Several months ago, Ashley suggested that we go to Korea to visit Keith and Melanie, who are spending a year over there teaching English. I had no objections, so on May 18, we left Colorado and headed for the other side of this lovely planet. With little in the way of expectations, we were open to as many new experiences as we could find. Some pictures from the first part of our trip can be found by clicking here.
We left Denver around noon – first stop, San Francisco! The trip got off to a bad start as Ashley was seated next to a 500 pound woman. At least there was an arm rest to limit the amount that she spilled into Ashley’s seat. Speaking of bad starts, perhaps I should back up. The night before we left, I double checked the envelope containing the plane tickets (must have paper tickets for international flights) to confirm that all the tickets were there. After looking through the same small envelope a dozen times, I admitted to myself that Ashley’s tickets were not in it. After searching for the tickets in all likely places with no success, I had to tell Ashley that it appeared I’d lost her tickets. I was holding off panicking for a bit longer, but Ashley saw no reason to wait. While I was downstairs on the phone with the ticketing company, I heard several large crashes upstairs. I was convinced that Ashley was so mad at me that she was breaking all my stuff. After being on hold for 10 minutes, some neurons fired in my head that failed to when it would have been more convenient. I had placed the tickets in my top dresser drawer and had already turned that inside out twice. I thought that just maybe, the tickets had migrated down a few drawers during our move. Sure enough, three doors down, the tickets were shaking with fear at the thought that they might get used. Back to the story – Ashley survived the revolting blob and we transferred planes in San Fran. One long flight and several movies later we landed at the Incheon Airport, the main airport located on an island to the west of Seoul, at around 6:00 pm on May 19. We waited for 45 minutes about 150 meters from Keith and Melanie who waited equally as long for us. We eventually found each other and soon had the privilege of riding in Pedro (Pedro is the name of their van) on the way to their place in Ilsan. We stopped for some street vendor food on the way back at this place that had an overabundance of meats on sticks. Approximately one beer after arriving at their apartment, Graham and Greta showed up and the remainder or our first night in Korea consisted of card playing and beer consumption - just like the good ol’ days.
Graham and Greta were all primed to go to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on the border between North and South Korea where tours constantly run. With no pressing work or study, it was easy to convince the rest of us to join them. We hopped on a bus tour once we neared the border, which stopped at three places of note. The first stop was at Tunnel 3. Apparently, after the DMZ was created, the North Koreans determined that the best way to enter into South Korea would be to dig a series of tunnels. To date, something like 4 or 5 tunnels have been discovered by the South Koreans – some as recent as the 1990’s. The one we entered stopped about 50 meters under the ground and about 50 km from Seoul. Upon discovery, the South Koreans sealed off the tunnel, monitored it with video cameras, and dug their own tunnel down to meet it for purposes of tourism. Who wouldn’t want to pay a few thousand Won to go down and see the North Koreans’ handiwork!? The next stop was on top of a hill overlooking the DMZ. As it was, we could just barely see far enough through the smog to make out some structures in North Korea. The last stop was Dorosan Station, a brand new train station located just south of the border. The most interesting aspect of this station is that it is not operational and never has been. The South Koreans view their situation with North Korea as improving, and this is a powerful sign that they are optimistic about the future. If travel through North Korea is eventually allowed, South Korea will use this station as a major trading center, as it will allow them to connect to the rest of Asia by rail, creating huge economic benefits for the country that is currently locked out on the end of a peninsula.
Every morning on our trip we took the time to enjoy several cups of Korean Green Tea, or Nok Cha. This tea is particularly good as it is predominately grown within the country. This morning was no exception as we drank tea and played cards before deciding to leave on our road trip to Jeju. The morning was spent packing, and we all went to a Korean Mexican restaurant for lunch before parting with Graham and Greta, who would leave Korea the following day. In medium-heavy traffic, we drove nealy all the way across the country (north to south) in 7 hours and ended up camping in Wolchulsan National Park. Here we began another nightly tradition: camp for free. If the desired campground charges a fee, arrive late and you don’t have to pay it. If there isn’t a campground, Koreans are pretty relaxed compared to Americans about sleeping where your tent fits.
We got up early to drive to Wondo in time to catch the morning Ferry to Jeju. It was quite a challenge figuring out how to get tickets on for the right boat at the right time, not to mention finding a spot for Pedro to sit. Keith and Melanie pulled some crazy shenanigans and we ended up running to the 8:00 ferry at 7:57 (Pedro was already on the boat). The ferry left at 7:58. I’m not sure what Pedro would have done without us had we not made it. One stop and 5.5 hours later, we arrived at Jeju, at which point we did the classic, “We’re here, what do we do now?” thing.
