Sunday, 29 August 2010

Summer Vacation Day 3-4 Gangneung and Jeongdongjin

We arrived in Gangneung in the late afternoon having caught a coach from Sokcho. We found luggage lockers at Gangneung's intercity bus terminal at the back of a stinking dried fish shop so we were able to dump our heavy bags for the princely sum of 4000 won (about £2.50). Finding places to dump our backpacks was to be a recurring theme throughout our journey and we were always really excited when we found suitable lockers. It's no fun sightseeing in the heat and humidity of a Korean summer with a big pack on your back. We caught a taxi into town and took a bus to Jeondongjin, a small seaside resort about 20km south of Gangneung.

All of the Gangwon Province coast seemed to be very heavily defended, presumably because it borders North Korea. The stretch of coast between Gangneung and Jeongdongjin was no exception, hence the barbed wire.

We had planned to go to the Unification Park which is on the road between Gangneung and Jeongdongjin but we realised that we would get there 10 minutes before it closed at 5pm so we decided to stay on the bus to Jeongdongjin. Jeongdongjin is a beautiful little seaside town with a nice relaxed atmosphere and some pretty surreal sights including a giant cruise ship up on a hill that has been made into a luxury hotel. There is a gorgeous little train station right on the beach too which was used in some scenes of the popular Korean soap opera 'Hourglass' (TV soap operas are as popular here as they are in the UK from what I understand). We had a really nice afternoon/ evening in Jeongdongjin, walking along the beach and stopping for a beer and some noodles (of course).

The surreal sight of a massive cruise ship cum hotel on the hill overlooking Jeongdongjin beach.

Jeongdongjin's beachside train station as featured in the Korean soap 'Hourglass'.

Little girl on an ATV (quad bike) on Jeongdongjin beach. It seems virtually anyone can drive these things here! (In fairness, her slightly older looking sisters jumped on and did the driving).

A Korean couple taking a stroll on Jeongdongjin beach.

The beach police in Jeongdongjin clearly have a very stressful life!

A traditional looking building (maybe a pavilion or part of a temple) on the hills behind Jeongdongjin.

Rowan does some hard pedalling on the bike train near Jeongdongjin station. Shame it was chained to the rails.

We caught our bus back to Gangneung and arrived just in time to retrieve our backpacks from the left luggage before it closed at 9pm. We spoke to the really friendly people at Gangneung's tourist information who found us a cheap motel for the night (40,000 won). The tourist information here was really helpful and there was one guy who spoke excellent English. If you're ever in Gangneung I recommend paying them a visit. We liked it so much in Jeongdongjin that we wanted to come back the next day with our backpacks and stay for a day or two to enjoy the beach and the friendly vibes. This wasn't to be, unfortunately, as the weather turned on us and when we woke up the next day it was pouring with rain. Disaster! Although we were pretty disappointed, we decided to give up on the beach and go to the Unification Park for a look round the unusual tourist attractions there. We caught the train to Jeongdongjin and it was quite a pretty route that ran along by the barb wire topped cliffs of the east coast. We foolishly missed the luggage lockers at Jeongdongjin train station so we ended up carrying all our bags with us around the Unification Park in the pouring rain. The buses between Jeongdongjin, Gangneung and Unification Park are quite infrequent (maybe hourly at best) so we caught a taxi to the Park. The Unification Park contained a small North Korean submarine and a big American warship, both of which you can wander around. We looked around the warship then took it in turns to go round the sub as there was no way a person could fit through the sub with a backpack on. It was tiny and really cramped. Tourists had to wear hard hats when walking inside the sub as everyone bags their head at least once on the way through.

Welcome to rainy, miserable Gangneung! This was our second visit to Gangneung and once again it was miserable weather.

This is the American warship in Unification Park. It was built in the USA in 1945 and donated to South Korea in 1972. It was huge and had a bit of a weird smell to it and there were signs on the deck warning of the risk of a 'Snppery surface'.

