Erynn and I have been going to as many Rowing World Championships as possible since our first in St. Catharines, Canada in 1999. The Worlds in Chungju were on our list for a few years since we both had never been to South Korea. However, she got pregnant with our second child and by the time the championships rolled around she was seven months along. So we thought is wise that she skip this year's event.
The great news is that Doug's college rowing buddy Dan was up for the adventure and accompanied him to South Korea. For this once in a lifetime trip we squeezed in a ton of stuff into ten days. We only actually spent one day at the rowing event in Chungju and the rest was spent traipsing around South Korea, and for about 2 minutes inside North Korea (more later).
The basic itinerary consisted of going to the World Rowing Champs in Chungju then we spent a day in Suwon before flying to Jeju island. On Jeju we saw some of the natural wonders before hiking up Mt. Hallasan. After a couple days on Jeju we flew up to Seoul and hung out there until heading home. During our time in Seoul we took an excursion to the Demilitarized Zone and Joint Security Area (DMZ/JSA). It really was an epic and fun trip.
Click Here for all of the high resolution photos from the trip.
The weather was hot the day we went (August 31) for the Friday A-Level Finals. The Chungju regatta course on Tangeum Lake was essentially the one used for the Seoul Olympics with some recent updates. The infrastructure was amazing for a country not deemed a rowing powerhouse.
The Chungju Rowing Race Course. A bit hazy that day in the summer heat.
The top photo is the USA women's lightweight pair who took second. The bottom photo is a picture of men amongst boys - the Kiwi Pair.
Click Here for all of the high resolution racing photos from the regatta. There are tons of good photos of the US crews competing that day.
After the rowing stopped for the day, we drove back near Seoul to the city of Suwon. The highlight of the city, at least for tourists, is the Hwaseong Fortress. The fortress consists of a long wall surrounding much of the old city and palace. We walked around almost the whole thing - including climbing up the steep hill to start. You can see the hill in the right photo. It doesn't look like much, but it was hot.
But I'm getting ahead of myself! Before the climb we met our first Korean palace gate. Here is the Paldalmun Gate. You'll see that there are many in and around Seoul. What struck as funny/strange was that almost all of the ones we saw were recent reproductions with the originals burned downed at some point. A few repeatedly and a couple surprisingly recently.
Now back to the top of the hill. It was a pretty park with more gates, some temples and nice views of the city. Well worth the climb.
Of course, we had to ring the bell. Don't judge us. We were just demonstrating our Filial Piety. Respect.
Left photo: Seo Jandae
Right photo: Hwaseomun Gate
A couple photos of the beautiful Hwahongmun Gate.
This portion of the trip was brought to you by Pocari Sweat.
We spent a good few hours walking around the fortress snapping photos along the way. Check out the hi-res photos for more if you're interested. After the fortress we walked back to the hotel for a late snack on onto the airport for our flight to the island of Jeju.
During our walk back we went through large portions of the city market where Dan sampled a Korean waffle. We also saw these silver dried fish everywhere. All different sizes of the same fish with some quite small and different prices. The ones at the far end of the photo were like a day old when sacrificed to the drying oven. At some of the restaurants they were served as a condiment, and they tasted exactly like dried fish.
Next up we flew to the island of Jeju for a couple days. The island lies south of the country in the Korean Strait between South Korea and Japan. It is a volcanic island and ostensibly our reason to go was to climb Mount Hallasan. The island also has a number of volcanic features on the UNESCO World Heritage list that we also checked out.
We arrived late into Jeju City from Seoul Gimpo. The city itself was fairly non-descript and we had dinner at a brew pub, walk around a bit, sang some karaoke (sorry no photos) and hit the sack. After waking up first thing we drove around the island and hit two of the natural wonders. First up was the Manjanggul lava tubes.
The lava tube system is 7km long and you can walk about 3km of it. Some of the formations are amazing and culminates in the lava column you can see above. You'll have to check out the full res photos for everything, but we particularly liked the striations on the walls from the lava flow. The tunnel was huge and the forces involved must have been incredible.
The next stop on our circuit to the southern part of the island was the UNESCO designated Seongsan Ilchulbong peak (or Sunrise Peak). After a nice lunch in town, we joined the throngs and climbed the stairs to the amazing peak overlooking the volcanic cone and coast line. The steps weren't too difficult, though steep, and the viewing platform was substantial and very cool. We worth the side trip and effort.
That night we stayed in more traditional accommodation where you sleep on a pad on the floor in a hut. The B&B, Kasan Tobang, was just outside of the town of Seogwipo, which was where we also had our first Korean BBQ. This particular restaurant, Saesom Galbi, is famous for their black pig. The meat and food were really great, and we ordered a couple platters.
