthemum bushes, raspberries and sanchae plants; further on we passed through a camellia forest and emerged at Taeha lighthouse. A viewing platform perched two hundred metres above the sea afforded a spectacular view of the island’s northern face plunging into the aquamarine depths. Gulls perched on ledges amongst the weather worn juniper trees on the nearby cliffs, and way below a fishing boat pumped air to a diver bubbling beneath the surface. We took in the scene for some time before the peace was disturbed by the first hiking party of the day and we returned to the bus stop for a ride back to Dodong.
It was noon as our bus navigated the tangled main artery of Dodong, and thinking about lunch, we made a bee-line for the beautifully located shikdang that we’d noticed on the coastal path.
Tucked into a cove next to a sea cave, a shack sat beneath forested cliffs with a few shady tables and wet suits hanging out to dry. Freshly caught seafood was the only thing on the menu, and for us the 40,000 won modum hway, seafood platter, was the obvious choice. From the tanks and tubs a selection was gathered for our midday repast. Live sea urchin, conical shellfish, sea cucumber, oyster, sea squirt and squid. The squid put up a good fight as he was singled out and chased around the tank with a net. Within seconds he was sashimied, rinsed in sea water and laid out on a bed of fresh kelp with the other deftly sliced creatures, the oyster sat to one side in its shell, so large that it had to be cut into four pieces. Within moments of us ordering it, the plate was set down in front of us with a charming identification of each item from the waiter – in Korean, of course. The only distraction from the raw flavours of the seafood was some sliced garlic, a dip of soy/wasabi, and chilli sauce for the kelp. After the oyster, the sea urchin was the star of this show, the sweet roe dissolved in our mouths, both the taste and the texture a sensation; while a touch of wasabi really enhanced the loveliness of the tender squid. Water lapped at the rocks in front of us and we sat for a few hours afterwards identifying a blue rock thrush and watching the trickle of passing walkers and the occasional boat. It was a lunch experience to be remembered, especially when the waiter uncannily sparked up a conversation with us in Chinese as we prepared to depart! He was a ‘wai guo ren” too, and very happy to be living in Korea.
Our light lunch was conducive to some afternoon activity, so we trotted back up to the mineral spring to look for the track to the Dokto Observatory on the cliffs above Dodong. The path was unmarked and well hidden, but we found it and spent two hours climbing and enjoying the birds eye views from the crags.
In the evening we sat by the harbour watching the grandly illuminated squid boats out at sea, while scores of discerning diners devoured seafood on the waterfront, washed down with a soju or two.
The weather had turned foul the next morning – the day of our departure. With conditions forecast to deteriorate we set off early for a wild walk around the coast pathway, this time all the way to Jeodong. Rain was very light, but the wind blew and a choppy swell had waves crashing onto the rocks. From the lighthouse the path descended a long spiral staircase to a series of bridges that led to Jeodong – the harbour for the islands squid fishing fleet. The boats had all returned from their hunting waters and the live catch were swimming in tubs on board and being sold along the waterfront. We wandered around town for a while deciding what to have for breakfast, settling on some dwaeji guk bap while we analysed the weather conditions. The ajumma chef found something about our request for this dish hilarious – and her explanation between guffaws fell on deaf ears, but its always good to have a laugh, even if you don’t know what your laughing about. The guk bap was only okay, but we did get to try some freshly prepared deodeok root, and our leftovers provoked another comical outburst – maybe she could read fortunes in kimchi scrapings…
We decided to press on toward Bongrae Pokpo, but after an energetic half hour walk we found the adjacent car park so crammed with tour buses that the waterfall lost its appeal and we made a quick exit on the local bus which came along right on cue to return us to Dodong.
It all worked out pretty well because shortly after we returned we received a message from Youngmi that the ferry would be leaving three hours early due to the heavy swell. So we packed up and headed straight back to Jeodong for our departure from Ulleung-Do.
We secured our passage at the ferry office and sat watching the squid boats bob around in the harbour while we waited to set sail. A couple of steamed red bean buns, jjinbbang sufficed for lunch after our late and substantial breakfast, and I was graduated to ‘primary school’ reading level for noticing the ‘찐빵’ which led us to them without a break in stride!
We were all aboard by 2pm and the swell hit us before we’d even cleared the mouth of the sea wall. There were gasps of surprise as we were buffeted by the waves and came about in the wrong direction to circle the calmer northern side of the island. The adverse conditions really worked in our favour – not only did we score an early departure, but we also got a bonus cruise along the north-eastern coast. The island brooded beneath a menacing bank of cloud, a dramatic last impression as we then turned our back to the swell and rode it back to Gangneung.
THE NEXT TWO HOURS AFTER we docked in Anmok were an exercise in sheer frustration. We left the ferry and walked until we found a bus stop – about a kilometre. The first passing bus waved us aboard to our question “bosu terminal?”. The other passenger who boarded was also going there, so we followed him, getting down at a random stop in the city, waiting half an hour, then taking another bus on to the terminal – a good place to look for a hotel, we thought. Youngmi had another full house, and we felt that we had had our share of her hospitality, so the hunt for suitable lodging began, and now we understood why her couch was in such high demand. This turned out, in fact, to be a poor hunting ground for hotels, and we found nothing but a few overpriced ‘love motels’ whose rates for the upcoming long weekend were prohibitive.