The best idea anyone could come up with was to find a camping spot, so that’s what we set out to do. On our way I had my first and only Korean driving experience. A few tips on driving in Korea: the traffic signals do not have sensors, so don’t bother waiting for the light to turn green; there are speed sensitive cameras at random locations, but their very visible so just slow down, smile, and say “kimchi” (the equivalent to saying “cheese” in the US before a picture is taken); and lastly, it’s unclear who has the right of way, but chances are it’s not you. But what am I complaining about? This was the most pleasant, least trafficked part in all of Korea to drive in. We ended up driving half way around the island and camping in Oedolgae at a park. We located a random shelter area which we all immediately thought to be great for cooking and playing cards while it rained. Shortly thereafter, we befriended the local groundskeeper who was following us around. He gave me a Soju as a token of friendship. Soju, by the way, is a most foul and distasteful liquid. The best way to describe the taste, color, and viscosity would be a slightly-watered-down, cheap vodka. Amazingly, this is the after-hours beverage of choice for the majority of Koreans. It even comes in small juice boxes ideall for packing in your childs lunch when they head off to school (there is no drinking age in Korea).
The following morning, I was on my way back up the hill from our camp spot towards Pedro when I heard the grounds keeper asking if I wanted to go over to his tent (one of those permanent canvas types with a woodstove in the middle) and have some tea. Of course I did! It’s not like we had planned anything out past that second anyway. Slowly but surely, after taking a few sips of tea, Ashley, Keith, Melanie, but not Pedro, came over to join me. The groundskeeper’s name was In-Soo Kim. In-Soo was highly skilled at many forms of art including drawing, painting, and arranging beautiful plants to grow out of interestingly shaped lava rocks. He showed us a book filled with drawings and paintings he had made, and his plant arrangements were all over the place. I was curious as to where he found all the neat plants he used in his floral-rock art. We would find this out later. After drinking the tea he had offered, he insisted that we have some Ramen for breakfast (standard Korean procedure). In-Soo’s English was minimal, but he was able to communicate most everything he attempted. Whenever he had problems communicating, got frustrated, or something just didn’t go right, he would say, “Georgie Bushie”. This was as close as he could come to pronouncing the name of our fearless leader, and it was obvious that he meant to insinuate that all problems can be attributed to our gay-hating president. As a relevant side, Koreans as a whole are one of the only nations who are fond of the US. They seem to be so grateful for our military intervention with North Korea that they are willing to look past all of our more recent blunders. Even In-Soo was a fan of the US, just not a fan of Georgie Bushie.
In-Soo was far from finished with us after we finished our Ramen. He offered to take us on a tour of a tea plantation and we took him up on it. His driving was magnificent! At one point he was tailgating a police car while honking his horn so he could get around it and continue speeding. He ran several red lights, slowing down to anywhere from 30 to 80 kph for each one. I shit you not, I looked at the speedometer and saw it at 80 while going through a red light. One thing was certain, we got where we were going much faster than Pedro would have. In-Soo took us on a short hike on the way to the tea plantation, where we observed him digging up plants and putting them in his pack. Putting 2 and 2 together, we realized where he got all his rock-art plants. The tea plantation was small, but in a very neat setting at the base of Mt. Halla, the islands prominent volcano and the highest point in South Korea at around 6000 feet. Through the tea rows, we came to a quaint little house with nothing more outside it than a satellite dish. Inside we found In-Soo’s friend, a monk who appeared to own nothing but a kimchi refrigerator, a cool tea maker, and a television which he used solely to watch American baseball (hence the satellite dish outside). They exchanged a few words, and we followed In-Soo up a trail behind the monk’s house to a glorious Buddhist mountain temple. Unlike the more famous intricate Buddhist temples, mountain temples are simple, thatched-roof type structures remotely located that are used as places of worship. We stopped for a few minutes, and continued following In-Soo up a hill. The hill gradually got steeper until it was slightly less than vertical. In-Soo kept going, grabbing roots, trees, and rocks as needed to avoid plummeting to his death – we followed. We ended up on a precipice with several hundred feet of exposure (we had come up the flat side) overlooking the south side of the island. It was apparent that In-Soo had taken us to one of his favorite places on the island. The hike down was on a trail that followed the ridge and was much more mellow. We stopped at the Monk’s house and went in to have tea. After several cups of the best green tea I have ever had, we switched over to a tea that was made from flower buds. Communicating what type of flower it was proved to be difficult. In-Soo drew a picture, but it still seemed rather generic. After tasting the tea, there was little doubt left that we were drinking dandelions. The green tea was better. Driving back to Oedolgae, we stopped at In-Soo’s house. He led us on another short hike into the canyon behind his house, which led to a beautiful stream and one of the only secluded places we found in Korea. After swimming/bathing, we made our way to a sushi restaurant. The Koreans like that stuff, but raw fish, fishbone soup, and fishhead stew just didn’t do it for me. Driving back from the restaurant we saw some of the female divers who were just getting out of the water and bringing in their catch. In-Soo got very excited and raced to the dock where we saw them. He made Keith give him 10,000 won, and he purchased about a dozen of these dark shells that were about the size of a small fist. Almost instantly, In-Soo smashed one on a nearby rock (the island is made of lava rock, so this was not hard to find) and ate the creepy looking thing that slithered out of it. With lightening speed, he cracked open another one and handed the poor squirming thing to Keith. Always the adventurous type, Keith ate it. He chewed for a couple minutes, all the while making very peculiar faces. The rest of us were offered one, but all declined. When we finally returned to Oedolgae, Ashley and I went for a walk along the sea cliffs. On the walk back, we found Keith and Melanie and ended up throwing their Frisbee around for a while. The remainder of the evening was par for the course: spaghetti (which tastes better all the time because it’s not fishy), cards, and beer.
