16 November 2008

Gangwon Province: Road Trip

It's been two days unlike any other I've had anywhere else in the world. I'm very glad to be driving around South Korea in my own rental car. I'm extremely tired, as I've already driven over 850 kilometers; considering that very few one-way trips in South Korea ever add up to 500 kilometers due to the compact size of the nation, I've been driving like there is no tomorrow. Here is the story of my last two days, spent mostly on the east coast in Gangwon Province.

This is the star of my adventure: a 2006 Hyundai Sonata N20, with 85,000 kilometers on it already, as well as some dings and scratches to show for it. (Yes, South Korean rental cars tend to get quite high-mileage, but as service is always nearby, a new car is not as crucial.) I've brought it to the parking area of my Seoul apartment, so that I can load it up and get going.

In the South Korean domestic market, "Sonata" officially refers to the original 1988 first generation. The second generation is known as Sonata II, and its facelift is Sonata III. The third generation is Sonata EF, and this fourth generation is Sonata NF. The NF is available with two different gasoline engines: 2.0L (N20) and 2.4L (F24). It's also possible to get a 2.0L diesel engine, and rentals and fleet sales also have the option of running on liquid propane gas (with a huge gas tank that kills trunk space). By comparison, the base US engine is the same one found in the F24, and the optional 3.3L V6 is strictly for North American manufacture and sale only.

This particular example is a low-end N20 with 4-speed automatic, and lacks the Lexus-like luminescent instrument cluster that I can expect to find in high-end N20s and F24s (not to mention my next car - the Genesis - as well!). But it still does come with dual-zone automatic climate control, power driver's seat, and leather interior. It can't play my iPod, but it's certainly a very nice ride. It does lack cruise control, but given South Korean driving conditions and the compactness of the land, cruise control is absolutely worthless anyway.

In South Korea, all rental cars are reservable by make and model (not to mention fuel type). This doesn't apply if booking through a major US car rental company; to get this benefit (and a better price), it is necessary to book directly with a South Korea-based company that happens to franchise with the US majors. My car is from Kumho Rent-a-car (part of the Kumho Asiana corporate family), which is a Hertz franchisee; while I lose the Hertz benefit of United frequent flier miles by booking direct with Kumho, the benefits outweigh that disadvantage. Similarly, another major rental car company, Aju, is a franchisee of Avis.

I indeed set off by tracing my father's preferred route to my old Jamsil residence. Although the drive is under 20 kilometers, it still took me an hour, due to heavy traffic. Seoul's traffic jam is the worst on Saturday afternoons, as most commuters use mass transit (it's cheaper that way), but lots of people hit the road for their weekend getaways. It took me six hours in total, including rest stops, to reach Sokcho, normally a four-hour drive.

After taking Expressway 50 to Gangneung, I headed north on National Highway 7, which runs along the east coast of the entire Korean Peninsula, from Busan in the south to Rason in the north. I have stopped for dinner at the 38 Rest Stop, which is, indeed, on the 38th Parallel, the original inter-Korean border. Everything north of here, including Sokcho, is former North Korean territory captured by South Korea during the war.

South Korea captured lots of North Korean territory here in the mountaineous east. However, in the west, it was North Korea that captured smaller amounts of South Korean territory, including the cities of Kaesong and Haeju.

I woke up this morning at this timeshare high-rise in Sokcho. The moon is setting to the left.

In South Korea, the word "condominium" refers to vacation timeshares like this building. I managed to get a good price (under USD $50) here for a suite with kitchen; normally, I'd need membership for that to happen, but I managed to use an Internet portal that gave away some rooms here to foreign travelers like me. Unfortunately, there was no Internet connection at this condo.

At least the condo had some free parking, normally a luxury in South Korea. Here are two automotive statements.

The left is a Chrysler 300; Chrysler has fairly good reputation in South Korea due to its unique product offerings including the PT Cruiser, the Sebring Convertible, and the Voyager minivan. Actually, even its crappier models, from the Sebring sedan to the Dodge Caliber mini-wagon, can be seen around major South Korean cities.

