24 November 2008

Some afterthoughts from the drive

I won't be doing any more driving until I return home. But my nine days behind the wheel of a rental Hyundai Sonata has opened up a can of worms - and that's something I actually like.

First, my drive only reminded me that despite its compact size, South Korea offers more for me than I can swallow in one shot. There will certainly be lots of other places that I will need to hit - and most of them are best reached by car. I am looking at a future road trip or two, which will consist of the following spots:
  • Cheorwon, a plateau that saw some of the most fierce battles during the war, to a point where the original town was destroyed and a new one built to the southeast. It has even more DMZ observatories, a North Korean infiltration tunnel, and the ruins of the local Communist Party Headquarters building, as Cheorwon was initially North Korean. I just can't get enough of the DMZ for some strange reason!
  • I'll certainly need to return to Gangwon Province, if only to enter Hwajinpo once and for all, walk its scenic beach for the first time in decades, and find out why both Kim Il-sung and Syngman Rhee vacationed there. They say that once Korea is reunified, Hwajinpo will take off like a rocket; I need to find out for myself.
  • Gangwon Province also offers two mountain national parks - Seoraksan and Odaesan - and both are worth a visit. Also, Gangwon is the world's only divided province, and its North Korean portion includes the Diamond Mountains; when cooler heads prevail up north, and it is serious about wanting my business and making me feel welcome, I'll head up to the Diamond Mountains in a heartbeat.
  • Other mountains worth climbing include Jirisan in the south, Songnisan in the center (I visited its star attraction, the Buddhist temple of Beopjusa, already), and a few more that I can't even think of.
  • More history and ruins. I picked up plenty of Silla history at Gyeongju, so I'll switch over to Baekje and visit its old ruins at Buyeo and Iksan. Unfortunately, the remaining one of the Three Korean Kingdoms, Goguryeo, has all its relics in North Korea, so once again I must wait for cooler heads to prevail up north.
  • I must also make sure to actually allow enough time in Andong and its Hahoe Folk Village. Moreover, the nearby town of Danyang is also worth stopping by; it has many beautiful natural features, as well as Gosudonggul, the most famous cave in South Korea. Sure, I've been to Carlsbad Caverns, the grand daddy of all caves, but I wouldn't mind another cave.
  • The cities of Gwangju and Mokpo in the far southwest may also make sense. Gwangju was the site of an anti-fascist uprising that ended with hundreds of deaths in 1980, and there are memorials worth checking out; after the 4.19 Cemetery in Seoul, I am more determined than ever to visit this one too. It will also make sense to drive east, along the southern coast, toward Busan, making a series of stops along the way. They say Busan's drivers are so tough that even Seoulites do not dare to drive there - so I do need to be careful.
Looks like I won't be able to fit everything into one road trip, after all.

As I drove around, I felt that my Sonata was the best bang for the buck, in terms of utility, performance, economy, cost, and "respectability." Bigger cars definitely get more respect, but cost dearly in rental rates and fuel. Actually, scratch this; the Kia Lotze, the mechanical/corporate twin of the Sonata, offers the same performance and respectability for slightly less, and it may end up as my next rental. Not only are all rentals reservable by make and model, there is a bit of a price differential; I need to pay a slight premium for Hyundai and Renault-Samsung models (and I have no intention of ever driving any Renault-Samsung crap) over equivalent Kia and GM Daewoo models. (The fifth South Korean manufacturer, Ssangyong, is not mentioned, as its lineup consists solely of SUVs, with the sole exception of the Chairman, a luxury car.) I can save even more money by renting an old, high-mileage, obsolete vehicle (i.e. Hyundai Sonata EF, the third generation, rather than the Sonata NF, the current generation), but that's too much risk.

However, it may make sense to deviate from this program, as needed. I might want to drive a smaller car, like the Hyundai i30, or even upgrade to a Grandeur or even a Genesis despite the cost. I might even try an import; I did see a Peugeot this morning with a rental plate, and I would certainly love to drive around in a Peugeot 207 convertible - one of the cutest cars I've ever seen anywhere - something I'll never get to do back in the US, even though the 207 will cost dearly just by virtue of being an import.

I also realized that Hyundai is the first (and for now, only) manufacturer whose cars I've driven on two different continents. Back home in the US, I've test-driven a number of Hyundai models, some of them over a considerable distance. Of course, once I get my Genesis, the love affair is really gonna stretch out. I look forward to racking up some serious road trip miles in it - though I'll be judicious, to save on unnecessary wear and tear, as I do want the car to last me a long time.

On the subject of Hyundai and Kia automobiles, I am noticing that among the various second-hand US-market vehicles on South Korean roads, many are actually Hyundai and Kia models coming back home. It's been going on for a while, starting with the first-generation Sonata V6, built in Quebec and available only in North America. The current crop of US-market Korean cars coming back home tend to be more upscale, however; I've seen the Kia Amanti (Opirus in South Korea), Hyundai Azera (Grandeur in South Korea), Hyundai Santa Fe, and Hyundai Veracruz. The US-market-only Hyundai Genesis V8 is also rumored to be available too as a gray market import, though I haven't seen one.

The US-market vehicles are identifiable by their badging; in case of Hyundais, while the italic H oval in the center is common across all markets, South Korean domestic models have the model name on the left and the trim level on the right, while US models have the word "HYUNDAI" on the left, and both the model name and the trim level on the right. Trim levels themselves are different; South Korean domestics have alphanumeric trim levels depicting the vehicle's engine displacement (i.e. Grandeur Q270, Genesis BH330, Sonata N20) while US models have a more standardized level nomenclature (GLS, Limited, etc). US-market models are very desirable because they always come with bigger engines and often have extra features not available in the domestic market models. Moreover, importing a used vehicle usually costs a bundle in tariffs, but re-importing an exported South Korean vehicle is exempt from tariffs; combined with the fact that export models, especially US-market ones, tend to be a better bang for the buck, they become very desirable. This tariff exemption even applies to South Korean vehicles assembled overseas - namely the Santa Fe, made in Alabama and equipped with red turn signals. Most of these vehicles end up in the hands of South Koreans on academic/corporate assignment in the US for a few years, then get shipped here when they are done and come home.

Bringing a US-market vehicle into South Korea now has an extra problem. South Korea used to issue license plates identical in size to the US ones, but now, the plates have European dimensions with different mounting holes. Fortunately, it's possible to order plates that have the new design - black letters on white background - but in the US size, so that they can be retrofitted to a US-market car without drilling new holes. The same is often done to older domestic market cars being re-registered and needing new plates.