South Korea Sojourns II: Taebaek
OSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea -- Author's Note: This is the second in a series of articles about recreational travel opportunities for service members stationed in South Korea. Each article will highlight a specific South Korean destination, attraction, or event within the authorized travelling distance for U.S. forces in country. The aim of this series is to encourage everyone to safely and enthusiastically explore their surroundings, develop an appreciation for the history, culture, and customs of their host nation, as well as showcase the diverse activities available to service member, and their families, near and far, while stationed in the Republic of Korea. Concluding each article will be an approximation of how much money and time are required for each destination, attraction or event, as well as directions and amount of physical activity is required. Many opportunities to travel in groups are available through the base's Information, Tickets and Travel office as well as Outdoor Recreation.
A lot of Koreans I talk to intimate there are two Koreas: Seoul - and everywhere else. While this sentiment is probably overwrought, there's a bit of truth to it. The city is a leviathan, one of the largest in the world, and has an endless supply of attractions and events, which I spent my first two weekends in country exploring. There is, however, life outside the big city, and the Republic of Korea is equally regarded, if not more so, for its natural landscapes and sights than its metropolises. With this idea I left the swarming lights and urban atmosphere of the city and headed to Taebaek.
The city of Taebaek is located in the middle-eastern part of the ROK, in Gangwon province. It shares its name with the Taebaek Mountains, a range extending from North Korea to Busan in South Korea. Its high altitude, cool weather, scenery and resorts make it a prime wintertime destination for skiers, snowboarders and hikers.
To get to Taebaek I first took a bus from Songtan Intercity Bus Terminal to the Dong Seoul Bus Terminal in Seoul, a 90-minute ride. Songtan's terminal is located very close to the main gate of Osan Air Base, and regularly runs to Seoul. A one-way ticket cost me W4,400. Another option for travelers is to use the nearby metro, which also goes directly to Dong Seoul terminal, takes approximately 90 minutes, and costs W 2,000, but involves a few transfers and the chance of being stuffed uncomfortably into a train car with dozens of other travelers.
The schedules at the bus terminal were tourist friendly, with Romanized names of destinations for English speakers making it easy to get around, additionally buses from many cities around the country run to and from Dong Seoul throughout the day.
From Dong Seoul I purchased a direct ticket to Taebaek, which cost W22,900 and was about a three to three and a half hour trip one way. The seats were spacious and comfortable and the ride gives travelers a chance to nap, study, or read a book for fun.
When I got to Taebaek intercity bus terminal, I had to find the bus to Danggol, which would take me directly to Taebaek Provincial Park, a perfect gateway into the snow and winter festivities in the city. Because the signs in Taebaek were not all Romanized, I had a little trouble finding my bus, leading to me having to ask a bus station employee for help.
A quick note on traveling in a foreign country:
If you do enough traveling, eventually you will have to ask for the help of someone who either doesn't speak or understand English well, if at all. Even the most scrupulously prepared or stubborn of travelers have to ask for directions sometimes. This presents the traveler in Korea with a dilemma:
A. Try to solve their problems themselves, guessing or hoping to run into someone who speaks English.
B. Try and learn how to ask for help in Korean, with the aid of a few phrases.
And if you've never been exposed to a foreign language before, learning an entirely new one as an adult is a difficult task. Even without learning the grammar involved in conjugating coherent sentences, an English-speaking native, saying a phrase in Korean, is bound to sound heavily accented and can be difficult for Koreans to understand.
For example, at Taebaek bus terminal I couldn't find the bus leaving for Danggol, so I had to ask the woman at the ticket booth for help. My attempt to tell her that I couldn't speak Korean and ask did she know any English got such a big laugh out of her you would have thought I was Louie C.K. working the crowd at the New York City Center.
But - that's okay. It's important for foreign travelers to not only endure these embarrassing moments, but embrace them. After all, you're a visitor in a place with its own culture and customs and the only way to get better at communicating is to practice.
After chuckling mirthfully at my all-too-obvious westerner's attempt at speaking Korean, the lady at the ticket booth was able to find out what I needed and point me in the right direction and I was on my way. It's important to remember that language barriers make it hard to have meaningful conversations, but most people, out of basic decency and kindness, will do their best to help you if they can. The important thing is to not be afraid to ask, even if you look silly sometimes.
In fact, it wasn't long after this funny experience that I directly experienced a bit of South Korean hospitality and kindness from two fellow travelers. While waiting for the bus to Danggol I was approached by a middle-aged Korean couple who asked me in English where I was going. When they found out we were both headed to the same destination, they offered to show me around and tell me about some of the sites. In conversation I found out the couple were Korean natives who spent a lot of time in Georgia living with their daughter.
It's about a 20-minute ride from Taebaek bus terminal to the park, and costs W2,000. Once there, travelers have the option of exploring a one or more of many attractions available. When I went, the park was hosting its annual winter snow festival, with a number of large snow sculptures on display and access to the Taebaek Coal Museum for W2,000. There are also numerous hiking trails available, most typically four kilometers or less and further down the road there are resorts with skiing and snowboarding available.
Me and my new tour guides went to the snow sculptures first. A lot of the sculptures had explanations written in English, but having two natives explain the history behind some of the personages was a boon.