The right is a Kia Forte. It is Kia's newest compact, replacing the Cerato (US-market Spectra). Its styling is quite French; it reminds me of my British road trip, which used a Citroen Xantia that looked a lot like the Forte.

I checked out and immediately kept driving north. There was a "unification marathon" going on in the northernmost villages; the route covered Highway 7 from Geojin in the south to Jejin in the north. Jejin is actually located in the restricted area, beyond the Civilian Control Line. I had to be careful to maneuver around the competitors. On the way, I passed by the lake resort of Hwajinpo, which also has the gathering and departure point for the bus tours to North Korea's Diamond Mountains. Further north, in Machajin, I stopped at a rest area to file reports for my trip into the restricted area, and to pay admissions for the Unification Observatory, my destination.

At Jejin, I found a major transit center, which includes travelers' facilities and a train station (the southern terminus of a North Korean rail line). Highway 7 splits there in two; the original 2-lane road dead-ends at the Unification Observatory, while the 2003-vintage 4-lane road shoots straight into North Korean territory. Because of the marathon, cones were set up to divert everyone - me included - to the 4-lane road. I ended up at the South Korean immigration checkpoint, the finish line of the marathon; I asked for directions there, and was instructed to return to the 2-lane road and ask to have the cones removed for me. As I continued north on the 2-lane road, watching the fenced off 4-lane road shoot north, I realized that continuing north on the 4-lane road would've taken me right into North Korea, and certainly caused an international incident. North Korea doesn't want Americans, and doesn't want anyone bringing cell phones in; I am an American with a cell phone. And North Korea is so fed up with 2MB that it is about to seal the border anyway.

I've arrived. This is as far as I can drive north in South Korea. As I climbed up the hill toward the observatory, I saw this restroom. Yes, it indeed is the northernmost restroom in South Korea.

In front of the observatory stood this P-51 Mustang. South Korea's first air force, hastily formed during the war, flew the Mustang. The Mustangs played the key role in supporting ground warfare and ensuring that South Korea would capture the very land that I am standing on.

The observatory's lower level has some North Korea-themed exhibits. This is one of several traditional Korean-style paintings in here, done by North Korean painters, and available for sale.

There are a dozen or two posters around, detailing life in North Korea (academic, military, civilian, economic, and more) and the development of inter-Korean relations. This poster details some words that differ significantly between the two Koreas. Looks like if I ever get up north, I'll get very lost.

Everyday North Korean objects. Some banknotes are visible in the lower left. I was reminded that when it comes to any North Korean banknote bearing the image of Kim Il-sung, it is absolutely forbidden to fold the banknote with the crease covering any part of the portrait.

The observatory has several gift shops, and they offer North Korean liquor. Here are two bottles. The left is made of bog bilberry, which is found only on the slopes of Mt. Paektu (or Baekdu under South Korean-style romanization); it is so highly regarded that everyday North Koreans are not able to drink it at all, and only high-ranking officials drink and serve it on special occasions (such as greeting dignitaries from South Korea or foreign nations).

Time to look out. I picked a good day to come. In the distance can be seen the peaks of the Diamond Mountains. Weather in this area tends to be quite crummy, and only 100 days out of an average year offer views clear enough to enable seeing those peaks. This year has been even crappier; the loudspeakers told me that today is only the 30th clear day this year.

In the near right, a South Korean military observatory stands on top of a hill.

At least, thanks to a 2004 agreement, the propaganda loudspeakers - both the northern ones extolling the virtues of the Kim family and the "self-reliance" ideology, and the southern counter-propaganda ones - have been turned off. I could watch this scene in relative quiet.

These islands make up the Haegeumgang, or the Maritime Diamond Mountains. They are among the most scenic places anywhere on the Korean Peninsula.

The Diamond Mountains themselves, for that matter, were recently named in a list of the world's ten most beautiful places Americans are not allowed to visit.

