Yesterday, the Two Crabs marked our one year anniversary in Korea! We're bummed that our tour is already half over (time flies when you're having fun!) -- but we're looking forward to another year of exploring Korea (and more of Asia) with friends and colleagues!
Highlights of Year 1:
Hiking and camping in Korean national parks (Seoraksan, Odaesan and Bukhansan!);
Skiing the slopes of Yongpyong Phoenix Park -- the main venues for the 2018 Winter Olympic.
3-day ski trip to High 1 Ski resort with 30 colleagues & friends.
Weekend bike rides along the Han river, and stopping for drinks and ramen noodles at the many waterfront 7-Elevens!
Chillaxin with friends at Doosan Bears Korean baseball games (nothing says baseball like beer, dried squid, fried chicken and cheerleaders!)
Exploring the back alleys of Seoul's traditional Hanok villages and markets.
Business trips to Busan and Daegu with time to explore.
Partying with 10,000 other Koreans and foreigners at the Boryeong Mud Festival (where we were by far the oldest party people).
Eating at countless Korean BBQ restaurants (Korean food = AWESOME), and stumbling on great international restaurants.
Sampling Korean street food at Namdaemun market.
Sampling Korean craft beer and soju...and the occasional Cass swill.
Cheap work lunches at hole-in-the-wall restaurants with food that's better than any Korean food we've ever had in the States.
Escorting Vice President Biden to the DMZ.
Meeting Sec. John Kerry.
Working with White House staff during President Obama's visit.
Hosting our first overseas guests, Angelina from San Fran and Sarah from Stuttgart!
Using my limited Korean language skills to find a toilet, hotel or order food.
Growing our own tomatoes, salad, watermelons, green beans and veg in our backyard garden (all Mrs. Crab's doing).
Hosting some funtastic backyard BBQs at our home.
FLEISCHFEST. 'Nuff said.
Making many great Korean and Foreign Service friends and working with the most awesome Consular team ever.
It's time for another episode of The Two Crabs Guide to Skiing Korea! The final resort we are reviewing this season is Bears Town. This small resort is located less than 45 minutes northeast of downtown Seoul. With just a handful of slopes and creaky slow-ass chair lifts, and mostly man-made snow, there's not much to say. Bears Town is the place you go when you don't have time to head east to Yongpyong or High 1.
That said, it's not a bad little neighborhood hill. Most of the slopes are green and gentle. It's a good place to learn to ski. The longest "challenge" run would barely qualify as an advanced beginner slope in Austria. As for amenties, there's a small lodge with lockers, a KFC and a few snack shacks. There's also a hotel and youth hostel but I can't imagine why anyone would want to stay there overnight. You can ski the entire mountain several times over in a 4-hour time blocks offered. Tip: if you pay with a visa card, you can get 40% off your lift pass.
On this visit, Mr. Crab tried his hand at snowboarding. Mind you, this is only the third time in my life that I've stepped foot in a snowboard. As my past attempts, I spent the better part of the day on my ass or falling on my head. But after about 2 hours of tumbling, I managed to stay up long enough to do the "falling leaf" and link 1 or 2 turns. But you just can't teach this old dog new tricks...I'll stick to skiing.
During the 2013-2014 Ski Season, the Two Crabs had the opportunity to sample four of Korea's major ski resorts: Yongpyong, Phoenix Park, Bears Town and High 1 Resort. Of those, HIGH 1 is by far the tops! The Two Crabs visited High 1 during the American President's Day holiday weekend with dozens of friends and colleagues.
High 1 is a four-hour drive from downtown Seoul, located in the southeast corner of Gangwon province. It's certainly not the closest, but it's worth the drive. At 1,367m (4,484 ft), High 1 is the highest elevation and most snow-sure of Korea's ski resorts, hene the name.
Don't let the poorly-designed piste ski map steer you wrong: this place is HUGE. 18 runs. 3 gondolas. 6 chairlifts. The resort is a huge horseshoe-shaped bowl, with all the runs dumping into a common mid-station before ending in a gentle green slope down to the base village.
There's something for everyone here. For beginners, there are several gentle, long lazy green slopes. For experts, there are actually some honest-to-gods challenging (albeit short) slopes to tackle. Non-skiers will find dozens of restaurants and cafes, a huge casino and great accomodations. Our group of 6 stayed in a large, 2-bedroom Mountain Condo with heated ondol floors. Our hotel complex even had several outdoor hot tubs!
