Archive for the ‘Nature’ Category

Danggogae Station (Seoul Subway Line 4) Exit 1 or 4
Suraksan Station (Seoul Subway Line 7) Exit 1-3
Uijeongbu Station (Seoul Subway Line 1) Exit 1
Located 10 min. from exit

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Two Rocks

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Sea Train (바다열차)

I had a very pleasant journey from Gangneung to Samcheok on the special tourist train. The seats faced sideways so the passengers could look out of the window to the East Sea. There was of course out of context Muzak on the journey but I have learnt to tune it out and focus on other senses – a useful skill in Korea. When I finally alighted I tried to find a way from the station to the centre of Samcheok. Despite the small size of the town, the train station is a considerable distance from ‘down-town’. As it was the height of summer and I had a backpack, I decided to walk. With hindsight, I believe I was trying to tire myself out so I wouldn’t have to attempt a visit to the famous caves on the same day. I had slept in a jjimjilbang the previous night so I was in need of a decent sleep. I looked in a couple of motels near the bus station but they were triple the usual price, that is literally the price you pay for travelling in peak season. I eventually found a place called the ‘International Motel’, although it was written in Korean which made me giggle. By this point I was sweating more than usual and I probably looked a little pathetic. After checking the prices I was crestfallen again, I asked if there was any discount and the ajumma said she would knock it down from 90,000 to 70,000. I took out 60,000 from my wallet and said this is all I have. She made a brief phone call to the boss and then let me stay. I don’t usually haggle to that extent but I had a strict budget and didn’t want to cut my trip short because of one motel. 

Samcheok River View

 

The evening approached quickly and I noted the bus timetable for the caves then wandered down the river through the long shadows. All the special cave museums watch over the river and face the usual apartment buildings on the other side. The style of architecture in the cultural type buildings of Samcheok is Vegas meets Disneyworld. They don’t seem to be going for the natural wonders angle. I enjoyed walking round Samcheok and I would like to visit on another occasion to stay nearer to the sea and to visit the crazy looking museums which were closed during my stay.

 

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I awoke fresh and well rested, the previous days exertions mixed with some cans of Asahi had rendered me comatose throughout the night. I got to the bus station early and found some other tourists waiting for the same local bus which was cavebound. Luckily the caves are by far the biggest draw in this part of Gangwondo, this makes getting the bus pretty easy because there is always an expectation from those working in the bus station; they know where you are going. The lady in the tourist information booth next to the bus station also spoke pretty good English. After a rickety journey through some spectacular valleys and mountains we finally reached Hwanseon. There were many minbaks and pensions along the way. This was a rustic part of a rustic province and the journey made me feel cut off from the rest of Korea. If I ever return I would like to stay in one of the small pensions in those valleys, a place to escape subways and mobile phone shops.

Hwanseongul is a huge cave. In Korean the word gul (굴) means cave, so you don’t need to say Hwaseongul cave. There are other cave systems around in this part of Gangwondo but this is the most famous and the biggest too. The main reason I wanted to see the cave was not to tick off another Lonely Planet highlight, it was to re live some experiences I had as a schoolboy. I was a pretty keen geography student at school, mainly because I love excursions. I even love the word excursion. Being from the Northern part of Lancashire the impressive limestone features of the Yorkshire Dales were only a short bus ride away. There seemed to be a trip to Malham every year and I always attended. I went on the trips to see limestone caves and features even when I wasn’t studying them. After I had finished studying them I still returned to visit the limestone features. Even on the other side of the world I was able to see some of the same things I studied in class as a child.

 

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On my solo geological excursion I couldn’t find any clints or grykes like in Malham, but the karst scenery was outstanding and has bestowed one of the largest limestone caves in Asia. The cave system was immense with over 6 kilometres of known passages. The problem with these delicate environments is the human contact. Many of the nearby caves are closed to the public and you are restricted from taking photographs or touching anything. Although I managed to get a few phone camera shots. I took a cable car up to the entrance because I was there for caves not for hiking. I expect it would take a minimum of 30 minutes to reach the top by foot but the cable cars or funiculars are a nice way to take in the scenery before you enter the huge natural gateway.  Once inside, the temperature plummeted from the outside summer highs of 33°C  to about  12°C. It was a great relief to be in the cool in what was a pretty vicious heat wave. Some of the rocks drip and spout water from crevasses, this then  joins other little trickles to make  streams, waterfalls and plunge pools. Some of the chambers are  higher than Gothic cathedrals at over 100m tall. In fact I have many theories about church architecture and caves, but that’s another post. Many of the difficult features have been made accessible by metal bridges which gives it the air of an Indiana Jones movie. Unfortunately the majesty of nature has been sabotaged by using glowing lights and exploiting some of the features with bizarre names. The bridge of seven hells, the chamber of coarsely whispered insults, the valley of misshapen croutons, the cascade of venereal diseases…etc. Actually, my fake names may be even better than the ones I saw. I don’t think it’s necessary to adorn such an impressive site with anything other the basic ways of traversing through the features. It was quite funny for a while but in the end I think I felt sorry for the rocks.

