Don’t worry, it’s not a curse. It’s just “hello”. Korean is a language isolate, meaning that it isn’t related to any other language. Now, I try to learn how to say hello and thank you in the language of every country I go, so that I don’t look rude when walking into places and greeting in english. To learn hello (above) and thank you (gamsahabnida) in Korean took me about a week. But, you should see the expression of sheer delight on the faces of the locals when I greet them in their language.
The coolest and most comfortable bus ever took me to Sokcho (the gateway to Seoraksan National Park) on the previous evening. My guesthouse is out of town, but very close to the entrance of the park. There are not many tourists, and everyone I meet is Korean, over 80, geared up for Mt. Everest and definitely overdressed. Now, the Koreans are afraid of the daylight (tanned skin is considered unattractive), so even when it’s hot, they all trek in long trousers, long sleeves, gloves, hats with neck covers, face masks and sun glasses. People in Europe stress about burkini. Come trekking to Korea. Actually, try going to the beach in Korea, come to that.
The rain is forecasted, so I avoid any long trek, although in the morning the weather looks fairly stable. Only looks though, as I get properly showered on my way back from the short walk to the nearby waterfalls. But, the rest of the afternoon is decided: I binge-watch (that is apparently a word nowadays) season 7 of Game of Thrones. Isn’t it funny how people are more concerned about what’s happening in the Seven Kingdoms than with politics in the real world? Dinner break: seafood and leek pancake. OK, the chopsticks feel like an extension of my arm by now, but still, have you ever tried eating fried leeks with them? Please do, it’s a great exercise of self-control.
I wake up fairly early to do a bad-ass 10 hours round trek, and I meet 3 people in the reception, Dominic (UK), Andrew (US) and Jean (Korean) in the breakfast room who have the same intentions, so I cheekily add myself to the group. But when we set off and I realize how fast the boys actually are, I suggest to Jean that the two of us let them go and we trek together without killing ourselves and see how far we get and eventually retrace our steps. I fear there are not enough daylight hours to complete the round journey without running. We agree to reunite in the afternoon by the entrance to the park and go our separate ways. Jean is awesome. Super-nice, excellent english, and during the day she tells me a lot about the local culture, and of course we manage some girl-talk too. Which basically means that I learn that korean man are quite as useless as all other men. Along the trek we meet dozens of locals and everyone keeps offering us food. I finally understand why the Koreans carry enormous backpacks even if they go for a day trek.. Food. At lunchtime they just sit down wherever they are and set up an enormous kimchee banquet. At some point a group of old men pretty much forces us to sit with them, while they cook us a noodle soup. Jean starts laughing and when I ask what’s up, she says that one of them just asked her if I was her boyfriend. Mate, for real? OK, short hair and whatnot, but you must be the first man I’ve ever met who failed to notice the size of my boobs.
Seoraksan is absolutely stunning. In the higher altitude the foliage is already changing colour, give it a couple more weeks and everything everywhere is going to be bright red. We meet the guys by the entrance as agreed. They actually finished in 7.5 hours and I am so glad we let them go their speed, because we would have suffered too much to keep their pace. Aaaand, as I am finally with other people, korean BBQ in a local restaurant as a much-needed reward for dinner.
Morning bus (actually, most-of-the-day bus) to Gyeongju, an ancient burial-place of Sita Kingdom, where I arrive at sunset. The street where my hotel should be located is proper dodgy. There is a Love – Fun – Joy” (in this order) motel, a Romance motel, even a Liebe motel (for connoisseurs). Sadly though, my guesthouse is actually normal, although closed an unattended when I arrive. To be fair, the owner left a message and the key to my room for me, but I completely miss this. When I finally meet Mr. Clint Kwon (I suppose it’s his chosen western name – though there is a certain resemblance to Clint Eastwood), I have to admit that all the raving reviews on the internet were accurate. He is super nice, funny, and gives all the necessary info and advises. There is not much of the day left, so I just walk to the nearby park to check out all the pavilions lit up for the night. It’s a bit on the tacky side (especially the colour-changing old observatory), but it looks sort of pretty.
Trekking day. There is a nice walk to do in the forest close to the town, which involves climbing a little peak (over 400m), and you can see a lot of old statues, shrines, hill-like ancient tombs and rock carvings along the path. I meet Noelia, a girl from Canary Islands, in the reception and we decide to do the trek together. In the evening Clint introduces us in his trusted local eatery, where we repeat the BBQ experience and get hammered on soju (local rice wine).
Morning trip to Yangdong village, which is supposed to have been built by 4 families over the last 500 years. It’s UNESCO protected and I was expecting it to be an open-air museum, but the whole thing is a little bit disappointing. Those 4 families still live there, their elegant Jaguars parked in front of the old cottages (Unesco money must be good), and it feels a bit strange to enter the houses (which in theory you can do), because it’s someone’s home. But still, the other option for the morning programme was some giant Buddha statue. And by now, I think I have seen more of Buddhas of all sizes than I could wish for.