High 1 has one major negative point in our book: the slopes are "dry". You won't find a drop of alcohol for sale at any of the slopeside restaurants, cafeterias and cafes. The only place to find booze at High 1 is the lone convenience store at the base station, the casino, or bring it with you. As noted before on this blog, Koreans have yet to embrace the Apres Ski scene!
Korea got a nice dumping of snow on Saturday. So early Sunday morning, the Two Crabs and an FSO friend hit the slopes, this time at Phoenix Park in Pyeongchang county, South Korea. It seemed a fitting location this week, as Phoenix Park will be the site of the snowboarding and freestyle skiing events at the 2018 Winter Olympics!
Quick recap on Phoenix Park: It's about half the size of Yeongpyeong - Korea's largest ski resort that will serve as the main venue for the 2018 Winter Olympic events. The runs aren't as long, and there are only a few short "expert" slopes. Phoenix is in the Olympic spirit, sporting a huge LED Olympic "torch" outside the resort entrance.
Architectually, Phoenix Park may not be much to look at, but it has a little more character. There's a ski village on the road to the slopes with "minbaks" (basic B&Bs), ski shops and restaurants. The prices are cheaper than purpose-built Yeongpyeong and it's 30 minutes closer to Seoul. There's even a couple of mid-slope restaurants. Interestingly, it seemed like 80%+ visitors to Phoenix Park were snowboarders, whereas Yeongpyeong was about 50/50 skiers vs. boarders. Not surprising since Phoenix has a huge freestyle park with half-pipe.
Tip: You can get a 25% discount simply by asking. We paid $45 for a 5-hour lift ticket...with 25% discount. I'm told diplomats and U.S. Forces Korea military personnel & dependents can get up to 40% discount, but your results may vary.
Some more scenes from Phoenix Park:
Don't Drink & Ski!?!? So why do many of the restaurants serve 1.5L-sized beers?
Typical Apres Ski fare: Bulgogi beef with rice, pork cutlet with gravy, and side dishes of kimchi, radishes, miso soup, plus Cass Korean beer! Incidentally, just like Yeongpyeong, Koreans at Phoenix Park still have not discovered the pleasure of "Apres Ski". At every stop, Americans and Europeans were the only people drinking beer.
Above, slopes can get quite crowded, especially after lunchtime. But if you're a good skier, stick to the intermediate and expert slopes, which are practically empty even on the most busy days!
Nothing says skiing like Dunkin Donuts!
A strange site at most Korean ski resorts: pressure air hoses to blow the snow off your skies & boards!
Phoenix Park: brought to you by Mini Cooper. Even the gondolas look like Minis!
Mr. Crab recently had a rare opportunity to work inside the DMZ for several days, during Vice President Joe Biden's visit to South Korea.
Despite its name, the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North & South Korea is one of the most fortified borders in the world, replete with observation posts, soldiers and thousands of landmines. Both sides also maintain their own "peace villages", where a small number of civilians live and farm. More on that later.
Probably the most well-known site in the DMZ is the Joint Security Area (JSA), also known as Panmunjeom for the old village that once stood here. The JSA is the only place where North & South Korean soldiers stand face-to-face, and where the only place where both countries officially communicate.The area is administered by United Nations Military Armistice Commission (UNMAC).
Ironically, the DMZ has become one of South Korea's most famous tourist attractions...no wonder why some soldiers refer to the DMZ as the Disneyland of Korea. When visitors arrive to Camp Bonifas, the South Korean side of the JSA, the first place they are taken is the DMZ Museum and Visitors Center, which even includes a souvenir shop where you can buy cheezy trinkets like DMZ T-shirts and mugs:
North Korea also runs tours on their side of the border, as we observed on a few occasions, as in the photo below of a Western visitor sightseeing on the North side of the JSA:
Within the JSA, each side has a large imposing building -- Freedom House in South Korea and Panmungak (Panmun Hall) in North Korea. The buildings are mostly empty and only used for ceremonial purposes. In between the two buildings is the border between North & South Korea. And straddling both sides of the border is "Conference Row" - a group of blue and silver structures. The silver buildings are exclusively for use by North Korea. The blue buildings are jointly-used buildings. Here's a look at Conference Row and North Korea's Panmungak building, as seen from the roof of South Korea's Freedom House:
Above: North Korean soldiers photograph a South Korean soldier and Western visitors to the DMZ. The unassuming concete slab at the foot of the DPRK soldiers is the border between North & South Korea.
