Tag Archives: thousand year old tree

To Byeonsan And Back

1 Sep

This past weekend my friends and I undertook the quintessentially American experience.  We got a van, packed it full of seven people, and went tearing off down the highway, blasting music out the open windows, on a road trip.  The difference being that we couldn’t read most of the road signs, you had to run red lights or risk getting rear-ended, and performance is measured in kilometers per liter.  It was a road trip across Korea and perhaps one of the best experiences here yet.

In order to make this excursion possible, we needed driver’s licenses.  Last Wednesday my friend Drew and I ventured into Seoul to locate the Driver’s License Agency.  It was actually the best experience I’ve ever had dealing with cars and licensing of any sort.  Everything was orderly and efficient.  I found it completely ridiculous that they would give me a license.  I can barely read the alphabet, only know a handful of words at best, and here they are giving me a license.  Fill out the forms, go back and forth between counters, get stamps on different sheets of paper.  Take a physical test, which consists of squatting once and picking out three numbers off an eye chart and color-blind test.  Then the written test, which only consisted of twenty questions.  It was supposedly written in English but I had to stare at each question for a minute straight in order to make sense out of any of them.  For example: “Of the following of the questions which is NOT the most absurd of choices regarding the performance of driver in approaching the deaf-driving car in the lane?”  Most absurd of choices?   Somehow I passed with an eighty out of one hundred, which I attribute only my recall of process-of-elimination from the SAT.  And an hour later, I had a Korean driver’s license.  I was free to go anywhere, yet utterly incapable of any reasonable communication or understanding of traffic laws.  This country is nuts.

Sunday morning we awoke early and loaded our expeditionary vehicle, a KIA Carnival.  This is a minivan, but the interior certainly feels smaller.  I kept bumping my knees while driving.  We took off into the rainy morning, trying to work the satellite navigation attached to the middle of the windshield.  There were a few missed turns and we accidentally ended up in Yongin but by 9:00 we were headed south on the motorway.  Highway 1, the Gyeongbu Expressway, runs the length of the country between Seoul and Busan, the second largest city and a massive sea port.  We roared along, taking in the sight of countryside.  Everywhere you looked, there was some sort of civilization, even if separated by rice paddies.  Korea is a tiny country and proximity is inevitable when you cram almost 50 million people into it.  For someone used to seeing huge swaths of open desolate country, like West Texas or Wyoming, it was a strange, almost suffocating experience.  The thought that, even behind the wheel of a car, master of my own fate, I couldn’t escape from people bothered me.

In between the crude paper map I had and the useful but byzantine sat-nav, we managed to figure out our route from the highway.  From the Gyeongbu Expressway we took Highway 25 and then at Ganggyeong we pulled off onto Road 23 (I guess they call them roads).  The trip had flown by.  By the time we stopped outside Iksan for fuel, only two hours had passed and we were getting quite close to our destination.  Filling up the Carnival with diesel was a hilarious experience.  The look on the attendant’s face was one of bewilderment as we all hopped out of this nondescript van.  We laughed about how baffled everyone we met must have been: How did these foreigners get here?  Why are they here? We were truly in the middle of nowhere.  What was even better was when we rolled down all the windows and began blasting homemade house music into the small towns we passed through.  One Korean couple in an SUV were laughing hysterically, though they didn’t roll down their window, despite Drew’s insistent waving.

At Iksan I took over driving.  Even after a mere two months away from the wheel, I felt rusty.  It was thrilling, though, the knowledge that I was in control of my own destiny.  I felt much more at ease with the world about me, much more confident.  Technology can be a crutch but in some cases it is a radically enabling tool.  The automobile, at least for me, truly is synonymous with a daily, nuts-and-bolts freedom.  I was bound to no one.

Hyundai pier outside Byeonsan.
Hyundai pier outside Byeonsan.

Our destination for the first day was Byeonsan National Park, which covers most of a peninsula on the southwestern coast.  Once onto the peninsula, we saw a huge causeway that seemed to lead somewhere.  Naturally we drove down it.  It turned out to be some sort of pier owned by one of the many Hyundai subsidiaries.  Every now and then loud warning announcements would sound from the sealed-off industrial area, which we joked were warnings for the locals to ‘stay away from the foreigners, they might have swine flu.’

