Posts Tagged ‘Journeys’

 

Sea Train (바다열차)

I had a very pleasant journey from Gangneung to Samcheok on the special tourist train. The seats faced sideways so the passengers could look out of the window to the East Sea. There was of course out of context Muzak on the journey but I have learnt to tune it out and focus on other senses – a useful skill in Korea. When I finally alighted I tried to find a way from the station to the centre of Samcheok. Despite the small size of the town, the train station is a considerable distance from ‘down-town’. As it was the height of summer and I had a backpack, I decided to walk. With hindsight, I believe I was trying to tire myself out so I wouldn’t have to attempt a visit to the famous caves on the same day. I had slept in a jjimjilbang the previous night so I was in need of a decent sleep. I looked in a couple of motels near the bus station but they were triple the usual price, that is literally the price you pay for travelling in peak season. I eventually found a place called the ‘International Motel’, although it was written in Korean which made me giggle. By this point I was sweating more than usual and I probably looked a little pathetic. After checking the prices I was crestfallen again, I asked if there was any discount and the ajumma said she would knock it down from 90,000 to 70,000. I took out 60,000 from my wallet and said this is all I have. She made a brief phone call to the boss and then let me stay. I don’t usually haggle to that extent but I had a strict budget and didn’t want to cut my trip short because of one motel. 

Samcheok River View

 

The evening approached quickly and I noted the bus timetable for the caves then wandered down the river through the long shadows. All the special cave museums watch over the river and face the usual apartment buildings on the other side. The style of architecture in the cultural type buildings of Samcheok is Vegas meets Disneyworld. They don’t seem to be going for the natural wonders angle. I enjoyed walking round Samcheok and I would like to visit on another occasion to stay nearer to the sea and to visit the crazy looking museums which were closed during my stay.

 

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I awoke fresh and well rested, the previous days exertions mixed with some cans of Asahi had rendered me comatose throughout the night. I got to the bus station early and found some other tourists waiting for the same local bus which was cavebound. Luckily the caves are by far the biggest draw in this part of Gangwondo, this makes getting the bus pretty easy because there is always an expectation from those working in the bus station; they know where you are going. The lady in the tourist information booth next to the bus station also spoke pretty good English. After a rickety journey through some spectacular valleys and mountains we finally reached Hwanseon. There were many minbaks and pensions along the way. This was a rustic part of a rustic province and the journey made me feel cut off from the rest of Korea. If I ever return I would like to stay in one of the small pensions in those valleys, a place to escape subways and mobile phone shops.

Hwanseongul is a huge cave. In Korean the word gul (굴) means cave, so you don’t need to say Hwaseongul cave. There are other cave systems around in this part of Gangwondo but this is the most famous and the biggest too. The main reason I wanted to see the cave was not to tick off another Lonely Planet highlight, it was to re live some experiences I had as a schoolboy. I was a pretty keen geography student at school, mainly because I love excursions. I even love the word excursion. Being from the Northern part of Lancashire the impressive limestone features of the Yorkshire Dales were only a short bus ride away. There seemed to be a trip to Malham every year and I always attended. I went on the trips to see limestone caves and features even when I wasn’t studying them. After I had finished studying them I still returned to visit the limestone features. Even on the other side of the world I was able to see some of the same things I studied in class as a child.

 