We moved on, walking with eyes on stalks, across town back toward the train station. We found many more hotels near the yok, and although still expensive, a little more competitive – the ones we could find attended, anyway. Finally, after literally hours of searching, we settled ourselves for three nights at the Krown-Jang Yeogwan with friendly management and a hard negotiated rate of 120,000 won for our stay period. Remarkably, when we went out later in the evening for supplies and a reconnoitre we found that the nearest bus stop was the exact same one that we had waited at earlier for our transfer – it was just two hundred metres away!
So it was that stop which we stood at again at 5 o’clock the next morning waiting for the first bus to Sogeumgang in Odaesan National Park, just a one hour city bus ride away in the mountains. Our shopping sortie the previous night had uncovered a reasonable breakfast – we hadn’t even sighted a piece of fruit in the past four days so we pounced on a hand of bananas and got some funny little triangles of gimbap from the ‘GS25’ to get us on our way.
An early start was essential because we expected the holiday weekend crowds would render the hiking trails impassable by the afternoon, and we would be defenceless to protect ourselves without hiking poles.
At Sogeumgang the trail head looked like a sleeping tiger when we passed through at 6:30am, there was as yet no activity around the tents in the camping ground, and the many eateries and soju bars were still lifeless. We didn’t want to scale any peaks on this hike, we were just there to enjoy the beauty of the river Sogeumgang, so we consulted the map board and made Nagyeong Pokpo our nominal destination – an easy five hour return trip.
The river gorge was enchantingly beautiful for its entire length. Sogeumgang cascaded down through the rocky waterway in a continual series of waterfalls, pools and sluices, carving its way out of the mountains. It ran a dark tanin colour to begin with, and as we followed it higher toward its source, it cleared to the colour of tea, then green tea, and eventually crystal. At our feet were mosses, lichens and ferns, and the path was a rust-coloured sponge of oak and maple leaves from the trees which shaded us as the sun got higher. Birds sang, the air was filled with white butterflies, and cute green striated frogs hopped everywhere around the high water ponds.
We saw very few hikers on our way up – in fact there were only five of us and we fell into step together, our party led by a very amicable Mr Kim and two quiet young ladies who loved the squirrels we met along the way.
Uncharacteristically, Dave was violently ill as we neared our turn around point – so he was still looking a bit green as we bade goodbye to Mr Kim and headed back down the gorge. Slowly, slowly with long rest stops in Edenesque locations…
A trickle of hikers became a steady stream, and then a flood of family groups as we neared the ranger station. It was a great place to spread out a picnic on the shady boulders and we even benefited from some over-catering. Our five hour hike ended up taking eight, and it was great despite the emetic episode. As to what caused it we could only hypothesise, much like the comical gukbap episode, and the phone-throwing bus driver incident – we’ll never know.
Anyway, we’d no sooner arrived back in Gangneung on the 303, when we got a call from Youngmi. She had just deposited the last of her current ‘Couchsurfers’ and invited us to spend the afternoon with her and some friends – in the mountains!
We barely had time to drop our bag at home and we were off again, to a weekender in Jinbu. When we arrived our hosts, Simon and Hanjisu were cooking a barbeque on the lawn of their retreat under a 350 year old pine tree. A home-cooked Korean barbeque. We’d barely eaten all day, I was starving, Dave made a miraculous recovery… There was organic pork and chicken bulgogi, ssam bap, bean sauce and kimchi. Fresh seafood gimbap cones topped with fish roe, dak jok (rice soup with chicken), pajeon, and fruits, sweet cherry tomatoes, Korean melon and watermelon. There was a huge amount of food for the modest number of guests, but it was also consumed somehow and leftovers were not tolerated – morsels of pork bulgogi were fed directly into everyone’s mouth with tongs to clear the last plate!
Some of the other guests included four Mormon ‘elders’ – this was the first time we’d ever been obliged to socialise with any of these chaps and it was as titillating as one might expect (“I’m from Utah”). There were some things I was curious to ask – but I thought I ought to know them better before directing questions about their somewhat limited wardrobes, and why they wore name badges to intimate social events. They on their part, however, didn’t hold back on the naive kangaroo and spider queries. We still had a nice time, and our hosts were warm and generous people who welcomed us two strangers with their hearts.
It was getting late when we got back to Gangneung, and after our 4:30am start to the day we were only fit for sleeping, and we crashed at the end of another great day.
We had a slow start the next morning – the Danoje programme didn’t start until 11 o’clock and we were still feeling a bit seedy. Although Dave was on the road to recovery, I had relapsed with the stomach upset and our breakfast sortie to the nearby Jung-ang market was a wasted opportunity. We had to pass up the popular pork hocks and ox head soup to return home with a take-away gimbap and a mysterious packet of capsules from a reputable-looking pharmacy. The pretty pharmacist, wearing a lab coat assured me that the box, covered only in Hangul, was the drug for me, so I swallowed two, hoping for the best…
This was the final day of the festival so we wanted to see a few more events. The Gwanno mask dance drama was top of our programme list, but we also caught a few bouts of ssireum wrestling, a rather brutal sport between two robust-looking individuals trying to throw their opponent to the ground. They gained traction on each other with a cloth tied harness-like around their legs and waists. Risk of fractured limbs seemed like it could be high, and although each bout was over in seconds some of the athletes wore horrible physical bruises, not to mention the ones to their egos.
