I don't really feel like writing, but I'm headed to a new town tomorrow, so I figure I should stick something up here.
For the past three days I've been in Daejeon, which is the fifth largest city in South Korea and the largest city that I'll be writing about. Unfortunately, it doesn't have much by way of real sightseeing, so the most interesting time I've had is checking out the nightlife. It's been nice to sit in a bar and loiter over drinks again, and at Lucky Strike last night I had a very nice mojito --- made with love, truly, by the dedicated Korean bartender.
Friends at home have been asking me how things are here, with the former president's suicide and the North setting off missile tests willy-nilly. Truth be told, because I don't speak Korean, it's not like I can get under the skin of any of these issues. All I know is that with the former president's funeral being held today, there were plenty of emotional scenes playing on the news. Yesterday afternoon I stopped at a memorial for him outside Daejeon's City Hall to leave a flower, because a Korean friend in Singapore had asked me to. At night there were many more people lining up to pay their respects.
As for the North Korea missile tests, a friend in Seoul told me that as the USO and tour companies are still running their DMZ tours, things are status quo. So ... we'll see. One of my goals for the trip is to see all three places where one can visit or see something of the DMZ. I was at Goseong Unification Observatory three weeks ago along the eastern coast; there's still Panmunjom and Cheorwon to go.
The other thing worth reporting is that I am officially tired of having to handwash my underwear and socks, and re-pack my backpack every couple of days when I move on to a new town. Still lovin' the travelling --- I just wish that clean clothes could magically be awaiting me at each new stop.
So Daejeon's been fun, but I'm ready to get back to small-town Korea, with its helpful bus drivers and less hectic traffic.
So here's the first thing you gotta remember about hiking in South Korea: the country is 70% mountain, which means most hikes involve going up, up, up, and just because there's a well-worn trail from thousands of hikers passing through there every year (the Koreans do love their hiking) doesn't mean that it's going to be an easy one.
I'm getting used to all the climbing, because visiting just a simple temple or other sightseeing spot that's only 1 or 2 km from the trailhead usually involves some uphill work. Two thoughts keep me going when I get tired:
It's all uphill now, which means it'll be all downhill later --- yay!
If that old man/old woman/kid can scramble up and down this trail, so can I, dammit.
Today I went up Birobong, a peak in Sobaeksan National Park. Not many old men or old women on the trail, though there were a couple of boys with their dads. But it was the downhill-is-faster theory that betrayed me. The trail was pretty rocky, so coming down was a little tougher to navigate in terms of finding firm footholds. Now I understand why my Lecaf sneakers previously attracted concern from other hikers (a couple of them gestured at the shoes today too): while they're certainly comfortable, they simply haven't got the right traction and support for slithering down rocky paths.
I made it down okay, but next time I'll remember to wear my other shoes. In the remaining three weeks of my trip, there's one more national park on my must-see list and I might do a little extra hiking on my own around Seoul.
Although I've been mistaken for Korean a few times, it doesn't happen as often as it did in Vietnam. I think my short hair and backpack are a dead giveaway, as well as the fact that I'm often toting the Lonely Planet or else scribbling frantically in almost illegible English in my notebook.
Not looking local can trigger the most entertaining encounters, of course. Today, while I was working my way up a hiking trail at Woraksan National Park, I fell into the company of two men, both dressed to the hilt Korean-style for their hike: lightweight outdoor gear, backpacks, gloves and sweatbands. (Actually, the sweatbands are pretty anomalous for male Korean hikers.) After establishing that I was hiking solo, one of them gestured at my shoes and murmured with concern. I guess my new Lecaf sneakers --- pink! with flower details and a rainbow band --- weren't garang (Singlish, not Korean, for serious, hardcore) enough for him.
More surprising was when I was cornered by two well-dressed young women at the bus terminal. One of them did all the talking: First she established that I was foreign and English-speaking, then she gave me something "to read", about how to deal with life (that triggered my Spidey sense, of course). Then she asked if I knew God (aha!). I said yes, and she asked if I knew the name of God. I was stumped till she prompted, "Jehovah." To which I said, "Oh, you're Jehovah's Witnesses." If she was surprised that I'd heard of it, she covered it smoothly by asking for my telephone number "so that we can talk more about this." Which was my cue to murmur something about leaving town the next day (truly, I am!) and booking it out of there.
Of all the experiences I imagined having in Korea, being solicited by Jehovah's Witnesses was not one of them.