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On my solo geological excursion I couldn’t find any clints or grykes like in Malham, but the karst scenery was outstanding and has bestowed one of the largest limestone caves in Asia. The cave system was immense with over 6 kilometres of known passages. The problem with these delicate environments is the human contact. Many of the nearby caves are closed to the public and you are restricted from taking photographs or touching anything. Although I managed to get a few phone camera shots. I took a cable car up to the entrance because I was there for caves not for hiking. I expect it would take a minimum of 30 minutes to reach the top by foot but the cable cars or funiculars are a nice way to take in the scenery before you enter the huge natural gateway.  Once inside, the temperature plummeted from the outside summer highs of 33°C  to about  12°C. It was a great relief to be in the cool in what was a pretty vicious heat wave. Some of the rocks drip and spout water from crevasses, this then  joins other little trickles to make  streams, waterfalls and plunge pools. Some of the chambers are  higher than Gothic cathedrals at over 100m tall. In fact I have many theories about church architecture and caves, but that’s another post. Many of the difficult features have been made accessible by metal bridges which gives it the air of an Indiana Jones movie. Unfortunately the majesty of nature has been sabotaged by using glowing lights and exploiting some of the features with bizarre names. The bridge of seven hells, the chamber of coarsely whispered insults, the valley of misshapen croutons, the cascade of venereal diseases…etc. Actually, my fake names may be even better than the ones I saw. I don’t think it’s necessary to adorn such an impressive site with anything other the basic ways of traversing through the features. It was quite funny for a while but in the end I think I felt sorry for the rocks.

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I certainly recommend the effort it takes to get to Hwaseongul. The best place to travel from is Samcheok and given the local scenery it should be worth taking some pack lunch and going hiking. I expect it gets incredibly busy later in the day so to appreciate the place fully I think it’s a good idea to take the early bus.

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In a country with hostile neighbours it comes as no surprise that most people in Korea have traditionally been reluctant to travel. Even after the rapid development of the economy, and a huge increase in disposable income, few Koreans seem to enjoy travelling. I say this not from some dry UN statistic, but from general conversations and by visiting various places in the world. Compared to Australians, Germans, British and even Japanese, Koreans don’t really clog up the international flight map. This is mostly because of the working schedule which leaves little time for long holidays overseas. The only red days in the calendar are those that cling to the traditional family festivals like Chuseok and Seollal – the harvest festival and Lunar New Year.

The boat from Udo

The boat from Udo

So when Koreans do get time to go on holiday where do they go? What constitutes the exotic for this nation of workaholics? Where is the Korean Hawaii, Tenerife or St Tropez? How do people escape the grey apartments and white shirted offices? There is one resounding answer – Jeju.

Jeju is the self-governing island located to the South of the Korean peninsula. It’s near enough to be a comfortable flight and to get instant noodles and kimchi. However, it’s just far enough, and isolated enough, to have its own dialect, climate and cuisine. This distance from the rest of Korea gives Jeju a sub-tropical edge which has affected all aspects of life here. Jeju is the ultimate destination for all Koreans; you rarely get through any conversation about travelling without the name Jeju cropping up. Everyone knows someone who has been to Jeju. It’s one of those ‘must see’ places on any Korean bucket lists.

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I have always been luke warm to must see destinations, I feel so pressured. With this weight of obligation and the lack of other viable destinations (I’ve been in Korea 2 years) I chose to go to Jeju for my last holiday. Apart from the flight I actually spent very little time researching the place. I imagined it would be one of those step off the boat and select the best option places. There are countless things to do in Jeju but I would caution against being too casual because the weather and the public transport can be quirky. Despite a couple of grey days and some timetable wrangling, I found Jeju to be everything I expected and a little bit more.

The airport was much bigger and more urbane than I expected, I thought it would be more akin to one of those Caribbean places that James Bond arrives at. Instead of light-hearted trans-atlantic banter with Felix Lighter – I settled for a taxi. Like most Korean taxi drivers the guy had no idea where my hotel was, and forget using a map because taxi drivers don’t understand the world as seen from above. They work on more of a medieval approach to directions – half instinct half rumour. Eventually he found the hotel which was a cheap love motel turned into a family friendly budget hotel. The owner seemed genuinely surprised to see a guest but the room was large and clean. The best feature was a framed seashell.

Fish in the Spirited Garden

Fish in the Spirited Garden

After seeing Jeju-si (the city) and the hotel district I was pretty disappointed. Most places didn’t seem much different from the average Korean town. The sea comes close to the shore leaving little in the way of a beach, and the ferry port is just a small industrial area. Some of the major hotel chains seemed a bit provincial and drab. However, this was only the city and Jeju-si isn’t Jeju-do. ‘Si’ is city and ‘Do’ is island. After a brief night of fear wondering what I had done, the next two days were amazing.

