It was Chuseok, a time when people go back to their family homes and foreign workers here are left with a choice: Either holiday abroad or stock up on groceries and wait it out. Neither option sounded particularly good to me, I was trying to save, so a foreign holiday was a luxury I just couldn`t afford but then again, the prospect of five days at home gave me cabin fever at the very thought of it. And so I chose option C - get out and see Korea.
A friend and I decided to rent a car and do a road trip. People told us we were mad, that the traffic at that time of year would make it impossible to get anywhere but we figured we should give it a go anyway, what the heck! So on a warm sunny September day we packed our bags, picked up our car and hit the (surprisingly) open highway. Destination: Kangwondo.
As we headed out of Seoul, it quickly became apparent that the Traffic Gods were on our side, there was scarcely another car on the road. The sun shone and the music played. It felt good to get out of the city. Our first destination was to be the historic battle ground known as the `Punch bowl.` The journey there took us by rivers and hills, then into a magnificent landscape of steep mountains and plunging valleys.
The road narrowed as we navigated our way until eventually we found the place we were looking for. There was only a small monument to what had happened here and it was surrounded by trees, wildflowers and ripening rice paddies. After paying our respects and lingering a little, we set out across the mountain passes for our next destination, Seokcho.
We chose to stay in Seokcho as it provided an ideal base to explore the surrounding attractions of Mt. Seorak, the DMZ and of course the beautiful beaches of the East coast. Viewing the Eastern limit of the DMZ proved a fascinating experience, if a little unnerving. The panoramic view into North Korea is spectacular and deeply thought-provoking. On the way back we stopped by Hwajinpo to visit the former summer homes of Kim Il Sung and Syngman Rhee. The following day was the ideal time to attempt to hike Mt.Seorak. We chose this destination as we had heard about the famed beauty of the leaves in their autumnal glory. We were not disappointed. As I climbed the precarious Southern slope of the mountain, I stopped regularly to take in my surroundings; vivid forest, waterfalls and spectacular views combined with the kindness of strangers to make this one of the best experiences I have had in this country. It wasn`t an easy climb, and the descent was not much better, but it was a very worthwhile experience overall.
Our final port of call was the beach at Gangneung. Over the previous few days I had seen many beautiful beaches that were, unfortunately, sealed off with high fences and razor-wire. I really wanted to get into the water and I finally got my chance at Gangneung. I was very surprised to see that no local people were swimming or paddling, I was told it was too late in the year to go into the water, but being from Ireland I was used to cold water. I was pleasantly surprised, however, to find that the water was the warmest I have ever experienced. I believe Korea`s beaches could be a big tourist draw, with the right promotion and development.
The next day we headed back to Seoul. All-in-all, my tour of Kangwondo was fascinating and left me wanting more. Many areas remain unspoiled and its natural beauty cannot be denied. It has much to offer in any season but I can definitely recommend a trip there to see the seasons change in autumn, you won`t be disappointed!