Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Stropping Around Korea - Daegu / Gatbawi

Daegu is a major city of around two and a half million people in the province of Gyeongsangbuk on the eastern coast of South Korea. Because of the population and the availability of funds they have established a convenient system to aid the tourist industry. Right outside the central train station there is an information office with English speaking staff that will happily assist any newcomers with checking out the sites and even pointing you in the direction of a place to stay.

A general wave of the arm was all that was needed when we stropped up to the counter and asked where we might lay our heads. To the young lady's left were motels at around 30,000 won and to her right were more expensive motels at around 50,000 won. We opted for the cheaper and after checking out the times of the various tours that were available headed off. Sure enough there were a large cluster of places to stay, all with colourful names and just as colourful signage. We picked a place called Guam at random and checked in.

The next morning we were at the information office once again right in time for the morning departure of Daegu City Tour bus. There are six departure times each day and with a hop on hop off system you are not rushed at any of the ten sites they stop at. The mixture of places caters for young and old with a farm visit, a theme park and the more traditional temples and ancient Confucian schools.

Our first choice was a placed called Gatbawi, a statue of Buddha carved in the Unified Silla period bu a Monk heartbroken over the death of his mother. I knew beforehand that the statue was at the top of a hill but the climb was grueling and there came plenty of times when i wanted to turn around a limp back down. With a method of one step at a time and small goals of the next twist in the staircase i managed to finally crest the mountain.

The last few steps were the hardest as the nearer we got to the top the clearer the sound of a Monks chanting could be heard along of the rhythmic beats of stick on wood which was a lot faster then my current pace and seemed to stir everybody around me on. but manage it i did and satisfied i was.

When i finally reached the flat space directly in front of the statue it was hard to move with the large number of tightly packed bodies bowing or sitting in reverence and even harder to see the statue itself as the view was blocked with the framework of coloured lanterns that have been set up in anticipation of Buddha's 2553 birthday on May the 2nd. Once i had recovered my breath and sampled the view of the mountains surrounding us I made my way forward to admire the skill of an ancient artisan.

When it came time to head back down we naturally followed the path that continued on beyond the statue. That was our mistake. It was a lot easier getting down and we were quickly at the base of the hill thinking if we'd come up this way our legs wouldn't be feeling like they wanted to drop off. Our thinking also included the idea that if we followed this way we'd eventually arrive back at the bus stop we were dropped off at. But how wrong we were. It was at the bottom of the fourth car park that we came to the depressing conclusion we were on the wrong side of the mountain and had now idea how to get to where we needed to be. My friend flagged down a passing car and the driver quickly confirmed our dilemma but he also just as quickly offered us a solution, he offered to drive us around to the correct place. We very thankfully jumped in and ogled the fate he had saved us from as we headed back out onto the highway and eventually to our recognizable starting point.

Part of the aim of this trip was to restore my faith in the locals, it's working!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Stropping Around Korea - Sokcho / Gangneung

Making an earlier start, we headed up to Yanggu on highway 46 for no other reason to have a bit of a look. As it turns out, there wasn't a lot to look at apart from farming equipment and a rather quaint looking town. We are a month early for the tea festival so not a lot was going on. We did a quick circle through the town and headed out the way we came.

Our first stop was just north of Chuncheon at the temple of Cheongpyeon. The drive to the temple was along narrow, winding roads but the walk up to the temple was gentle and relatively short. Set amidst the mountains and decked out for the coming birthday celebrations on the 2nd of May, the simple effort in getting here was greatly rewarded. Once we got back down to the restaurants beside the car park, we got out the gas cooker and made ourselves noodles for lunch on a covered table attached to one of the restaurants. The grandmother was generous in letting us make our own food while sitting at their tables.

On our way to the coast we drove through Seoraksan National Park which is truly breath taking. Wild rocky peaks covered in sparse vegetation surround us, occasional bursts of white from a tree covered in blossoms or the beginnings of spring leaves do little to obscure the harshness of the mountains. Running beside the highway is a river that has been completely remade, sculpted embankments and channeled waterfalls that nature would be ashamed of and in fact had stayed away from as the river bed way practically dry.

