GYEONGGI (경기) and GANGWON (강원), South Korea’s northernmost provinces, couldn’t be much further apart in character, despite both being bounded to the north by the Demilitarized Zone, often described as one of the most dangerous places on Earth. In the small northwestern corner of the country, Gyeonggi (officially known as Gyeonggi-do) is a busy rabble of eleven million people much cut up by roads and buzzing with industry. It encircles the two cities of Seoul and Incheon; though these are administratively separate, the combined urban mass of 24 million people – around half of the country’s population – makes little Gyeonggi one of the world’s most densely populated areas.
Seoul functions as the province’s beating heart by providing work to the masses, though most of Gyeonggi’s surrounding cities are commuter-filled nonentities, whose sights are few and far between. However, Incheon to the west of the capital and Suwon to the south, with its UNESCO-listed fortress, merit a visit; the former sports the country’s most thriving Chinatown and was the first city in the country to be opened up to international trade; it remains Korea’s most important link with the outside world thanks to its international airport and ferry terminals. The airport squats on an island, Yeongjongdo, one of many, just west of Incheon in the West Sea, better known internationally as the Yellow Sea. A residue of traditional Korean life can be found on these West Sea islands, from whose shores fishermen roll in and out with the tide as they have for generations. Some of the more notable isles are Deokjeokdo, a laid-back and refreshingly unspoilt retreat from Seoul, and Ganghwado, an island within spitting distance of the North Korean border (not that you’re allowed even to see North Korea from its army-controlled shores, let alone spit at it). If you want to catch a glimpse of the neighbours, head to Panmunjeom, a village inside the Demilitarized Zone that separates North and South Korea. With security so tight, access is understandably subject to the conditions of the time, but most visitors should be lucky enough to take a step across the world’s most fortified border to what is technically North Korean territory. Alternatively you can make do with a view of the empty “Propaganda Village” on the opposite side of the DMZ, or a scramble through tunnels built by the North in readiness for an assault on Seoul.
By contrast, Gyeonggi’s rugged next-door-neighbour, Gangwon (or Gangwon-do) has managed to remain the country’s most unspoilt mainland province and exerts a magnetic pull over Koreans. Enclosed by Gyeonggi to the west, Gyeongsang to the south, North Korea and the East Sea, it’s a lush green land blessed with beaches, lakes and muscular peaks, whose rugged topography ensures that it remains the least-populated part of the country: despite being Korea’s second largest province, it has a smaller population than many of its cities.
Chuncheon is Gangwon’s capital and major city and is unhurried enough to allow for some pleasant bike-riding. The other region’s other two major cities are also very relaxed: Gangneung is home to a wonderful Confucian shrine, while salty Sokcho on the east coast has enough on its periphery to keep you occupied for a few days. There are four national parks in the province, each differing in topography and popularity, and whose acknowledged champion, Seoraksan, contains some of the highest peaks in the land. Odaesan is a similar but much less touristed national park just down the coast. Elsewhere around the province it’s possible to raft down whitewater rivers, go skiing, laze on unspoilt beaches, or fire down a rural valley on a specially built rail-bike.
Despite the natural attractions, Gangwon hasn’t always been a paragon of serenity. Its historical boundaries actually extend far into North Korea, but since the end of the Korean War the province has been divided by the twin perimeters of the Demilitarized Zone. During the war, the mountainous terrain that for so long preserved Gangwon’s tranquillity became a curse, with ferocious battles fought for strategically important peaks. Even today, the tension is palpable – much of the region’s coast is fenced off to protect against attacks from the North, and even some of the most popular beaches are fringed with barbed wire and military installations – from the end of the Korean War until the signing of the armistice in 1953, all land above the 38th Parallel (which hits the coast at a point roughly halfway between Sokcho and Gangneung) came under North Korean control, and was eventually exchanged for an area almost equal in size north of Seoul. Tunnels under the DMZ were found in the 1970s, and a spy-filled North Korean submarine crashed on the Gangwon coast in 1996; the latter can still be seen, next to an old American warship, near the small village of Jeongdongjin.
Despite its status as Gangwon’s capital city, CHUNCHEON (춘천) remains small and relatively relaxed; in fact, it’s the country’s smallest provincial capital. Mountain-fringed and surrounded by artificial lakes, it boasts fresh air that’s a welcome change for anyone who has been cooped up in a larger city. The main draw is the chance to sample dakgalbi, a famed local chicken dish. Otherwise, Chuncheon is more of an “activity” destination, and there are a few good bicycle tracks.
