SOUTH KOREA: WEEKS 26 TO 28 (May, SPRING TIME IN KOREA, SUNNY DAYS 24 DEGREES)
21.05.2017 - 31.05.2017 23 °C
What I haven't figured out yet is why South Koreans use towels the size of handkerchiefs? How does anyone ever dry off after a shower? Maybe they just rely on the underfloor heating (everywhere has underfloor heating in Korea, even guest houses and hostels). Every time we turn up at a guest house, love motel, actual hotel - the towels barely cover the important bits. Could be a towel shortage in Korea or has no one discovered the bath sheet? Haven't worked out yet what the j-cloth is for either in the bathroom - are you meant to use it as a flannel?
After Seoul, our first stop outside metropolis was wonderful Sokcho which is based on the coast and is still a fishing port. In fact, most of the restaurants and markets only seem to sell something that was previously swimming in the sea and of course kimchi - no getting away from the red pepper paste. Sokcho has the rarity of being home to a local winch ferry that transports locals across the harbour to Abai Island (another place where the only fish you'll see will be on your plate). Thomas was quite at home, helping the locals winch themselves across to the island.
Another thing that strikes me about Korea is that any outdoor space around a residence is used to grow vegetables, there are never any gardens. Patio pots are for lettuces and radishes while whole swathes of the countryside are given over to huge poly tunnels, rice fields and more leafy vegetables. Koreans adore leaf vegetables.
Sokcho was close to Seoraksan National Park, a great place to visit temples and walk amongst the majestic pine trees up to grottos and famous rocks. We managed to complete two challenging hikes on consecutive days which are extremely popular with the locals. However, the Koreans are meticulously dressed to impress with the latest outdoor, activewear and colour co-ordinated trekking trousers, wick away tops and hiking boots. I was astounded by one lady who had managed to find mustard coloured hiking boots to match her yellow and grey trousers. She even had a matching scarf tied stylishly around her neck. No trekking outfit is complete though for Koreans without trekking poles and a hundred and one gadgets, emergency blankets, first aid kit, flask, kimchi in tupperware containers etc, neatly swinging from mini backpacks with inbuilt hydration capabilities. When I think about it, Sokcho high street is crammed full of sports wear outlets and outdoor gear shops. They probably thought disaster would befall us on the treks in our grotty clothes and trainers that aren't remotely waterproof - not pleasant when it rains. Thomas's trainers are being held together by duct tape.
We loved Sokcho but after staying an extra day in our lovely guest house, it was time to move onto surreal Jeongdongjin, famous for its train station being the closet to the sea in the world (apparently this is in the Guinness Book of World Records) and a cruise ship that has been abandoned on top of a cliff. No it wasn't ship wrecked or left by a tsunami, it was deliberately built as a high class resort perched on a nearby cliff overlooking Hourglass Park. It didn't float my boat (pardon the pun) but Jeongdongjin is a South Korean favourite destination for young lovers, a romantic get away and as we were soon to discover, jam packed full of 'love motels'.
We stayed in a love motel on our first night and swiftly checked out early in the morning to book into an actual hotel. Not that there's anything wrong with the love motels but they are designed for couples and not three people so it didn't seem fair that Thomas was sleeping on the floor. Love motels sprung up as adultery in Korea used to be an arrest able offence, so motels were a way of continuing your love trysts without being discovered. Our new hotel had an amazing view over Jeongdongjin Hourglass Park, three beds and didn't charge per hour for rooms which was an improvement. Koreans flock to Hourglass Park (not really sure why), where a famous Korean romantic soap opera was filmed. As the name would suggest, there is a giant hourglass but the sand doesn't seem to be running - it gets turned on New Year's Eve.
A few kilometres up the road is Gangneung Unification Park which is home to a 35m-long North Korean submarine and a US built warship. It's not often you get the chance to check out a North Korean sub and to be honest, I was starting to feel rather sorry for the North Koreans who were packed like sardines into this small hunk of metal. They were in a catch 22 situation - complete the mission and they have to return to North Korea, fail and they would end up dead. The tiny submarine was spying on military facilities near Gangneung in 1996 when it ran aground off Jeongdongjin. The commander burnt important documents (the fire-blackened compartment inside the sub is still visible) and the 26 soldiers made a break for shore, hoping to return to North Korea. It took South Korea 49 days to capture or kill them (except one, who went missing); during the manhunt 17 South Korean civilians and soldiers were killed and 22 injured. One captured crewmember, the submarine's helmsman, Lee Kwang Soo, gave in after much interrogation and revealed much of the plans. He later became an instructor in the South Korean navy.
North Korea was at first reluctant to take responsibility, claiming that the submarine had suffered an engine failure and had drifted aground. By 29 December, however, the North issued an official statement expressing "deep regret" over the submarine incident. In return, the South Korean government returned the cremated remains of the infiltrators to the North via Panmunjom on 30 December. The submarine is claustrophobic inside and you can barely stand up. We couldn't imagine how 26 North Koreans had been squeezed into its interior.
The warship has a less dramatic story: built in America in 1945, it saw action in WWII and the Vietnam War, and was donated to South Korea in 1972. Its interior has been refurbished as an exhibition on Korean naval history with interesting glimpses at sleeping quarters and mess halls.
A kilometre up the road was the strangely deserted Gangneung Unification Museum and the anti-Japan memorial. As we have learnt from visiting various museums in Korea, the Japanese occupation from 1910 to 1945 has left deep scars for South Koreans - people were tortured, turned into sex slaves and starved during the occupation and the Koreans have many exhibits and graphic videos of life during the occupation.