There is more to Korea than Seoul.
It takes only an adventurous spirit and a willingness to deviate from the beaten track to discover some of the hidden gems in the Land of the Morning Calm.
I have been to Korea six times in as many years but this last trip was the first time that I explored Gangwon Province outside the famous Nami Island. A traditional hanok at the Seongyojang HouseNami, the filming location of the famous Korean drama Winter Sonata, gave a mere glimpse of what Gangwon has to offer. It was just like scratching the surface. The three-hour trip by car from Seoul opened the door to a host of wondrous sites. This mountainous province in the northeastern part of the country has a unique and quiet charm and should be included in everyone’s Korean itinerary.
When the invitation from the Korean Tourism Organization (KTO) Manila Office to visit Gangwon came last month, there were no second thoughts. After all, it will be the host of the 2018 Winter Olympics and it would be interesting to survey the place before the deluge of tourists descends.
Located at the east side of the Korean Peninsula, 82% of Gangwon is mountains and forests. As is to be expected, Gangwon is laid-back and moves at a slower pace compared to Seoul and, to some extent, Busan.
“When you want to commune with nature, Gangwon is the best place to be. We have beautiful mountains and the inviting East Sea. Korean traditions and culture are also well-preserved here. We offer a mix of the traditional and the modern,” said Kyunhee Suhl, director of the Food & Cruise Team of KTO Korea.
During the brief tour, I experienced the wonders of Gangwon. Here are my top seven things to do:
1. Climb Seorak Mountain
Seorak Mountain (or Seoraksan, as “san” means “mountain” in Korean) may well be the heart of Gangwon. During the spring, the majestic mount greets visitors in its tender green glory. During my visit, the cherry blossoms were in full bloom — a perfect place for nature lovers.
There are at least 15 hiking routes of varied distances and difficulty. As the mountain is huge, it has been divided into regions and hiking trails have been especially set up. Seoraksan can cater to different types of hikers, including the novice. The trail to the Gwongeum Fortress, for instance, is only 1.5 kilometers (one way) and can be reached within 30 minutes. The challenging 13.9-kilometer trek to the Baekdamsa Temple may take nine hours to complete, but enthusiasts are eager to reach the historic site where the renowned poet Han Yong Woon stayed. Mid-range trails such as those leading to the Yangpok and Eumpok Falls can be done in as little as three hours.
For tourists who simply want to savor the site without having to go on a rigorous hike, the best way to enjoy Seoraksan is to ride the cable car, and then follow a simple trail to one of the peaks.
As it was still spring in Korea, the trees lining the trails were mostly green and brown. Jayeon An, Gangwon Maritime Tourism Center director, said Seoraksan is even more gorgeous in autumn when the leaves turn bright yellow and orange.
“More people flock to Seoraksan during autumn. The scenery is gorgeous,” said Ms. An.
2. Say a prayer at the Shinheungsa Temple
Humongous statues never cease to amaze — be it the giant reclining Buddha of Wat Pho in Bangkok or the imposing Lord Murugan of Batu Caves in Malaysia.
Gangwon’s Shinheungsa Temple houses a magnificent nine storey-tall statue of Buddha. Established by Buddhist priest, Jajangyulsa, the temple burned in 1644 during the Joseon Dynasty but was subsequently rebuilt. The temple draws hundreds of visitors as Buddha’s bones are enshrined in a reliquary in the temple, said our tour guide, Jessie Lee, chief experience officer at Myseoultrip. Even with the influx of people, one can feel sanctity of the site, regardless of one’s religion. Offering of flowers, food, and other gifts is welcome and devotees often linger to say a prayer or two.
3. Check the Olympic attractions
As host of next year’s Winter Olympic Games, the excitement over the quadrennial meet can already be felt all over Gangwon.
While there, I enjoyed watching an ice hockey game at the Kwandong Hockey Center. It was a thrilling game between the women’s teams of Korea and Netherlands. On the ice, the ladies boasted of both brawn and wit. On the sidelines, the local spectators were busy practicing their chants, to rally the Korean team to victory.