This is the tiny North Korean submarine. It was only 35 m long but had a crew of 11 men and 15 soldiers so it must have been horribly cramped. This submarine got stuck on some rocks near Jeongdongjin on 17 Sept 1996. The commander of the sub killed the 11 crewmembers and landed with the soldiers and attempted to get back to the North. They didn't succeed but it took 49 days to catch them and 17 South Korean civilians and soldiers were killed in the process.

Information sign in Unification Park.

This is the wooden boat that was used by the 11 North Koreans to escape to the South as described in the sign (above).

This was a manned coastal outlook just next to the Unification Park. We waited for ages for buses here so spent a lot of time watching the soldiers who looked as bored as we were.

Having seen the sights of Unification Park we made our way back to Jeongdongjin and caught a train to Donghae which was another really pretty route, all mountains and deserted coastlines. Donghae looked like a pretty uninspiring place though we spent less than half an hour there before we caught a coach on to Samcheok, the next stop on our Korean odyssey.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Summer Vacation Day 1 - 3: Sokcho and Seoraksan

We set off on our tour of Korea on a Friday afternoon right after school ended, catching a coach from Seoul Express Bus Terminal (what an inspired name that is). Sokcho is on the east coast so it is pretty much the other side of the country to Seoul and is in Gangwon Province right up near the border with North Korea. It took us about 3.5 hours to get to Sokcho by coach so we didn't get there til about 9pm but luckily for us the bus terminal was really close to the beach as were loads of motels. We found ourselves a likely looking motel for 50,000 won a night (a bit more than we're used to paying to be honest but it was high season), dumped our stuff, bought some beers and went out to explore.

At night, Sokcho beach was lit up by fireworks and lasers. It looked a bit like there was a war going on as there were so many rockets firing up over the sea.

Apparently some of the lights were lasers and some were searchlights looking for enemy infiltrators from the North.

This guy was running a rather popular stall near the sea front. It was the 'hammer a nail into a piece of wood' game - unusual.

There were some funny little fairground rides in Sokcho including this bucking bull/ womble thing.

On Saturday, we moved to a cheaper motel as the one we were staying in was hiking their prices up for the weekend and hey, we were on a budget! It was still 50k a night though and it was a bit of a dump too. We did get lots of free, complementary mosquitoes though!

The funny Disney-esque Samsung Palace Motel. Alas, we didn't stay there as we were too tight!

Our first ramyen (instant noodles) breakfast of our vacation. There were many more to come unfortunately!

We decided to spend the day hiking in Seoraksan National Park, probably South Korea's most popular National Park. 'Seoraksan' means 'Snow Peak Mountain' and the National Park Area itself has been a UNESCO designated World Biosphere Reserve since 1981 due to the huge variety of plants and animals that are found there. We only saw birds, insects and a really cute little chipmunk but there used to be bears in the park up until the 1980's and tigers lived there until about 60 or 70 years ago too. It was a truly beautiful place, all dramatically soaring, craggy peaks, thick pine forests and winding valleys. Being fairly lazy sightseers rather than full on, hardcore hikers, we just stayed in the Outer Seorak area of the park rather than trekking into it's wild heart but we still saw plenty of amazing views. We bought tickets to take the cable car up one of the mountains. We had worried there would be a massive queue considering how a nice a day it was but the tickets had times on them so we spent the wait having a look at the Shinheung-sa Temple and a massive bronze Buddha.

The bear statue that stands in the entrance of Seoraksan National Park.

View of the mountains from a forest path in the park.

This was the huge and very impressive bronze Buddha statue at the Shinheung-sa Temple.

The bronze Buddha from the front.

A highly decorated carving of a Deva Guardian (a celestial king apparently) that was standing in the enclosed entrance of the temple. There were four in total and they guard both the temple and Buddhism in general as I understand it.

Ice cream loving chipmunk we saw on the side of a mountain.

The shell left behind from the moulting of some kind of massive beetle. the whole tree was covered in loads of these.