Got an early, 5:00 am, start to hike to the top of Mt. Halla with In-Soo. We mentioned to In-Soo the previous day that this was our plan, and he said something to the effect that he was a guide and had a license to take us to the top. We knew we didn’t need a license, so this didn’t make much sense to us at the time. We drove up to about 4000 feet and began hiking there. It was a pretty hike through the forest on metal stairs at the beginning. When it flattened out up higher, we stopped and were unable to locate In-Soo. After a long wait, we thought we spotted him down a long way, off the trail and digging at plants. We were tired of waiting, so we strolled lethargically up to a hut, which was about half way up and marked the end of the major trail. At the hut we bought some Ramen and hot water for a snack. This is standard procedure for Korea hiking. These huts are passed frequently on the trail and serve a similar purpose to a convenience store. In-Soo showed up about the time we were finishing our Ramen and got some for himself. While he ate his Ramen, we noticed closed signs all over the trail leading from the hut to the crater rim at the top of the mountain. We were nervous to poach the closed trail and portrayed this to In-Soo. He assured us he had a different way to get to the top and he had a license to use the trail we would be on. We chose to believe him. Hiking back down the trail we came up for a few hundred yards, we turned off on what was barely discernable as a trail. This trail traversed under the steep part of the volcano which made for wonderful views. Perhaps even more spectacular than the views was the fact that we had the trail all to ourselves! We even happened across a couple of deer – scrawny, gazellish deer. After a steady pull up the ridge to the summit, we topped out on the rim and could look down into the lake inside the crater. We took a couple pictures, and then someone over on the other side of the rim (there were many of them since the open trail to the summit on the opposite side of the mountain topped out over there) yelled at us through a microphone. In-Soo motioned to us to get the hell off the mountain, and he held his hands up in the shape of an “O” over his head. I have no idea what this was supposed to mean, or what the guy, probably a ranger, was yelling at us. We think In-Soo was saying to him, “It’s okay, I have a license,” or maybe it was, “Please don’t shoot, we’ll head down now.” At any rate, we hiked back down the volcano rather quickly. Once off the summit cone we stopped at a creek for some more Ramen that In-Soo had carried in his pack. We took a different trail down that descended nearly 5000 feet from the summit and ended near In-Soo’s house that we visited the day before. His friend picked us up, dropped us off at In-Soo’s house so we could swim in the creek behind his house while the two of them ran shuttle to go get In-Soo’s car. We thought that sounded like a pretty good deal. We finished the night off back at Oedolgae with the standard beer and cards.
The plan for today was to work our way back to the ferry terminal by finishing our circumnavigation of the island, stopping at any and all worthy places. The first two stops were at waterfalls that you cannot walk to without paying money. As a matter of principle, we could not pay $5.00 each to go look at a waterfall (Pokpo) which would have undoubtedly been much less spectacular than the dozens of “free” waterfalls in the Columbia River Gorge. We satisfied ourselves with pictures of the waterfalls on the free side of the ticket booth and moved on. We next stopped at Sunrise Peak, a nifty looking volcanic structure poking out right next to the sea. We hiked to the top, listening to cheesy music coming out of the rocks all the way up.
It was total combat hiking with hundreds of other people walking up the same concrete and steel path. On the way down, Keith challenged me to a forward-roll race (like a log roll, but end over end).