You may have sampled regular galbi, whereby you cook (or to be more precise, set fire to) meat at your own table. Dakgalbi (닭갈비) is a little different – it’s made with chicken meat, rather than beef or pork, and is grilled in a wide pan so there’s no visible flame action for regular galbi arsonists to enjoy. You’ll find this dish pretty much anywhere in Korea, but for some reason Chuncheon gets the glory. Imagine throwing a raw chicken kebab into a hot metal tray to boil up with a load of veg – you get to do this at your table for around W8000 per portion. You usually need at least two people for a meal, and once you’re nearly finished it’s common, or perhaps obligatory, to throw some rice or noodles into the pan for a stomach-expanding second course.
In terms of size and numbers, GANGNEUNG (강릉) is a big player in Gangwon terms – it’s the biggest city on the northeastern coast and, like its provincial buddies Sokcho and Donghae, is spread thinly over a large area. Despite its relaxed atmosphere, staying overnight in Gangneung is not really recommended; nearby Jeongdongjin is a far better option. That said, Gangneung makes a good base for hikers or temple-hunters heading to charming Odaesan National Park, and has a couple of sights of its own, including excellent beaches. If you’re here in winter, you’ll be able to make use of the superb facilities at Yongpyeong Ski Resort. However, if you can, try to time your visit around the fifth day of the fifth lunar moon – usually in May – when the riverside Dano festival is held. Events take place all over the country on this auspicious date, but the biggest is in Gangneung, a five-day event which has commemorated the “Double Fifth” with dancing and shamanist rituals for over four hundred years. The festival provides your best opportunity to see ssireum, a Korean version of wrestling often compared to sumo, but far more similar to the Mongolian practice.
A short ride to the west of Gangneung is ODAESAN NATIONAL PARK (오대산 국립 공원), markedly smooth and gentle compared with its jagged Gangwonese neighbours. Full of colour in the autumn, and with magnificent views from the stony peaks, it’s relatively empty for a Korean national park as hikers tend to be sucked into the Seoraksan range a short way to the north. Odaesan has two main entrance points – one in the pretty Sogeumgang area to the north of the park, and a south gate reached via the small town of Jinbu. Between the two are two temples and innumerable shrines, some of which are quite remote and receive next to no visitors – just the treat for adventurous hikers.
Gangneung’s main sight is Ojukheon (오죽헌), a network of floral paths and traditional buildings, and the birthplace of Lee Yulgok, also known as Yi-Yi, a member of the yanbang – Korea’s Confucian elite – and one of its most famous scholars. The complex is quite large, and much of it is paved, but there’s a pleasant green picnic area surrounded by tall pines, as well as a patch of rare black bamboo to stroll through. Ojukheon is especially popular in the autumn, when its trees burst into a riot of flame.
The victim mentality drilled into Korean students during their history lessons is such that any perceived slant against the nation, no matter how slight, can turn into a serious issue that has the whole country boiling with rage. Anger is further magnified should the insult come from Korea’s one-time colonial masters, the Japanese – witness the case of the waters east of the Korean mainland, generally known across the world as the “Sea of Japan”. Koreans insist that this name is a symbol of Japan’s imperial past, and youth hostel wall-maps around the world have had the name crossed out by gimchi-chomping Korean travellers and replaced with “East Sea”. Korean diplomats raised enough of a stink to take the issue to the United Nations, which tentatively sided with the Japanese, but left the topic open for further discussion. Although both terms have been used for centuries, neither is strictly correct – Korea controls a large portion of the waters, yet the sea lies plainly to Japan’s west – so while this storm in a teacup continues to rage on, feel free to send your own suggestions of compromise to the UN: “Sea of Peaceful Diplomatic Negotiations”, perhaps?
Lee Yulgok (1536–84), more commonly known by his pen name Yi-Yi, is one of the most prominent Confucian scholars in Korea’s history, and once lived in the Ojukheon complex in Gangneung. A member of the country’s yangban elite, he was apparently able to write with Chinese characters at the age of 3, and was composing poetry by the time he was 7 years old, much of it on pavilions surrounding the glassy lake at Gyeongpoho just down the road. At 19 he was taken to the hills to be educated in Buddhist doctrine, but abandoned this study to excel in political circles, rising through the ranks to hold several important posts, including Minister of Personnel and War. At one point, he advised the King to prepare an army of 100,000 to repel a potential Japanese invasion – the advice was ignored, and a huge attack came in 1592, just after Yi-Yi’s death. His face is on one side of the W5000 note, while on the other is the famed “Insects and Plants”, painting from his mother, Sin Saimdang (1504–51), who was a well-known poet and artist; you’ll find her on the W50,000 note. Her selection, interestingly, managed to ruffle feathers with traditionalists and liberals alike – Confucian-thinking men were aghast that a woman should be on the front of Korea’s most valuable note, while feminists were similarly distraught that this role model of “inferior” Confucian-era womanhood should be chosen ahead of more progressive ladies.