A final note about the pink Lecaf shoes: yesterday an ajumma on the bus complimented me on them and asked me how much they cost. She was impressed that they were only about 20,000 won (a little more than S$20). I couldn't decide if I was happy my new shoes had caught her eye --- or if I ought to be worried about my fashion sense. To quote an American teacher I met a few towns ago, "Have you noticed how Korean women hit 50 and then they all get a perm and a pink jacket?"
I spend a lot of time on this trip waiting for buses. To get to lot of these national parks and other lovely sightseeing places, I have to wait for a bus that comes every hour or so. To be fair, most buses leave scrupulously on time, but sometimes --- as was the case this evening --- the bus doesn't appear as the schedule suggests it would. In tonight's case, it was only after asking for directions at various grocery stores, plus randomly overhearing an elderly Korean gentleman asking about the same bus, that I figured out I'd been waiting at the wrong place for the wrong bus. And that I had to wait an hour more for the right one to show up.
So I sat down and did some journalling instead.
The waiting does put a damper on things. It means I can't get to places as quickly as I'm used to (at home, I check the bus timings online obsessively before I get to a bus stop, so that I can already plan the quickest route), and there's a lot of downtime when, um, nothing happens. I suppose I oughta go with the zen and enjoy the fact that I'm not dashing from place to place, but sometimes I'm just itching to get on with it.
Sometimes, however, waiting isn't so uneventful. During one of today's hour-long waits: A mother arrived at the bus stop with her son, who's three or four years old. He started obsessively following around an older boy at the bus stop, the latter maybe eight or nine years old, and it turned out he wanted to try the orange drink the older boy was drinking. He got to try it, then he wanted to hold onto the drink (it was more than half-drunk by the older boy), and the older boy was like, whatever, you can have it.
So the mother and younger boy came back with the orange drink, at which point the boy's grandmother insisted on paying the other boy for the drink. Which set off this whole darting and ducking going on at one end of the bus stop, as the boy tried to decline the money but the grandmother kept stuffing it into his hand (or pocket).
The grandmother won, of course.
Meanwhile, I was still amazed that the mother allowed her son to drink from a stranger's cup. Cooties! Or something.
More buses (and waiting-for-buses) tomorrow. Which reminds me: I should go to sleep.
I blame it on the previous three weeks in small(er)-town Korea, where the pace is more laidback, the people are friendlier and the streets are less crowded. Plunging back into Seoul, with friends taking me out on the town both nights, it felt too frantic and too, too much.
So when some plans for day trips from Seoul didn't quite work out, I decided to get the hell outta there and push on with the rest of my trip. There'll be time enough to soak up the city vibe at the end, before I fly home.
Today I'm in Cheongju, where I poked around in a museum commemorating Korea's earliest metal printing press (which purportedly pre-dates Gutenberg's by more than 70 years), then took off on a 4-km hike on some fortress walls outside the city. It wasn't quite of Great Wall of China proportions, but the uphill sections certainly took the wind out of me. It's not customary in Korea to drink alone, but afterwards I sat down to dinner and ordered a bowlful of dongdongju (rice wine) to make it all better. Now I know why Koreans are always drinking after they come back from hiking (actually, they're happy to toss back a swig or two mid-hike too).
More national parks and limestone caves to come. As Yan Wei well knows, I had severe waterfall fatigue after we visited Dalat in Vietnam last year. We'll see if Korea gives me cave fatigue.
It's surreal to be back in Seoul, three weeks after I touched down here. The sun is out, again. I had to visit the Korea Tourism Organization near Cheonggye Stream, again (though the lanterns in the above picture aren't there anymore). I did lots of walking all over town, again. In fact, while out on an errand, I wound up in the same neighbourhood as the backpacker place I stayed at the last time --- and ran into someone whom I'd met at that backpacker place then. What are the chances, indeed.
I gave myself two days here to recharge and regroup, not so much because I was travel-fatiged (that hasn't hit, yet), but just to make sure my stuff was in order. Also to meet friends and sup on some good Korean barbecue --- that's one of the Korean meals that's well nigh impossible to order as a solo traveller.
There's plenty of free wi-fi in Seoul, so I've been uploading pictures to my Flickr account. I'm not going to be able to upload everything before I head out again tomorrow, so it'll be catch as catch can.
I've spent three days in this town (Samcheok) and seen three limestone caves. The first one, Hwaseongul, was fabulous. The second one, Cheonguk Donggul in Donghae, was meh. The third one, Daegeumgul, was pretty neat.
The only downside was that all of them were overly illuminated with garish coloured lights; that seems to be the trend in Asia. Phong Nha Cave in central Vietnam suffered from the same decorative affliction when I saw it last October.