Actually, Americans were allowed to visit the Diamond Mountains, as long as they visited on a South Korean bus tour leaving from Hwajinpo. But that tour has been suspended since last summer over a fatal accident, and is unlikely to resume anytime soon, the way things are developing.

A look at the border. The rocky peaks in the distance are North Korea. On the peninsula to the right, it's possible to see a village of about 20 buildings; like almost all other North Korean villages near the southern border, it is an uninhabited propaganda village, I was told.

The turtle-shaped green island in the center left is the end of South Korea. Between the two areas is the DMZ.

This is a lovely beach view, and I would love to walk down there and step on the sand. It won't happen in my lifetime, however, as land mines are everywhere, and will certainly remain even after peace does come to Korea.

Here are the recently restored transportation links to North Korea.

On the left is the four-lane Highway 7; the North Korean immigration checkpoint is visible in the far distance. Highway 7 is part of Asian Highway 6, which continues from Rason to nearby Vladivostok, turns left to cut across Manchuria, then crosses Kazakhstan and re-enters Russia to end at the Belarusian border. The European Russian section of Asian Highway 6 uses the E30 highway, which continues to Warsaw, Berlin, and Amsterdam. I would really love to make that drive in my lifetime.

Paralleling Highway 7 to the right is the South Korean section of North Korea's east coast rail line. It currently dead-ends a few kilometers behind me in Jejin, but it is intended to continue farther into South Korea and run all the way along the east coast to Busan. The east coast is the biggest gap in South Korea's rail network. On the other hand, if I take a train north from here, I can ride to the Diamond Mountains and on to the port city of Wonsan, with the option of either heading west to Pyongyang or further following the coastline to Vladivostok and picking up the Trans-Siberian there. This line was used only once, on May 17, 2007, when a North Korean train made a test run to Jejin.

This memorial remembers the South Korean dead in the struggle to gain the 351 Plateau just to the north of here. The plateau was so named due to its elevation, 351 meters above sea level; it used to be taller, but was lowered due to massive bombing. Toward the dying days of the war, the plateau changed hands several times, and North Korea managed to hold on to it for the cease-fire.

Nearby, this Maitreya Buddha looks north and prays for the peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula. I joined him in prayer.

This Kwan Yin also looks north and prays for peace and unity.

And for that matter, so does this Virgin Mary.

The parking lot has this trainset converted into a restaurant. Not much in the way of stuff I want to eat.

It sells North Korean style cold noodles (naengmyon, 냉면) among other things. Notably, the dish's name is spelled North Korean style (raengmyon, 랭면), to reflect the restaurant's unique location.

At one end of the parking lot is a small museum dedicated to the Korean War. Here is a Lockheed T-33 jet-powered trainer, which South Korea bought in the mid-1950s in order to train pilots to fly the F-86 fighter. The T-33 eventually saw some attack role duty in the South Korean air force as well. The purchase of T-33 and F-86 were in response to North Korea's acquisition of MiG-15 jet fighters right after the war.

Most of the exhibits did not allow photos, so I don't have many to share. But they do include many interesting exhibits, including the exhumation of remains of the dead soldiers, the statistics on South Korea's war allies, the casualties suffered by the war participants, and more. Millions of civilians were killed during the war, which is why South Korea is determined to avoid another war if it ever can. Many soldiers also died - including 33,000 Americans.

Here's something interesting. This is a mock-up of a current South Korean army barracks.

Here's another army barracks, though it's older and more traditional.

Need to eat kimchi soup in the middle of an intense battle? These MREs will surely help.

Cigarettes are a common sight in the South Korean military. Most South Korean men are heavy smokers, after being hooked on tobacco during their mandatory military service. All South Korean produced cigarettes are manufactured and sold by the government monopoly. Most of the left packaging are for the old brand named Hwarang (Flower Youth), the ancient Silla kingdom's fierce warriors who were also rumored to be transgender. The lower right red-and-white packaging is the Pine Tree, the most popular brand in the 1980s, which I remember well because my father smoked three packs of it every day. He's since quit smoking.