I visited the Eastern side of the island using local buses. The scenery was verdant and a welcome pleasure from the back of a rickety bus. After nodding off several times I kept seeing small forests and green pastures through my half closed eyes. Sometimes I felt like I was home on the roads between Lancashire and the Lake district – they even have dry stone walls! On closer inspection the trees were much different from those found in England. In fact, nature itself was a slightly different shade in all its examples. Islands are separated from the processes of natural history on the nearest landmasses. This gives Jeju its distinct trees, plants, and fruits.

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On the second day I headed west on an organized tour. The tour was excellent and gave enough time in each place without ever getting bored. The tour guide was informative without feeling the need to entertain. The mixture of scenery and attractions was always stimulating and I would go back without hesitation. I got the chance to walk along the coast, visit Buddhist temples and there was even a buffet at a famous bonsai garden.

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I am purposefully leaving out details because I hope the pictures can show a glimpse of the colours and scenery that make Jeju so popular. I decided pretty quickly that I will return to Jeju and go hiking up the Halla volcano. Until then, like most Koreans I will keep dreaming about going to Jeju.

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20130920_194713On the south coast of Korea, as far away from Seoul as you can get (without getting wet) is Suncheon. Suncheon-si is one of the bigger three places in Jeollanam-do, the others being Mokpo and Yeosu. Gwangju became so big that it became its own special metropolitan city. Jeollanam-do is perhaps the most scenic of all the provinces of Korea. It has an incredible range of scenery and vegetation. There are the heights of Jirisan, the rolling green fields of the Boseong tea plantations, the craggy islands off the coast of Mokpo, and the wetlands of Suncheon Bay.

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Wetlands and tidal mudflats are often overlooked in favour of more glamorous mountains, glaciers, and rainforests. Even for myself, when someone talks about escaping to nature, I have in my head a North American rocky mountain with log cabins and bears. I imagine catching trout in a fast flowing river then having a fire later on. There is of course the extreme exotic element; the jungles of maddening noises and dangerous snakes. This version of nature comes complete with a soundtrack of those frog noises and small monkeys screeching, natives squat behind large trees ready to shoot their darts from a blowpipe, or panpipes. Wetlands never really enter my mind when thinking about escaping into nature. I have no clear image based on the countless movies I have watched, perhaps only those Florida type reeds and grasses with the alligators and those fun looking boats. Actually, I think they are just swamps.

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Coastal wetlands and tidal mudflats are hugely important to the World’s ecosystems. The reeds which grow in such places naturally filter out the various types of pollution which find their way into water. The roots of the reeds also hold together soil and prevent erosion and the more serious effects of floods. There are five major coastal wetlands in the World: Georgia in the USA, the Amazonian Delta, the North Sea in the UK and Netherlands, the Great Lakes in Canada, and Suncheon Bay in South Korea. These places are so important because they serve as a rest area for migrating birds. Korea is something of a major crossroads for birds in Asia. Many species stop here on their way from Siberia to Australia and New Zealand. There are also crabs, otters, worms, and countless other fauna which call these places home. I don’t think most wetlands are high on the list of tourists. They are simply too inaccessible, and without any interest in ornithology or photography, there is little to see.

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Suncheon Bay is a recent development (completed 2009) and with the careful use of raised board walks and birdwatching huts, the place is definitely worth a visit. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed walking among the three metre reeds and grasses. If this wasn’t enough then you can glimpse many birds flying over your head from time to time. The crowning glory of the reed park is the Yongsan Observatory. To get to this amazing viewpoint you have to cut back on yourself and climb a fairly steep hill. Once you have ascended through the pine forest you are awarded a spectacular view of the reed fields spreading out into the ocean. It’s not a windswept salty ocean, but a gentle breezy ocean dotted with interesting islands all the way up to the horizon. The observatory offers a panoramic view and unlike many places in Korea, there is nothing much there, just a wooden structure with some shelters and a large pair of mounted binoculars. You can do the walking course within a couple of hours, but if you have a reasonable camera or an interest in birds, you could fill the better part of a day here. If you tire easily of walking, or you have a short attention span, there is a small train and a boat ride. The entrance to the park has a building with an observatory and some displays on the flora and fauna of the area. You can also buy local agricultural products in a surprisingly tasteful shop.