I saw my first cave when I was 10: Yallingup Cave in southern Western Australia. My parents bought me a souvenir book, which I remember paging through for months (years?) afterwards. It's amazing how much I still retain. I could declaim "Helictites!" when I spotted them these couple of days, and tsk-tsk at visitors who touched the limestone formations (hello, way to contaminate the calcium carbonate). I mean, seriously, there was a guy at Daegeumgul today who touched every other formation hanging over our path as we finished the tour, with the kind of rapping one usually associates with checking for secret chambers. What, did he think the limestone formations were hollow and fake?
Besides the caves, there've been countless beaches, and the usual rounds of restaurant and hotel visits. This is the last I'll see of Korea's east coast on this trip. Tomorrow I'm headed inland to more national parks.
annyeong haseyo ("hello" and all-purpose greeting)
gamsa hamnida ("thank you")
annyeong-hi gyeseyo ("goodbye", if you're the departing party, as I usually am)
hana ("one", for a solo traveller)
eolmayeyo ("how much is it?")
masi sumnida ("delicious")
an apologetic chon hangug marul mot'aeyo ("I don't speak Korean").
(PS: I'm trying to use the Korean government-sanctioned spelling style, but I might've made a mistake above or lapsed into the previous McCune-Reischauer system)
2. If you need directions, show someone the name of the place you're trying to find in hangeul. English text will throw most Koreans off. Maps are helpful only if they're in hangeul.
3. On that note, learn to read hangeul. Even if it takes you 10 minutes to parse a five-item restaurant menu, it still beats faffing about cluelessly. Also useful for spotting motel names, checking schedules at the bus terminal or destinations posted in the bus window, and reading toilet signs (though the latter tend to have appropriate graphics or English text as well).
4. Bring a phrasebook, and bookmark or dog-ear it so that it's easy to flip to the phrases you'll most often use on your trip. (I have about 10 pages dog-eared on my increasingly bashed-about copy.)
5. Don't spend all your small change. You'll always need 1,000-won notes and 100-won coins for bus fare.
6. Sometimes you won't know what you're eating. As long as you're not allergic to anything, just roll with it. The ajumma knows best!
7. Everyone knows about kimchi, but have a go at all the other banchan (side dishes) too. I'm currently addicted to the heavily salted-and-spiced anchovy-like fish that've been appearing with all my meals at these seaside towns (it reminds me of ikan bilis). And yesterday I had a braised beef side dish that was just divine. I almost abandoned my main course doenjang jjigae (soybean-paste stew) for it.
8. Always, always wear socks or stockings. At some point you'll probably have to remove your shoes to sit down at a restaurant, and showing your bare feet is a no-no. (I'm ashamed to admit that this didn't dawn on me till the end of my first week in Korea, but I've since been diligently atoning for my earlier faux pas).
9. Smile. A lot. It doesn't cost anything and it can smooth the way before you start stuttering in makeshift Korean.
10. Start accumulating some good travel karma by being considerate of people around you. Like don't hold up the entire queue at the bus or train station if you have a lot of questions. Or take the cue from the locals and give up your seat on the bus to someone who needs it more, especially the elderly or someone with a baby. Or be patient with people who want to hazard their English on you --- it's much harder for them to overcome the fear of making a mistake, than for you to wait and try to understand.
I've had a good first two weeks in Korea. Five more to go ...
This is very unusual for me, even when I'm doing on-the-road travel research. Most places in Korea don't open that early, so it's not like in The Amazing Race, where showing up at 7 a.m. sharp at the gate of the national park guarantees you the first chance to lurch in and find your clue.
But I was up at 6 a.m. anyway, because getting to Odaesan National Park from the town where I'm staying (Gangneung) involved an inter-city bus ride that needed to be timed right with the shuttle bus servicing different parts of the national park, so that I could optimise my time at all my stops and not spend all day waiting for the next bus (the shuttle bus runs only every hour or so).
In the afternoon, there was a painstaking wait outside another bus terminal --- this time in the nearby town of Hoenggye --- for another shuttle bus --- this time headed for Yongpyong Ski Resort. Ironically, at the national park in the morning I'd bumped into an Australian who'd commented that some of the transportation instructions in his copy of the Lonely Planet don't provide sufficient details about where one catches the bus. Now I got screwed --- it was only when the puce (yes, puce) coach glided by me with "All Seasons Yongpyong" emblazoned on its side, that I realised I'd been waiting in completely the wrong spot.
That shuttle bus also runs every hour or so.
So I said screw it, and took a taxi. It's not ski season, but a diligent Lonely Planet writer still has to go make sure all the buildings and services (and prices) are in place for the next snowfall.