We stopped at the mid way point with a commanding view of the path we were yet to take. For a coin you could briefly hire a pair of mounted binoculars to take a closer look or should you wish to spend more there were gifts galore available. You could even had a meal at a restaurant with large windows giving you a spectacular view as you ate. It was enough for me to buy a cup of coffee and use the loo before getting back on the road.

Once we got to the coast we headed north to the township of Sokcho where there is a lively fish market right next to the wharf. You could dine on all manner of sea creatures fresh from the ocean while staring out at the boats that caught them. The people are all friendly and call out as you walk by, attempting to entice you inside. One guy even proclaimed his love for me. We decided against having a meal here but bought a few rice cakes to tide us over.

Heading back down south, our target was the town of Gangneung. Just before reaching the town, we stopped at the Ojukheon Municipal Museum which is based around the originally dwellings of the mother of Korea, Shin Saim-dang who will be soon appearing on the new 50,000 won note. There are several museums on the grounds showing replicas of some of her paintings as well as selling the expensive take home kind but i was thoroughly impressed with the condition and design of the whole complex as well as the small entrance fee.

Rather than stay in the actual township of Gangneung, we decided to look for a place closer to the beach in Gyeonpodae and were pleasantly surprised to find a place within a roads breadth from the white sands for the very reasonable price of 25,000 won. Because of the price we have decided to stay two nights giving me time to do a little writing and to soak up a little relaxation. As i write this in a small Internet cafe attached to a coffee shop the owner sits a few computers down from me with his head leaned back and snoring contentedly.

Last night was sushi night. At the restaurant downstairs from where we are staying we ate a large if not a little expensive meal of raw fish, so much raw fish that we couldn't finish it all but we did finish three bottles of soju, another reason perhaps for the extra time in this idyllic location. I am officially no longer a vegetarian!

Stropping Around Korea - Namiseom / Chuncheon

On Friday night i headed up to Uijeongbu via the subway. The following day, Saturday the 11th of April was to be the first day of my exploration. To begin my trip i was taking it easy. It doesn't get any easier than sitting in the front seat of a car and pointing at a place on the map and getting there. Travelling by car means that everything is done in your own time, no schedules, timetables or connections to make. So it's no wonder that come Saturday we were off to a slow start.

After the car was packed, the memory cards downloaded, final purchases made and the car given a once over we were off. It wasn't until around 11am that we actually hit the road and it wasn't for a short while that that we actually found the right road to hit. That's the other thing about travelling by car, sometimes you don't know the way so end up making a few wrong turns. I guess that is all part of it.

At a little after 2pm we arrived at our first destination, Nami Seom. Nami Seom is an island in the middle of a river but once it happened to be a not so big mountain until a dam was built. That was back in the forties. These days it's a major tourist attraction. A few years ago a producer from a TV company decided to use it as a set for romantic drama, Winter Sonata. The drama became very popular, not only in Korea but also in other Asian countries. So of course the location started to draw crowds.

In 2006 a gentlemen decided to capitalize on the influx of tourists and created The Naminaru Republic. It takes a visa to enter, basically a fee of 8,000 won and a ticket and a short ferry ride to get there. The island boarders the provinces of Gyeonggi and Gangwon. It's accessed from Gyeonggi but administered by Gangwon. Given this unique location it has declared semi Independence and gone on to become a thriving economy. It's popularity has benefited not only the owners but the whole community. Hotels have sprung up and restaurants expanded. The Republic employs countless staff both on the island and off it. There are ferries running back and forth continuously and long ques, even in the off season.

On the island there are gift shops, restaurants, galleries and zoo animals. The two ostriches we saw didn't look like they were enjoying their time much but the squirrels were pretty chipper. You can hire all manner of transportation, from bicycles of two or four wheels to a sky train that seats two. There are even batches to rent but they run a little pricey.