This display shows the two cross-border test run trains. The left one is a North Korean train that started out in the Diamond Mountains and came to Jejin. The right one is a South Korean train that ran to Kaesong.

Both trains have banners saying identical things - "Test run of a train on the reconnected North-South Korean railroad sections, May 17, 2007." The spelling is different, however, showing each side's preferred conventions. While North Korea likes to use initial ㄹ (r) a lot, South Korea drops many of them. For example, 列車 (train) is pronounced in the north as ryeolcha and spelled as 렬차, but in the south, the initial r is dropped, pronouncing as yeolcha and spelling as 열차 (the ㅇ consonant represents no consonant sound). Another common convention is to weaken the ㄹ (r) to a ㄴ (n); the city of Rason (라선) in the far northeast is a good example, as South Koreans spell it as 나선 (Naseon). (In actuality, Rason is the combined name of two formerly separate cities - Rajin (라진) and Sonbong (선봉) - and the official South Korean convention is to continue treating them as separate places, as Najin (나진) and Seonbong.)

Also, in South Korea, the preferred directional order puts south before north, for obvious reasons.

This is a K-111, built by Asia Motors (now part of Kia Motors, which in turn is a Hyundai subsidiary) and designed after the US Jeep. In the 1990s, Asia Motors also built a civilian version of this vehicle, as the Rockstar.

Things have surely changed. On the left are VHS videotapes showing the highlights of the Diamond Mountains; DVDs are also available. They were produced by North Korea, with the intended audience being former North Koreans who have settled in South Korea and would like to return north for a visit. On the right are CDs with North Korean pop; the tracks are all politically neutral and propaganda-free, and definitely safe for the South Korean audience. Some of the songs, including 반갑습니다 (Glad to Meet You), are now very well-known in South Korea, though I've never listened to any of them yet.

I decided against buying these, however. Instead, I'm more determined than ever to visit the Diamond Mountains, and hopefully the rest of North Korea, myself, when circumstances change and North Korea welcomes me. In the meantime, I tried to buy gift utensil sets from Kaesong, but the gift shops here were out of stock on them.

The white tower, which graces the entrance to a public toilet, says "Peaceful Unification."

And when unification is involved, the Unification Church (Moonies) also plays some role, as much as I hate to say it. The parasol in front, which carries logos for the McCol barley beverage, is an indication. McCol is made by Ilhwa Brewery, which is one of the Moonies' many business enterprises. Needless to say, I refuse to drink McCol.

I returned south to the civilian world, but the marathon continued to be a problem. I found out that I was unable to enter Hwajinpo at all until 2 in the afternoon. As the vacationing spot for not only Kim Il-sung and Syngman Rhee, but also for my father and his extended family seeking to get as close to their North Korean home as they could, Hwajinpo is a very special place, even though it's been 30 years since I last strolled the area's beautiful beach. I simply didn't have time to wait, so I chose to save Hwajinpo for my next South Korean road trip, refueled my car at Geojin, then headed south, past Sokcho, to Yangyang, home of Naksansa.

At Naksansa's parking lot, I saw another automotive reminder of my past travels. This is the newest rendition of Ford Mondeo. I first met the Mondeo during my first London visit, where its then-status as the best-selling car in its class certainly made a mark in my mind. I ended up with a Ford Contour, the US-market first-generation Mondeo, as my first car later on, though it was a miserable piece of scrap metal. Nevertheless, I continue to refer to all Mondeos as Contours, including this one, especially when talking to Americans.

Naksansa was destroyed by a forest fire in 2005, and currently most of its buildings are being rebuilt. The new buildings will have roofs, and visitors are allowed to pay a small fee to personalize roof tiles with messages. Here are some messages in English, French, and Spanish.

And here is a message left by a Catholic family, sending the blessings of Jesus to this temple as it reconstructs and re-embarks on social justice. Nice to see the peaceful coexistence of several vastly different religions that has been the hallmark of South Korean society, even though the 2MB government has been busy destroying that.