Through sheer good fortune, I've been meeting older English-speaking Koreans who are more than happy to show a foreigner around while they exercise their English. One of them even took a course at my university (albeit a good decade before I was there). That has to be one of the most astonishing coincidences of my trip.
I've spent the last two days at Seoraksan National Park, doing lots of traipsing and tripping along hiking paths marked mostly in Korean (and helpfully stocked with food and drinks stalls). The paths were mostly rock and gravel, but there were also steel staircases to help amateurs like me over the difficult bits. Don't knock those steel staircases --- without them, I would never ever have made it up as majestic a face as that of Ulsan Bawi. It took me one hour to make it up 1 km of fairly vertical distance, hitting the summit at about 3 p.m. Yeah, maybe that wasn't the best time to go climbing up an exposed rock face.
Remind me also to show you the photograph I'm calling "Fallen gimbap".
Tonight I'm staying in the coolest backpacker joint in Sokcho, The House Hostel, where I've met another Singaporean (the first one I've randomly met this trip) and two Thai women. Tomorrow I'm off to another coastal town, Gangneung, which is also known for having a "Tofu Village". That'll be a nice change of diet from the meat and fish I've been eating.
I feel like I ought to say something wittier here, since I don't know when I'll have internet access again. But I think my brain is feeling sympathy fatigue with my sore feet and calves, so I'm going to toddle upstairs with my beer and go chillax now.
I've spent the last two days in and around the fishing port town of Sokcho, along the northeastern coast of South Korea. I've eaten a good bit of fish, and squinted at a lot of dried squid and dried fish for sale in the markets and ports. Last night's dinner of raw fish took less than ten minutes to go from wriggling-in-the-water to sliced-and-served on my dinner table. I'm sure some travellers might find that disturbing.
To wrangle my way to the Goseong Unification Observatory today, I had to not only take an hour-long public bus ride, but also effectively hitchhike the last 10 km uphill to the observatory proper. As luck would have it, the ticket office hooked me up with a young Korean couple with two toddlers. The family barely spoke any English, but between my phrasebook and a lot of smiling, it worked out well. We figured out that they were headed to the same places I was for the rest of the day --- the aquarium and former presidential residences at Hwajinpo --- so we ended up spending most of the day together, before they dropped me back at Sokcho. Plus at lunchtime, they bought me instant noodles from a beach vendor and shared their homemade kimbap (Korean sushi) as well.
When I think of the phrase "the kindness of strangers", I will always think of this pleasant young couple.
Tomorrow I'm heading to my first national park of the trip, Seoraksan National Park. This is South Korea, so I'm sure there'll be internet access in the mountains --- if I have the energy after a day of hiking to use it.
I think I must've walked at least 15 km today, and cycled another 5 km or so. The walkathon day began when I got to the ferry pier at Soyang Dam so early that I had 1.5 hours to kill before the first ferry departed. So I walked around to kill time. Later, traffic was bumper-to-bumper to get to Namiseom Island (of Winter Sonata fame), so I walked somewhere between 3 and 4 km, from the bus terminal at the town of Gapyeong to the ferry point for the island. And back, after visiting the island.
(In true Korean style, the island has declared itself the Republic of Naminara, with its own flag, currency and passport. Ticket counters on the mainland are marked "Ticket/Visa". They didn't check anyone's passport, though.)
The cycling came later, when I was back in Chuncheon, with about an hour to kill before dinner. So I decided I should go do that sunset cycling route that the previous guidebook author had recommended. It was a very pleasant way to round up my sojourn here, but man, with the wind blowing against me on my way back, it was harder than I bargained for.
Chuncheon has been full of little surprises: quirky cafes, unexpected finds, and lovely people who try to help me even though they don't speak a word of English and I can never remember Korean for "I don't speak Korean". The blisters were worth it.
Unlike the previous Lonely Planet research trip, I'm finding it harder these first few days to find the time to stay sort and label my images, which means I haven't gotten round to uploading any to Flickr. Meanwhile, just imagine the land of Winter Sonata(minus any actual winter), and you pretty much have an idea of what it all looks like around me.
When we return to our regularly scheduled programming, remind me to tell you about the story of the three jovial 60-year-old men I met at a rural bus stop. Also about funky university cafes in Chuncheon, huffing and puffing my way up an inclined road on a bicycle because I'd missed the (level) bicycle path, inhaling allegedly jade-infused air to improve my qi and wasting time looking for a room key that (duh) was in the power-activation slot for my hotel room in the first place.
(Uh ... forget about the last story. I'm pretty lame that way.)