A Tortuous Crossing of South Korea

We are now on the island of Namdhae-do off the South Korean south coast" having picked up our car from the VIP Car Rental man at airport arrivals. This was our best deal arranged through Betty ([email protected]). This is just a quick posting on a somewhat difficult road journey from Incheon next to Seoul near the northern border across the heavily citied north of the country, and back to the west coast further south before running down to the south coast and through a string of islands connected by road bridges, to Busan where we catch a ferry to Kyushu the day after tomorrow.

Lurching askew - two facets of South Korean cities. Above: Glaring commercial graphics.
Below: Monoclonal high rises with towering lift shafts

Korea is a land of contradictions. The cities are packed solid with monoclonal high rises, which it is said the the Koreans love, but to anyone else look like whiteware ghettos of cultural oblivion. Most of the urban areas tend to be aesthetic nightmares of ticky tacky with Koren script advertisements adorning everything in rainbow colours as if any colour has to be every colour.

The less glamorous standard high rises that adorn every urban community.

This tendency to aesthetic dystopia is probably a consequence of a troubled history that runs through Japanese occupation, the Korean war and its aftermaths as well as the spread of western ideas such as Christianity. It is quite surprising to find at least two churches in just about every Korean town and city, something which seems to have happened as far back as the nineteenth century. Notably there seems to be no equivalent of Shinto which in Japan complements Buddhism's cosmology of non-attachment with an engagement with the life process and the national cultural identity. There are clan temples but these are simpler sparser affairs.

A view from the mountain over Suwon with a prominent Christain church and one of the old city gates.

Koreans also seem to think national parks are recreational adventure parks rather than places to commune with nature, so there is a huge emphasis on action sport. The country is also massively air polluted, although an effort has been made to keeps heavy industrial areas out of cities in specific locations which enalbe sa dense population and massive industry to coexist with a green mountainous landscape and the country is intensively farmed in a way which uses every productive square inch to good effect.

The rural landscape is a mix of intensive agriculture and distant high rises.

That said, we have also seen a lot of nice traditional culture as well, including a variety of Buddhist temples, the odd clan house and historic Confucian school traditional Korean houses in the country and Hanok villages and neighbourhoods in cities like Jeonju.

The journey has not been easy, although our trip has progressed roughly as envisaged, in fits and starts. Driving in Korea is nerve wracking. Korean drivers are impatient and impetuous and behave like road rules are a limitation on their independence to be flagrantly ignored. There are supposed to be severe speed camera and other fines, but Korean drivers will drive right around you on the inside when you stop at a red light, weaving in front of every one, and just gun it down the highway right under the speed and CCTV cameras which bristle at every turn. They are also liable to try to drive you right off the road or nearly crash into you if you do anything they haven't anticipated or take exception to. The end result for the inexperienced traveler is very scary driving with lots of frights along the way.

A landscape of green hills, intensive agriculture, and ticky-tacky villages, each with a Christian church.

In addition, the road system is chaotic with roads of all descriptions but no clear connection from place to place and although the road signs all have English, the roads often lead in crazy directions, so you end up going north south east and west. To make it even harder we have traveled across country with only the vaguest maps when Koreans themselves will depend on navigation devices and cell phone maps. Korea is very mountainous so lots of places there is no road through but only around indirectly.

There is an easy to folow network of expressways, however these are toll roads which add further dimensions to the cost, so we took off the first day through a string of major cities losing our way several times before finding a few non-toll highways which we did navigate successfully. Actually many of these secondary roads are also motorways, so they do make good traveling. Another paralysing feature is the phases of the traffic lights which are so long you could fall asleep or run out of gas just waiting for a red to go green and in urban areas these are just about every block, so the going can get inexorable.

Bonggeongsa an ancient Buddhist temple

Very often you will see a sign that points to where you want to go but when you go down the road it splits into two or three without any hint of which to take. Also if you go down the wrong turning you are liable to find yourself miles down a motorway in the wrong direction with no escape. Nevertheless we hae got better and better at navigating Korean on the fly with minimal map support.

A Buddhist painting at Bonggeongsa. Right A woman selling the notorious Korean pickled vegetable fare - Kimchi - on the road up to the temple.

