Archive for August, 2012

Nami Island 남이섬, or Namiseom is a nice day trip from Seoul. It’s a strange little place in the middle of the damned North Han River. The island is named after a General Nami who was killed for treason in the Joseon dynasty. Apparently they found his burial mound with some rocks. Anyway, it’s not really a historical visit, it’s a kind of fun nature reserve. The island is also famous for one of the first really big dramas in Korea called ‘Winter Sonata’. Many of the romantic scenes were shot in Nami Island and if you are a fan of the show you can have your photo taken with statues of the two main characters.

You can reach the island by the frequent ferries crossing the river or by aerial runway. The aerial runways seem pretty expensive but they are high and look quite thrilling. The island is a beautiful escape from the city and gets extremely busy at weekends with day-trippers from Seoul. You can walk round among the giant sequoia trees, relax by the river, and visit the numerous craft shops and restaurants. There is also a small water park and if you cannot be bothered walking you can hire a bicycle or get on a mini electric car. There are plenty of things to keep you occupied and even after you leave there are several dakgalbi restaurants on the opposite bank of the river.

I was pleasantly surprised by Nami and could have wandered around for a day. I even found a genuine wood fired stone oven in a pizza restaurant. The owner had travelled to Napoli to learn how to make perfect pizzas in the perfect oven. The pizzas are a little expensive but then how often do you get genuine Italian pizzas from a real wood fired oven? The craft places and cafes also kept me entertained.

Getting there:

Return ticket+Entrance+ferry 23.000W
Jamsil Station Exit 4 9:30am (Stops 216 and 814)
walk straight to Lotte Mart on the left side; bus stop is in front of Lotte Mart)
Cheongnyangni to Gapyeong (you could also get on in Yongsan station)
Sangbong to Gapyeong (Sangbong is in the east of Seoul but it’s direct from there on the Gyeongchun Line)
***If you travel on the weekend I would recommend taking the train because the traffic is so bad. On a weekday the shuttlebus is very convenient but you will need to book over the phone or online.***

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In the days before things were recorded, when China was in its infancy, various tribes wandered the Korean peninsula. These tribes are related in customs and traditions to Manchuria and the Russian Far East.  There was no Korea or any form of an organised political entity representing such people. As with many tribes found in Siberia, North America and even Northern Finland, they were a shamanistic people who worshipped nature and animals. Two of the most striking and important totemic animals are the tiger and the bear. These two animals (possibly representing two different tribes) prayed to a deity called Hwanung. Hwanung was a kind of prince of the heaven, son of the great Hwanin. The two animals wished to become human but rather than just make them human, Hwanung wanted to test their resolve, so he gave them 20 cloves of garlic and some mugwort. They had to survive off these foods in a cave for 100 days. The lack of sunlight and other foods were too much for the tiger, he gave up after twenty days and left the cave. The bear stayed for the duration and was rewarded by being transformed into a  woman called ‘Ungnyeo’. She became lonely and needed company so Hwanung  married her and  she gave birth to a son, who was named Dangun Wanggeom.

Dangun is the father of the first Korean nation called Gojoseon. ‘Go’ means ancient as there is another dynasty called Joseon which occurred later. Like most mythology there is usually some history hiding somewhere in the mystical tales. The totemic animals may represent tribes who were included or excluded in this federation.  The Chinese Emperor Yao may have been in power at some point during Dangun’s reign, if this is the case then we are looking at  2357 BC-2256 BC. Dangun is certainly important in the history of Korea, even the years were named after him before the 60s. Dangi (단기) began in 2333 BC and Dangun’s foundation of Korea is celebrated, or perhaps remembered on October 3rd on National Foundation Day(개천절) or “Festival of the Opening of Heaven”.