At lunchtime we met Youngmi and went with her and her friend Yiji to a restaurant which specialised in sundubu. This was something I simply had to break my fast for, so I threw back two more mystery capsules, still unenlightened about what they were even after Youngmi’s translation. The shikdang was packed, but we were eventually allocated a table in a cosy ondol room with five ladies enjoying a chang guk jang. It was the beginning of a very social afternoon.
When it finally came, our sundubu jongshik was exceptional. The spicy soft tofu jjigae was flavoured with a small octopus, and amongst the ban chan were three different kinds of fish, a spring onion kimchi, and something new for us to try – freshly curdled tofu with whey. It was so good that we ate three bowls of it.
Afterwards we stretched out on the floor to recover, before moving on to a European cafe near Gyongpo Lake for the remainder of our lazy afternoon. The owner, a German lady was surprised to meet us – the only foreign tourists she had met in fourteen years of living in Korea. She served German coffee and küchen, and the afternoon was whiled away with good company and conversation.
Of course I paid the price for my sundubu indulgence, so I had to start my fast afresh the next day – none of the coveted ox head soup or potato flour noodles for breakfast for me… Being a Sunday, it was a travel day and I left Gangneung, walking back to the bus terminal with a long face and an empty stomach. At the terminal we bought our tickets and sat to wait, randomly next to an Australian couple. It was the first time we had heard our own accent since we left Sydney over a month previously! The meeting was very brief and we were soon on our way, travelling north up the coast for an hour to Sokcho.
ONLY INTENDING TO STAY IN Sokcho for one night, we didn’t waste much time or effort looking for a room, settling ourselves without fuss at the Geurin Jang for 30,000 won. This hotel room, remarkably, had a different floor plan to every other stock-standard room we’d stayed in Korea. They were always identical, with a vestibule for removing and stowing shoes, which the bathroom adjoined, and was sealed from the bedroom with a third door. Every morning it was like waking up in the same room, only with different wallpaper.
I found strength in a bottle of peach-flavoured Lipton’s, to spend the afternoon exploring downtown Sokcho. We strolled along the waterfront to the hand-drawn punts that crossed the canal to Abai, then dived into the market which we stumbled upon by chance, hidden behind the ritzy shopfronts on the high street. The market was a gem, sprawling over several blocks and thronging with life on that holiday Sunday afternoon. It was sectioned into departments – live seafood, especially snow crabs; fresh fish; dried seafood, especially squid; vegetable produce; and food, ready for immediate consumption or to take-away. Crowds patiently queued for favourites like hotteok and dakgang jeong, sticky fried chicken with peanuts – almost everyone was toting a box of that! For me it was like some sort of penance, inhaling the aromas without being able to eat, answering the vendors enticements with regretful looks, taking a swig of tea from my bottle to revive my energy. Like a flagellant I made several laps up and down each aisle while I waited for Dave to eat a bowl of freshly made mandu guk…
At the other end of the harbour we looked around the busy Dongmyeonghang and the rocky headland where we could look back across to the city fronted by the lake and harbours, and backed by the mountains up in the clouds. It was a cold day and we retreated to our room early, me out of hunger and Dave in sympathy.
The next day didn’t dawn brightly. All else had failed and I had to reach for my medicine chest to begin antibiotic therapy – so all those treats in the market were still off limits for the time being. At 10:30, once my medicaments had taken effect, modern science allowed me a life-giving breakfast, breaking my forty hour fast with a bowl of ddok mandu guk, rice cake soup with gogi dumplings. There was no looking back for me from there – instant recovery! We prowled the market for hiking snacks, buying some sinbaekseolgi and hobak cakes filled with bean powder and squeezed into fist shaped rolls by the hands of the lovely ajumma who sold them to us. There was no queue at the hottoek stand on Monday mornings, so Dave grabbed one of those and then we were off, back to the Geurin Jang to pack, then to the nearby bus stop with our eyes peeled for a number 7.
We hadn’t even put our bags down and we were on our way, cruising back through town en route to Seorak-San, the mountains still ominously hidden by heavy rain clouds. Misty rain enveloped the region of the national park and we had to utilise our rain gear when we arrived at the park entrance gate. We collected a map and began scouting for accommodation, walking back down the access road on the lookout for something suitable. It was a solid half hour walk to the bulk of the hotels we had spotted on the way up, and the group of restaurants that they were symbiotically located with looked like a low season ghost town. We were so unimpressed with what we found that we got back on the next bus to Sokcho, deciding that it would be much better to simply commute back to the park on the first bus the next morning.
So at 1:30pm we unexpectedly found ourselves back in Sokcho looking for a room. Feeling no fondness for the board-like bed at the Geurin Jang, we looked around for something else, eventually settling nearby at the bargain-priced Hyang-eun Minbak, where a warm and comfortable room cost only 20,000 won – the cheapest we had paid in Korea.
