The list is fairly exhaustive. I’ll just be giving a single long form story for every place I visited this month because, looking back, wow! Individual stories would simply take too much time and you’d get bored.
I went to: Golguksa, Busan, Daejeon, Cheongju, Jecheon, Danyang, Buncheon, Cheoram, Sokcho, Gangneung, Samcheok, Suwon, and Seoul. Whew! That’s a lucky thirteen places and this works out to be my most packed month ever.
The Final Days Living in Changwon
Golguksa is a temple known for its martial arts, Sunmundo. I had an exhausting yet wonderful time learning the basic forms and gaining muscle I would quickly lose. Wandering between the narrow mountain passes and awakening to chanting was great. I struggled a bit the final day and wound up not attending most of the early activities. I’m still struggling to accept my physical limitations, something that would plague me for the rest of my time in Korea – at least I took the opportunity to rest here!
A quick jaunt to Busan for laser hair removal and a final visit with a friend and I was leaving the south! A rather frustrating final few days in Changwon but I had a whole vacation to look forward to.
The Train Trip
The bulk of the names in my list come from a final train trip I planned with my friend. Throughout my time in Korea I have struggled with trying to get to the northeastern coastal cities. There’s a large mountain range separating the north and southeast that Korea hasn’t gotten around to building any fabulous tunnels through. Finally, I would get there.
And through my favorite mode of transport – Trains! Although it also weirdly became a trip about visiting caves…but more on that later.
Exploring the Middle
Korea has several tourist trains – not that they advertise them. We booked a Ko-rail pass for 5 days and started in Daejeon. About 15 minutes from the train station via foot is a lovely area filled with cafes and restaurants that is perfect for any quick stopover. You can search for 온천집 and find the best Shabu Shabu I’ve had in Korea. The cafe just across the street is well worth it too.
On to Cheongju, which frankly isn’t much to speak of. They are *really* milking the jikji, or first example of a book made with metal-type print, for all it’s worth. And it turns out the book isn’t even there! It’s in France. The museum also has some of the most incomprehensible English translations I’ve ever seen, it started to give us headaches trying to decipher it. We had another quick stopover in Jecheon, which is primarily known for its very old man-made reservoir. This was a nice respite from our journey – but there were no lockers to store our bags at the train station and we had to make do stashing them behind some janitors area! I wouldn’t plan to stay here overnight but it was a nice visit for a couple of hours.
The real star of the show is Danyang. Not to be confused with a location from last month, Damyang (known for its bamboo forest). Danyang is a quaint little town that is a good jumping off point for things to see in the area. It has a fantastic local market, the beautiful Han river, a twisty cave to visit, and it’s the main location to go paragliding in Korea. Paragliding might seem expensive, at around $95, but it’s significantly cheaper than in most places in North America. You can go paragliding through Adventure Korea. It was thrilling and surprisingly calm, I would love to do it again, especially to see those views! You also get go-pro footage of your flight.
From Danyang we went to Cheongpung Cultural Heritage Center, which was, of course, closed due to Covid. Because open air museums in the middle of nowhere are the real problem, and not the enclosed cable cars right next door (which we did instead). Someone who worked at the nearby Challenge Museum very kindly escorted us around, very excited to have their first Americans in their museum about the crazy adventures some Koreans have had to Everest, Antarctica, and the Sahara.
All the Small Villages
We also took the V-Train, a tourist train with operational windows that winds through the mountains, stopping in some small villages. The villages aren’t really worth stopping in. Buncheon is “Santa-Ville” has the highlight of being able to send yourself a postcard. Cheoram has a somewhat depressing mining town you can see in three minutes. Take our advice and visit them in the quick leg-stretching breaks and just stay on the train for the circuit instead of sitting outside for four hours playing Animal Crossing while you wait for the next train. We did stop in Yeongju but I think it is a testament to the fact that it’s not worth the trip, given that all I can recall of the place is arguing with the ticketing counter.
The Coastal Paradise of the Northeast
Next on the list – the northeastern coast. First up, Sokcho. I really liked it here, and you couldn’t take a single step without running into a beautiful ocean view. It was incredibly windy and cold but it actually had a couple lovely bookstores (Moonwoodang was the best). Don’t bother too much with the North Korean village, as far as we could tell there wasn’t much there and the hand crank ferry wasn’t working due to the wind. Sokcho is mainly for relaxing, in my opinion, but what lovely relaxation it is!
We took the SeaTrain down to Samcheok – or rather, the SeaTrain was cancelled due to Covid (but not according to their website *rolls eyes) but you can spend significantly less for the same exact view by taking the regular Ko-rail from Gangneung to Donghae Station. Samcheok is…well, a little boring if I’m perfectly honest. If you’re looking for a stopping point on your journey it is serviceable. We really struggled to find things to do. Now, about an hour away are two caves that are very much worth visiting, called Hwanseongul (한선굴) and Daegeumgul (대금굴). But if you have a car it would be better to skip Samcheok and stay in Gangneung or somewhere else to visit them.
Gangneung is the final stop on the eastern shore, and the place with the most to do. Make sure to plan a stop to the tofu village with the delicious tofu ice cream. We also stopped at a sheep farm about thirty minutes away and enjoyed taking many a picture of the sheep and investing in sheep related souvenirs! I personally think of the three coastal towns that Sokcho is the most stunning and has the most value in terms of accommodation. But Gangneung is a close second for beautiful views – although I did find it very overpriced.
The final stop on our journey, and where I would say goodbye to my friend for the foreseeable future, is Suwon. Here we saw the typical sites of the Temporary Palace and the Fortress Walls. We used the city as a jumping point to see the Yangdong Cultural Village with it’s very steep 24,000krw ticket price. The price is fair, I think, for the performances you get to see. If you haven’t seen much of Korea yet, this is a great place to come for inspiration and to learn. For me, having already been to just about every place that had a model home and such, it was less enthusing. My friend and I said our goodbyes in a Thai cafe where I really, truly cried for the first time since leaving Changwon. The train trip was a fantastic distraction and vacation.
Seoul – The City Made of Smaller Cities
Just about every neighborhood of Seoul could pass for a city anywhere else in South Korea. I spent over 16 days in the capital, re-visiting all the famous neighborhoods and using it as a jumping off point for visiting Gunsan and Gochang. Since I think this post is more than long enough I will be sharing the details of my Seoul trip in March’s post!