Third (and last) week in Korea: time for sightseeing
So, I took the opportunity to delay my flight to Sunday and go a little deeper into South-Korea and do 4 days of sightseeing. No plan until Tuesday evening and last day of work in Sacheon, but:
– I am not the biggest fan of huge metropoles – particularly not when they have 25M inhabitants, even less with a car, so that quickly eliminated Seoul. It is supposed to be an interesting city though with several very distinct districts and several people (and the brother) recommended spending 4 days there – so maybe another time. In my experience, large cities are places where you have the lowest chances to discuss and talk to people – you see thousands of people but just nobody cares. This applies to pretty much anything: restaurants, hostels,…
– Busan: second largest city in Korea (10M people) -> the global consensus is that there is nothing really worth visiting – except my dad who repeatedly wants me to see “the largest fish market of Korea”. Okay, but I am not going to buy a Japanese-whateversorius-shark…
– The DMZ: the border with North-Korea, probably the most well-known sight in South-Korea… but that feels like Disneyland, the price is a total rip-off (over 100$ to see custom officers…), it is only by bus in guided-tours (I love bus guided tours…), and departures are only from the center of Seoul – so no.
– That leaves a tour basically where no travel agencies go – going north through the center of the peninsula, through basically a list of temples and mountainous national park 🙂
It has been raining a lot the last days and the atmosphere in the south feels like being in a Turkish hammam… constant 95% of humidity and 30°C during the day. A 12km jogging the previous day felt like running in a warm shower, and I was literally dripping water behind. So Wednesday, departure early in the morning, leaving Sacheon behind. This city could be a really great place to live: it is surrounded by mountains, directly on the coast in some kind of Fjord, some natural reserves and national parks around … but the urbanism (inexistent), the architecture (amazing if you like concrete, fences, asphalt and metal) and its industries in the nicest locations make me glad to not have to be there longer than 15 days.
First place: the “Maisan” park. Maisan means “the horse ears mountain”, and it is pretty much what it is: two huge blocks of limestone not connected to any other mountains, 700m altitude (450m higher than the base), and a temple in-between. I climb one of the two “mountains” – nobody on the way up (something like 2500 steps, they have had the great idea to install stairs all the way up: great for an ascent speed record, less for the legs ), than the temple with hundreds of Cairns around it. I am not a big expert of Buddhism, but it feels like temples are built according to weird geographical locations – they are always near a source of water, a funny looking mountain, a grotto, a lake… I guess it makes about as much sense as putting a monastery wherever someone claimed to have seen a ghost, or in Austria bringing up a 5m cross on top of every single cow-hill of the country. My car feels lonely on the parking and the 10 restaurants look at me wondering if I am possibly going to be the only hypothetical customer of the day (I guess it is a lot more crowded the week-end): well I am not particularly interested by a bowl of Kimchi at 10am…
Second place today will be Jeonju, one of the rare city where Koreans kept a traditional historical center. Buildings and houses are a lot more picturesque than all other towns, although most of the traditional houses have been remodeled into shops and food places. Jeonju is still a pleasant place to get lost a little in small maze streets. I am going towards the Gyeryongsan NP for the afternoon and a small hike up between pagodas and waterfalls. The park is not particularly exceptional, but hiking up in the mountain with a temple every few kilometers, the sound of waterfalls and rivers and the overall ambiance make it very pleasant. The altitude being also a bit higher and further away from the coast, the place is also more “breathable”. I finished the day in Gongju. Remember that name cause although it has now only 150.000 inhabitants, it will overtake Seoul and become the new capital of South-Korea in the next decade! No, I am not hallucinating – the government has planned to move step by step the administration and government from Seoul as it is overcrowded and … within artillery range from North-Korea! Not a joke! Gongju was actually already the capital of Korea sometime between the 15th and the 18th century – after Gyeongju if you had read the previous posts – and it has the remains of a huge fortress (3km – the walls are in an excellent state, but there is pretty much nothing inside the walls).
I am not sure how this fortress was defending anything as the walls follow a series of steep hills and is surrounded by more hills: if I was trying to assault it, I guess I would just walk on top of a hill, have a great view over the wall and target with a bow everyone behind. The wall is in addition sometimes 5m high, but 1,5m a few hundred meters after. But okay, I guess it somehow worked, I am not a Korean-middle-age-defense-expert and the Unesco declared it as a major sight – and it is indeed worth visiting.
