South Korea has been on my travel list for so long it was in danger of becoming a permanent fixture. I had a South Korean friend at school who has been trying to get me to visit her every summer since we left. Finally, this year, I got my arse in gear and flew over to the Korean Peninsula. I arrived in Seoul super late on the night of the 10th and crashed with another friend who’s based in the city before heading down to Mokpo on the 11th.
Mokpo is a port city way down in the south-west of South Korea. If you’re in Korea for a longer trip, I’d definitely recommend taking the time to head out of Seoul and explore the rest of the country. By getting the train down to Mokpo, I got to see how amazingly green a place it is (this coming from a girl who grew up in England’s green and pleasant land!) with the landscape being 70% mountains. It’s easy to see why hiking is such a big deal here. I caught an express train which took 2 and a half hours and cost 52700W (around £35 as of July 2016). This train also had free wifi. I mean, what else would you expect from a country that’s a world leader in internet connectivity?
Once I arrived in Mokpo I was met at the station by my friend and her mum who instantly whisked me off to see Yudalsan, the resident mountain. There are hiking trails up it but we decided to visit the sculpture park instead as it was raining on and off. A quick aside – I have a track record for booking holidays during the worst weather a place had to offer. I didn’t disappoint with South Korea, arriving during monsoon season. But back to the sculpture park! It has a mixture of sculptures from Korean and international artists and was the first sculpture park in Korea. Behind it is a beautiful Buddhist temple. You also get some good views over Mokpo from this part of the mountain.
After this we headed back to my friend’s house for dinner, going via the hospital where her dad works as an osteopath after I’d mentioned that my ankles were sore (Korean hospitality extends to free x-rays I guess?) My hosts were determined that I get a taste of real Korean food and so we had japchae (sweet potato noodles called dangmyeon with beef and squid), galbijjim (steamed beef rib), kkaennip-kimchi (sesame kimchi) and mooli. Dangmyeon would out to be my new favourite food ever and I’m going to miss those little noodles so much!
I could honestly write several posts devoted solely to the food I’ve had on this trip. It’s my first time to Asia at all, and while you can get Korean, Thai, Vietnamese and pretty much anything you could want to eat back home in the UK, nothing prepares you for the food culture out there. In my whole 10 day trip I don’t think I ate a single bad meal. I ate plenty where I had no idea what I was eating (more on that later) but I never left a table hungry.
My second day in Mokpo was fairly laidback as I was still trying to sort out my sleep pattern. In the afternoon we visited the National Maritime Museum, which showcases Korea’s shipping history and has a dramatically curated exhibition on the Shinan shipwreck. This was discovered in the 1970s and kick started Korean underwater archaeology. They also had a completely bizarre animation explaining this to kids. I thought it was just because there was no English translation for me to follow but my friend said it was bonkers even if you understood Korean!
That night I was taken out for hanjungsik which is a Korean banquet of deliciousness. It’s a traditional meal with lots of courses, each of which is in turn made up of lots of smaller dishes. I can’t list everything we ate because then I’d be straying into listicle territory (50 tastiest things you should eat in Mokpo!) but some highlights were: octopus, abalone (which my friend translated appetisingly as sea ear just as I’d put it in my mouth), some very angry fish, more japchae and yakbap which is sweet sticky rice with chestnuts and honey.
After dinner we walked along the seafront. One of the landmarks of Mokpo is Gatbawi or as I insisted on calling it, Hat Rock. It’s supposed to look like a man wearing a traditional Korean hat called a Gat. I couldn’t really see it but perhaps that’s just me! I’ll let you be the judge. It was a beautiful place to watch the sunset over the Yellow Sea.
On my third day in Mokpo we headed further inland to do a tour of Damyang and its surrounding area. We took a bus to Gwangju. This was somewhere I wanted to spend more time in as it’s a pivotal place in modern Korean history – it was here at pro-democracy protests in May 1980 that 165 students and protestors were killed by the military. If you’re interested in finding out more Human Acts by Han Kang is a heartbreaking exploration of what happened. We didn’t spend long in Gwangju but if I return to South Korea it’s somewhere I want to explore.