Like rulers the World over, Dangun was probably deified to prevent any challenge to his authority. If any of this sounds like nonsense then I ask you to take a closer look at other mythical figures or creation myths. Intertwining the foundations of nations in myth is common to most cultures and it allows pre historical  peoples to make sense of ‘history’ using narratives they understand. It also doesn’t do any harm to the status of the élite if they come from sacred beginnings . If you consider any of this story primitive and lacking in  facts then here are some more to consider:

Rome: founded by twin babies Romulus and Remus who were saved by a river, suckled by a she-wolf and fed by a woodpecker.

Britain: founded by Brutus of Troy (son of Aeneas) who sailed there after a dream and had to avoid sirens then defeat giants before naming Britain after himself.

Everyone: God got bored and made Adam, then he used Adam’s rib to make a woman…..

Ever since I learnt about this myth I was keen to visit the sacred mountain where Dangun has an altar to his name. The place in question is on Taebaeksan 태백산. Unlike most mountains the top is completely barren and devoid of trees. There is a large alter inside a stone built structure. After a 2 hour hike I was rewarded with one of the calmest and most beautiful places in Korea. People ascend this mountain on New Year’s day to see the sunrise, I can see why. I stopped of at a buddhist temple for some water and then another short hike got me to the top. It was an extremely hot day and I felt like I could see the whole world from this mountain top. I hope to return some day to see the ceremony carried out  by the Shaman priests.

 The best place to start the hike up to the altar is Danggol (당골). Here are the times from the bus station(터미날) in Taebaek and back again from the Dangol carpark. It takes about 25 minutes to get to Danggol carpark and you can get food and drinks there as well as information from the Provincial park office. The hike to the altar and back takes around 4 hours.

Taebaek is best reached from Dong Seoul by bus and takes about 3h30.

Taebaek also has a train station connecting it with Gangneung and Seoul Cheongnyangni 4h15.


Gangneung is a city on the east coast of South Korea in Gangwondo province. I have visited twice: once on my way to Soraksan National park and once on my summer holiday Gangwondo trip. It has a population of about 230,000 and is the main city of Gangwondo province, although the provincial capital is in Chuncheon nearer to Seoul. It has a small provincial feel to it, but it also has all the features of any major Korean city – like the Homelplus and CGV cinema. The tourist industry gives an extra buzz to the place.

The first time I went to Gangneung was almost by accident. I was going hiking nearby so I had to use the bus station, I also passed through the bus station once again on my way to Sokcho and Soraksan. On my way back home to Jeolla I had to take an intercity bus and it was holiday season so most of the buses were booked up. This meant I had to take a later bus which gave me a kind of 3 hour layover. I decided to explore the town for a while. My first impressions were of a typical provincial place with an overused and abused bus terminal and numerous garish motels near the bus station. It was only when I got down to the river that I started to appreciate the city some more. By chance, I had stumbled upon the Gangneung Dano festival (강릉단오제). This was taking place along the river and adjacent market area. The Dano museum is in Gangneung so I guess it’s an ideal place to hold the festival.

If you have spent any amount of time in Korea you will know that there is a festival going on almost all the time. Some of them are to attract tourists and investment to places which may not otherwise attract anything or anyone. There are festivals for bibimbap, fermented foods, taekwondo, mulberries, horizons, cherry blossoms, and most famously mud. I am deeply skeptical about the need for festivals and the idea of treating places like commofities. When everything has to be marketed and packaged it takes some of the spontaneous fun out of things for me. Luckily I hit an interesting festival at an interesting time. It was completely unexpected and I was genuinely thrilled to see so much going on in a place which I only expected to pass through without much thought.

The Dano is a festival of dancing, drinking, and performance. It goes way back into Korea’s shamanistic past and is related to the wakening of animals from winter slumber and to the end of the seed sowing season. The whole atmosphere feels ancient and authentic, unlike some of the more modern contrived festivals in Korea. The costumes and dancing reminded me of the Mayday celebrations in England. This is not the worker’s day but the traditional morris dancing, maypole and other ancient wonders. Such things in England also have their origin in a kind of post agricultural work party. It amazes me to find so many similarities between cultures so far apart. It makes me realise that if you come from a place with distinct seasons, then the same seasons dictate the cycle of festivals throughout the year. In the UK, and I’m sure many other Western cultures, this ancient pagan rite has been folded into religious celebrations and public holidays. From what I saw in Gangneung the Dano thing seems very distinct and original. I don’t see much sober Confucianism or reflective buddhism in the revelry of the Dano festival, although some of the music and coloured ribbons reminded me a little of the buddhist culture in Tibet and Nepal. The food is great and the dancing shows are very entertaining. If you go to Gangneung try to get there during the Dano festival on the 5th day of the 5th month, you won’t be disappointed.