INCHEON (인천) is an important port and Korea’s third most populous city. It’s also home to the country’s main international airport, though few foreign travellers see anything of the city itself, with the overwhelming majority preferring to race straight to Seoul on a limousine bus. However, in view of its colourful recent history, it’s worth at least a day-trip from the capital. This was where Korea’s “Hermit Kingdom” finally crawled out of self-imposed isolation in the late nineteenth century and opened itself up to international trade, an event that was spurred on by the Japanese following similar events in their own country (the “Meiji Restoration”). The city was also the landing site for Douglas MacArthur and his troops in a manoeuvre that turned the tide of the Korean War. However, despite its obvious importance to Korea past and present, there’s a palpable absence of civic pride, possibly due to the fact that Incheon is inextricably connected to the huge Seoul metropolis – the buildings simply don’t stop on their long march from the capital. This may be about to change, however, as it has been chosen as the host of the 2014 Asian Games, and is busily setting about smartening itself up in preparation for the event.
Incheon’s various sights can easily be visited on a day-trip from Seoul, which is an hour away by subway. The most interesting part is Jung-gu, the country’s only official Chinatown, a small but appealing area where you can rub shoulders with the Russian sailors and Filipino merchants who – after the Chinese – make up most of Incheon’s sizeable foreign contingent. It sits below Jayu Park, where a statue of MacArthur gazes out over the sea. The only other area of note is Songdo New Town, an area being built on land reclaimed from the sea. At the time of writing this resembled a war zone (though with perfect roads, running buses and the odd hotel and apartment block), but by 2015 it should be more or less complete, and home to the 151 Incheon Tower, set to be the world’s second-tallest structure (a whopping 601m high) on completion.
On the morning of September 15, 1950, the most daring move of the Korean War was made, an event that was to alter the course of the conflict entirely, and now seen as one of the greatest military manoeuvres in history. At this point the Allied forces had been pushed by the North Korean People’s Army into a small corner of the peninsula around Busan, but General Douglas MacArthur was convinced that a single decisive movement behind enemy lines could be enough to turn the tide.
MacArthur wanted to attempt an amphibious landing on the Incheon coast, but his plan was greeted with scepticism by many of his colleagues – both the South Korean and American armies were severely under-equipped (the latter only just recovering from the tolls of World War II), Incheon was heavily fortified, and its natural island-peppered defences and fast tides made it an even more dangerous choice.
The People’s Army had simply not anticipated an attack on this scale in this area, reasoning that if one were to happen, it would take place at a more sensible location further down the coast. However, the plan went ahead and the Allied forces performed successful landings at three Incheon beaches, during which time North Korean forces were shelled heavily to quell any counterattacks. The city was taken with relative ease. MacArthur had correctly deduced that a poor movement of supplies was his enemy’s Achilles heel – landing behind enemy lines gave Allied forces a chance to cut the supply line to KPA forces further south, and Seoul was duly retaken on 25 September.
Despite the Incheon victory and its consequences, MacArthur is not viewed by Koreans – or, indeed, the world in general – in an entirely positive light, feelings exacerbated by the continued American military presence in the country. While many in Korea venerate the General as a hero, repeated demonstrations have called for the tearing down of his statue in Jayu Park, denouncing him as a “war criminal who massacred civilians during the Korean War”, and whose statue “greatly injures the dignity of the Korean people”. Documents obtained after his eventual dismissal from the Army suggest that he would even have been willing to bring nuclear weapons into play – on December 24, 1950, he requested the shipment of 38 atomic bombs to Korea, intending to string them “across the neck of Manchuria”. Douglas MacArthur remains a controversial character, even in death.
If you're bored with temples, war museums and national parks, the area around JEONGDONGJIN (정동진) has some more unusual attractions which should float your boat, if you’ll pardon the pun. Near this small, windswept coastal village lie two retired nautical vessels – an American warship from the Korean War, and an equally authentic North Korean submarine. From Gangneung, trains make the short trip down the coast, much of which is cordoned off with barbed wire, before stopping at what is apparently the world’s closest train station to the sea. A short stretch of sand separates the track from the water, and it’s here that Korean couples flock to hold hands and watch the sunrise – the area was featured in Sandglass, a romantic Korean soap opera (truly a truism, since all Korean soap operas are romantic).