It took some convincing, but he managed to pursuade me. In front of a few hundred prim and proper conservative Koreans, we raced while Ashley and Melanie took pictures. I lost by a mile, but it must have been an unusual site for our onlookers. One group of people near our finish line apparently dared one of their members to come over and say “hi” to the crazy whities. He did so, smiled and laughed, and ran away after shaking Keith’s hand. We ran the rest of the way back to the car jumping up and doing heel clicks. The next stop was the Manjanggul Lava Tubes. Of course, they charged for this as well, but the price seemed reasonable enough. We hiked down and into the cave for close to a kilometer, accompanied by the same cheesy music we heard on Sunrise Peak. At one point we passed a strange formation referred to as Turtle Rock. Not only did the Koreans have this rock lit up from every angle, but the lights slowly changed color as you studied the rock. This happened so slowly that I didn’t even notice, but I did think my mind wasn’t working properly as I thought the turtle was green when we got there and purple when we left. I was set to blame a faulty memory when Ashley mentioned that the turtle was, in fact, changing colors ever so slowly. Odd people those Koreans. We attempted jumping on some teter-totters with minimal success. The purpose was to launch the other person when you landed on your end, but I was having trouble getting Keith to cooperate. You can see a video of our attempts on his blog site. We got back to Jeju City and the ferry terminal in time to catch the 4:00 ferry, the only problem was that there wasn’t one. The four of us ended up staying the night in a Minbak (These are all over Korea and it’s essentially an extra room in someone’s house that they routinely rent out). We paid a total of $20 for the four of us to stay in one small room. The $5 each that Ashley and I spent ended up being our only lodging expenditures of our entire trip. We drove to a nearby town to have Korean BBQ for dinner. On the way back, we passed a drunk man walking down the middle of the street in his underwear. Shortly after that, Keith was driving and was stopped at a road block where everyone was forced to take a mandatory breathalyzer test. He passed and we continued.
The ferry ride back the next morning was on a bigger faster boat and only took 3.5 hours. It was a good thing too, because it was windy and the seas were rough. Ashley and Melanie felt sick most of the way back, and I witnessed several people puking over the side of the boat and in the bathrooms. We drove back to Wolchulsan, the National Park where we stayed the night on the way down to Jeju, and had a Cheeju Ramean lunch. We considered going for a hike there but felt lazy. Instead, we drove a couple miles to a nearby tea plantation. This was a smaller plantation, but it sparked an interest in stopping at the Boseong Tea Plantation on the way back. Consequently, this was our next stop. Boseong was amazing! One of the largest tea plantations in Korea, there were thousands of rows (hedge style) of tea plants almost completely covering both sides of an enormous valley. Even where the valley steepened to near 35 degrees, the land was terraced and tea rows were planted. There were several tea shops and tasting rooms, similar to wine tasting in Dundee, along the road through the valley. We stopped at a few of these, drinking a lot of tea and making purchases. I bought a really cool tea set for what turned out be the best deal we found in all of Korea, and Ashley and I bought a couple of 100g bags of Nok Cha (Green Tea) to use with it. After the tea tour, Keith drove us for several more hours through rice fields where farmers were still planting rice by hand. This was one of the neatest and most remote places we drove through on the main land of Korea. We ended up at Jogyeson Provincial Park, the site of one of the most extensive and extravagant temples in South Korea, hoping to find some campgrounds. We asked around only to find out that there were no campgrounds within an hour’s drive, so we drank Dong Dong Ju (milky rice wine) instead. As it was getting late, we asked the people we bought the Dong Dong Ju from if we could stay the night outside of their store. They didn’t speak any English, and Keith and Melanie’s Korean was minimal. As far as we could decipher, they agreed to let us stay the night there.
It was a bit rainy when we woke up, and Songgwansa Temple didn’t seem to be too open, so we drank tea, played cards, and ate Ramen. Around 10:00 we meandered over to the temple and immediately understood why this one had its reputation. The temple was located in a dense, lush forest with views of forested hills in all directions. A crystal clear creek flowed around one edge of it. Inside the temple grounds, we heard Monks chanting from one of the ornate and intricate buildings. Nearly all of the buildings on the temple grounds were filled with golden statues of Buddha, and people prostrating themselves before the shrines. Around 11:30, a woman who didn’t speak any English got our attention and invited us to go eat lunch with the monks. This sounded like a fantastic idea to Ashley and me because we knew that monks do not eat meat, and therefore, the food would not taste like bad fish. After lunch, we went for a walk up the creek beyond the temple. We passed the garden where the monks grow most of the food they eat, and saw several monks running around, dressed in primitive robes and state-of-the-art tennis shoes – an interesting contrast. The rest of the day was spent driving back to Keith and Melanie’s place in Ilsan. That night we ate Korean BBQ at an inexpensive place near their work – best meal of the trip.
