Tuesday, October 9, 2007

A week around the Hermit Kingdom


Here is an account of a week travelling around Korea with my Korean girlfriend Sammy (So Hyun Yoo)...


We left Seoul on a sunny morning, with poor Sammy having to drive us
through the whole of Korea since I don't have an international
license. Though the way people drive in this country, I'm not sure
people have any license at all. There's a saying that if you can drive
in Seoul, you can drive anywhere. This is true (with the exception of
Cairo, which is worse!)

Anyway, it is amazing what lies outside Seoul. Being inside, you think
the whole country is just one concrete jungle of polluted twisting
disorganised streets, apartment building clones, and traffic. But
venture outside the city and you'll find an amazing beautiful country
filled with mountain scenery (Korea is 70% mountains - a hikers
paradise), rivers, lakes, and old ancient stuff that should be tourist
sites but aren't really well known outside of Korea.

We stopped for lunch in the city of Jeonju, a few hours south of
Seoul, because I heard this city is famous for good quality
traditional food. One such speciality which I had was bimbimbap, a
rice dish topped with assorted fresh Asian vegetables and meat (raw or
cooked). Sometimes a fried or raw egg is added on top. It's all
arranged very nicely. Then you ruin it by squeezing a large amount of
red pepper paste and mixing it until it looks like a kind of reddish
fried rice. It's quite delicious and comes with a brothy soup and lots
of (free and with unlimited refills) side dishes (kimchi, salads,

Korean style of eating always guarantees you're full - I love it!

So, stuffed from the nice lunch, we waddled back to the car and
continued to our destination - Damyang. This is an interesting
village, as it is famous for the bamboo forests that grow there.
Damyang is at the perfect latitude to grow bamboo, as the weather
conditions are ideal and always consistent.

We also visited an old abandoned large traditional villa, very
picturesque with stream, old stone bridges, and buildings of stone,
painted wood and paper walls. Sammy was my guide; there was no
mention of this in my guide book. The main entertainment room had 4
walls that swung vertically upward, turning it from a house to a
pagoda, which was good for hot or pleasant nights to drink and share
stories and music in the past.

Finally, we headed to our hotel for the night in a valley, surrounded
by other odd-looking kitsch novelty hotels. Some were shaped like
toadstools, others like castles or mountains. Most were lit up like
Christmas decorations at night! We chose the most normal looking one.


The next morning, we continued south for Jirisan, which is the second
highest mountain in Korea (1915m). We drove through stunning scenery,
ate fresh mountain food at a picturesque location, and observed
busloads of children being taken to a traditional Korean village in
the mountain. There are several of them here, where the villagers
still live as they did in the past, except with cell phones, cars and
satellite TV. They do still live in the old traditional houses, wear
traditional Hanbok peasant clothing, and address each other in
traditional old ways. It's like stepping into the 18th century here.

Anyway, the reason for the children visiting is actually not for the
history lesson, but to take them to "Etiquette schools" which are run
by the villagers. Basically, these kids are badly behaved and have no
manners or respect for other people. These "traditional people" are
used to teach and discipline them by, that's right, the "traditional

So, we started our hike up to the very top of the mountain. The plan
was to hike 5 hours to a mountain hut near the top where we would stay
the night, before continuing another 1.5 hours to the top in time to
see the sunrise. The hike was a lot of fun but difficult. We would
walk along dirt trails strewn with oversized rocks, occasionally we
would have to climb over or around them. Sometimes we would walk over
precariously perched metal bridges with the sound of the stream below
running into pools of turquoise water where we would occasionally
splash ourselves to cool down. Some places along the way we saw
smaller rocks piled on top of larger ones like a mini pagoda.
Apparently they are from people who are making wishes. The last 2kms
was painful, having to clamber up a steep rocky trail; at times it
felt like actual rock climbing.

Finally, we reached the mountain hut, tired, hungry, and hoping to buy
some food for dinner, as we had (for some reason) not brought any with
us. To our disdain, we found the mountain hut only had a few things to
buy, so we had to settle for a small supper of canned tuna, rice and
canned peaches before settling down for the night in the crowded hut
full of smelly (but full because they had the sense to bring food)
middle aged men and women.

I swear that maybe I was in some sort of Korea's best snorer's
competition, and that I was sleeping between the two leading
competitors. The noise was deafening. On the left was an old guy whose
nose was getting a good workout; the guy on the right was probably the
weirdest snorer I've ever heard. His snore sounded like a duck

I opened my eyes a few hours later (note, not awoken, since I didn't
get any sleep) to Sammy shaking me, suggesting that maybe we should
leave now and get there early, since we are not going to get any sleep
that night. I couldn't have agreed more! We left the snorers
convention and went up the mountain to the top incredibly tired,
hungry, and blind as it was still quite dark, and wary of the bears
that come out at night.

Finally, we made it to the top, and after a while waiting in the
freezing cold, we saw the sunrise. It is said that if you see the
sunrise on top of Jirisan, 3 generations of your offspring will have
good luck. My offspring? What about me? I did all the hard work! And I
think after the strenuous hike and sleepless night we just had, I
think the mountain should at least grant us 6 generations!