The cable car that carried us on a 1.1 km vertigo inducing trip almost to the top of a nearby peak was reassuringly Swiss made, not that I doubt Korean standards of engineering just that I have more confidence in Swiss standards! From the cable car station at the top it was a short walk along well maintained wooden board-walks almost to the peak, but then just when you needed it most the board-walk disappeared and the last 20 meters was lose rock bordered by sheer drops on each side, not that that bothered the Koreans who were happily striding around in high heels and flip flops inches from the edge of cliffs hundreds of meters high.

Its a long way up! The view up the cable car wires from the bottom.

The summit of the mountain that we took the cable car up to. We didn't make it right to the top as I was too much of a coward when it came to scrambling over loose rocks with sheer drops all around. Luckily I have a long lens for my camera so I could cheat!

The summit close up!

This guy was sat on the very edge of the mountain wearing flip flops and looked totally unconcerned by the sheer drop of over 1000m. Just watching him made me feel sick.

This is Ulsanbawi, a jagged rock formation rising to over 800m in the north of the park. It can be hiked but we didn't attempt it as it was a hot day and you have to climb up an extremely steep trail with bridges and metal stairways with over 800 stairs to get up there. Maybe another day...

After exploring the top of the mountain we decided to treat ourselves to mulberry jam pancakes before taking the cable car back down again. They were hot and delicious!

We caught the cable car back down the mountain again and went for a wander along a popular valley route to see the waterfalls. We were a bit disappointed though as the one that we saw was more like a gently meandering water slide than a waterfall. Still it was a pleasant stroll and we saw some huge black butterflies as big as sparrows flying about. We tried in vain to get a decent picture of one but they were very camera shy.

The so-called 'waterfall'.

One of those giant butterflies. Or maybe it was a moth, not sure really.

View of the cable car from the valley path we took to get to the waterfall.

One of the strangest things about the park was the weird sounds emanating from the trees, a sort of drilling, sawing chirrup that would steadily increase to a deafening pitch and then drop away again to a dull buzzing. We weren't sure what was making the noise but it followed us throughout our trek around Korea for the next 16 days.

The peaks of the park's mountains had grown blue and misty by the time we left.

We left the park in the early evening and had a seafood barbecue near Sokcho seafront that was nice but not earth shattering. The next day we had planned to go to a big indoor waterpark and spa in Sokcho called Waterpia which had such amazing facilities as a pool filled with little fishes that nibbled the dead skin off your toes (eurgh!) but tourist info told us that it cost 65,000 won per person so we gave up on that idea. We had wanted to do a bit more wandering around Sokcho but as there weren't any luggage lockers at the bus terminal and we had heavy backpacks we decided to get on the road again and took a coach to Gangneung to start the next leg of our journey.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Our Summer Vacation Exploring Korea

We're still alive!

Yes, I know, its hard to believe given how long its been since we've posted anything on here, but we haven't dropped off the face of the earth, we've just been on holiday.

The route of our Korean tour - starting from Seoul Express Bus Terminal (glamorous) to Sokcho and then several other places along the east coast, then down to Busan and across to Mokpo, then down to Jeju and finally back up to Seoul again. Phew!

Anyway we're back now so we can tell you all about it. We had two weeks of holiday but we set off on Friday afternoon so we had 16 days in total. We started off at our Gwangju which is just next to Seoul and not the Gwangju down in the south west corner (we'll come to that later). Our route was down the east coast from Sokcho down to Busan then dashing across the south coast to Mokpo in the far south west corner by coach and train before getting a ferry to Jeju island in the far south west and finally returning to Seoul by plane.
Of all the places we went to to probably our favorite was Jeongdongjin, just south of Gangneung and our least favorite was the utterly charmless Mokpo (sorry Mokpo-ians).

Trip Statistics - for all you list-o-maniacs out there!
  • Days travelling: 17
  • Distance traveled: over 1200 miles
  • Modes of transport: 10 (coach, train, tandem bicycle, ferry, submarine, quad bike/ ATV, cable car, monorail, taxi and plane)
  • Motels visited: 8
  • Korean instant noodles (rameyon) consumed: 13
  • Mosquito bites received: Way too many to count!
Overall, we had a great time, saw a fair bit of South Korea and did some really cool stuff. We will write separate posts for the different places we visited as there's too many to fit in one entry so watch this space!