Keith and Melanie still had one more day before they had to go to work, and they seemed quite interested in joining us at the Korean Folk Village near Suwon, which they had been to once before. Since they were willing to drive, we decided this would be a good day to go. The Korean Folk village (there are several around Korea) is the only place a person can go to see what Koreans were like before they started trying to be Americans. The folk village highlights nearly all aspects of historical life from traditional housing and farming to arts and crafts and leisure activities. Several shows are put on during the day, the most entertaining of these being the dancing farmers (see video) and the see-saw jumping girls (see video). We observed silk being made from heated silkworm larvae, and saw some examples of traditional pottery kilns. We even watched a guy make paper and then write whatever you asked him to on it in either Hangul (Korean writing) or Chinese. For lunch we had kimchi pancakes and dong dong ju among other things, all of which can be considered traditional. From what I gathered, food is the only Korean tradition that has not disappeared. In my opinion, this is the only tradition that should have disappeared (aside from the Korean BBQ and dong dong ju). Ironically, Keith and Melanie had been trading off getting sick while Ashley and I remained perfectly healthy, and this day was one of the worst for Melanie. By the end of it she could tell you exactly how far you were from the nearest bathroom form anywhere inside the village.
Once again, we had a nice slow morning, playing cards and drinking tea until it was time for Keith and Melanie to go to work. Ashley and I wanted to go with them to see where they worked and get a feel for exactly what it was they were spending a year doing. I was surprised to see how small their classrooms were. I guess I expected it to be like a typical grade school classroom in the US. Because students attend EPARK (the name of the private school where they teach) in addition to their public education, not as many students attend, so class sizes are around 10. Since the teachers were allowed to decorate their own rooms, Melanie’s was very classy and Keith’s had turds all over the wall as part of a large mural which his students created. After the EPARK tour, we had lunch with Keith and Melanie near their work, and it was the first Korean meal we had that didn’t taste like fish! After lunch, Ashley and I were on our own for the first time. Our plan was to figure out the subway system and travel into the Insadong region of Seoul. Our mission was twofold, touring the Gyeonbokgung Palace and shopping in Insadong.
The subway system was pretty easy to figure out, thanks to a decent map. Seoul is so big, it takes nearly two hours to travel across it via the subway, which is fairly quick and efficient. We hiked out of the subway station to find ourselves on the palace grounds, observing a “Changing of the Guards” ceremony. Post ceremony, we proceeded to enter the palace and look into all the rooms where the king had different thrones for purposes of convening with different groups of people. As with all the temples and palaces in Korea, the buildings of the palace were destroyed and rebuilt several times as various invasions came to pass. We toured a folk museum that was part of the palace only to see much of what we had seen at the folk village the previous day. The strangest part of this tour was when, on a couple separate occasions, school girls began chasing us around, asking to take their picture with us, calling me handsome, and telling me they loved me.
Upon leaving the palace, we walked to a nearby park where one of the oldest surviving Pagodas was encased in glass. This particular Pagoda was roughly a 40 foot high stack of intricately carved rocks. Diverting our attention from the Pagoda was a mob of several hundred (maybe a thousand or more?) police officers. We gathered that they were trying to prevent a riot from protesters, but we were not quite sure. At any rate, the police were being shipped in by the bus load, each bus armored with steel mesh over all the windows. We needed to cross the street, so eventually we just walked through the mob of police in riot gear and continued on our way to Insadong. Insadong is one of the most popular places for tourists and locals alike to shop for traditional goods. By traditional goods, I mean pretty much everything that is not imported from America (The North Face, Nike, and pretty much all other clothing). Here we bought gifts for some of our family and saw many tea sets of the same quality of the one we bought in Boseong. The cheapest of these sets was nearly three times what we paid. After shopping, we made it back on the subway to Keith and Melanie’s work where we met them to have pizza as we all walked back to their apartment.