We arrived at the airport a couple of hours late and managed to score a rental car by for nearl $600 US rather than the listed $350 because Avis's website failed to process the order correctly. We then took off from the airport around Yeongjong-do the island the airport is on to a beach town called Eulwangni where we camped the night on the beach. Next day we drove south east through a complex network of roads and cities trying to avoid the toll extressways. We stopped in Suwon and got lost after taking a picture from the hilltop overlooking the city and then on through Icheon out into agricultural country furrowed by rolling hills. Towards the end of the day, we made it to Waraksan National Park, where we camped in the rain in a parking spot beside a waterfall.

Camping in the Waraksan National Park - a limited natural region amid agriculture.

The plan has always been to gypsy camp in Korea, Japan and Taiwan wherever possible because the transport costs of around $500 US for a car rental and daily fuel costs of around $40 US hike the overall costs to atomospheric for us, in this case something like $120 US a day before we consider food entertainment and accomodation. On a nine week trip this can turn into four or five digit blowout.

Jiksa a temple with a rich array of murals and a striking valley setting

Given the cheapest accomodation here is say $40 US a night, the trip starts to balloon out financially, so our strategy is to get wheels, carry my Amazonian tent, which is great because its actually a mosquito net with a shower proof fly sheet which can be put up anywhere from a river bank to a bedroom and camp where we can. There are Korean style homestays called minbaks but the one we did try to stay in wanted $50 US for a bare room with a mat and toilet and no options for eating in a very remote spot.

Danyang is famed as a tourist attraction but is deserted in the early wet season, when the hydro lake is almost empty and the weather is uncertain.

So far we have been able to find places on the road for the last five nights. We are travelling in the Korean summer which coincides with the wet typhoon season, so camping is very liable to be a washout. The second night we were rained on in a parking spot beside a waterfall in Waraksan National Park but the tent held although the ground was very stony and uncomfortable. The park was unremarkable, but when we traveled north to what was supposed to be a beautiful lake it turned out they had completely drained it in the dry season leaving a huge space like a gigantic green snaky washbasin. Needless to say no one in Korea was going near this place for months to come.

Left: The dyke running north from Byeonsan enclosing the worlds largest land reclamation.
Right: A motor hand glider on the beach at Byeonsan.

The next day we traveled north around the convoluted hydro lake Chungjuho, which was almost empty and devoid of the visitors that flock to it in the dry season after it has filled. After a protraced delay weaving in and out of the lakes reaches we made it to Danyang, prized as a tourist mecca but found it deserted. We then worked south in the rain, eventually making it to the environs of Andong, visiting Bonggeongsa Temple and then south west to Hahoe Hanok village, still in its original setting surrounded by a river and paddies, yet a heavily exploted tourist operation with the entire population of the village apparently absent and all the houses you could see inside closed early or under renovation. At the end of the day we tried in vain to find a camp site, stopping at a the remains of an old Confucian academy and shrine at Jondeoksa. Here we tried to get a minbak in a nearby house, but they wanted $50 a night for us to sleep on a tatami mat on the floor with no sign of food, so we drove on and pulled in at a grassy space and the man administering what proved to be an official entry point to a cycle route let us sleep in a little gazebo used for archery warning us that we would be deluged of we didn't. A neighbouring farmer opposite also came over and gave us a huge whole watermelon which we have spent days munching through. Even then the rain and wind soaked into the head wall of the tent.

Temple at the entrance to Maisan and our little gazebo by the lake.

From there we traveled south south west on back roads on a rainy dark day through Sangjiu and Gimcheon stopping at Jiksa temple set in a forest valley, then weaving on down secondary roads through Yeongdong and Muju. At nightfall night we got cunning to find a sleeping place. We cruised into Maisan Provincial park at dusk, managed to get in without paying the fee and found a dry little gazebo beside a lake. This proved to be a winner because in the morning we found we were just below Tapsa, one of the most amazing Buddhist temples in the country, towering with stone chortens stones piled into spires and steep little valley between two odd-shaped mountains.