I was thinking in the back of my mind that I would propose to her on
top of this mountain when the sun rose, but considering our poor
condition, I didn't think it would be as nice as it could be. So,
after seeing the sunrise came the daunting task of coming back down
the mountain, which felt actually worse than going up due to no sleep,
no food, and tired sore limbs.


After a hearty much needed lunch, we drove further south to the
coastal Islands known collectively as Namhae (which means "South
Sea". 3 Islands off the main coast connected by large modern bridges,
it was quite nice to finally see some sun and surf (Seoul is on a
river, so you don't really see the beach there). For the first time in
a year, I was able to walk on the beach into the ocean! It doesn't
quite compete with the Great Ocean Road in Australia, but it was still

We drove along the coastal roads enjoying the views, checking out some
museums and watching old women work in the rice paddy fields which
were terraced along the steep hills leading to the coast - looked like
giant curved steps had been carved on the side of the hills. We also
stopped to see the biggest oak tree I have ever seen! Finally, we
settled for the night at a German village.

Yes, that's right, German village. Apparently, during the 1960's,
Germany was in need of miners and nurses. So, many Korean people went
to Germany to make money. In the process they intermarried, or they
fell in love with German culture. In the end, some Koreans stayed in
Germany; the others came back with a desire to recreate what they
experienced. Thus, a group of Koreans designed and developed a whole
village in the German style, complete with German houses, flags,
gardens, and German people (who came with their Korean partners).

We stayed at a pension owned by a Korean, who I attempted to speak in
German (since my German at the time was better than my Korean). His
place commanded views of the harbour below, where we enjoyed a
(Korean) barbecue and beer, followed by a walk along the harbour. It
was quite peaceful and very quiet, which I felt wasn't quite German at
all (What? No German style pubs?)


We left Namhae with no clear idea of where to go next. We decided to
drive along the coast eastward and see where we would end up. On the
way we noticed a sign saying "Goesong Dinosaur Park". We had to check
it out!

Goesong Dinosaur Park is a modern large museum and dinosaur park on
the coast. The exhibits and specimens were impressive for a museum not
many people know about, and certainly allowed me to relive my
childhood days when I was fascinated by them.

What was also good about this museum is that you could walk down to
the coast past huge lifesize models of various dinosaurs. On the
coast, there were huge plains of solidified volcanic lava from ages
past, where, embedded in the rock, are thousands of dinosaur
footprints, of various kinds and sizes.

We continued along the south coast until we reached Tongyeong
(referred to as the "Naples of Korea" - Nice try guys!), a small
picturesque fishing town famous for handbags and their huge fish
market. Sammy bought a few good quality handmade handbags, and we
explored the fish markets where we saw all kinds of fish and unusual
seafood I never knew existed!


The next morning, we walked along the harbour enjoying the sights. One
of the sights was the famous "Turtle Warships" designed by a great
Admiral and National hero.

These turtle warships consisted of a boat with a curved roof that
enclosed the whole ship like a turtle shell. This kept the crew inside
safe and dry. Portholes on the sides allowed for visibility and cannon
fire. It's almost like a water tank. The roof had spikes on top, which
would deter most enemies from trying to board and enter the boat.
Finally, there was a ram on the front of the boat, which could be used
to tip or puncture other enemy boats. The enemies at the time were the
Japanese, and these turtle boats were very effective at destroying
them during the Japanese invasions.

We then headed towards the east coast, driving quite a bit, getting
lost at one point, picked up an ancient hitch hiker, and finally
settling around the coastal town of Gampo. This town didn't have
anything special to see, but it did offer many rooms to stay right on
the east coast. Unfortunately for us though, they were all closed as
it was off-season. So, we settled for a hotel instead.

We explored the east coast a little more, visiting sites such as the
underwater tomb of an ancient king, which is marked by rocks 50m out
in the water, laid out in a way where you can imagine it to be a
dragon (but only if you squint, and have an overactive imagination).


From Gampo, we headed back inland towards the ancient town of
Gyeongju. On the way we went to Bulguska Temple, which is over 1000
years old and one of the most famous beautiful temples in Korea.
There were some huge stone pagodas, one plain, one decorated. I can't
remember the significance of them however.

We also visited the Seokgarum Grotto, which is one of Koreas most
valued national treasures.It was discovered one day when a shepherd,
caught in a rainstorm, seeked shelter in what looked like a cave. What
he found in there was something untouched for 1000 years. It was a
huge white stone Buddha, placed inside a hill, the interior lined with
stone in a dome shape, carved with ancient gods and protectors, so the
effect feels like you've walked into a hill to find a little temple
carved in stone inside it. Indeed it is a spectacular ancient
treasure which I think could rival some of the Ancient wonders of the
(western) world.

We entered Gyeongju, ancient capital of the the powerful Shilla
kingdom from 1000 years ago. The Shilla dynasty had such power in the
past that people liken it to the East version of Rome, with its power,
affluence and trade routes. In fact, they have even discovered Roman
coins and artifacts in some Shilla tombs, which proves there was trade
going on between the two countries at that time.