And these are the temple buildings being rebuilt. Rebuilding is almost complete, and will be finished in just over a year.

Naksansa is the Korean peninsula's resting place for Kwan Yin. Needless to say, a huge stone Kwan Yin statue was built here in the 1970s, as seen here. She's the very reason that I came here. This one's name is Haesugwaneum (海水觀音), or Seawater Kwan Yin. She stands, facing east over a cliff overlooking the Sea of Japan immediately below, and greets each day's sunrise.

In the donations box, I put in a 1,000-won banknote. At the same time, I asked for Kwan Yin to reach out beyond the sea, and send some mercy across the Pacific to the US, especially now that I will take her spirit right on to the US interstates. I'm sure she'll send lots of blessings my way.

Just down the cliff is this Gwaneumjeon, or Hall of Kwan Yin. This is a special hall, unlike any other of its kind. When I stand at the altar (open door), there is a glass window in the rear roof, which leads to a view of the statue, seen in the upper left here. That huge statue indeed looks down into the hall and blesses whoever prays at the altar.

The temple serves free noodles from 11:30AM to 1:30 PM, in gratitude for the massive donations from the South Korean public toward the rebuilding of the destroyed temple buildings. I didn't take up on the offer, as the line was quite long and I had a lot more driving to do.

I also checked the gift shop but didn't find anything to my liking.

I returned to Gangneung, where Ojukheon is located. Ojukheon is the birthplace of royal-era neo-Confucian scholar, philosopher, and politician Yi Yi, as well as his mother Shin Saimdang. Yi Yi has graced the 5,000-won banknote since the 1970s, while Shin Saimdang will appear on the 50,000-won banknote when it is introduced next year. Shin becomes the first historical Korean woman to grace a South Korean banknote (and the second woman ever, after a generic mother lasted 24 days in 1962). Moreover, Shin and Yi become the world's first-ever mother-son team to be honored with banknotes.

This is the room where Yi Yi learned how to read and write.

Ojukheon is named after Ojuk (烏竹), the black bamboo growing in this area.

A traditional kitchen at Ojukheon.

The residential quarters of Ojukheon feature two separate houses, one for the men, one for the women. Confucian morals demanded that men and women never share the same space, starting from age 7.

Some 2006-issue 5,000-won notes with Yi Yi on the front. The serial numbers are as follows:
  • AA0001504A (Shin Saimdang was born in 1504)
  • AA0001536A (Yi Yi was born in 1536)
  • AA0001551A (Shin Saimdang died in 1551)
  • AA0001584A (Yi Yi died in 1584)
The very first 5,000-won note was AA0000001A, and went up sequentially from there.

The back side of the 1983-2006 5,000-won note had a picture of Ojukheon. With this new issue, the Ojukheon was replaced by paintings from Shin and Yi.

It can't get more Korean than this. Kimchi jars in the back, village guardians (both the "great" male varieties in this case) in front.

It was already past 2PM at this point. I pushed on by taking Expressway 50 back toward Seoul, after a lunch at a rest stop. Once in Wonju, however, I turned south on Expressway 55, heading toward Andong and its traditional village and face masks. No luck, however, as Andong was already dark, and its attractions closed, by the time I arrived. Just like Hwajinpo (not to mention Seorak Mountain and other scenic places that I left out this time due to weather and time constraints), Andong will have to wait for a future road trip.

I kept pushing on toward Daegu, taking Expressway 1 from there to Gyeongju, but by the time I pulled in, after a nap at a rest stop due to the hard day of sightseeing and driving, it was 9PM. Nevertheless, I am pleasantly surprised at how much sense it makes to drive around in South Korea, despite all the horror stories I have heard to the contrary. (But then, there are tons of horror stories about driving on the wrong side in the UK, and that didn't affect me at all either.) Looking forward to getting a lot done during my Gyeongju stay, and even after I return to Seoul as I continue to make day trips in my rental car.