The views were beautiful, even if rainy and overcast.  We wandered around for a bit, puzzled at the purpose of this random industrial pier.  Korea is all about the corporation.  Certainly small businesses proliferate; the presence of a FamilyMart convenience store or a restaurant on every corner, filled with middle-aged woman slaving away twelve hours a day, makes that undeniable.  But this country is not entrepreneurially focused.  Power and prestige are rooted in the corporation.  And the larger you are, the more the government will make sure you stay big and profitable.  The glossy cities with wide boulevards, shining skyscrapers, and grand electric signs blasting the company’s name into the darkness are a stark contrast to the worn and often trashed countryside.  The Korean countryside is beautiful until you get up close.  Then you run across abandoned buildings, vacant lots full of trash beside a rural road, and enormous industrial buildings surrounded by only rice paddies and farm houses for miles.  It outdoes even some parts of Appalachia.

We left from the pier and drove another fifteen or twenty minutes into the heart of Byeonsan Peninsula National Park.  From there we hiked to Jikso, a waterfall up in the mountains.  Regrettably, I have no photos of it, judging it better to keep my camera out of the falling rain.  But there was a flume of water pouring off of a rock into a very, very deep emerald green pool.  Chinese characters were carved into a high-sided rock that flanked the pool.  It was unbelievably tranquil.  We swam out in the pool for a while, the water surprisingly warm considering that it flowed out of the mountains.  That spot reminded so much of being back home, with curling fog, cool drizzle, and thick woods around a waterfall.  Yet it was indescribably different from home, as I found later as we climbed several kilometers up a ridge.  Up there we were socked in with fog, but it would pass away at times, leaving only light rain.  There was something distinctly different about Korea’s nature.  North Carolina and other places in America are inspiring or majestic or simply beautiful, always in some sort of proud and enjoyable manner.  Yet I felt none of those emotions here.  It was tranquil, that was all.  Just peace all around.  Nothing stirring toward any particular end.  I began to ponder the extent to which the physical aspects of Asia have influenced religious thought, thinking to Buddhism primarily.

That was fitting, for we hiked down from the ridge into another valley, to a temple called Naesosa.  A thousand year old tree sat in the front of the first courtyard.  Honestly, it wasn’t particularly impressive, the oak in my backyard is bigger.  But the temple was quite old and was unadorned.  Most temples in Korea are brightly painted with ornate detail and lavish colors.  But Naesosa was mostly bare wood, with a few faded murals on the ceiling and beams inside the temple.  The temple was nearly deserted, save for us intrusive Westerners.  Again, an immensely tranquil place.  Nothing was out of place, nothing was hurried or loud, everything moved on slowly, steadily, towards no specific end.  Timeless is too brief for this place.

Once we left, we all expressed our amazement at how much territory we’d covered.  At 9 AM we were getting on the expressway and nine hours later we’d driven almost the length of the country and seen some spectacular sights.  Only with an automobile could we have achieved such rapid travel to such a distant spot.  The next few hours were not quite the best, as we drove all around the Byeonsan peninsula in search of lodging.  We hoped to find a ‘pension,’ basically a guesthouse with plenty of space and cheap in the off-season, but to no avail.  Eventually, all options exhausted to us, we ended up backtracking to Gyeokpo and staying at a Korean trucker motel.  It was a strange place, if only because the rooms were just doors on an open hallway which led from a nondescript central lobby that could have doubled as a storage room on the other floors.  But that’s Korean architecture for you.  Lots of buildings are just boxes that are thrown up and then adapted to needs later.  Purpose-built structures are not the most common, particularly in the countryside.

Gyeokpo from the Korean trucker love motel.
Gyeokpo from the Korean trucker love motel.

The owner of the motel decided to wake us up with a phone call on Monday morning.  “Chop chop!” he said, clearly indicating that we needed to get out.  We really got the sense that he thought we’d slept too long and needed to get out and do something with our day.  That was fortunate, for it got us on the road and roaring north to Gunsan.  There’s a United States Air Force base there and a port.  I feel sorry for the poor airmen who are stationed at such a remote spot.  Yongsan or Osan would be fine places to be stationed in Korea, since they’re near or in Seoul, but Gunsan is the equivalent of southwestern Oklahoma: nothing around and you wonder why people even have half a thought to stay.