With a cast-iron lining now being laid down in my stomach, it was carte blanc for me, and I was back at the dining table that afternoon. We took a casual stroll around town and caught the little punt across the canal to the village of Abai, mostly populated by displaced North Koreans. From the row of little restaurants, pretty with flower boxes, we chose one and checked the menu board. Modum sundae was a mixed plate of the two very local specialities – hog intestine stuffed with blood accompanied by a sweet, spicy dried fish and pickled leaves; and stuffed squid, sliced, egged and pan fried, best with a special dipping sauce and wispy pink seaweed. The ban chan were also a unique array – fish kimchi, an appetiser-sized bibimbap with cress salad and pumpkin seeds, and raw pickled prawns. The aroma was mouth-watering; the two lady cooks cheerful and attentive; and the taste… mashissoyo! Considering it was 5 o’clock in the afternoon the shikdang was busy with patrons enjoying a late luncheon, and everybody was choosing the same dish as us.
Our room in the minbak got even cheaper when we returned to it in the evening wanting a shower. Cold water was all we could get to issue from the tap, and after doing a well-animated chicken dance explaining my plight, I got a bowl of hot water from the kitchen kettle and a 5000 won note of apology. At least the ondol was turned on and the bed was soft – by Korean standards.
Rain fell softly the next morning as we prepared to depart on our day trip to Seorak-San National Park. We had already determined that we would go, no matter what the weather, so we retraced our steps of the day before onto bus number 7’s 5:30am run to the park entrance gate. Rain was forecast for the rest of the week, so there was no point in waiting it out. It was really just a cloud mist when we set off, increasing to a light drizzle by the time we reached the peak of Ulsanbawi after two hours of hiking. I found the going surprisingly easy considering the state I’d been in at the same time the day before. Even the eight hundred stairs beyond the beautiful hermitage at Heundeulbawi were a breeze, as we climbed trance-like into the clouds. Of course we could see none of the reportedly spectacular views normally available on the rocky peak, it was just mist-shrouded boulders approached by a sublime-looking stairway.
Back at Sinheunsa, the temple near the entrance gate, we sat and rested for an hour – a dozen monks chanted their morning prayers as we sheltered from the heaviest of the days rainfall, eating our trail snacks. The wheat crackers and dried squid gave us the extra energy we needed to consider another hike – it was still early and the rain eased to a misty drizzle. Now we headed off in the opposite direction, up the main hiking route for several kilometres, then forking up toward the Madeungryeong course. We were still in thick cloud as we followed the stone steps up the mountainside until finally reaching a crag well-positioned for taking in the scenery. The clouds cleared momentarily and we caught a fleeting glimpse of Geumgang-Gul – the cave that we were heading for. It was way above us, a cavity rimmed by ivy halfway up a sheer rock face. A flight of rock-hewn steps led to a steel stairway somehow fastened to the rock wall, which we climbed. In this far-flung grotto were three other hikers, an altar, and a monk who apparently lived there, his bed on the edge of the drop-off with some wire mesh to prevent him falling into the abyss in his sleep. During the time we sat there resting, the clouds suddenly cleared and a spectacular view was revealed to us. Granite cliffs, pine-clad slopes, misty crags. The other hikers had left and we sat alone with this hermit monk looking out through his sublime grotto.
The descent was exhilarating, once we could see how high up we were, and the mountains around us were breathtakingly beautiful. There were few other hikers around, just a scattering of hardy souls, mostly with umbrellas like us – some looking miserable, but most very happy to be where they were, no matter the conditions. Back at the entrance gate the northern massif was still in the clouds and we left Seorak-San, having climbed Ulsanbawi, but without actually seeing it!
We were back in Sokcho at 3 o’clock, and after seven and a half hours of hiking in the rain we were looking forward to a good meal. We’d been thinking about the pork hocks that we’d spotted in the market, but the eatery was closed when we got there, a serendipity really because then we remembered the grilled fish restaurants on the near side of the hand-pulled punt ferry.
We’d no sooner set foot in the neighbourhood and we were lassoed into a busy shikdang issuing wonderful aromas. There was only one item on the menu – a 12,000 won jongshik, a set menu, and soon our table was being filled with the ban chan to accompany our grilled fish. A charcoal brazier was set into our table with an overhead exhaust chimney frantically sucking as our fish meal was laid out on the barbeque. There were a dozen different kinds of fish to be cooked to succulent perfection right before our eyes – some we recognised, squid, salmon, mackerel; most we didn’t. Two were full of roe which was grilled separately, and one was so oily that it needed a spoonful of rice to absorb its flavour. We ploughed through it barely able to keep up to the grilling, turning, scissoring and devouring. It was as much an activity as a meal, delicious and thoroughly enjoyable.
By the time we got home the day was done, at the bus terminal we checked out the timetable for buses to Seoul and ran into the friendly drunk that we had met on the bus to Seorak-San that morning – he was so happy to see us that he gave Dave a hug…
Barely distracted by our land-lady’s rowdy card game down the hall, and the pair of drunkards in the next room sounding like Oogh and Uugh, our evening was spent strategizing for the time we had remaining in Korea. The plan had a few patches and grey areas which would be stitched and coloured once we reached Seoul.