Having filled our bellies with protein and after a bracing night on the floor, we woke early to take on Mount Hallasan. The 1,950 metres (6,398 ft) peak is easily done in a day with well marked and maintained trails. There were hundreds of people making the same effort that day. Of the many trails, we decided on the Seongpanak Trail, which is about 9.6km long and starts from a nice car park where it seems we got the last parking spot. So get there early!
For the most part the hike was not very difficult and was more of an endurance effort that anything. There were a few rest stops along the way and nice progress signs periodically to help. When we set off the sign at the ranger station indicated 17° C and 99% humidity. Which for me just meant a few hours of non-stop sweating. Dan enjoyed me wringing out my shirt immensely. It wasn't just a little sweat...
The hike was really pretty and we spent much of it walking through forest. Ever present was the sound of the monorail that supplied the rest stops so tourists could eat ramen noodles near the top. It became a little bit of a game because the train was about as fast as we could walk so it was a little bit competitive. More sweat...
One phenomenon was the amount of money some of the Asian hikers spent on their walking gear. We did a tally on some and it was well over $1000 for a hike that can be done in tennis shoes. And it was clear this was the first time out of the wrapper for the kit. I would say 90% of the people had enough gear to climb Mt. McKinley for their stroll in the woods.
The other fun thing was some of the signs warning of impending doom.
Now for some summit photos! It was a bit cloudy, windy and cold at the summit. There are no trees so I was glad to have brought a jacket. Every few minutes the fog would blow out of the crater yielding some cool photos.
After hiking down, we headed back into town for another dinner and a night on the floor. The next morning we then headed back to Seoul for the remainder of the trip.
I'll go a little out of order here. Our first afternoon in Seoul we actually just walked around a bit, but I'll talk about that soon. On our first full day we did an organized USO tour to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and Joint Security Area (JSA - Panmunjom).
The atmosphere for the JSA tour was intense. We were tightly controlled and signed a liability release saying a possible outcome could be that we were killed. No photos were allowed in the direction of the UN buildings. The tour guide said that with today's social media the North Korean propaganda-ists take the photos and photo shop them for their papers. In particular, there was no pointing because a favorite photo shop technique was to take that photo, make the pointing into "flipping the bird" and then blast Americans as disrespectful. It was definitely a highlight, but it was intense.
The highlight of the tour is being able to go into one of the blue UN buildings that straddles the border. Panmunjom was the place where the Korean War negotiations took place and the two countries are still technically at war. We were escorted by a few Republic of Korea (ROK) and US military personnel. The conference table above straddles the border with the row of microphones marking the line. To the left is North Korea and to the right of the photo is South Korea. The guards were very stoic, but we could still snap a photo (standing in North Korea).
Breaking protocol a bit, I snapped this photo of the border from inside the building. I'm technically standing in North Korea (no gravel) facing South (gravel) with the border marked by the concrete step. No passport stamp though... darn.
Next up on the tour was the Dorasan Train Station, which is the last station on the Korean Rail line before the North. The station was built mainly via donations from South Korean citizens and is a symbol of how fast the two Koreas could be connected if relations ever thawed. The border is only a couple kilometers behind me in this photo. You can see the entrance to Pyeongyang is closed...
Next to the Dorosan Station is the Gyeongui Highway Transit Office, which is the customs building for people going in and out of the north to the Kaesong Industrial Park. The industrial park basically is a place where southern companies can build facilities, run then with southern managers (hence the customs building), but then use low cost northern laborers. It was meant as a way to build economic ties between the two countries and earn the North some hard currency. When we were there (Sept 2013) Kaesong was closed so the customs building was empty. Tour groups and a few employees were the only ones eating lunch, but Dan was able to score some North Korean beer!
After lunch the tour bus took us to the Dora Observatory, which is a ROK installation overlooking the border. It was a place where you could see a nice panorama of the DMZ including Dorasan, Kaesong and Kijong-dong, the North Korean propaganda village.
Visitors were instructed to only use cameras behind the yellow line where you couldn't actually see anything. However, you could pay to use the telescopes right on the edge. Many people chose to stand behind the line and raise their camera over their head as you can see in the left photo. Some clandestine photog work on my part yielded the photo on the right where you can see into the North and if you look really close can just make out the huge (160m or 525ft) flag pole in Kijong-dong.