Inside the main conference room is a typical conference table, set up so the Korean border runs down the middle. There is no border line within the room, but the flags and microphones on the table are arranged so they straddle the border, and the tiled floor breaks at the border too. Within the conference room, visitors can walk to the north end of the room...the only place where one can freely (and safely) walk into North Korea.
Republic of Korea (ROK Army) soldier stands guard inside the MAC conference room:
When officials from either side are visiting the conference room, soldiers/officials from the opposite Korea cannot enter the room. But that doesn't stop them from peeking into the windows and photographing visitors! (In the photo below, I'm actually standing in North Korea.)
Above: North Korean soldier peers into window while South Korea soldier stands guard inside the UNMAC conference room.
Outside, it's a cat & mouse game as both sides watch each other closely. But the North Korean soldiers are much more obvious in their tactics.
Over the years, the JSA has been the site of several bloody skirmishes between North & South Korea. The most infamous of these was the Axe Murder Incident in 1976, when North Korean soldiers bludgeoned to death two U.S. Army officers who were cutting down a tree that was blocking their line of sight. The memorial below now stands at the location of the incident.
Another famous site near the JSA is the "Bridge of No Return" that was used for prisoner exchanges after the Korean War. The bridge has been featured in numerous South Korean and Hollywood films including "Die Another Day" and "Salt". It's now quite overgrown by weeds and barely standing.
One of the most surprising aspects of the DMZ is the fact that there are two villages where people live and work -- Kijong-dong in North Korea and Daesong-dong in South Korea. Kijong-dong is known as "Propaganda Village" because most of its buildings are actually empty shells. The most visible landmark within this area of the DMZ is the giant North Korean flag atop the third largest flagpole in the world. Just north of the Propaganda Village, and just outside the DMZ, is the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a joint North-South Korean venture.
But apart from the JSA, the two villages and military observation posts, the DMZ is void of development - completely untouched since 1953. And that's made the DMZ a de facto nature reserve, 4km wide and 250km long.
A North Korean observation post surrounded by nothing...
A desolate farm house in North Korea:
Abandoned village in North Korea:
A farm just outside Daesong-dong village on the South Korean side of the DMZ:
If Korea is ever united, the DMZ would make a heck of an awesome national park!
The Two Crabs have two shared passions in life: traveling and skiing. So when we landed our Korea assignment, we were psyched because Korea has 1) snow and 2) ski resorts! South Korea has a young but growing ski industry, no surprise in a country that is about 70% mountainous. In 2018, South Korea's Pyeongchang County will host the 2018 Winter Olympics!
Last Monday, to avoid the weekend crowds, the Two Crabs took a day off work to hit the slopes. So we waxed up the skis, packed the Jeep Wrangler and hit the road to Yongpyong, by far the largest and most built-up ski resort in Korea and the main venue for the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Location & Directions: Like most of Korea's ski resorts, Yongpyong is located in Gangwon Province. Yongpyong Resort is located about 127 miles east of Seoul. Leaving Seoul at 7:30am on Monday morning, it took us about 2 hours, 15 minutes to drive there with zero traffic (on a Saturday afternoon, the same trip can easily take 4-5 hours due to Korea's infamous weekend traffic). The best route from Seoul is Route 1 to Route 50 toll road (W9,000).
Basic info & Price: Yongpyong has 31 runs and 15 lifts including one main gondola. Foreign visitors will be pleased to know that most of the ticket agents speak basic English, and all the piste maps, the resort website, and most of the signs are in Korean and English. Lift passes at Yongpyong come in a variety of prices and packages, based on the times you are skiing. We paid 66,000 won (about $62 USD) each for the 10am-4:30pm lift pass. Ski and board rentals are also available; we noticed that the basic ski rentals are sub-standard compared to U.S. or European ski resorts; if you're a good skier, shell out the extra bucks for premium equipment rentals.
Weather & Snow Conditions: On our ski day, the weather in Yongpyong was about 28F / -2C, or about 10F colder than it was in Seoul. The snow conditions at Yongpyong was a mix of natural and man-made snow. I would characterize the snow conditions as dry and frozen granular. If you've ever skiied in the Mid-Atlantic / East Coast, the snow at Yongpyong was similar to a good cold day at a Pennsylvania ski resort.
