Most of us know what feeling in love is like…
But with a place? There are few times we feel emotions of craving, longing, deep emotion and even heartbreak over a geographical location.
Gangwon-do is the province in the Northeast of South Korea, bordering North Korea, and not a place I had ever heard of before.
That is part of the magic. I feel like the most beautiful places in the world are largely untouched, blessed by the vibrancy of the locals without the interruptions of commercialism and consumer-oriented vibes coming in.
In general, South Korea is not a country on your typical travel list. As half my ethnic heritage is Korean, this makes me a little sad (why can’t my countries be cool and popular like Japan or Thailand?) But I actually think the special ingredient to Korea’s deep beauty is its lack of overexposure. I actually remember begging my parents to take me to Tokyo (specifically Harajuku, props Gwen Stefani) during our first Korea trip, only to find myself confused by all the Hello Kitty merchandise everywhere, missing the authentic mystery of Seoul. Funnily enough, at the time I had no idea there was still so much more to Korea than its bustling metropolitan capital.
When my Imo (Korean for aunt on your mother’s side) invited me to come along to Gangwon-do, I had to Google it. It looked nice. I mostly saw pictures of trees.
Blessed to travel with my Imo and her young-at-heart (and super fit!) friends, we took off for Yongpyeong, right where the 2018 winter olympics will be held. On the way, we had the most delicious potatoes I have ever tasted. How is it that, in the countryside, things like butter corn and potatoes taste better than your most extravagant 14 dollar ice cream sundae in downtown Manhattan?
After a 3 hour trip, we arrived and proceeded to take the cable car up to the top of the mountain in Yongpyeong. The views and foliage were just breathtaking.
It looked like a fairytale, or the gateway to heaven, or something out of your happiest daydreams. Some famous movies were even filmed up there, as my Imo enthusiastically confirmed with the life-size actor cutouts 🙂
The next day, we went to a beach called Jeongdongjin. It instantly reminded me of the paradise beaches in the Philippines or the Caribbean. I couldn’t believe my eyes – I had never heard of Korea having such beautiful beaches! As a sea lover, I was overwhelmed with joy and surprise. The truth is, the famous beaches like Haeundae in Busan, are not that beautiful. The East Sea is a secret tip not even known to all Koreans, but it is undisputedly the beautiful side of the peninsula, in terms of seaside landscapes.
Amazingly, this white sand treasure is just behind Jeongdongjin Train station, which connects directly to Seoul. On the Lunar New Year, many Koreans come here to watch the “first sunrise”, as it is the exact East in relation to Seoul.
In the little town, squid is drying on clothes lines and local shops move at a sleepier, tropical pace (compared to “bali bali” Seoul!)
On the drive down, my Imo told me that, as a child, she lived with her grandfather in Gangwon-do for a couple of years after the war. I never knew this, but my great grandfather was a Makgeolli (Korean rice wine) farmer! It was meant to be. Me and rice wine and Gangwon-do, destiny had it all planned.
So in love with this region, I had to go back. When my friend suggested we go up for 2 days, I jumped at the opportunity. Driving in his K7 (don’t laugh, I know little about cars, but this Kia is the bomb diggity), with my Reggaeton and K-pop playlist (mixed kid status right here) blasting at full volume, we rode up to Seoraksan, the most famous mountain in Korea.
We entered the national park and strolled along the base, which is an enormous forest with waterfalls, little pathways and multiple hiking paths. It would take you 10 full days to hike all of Seoraksan, even at breakneck-Korean ajumma speed. They are so fast. But Seoraksan is so big.
After walking around, we took the cable car to one of the main peaks. I know it’s cheating, but we didn’t have 10 days off work to hike! Aigo.
I was so excited about everything that ChangOh couldn’t stop laughing. He said it must be a dancer’s disease, because I was dancing even on an 80 degree incline up to the flag pole top. I don’t know about Salsa on a mountain, but I was overwhelmed by the natural beauty. Yeah Korea!
I almost cried when we got to the top. I’m sure I’ve seen beautiful things before, but perhaps my eyes where not mature enough to appreciate the beauty. Remembering the dramatic rocks contrasted by the gentle, warm sunset and fierce autumn colors still gives me the chills.
I remember reading a story about a climber who voluntarily died on the peak of Mount Everest because being there was the fulfillment of his life. Not that I wanted to die, but I did not want to come down from the Seoraksan peak. I jokingly told ChangOh to bury me there one day, but I don’t think he quite understood. 😉
After the thrilling afternoon, we went to the local town by Yongpyeong to have dinner and rest. The food was out of this world. Spicy dried and grilled fish, seaweed soup (Miogkuk), a million side dishes (Panchan) straight from the farms. Korean food is so healthy and delicious, but Seoul’s city food pales in comparison to the freshness of the smaller towns’ and countryside’s produce. Of course this shouldn’t be a big surprise, but I was still overwhelmed by how we were able to feast, for under 10 dollars a person. This may be TMI for some of you, but only in Korea do I not have major digestive issues, thanks to all the vegetables, fermented food and lack of bread and nonexistence of dairy. Of course, the cities have now been overtaken by coffee and churro shops, and our friend MSG, but the traditional food is so, so healthy.
The next day, I kindly (but firmly, no nonsense here), requested ChangOh to take me to the beach again. He kindly agreed, but insisted on taking me to a different beach.
Meu Deus no céu, if I thought Jeongdongjin was beautiful, Gyeongpo was that slice of paradise multiplied.
In the evening, we made our way back to Yeongpyong, where many shows are held and famous K-Pop bands like ‘Big Bang’ make regular performances. That night, it was an empty stage, so of course I had to go bring out my inner Beyonce/Madonna/Rihanna, but really, just a high-on-life almost-yoga-teacher dancer with the excitement of a five year old at the circus.
The crisp nighttime mountain air reminded me of Switzerland, a surprising but welcome change from the humid Korean summer months.
On the final day, we (really, me) wanted to check out the famous sheep farm. Changoh was very excited… well he was, for the supposed sheep barbecue skewers that (luckily for me) ended up being a myth! But seriously, Koreans are funny to pretend there’s a sheep farm where in the hills, kids (and 22 year old giant kids, ahem) go pet and feed the fluffy cuties, later descending to a barbecue of the animals you just loved. Aside from Buddhist monks, Koreans don’t get the concept of vegetarianism whatsoever, and having come from a starving, war-torn past, I don’t blame them. Still… I was pretty happy we didn’t see sheep skewers. What we did see was this:
Finally, it was time to drive back to Seoul.
Even the drive home was breathtaking. Korean sunsets are so steady and wide that it feels like the whole world is changing moods one breathtaking moment at a time. Just watching from the car made me emotional… and the window picture may not do it justice, but imagine seeing these colors among the stillness all around you, spanning over the horizon into the fields, away into eternal distance down the highway.
Gangwon-do is a magical land, from another time, where you can go from striking mountain peaks to paradise beaches in 40 minutes.
They say life should be measured by the moments that take your breath away, and just in a few days, I’ve had an incredible share of just these moments.
I think many of the most beautiful places are the unknown ones, or the ones almost impossible to get to without an insider. If you are lucky enough to discover the purest of a country’s original essence, don’t hesitate…
To me, Korea is will always be the land where the sky meets the sea, glued together in eternal rotation by sunrises and sunsets otherworldly in their beauty.
Travel with your Heart,