In the morning, before Keith and Melanie went to work, we drove Pedro to Buchansan National Park to go for a hike. Buchansan is situated right up against Seoul. Since Keith and Melanie were on a schedule, they went into Korean hiking mode. Korean hiking mode is equivalent to a “shut up and march” strategy. About half way up the highest peak in Buchansan, Keith finally stopped. We thought he stopped so we could catch up, when in reality he’d eaten something recently that didn’t agree with him and he needed to make an emergency trip into the woods. Melanie found a cute little dog to play with during our downtime, which proceeded to follow us up the hill, most of the way to the summit. We reached the top with Keith and Melanie and parted ways shortly thereafter. The plan was for them to hurry back down and head to work while Ashley and I took a longer, more scenic way down. On a clear day, we would have been able to see a large chunk of Seoul from the top. Unfortunately, the smog was as thick as Oregon fog, so all we could see were the neighboring peaks. Twice during our hike we crossed the fortress wall, a wall built around the perimeter of Seoul for protection. It was about 8 feet tall and 8 feet wide, with passageways through the wall in a few locations. One of the funniest things about the hike was that all the trail maps posted along the way were different. Some appeared to be a mirror image of reality, and some appeared to be just plain wrong. None of them included all the trails. Despite this, we found our way back to the entrance and did the bus/subway thing back to Keith and Melanie’s place. We got off at the correct subway stop, but instantly became disoriented upon surfacing. 45 minutes later we had stumbled upon the correct apartment building. After a shower and repacking, we were off to Soraksan National Park, on the east coast of Korea. This would involve a subway ride to the bus depot, and a 3.5 hour bus ride to the other side of the country. The first obstacle to overcome was to find the bus station once we got off the subway. This took us several minutes, multiple games of charades necessary to communicate across languages, and some more dumb luck. The town near Soraksan is Sokcho. Melanie had given us very good directions of how to get on the right bus from the express bus terminal to end up at the National Park. This would have worked out great had our bus not dropped us off at the intercity bus terminal. Everything worked out well once we figured out we weren’t where we thought we were. Once on the bus, we had been given instructions to get off after the bus crosses a bridge and turns right. We executed this command flawlessly, but became nervous when we realized we were in the middle of nowhere. It was dark out at this point, and the only manmade structure we could observe from our drop-off point was a gravel road leading into the darkness. With no other options, we ventured down the road with nothing but our backpacks and some hope. Not far down the road, we could vaguely make out that we were in a campground.
In the morning we got back on the bus that took us the remaining 2 km or so to the entrance to Soraksan National Park. We had plans of doing a lengthy, all-day hike. As my knee had began bothering me the previous day while hiking in Buchansan, we realized this was an optimistic plan. We began our route by hiking up Cheonbul-dong Valley. The valley turned out to be more like a canyon, carved deeply into the granite the formed the foundation of the park. The creek flowing through the canyon was beautiful and crystal clear. The clarity likely came from a combination of acid rain (algae and bacteria don’t like to grow in this kind of water), and the fact that granite just doesn’t erode very fast, so the water carried very little sediment. The trail was primarily a metal staircase, which did not agree with my knee. We made it up to a climbing hut where we had a Gatorade and a Beer from the local store. Oddly enough, even though we were several kilometers from the trailhead in a national park, there was a convenience store. These were actually located about every kilometer or two along the trail. We decided to turn around at this hut due to the condition of my knee. An hour later, on our way back, we heard thunder. . . Turns out it was a good thing we weren’t on an exposed ridge traverse like we had originally planned.
That night, we took the bus to Sokcho for dinner and entertainment. We found a pizza place for dinner and walked along the harbor afterwards. Towards the end of our walk, we were walking along the coast looking for a beach. With all the barbed wire fences and concrete blocks all over the beach (the concrete blocks both prevent erosion and make it difficult for the North Koreans to land a tank on the beach), it was difficult to find a nice area. Then we found a beach nicer than any on the island of Jeju, which is supposed to be the Hawaii of Korea. We sat there for a while, watching the squid boats all lit up on the horizon.
Ashley woke up early and went to hike the Ulsanbawi trail in Soraksan while I slept in and ate peanut butter and jelly sandwhiches in the tent. My knee seemed to be getting steadily worse the last couple days, and since it was still angry with me, I opted to let Ashley go by herself and not risk anything. She returned by 10:15 and described the hike as a large flight of metal stairs. At the top, she mentioned something to the effect that the staircase went straight up a rock face that people were rock climbing on. She took no pictures as the camera mysteriously ran away from her and ended up right back where it had been stored the night before, just as if she’d never taken it in the first place. Most of the rest of the day was spent traveling back to Ilsan. We took a different bus back that drove a different route. Traveling on both of these roads, we drove through very long tunnels that burrow under the mountains. Every tunnel we passed through in all of Korea was exactly the same size and shape. I recon they purchased a single tunnel boring machine and used it for every tunnel. One tunnel took 3 minutes to drive through at 80 km/hr – that’s about a 4 km (2.5 mile) long tunnel. I didn’t time the one I think was the longest, but it was likely close to 6 km long. We made it back to Ilsan in time to meet Keith and Melanie at work for a slide show of Keith’s Denali pictures, which were amazing! On the walk home, Melanie took us to a pork restaurant where you get a good meal of friend pork for only $3.00. As far as we could tell, this was the best food deal in the greater Seoul area. Most of the food was priced comparably to that in the US.