Soohorang, a white tiger, and Bandabi, an Asiatic black bear, are the official mascots of the Games. They are found in many Gangwon landmarks, including the PyeongChang Olympic Center.
At the Center, there are sculptures of the various games. There is also a 4D theater that gives visitors the opportunity to experience featured sports such as skiing and bobsleigh virtually.
4. Enjoy a distinctive brew at the Anmok Coffee Street
The Anmok Coffee Street is a paradise for coffee drinkers. There is a long line of coffee shops facing the beach and it is not uncommon to see both locals and tourists sipping their chosen brew at the veranda of their favorite coffee shops or while strolling by the beach watching the kite flyers and their colorful creations.
Anmok is a busy street with more than two dozen coffee outlets but when I visited, there was a welcome calm brought about by a light spring breeze and the calm waters.
While there are the usual Starbucks and Korean favorites such as Café Benne and Angel In Us, I opted to try Albero Coffee and Dessert and was quite happy with its mouthwatering goguma (sweet potato) coffee.
5. Experiencing North Korean culture in Abai Village
Abai Village was established by northern refugees of the Korean War who settled in the south of the country and have never managed to return to their homes. There is an old rustic vibe in “abai” which means grandfather in Hamgyeong, the North Korean dialect.
This quaint village, which is officially named Cheongho-dong, is located in Sokcho, a district in Gangwon. As many settlers here are refugees or their descendants, this is the closest place where tourists can immerse themselves in authentic North Korean culture.
While there, I crossed the river on a gaetbae, a manually operated boat where ropes are tied from end to end and pulled to reach downtown Sokcho.
Abai was also the film site of Autumn in My Heart, another popular drama starring actress Song Hye Kyo. Our walking tour was capped with a relaxing stop at the Sokcho Beach, which is just a stone’s throw away from the village.
6. Savor the delights at the Sokcho Market
A market is a market is a market. But the sights and smells and the tastes are different depending on where you are.
Sokcho’s Tourist and Fishery Market has the familiar feel of a market in Cebu or even Zamboanga with its wide array of seafood choices — both live and dried. Special spices, exotic fruits, and a variety of dried goods are also available. Unfamiliar Korean snacks fascinate foreigners, which can be enjoyed for between 1,000 and 5,000 won (P45 and P200).
With a large population of North Korean settlers, it is not surprising that one-of-a-kind dishes from North Korea are among its specialties. Dishes such as grilled pollack, easily the runaway winner; hamheung naengmyeon, a type of cold noodle; and abai sundae, a mixture of sticky rice, sprouts, and other vegetables, with pig blood, that is similar to our longganiza (sausage), are must-tries and are readily available in nearby neighborhood restaurants or at the Sokcho food street.
7. Learn a bit of Korean history
Gangwon also gives tourists the chance to learn about Korean history with the visit to the Heo Nanseolheon Museum and the option to stay in a traditional Korean house, called the hanok, at the Seongyojang House.
Throughout its history, Korea produced a number of women intellectuals like Heo Nanseolheon, a prominent poet from the Joseon Dynasty. She is credited with some 200 poems and the literati may consider a quick trip to a museum in the Gangneung district built in her honor. The Seongyojang House, on the other hand, is an alternative accommodation. It is a well-preserved old hanok which retains the original architectural design.
The visit to Gangwon was short but sweet. Later this year, travel to this vibrant province is expected to be faster with the opening of a high-speed railway from Incheon and Seoul. There are a dozen festivals to enjoy throughout the year, sights and sounds to experience, nature tripping to enjoy to the fullest. In actor Lee Min Ho’s latest Korean drama, The Legend of the Blue Sea, the inviting beaches of Gangneung were featured. I am saving these and the hot springs — plus the temples, the grottos, spelunking, water rafting, the Demilitarized Zone observatory, the bungee jumping, and the countless colorful gardens — for the next visit.