First night in a motel in Korea (also unofficially named love-hotel): it sounds a bit weird, but those hotels have actually great rooms with excellent equipment, with AC, a TV with international channels and a computer, they are really cheap, you get free food and drinks, closed parking space for the car,… perfect! The good thing in Korea is that motels are always all next to each other (something like 20 motels in a 200m radius), they cannot be mistaken and detectable kilometers away – with flashy pinky fluorescent sparkling colors, often some interesting outdoor decorations (a giant heart, the Eiffel tower, …), the only thing is basically to drive around and select the one with the best decoration: the most inventive are usually the nicest ones – and more for lovers, the non-decorated cheaper looking more for “a-la-carte” menus… Motels are also used very often for workers during the week and travelers though. I mostly met some workers from southern Asia and Malaysia at the breakfast in the morning. Maybe the distinctive fact: the biggest wall of my bedroom had a 4 x 2,5m picture of a giant blond lady in “lingerie”. Her head on the wall next to me, except that her eye was something like the size of my hand!
Thursday, starting in Gongju with some “royal tombs”. In Korea, the tombs are basically human-made hills, and the more important you are the higher your hill. The highest are 10 to 20m high (for kings, not for Kim-the-farmer), and the tradition still continues although today’s graves are more in the 50cm-range. There are so many tourists (irony!) that all sights in Gongju are simply open and the ticket office has been (temporarily) abandoned.
The weather is getting a lot better now, so more national parks! I am driving first to the Songnissan NP (don’t worry, I cannot remember the names without the guidebook the day after visiting the places…). It is a bit similar to the others, mountains and temples together – but the Boepjusa temple has the particularity to have a 33m high gold platted Buddha in the middle, and a giant 5 levels wooden pagoda facing it. That temple has had up to 3000 monks (how do you call a Buddhist monk by the way???), and although it has a lot less today, the prayer time is very meditating (see video – with sound). Once again, I am the only foreign tourist – although two retired people were suspicious: speaking English when there Koreans nearby and speaking Korean between each other later alone… As I had previously mentioned, temples are never near a road, so it usually implies some easy hikes in the park. A good mix of nature and culture, plus I would probably not go there just for that mountain, and (most of the time) not go to a temple if that was just a place behind a parking lot. Maybe St-Sernin in Toulouse should be moved on top of the Vignemale!
I am planning to spend the night in Andong, and the road with a small detour goes through the Woraksan NP. Again, mountains and temples – although more “antique” here (see pictures, probably better than words). The road to Andong follows some lakes and rivers with a very scenic drive. Andong has nothing particular, except a lively center with some motels and restaurants – today my bedroom is pink with sparkles, free popcorn and some nonsense poetry in English on the walls. Luckily most of the Koreans don’t speak English because the wall poetry-philosophy says more or less “if you suck with love, you are not happy and nobody likes you… don’t be desperate!”. There are words like “love”, “happiness” and “hope” so I suppose it sounds romantic…
The first other tourists I see in days, come sit right next to me in a most usual restaurant – a couple of retired Italians from Turin, speaking French and traveling around Korea by bus. They will actually be the only other foreigners met in this week! The restaurant is all about chicken…ribs: spicy-chicken-ribs, Korean-chicken-ribs, vegetables-chicken-ribs, etc.! The two Italians had been travelling in several other countries in Asia and were also surprised that Koreans eat and drink (alcohol) so much. It’s across from Japan, but they probably don’t have the same long healthy life expectancy.
Friday starts with the Hahoe folk village north of Andong. The Hahoe village is a community in a particularly remote location surrounded by a river who therefore kept all their traditional houses made of wood, straw and clay. People still live in the village (apparently, everyone there is more or less from the same family), are still farming and keeping a traditional landscape, although they probably now get the vast majority of their incomes from tourism. However because I arrived there before 8am (and not many people, mostly groups buses) I had no entrance or parking fee… I actually realized walking back (the village is a 15min walk from the road).
The Andong region is famous for its Korean paper, and the “Andong Hanji” museum shows the best creations (if you are not into paper, it is not especially amazing). I am driving towards the north eastern coast today, to get a glimpse at the sea and North-Korea on Saturday.