The name of the island comes from a General who some believe to be buried on the island, well it would have been a mountain when he was laid to rest. There is a stone baring a poem of his carved into its surface. by all accounts he was a remarkable man who passed his Military entrance exam at 17 and died discredited aged 27. Hundreds of years later the charges were dropped and he was reinstated to hero status. A movie was even made of his life back in the 60's.

Getting off the island proved more difficult than getting on as the ques were even longer but shortly thereafter we were back on the road. We decided to head to Chuncheon, the Gangwon provincial capital and find a place to stay. When we got to the city it took some time to find a place to stay close to a place to eat and before getting there we were diverted by the final day of the cherry blossom festival. In Chuncheon there is a walkway running between a park and narrow river. Because it is near the end of the season for the blossoms they weren't at their best with more petals littering the ground like snow rather than on the trees but still it was a nice introduction to the city.

Chuncheon is known for Dukgalbi, a fairly simple chicken dish cooked at your table. Even though the frying tray takes up most of the small circular table you are sitting around and well within reach, the waiter does most of the cooking, regularly coming to check on it's progress and adding extra ingredients when needed. Dukgalbi is best accompanied by Suju, the locals version of Vodka.

The hotel we found was a place called Hanmon which was a little more expensive than i had anticipated at 60,000 won a night, and pretty much run of the mill. But the room comes with computer, table and chairs, a large bed and a packet of condoms. The woman who ran the place was friendly and happy to give up directions but at that price we weren't sticking around. Come the morning we were on the highway headed east.


On my second day in Beijing, I was generously bestowed a great piece of information. My taxi driver told me that in and around Beijing there are five places all visitors must see. Countable on one hand and deceptively simple to achieve and had I not already spent the better part of a day venturing to just one of those sights then I would have cheerily set off in the vain attempt of achieving the set.

With so much room to move it is understandable why the Chinese build on such a grand scale. Without limits placed upon land and man power they have assembled a remarkable collection of dominating, if not foot weary, landmarks.

For me it was the grounds, buildings and people of the Temple of Heaven that stood well above the rest. It is easily accessible, which was a huge plus, a subway station drops you off right at the eastern entrance. Before reaching the main attractions however, such as the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest and the Imperial Vault of Heaven, I found myself diverted by the scores of locals whittling away their time in the pursuit of happiness via all manner of activities.

What I initially took to be firecrackers turned out to be the cracks of chain whips and by the looks of it, should you have desired, lessons could obtained. Elsewhere there were a mass of line dancers, salsa dancers or more spectacle friendly traditional dancers. Intimate games of Chinese chess, cards or dominos were being played on the fringes of a long covered walkway and large groups of women were knitting elephants, in-soles or flask holders for the ever present flasks of tea that no respectable Chinese citizen would leave home without. Sitting and soaking up the life of Beijingers will become one of my most cherished memories.

Until the Number Four subway line opens in 2010, The Summer Palace proved to be a little more difficult to get to. It is on the western outskirts of Beijing and comes down to knowing which bus heads out there depending on where you are in the city. From the Beijing Zoo and its collection of camera shy Pandas, I took the 732 to the end of the line. For serene beauty the Summer Palace is by far the place to go. Built on the shores of a dredged though impeccably picturesque lake reside over 3,000 structures, the most dominating of which is the Tower of Buddhist Incense. It was the middle of the afternoon when I finally arrived and officially the grounds close at 5PM but it was well after six as the sun was setting when I was quietly ushered out.

Of the five places on the list provided by my friendly taxi driver, the only one I didn’t get to was the Great wall. How can you go to China and not see the wall? For me it was a matter of time. From Beijing there are three places from which to visit the wall, each of which chew through a day. From the splendor of the Forbidden City and the historical significance of Tiananmen Square, from the narrow alleys of the fading Hutongs to the liveliness of the night market, I saw a lot, did a lot and am thoroughly satisfied with my Beijing experience.