Rain fell again the next morning, vindicating our decision not to wait out the weather the day before. We found an eatery near the bus terminal to make us two big bowls of kalguksu, noodle soup, and jumped on the 7:30am deluxe service to Dong Seoul – a 200 kilometre bus ride away, right across the Korean peninsula.
The four and a half hour trip was slashed in half by a brand new expressway, and a tunnel which bored under the mountains. The first half hour through the national park reminded us of how beautiful Seorak-San was – it felt like a million miles from the metropolis of the capital which we had arrived in by 9:30am.
THE OUTSKIRTS OF SEOUL WERE bland regimented rows of apartment towers and we were eased into the throng at Dong Seoul bus terminal, finding our way in an orderly manner to the Metro and putting the first step of our plan into action. Seoul wasn’t the fire-breathing dragon we’d expected, and we methodically made our way to the needle we sought in the surprisingly orderly haystack. In the Metro we changed lines and followed the careful instructions on the Songwontel Motel website which led us down some characterful alleyways to the likely-looking hotel. It was our lucky day – a room was available for 40,000 won (45,ooo on weekend nights) with all the amenities we needed right in the heart of Seoul. We happily paid for five nights and spent the rest of the morning sight-seeing instead of hotel searching.
We skipped between the tourist sights sipping on a ‘nok cha latte‘ and dutifully snapping photos of the changing of the guard at Gyeongbok Palace. The downtown area of the city was reasonably compact so we explored by foot, strolling along Gwanghwamun Square and between the palaces of Gyeonghui and Deoksu. It was strange to see Korean people en masse dressed in anything other than hi-tech hiking gear or floral pant suits with super-sized sun visors. They were almost unrecognisably Korean in business suits and high fashion. It was also odd to see so many foreigners – we were used to being the only ones in town, and now we were commonplace – perhaps it was true that only 40% of all foreign visitors to Korea ever left Seoul.
Our own neighbourhood of Jong-ro had a great selection of eateries and we lunched there a few times – on that first day in a restaurant hidden up a flight of stairs, at a picture window overlooking Supyo-ro. Samgyetang was the only dish on the menu, and for 13,000 won we each got a small chicken, bubbling whole in a hot pot and stuffed with rice, jujubes and ginseng. On another occasion, in a busy place further up the road we enjoyed a deolsot bibimbap with chunks of tender octopus tentacle and a side dish of pork bulgogi.
Breakfast was also easy to find in Jong-ro, there were several early openers and our favourite could supply everything from a quick and easy chamchi gimbap to a sizzling plate of kimchi bokkeumbap, a very Korean version of the fried rice classic.
A hike along the city’s old fortress wall was high on our agenda of activities, so on our first morning we walked across to Inwang-San and began climbing. The 600 year old wall clung to the ridge tops as it laboured up and down the hills north of the city. Views took in the entire metropolis, high rise towers shadowing imperial palaces against a backdrop of forested mountains. The fortress wall was still serving the same purpose as it was when it was built, rolls of razor wire a modern reinforcement to the dry stone walls, and sentry’s still standing in place at strategic vantage points, some unarmed eyeing us suspiciously and recording our progress, others bunkered down with armour and weapons, prepared for attack. After two hours we reached the ultra-sensitive region of the presidential palace and had to register with our passports and wear tags for the next hour and a half of hiking. It was tough going – fortress walls weren’t constructed for accessibility, they just take the direct route up or down the terrain, and our sweaty bodies were monitored every step of the way, either by hawk-eyed soldiers or CCTV – I didn’t dare to take a photo.
By the time we handed our tags in at Malbawi we were exhausted, and once we’d reached Jong-ro an early lunch was all we could think about after our five hour effort.
On Supyo-ro it was Dave’s eagle-eyes that spotted the dish we were looking for, written in Chinese on a menu board – I confirmed the Korean translation and within minutes we were sitting at a table face to face with a rapidly heating cauldron of gamja tang, pork rib and potato soup. The meat fell off the bone with just a nudge from our chopsticks, the potatoes and glass noodles thickened the soup to a thick gravy, and the kimchi provided a tang to the richness of it. We revived quickly and regained our strength for an afternoon of strolling around the hanok neighbourhood of Bukchon, mixing it with the Chinese tourists and local students.
In the evenings, a stroll around the nearby neighbourhood of Insa-dong was a pleasant activity. The arty shops and the crowds they attracted made for good browsing and people watching, and the night time food vendors made for good snack-tracking.
It was decided that we should visit North Korea, seeing as we were so close, so that meant an excursion to Camp Kim to book a tour. This place was definitely not to be confused with Kim’s Camp – surrounded by rolls of razor wire and guarded by a sentry box, this was the Seoul headquarters of the USO for American troops. For US$80 each, the trip was booked and, already wearing our hiking shoes, we spent the rest of the day roaming far and wide – to Intaewon, then back to Namdaemun with its impressive city gate and sprawling market to have a lunch of kong guksu, chilled noodles in pureed soy bean soup, in the bowels of the food alleys.