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Suncheon will host a Garden Expo in April so I expect many of the facilities to be upgraded. They are working on a small personal rapid transit to reduce traffic impact. Also, some of the ticket offices are being upgraded from their current hut styles. Even without the forthcoming Expo, I recommend  visiting the park, the entrance fee is only 2000 won and it’s an easy enough places to reach. From Jeonju it’s an easy half day trip and from Seoul you could make it if you get an early train, but I would stay overnight to make it more relaxing.

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Getting there: Suncheon is on the KTX route between Seoul Yongsan and Yeosu Expo. If you travel from other cities like Daejeon or Jeonju look at the slower trains before booking KTX, the time difference is minimal.

From the train station turn right and you can see the tourist information in a small log cabin. If you pass this walk about 150m to a crossing near a convenience store, immediately in front is the bus stop for  Suncheon Bay. The bus is number 67 and it costs 1100 won and takes 20 minutes to the park. This bus also runs past the Bus Terminal.

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Kalbarri, Western Australia.

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Just under 600km north of Perth is Kalbarri. This tiny coastal town is found at the mouth of the Murchison River which snakes its way into the Indian Ocean, just as the locals tell in their Dreamtime navigational stories. The name comes from a local Aboriginal man. The history is similar to many of the towns on this coast: thousands of years of Aboriginals, some marooned Dutch mariners, then people selling some land and settling. Today, Kalbarri is a pleasant fishing and tourist centre. Outside of town there is a National Park of the same name. I stopped here without knowing too much, but as with the rest of the west coast, you stop because you can.

The end of Civiliztion

The end of Civiliztion

The beauty of travelling up Western Australia is the lack of choice. The population is so sparse that every place you come to seems exciting. It reminds me of those trips from school where everyone piles out of the coach to the vast excitement of a rest area. When you cover such large distances, getting off the coach to stretch your limbs and buy some snack treats is paradise. In Oz I think it’s called ‘beyond the black stump’. I have also heard it called the sticks. In Ireland there is beyond the pale. All expressions, despite local differences in meaning, have the same general idea – beyond civilization. Although there wasn’t much to see after the northern suburbs of Perth, there were still some agricultural areas and gas stations with shops. The journey up to Kalbarri felt like \I was finally beyond the black stump.

Coachgaze

Coachgaze

I suffer from what I call ‘coachgaze’. This is a condition which goes beyond boredom an into a kind of zen like traveller’s trance. It involves your eyes following the endless landscape and occasionally homing back in on the constantly blurred asphalt of the sun-baked roads. I think coachgaze is brought on by having a limited amount of technology to entertain yourself with, and by having vast distances to cover. The distances usually involve almost nothing of interest to look at. Coachgaze changes your perception of time and space until everything just stretches into one semisomnant blur. Sleeping on coaches is never real sleep, it’s more like being half awake, interrupted by a forgotten dream. I have only experienced coachgaze in Patagonia and Australia. I’m pretty sure you would get it if you travelled through the Midwest of the US or through many parts of Russia.

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My coachgaze ended as we pulled into another roadhouse and caught a smaller bus off the main highway, it felt nice just to be travelling west instead of north. After a nice sleep in a real bed I headed out to the Kalbarri National Park on a minibus organized by the hostel. In places with few historical and cultural assets it’s really easy to book a tour and head off on a bus. The guide was called Mike and he seemed like a typical Aussie, with a mix of crass humour and aggressive small talk. He did however; really know his subject. Snaking through the bends and canyons of the ancient looking Murchison river, he informed us of every tree, shrub, rock, and insect along the way. The strangest discovery of the day was a ‘legless lizard’. Everybody thought it was a snake, but the lack of legs isn’t the only thing separating these two creatures, their anatomy is completely different. It was a paraplegic lizard.