Terrain: Let me preface this by saying that the Two Crabs are advanced intermediate skiers; we've skiied everywhere from West Virginia & Pennsylvania to Austria, France and Italy. If you're used to skiing in the Rockies or the Alps, you may be disappointed. The terrain at Yongpyong (and most of Korea) is similar to those found at southern Pennsylvania resorts. Yongpyong runs are mainly beginner (green) and lower intermediate (blue).
The so-called "black" runs on the left side of the mountain would be an intermediate on the East Coast -- or a difficult beginner run in Austria! We didn't have a chance to ski the "double black diamonds" on the far right side of the mountain because they were closed for most of the day, but I imagine they would be similar to an East Coast black / Austrian intermediate. Our favorite run at Yongpyong was actually the "Rainbow Paradise" - a long, lazy blue run that's more than 5km long! If you want to stay away from the crowds, keep to the intermediate and advanced run areas.
One very annoying issue at Yongpyong: the ski runs are named for colors, and the colors don't match the run rating -- the "red" run is actually a blue rating; the "new red" and "blue" runs are actually blacks, etc! So if you're a beginner, make sure you examine your piste map closely before attemtping any runs that might be beyond your skill level.
Lodging: We were only at Yongpyong for a day trip. But lodging at Yongpyong, and at most Korean ski resorts, is very expensive. According to their website, average rooms cost $250-$500 per night! The higher end rooms can accomodate up to 6 people so it's best to go with a group and split the costs. There is also a youth hostel at the resort. The hotel rooms come in both Western-style rooms with real beds, and Korean "ondol" rooms where guests sleep on mats on heated floor.
Dining: There is no shortage of dining options at Yongpyong. The main ski lodge has a food court with many options from Korean to fast food. The mountaintop gondola station has a Western and Korean restaurant plus street food vendors selling everything from pretzels to churros. We had lunch at the "Green Snack" restaurant. The portions are huge and cheap. For less than $6, the Two Crabs shared a pork cutlet, which was similar to weinerschnitzel covered in a tangy sauce and several sides and a yummy soup. Tip: You mut order and pay at a separate desk and pick up a food ticket, then get in the food lines and hand your ticket to the cook. Nearly every restaurant had an indoor and outdoor seating area, but we were usually the only skiers sitting outside. The indoor seating areas at Yongpyong restaurants and shops are UNCOMFORTABLY hot, with the heat cranked up to sauna-like temperatures!
Apres Ski: From our first impression, Koreans have yet to discover apres ski. Although beer is sold at all the restaurants, we didn't see anybody else partaking. At lunch, the Two Crabs were the only skiers drinking beer. Later at the Gold Snack shack, we got some strange looks when, again, we were the only people drinking beer when everyone else was nursing their hot chocolate and tea.
Facilities: The main lodge and base gondola station (above), houses a lift pass ticket booth, ski and snowboard rentals, locker rooms, lockers, several snow sports shops and a ski/snowboard repair shop. Dining options include a main cafeteria with fireplace and several restaurants including a burger joint and Chinese restaurant. The Twosome Place coffee shop has indoor and outdoor seating. Lessons are also offered, including English lessons taught by native speaking instructors. The resort village also includes several other lift pass stations, an outdoor stage, children's play area and snow tubing area.
Bottom line: It's not Austria, but Yongpyong is a pretty good time. The Two Crabs will be back! A few more scenes from Yongpyong...
A few weeks ago, the Two Crabs took our second camping trip in South Korea. This time, we went to Seoraksan National Park to take in the autumn colors. Having learned our lesson the hard way, this time we left Seoul on Sunday morning, camped overnight, and returned to Seoul on Monday afternoon, which happened to be an American holiday. What a difference a day makes. There was ZERO traffic...Seoul to Seoraksan was barely 2 hours, 15 minutes drive...our last coast-to-coast trip on a Sunday afternoon took 6 hours!
We arrived at Seoraksan campground about 10am. Everyone was packing up and leaving for the weekend, so we had our pick of campsites. Most of the folks who remained Sunday night were other Americans enjoying the U.S. holiday. (You can always spot the Americans; they are the ones with REI tents!) The campground here was much nicer than the place we stayed in Odaesan NP. The sites were larger, many with shade and grassy spots, and plenty of restrooms and camp kitchens. The campsite was about 3x larger than Odaesan so no shortage of space for tent campers.