Tapsa temple at Maisan provinical park

From there we traveled south to Jeonju where there is a large chic neighbourhood consisting of over 800 traditional Korean Hanok houses with roofs with turned up corners collected from various parts of the country. From Jeonju we headed out to the Byeonsan peninsula where the worlds largest land reclamation has been constructed by building a huge dyke across the ocean, drove on up the wild north coast of the peninsula and managed to find a place with others camping under the pine trees by a beach.

Two kinds of Hanok villages. Left: Jeonju Hanok Maeul assembled from imported traditional houses brought to the city after a hydro development and turned into an elite commercial neighbourhood. Right: Naganeupseong, an actual thatched village, complete with a city wall with tower gates and a wooden jail turned into a chic tourist attraction with traditional dining.

Tourist town at Sangnok on the tip of Byeonsan

Next day we cruised south east through Jangseong and Gwangju stopping at Unjusa, a Buddhist temple boasting the largest number of buddhas in Korea, to the coast south of Suncheon. At sunset after a lot of fruitless searching in mud flat coastal areas with farms running right up to the water, we found a two storey gazebo-like shelter just outside a fishing village and stayed dry and comfortable as the rain came down in torrents.

The view over Sanjiu from our windy wayside shelter with the fly sheet up to protect our cooking stove.

Next day we travelled north east from the coast to Cheonghakdong Hanok village, a real walled traditional village with a thriving population living off tourism in the form of traditional food, artworks and performances. We then made our way on to Namhae island, one of three connected by ocean bridges in a loop. I have to stop this short as we need to go find a gazebo somewhere on this island to shelter for the night. I am writing from outside a supermarket where I found a wi-fi connection by accident. The E-mart chain always has wirelss you can connect to when you are shopping and some others do as well. After a lot of searching we found a wind-swept Gazebo on a hill overlooking Sangju the most southern town on the island. There was a campsite in the park on the spit running along the front of the town, with a couple of tents (in the high season it is crowded) but we would have to leave our rental car and belongings 100 metres away across a bridge on the main road. After a night of blustering wind and rain we were awoken to an atrociously loud loudspeaker in the distance, loud enough to wake up the entire town below and the unnerving sound of gunfire. A little later soldiers emerged marching and chatting in the forest across the road.

A ghostly view of the fishing town at the bridge from Namhae-do to Changseon-do.

From there we drove next day back from the chain of islands in driving misty rain that made photographing the bridges and landscapes almost impossible due to the camera lens being instantaneously fogged over. We then turned back to the coast along the south of the country circuiting again out into a larger island closer to Busan, Geojedo. 

High rises on Geonje at the Daewoo Shipyard

This proved much more industrialized, with heavy traffic and tortuous motorway connections. At one junction we ended up tracing all four directions of a clover leaf before we finally found a sign pointing the way towards the long toll bridge back to the mainland which consisted of two huge arches with central suspension and a long undersea tunnel.


This delivered us into a port area to the south west of Busan with frenetic heavy traffic and no clear sign of how to get across the biggest waterway, until we got on a toll road bridge and after crossing found ourselves on an arterial west-east motorway which passed right through into central Busan enclosed in tunnel-like constructions with almost no exits. Seeing the central business district exit we turned off and found ourselves in the commercial centre with huge three land thoroughfares choking with traffic and quickly ascended up a side street towards one of the mountains, which proved to be Hwangnyeongsan situated with a few kms of the area we had to drop off the car at Busan station and then transit to the ferry to Japan.


I drove as high as I could through a kind of favella district very reminiscent of Rio eventually settling on the first cul-de-sac I had found running up to a park on the mountain which was full of trucks and taxis left parked so obviously no one's territory. This is the one night we actually spent in the car which was atrocious, but got us through in the city centre without getting wet, as it did rain. Busan is described as a somewhat sleazy city with a boisterous atmosphere in Lonely Planet and that just about says it. We were treated kindly and the ambience was fine in the local area of our cul-de-sac park but the city as a whole had a definite air of purgatory about it.

A panorama of Busan from the e-mart car park

Next morning we ran the gauntlet through central Busan struggling with the one way system to get to an E-mart supermarket so we could buy food and connect to the internet with free wi-fi and then down the atrociously frenetic thoroughfares of central Busan to the Station taking back streets as far as we could.