16 November 2008

Before I start my Gyeongju tour

I've just woken up and had my breakfast at the Gyeongju Hilton. I picked the Hilton due to my Hilton HHonors account about to expire for inactivity, and because that account is elite level (and I have a few perks). After this stay, I will have another year before I need to worry about expiring accounts again. Although this is one of the nicest hotels I've ever stayed in - and certainly the best hotel I've ever seen in South Korea - I feel a bit disappointed, because it doesn't feel all that Korean, and is geared to foreign tourists. I may not share travel guru Rick Steves' philosophy that he would rather sleep at a run-down locally owned tourist hotel at a high price than at a luxury multinational hotel chain for free, but I definitely understand it now. This hotel even has a foreigners-only casino, which I will check out, though I probably won't play there.

My tour today will not include Namsan (not to be confused with Seoul's Namsan) due to cloudy weather, and the National Museum of Korea at Gyeongju will be off my agenda as well due to its closure every Monday (it is Monday today). But everything else is fair game, and I'll cram as many sights as time allows. I'll start off at Bulguksa, the nation's most famous Buddhist temple; today is the third anniversary of the day when W visited Bulguksa and desecrated the place, and I want to drive his evil spirits away. (W was there as part of the 2005 APEC summit in nearby Busan, and I remember because on that same day, I made my first visit to Busan.)

Lastly, here are a few more observations that I made during two days of driving.
  • South Korean expressways follow a numbering convention just like the US interstates. The odd-numbered routes go north-south, with major ones ending in 5 (15, 25, 35, and so on, from west to east); the even-numbered routes go east-west, with major ones ending in 0 (10, 20, 30, and so on, from south to north). Numbers 70 through 99 are not used, however, as they are reserved for future North Korean expressways after Korea is reunified. The main 1970-vintage expressway from Seoul to Busan is the exception to this rule, however, and retains its original route number of 1.
  • Road signs show the direction of the expressway much like US interstates - north, south, east, or west. But officially, directions follow another convention. If the expressway doesn't serve the Seoul area, the terminal city's name is used to indicate a direction (i.e. Busan-bound). If it does serve the Seoul area, the Seoul direction is called "upbound" (上行) and the other direction is called "downbound." (下行) While I normally associate "up" with north, it doesn't matter; "up" is always the direction of Seoul. All traffic reports use this convention; directional labels are strictly for the convenience of visiting foreigners only.
  • A rest area exhibit told me that when Expressway 1 was built, it only cost 100 million won per kilometer, possibly the cheapest expressway in the world ever. This was due to several factors. First, South Korea did not have any money to spare for expressways, and conscripted military labor was used to build the expressway; dozens of the troops died during the construction. Second, President (and General) Park Chung-hee, after visiting Germany in 1964 and driving on the Nazi-built Autobahns, really wanted to build an expressway of his own to spur economic development, couldn't wait for funding, and commanded and supervised the construction himself as if it were a battle; the side effect was also that the 260-mile expressway was built in only two years with emphasis on speed rather than quality, and the expressway started crumbling from Day One and had to be constantly rebuilt. It is a well-known fact that 25% of the government budget at the time was dedicated to the expressway construction, and that opposition politicians and the people strongly opposed construction, calling the expressway "a toy for the rich." But the expressway did do its job of spurring economic development, and just as the Autobahns were one of the few positive lasting legacies of the Nazis, the expressways are one of the few positive legacies of Park. National highways and the rail network suffered in comparison, however, and it wasn't until this decade that they - as well as the crumbling expressways themselves - were brought up to code.
  • In South Korea, pickup trucks (including the Kia Bongo and the Hyundai Porter) tend to be fragile mid-engined things. They don't even have airbags, and the driver's knees are the crumple zones. They are strictly commercial-grade (and to prove that point, they don't even offer automatic transmissions). And most importantly, due to the mid-engined design, the engines are small and underpowered; as a result, they really tend to slow traffic down when everyone else wants to drive at 130-140 km/h or even faster. And yes, even though most expressways are capped at 100 km/h (a few are a bit faster), people will speed - at least when the speeding cameras are not around anyway.
  • Expressway rest areas are located at most 25 miles apart, which is wonderful. Rest areas always offer a convenience store and some restaurants, and most likely a gas station as well. Some also offer liquid propane gas, in case my car requires it, as well as minor automotive repairs. Seriously, I am liking the Korean expressways more than the US interstates in some aspects; signage tends to be better as well. Off the expressways, however, signage can be a bit confusing.
Looking forward to two great days in Gyeongju.