Gangneung is a city on the east coast of South Korea in Gangwondo province. I have visited twice: once on my way to Soraksan National park and once on my summer holiday Gangwondo trip. It has a population of about 230,000 and is the main city of Gangwondo province, although the provincial capital is in Chuncheon nearer to Seoul. It has a small provincial feel to it, but it also has all the features of any major Korean city – like the Homelplus and CGV cinema. The tourist industry gives an extra buzz to the place.

The first time I went to Gangneung was almost by accident. I was going hiking nearby so I had to use the bus station, I also passed through the bus station once again on my way to Sokcho and Soraksan. On my way back home to Jeolla I had to take an intercity bus and it was holiday season so most of the buses were booked up. This meant I had to take a later bus which gave me a kind of 3 hour layover. I decided to explore the town for a while. My first impressions were of a typical provincial place with an overused and abused bus terminal and numerous garish motels near the bus station. It was only when I got down to the river that I started to appreciate the city some more. By chance, I had stumbled upon the Gangneung Dano festival (강릉단오제). This was taking place along the river and adjacent market area. The Dano museum is in Gangneung so I guess it’s an ideal place to hold the festival.

If you have spent any amount of time in Korea you will know that there is a festival going on almost all the time. Some of them are to attract tourists and investment to places which may not otherwise attract anything or anyone. There are festivals for bibimbap, fermented foods, taekwondo, mulberries, horizons, cherry blossoms, and most famously mud. I am deeply skeptical about the need for festivals and the idea of treating places like commofities. When everything has to be marketed and packaged it takes some of the spontaneous fun out of things for me. Luckily I hit an interesting festival at an interesting time. It was completely unexpected and I was genuinely thrilled to see so much going on in a place which I only expected to pass through without much thought.

The Dano is a festival of dancing, drinking, and performance. It goes way back into Korea’s shamanistic past and is related to the wakening of animals from winter slumber and to the end of the seed sowing season. The whole atmosphere feels ancient and authentic, unlike some of the more modern contrived festivals in Korea. The costumes and dancing reminded me of the Mayday celebrations in England. This is not the worker’s day but the traditional morris dancing, maypole and other ancient wonders. Such things in England also have their origin in a kind of post agricultural work party. It amazes me to find so many similarities between cultures so far apart. It makes me realise that if you come from a place with distinct seasons, then the same seasons dictate the cycle of festivals throughout the year. In the UK, and I’m sure many other Western cultures, this ancient pagan rite has been folded into religious celebrations and public holidays. From what I saw in Gangneung the Dano thing seems very distinct and original. I don’t see much sober Confucianism or reflective buddhism in the revelry of the Dano festival, although some of the music and coloured ribbons reminded me a little of the buddhist culture in Tibet and Nepal. The food is great and the dancing shows are very entertaining. If you go to Gangneung try to get there during the Dano festival on the 5th day of the 5th month, you won’t be disappointed.

My second visit to Gangneung was part of my mini summer tour and it served as my jumping off point for a trip on the seaside train down the coast.I arrived quite late and intended on getting up very early so I opted to stay in a jjimjilbang. It was clean and convenient and for 8000W a pretty cheap way to spend the night. This place is a few blocks from the station near Lotteria, it’s called 오아시스 (Oasis) Gyo-dong, Gangneung-si, +82 33-641-7755. Type into google map or show the address to a taxi driver.  ‎Some jjimjilbangs are clearly for local types but this one seemed to have a few tourists passing through. Gangneung is a popular holiday destination for Koreans because of the numerous beaches outside the city. I was invited to sit and watch the Olympic football match with the guy working there, after it finished I managed to get a good few hours sleep. Anything above a 4 hour stint is good going in a jjimjilbang, I got about 6 hours on this occasion. In the morning at about 7.00 I walked to the train station, it wasn’t too far but with a large backpack and extraordinary heat it felt far enough. After booking my ticket for the special seaside train at 14,20 I wanted to see the beach area. There is a bus to the beach area called Gyeongpo but I waited for a while and nothing came. Eventually I took a taxi because it’s too far to walk. I walked back from the beach to the train station and I can say with some conviction …it’s too far to walk! Gyeongpo is a wonderful beach area with a large lake behind it. The beach itself has good facilities and the usual shops selling tatty beachwear and souvenirs. What is unusual about this beach and very reassuring is that they knocked down a whole row of shops and motels and planted mature pine trees. One thing I love about Korea is the pines, especially so close to a white-hot beach. I was later to realise that Gangneung is called the Pine City. Sometimes the marketing has positives. After a brief stay at the beach I realised why I don’t like beaches. I was covered in salt, sand, and sweat. I think beaches are ok if you make a firm plan to stay for the day, if you are entrenched you can enjoy it. However, I was just passing on my way to other sites next to the lake.

Behind Gyeongpo Beach is Gyeongpo Lake. This is a beautiful inlet which you can cycle round or even walk of you have enough time. It sits looking at the East Sea and to its back are the heavily wooded mountains. If you walk round to the North side you can reach the Chamsori and Edison Museum and then Gyeongpodae. The first place is a private collection of mainly gramophones and an adjoining museum dedicated to Thomas Edison. By the looks of it all this place will only get bigger and more renowned. It was a bit more expensive than most museums in Korea but I enjoyed looking at all the nik-naks and memorabilia. The owner has plans to open a movie museum and a children’s museum. Further down the lakeshore is Gyeongpodae. This a pavillion overlooking the beautiful lake, it is said you can see the moon 5 times from here: in the sky, in the lake reflection, in the sea,in a drinking glass, and in the eyes of a lover. I was here on my own in the daytime and I drank from a plastic water bottle. This area near the lake is quite a way from downtown Gangneung but there are buses running about every 10 – 15 minutes and a taxi fare is just shy of 6000W. I could have spent more time in Gangneung and if you base yourself there then you could also visit some of the parks outside town. From the train station you can also get the special seaside train which goes down the coast for 1h20 to Samcheok. This gives you a view of the coast on seats facing the huge windows, great for photography.

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Getting there: I think the best way is from Dong Seoul Bus Terminal but you can also go from Express Terminal in Gamgnam

http://www.kobus.co.kr/web/eng/02_service/service01_1.jsp

If you want to travel by train it may take longer than the bus and you should go from Cheongnyangni Station in the East of Seoul. It takes over 5 hours and costs 22,300 W

http://www.korail.com/en/rv/pr21100/w_pr21110.jsp

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