A great American road trip... in Korea

by Kat Nikola
Stripes Korea

Lately South Korea has started to feel a bit, well, small.  We are going into our 3rd year here (plus another 1 from our first tour), and seen a lot of the peninsula.  We love being stationed in Korea; it has provided a wonderful experience for our family.  We love walking in our town, we love the ‘Mayberry’ feel of our base, we love the seasons, the mountains, the Korean people, and the food.  I could go on.  But, we really miss variety.  We pine for long weekend road trips with just a few goals and no definite destinations...bringing the tent to camp and seeing the sights along the way; sans the fear of horrendous traffic.

Veterans Day weekend we decided to attempt a good old fashioned American road trip here in Korea.  We left with simply an idea of heading south, packed the camping supplies, and hoped to catch a ferry.  Going free-for-all certainly gave the weekend a new excitement and revived our love for travel in our host country.

Departing on Saturday is always risky with traffic barreling out of Seoul, but since our goal was ‘south’ it mattered not.  I use an awesome mapping app on my phone called Naver Maps; it’s Korean, but with minor fiddling you can figure out how to overlay bike paths, good satellite, and (best of all) traffic flow.  Being that it’s Korean has the added benefit of being up-to-date.  We have often driven on new beautifully clear highways that do not appear on other English-based map apps or GPS.  If you are stationed in Korea, download Naver maps!

With my husband at the wheel we chose I-35 because southbound traffic on The One was as expected: slow.  It was a pleasant drive and we decided to stop along the eastern side of Jirisan National Park.  As are the mountains throughout this country, it was beautiful.  The distinction here was size.  We marveled at the flaming red maple trees along the windy road into one of the numerous valleys.

Cold drizzle began just as we parked at the Somakgol ‘Yah-yawng-jong’ (야영장) or campground.   A fun little suspension bridge links the parking lot and the camping areas; luckily there is also a cart to haul gear over the river and through the woods.

Camping is one of the things that our family seems to thrive on.  We all start to feel cooped up indoors and need some quality time together in the wild.  In Korea the ‘alone’ part is a difficult expectation, but to our pleasant surprise the campground was empty!  We got our tent up, played in the drizzle, climbed on boulders, had a fire and read late into the night.

Morning was cold, but my husband (ever the woodsman) got that fire going and we were toasty again.  The sun was out in full force and enlightening us with an exciting array of fall color.  The slow parade of oranges and red came down the mountain as the sun slowly rose over the valley walls.  It was a misty fall paradise, and we lingered.

Back on the road, we went further south arriving at a port town called Tongyeong.  We chose this site because it was straight down I-25 AND a quick glance at Naver maps showed lots of dotted ferry lines heading out, and that seemed fun.  It was a cute small town with a few full-size ancient reproduction Korean turtle boats.

The ferry port was easy enough to find by following signs; and once there we asked which island we could go to, stay a night and return tomorrow.  Hansando it was!  And we had an hour to spare.  The bonus was that it had a car ferry, so we didn’t need to worry about the bus schedule on the island.

The kids loved the ferry ride; especially feeding the seagulls off the back.  It was a warm sunny day, the breeze was gentle, and the ferry ride was short.

Korean islands are super cool, and especially down south because they are like giant cliffs and mountains jutting up out of the ocean.  Hansando was a great surprise; very rural and pretty.  We drove around the island and across a connector bridge to a smaller land with a big stone beach, a large area of tidepools and even some sandy space.   This was the place for us; Chubong.

After exploring more of the area we ended up back at Chubong searching for Minbak; a room to rent for the night.  I tried a few doors and phone numbers with my Korean skills: “minbak nea?”  “bang hana olmayayo?”  “nea, bang hana juseyo”.  Basically, “minbak, right?... one room is how much?.... W40,000 .....  Yes!  one room for me please.  This cute golden-toothed old lady came walking down the street for us, and led us into the old courtyard home along the beach.  Our room was nice and large with ample bedding for a comfy nights sleep on the ondol (heated) floor.

Spent the evening wandering at the beach, eating some raymon, and shooting fireworks over the ocean.

In the morning we visited Hansando’s claim to fame; General Yi Sun-sin’s memorial.  General Yi famously fought off the Japanese naval invasions of the 1500’s.  He is also credited with designing the famous turtle ships we saw in the harbor. The General’s memorial is a lovely stroll around the edge of the lagoon from the ferry port.  It had a pretty shrine building, large pine trees, and memorial temple.  Definitely a highlight of the trip!

Back on the mainland we ventured east to visit Chinhae Naval base.  On the way we drove along the coastal road to see some sites.  It was a gorgeous drive.  We found a set of fossilized dinosaur footprints along the way; Goseong-gun is the best place in Korea for dinosaurs!  We also got to see some amazingly gigantic ships at the shipyards along the way.

At Chinhae we had a wonderful respite in their very well-appointed Navy Lodging.  The standard room we got was like a small apartment with a bedroom, living room and kitchen.  Super Nice!  We slept well and watched TV to relax before heading back home to Osan...stopping on the way to fill up the car at Camp Walker in Daegu.  Taking a road trip in Korea seems easier when there are little pockets of America to stop in.

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