The roads passes through the “Dosan Seowon” school, an old Confucianism Academy: Confucianism is kind of Buddhism, but not quite… it is more the Chinese philosophy, and Korea has had a huge influence from China in, its history. Basically the culture influence in Korea has been mostly from the Japanese (aka. the invaders, colonizers and enemies), the Chinese (aka. the helpers and allies against the Japanese, plus brought the old Korean alphabet and a bit of traditions/religion) – and (purely my personal guess) the Russians for alcohol, plus central Asia for the binge meat-eating! After a long drive (but luckily plenty of nice podcasts), I arrived in the afternoon at the Seoraksan NP near Sokcho, not far from the North-Korean border on the eastern coast. The mountains there are higher than the rest of the country (apart from the Jirisan range – see first weekend’s hike), have a lot of cliffs and rock formations, plus great views with the sea on one side, the summits on the other side (and temples/giant Buddha’s down in the valley). Sokcho is one of the few areas in Korea with long sand beaches, and together with local sights has made it a very popular destinations for Koreans. The beach week-end get away from Seoul (3h drive + 2h with traffic jams in Seoul). It is also apparently a popular destination for Russians coming from Vladivostok and eastern Siberia to do some shopping! The only signs that were usually translated in the western alphabet have been replaced by the Cyrillic alphabet! In Sokcho, rely on your English-speaking GPS! Great… The town itself is not particularly idyllic, except that Sokcho is a large fishing harbor with boats, half Russian and half Korean, bringing all sorts of fish to the market. All sea food in here is alive! Not sure how fishing works there and how do large boats manage to catch the fish with the nets and keep everything alive… plus I guess the sharks and tunas would make a disaster if confined with squids in the boats reserves.
I am not particularly aware of the environment in the Japan/Siberia-seas, because the market is literally a sea-food freak-show: 1m large crabs, 5kg lobsters, 30cm large mussels, large weird looking fishes, small sharks, squids,… If you want, you can buy a fish alive on the market and ask the cook at the next stand to kill it and cook it immediately (the 1m large crabs in a giant pot included). I didn’t try, mostly because a portion is the whole fish… someone for a tuna? Tonight, a normal hotel, i.e. nothing offered and the strict minimum for a room for a more expensive price, and no funny décor: motels are definitely a better deal!
Saturday, last day of sightseeing starting with a walk on the coastline and up to the lighthouse, then visit of the Naksansa temple (mostly famous for being on a cliff right on the sea shore) and drive to the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone: the border buffer between North and South Korea) at Goseong. Multiple checkpoints on the highway going north (not that there are many cars but lots of roads going to the border are large highways… for tanks to quickly go there!), the tension rises at every kilometer with more and more wired fences everywhere (around building, around towns, on the coast, around the roads), cameras and sensors everywhere and at the end the “unification peace observatory” where you can view tens of kilometers into North-Korea. The difference between the North and the South is impressive, the north has simply nothing! Not a building, the highway becomes a path,… on both sides of the border some military installations looking at each other. But nobody crosses, and nobody has crossed here for almost 70 years. The South has installed a special weapon – maybe the most dangerous for the north : some gigantic loudspeakers diffusing information and South-Korea propaganda into the north. Apparently the loudest equipments can be heard 30km away! Somehow the attitude of south-Koreans is very surprising: kids are mostly interested in ice-creams, grandmas are doing some flashy fashion competitions and in-between the most import is to take as many selfies with your dummy-stick as possible. They don’t seem particularly worried that a part of their country is ruled by a crazy paranoiac totalitarian dictator. The feeling that I had (at least with the younger generations) is that they consider north Korea as being now a different country where that cannot and do not want to go to… What is sure is that if they one day reunify, it will be a lot bigger shock (for both sides) than east and west Germany. The news however seem to talk about the north a lot more, no idea what they were talking about but the Crazy-Kim’s take at least a third of the news. Same with older people, it is a sensitive topic (all guide book and website mention the two “forbidden” topics: North Korea and US-soldiers in the South.
Funny fact of the day, the youngest Kim in North Korea has decided to launch a ballistic transcontinental missile from a submarine about 100km north-east in the sea of Japan at the time I was there: (un-?) fortunately nothing observed, and the missile exploded at 10km of altitude.
Drive to Seoul and direction airport for the next day in the evening, with a short tour of Suwon (a neighborhood south of Seoul with a fortress and a palace). The main attraction of Suwon is possibly more the view of Seoul from the top of the hill. The city is huge, but has a surprising important number of parks and is relatively well contained, notably comparing with cities of similar size like Mexico city, Beijing or Los Angeles. The most surprising is however the number of high-rise buildings, thousands and in all directions! Evening in a shitty motel near Incheon – I was completely exhausted and literally took the first place where I could repack everything, clean-up the mess in the car (the trunk became in 4 days the wardrobe, the rear left seat the food reserve, the rear right seat the trash, the front right seat the electronics and day stuff), and crash in bed.
And the way back to Munich on Sunday, from where I am writing this post – 14h flight!