Northeast Coast, Korea
Getting out of the Seoul and around the rest of South Korea is easy. The country is pretty small with plenty of buses connecting cities and towns. The tricky part is language. I’ve never traveled anywhere that left me completely illiterate.
Outside of the big city of Seoul, English is not widely used on signs and menus like in many other parts of the world. Usually when I don’t understand a language I can still understand its alphabet and am able to recognize words, pronounce sounds, and write. But in Korea, the alphabet never starts to look familiar. The characters are just pretty lines strung together. I am unable to recreate proper Korean penmanship and I always have to find someone to write the Korean name and address for anything I might need in advance. While this leaves me highly dependent on others, I’ve found Koreans and expats to be some of the friendliest, kindest people on the planet. Big shout out to expats teaching English. They have been my saviors. I’d be far lost without their help and guidance.
Koreans go out of their way as habit here. This extends from asking for help with directions to service at restaurants and shops. Apparently, it’s not uncommon to receive more than you’ve asked for. So far, I’ve been given a small gift when I left a hostel by the owner, a sandwich at the top of a mountain by a fellow hiker, and a second variation on a tea I didn’t care for by an enthusiastic lady running a drink stall. All free, no ties, and given with a genuine smile.
Korea is clean, organized, and manicured. It’s a developed country with all the perks, like my favorite, drinkable tap water. It’s easy to take tap water for granted until you don’t have it for a while. The air quality however, isn’t so great. For the last several days I’ve been in a fight with a scratchy throat and have used up endless tissue. I thought I was coming down with a cold but it’s become clear to me that the air quality is just that terrible. Many blame China for the blanket of dust that hangs, but Seoul seems to contribute their fair share to the problem. It mostly went unnoticed for me but a hike through the beautiful Seoraksan National Park showed that Korea was in fact being hugged by a low, thin, dusty sheet. The park and the views were still stunning. The hike to the top of Ulsanbawi Rock isn’t the easiest but it’s not exactly rugged either. The climb starts following a well paved path and continues up a steep and sturdy stairway of over 800 steps. Views from climb and the top are worth the effort.
I took a trip to the border of North Korea. There is a famous stretch of deserted land that separates the two countries known as the DMZ. The demilitarized zone is only about 4 km wide; A very large, literal line in the sand. It is a popular tourist destination. There is an area for viewing an informative video surrounded by gift shops and snack stands. Coin-operated binoculars allow for viewing of the eerie, empty space between two territories. Spotting far away soldiers in the still, silent grounds makes it feel like a safari of sorts. Paved roads and railways that once uninterruptedly connected the countries are cut off and left unused, only to pick back up on the other side. The DMZ itself feels almost like a novelty tourist stop to check off the list but the subject matter is serious. Many Koreans are still very saddened and effected. The propaganda and stories that go along are many. The war is technically not over and reminders of that are still seen. The subways in Seoul offer neatly packaged gas masks and water bottles in case of an attack. Driving throughout the countryside, evacuation shelters and concrete shooting posts for military blend into the scenery. For all the unworried locals living their daily lives, this is all background.
The drive along the Northeastern coast of Korea offers beautiful views, hikes, and attractions. The cities along the way have an authentic coastal town feel. Salt lingers in the crisp air as spring tries to push through. The towns are clam and very relaxed. Seafood is abundant and delicious. A lovely retreat only a few hours and worlds away from big city Seoul.