Then off we went along the course of the Cheonggye-cheong, a stream flowing through the CBD below street level like a sunken parkway, to Dongdaemun, the city’s old eastern gate, also marooned on a traffic island surrounded by modern day Seoul. The adjacent markets of Dongdaemun and particularly Gwangjang were buzzing with food culture, and we sat squished between shoppers and office workers who were unwinding with a soju and bindaettok. Between 4 and 5 o’clock began the bewitching hour for alcohol – it seemed that food could not be consumed without it after this time, and either soju or makgeolli was in front of every diner. The nokdu bindaettok were a great discovery, even without alcohol – a pureed mung bean and soy sprout pancake fried thick and crispy with onion and green chilli in soy and vinegar to accompany it.
Just like at Home, Saturday in Seoul was market day. In the morning we checked out the flea market In Sinseol-dong, a real bazaar of collectables with all sorts of characters trawling through the trash and treasure, from golf clubs and wooden ploughs to Confucian court head ware and a flame thrower! Next we moved on to the herbal market at Jegi-dong for olfactory overload of everything medicinal – none of that disgusting hokum centipede liquid extract here, this was dried roots, powders, leaves and twigs available by the catty on the street for those in the know, or dispensed by apothecaries from multitudes of labelled drawers. For a more familiar shopping experience we found a supermarket to stock up on nok cha powder, then jumped on the Metro for a ride to Ewha station on the other side of town.
It was all happening there, the area around the women’s university was teeming with the pulse of youth – boutiques, eateries and, at Hongik, a busy crafters market set the scene, attracting crowds of shoppers, promenaders and snack-trackers. We bought some K-pop fashions and had lunch at a bulgogi restaurant – Dave’s hukbaegi came bubbling hot in a clay pot, my mulnaeng myeon, buckwheat noodles, were chilled with the crushed ice necessary to take the edge off the spiciness, one of the more unusual things I’ve eaten, but still quite delicious.
South of the Han River we made a Sunday morning excursion to Bongeun-sa, a temple on a forested hill founded in 796AD. It looked strange surrounded by towering skyscrapers rather than mountains and granite peaks, but it was a busy place of worship, and we even saw Thai monks on pilgrimage.
The nearby tombs of Seonjeongneung also provided a green respite from the concrete jungle – the burial mounds were beautifully preserved in forests of oak, ginkgo and twisted pine trees. Just a couple of kilometres away Gangnam-daero was lined with towers of steel and glass, but devoid of its trendsetting population on Sunday mornings…
To ward off any city fatigue, and get a breath of fresh air, we escaped Seoul for an overnight trip to the seaside. We packed our bags, took the Metro to Sin-chon station, and from there picked up bus number 3000 to Ganghwa-Do, an island off the northwest coast, connected to the mainland by a bridge. It was hard to shake off the city, it stuck with us for most of the two hour journey until we reached the region of Tongjin, which lay close to the North Korean border. Military presence was quite high and the bridge across to the island was covered in pill boxes and caged to the water to sieve out any infiltrators.
In the main town of Ganghwa-eup we changed to a local bus for the final leg to our destination – using our ‘pop-cards’ to transfer meant that we paid just 2000 won door to door for two and a half hours of transportation.
WHEN WE GOT THERE, OEPO-RI was a sleepy fishing village, instantly likeable for its relaxed atmosphere. We wandered along the waterfront past the fish market until a dog called ‘Happy” and his lovely owner Jaesun welcomed us to their minbak, which consisted of some airy rooms above a noraebang. For 30,000 won our ondol room even had a kitchen, and it turned out that the very youthful-looking Jaesun had a daughter who lived in Chatswood! Sometimes it seemed like Korea was some kind of Shangri-la where people looked twenty years younger than they actually were…
It was still early, so after coffee with our hostess and ‘Happy’, we had a second breakfast of mandu buns and stepped aboard the ferry to Seokmo-do, visible through the haze across the sea channel. Seagulls flocked around the ferry, squawking and taking chips from the passengers fingers as seagulls do. It got a bit Alfred Hitchcock for a while there, with the giant gulls circling and swooping around the stern where the foot passengers had gathered in expectation. Once safely on Seokmo-do, thankfully unscathed by bird poo, we hopped onto a waiting bus for a half hour ride to Bomun-sa on the other side of the island.
A steep path led to a beautifully located temple halfway up a mountainside, watched over by a large bas relief carving of the Buddha on the granite cliffs above, and an old Chinese juniper tree in the courtyard. The view looking over the temple to the mud flats and sea beyond was wonderful, with green rice fields at the foot of the mountain and islands dotted in the sea of grey mud etched with tidal rivulets.
We sat relaxing for hours in the temple’s tearoom over a cup of icy omija cha enjoying the cool of the forest. before retracing our steps to Oepo-ri with a few sample cups of the local ginseng maekgeolli at the bus stop to send us on our way.