Earlier in the trip, I had contacted Joon-Yong, a friend of mine from CU who was home in Seoul for part of the summer. He agreed to take Ashley and I out for a day and give us a tour of his city. First, a bit of geography . . .
The Han River currently divides Seoul into a north and south half. Twenty or thirty years ago, Seoul was located almost entirely north of the Han River. Thus, the area south of the Han is newer. The people on one side of the river do not like those on the other, and vice versa. We traveled from Ilsan, north of the Han, to an area of downtown Seoul that lies south of the Han to meet up with Joon-Yong, who was born and raised south of the Han. Don’t worry if you didn’t follow all of that.
The first spot he (and his friend Kim) took us to was the COEX mall, the location of the nicest movie theater in Seoul. Kim, coincidentally, is a structural engineering Ph.D. student at CU. Here we bought tickets to see Mission Impossible 3 later in the day. From here we walked to the Bongeunsa Temple, which I think is the only temple located within the city of Seoul. The contrast between the temple buildings and the surrounding skyscrapers was quite odd. From the temple we took a taxi to what Joon-Yong referred to as the “Rodeo Drive” of Seoul. To my untrained eye, it looked much like the other areas of the city we had seen, with one exception: the majority of the cars parked in this area were not made in Korea. This wouldn’t mean much in the US, but 98% of the cars in Korea are either Hyundai, Kia, or Samsung. This suggests that the federal government has placed a huge tariff on foreign vehicles. Therefore, owning a foreign vehicle is a huge status symbol, especially in a nation where one’s status is measured more by the car they drive than anything else. This is why the Korean’s don’t understand Pedro. We ended up eating lunch at a restaurant in this neighborhood. A sign next to the door said it was the best traditional Korean restaurant in Seoul. As it turns out, Joon-Yong’s father had given him some money and told him to take us there. This was his way of apologizing for not being able to invite us to his home for dinner. From everything we saw, this type of generosity is characteristic of South Koreans. The courses served were small, but there were about 10 of them, so we were quite full by the end of it. After lunch we went back to the COEX mall to watch the movie, which I thought was about as good as your Hollywood action film entertainment gets. Joon-Yong was not impressed. By the way, the movie was in English with Korean subtitles. We then went north to the Han River in attempt to take a boat tour through the city. We just missed on of the tours, and another one didn’t start for 3 hours, so we walked over to the 1988 Olympic Stadium. I figure I was about 8 years old when I watched the Olympics for the first time, which means I was watching events that unfolded in the stadium we got to see. The next stop was the Cheonggycheon River, which carries with it an interesting story. The story begins back before Seoul existed, and a tributary to the Han River flowed south into the Han. Then Seoul was built on top of the river, and the river was no more. In the last year or two, the lower few kilometers of the river were reconstructed. Since no water flowed into the river bed that was constructed, water is pumped up from the Han into a fountain which is now the headwaters of the river. In short, it is quite artificial, but creates an inviting environment that we did not witness elsewhere in Seoul. Next stop, Seoul Tower. Seoul Tower is a Space Needle-type tower built on a hill on the edge of the city. We took a tram up the hill to the base of the tower. The views of the city were so amazing from the base, that we did not pay the $5 per person they wanted to ride the elevator to the top of the tower. Everywhere we looked was city. If you looked far enough, the city disappeared into smog. This was the only place I got a feeling for how immense Seoul is. Including its suburbs, the population of Seoul is something like 26 million. For me, this number was unfathomable until I stood at the base of Seoul Tower and looked down upon the city. For dinner, we took the subway to Hongik University, near the place that Kim went to undergraduate school. Since Kim was a local expert, he took us to a good Korean BBQ place for dinner. The original dinner plan was to go to a dog restaurant and eat dog (a Korean delicacy said to improve one’s complexion). After rumors that the dogs served at these restaurants were killed by beating them while they are still alive in order to tenderize the meat proved to be true, I opted out. Instead, the meat or choice was pork and pork liver. A few bottles or rice wine later, Kim took us on a tour of his university, Yonsai. Yonsai University is apparently the number two undergraduate university in the country. Joon-Yong informed us that a Korean’s entire future depends enormously on the rating of their undergraduate institution. Location of post-graduate studies are irrelevant. The campus was surprisingly beautiful, with Ivy growing over most of the buildings. From here, we hurried back to the subway station where we had planned to meet Keith and Melanie for our one and only night on the town. Since neither of them were feeling very well, we went to a pirate bar, drank beer, and played cards. Yes, the bar was filled with models of various sailing vessels and pirate paraphernalia. We did get to see a bunch of drunk Koreans passed out from drinking too much Soju and the classic image of neon lights lining the streets several stories high. Pedro carried us safely home afterwards.