Directly across the street from the campground entrance is a bus stop. Hop on any bus for the 3 mile journey to the park entrance. The bus stops at a Minbak village that is lined with restaurants, hotels, and shops selling very basic camping gear. Good thing too, because Mr. Crab FORGET HIS HIKING SHOES! All I had were flip-flops! So I had to shell out $30 to buy a cheap pair of hikers.
With our kit ready, we headed into the park. Our goal was to hike 800+ meters straight up to Ulan Bawi (Ulan Rock), one of Korea's most famous mountain peaks. This hike is not for the faint of heart, especially if you have any fear of heights. You'll see why in a minute.
The first half of the hike is relatively tame, passing by a giant Buddha statue, some temples, and a few mom & pop restaurants serving snacks and cold beer.
When you reach the steps, get ready. Here comes the hard part! Nearly 1km straight up, and the last .4km is a real killer.
The path is a feat of marvel engineering, with staircases built straight into the rock face. Hard to imagine somebody had to haul all this equipment up here!
The reward: Ulan Bawi (Ulan Rock), with its 360-degree views of the surrounding countryside. Face east, and you can see straight out to the coastline and the Sea of Japan.
It was about a 2 hour hike to the top. After only a brief stop to enjoy the views, it was time to head back to make sure we got to the bottom before dark. It was quite dusk by the time we got to the bottom, then caught the bus back to our campsite for a nice campfire and dinner on the grill.
Incidentally, there are two things you should know about camping in Korea: there are NO HOT SHOWERS. Only ice-cold, military barrack-style communal shower rooms. So unless it's the middle of summer or you truly enjoy taking ice baths with 20 other strangers, you might want to think twice. The other complaint about camping is the sites never have picnic tables. We ended up placing our camp stove on the ground. Cooking on your knees is not easy, so we may have to invest in a little REI folding table.
WARNING: Rated PG-13 photo below.
Although we enjoy taking the train, sometimes driving is just easier. By driving, you get exposed (pun intended) to some very interesting Korean roadside attractions. Case in point: Penis Park Rest Stop. Yes, you read that correctly. Actually, it's called Chungjung Sculpture Park. It's located on the road to Seoraksan, about two miles east of where Expressway 60 becomes Route 44. It's part sculpture garden, part highway rest stop. Along with the usual rest stop trinkets, you can also buy green ceramic celedon sculptures, coffee mugs, desk ornaments, and much more!
Ok, here's the rated PG-13 photos. You've been warned!
Yesterday, the Two Crabs and friends took a hiking trip to experience one of the most amazing sights in Seoul - the Golden Buddha of Bukhansan. Located in Bukhansan National Park just north of downtown Seoul, the Golden Buddha of Bukhansan is the largest sitting Buddha statue in East Asia.
We have been looking forward to experiencing this attraction since reading about it several expat blogs like this post. Dubbed the Golden Buddha by foreigners, the Korean name of the statue is 국녕대불 - The Grand Buddha of Guknyeong, named so because it is part of the larger 국녕사 (Guk-nyeong-Sa), or Guknyeong Temple.
Curiously, the Guknyeong Buddha is not mentioned in any of the usual English travel guides. We found the exact location only after scouring through detailed images of Bukhansan National Park on Google Earth.
The Guknyeong Buddha is located on the west side of the park, at 37°38'47.96" N, 126°57'46.80" E.
To get to the trailhead by public transportation, take Seoul metro Line 3 to Gupabal station, exit 1. Then look for the bus stop just outside the station. Take either the #34, #704 or #8772 northbound bus for about 10 minutes and disembark at "Bukhansanseong Information Center", one of the main entrances to Bukhansan National Park. The announcements on the bus are usually Korean-only, so if you're not sure, just follow all the other hikers when they get off!
We had the day off for the Hangul Day holiday. The weather could not have been more perfect for hiking, 72 degrees and sunny. Unfortunately, half of Seoul had the same idea, so we could not even get on a bus! So we ended up walking about 45 minutes from Gupabal station to the park entrance.