We were ready for a late lunch when we got back, so we nosed around the seafood restaurants trying to de-code the menus. Our vocabulary didn’t extend to seafood specifics, so we ordered haemul tang, a seafood soup, and waited to see what would come. As well as the eight plates of ban chan, including seaweed dishes and a pear and cabbage salad in a creamy sauce, we got a wok full of soup filled with squid, baby octopus, scallops, clams and mussels, and topped with a huge bouquet of mugwort leaves. It boiled at our table until it was de-shelled and scissored into edible sized portions by expert hands (not ours). It took over an hour before we were fishing around in the bottom of the wok for the last remnants of shellfish. For 35,000 won it would have been good value – if we had been the four people it were probably intended to feed…
The next morning we were undecided about how to spend our day. It was very foggy and we were unsure of whether to stay another day or return to Seoul as planned. Decisions are always better made on a full stomach, so we allowed ourselves to be enticed into a noodle restaurant by a sweet old couple. Their bajirak kalguksu was the best we’d had, full of clams and mushrooms, the hand cut noodles making the broth thick and delicious. As for how to spend the day, we let the weather decide for us – it was still foggy at 11 o’clock, so we packed our things, bade a fond farewell to Jaesun, and began the three stage journey back to Seoul. Back to the Songwontel, back to room 301 – and we even negotiated a small discount.
IT WAS 2 O’CLOCK BEFORE WE were back out on the street looking for lunch, so we dined locally again, this time at the eel restaurant we passed regularly just along Donhwamun-ro 11 Gil. The eel was a bit of an investment so we went for the saeng seon gui. With a generous amount of grilled fish, came a pureed pear and mustard dipping sauce and an assortment of good ban chan, including a spicy sashimi octopus dish. Our company in the ondol room was a group of elderly gentlemen quaffing soju with their fish and indulging in loud jovial conversation, belching, sneezing, farting and hoiking as only the elderly can shamelessly do.
The remainder of the afternoon was spent on a very casual stroll around the pleasantly frenetic shopping district of Myeong-dong. The narrow streets were crowded and buzzing like a commercial honeypot. And we managed to share 32 centimetres of green tea ice cream balanced on a cone, without wearing or sharing any of it with the jostling crowds…
With Bukhansan National Park right on our doorstep, we couldn’t resist one last Korean hiking experience. We got off to a 5:30am start at our favourite breakfast eatery with a couple of bowls of galbi tang, a hearty pork rib soup, while out in the street quite a few stragglers were still downing soju and anju at the night stalls.
We entered the Metro at our own Jong-ro 3 Ga station and took a train all the way to Dobongsan. When we exited, still well within the Seoul metropolitan area, our objective was in clear view above us – the bald granite peaks of Juanbong soaring 740 metres above the cityscape in a cloak of forested foothills.
Inspired, we were off, shadowing septuagenarian veterans who disappeared into the distance ahead of us. At the map board we chose a route and headed upwards for two hours, through the cool of oak forest to the first peak of Sinsundae. From there we could see the entire park with its two massifs and the city surrounding it. The ridge of Podae stretched only about two hundred metres across the craggy mountaintop but it took us almost an hour to complete that section – it was marked on the map as ‘expert’ for good reason…
Crows and raptors circled overhead as if waiting for us to be dashed on the crags as we gingerly edged our way along the razor sharp ridge, then down and up the cliff face clinging onto steel cables while our feet flailed looking for purchase on the smooth granite. We didn’t walk this section – we swung and hauled ourselves over it, with the threat of the precipitous drop strengthening our grip. It was a surprise to have this mountain almost to ourselves – we passed only one other hiker on the perilous section, and watched another while we rested on the next peak.
Bukhansan was one of the most visited national parks in the world, we were just lucky that on that particular morning South Korea was playing its first match of the ‘World Cup’. We had heard the cheer from the rescue station when the first goal was scored, and for the final thirty minutes of our descent a flood of people began to wash up the trails after the game had finished in a one-all draw. The trail which we followed down the mountain passed by Munwor-am, and this hermitage provided a wonderful final memory of our hike. Nobody was around as we descended past the Joseon era grotto while its inhabitant chanted out his morning prayers, giving the forest an air of spirituality.
Back at the entrance gate we crumpled into a breezy shikdang to refuel after our five hour effort. A simple sundubu baekban was fresh and healthy, with a clay pot full of soft tofu and some vegetable ban chan with purple rice. The sky darkened while we ate and the views of Dobongsan had all but disappeared when we wandered back to the Metro station browsing at the plethora of hiking shops along the way.
Back in the city we again spent the evening in Myeong-dong. We found a cafe randomly hidden on a fifth floor which offered a unique foot cleaning service in addition to icy beverages. For 3000 won we sat for half an hour with our feet in a warm spa filled with garra-rufa fish. It felt a bit like an electric pulse going through our weary hiking appendages as the hungry fish nibbled on our skin – great after a day on the trail! Also good was Dave’s iced coffee and my five-grain frappe with red beans and almonds, especially with complimentary ‘honey bbang’. It was a pity to have to put the hiking shoes back on.
The next morning we had to report back to Camp Kim at 0700 hours for our tour to the de-militarized zone. Once all present and correct we bused north to Panmunjeom, following the course of the Han River, which was heavily guarded and secured with CCTV, armed soldiers and razor wire the entire way. At Camp Bonifos we were briefed on the rules and regulations, and then transferred to a military bus with a US military police escort and guide before proceeding into the DMZ, past mine fields and explosive concrete tank traps. In fact it was our minder, Private first class Gonzales, who had also looked after Tony Abbott’s delegation a couple of months previously, so we were probably in safe hands.