My second visit to Gangneung was part of my mini summer tour and it served as my jumping off point for a trip on the seaside train down the coast.I arrived quite late and intended on getting up very early so I opted to stay in a jjimjilbang. It was clean and convenient and for 8000W a pretty cheap way to spend the night. This place is a few blocks from the station near Lotteria, it’s called 오아시스 (Oasis) Gyo-dong, Gangneung-si, +82 33-641-7755. Type into google map or show the address to a taxi driver.  ‎Some jjimjilbangs are clearly for local types but this one seemed to have a few tourists passing through. Gangneung is a popular holiday destination for Koreans because of the numerous beaches outside the city. I was invited to sit and watch the Olympic football match with the guy working there, after it finished I managed to get a good few hours sleep. Anything above a 4 hour stint is good going in a jjimjilbang, I got about 6 hours on this occasion. In the morning at about 7.00 I walked to the train station, it wasn’t too far but with a large backpack and extraordinary heat it felt far enough. After booking my ticket for the special seaside train at 14,20 I wanted to see the beach area. There is a bus to the beach area called Gyeongpo but I waited for a while and nothing came. Eventually I took a taxi because it’s too far to walk. I walked back from the beach to the train station and I can say with some conviction …it’s too far to walk! Gyeongpo is a wonderful beach area with a large lake behind it. The beach itself has good facilities and the usual shops selling tatty beachwear and souvenirs. What is unusual about this beach and very reassuring is that they knocked down a whole row of shops and motels and planted mature pine trees. One thing I love about Korea is the pines, especially so close to a white-hot beach. I was later to realise that Gangneung is called the Pine City. Sometimes the marketing has positives. After a brief stay at the beach I realised why I don’t like beaches. I was covered in salt, sand, and sweat. I think beaches are ok if you make a firm plan to stay for the day, if you are entrenched you can enjoy it. However, I was just passing on my way to other sites next to the lake.

Behind Gyeongpo Beach is Gyeongpo Lake. This is a beautiful inlet which you can cycle round or even walk of you have enough time. It sits looking at the East Sea and to its back are the heavily wooded mountains. If you walk round to the North side you can reach the Chamsori and Edison Museum and then Gyeongpodae. The first place is a private collection of mainly gramophones and an adjoining museum dedicated to Thomas Edison. By the looks of it all this place will only get bigger and more renowned. It was a bit more expensive than most museums in Korea but I enjoyed looking at all the nik-naks and memorabilia. The owner has plans to open a movie museum and a children’s museum. Further down the lakeshore is Gyeongpodae. This a pavillion overlooking the beautiful lake, it is said you can see the moon 5 times from here: in the sky, in the lake reflection, in the sea,in a drinking glass, and in the eyes of a lover. I was here on my own in the daytime and I drank from a plastic water bottle. This area near the lake is quite a way from downtown Gangneung but there are buses running about every 10 – 15 minutes and a taxi fare is just shy of 6000W. I could have spent more time in Gangneung and if you base yourself there then you could also visit some of the parks outside town. From the train station you can also get the special seaside train which goes down the coast for 1h20 to Samcheok. This gives you a view of the coast on seats facing the huge windows, great for photography.

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Getting there: I think the best way is from Dong Seoul Bus Terminal but you can also go from Express Terminal in Gamgnam

If you want to travel by train it may take longer than the bus and you should go from Cheongnyangni Station in the East of Seoul. It takes over 5 hours and costs 22,300 W