Here's some Bing maps of the route we took. The green line was our "uphill" route; the red route was the return downhill trip. In the first photo, the blue circle in the lower left is Gupabal metro station; the blue circle on the upper right Guknyeong Temple. If you take the bus, it would drop you off just past where the red and green lines meet. The trail head is approximately where the red and green lines diverge. Click on the images for the full-sized photo.
Here's a more detailed map of the actual hike. The blue circle is the temple & Buddha:
By foot from Gupabal station, we walked along the main road for a while until we saw English & Korean signs for the Bukhansanseong Information Center, one of the park's main ranger stations. That road led us down a residential road past some small shops and convenience stores, then onto the trail that parallels the main road. Follow the signs for Bukhansanseong Information Center.
After a short while, we arrived at the ranger station. The area was buzzing with activity. There is a large pay parking lot here too (I drove once here and vowed I would never do it again due to nightmare traffic). The neighborhood around the ranger station is a hiker's paradise, lined with outdoor supply stores (including The North Face), restaurants and cafes. At the ranger station, you can pick up a not-very-good map of the park (much better maps are available at Kyobo book store chains). Some of the rangers spoke English and were assisting the way-gooks (foreigners).
About 200 meters past the ranger station, you'll get to a fork in the road. Go right (the trails actually reconnect, but the right is easier and paved). The first mile or so of the trail is a steep but paved road, which is wheelchair and stroller accessible...sort of. You'll eventually reach Daeseomun, the Great West Gate of the old fortress that was located within the park.
After the gate, you'll pass a small temple on the right, then see a public restroom and a parking lot.
From here, the trail will fork. Take the RIGHT trail, marked by an English sign pointing towards "Daenammun (Castle Gate)" and "Bukhansan Shelter." A silver sign on the right of the intersection shows "국녕사", your destination.
Once you see the statue above, the pavement ends and the trail starts becoming quite steep! After about 20 minutes, you'll reach an intersection next to what looks like some old guy's shanty house. It's actually a small monastery/temple. The main trail and most hikers will continue straight. Don't follow them. Instead, turn right into the "shanty house" courtyard!
Above: The "shanty town". Go through the red arch! Do NOT follow the other hikers. (IMPORTANT UPDATE: An alert reader has informed me that as of May 2017, the red arch in this photo is GONE. Keep an eye out for this intersection and the house #266 blue sign, seen above on the stone wall).
Follow the sidewalk through and around the shanty house and you'll emerge onto the trail and Korean signs to Guknyeong temple (국녕사).
Just past the shanty house is this small temple:
The entire trail from the shanty house to the temple is very well marked -- in Korean. As long as you keep following signs for 국녕사, you'll end up at the Golden Buddha.
The trail is very narrow and steep in some parts, but not super difficult. After hiking for about 40 minutes from the shanty house, you'll suddenly emerge from the woods right into the face of Buddha!
According to the signage, the temple dates back 1,000 years. The modern temple was built in 1711. It's unclear when the 24-meter tall (79 feet) Grand Buddha itself was built, but the signs note that the entire complex was renovated in 2004. The Grand Buddha is surrounded by glass trophy cases containing 10,000 (!!) smaller Buddha statues, ranging in size from just two inches to two feet tall.
In addition to the Buddha, you can spend some time exploring the Guknyeong Temple complex, which includs a restaurant where you can grab a spot of lunch. A set of stone stairs leads up to two smaller temples and the bell tower.
After some spiritual enlightenment and a quick lunch of packed sandwiches and fruit, we began the trek back to town. The return trailhead begins just to the right of the Grand Buddha. It's a short but steep climb to the mountain peak, providing a good opportunity to look back for a birds-eye view of the Buddha and temple complex.
After a short but VERY steep climb, we reached the peak, where you'll come across the old fortress wall and some fantastic views of Seoul below.
The hike back down was quite challenging, because he terrain is covered in roots and boulders. This requires a lot of dexterity and close attention to where you're stepping. Eventually the trail levels off across some flat rocky and exposed terrain.
We eventually made it back to our original starting point, which is the Dulegil trailhead. Glad we didn't go counter-clockwise to the temple!
The roundrip hike from Bukhansanseong Information Center (ranger station) to the Guknyeong temple and back only takes 2-3 hours, depending how much time you spend admiring the temple.
Back on the main road, we were finally able to board a Bus 704 back to Gupabal metro station. Bus 704 actually goes all the way to Seoul Station, but expect to spend an hour on the ride.