For instance, they were able to explain to me who Sejong the Great was and why his reign as king during the Joseon dynasty was so important to Korean history. They told me Sejong was one of the originators and main advocates of Hangul, an accessible and easy to learn alphabet, which provided peasants and lower class Koreans an avenue to literacy in the 15th century. Before the adoption of Hangul, which my companions told me was opposed by many of the nobles and elites of Korean society, the only way to be literate in Korean society was by learning the ornate Chinese Hanja, which requires rigorous study and practice, involving more time than was available to the lower or working class.
My new companions also explained other festival events to me, like the pounded tteok (pronounced dok). Tteok is steamed rice flour mashed in a large bowl with a mallet before being powdered and served as a treat. There were people mashing the flour at the festival and a table serving up the finished product free of charge.
After looking at the snow sculptures we went into the coal museum. One of the major natural energy sources in Korea, coal played a major role in the development of the ROK, and Taebaek, located squarely in a mountain range, was a major coal mining city. The museum has limited signs in English and not many of the exhibits have multi-lingual options, so it's best to either go with a tour or someone who understands Korean; however, access to the museum is included in the ticket to the park so it's worth a look anyway.
After going through the museum quickly, in about an hour, me and my companions said goodbye, as I was off to go hiking while they were going to their hotel, but I am extremely grateful for the kindness they showed to a complete stranger.
Already having spent several hours in Taebaek, I was a little hungry. For this trip, I ate a big breakfast before I left in the morning and packed a lot of snacks, not knowing if there'd be a lot of restaurants nearby the hiking trails of the mountain. There were indeed multiple street vendors or convenience stores, but I ate my pre-packed lunch and snacks to save money.
Hiking up the Taebaek mountains in winter time requires a little bit of physical stamina, ability and the right gear. The trails themselves are not too daunting, but the frequent snow and slushy seasonal conditions make going up and down difficult for people not outfitted correctly. Travelers thinking of hiking these trails should consider purchasing at a minimum a pair of hiking shoes. A lot of people I passed had the shoes and hiking sticks among other accessories.
It's feasible to spend all day hiking the various trails in Taebaek and its surrounding area. Outside of the park there are other paths to take and the aforementioned ski resorts. And while it's possible to make Taebaek a day-trip, travelers wanting to fully explore the area should consider finding overnight lodging.
In Taebaek, there are two basic lodging options: a commercial hotel or a Hanok house. During the winter season, hotels in Taebaek sell out quickly so it's important to plan ahead if you want to stay in one. Hanok houses, traditional Korean houses, are the other option, and the experience of staying in one might appeal to many travelers, but they charge a relatively hefty fee (locals told me usually a minimum of W50,000 and often more) for lodgings many western travelers may find lacking convenience or luxury.
Having been up since the early morning, and soaked from a day of traveling and hiking in wet conditions, I decided it would be best to go back home. The trip to return to Songtan cost exactly the same as it did to leave there, the only difference being I took the metro in Seoul instead of the bus. I left Taebaek around 7 p.m. and arrived back in Seoul at approximately 10 p.m., with plenty of time to make it home before curfew.
The high altitude, beautiful scenery, ample hiking trails and snow related activities of Taebaek make it a chilly, but worthwhile winter time excursion. While the distance will cost travelers just a little bit more than staying local, a well-planned day or two-day trip can be had for a very reasonable amount, and the opportunity to practice Korean away from the big city and meet other travelers can't be measured in money. Taebaek, its mountains, and surrounding attractions provide a wonderful chance to get away from the flashing lights and sky-reaching buildings of Korea's big cities and be surrounded by the less deliberately spectacular heights of nature.
Directions: Songtan Bus Station or Metro to Dong Seoul Intercity Bus Terminal. Dong Seoul Bus Terminal to Taebaek Intercity Bus Terminal. Taebaek to Danggol.
Cost: W59,200, which includes transportation and snacks. Securing overnight lodging or restaurant dining will cost more.
Time: All day or two days. Bus rides from Seoul to Taebaek take approximately 3 hours each way. To safely ensure you're back before curfew the latest you can leave from Taebaek Intercity Bus Terminal is 7:30 - 8 p.m.
Documentation required: No ID required.
Who it's for: All ages. Winter adventurers. Anyone who loves to ski, snowboard, or hike. Anyone who loves scenic heights.
When it's open: Year round, but check on specific destinations such as the park and ski resorts.
Activity required: As much or little desired. Most of the mountain trails are around four kilometers and not particularly arduous, but winter conditions can increase the trails difficulty.
What to travel with: Some additional gear for hiking. The cities altitude makes it cold, so wear layers in the winter and consider brining a change socks or other clothes in case you get soaked. Make sure to take your SOFA and ID card as well as a functioning cellular phone. As always, when traveling, groups are preferable, and make sure to notify your supervisor and chain of command where you intend to go. Carry enough cash to buy travel tickets and food from street vendors if desired, as an ATM will be hard to find.
Bonus: The ITT office on base offered this destination as a day-trip in January for $50. Check with the ITT and Outdoor Rec office on base to get an opportunity for deals like this.