I would be remiss to exaggerate the number of opportunities I’ve grasped to travel around Korea this year. Each week, ideas for possible destinations float among friends. “We could go here” “I read something about this place” “I’ve heard they have the best _________”. And, as easily as routine develops in any comfortable living situation, it became routine to consider weekend plans on Wednesday, search haphazardly for buses or trains on Thursday, and then toss both hands in the air on Friday and resign to a weekend spent in Seoul. And anyone who has spent time in thecapital will agree that there is so much to do and see in the sprawling 600 square kilometers that it’s easy to watch Saturdays and Sundays while away within the confines of the jihachul.
Finally, in my eleventh month of occupation, we left the city. In a determined, mad-dashed attempt to just get the h-e-doublehockeysticks away from the concrete and bustle of our beloved city dwelling, Jacqui and I booked tickets at the eleventh hour for a 9am train to Yeosu. Mike, a fellow ESL teacher hailing from Texas, was on board for the adventure right alongside. But, I need to backtrack and explain the sheer frustration and utter confusion that ensues every single time I have searched for a bus or a train to a destination anywhere in this country. Possibly because the towns mentioned in our 2008 copy of Lonely Planet’s guide to Korea that are usually of interest are the ones with the smallest blurb and least amount of travel-friendly information. Merely a sentence or two on the charming remoteness and unsettled wild of volcanic cliffs plunging into the crisp waters of the South China Sea. In the 2012 edition of the interwebs, the bus website requires a specific origin to be input, easier said than done when very few listed stations are on my personal mind-map of Seoul. When figuring out the departure point is more challenging than finding an origin on this peninsular country, frustrations are bound to occur. Chalk it up to my lack of experience interpreting guide books and a short span of patience for navigating virtual layers of denied inquiries, attempt after attempt failed. No wonder so many people living in Korea choose to a)park their work-weary asses on a bar stool or neighbourhood rooftop all weekend or b) travel with pre-arranged groups. In either case the hard work is done for you.
Luckily two heads are better than one, Jacqui and I tackled the appropriate sites with fervor. Origin: Seoul. Destination of choice: Yeosu. Home to the 2012 World Expo, there was a direct train from Seoul to Yeosu via KTX. Taking advantage of a rare opportunity to relish all things motorized, I was eager to experience Korea’s bullet train. Legend has it that one can zoom from one end of the country to another at a comfortable 300km/hr. Now we were talking. I was like a kid in a video game boutique, as the train started to amble down the tracks, I voiced to my slightly more subdued, yet equally as excited travel companions, that I couldn’t wait to feel the WHOOSH as g-forces were surely going to slam me obediently into my seat. It didn’t happen that way. Slightly faster than a VIA train, and much roomier, the ride was smooth and quick. Lightening quick, it was not.
Arriving at Yeosu Expo station, we wove our way through the throngs of nationals and internationals filing off the train and into the pavilions spread along the expo grounds. After seeking the help of a woman at the tourist information centre, we were quickly guided to the proper bus that would take us from Yeosu to our desired reach of Dolsan-do. An island known for its straight-from-the-sea cuisine and stunning views, we set off on bus number 113 for the island’s southernmost tip. Luck, and the odd elbow or two, let us score seats and we were set for the 45-minute excursion to the small coastal town at the base of Mt. Geumosan. The beginning of our trip was brightened by some friendly conversation eagerly offered by an elderly gentleman bracing himself between bodies in the packed rear of our bus. His name was Kong, and he greeted us with a beaming smile that was emphasized by his enthusiasm to speak English. He was impressed with Mike’s goatee and large hands and what I can only imagine to be the good-natured Texan qualities that are so rare in these parts of the world.
Stepping off the bus, priorities took precedence. We needed a place to stay. And ice cream. Everyone needs ice cream. That was the easy part. Any variety of convenience stores in Korea has a selection to choose from. And, choose we did. The difficult part was finding a place to stay for the evening. Claiming the spontaneity of this mini-adventure, we had decided the day before to go with the ebb and flow of the weekend and keep our fingers crossed for finding a room. We headed up a steep street, on an incline that eventually led to the Hyangiram Hermitage and a sunrise lookout that draws so many visitors. Passing a restaurant with roughly hewn picnic benches parked outside, we turned as we heard “hello! hello! I have been waiting for you!”. It was none other than the friendly voice of Kong, beckoning us to join him where he sat. Calling out to the ajumma running the joint, he insisted that we try some Makgeoli that is famously enjoyed from this region. This particular vintage of Korean rice wine hails from Gaedo, and Kong wasn’t lying, it was pretty damn good. Served in a shallow bowl, we cheered and continued our conversation that began earlier on the bus. Jacqui and I bowed out of the chinwag for a brief stint, in search of accommodation for the night. The first few places we tried were full, and rightfully so, it was a beautiful weekend and we weren’t the only ones with the idea of a weekend getaway in our plans. Not wanting to spend all afternoon searching motels, we weren’t picky. We found a small ondol-style room above a restaurant with enough space for the three of us to spread across the floor for one night. Quick and painless, we triumphantly returned to see how Mike was doing with his new friend.
For me, the highlight of the weekend was the short trek to the hermitage that is nestled among trees and the craggy rocks, about halfway up the mountain that towers over the fishing village below. This place has everything necessary for a mountainside retreat or an afternoon of taking in the subdued vibrancy of the painted temple, the stoney solemnity of the carved turtles peeping from every crevice, and the rolling views of the South China Sea stretching outward across the horizon. Dolsan-do should be high on the list of anyone in Korea looking for a quiet, sea-side, mountainous landscape catering to those who appreciate locally owned restaurants, and gorgeous views. And if none of that will draw you closer, the fragrance of squid and mussels drying in the open air certainly will.