One last tip: If you go to the Grand Buddha, time your visit so you arrive before midday or after 2pm. We arrived about noon and the sun was directly behind and above the Buddha's head, so it made photography difficult.
Last weekend, the Two Crabs went on our first road trip outside of Seoul to Gangwon province on the East Coast of Korea. Our goal: to camp overnight at Odaesan National Park. Odaesan is not the most famous or popular park in Korea. But that's a good thing because it wasn't too crowded. So on Saturday morning, we threw the tent and camping gear in the Jeep and left Seoul at 8am.
Driving in Korea is relatively easy. The highways are up to American specs, well-marked with English and Korean signs. There are huge rest areas every 25 kilometers or so featuring restaurants, shops, and even live music and batting cages. The highways are toll-based; driving from one end of the country to the other costs about $9.50. We decided NOT to drop $350 to buy a Korean GPS. Instead, we navigated the old-fashioned way by paying less than $10 for a road map, purchased from the huge Kyobo Book Centre near the US Embassy.
Unfortunately, we failed to take into account Korea's infamous traffic congestion. It should have been a 2.5 hour drive. Instead it took almost 4 hours, with bumper-to-bumper traffic from Seoul to Wonju. Once we got past there, it was smooth sailing.
We arrived at Odaesan Sogeumgang Campground about lunch time, and thankfully there were still about a dozen campsites available. The camping spots are all laid out in small squares marked by ground ropes. Compared to American or European campgrounds, the camp sites are much smaller and closer together. But we managed to find a little privacy, wedged against some huge boulders and set up camp under a huge Persimmon tree. The camp site costs just W16,000 per night, or less than $15 USD.
Odaesan's campground has about 100 tent sites, and a handful of RV sites. Camping is a relatively new but growing pastime in Korea. Recreational vehicles (campers) are not common. Most Koreans are tent campers. But "tent camping" is a relative term. Our REI-stocked kit consisted of our awesome REI Quarter Dome T3 Plus tent, sleeping bags, camp stove, and a cooler full of food and beer. Meanwhile, our Korean neighbors were sporting tents larger than some Korean apartments, with full-sized kitchens and more!
After a quick lunch, we took a short 2-hour hike to a nearby Buddhist temple.
After our hike, we strolled through the Minbak village located directly across the campground. The village was about a half-mile long road of Korean restaurants, convenience stores, bars, hiking & camping supply shops and minbaks (guest houses). It's also where most tour buses and day-trippers begin and end their visit to Odaesan National Park.
On Sunday morning, the sun gave way to clouds and drizzle. So we packed up camp and continued east to the end of the road, Gyeongpo Beach, and dipped our toes in the Sea of Japan -- or the East Sea as Koreans call this body of water separating Korea & Japan.
After the brief beach visit, we began our drive east. But first, we decided to make a pilgrimage to the ski resorts of PyeongChang, future site of the 2018 Winter Olympics! Our first stop was YongPyong, the largest ski resort in Korea!
This is a large (by Korean standards) resort featuring 31 slopes, a gondola and several hotels, restaurants, bars, and more. Next door to YongPyong is Alpensia, where the Olympic opening and closing ceremonies will be held. About 30 minutes west of Alpensia & Yongpyong, we reached Phoenix Park, the venue where the snowboarding competitions will take place. When we arrived, workers were busy building an Olympic flame featuring an embedded digital display.
We are definately looking forward to hitting the slopes around Korea this winter! After a quick lunch, we hit the road back to Seoul. FAIL. What should have been a 2-hour drive turned into a 5 hour ordeal, as every Korean and their uncle was attempting to return to Seoul at the same time.
Lesson learned: When taking a weekend road trip out of Seoul, leave at 6am on Saturday, and don't start driving back until about 8pm!
Every month or so, U.S. Embassy Seoul's American Citizen Services (ACS) Section provides off-site services in other major cities around Korea. Last week, we were lucky enough to spend several days in Busan -- Korea's second-largest city and the peninsula's main beach resort. A few scenes from beautiful Busan!
The last two photos are from our new favorite restaurant in Korea, 오반장 (Oh Ban-Jang). It's off-the-beaten path, located in Busan's red light district about a 15 minute walk from Haeundae Beach! The place always has a line outside, especially on warm nights by crowds attracted to the huge outdoor garden. It was so good, we went two nights in a row!