Then again, my information is largely supplied by the very nationalist
fiercely-proud Koreans.

We had lunch at a traditional "Sambap" place, Definitely one of my
favorite Korean meals, It's origins from Royalty banquets, Sambap
consists of not 1, or 5, but about 20 or more different dishes, of
various kimchi, meat, tofu, and seafood, eaten with rice and soup.
It's like a buffet for 1 (or 2). Your table is covered with so many
dishes you have nowhere to put your chopstick down! And the best thing
is that it's not really that expensive!

We then walked around a bit, observing many old buildings having left
their facades the same as it was 1000 years ago but only modifying the
inside. This is in order to preserve the beauty and the history of the
place by the government. The result leaves you feeling a little like
you've gone back in time (except they didn't have cars back then, or
soccer fields, or cell phone towers, or satellite dishes).

We visited some of the ancient Shilla tombs. These aren't just normal
tombs with gravestone as you'd expect. They were in fact huge burial
mounds that look like very neat circular hills (and in fact Koreans
treated it as such until they it dawned on them that those hills
aren't natural or normal, and after excavation and examination,
discovered they were actually tombs).

These are the Korean versions of Pyramids, where Royalty is buried in
a tomb of stone and left with many treasures, then covered over with a
sort of semi circular burial chamber, which is then covered with
stones and dirt.

We then went looking around for the famous Gyeongju bread, which is a
kind of bread filled with a red bean paste. There is one original shop
that makes it and a few varieties stemming from the original. To be
honest I don't know why it's so famous around Korea; I didn't think it
was mind-blowing stuff. But anyway we bought lots of them to
distribute to family and friends, which is what Koreans do when
they're in Gyeongju.

Afterwards, we went to a place called Anapji pond, which is a man made
lake designed by one of the Ancient Shilla kings as a place to
entertain guests. We walked around a series of colorful gazebos
located at various places around the large pond, enjoying the scenery,
the ducks, squirrels and various wildlife, and the sound of the loud
bullet trains that storm past just outside the peaceful park!

Anyway, Sammy had a nice surprise for me. She took me to a fancy 5
star hotel by the lakeside just in the outskirts of Seoul, as her
family had some sort of special membership that allowed them a great
discount on staying there So we had a nice view of the lake from
our nice balcony, where we enjoyed the sunset over Gyeongju bread and

Again, I was thinking of proposing to Sammy over the sunset, but I
guess suddenly I was overcome with shyness and I missed the


Originally we had planned to go to Seoroksan mountain and the hot
springs in Sokcho, on the north east coast, before heading back to
Seoul. But after Jirisan left us still with sore tired limbs, we
decided that we did not want to do any more hiking. So we had the
idea of trying to stay in a traditional Korean house in a traditional
rural village for fun. Sammy did some research and found a place that
would allow us to stay the night.

This is how, after driving a few hours through winding narrow mountain
roads, we ended up in Bulat, a tiny village nestled in the mountains
south of Seoul. This town is famous for making a kind of traditional
good quality paper using the old methods, which they then send for
sale in traditional Korean shops (I wonder how many times I'm going to
use the word "traditional" in this entry?) Anyway, I think I'm the
first foreigner to have ever visited the place, as I don't think
anyone else has heard of the place before or would even know how to
find it (as there's no public transport, and it's not easy to find by

Anyway, we met a famous couple who featured in some Korean
documentaries there. This couple was famous because they decided to
leave their lives in modern Seoul in exchange for a more traditional
rural lifestyle. Adding to this is the small boy they have, who is
growing up in this traditional environment, in a village where there
is no one under the age of 30 (we were the youngest there). The film
crew were interested in his development without people his age and the
environment. He was clearly excited to see us!

They invited us for some herbal tea and homegrown food while we talked
about our lives (well they talked as it was all in Korean, I just ate,
played with the kid and the goats and had Sammy translate for me ).
They then took us to the paper-making factory, and showed us all the
equipment and process of making it. They also showed us some paintings
and sculptures using the paper, and gave us a few gifts.

Afterwards, they took us to the house where we were to stay the night.
It really was quite traditional, complete with paper doors and
windows, and a underground "ondol" heating system based on a fire lit
underneath the house, and having to sleep on the floor. At night we
could hear the sound of large insects scratching on the paper trying
to get in; I'm just glad it held or we would not have survived the

The next day, after a nice breakfast at another villagers home, we
decided to walk to the lake near the village before heading g back to
Seoul. We walked along a trail until we came to the clear blue lake,
lying still and tranquil in the clear sunny day.

Afterwards, we headed back to the village, and visited the house of
the elder (who was a kind of local sheriff/mayor - the village
probably only consisted of 20+ people). He was kind enough to show us
his cow and his dog, who appeared in the documentary since they were
filmed as being best friends and always looking after each other.
However, we were disappointed to learn that since the cow had a new
baby calf, the cow and dog have stopped being close friends,
especially since the dog bit the calf, and now have to be separated
until the calf is big enough to look after itself without the mother

And so, after farewelling the villagers we have met, and after Sammy
managed to finally escape the little boy who kept following after her,
we left the village, back to civilisation!