We went in search of a ferry to take us to Seonyudo, an island that Heather had picked out as a cool place to spend a day on beautiful white sand beaches.  Sat-nav and roadsigns failed us, though, and we ended up at some waterfront military museum by a tidal river, fishing boats and rusting dredging barges littering the waterway.  A pair of policemen showed up and actually just stood watching us.  Maybe they were suspicious of seven foreigners driving in a van, maybe they were bored; in Gunsan, probably both.  As Drew and I climbed on some old Korean M48 tanks, the others shouted for us in a panic.  They’d found the ferry but it was at the tip of Gunsan’s peninsula and it was leaving in thirty minutes.  A helpful Korean punched in the destination on the sat-nav and I gunned the KIA out of the parking lot.  The next twenty minutes were an exercise in Korean roadway survival, as I drove intently, zooming around trucks, yanking out of the far right lane at 80 kmh as we rapidly approached a vehicle just parked in the lane, gunning through red lights on deserted roads when no one was around.  Drive slowly under the speed camera, then smash the accelerator down and send the Carnival ripping along deserted stretches of highway, past huge industrial buildings on a wide coastal plain that showed no signs of life.  We reached the ferry, though, just in time.

Spot the foreigners.
Spot the foreigners.

The boat was filled with old people and many of them gravitated to the bumping karaoke session down in the ship’s hold.  Old drunk Korean men tussled and each tried to shove the other into the dance room before the other.  What sort of ferry was this?

Sailing to Seonyudo.
Sailing to Seonyudo.

Seonyudo is an island that is a part of a chain of islands called the “Polynesia of Korea.”  Seems that there’s always a “*Blank* of Korea.”  Jeju was the “Hawaii of Korea.”  Maybe we drove on the Route 66 of Korea, who knows?  There’s not much out here except lots and lots of fishing.  Even more so than Scotland, whose islands I’ve visited a few times.  The ferry ride was beautiful and even better because of our unique position as foreigners seeing something so far off the beaten path.  And we had attained it all through improvisation, cooperation, and a little serendipity.

Distant traveler.
Distant traveler.

Korea is one of those places in the world that becomes rarer and rarer each day.  The outside world is visible on TV and in the papers, but it still remains outside.  The nation’s daily reality is fundamentally Korean; people wake up and live their lives relatively undisturbed by the machinations of the great big, humming world about them.  In America, our lives are fractured more and more everyday as we grow more complex in every single facet, the very foundations of our civilization changing silently but inexorably beneath our feet.  Korea is, in many ways, a hundred years behind the times: a monoculture and unified society in a strong state, made prosperous by the farmer and the brazen worker in the glowing factory.  They are technology advanced and adept, but their roots are solidly Industrial Revolution.  In a world that revolves around buying things, worthwhile or worthless, Korea will do well, far better than our own service-oriented economy.

Taegeukgi.
Taegeukgi.

We spent very little time on Seonyudo.  There is only a single ferry per day, we discovered.  So we walked around for about an hour, saw what little there was to see on this peaceful but remote island.  Again, as foreigners we were a peculiarity.  Seonyudo would be a wonderful place to return to at some point.  Then we were back onto the ferry and back to the mainland.  It would be a long drive back through the dark.  Having driven for most of our two days of travel, I let Heather take the wheel and took a nap.  The sat-nav freaked out on us again and sent us driving back roads all the way to Daejeon but eventually we found the Gyeongbu Expressway and were soon back on our way to Seoul.

While unconventional, our road trip was perhaps the best possible way to see Korea.  We never could have gotten where we did in anywhere approaching that amount of time.  Departure to return time was at most 37 hours.  Trains or buses might have worked but would have required huge amounts of planning and local bus routes to get us places would have been incomprehensible even to those who understood the most Korean.  And we were free to venture into (comparatively) wild and unknown places (at least for us).  We were masters of our Korean reality.  Trains, buses, and taxis maybe be for the traveler.  But the car and truck is for the explorer.

This country is great.

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