Monday, April 13, 2009

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.

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