Legless lizard

Legless lizard

Despite the sun beating down, the rock formations kept much of the track in the shade. When we finally got the opportunity to take a dip the water was colder than anything I have ever experienced. Actually, only two of us were stupid enough to swim, just myself and a Swedish lad. The whole day was relaxed and I really got the true sense of being in a different continent.  A dry, red, almost Martian landscape. All my references were vindicated with the strange red rock formations and the unusual flora and fauna. From all the parks I visited in Australia this was my favourite for scenery.

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In some parts of Australia there are only two seasons: the wet and the dry. People tell you this with that manly swagger common to fishermen and most Australians, at least those outside of the big cities. The subtext is that seasons are for puffs and sissies. Luckily for me I went in the dry because I don’t like rain. The dry is also when you can visit Mindil Markets.

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What was clear after only one day in Darwin is that they really need to visit other tropical places and work out when to do things. Even non puffs and non sissies would agree that the heat of the afternoon in Darwin prohibits most activity. I walked from the downtown to the park near Mindil, I nearly died. Unfortunately, Darwin was settled by Anglo-Saxons instead of people from the Romance countries of Southern Europe. As most people in Italy and Spain will tell you, in hot places the afternoon is for sleeping; the evening is for promenading and eating. My biggest disappointment in Darwin was that when the weather cooled in the evening there was nothing much to do because all the shops and many eateries were on the British and Irish style workday – opening at 9.00 and closing between 17.00 and 18.00. I suspect most colonial types feared these extreme climes, they probably wore their well ironed khakis around midday as a way with coping with homesickness or overcompensation for being sissies. After having spent time in both Spain and Italy I recommend their working day as being a Godsend in such a climate. I would rather wander around the shops in the evening and if you feel sorry for people who have to work late they can enjoy a three-hour lunch break. Maybe the giant and somewhat sinister bats who terrorize the streets after dusk are the reason everything closes.

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Overall, I was pleased with Darwin. Even a small city like Darwin seems like a cosmopolitan metropolis when compared the places you travel through to get there, if you are dumb enough to travel overland like myself. Tourism is a big factor here as Darwin is the gateway to some of Australia’s most interesting National Parks and its most authentic Aboriginal settlements. You may see Aboriginal people in some of the cities but it isn’t until you head up to the Northern Territories that you get the real experience. Nothing seems more natural in this part of the world than the strange vibrations of one of the world’s most ancient musical instruments – the didgeridoo. I was an avid fan of the ‘Bushtucker Man’ when I was a kid so I enjoyed every minute of my stay in the Northern Territories. The biggest highlight, hence the title of this post, was Mindil Beach Sunset Markets.

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Firstly, there is a real beach and there is a real sunset, everything else is a bonus. I was a bit worried that it was one of those tie dye hippy kind of places where they deal tarot cards and talk about auras. I was happy that there was a real mix of people there and many forms of entertainment. One of the best experiences in Australia was watching the awesome eMDee didgeridoo band. I was tipped off about these guys by some Germans near Perth had forgotten to check them out. It was more by luck than design that I got to see them performing live. There were several pipes lined up and the speed went to what could almost be described as techno. I don’t know the exact beats per minute but it was fast and furious. There were some ‘genuine’ didgeridoo players squatting nearby but I think they were moved on by the police.

The other highlight of the markets was the Roadkill Cafe. I generally eat everything but I found my limit here. I felt my conscience looking at me coldly when I saw camel meat on the menu. This is simply because camels are my favourite animal. My dream since childhood has been to go through a desert on a camel. I was a little upset seeing camel meat next to croc, snake, and kangaroo. Actually, the roo is delicious! I guess I now understand why people don’t eat horses and dogs. I didn’t buy much at the market but I had a great feed and I watched the sunset over my sand laden flip-flops. I loved Mindil Beach Sunset Markets and felt like it was one of the most authentic and rewarding experiences in Australia.

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