Close to the Dora Observatory is the Third Infiltration Tunnel, and the last stop on our tour. You have to click on the link to learn more about these tunnels. Basically the North dug these tunnels (4 known so far) as a possible attack plan to the South. The tunnel runs under the DMZ and due to a defector they found this particular tunnel. They've made a visitor center out of it and you can walk to where the South has blocked it off. However, no pictures inside... I only got this one of people starting the descent, but it's cramped, warm and humid down there. The top part is purpose built to get people down to where the North Koreans stopped digging. Inside the actual tunnel it look like a mine, not a poured concrete visitor center.
And back to Seoul... Our first day as I mentioned involved us walking around Seoul near our hotel. And we did it the afternoon before taking the DMZ tour. But for continuity I wanted all of the Seoul stuff in one section.
Our first day walk was around the Myeong-dong section of town. First up was the Myeong-dong Cathedral. The areas around the cathedral are where a lot of the street and department store shopping is located. Including a donut shop with a line around the block.
Next up we walked through Seoul Plaza.
Across from Seoul Plaza is the Deoksugung palace. The palace grounds had a nice mix of more modern and some re-constructed old style palace buildings. It is one of the "Five Grand Palaces" built by the kings of the Joseon Dynasty. One of the modern buildings houses the National Museum of Art.
We were just wandering around the palace grounds so Dan and I were getting a little artistic with our cameras. In particular with the fisheye lens...
After leaving the palace and further down the road was the Namdaemun gate. It is listed as National Treasure #1, which didn't help it from being severely damaged by fire in 2008. It was a theme with all of these wooden gates and palaces we toured in that the South Koreans seemed incapable of preventing them from burning down. Almost everything you will see on this page that looks old was built in the last 20 years or so to look like it did long ago. It felt a bit odd. Maybe invest in some sprinklers...
The last stop on our first day's tour was the N Seoul Tower. It lent itself to some nice vertical camera work. Fortunately, elevators and cable cars are available almost the whole way.
The views from the top of the tower were pretty amazing and we timed it well with sunset.
Our second day in Seoul was mostly devoted to the DMZ tour. But afterwards we also went for a stroll along the Cheong-gye-cheon, which is an urban waterway. It used to be a major roadway, but they cleared it and now pump in water for some ambience. It is pretty nice and lined with an eclectic mix of small shops. A few city blocks contain about everything you'd find in a Home Depot. We then finished up with some Korean BBQ in the higher end western portion of the Cheong-gye-cheon.
Our third, and last day, in South Korea involved a couple palaces and lots of walking. By the end we were a little palace-ed out. Our first palace of the morning was Changdeokgung, which was the most spectacular we saw. It is divided into two sections requiring separate admission: the main palace and the secret garden. Above are some photos of the main palace grounds.
More pictures from the main palace.
The secret garden of Changdeokgung was pretty amazing. You had to have a guide in order to tour the grounds. We had a big group and it was difficult to get all of the information, but the visuals were good enough. The Huwon, or secret garden, is made up of a series of smaller compounds.
The first stop on the tour was the Buyongli (rectangular pond) and Juhammu (pavilion on the hill).
After passing through the Aeryeongji and Uiduhap, which weren't terribly photogenic, we came upon the Yeongyeongdang compound. Built in 1828 to celebrate a crown prince's mother's 40th birthday party.
Then onto the Jondeokjeong area, which were just some nice, small pavilions in the woods. And a nice stone bridge crossing a creek.
The last compound we visited on the tour was Ongnyucheon. It was basically a beautiful place for the king to relax and write poetry.
After the Changdeokgung palace we walked to the Gyeongbokgung palace. The above photos are of the Gwanhwamun main gate. There was a nice cultural display going on while we were there.
More pictures from the palace grounds. Much of it was pretty recent construction and we were getting a little burned out on palaces so we didn't cover the grounds completely. I know we missed some stuff. The left photo shows the Heungnyemun Gate. The right photo shows the Yeongjegyo Bridge and the Geunjeongmun Gate.
Connected to the palace grounds is the National Folk Museum. We just scoped out the buildings pagoda and the zodiac calendar. I was born in the year of the tiger and Dan was the year of the rabbit.
The weather was starting to get ominous so we started to head back to the hotel through the Gwanghwanmun Square toward Seoul Plaza. Just outside of the Gyeongbokgung palace is the US Embassy and nice views of the Gwanhwamun main gate.
Of course, any adventure in an Asian country yields some creative uses of the English language. Here are a few we found particularly amusing. I feel sorry for the gents that have to shop at the Teenie Weenie store.
I hope you enjoyed our travel diary. And good luck on your own adventures!
© 2013-2014 Doug Rathburn