Those who deem the Cold War long-finished should cast their minds back to September 1996. On the fourteenth, a submarine containing 26 North Korean spies arrived at Amin, on South Korea’s Gangwon coast. Three disembarked, and made it back to the submarine after completing their surveillance mission on the Air Force base near Gangneung, but the waves were particularly strong that day and the sub came a cropper on the rocks. Eleven non-military crew members were killed by the soldiers, lest they leaked classified information to the South, and important documents were incinerated inside the vessel – the ceiling of the cabin in question is still charred with burnt North Korean spy material. The remaining fifteen soldiers attempted to return to the North overland, with their Southern counterparts understandably keen to stop them; the mission continued for 49 days, during which seventeen South Korean soldiers and civilians lost their lives. Thirteen of the spies were killed, one was captured, and the whereabouts of the last remains a mystery.
Although Donghae (동해) is the largest city in the area after Gangneung, it’s a little too cumbersome to be of much interest to travellers, other than those heading to the stunning East Sea island of Ulleungdo, to which daily ferries run from March to October from a port next to Mukho train station. However, the beaches and caves of Donghae are well and truly trumped by more impressive versions around the smaller and more manageable town of SAMCHEOK (삼척), just to the south, which makes a better base – far easier to navigate, and also close to interesting sights such as Penis Park, several secluded beaches and the gigantic cave of Hwanseondonggul.
Koreans gush about SEORAKSAN NATIONAL PARK (설악산 국립 공원), and with good reason. The nation’s northernmost park, it contains some of the tallest peaks in the country, with mist-fringed bluffs of exposed crag that could have come straight from a Chinese painting. The name gains ambiguity in translation, but roughly translates as “Snow-cragged Mountains”; these bony peaks are pretty enough on a cloudy day, but in good weather they’re set alight by the sun, bathed in spectacular hues during its rising and setting.
The park stretches around 40km from east to west and about the same from north to south, with the wide area crisscrossed with myriad hiking trails. Also bear in mind that some are closed off from time to time in rotation in order to protect the land: in peak season there can be literally queues of hikers stomping along the more popular routes, and this pressure takes its toll. The park offers several two-day hikes heading around Daecheonbong, its highest peak, but the focal point is undoubtedly Ulsanbawi, a beautiful spine of jagged rock to the north which resembles a stegosaur spine, the fossilized jaw of a giant crocodile, or a thousand other things depending on your angle, the time of day, and the weather. The time of year is important, too; Seoraksan is one of the highest parks in the country and, as a result, usually the first to display the reds, yellows and oranges of autumn.
Seoraksan can be roughly split into three main areas. Outer Seorak, the most accessible part of the park from Sokcho, is where most of the action takes place. South Seorak looms above the small spa town of Osaek, while to the west are the less crowded peaks of Inner Seorak.
As you head north along Korea’s eastern coast, the ugly coastal city of SOKCHO (속초) is the country’s last major settlement before the barbed wire of the DMZ. Despite its size, it still leans heavily on the fishing industry; all around you’ll see racks of squid, hung out to dry in the sun like laundry. Brackish, decaying and a little over-large, it’s a tough city to love, though repeated attempts have been made at sprucing it up a bit, particularly in the area around Expo Park, by adding walking trails and a small amusement park. Despite its faults, Sokcho receives more international visitors than any other city in Gangwon, though most of them are on their way to the wonderful crags of Seoraksan National Park, which lies within visible range to the west. It’s also possible to venture north to Hwajinpo lagoon for a look at some old presidential villas, or south to Naksan Beach and its resident temple. Sokcho’s own sights are few and far between with only one a unique experience – the winch-ferry journey to tiny Abai Island. Both north and south of the city, the coast is littered with small packs of motels and restaurants, but though accessible by bus, their scattered positions mean that they’re better visited with private transport.
All but swallowed up by Seoul, SUWON (수원) is a city with an identity crisis. Despite a million-strong population, and an impressive history – best embodied by the UNESCO-listed fortress at its centre – it has had to resort to unconventional means to distance itself culturally from the capital, the best example being the dozens of individually commissioned public toilets that pepper the city. Suwon, in fact, came close to usurping Seoul as Korea’s seat of power following the construction of its fortress in the final years of the eighteenth century, but though the move was doomed to failure, Suwon grew in importance in a way that remains visible to this day – from the higher parts of the fortress wall, it’s evident that this once-little settlement burst through its stone confines, eventually creating the noisy hotchpotch of buildings that now forms one of Korea’s largest cities.