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I certainly recommend the effort it takes to get to Hwaseongul. The best place to travel from is Samcheok and given the local scenery it should be worth taking some pack lunch and going hiking. I expect it gets incredibly busy later in the day so to appreciate the place fully I think it’s a good idea to take the early bus.

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20130920_194713On the south coast of Korea, as far away from Seoul as you can get (without getting wet) is Suncheon. Suncheon-si is one of the bigger three places in Jeollanam-do, the others being Mokpo and Yeosu. Gwangju became so big that it became its own special metropolitan city. Jeollanam-do is perhaps the most scenic of all the provinces of Korea. It has an incredible range of scenery and vegetation. There are the heights of Jirisan, the rolling green fields of the Boseong tea plantations, the craggy islands off the coast of Mokpo, and the wetlands of Suncheon Bay.

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Wetlands and tidal mudflats are often overlooked in favour of more glamorous mountains, glaciers, and rainforests. Even for myself, when someone talks about escaping to nature, I have in my head a North American rocky mountain with log cabins and bears. I imagine catching trout in a fast flowing river then having a fire later on. There is of course the extreme exotic element; the jungles of maddening noises and dangerous snakes. This version of nature comes complete with a soundtrack of those frog noises and small monkeys screeching, natives squat behind large trees ready to shoot their darts from a blowpipe, or panpipes. Wetlands never really enter my mind when thinking about escaping into nature. I have no clear image based on the countless movies I have watched, perhaps only those Florida type reeds and grasses with the alligators and those fun looking boats. Actually, I think they are just swamps.

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Coastal wetlands and tidal mudflats are hugely important to the World’s ecosystems. The reeds which grow in such places naturally filter out the various types of pollution which find their way into water. The roots of the reeds also hold together soil and prevent erosion and the more serious effects of floods. There are five major coastal wetlands in the World: Georgia in the USA, the Amazonian Delta, the North Sea in the UK and Netherlands, the Great Lakes in Canada, and Suncheon Bay in South Korea. These places are so important because they serve as a rest area for migrating birds. Korea is something of a major crossroads for birds in Asia. Many species stop here on their way from Siberia to Australia and New Zealand. There are also crabs, otters, worms, and countless other fauna which call these places home. I don’t think most wetlands are high on the list of tourists. They are simply too inaccessible, and without any interest in ornithology or photography, there is little to see.

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Suncheon Bay is a recent development (completed 2009) and with the careful use of raised board walks and birdwatching huts, the place is definitely worth a visit. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed walking among the three metre reeds and grasses. If this wasn’t enough then you can glimpse many birds flying over your head from time to time. The crowning glory of the reed park is the Yongsan Observatory. To get to this amazing viewpoint you have to cut back on yourself and climb a fairly steep hill. Once you have ascended through the pine forest you are awarded a spectacular view of the reed fields spreading out into the ocean. It’s not a windswept salty ocean, but a gentle breezy ocean dotted with interesting islands all the way up to the horizon. The observatory offers a panoramic view and unlike many places in Korea, there is nothing much there, just a wooden structure with some shelters and a large pair of mounted binoculars. You can do the walking course within a couple of hours, but if you have a reasonable camera or an interest in birds, you could fill the better part of a day here. If you tire easily of walking, or you have a short attention span, there is a small train and a boat ride. The entrance to the park has a building with an observatory and some displays on the flora and fauna of the area. You can also buy local agricultural products in a surprisingly tasteful shop.

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Suncheon will host a Garden Expo in April so I expect many of the facilities to be upgraded. They are working on a small personal rapid transit to reduce traffic impact. Also, some of the ticket offices are being upgraded from their current hut styles. Even without the forthcoming Expo, I recommend  visiting the park, the entrance fee is only 2000 won and it’s an easy enough places to reach. From Jeonju it’s an easy half day trip and from Seoul you could make it if you get an early train, but I would stay overnight to make it more relaxing.

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Getting there: Suncheon is on the KTX route between Seoul Yongsan and Yeosu Expo. If you travel from other cities like Daejeon or Jeonju look at the slower trains before booking KTX, the time difference is minimal.

From the train station turn right and you can see the tourist information in a small log cabin. If you pass this walk about 150m to a crossing near a convenience store, immediately in front is the bus stop for  Suncheon Bay. The bus is number 67 and it costs 1100 won and takes 20 minutes to the park. This bus also runs past the Bus Terminal.

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여의도

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