At the North Korean border in the joint security area life trembled on a hair trigger. South Korean soldiers assumed a threatening taekwondo stance, with every movement of anyone in the vicinity monitored minutely. Kim Jong Un’s men watched from a distance on the terrace of their Stalinist reception building. In between lay the border, straddled by a number of room-sized buildings and uniformed men who moved around like rigid chess pieces according to the subtle moves of the opponent.
Binoculars trained from the other side on a small group of visiting dignitaries from Thailand, while we waited on the steps, lined up like ducks in a shooting gallery. After another briefing we were permitted to enter the famous conference room, manned by two unflinching commandos, one straddling the demarcation line. No sooner had our group filed into the room than trouble began brewing. I looked out from the window straight into the hard stare of a North Korean soldier, standing beside a colleague in a very large boofy hat pointedly photographing the Thai delegation. It was apparently highly irregular for the North Koreans to approach the conference room so this was seen as a blatant act of hostility and a note of alarm was struck by our military escort. Everyone had to urgently retreat to the South Korean end of the room and immediately evacuate the building. Within minutes we were marched back onto the relative safety of our bus and our visit to the JSA was over. Too bad it had been foreshortened; too good for the excitement of the stare-down!
Moving on, we visited Check Post Charlie for a view over North Korea to Gijeongdong village and the surrounding hills; then to the sites of various incidents, axe murders and prisoner exchange – all the while watched by observatory posts, as evidenced by someones foiled surreptitious attempt to snap a photo from a rear window of the bus.
The visit to the train station of Dorasan was as much of a fizzer as lunch was – a mess hall affair which easily qualified as the worst meal we had eaten in Korea. Next we moved on to the Dora observatory for a panoramic view of North Korea, then, having already passed up the opportunity to purchase a souvenir piece of rusty barbed wire, and having watched more American propaganda videos than our sensibilities could bare, we ventured into the third infiltration tunnel, cold and drippy and way beyond the physical capabilities of the more obese members of our group. We peeked through the dimly illuminated concrete barrier to the northern side, and drank from the mineral spring seventy metres underground which supplied water to the infiltrators…
All in all the day served as a sobering reminder of how fragile peace was in Korea, everyone hoped for reunification but the danger lie in how that could be achieved.
For our last day in Soeul we took a leisurely breakfast in a shikdang in a nearby alleyway. Sundae guk was on the menu, so we chose this favourite with rice and extra kimchi to get the day off to a good start. We made a reservation to visit the ‘Huwon’, the secret garden of the Changdeokgung, so we spent the morning wandering through the most opulent of Seoul’s five palaces before our compulsory tour. The Huwon was indeed beautiful, and we were even lucky enough to spot an Asiatic badger on the path through the forest, but shuffling around in a group just isn’t for us, and we made a pact to never do it again.
We wanted something quintessentially Korean for lunch, so we sought out a barbeque restaurant for a carnivorous culinary conclusion. We found a funky shikdang in Myeong-dong, and chose the ‘slaughter expert recommendation special set’, a selection of pork and beef cuts grilled at our table with few condiments to distract us from the meat.
We mooched away the afternoon in Myeong-dong watching a street performer and browsing the shops, then snack-tracking in Insa-dong until a rain storm sent us scurrying home. We prepared ourselves for the next days travel, enjoying the last hot shower that we would have for six weeks, and packing our things ready for an early start the next morning.
One man’s early start is anothers all-nighter. On Saturday morning when we stepped out at 5 o’clock the streets were still abuzz with revellers. The restaurants and pojang macha were open and thriving with business as dawn broke across Seoul. We ate a satisfying breakfast of kimchi bokkeum bap, one of the dishes which best showcases Korea’s ‘Iron Chef’ ingredients. We had grown to love kimchi, and that would be our last taste of it after seven weeks of savouring it with every meal.
There were many other things about Korea that we would miss; like the ease of travel in a clean, modern environment. Despite our language deficit, we had gotten by, keeping ourselves housed, transported, entertained and, most importantly, fed. Exploring the national parks and reserves had been our greatest pleasure – accessible, physically challenging and sometimes thrilling. We had visited eighteen of them in all, increasing our fitness level exponentially. We had gone to Korea with few preconceptions, our open minds intent on discovering all that the country had to offer. We found diverse and beautiful landscapes, a fabulously unique cuisine, and people living a healthy and robust lifestyle – hard workers, hard partiers, tough hikers, and honest to the core. South Korea was undoubtedly the safest country that we had ever travelled in.
We would have probably been feeling melancholy if it weren’t for the fact that we were now headed for Malaysia. We stepped into the Metro at Jong-no 3 ga, and with two train changes got ourselves to Incheon International Airport in time for our 9:30am departure. After cashing in our T-money ‘pop cards’ at the airports ‘gs25’ and exchanging our remaining won we calculated that we had spent an average of AU$86 per day during our stay – well under budget.
We were already in South East Asia once we boarded the plane. Suddenly language barriers fell away and we were no longer deaf and mute. The smell of Tiger Balm filled the cabin as we prepared to take-off and things started to feel familiar again. It was a six hour flight from Seoul to Kuala Lumpur, and we still had a foot in each land as we ate the wonju gimbap lunch that our breakfast ajumma had packed for us…