An hour away from central Seoul, Suwon is certainly an easy day-trip from the capital, though if you do choose to stay you'll benefit from cheaper accommodation, and get the chance to enjoy some interesting nightlife. East of the centre lie Everland and the Korean Folk Village, two sites ideal for anyone travelling with children, though just as easily accessible from Seoul.
Central Suwon has but one notable sight – Hwaseong fortress (화성), whose gigantic walls wend their way around the city centre. Completed in 1796, the complex was built on the orders of King Jeongjo, one of the Joseon dynasty’s most famous rulers, in order to house the remains of his father, Prince Sado. Sado never became king, and met an early end in Seoul’s Changgyeonggung Palace at the hands of his own father, King Yeongjo; it may have been the gravity of the situation that spurred Jeongjo’s attempts to move the capital away from Seoul.
Towering almost 10m high for the bulk of its course, the fortress wall rises and falls in a 5.7km-long stretch, most of which is walkable, the various peaks and troughs marked by sentry posts and ornate entrance gates. From the higher vantage points you’ll be able to soak up superb views of the city, but while there’s also plenty to see from the wall itself, the interior is disappointing: other fortresses around the country – notably those at Gongju and Buyeo – have green, tranquil grounds with little inside save for trees, squirrels, pagodas and meandering paths, but Hwaseong’s has had concrete poured into it, and is now a cityscape filled with restaurants, honking traffic and ropey motels. Even on the wall itself, it’s hard to escape the noise, which is often punctuated by screaming aircraft from the nearby military base. Another complaint from visitors is that the wall looks too new, the result of copious restoration work, but as this slowly starts to “bed in”, it will once again don thin veils of moss and ivy, achieving a look more proximate to the original appearance. Most visitors start their wall walk at Paldalmun (팔달문) – a gate at the lower end of the fortress, exuding a well-preserved magnificence now diluted by its position in the middle of a traffic-filled roundabout – before taking the steep, uphill path to Seonammun, the western gate.
Bar its fortress, central Suwon carries precious little sightseeing potential, though one interesting facet is what may be the world’s greatest concentration of public toilets – they all have names, and some are even marked on tourist maps. This concept was the brainchild of Sim Jae-deok, a man referred to, especially by himself, as “Mr Toilet”. Apparently afflicted by something of a cloacal obsession (best evidenced by his house, custom-built to resemble a giant loo), Sim claims to have been born in a public restroom, but transcended these humble beginnings to become mayor of Suwon and a member of the national assembly. He then went on to create, and declare himself head of, the other WTO – the World Toilet Organization. Undoubtedly spurred on by his team’s debatable findings that the average human being spends three years of their life on the toilet, Sim desired to improve his home city’s facilities for the World Cup in 2002, commissioning dozens of individually designed public toilets – armed with the relevant pamphlet from the tourist office, it’s even possible to fashion some kind of toilet tour. Features may include skylights, mountain views or piped classical music, though such refinement is sadly sullied, as it is all over Korea, by the baskets of used toilet paper discarded throne-side.
Heading west from the coast towards Gyeonggi-do and Seoul, you’ll pass through some magnificent Gangwonese scenery, its carpet of rolling hills rising up to a couple of relatively untouristed national parks. The more easterly of the two, Taebaeksan, can be accessed from the relaxed city of Taebaek, while Chiaksan National Park lies east of Wonju, near the confluence of the Gangwon, Gyeonggi and Chungbuk borders.
At Mindungsan (민둥산), 35km west of Taebaek, a spur splits from the main train line and barrels up north through an extremely picturesque valley, whose undulating hills and unspoilt scenery carry echoes of Shikoku in Japan. A single-carriage train plies this route, heading through Jeongseon to Auraji, though its modern swivel-chairs are somewhat incongruous with the surrounding bucolic scenery and the small, unassuming towns on route.
Situated 20km along this spur line, JEONGSEON (정선) is the only stop that could possibly be termed “touristy” – most of the valley’s accommodation and restaurants can be found here, and there’s a market on every date ending with a 2 or a 7, along with coinciding assorted cultural performances from April to November.
For the most enjoyable attraction on the route, you’ll have to head 15km further to AURAJI (아우라지) at the end of the line: shuttle buses meet the trains and head further up the track to a now-disused station, from where you can cycle the 7km back down the train line to Auraji on a specially crafted rail-bike. Its popularity means that it can be booked solid at weekends, though on slacker days curious foreigners may be given a free 100m dash – don’t forget to brake. Also at the station is an odd burger-bar-cum-café in the shape of two fish.