July 26, 2013
The flight route from Incheon Airport near Seoul to Jeju International on Jeju Island just off the Korean coast is the most heavily traveled in the world with 10 million passengers every year. The trip takes an hour and 15 minutes. We chose a path to Jeju that involved two trains, eight buses, four cabs, a ferry, a hike over a mountain and another through an ancient fortress. It took the better part of two days, but every one of our hodgepodge of travel links passed with ease. The Koreans understand the challenges and necessities of travel on a very deep level. Every station of significance comes equipped with standard valuable resources from open staffed information booths to secure lockers to clear signage to large capacities to accommodate latest of late changes. It is nearly impossible to get disoriented.
We spent our final day in Seoul visiting the preserved and restored royal palaces and shrines of Jongmyo, Changgyeonggung, and Changdeokgung that have remained intact as the city continues to rise and expand around them. We began with Jongmyo, a shrine that houses the spirits of Korean royals from about 500 years ago across two immense buildings. Each royal family gets their own room filled with boxes that contain their spirits. Over time this leads to overcrowding and lesser ancestors eventually get moved to the smaller of the two buildings.
Changgyeonggung and Changdukgung are palace complexes that were used by the living as they ruled over the city and the country. In contrast to Chinese palaces, they are painted brilliant green and red rather than laden with gold. Changdukgung contains a secret garden, a multi-acre wooded area with gazebos and other resting places sprinkled throughout lush green hills. The city disappeared completely as a guide lead us on a walk that was at once serene for its dislocation and vigorous for its constant changes in elevation.
The next day we began our trek south with a subway ride to Suwon, an industrial city of about a million that is just under an hour away from Seoul. At Suwon we circumnavigated the 5.7km fortress wall at Hwaseong, a vacation palace of sorts for the rulers in Seoul. The walk on the wall begins with a sharp incline of steps up one side of a mountain. The enemy had to make it up the mountain then deal with the archers and swordsmen that awaited them. We made it up the mountain and instead found day hikers picnicking in the ramparts. Along the walk around the wall we indulged in opportunities to toll a giant bell and sit in temples high above the city.
In places like Hwaseong, it’s impossible to escape thoughts on the breadth of human history. As we looked out over the expanse of Suwon, there dead in the center of the city stood the palace buildings surrounded by the buzz of modern life. And as with any area in Korea with more than a few trees, the humming and whistling of cicadas filled the air, just as it had 5 centuries earlier when the servants of the kings built the fortress wall.
At the end of our exhausting trip around the wall, we mustered enough strength for the 4:25-express-to-Gwangju-making sprint since our bus back to the train station got caught in traffic. And here again, Korea did its best to ease our journey. We had basic seats on a regular train, but of course they reclined fully and provided an adjustable footrest. We napped, we read, we arrived and after a short walk, found our room in Hotel Agnes in a Korean love motel.
A love motel is exactly what it sounds like. There are hourly rates, condom machines in the hallway, and colored lights in the rooms. Skeevy as it sounds, it was never icky as it might have been elsewhere, just a cheap place to stay.
With a night’s rest and another vehicle (this time a bus) with fully reclining seats, we found our way to Jogyesan Provincial Park for a day-long hike between two Buddhist temples separated by a mountain peak. The temples (Songgwangsa and Seonamsa) looked remarkably like the palace buildings at Hwaseong and Changdukgung, but smaller, better maintained (as they are still in use) and with giant golden statues inside. The Jogyesan hike proved to be one of those where you seeming go uphill forever. Around each bend, you hope for level ground only to find another steep incline. Thankfully, halfway across the mountain, just short of the start of the descent is a restaurant with rice and tofu to mix with fresh veggies.
At the bottom we caught a bus to another bus and were back at Hotel Agnes before 10pm only to discover that the ferry we planned to take to Jeju was fully booked. Linda did some heroic internet searching and found another ferry in another town with exactly three seats left. Our journey south continued.
The final day of this journey involved a cab to a bus to a cab to a ferry to a cab to a bus. But our longest wait of the entire trip was 90 minutes (and that was by design, so as not to miss the ferry). This country knows how to get you there, even if there is the middle of nowhere like our final destination, Seongsan, a seaside hamlet of 14,000 with a giant defunct volcano at its center. Our reward for this multi-day excursion was the drunken joy of a bottle of Hallasan soju and a hotel room with a spectacular view of the volcano we will sit atop tomorrow at sunrise. Today we rest.