Seoraksan National Park
After visiting the two southern corners of the country, we decided to get a bowl of fresh air and head to the national parks located in the north-east corner of Korea. Including Seoul, our trip would thus bring us to the for corners of Korea. We rode all day until the bus got us to Sokcho, a harbour city a few kilometer away from the border with North Korea. The hostel manager was waiting for us and gave us a 30-min explanation of the region without stopping to breathe a single time. Our schedule for the next 2 days was thus planned by the minute thanks to him (something we somehow often experienced with Koreans).
Day 1 we explored the city, which felt rather dead, except for its lively fish market that displays sea creatures that you wouldn’t even dare to put in a horror movie – we rather opted for the marinated crispy fried chicken, kimchi pancakes and cheese dog (with optional sugar coating if you’re crazy about that). In the evening, we had an amazing dish of steamed chicken in a hot chili sauce covered in melted cheese. It burnt twice but was definitely worth it!
Day 2 we headed to the famous Seoraksan National Park, passed through the Singheungsa monastery that is said to be the oldest Zen Buddhist temple in the world, and climbed to the top of the Ulsanbawi Rock (several thousand steps up). The view from the peak was simply unbelievable, with the beautiful shapes of the mountain ridge appearing and disappearing as a sea of thick white clouds advanced and receded like a mystical tide controlled by some mischievous spirit. Having missed the opportunity to take a picture of us while the ridge was visible, we started walking down but rushed back up when the clouds cleared up again, feigning a relaxed posture although we were trying to desperately catch our breaths. ^-^
(we also had lunch at the top, probably the most scenic bento of our travels!)
Day 3 was actually added to the initial schedule because we hadn’t had enough of that beautiful national park. We took another path into a gorge, walking between peaks stretching for the skies and along pools of crystal-clear turquoise waters. The path kept climbing higher and after a few hours of walking with stupid blissful smiles on our faces, we eventually had to head back to take our comfortable bus to Seoul. At the moment we turned around, we realised we were on top of an incredibly beautiful waterfall whose thin stream ran down several hundred meters, dividing into three smaller falls, each creating a sapphire green pool before continuing its path down the valley. We stared in awe and enjoyed the view for almost an hour before reluctantly making our way back to Sokcho and heading to Seoul.
The first day we roamed around town freely, going through some of Seoul’s big markets, tried some heavily deep-fried soybean cake, walking a bit along the old city wall, the massive modern Dongdaemun Design Plaza, and through Namsam Parc to the N Seoul tower at the top. Between the thousands of lovers’ locks we did get a perspective of how friggin’ huge Seoul is (almost 10 million people).
The second day was planned by the minute by Yaejoong, Quentin’s long-time friend that he hadn’t met in 10 years. We started with a small breakfast: ramen, bibimbap (a hot stone bowl of rice covered in vegetables, meat etc.), and kimbap (Korean “sushi”). Then Yaejoong and his wife took us to a guided visit to the Changdeokgung palace’s secret gardens, where the kings used to hang out when they weren’t busy trying to invade or being invaded by Japan.
We then had a light lunch (all-you-can-eat buffet with loads of delicious food; well-fitting to the Korean saying “Sang Dariga Burojidorok” – until the table’s feet break) before heading to the Bukchon Hanok village, a small neighborhood in the middle of Seoul where several Hanok style villas have been kept standing (although most are barely a 100 years old).
We took a break from history classes with a few locally produced crafts beers and waited for sunset while looking at Bubble Max doing some amazing tricks, making kids go wild.
Next was the visit of the Gyeongbokgung palace (yes, another unpronounceable name) by night, which was very nice but made us hungry again, so we decided to do what all Koreans do in such situations: go home and order a massive box of fried chicken and play Mario Kart until 3am. We ended up sleeping at their place, gladly skipping a night at our infamous hostel and did the next day what Koreans do on a hangover Sunday: take your tent, go to the park, grab beers and order fried chicken and tteok-bokki in spicy sauce. Our last day in Seoul was thus very relaxing but we were extremely happy to spend a normal day – meant as “non-traveler”. Interesting Korean fact: you are not allowed to close more than two sides of your tent in a park to make sure you’re not “doing inappropriate things”. Other relevant fact: you can have fried chicken delivered to a park or anywhere you want in Korea!
This was already the end of the Korean adventure, but before getting to the airport in the morning we quickly met another friend and gulped a few dozens dumplings that were absolutely sumptuous. One thing is for sure: Korea didn’t disappoint us!