Realizing we were running out of time to play cards together, we spent another morning drinking tea and playing cards. Sometime around noon, we drove Pedro through heavy traffic for 3.5 hours towards Wonju before arriving at Gahnyeon, a cross between what we would call a state park and a campground for drunks. I think they call it a tourist resort. Anyway, the place was quite beautiful, with a creek running through the middle. On one side of the creek was a mess of convenience stores, a parking lot, and a bunch of drunken Koreans. On the other side was a quaint little granite wall with several climbs that were perfect for our ability level. We climbed about 6 single pitch routes before collapsing into the hammock Keith brought and had strung between two trees. While lying in the hammock, another climber came by and offered us a Popsicle. I grabbed one for myself and one for Melanie, who was belaying Keith at the time. The one I ate was butterscotch (a complete mystery initially because the packaging was all in Korean) and was quite good. I began feeding the other one to Melanie who had her hands full belaying. I don’t think she spat it out, but she didn’t take more than one bite. Being convinced that it couldn’t be that bad, I had a bite and began to understand. The flavor was kidney bean, and it was entirely over-sweetened.
It was Ramen for dinner and some more cards that night under an ingeniously rigged light that was strung between two trees to hang directly over our card-playing tarp. Pedro gets credit for powering the light. Going to bed wasn’t so easy. The drunken Koreans only got drunker as the night went on. If it wasn’t the bad Korean karaoke (is there another kind?), it was the multitude of fireworks flashing and blasting all over the place. This lasted until about 3 or 4 in the morning.
Woke up and went straight over to the climbing area. We climbed about four more routes before we needed to leave. Keith and Melanie were in the middle of a four day weekend, so the plan was for them to drop us of at the Wonju bus station so we could head to the airport while they headed in the opposite direction for Soraksan National Park. With minimal difficulty, we found the bus station. Ironically, the bus we wanted runs every hour on the hour (as stated on the web site) except for 12:00 (not stated on the web site). Guess which bus we wanted. We ended up on the 1:00 bus, which gave us another hour to hang out with Keith and Melanie. We ate lunch and played cards in a nearby coffee shop until it was time to leave. After a sad group hug, we got on the bus and headed for the Incheon Airport – about 3 hours away. When we arrived at the airport, Joon-Yong was waiting there to see us off. He had driven for over an hour and spent $15 (each way) to give us a farewell. He treated us to some Baskin Robins ice cream before we said goodbye and passed through security. Our carry-ons were supposed to weigh no more than something ridiculous like 7 pounds. Mine weighed about 40 lbs, and Ashley’s weighed about 25. The first line we got in, the lady weighed our bags and told us to go check them. This was not an option, because both of our bags contained breakable souvenirs that we had purchased. We walked through the airport and got in a different line. The lady there let me pass, no problem. Then Ashley came through and they made her set her bag on the scale. The scale clearly read way too much, but the lady just waved her through, narrowly escaping disaster. The final eventful thing that happened on our journey back to Colorado had to do with the video screen on my seat. For those not familiar, international flights now have individual screens with on-demand movies playing on a variety of channels. For example, if you want to watch King Kong, you turn to channel 1 and fast forward or rewind to the desired spot. This is such a neat feature that it really sucks when your screen is broken. I complained to the “flight attendant” (not “stewardess” anymore) and was compensated with a bottle of 12-year Scotch and a bottle of Canadian Ice Wine.
All in all it was a great trip. It was made even better by the company and hospitality of our local connections. Observing the differences and similarities between the South Korean culture and ours was amazing and one of the main reasons I enjoy traveling. For example, Koreans exhibit an aggressive and competitive attitude when it comes to pretty much anything (driving, shopping, etc.). However, whether a Korean wins or loses any of these small battles, there is no sense of victory or shame, no road rage. It is simply how one must behave in order to survive in a city of so many millions of people. From our cultural perspective, it seems counterintuitive that people with this type of aggressive and competitive attitude could, at the same time, be extremely kind and generous. Yet I found this to be the case with every Korean I grew to know. I believe this to be a universal trait among all Koreans based on the complete lack of crime in such a large city. I only wish more Americans could have similar experiences so they could relieve themselves of their ethnocentrism and understand that people everywhere are essentially the same, and that none of us are right or wrong in our approach, just different.