This time, we got on a tour bus heading out to Damyang. It was run by Kumho buslines and it ended up just being the 3 of us! The tour was in Korean but our driver made sure that I had information about everywhere we were going in English. Our tour guide talked A LOT but as it was all in Korean, I was able to zone out when she was lecturing my friends! My poor friend tried to translate at first but she simply couldn’t keep up.
Our first stop was Soswaewon Garden, which is a typical Korean garden from the middle Joseon Dynasty (it was built between 1520 and 1530). It’s very different to an English formal garden. If you look at our famous examples (Chatsworth, Kew) they’re all about the landscaping, how humans can assert their control and regimented order over nature. Don’t get me wrong, they’re still incredibly beautiful. But Soswaewon felt a lot more organic, as if the buildings had been built to fit the landscape rather the other way around. There was a moment here that captured my experience of Korea as a country. While we were looking around there was a woman sat in one of the hanoks, a traditional Korean building, using her smartphone. For me, this kind of perfectly summed up the respect and pride for traditional culture as well as an intense rate of innovation that I’d noticed since arriving in Korea. It’s a place where you can get free wifi pretty much anywhere (if you have a Korean phone contract) and where the latest craze is for wearing hanbok, traditional clothing, to take selfies of yourself visiting historical sites – more on this in my post about Jeonju.
Next we went on to Sigyeongjeong Pavilion. This was another traditional hanok and apparently it’s been a place of inspiration for many famous Korean poets. Unfortunately our guide talked non-stop for around half an hour and wouldn’t let my friend translate at all for me! So I can’t give much more information than that.
Juknokwon Bamboo Forest was next on our agenda but first it was time for lunch. Damyang is famous for tteokgalbi which are beef patties (think burgers but without the bun) and for rice steamed inside a piece of bamboo. You get to take the bamboo with you afterwards which was a nice moment of this particular meal. Needless to say it was all delicious! The day had started to heat up and so we headed into the bamboo forest itself to get some shade. Now, I don’t know how accurate this is (any biologists reading this, please feel free to correct me) but apparently the reason it’s cooler around bamboo is because of how efficient it is at photosynthesis. Whatever the reason, it was a great place to hide from the sun. Being a complete newbie to Asia, I had no idea bamboo grew so tall! We spent a relaxing hour wandering around and trying out all the bamboo furniture that was dotted around in various clearings.
There were more trees to follow for us as we headed next to Metasequoia Road which has been officially designated one of South Korea’s most beautiful roads by the Korea Forest Service. The trees were planted in the 70s when the Ministry of Internal Affairs declared the road a boulevard. Again, it was another cool place (in both senses of the word) to spend some time.
Here’s where our day took a decidedly more surreal turn. We were dropped off at Old Gokseong Station and Railway Village. This turned out to be an almost entirely empty theme park. Once we’d got through the ticket office we didn’t see any staff. Most of the attractions were open but no one seemed to be in charge of them. There was your stereotypical creepy carousel and ferris wheel, turning with no one on them or running them. There was a completely empty children’s train museum where we tried on tiny train costumes and could run around a fake track. My personal favourite, however, was the goblin themed optical illusion building. No one else was in there apart from me and my friends. I think we were a little over the target age by at least a decade and a half but we had a blast!
The bizarre end to our trip would continue when we got back to Mokpo. We went out for kalguksu which is soup (in this case manila calm soup) and dumplings. I love dumplings. When I went to Poland I pretty much lived off pierogi for five days. I’d do a dumpling tour of the world if I could afford it. So safe to say I was satisfied with this dinner. The evening turned bizarre though when we went for another walk by the sea. I was introduced to Mokpo’s dancing fountain. This is a bit out from the shore and happens every night. There’s a fountain and lasers all of which is timed to fit with music. When we saw it, the song playing was Gangnam Style. Never did I think I would be standing in a city in South Korea watching an ocean light show to K-Pop’s biggest western hit.
This seems like a good place to stop for this week. I couldn’t possibly fit my whole trip into a single post, not without making it into an essay. Next up I’ll be talking about my stay in Jeonju Hanok Village which was awesome and surreal in a very different way to the first few days of my trip. And of course, there’ll be even more about the food I ate!