Wednesday, September 26, 2007


Chusok is the Korean Thanksgiving. As it is a lunar holiday, the 3-day vacation associated with it may fall at any time during the week. This year, Chusok fell on Tuesday, so we got a 5-day weekend. Instead of being stuck on a crowded bus or train, or left to wander around an empty city, I headed back out to Ganghwa Island. It is technically part of Incheon, but is about 40 km northwest of what most people consider Incheon.

Day 1: The trip out

I headed out on Saturday, aiming for Donmak beach, located on the south end of the island, as my first camping spot. After crossing over the Choji bridge, I headed south along the coast. I've been along the east coast between the bridge, but this was the first time I had explored this area. The east cost is mainly old forts and battlements from the 19th century. Once I got away from the coast, the island revealed itself to hold a more than just historical artifacts. Typical Korean construction consists of concrete boxes. Lots of concrete boxes. But on Ganghwa, there exhibits the existence of actual architects in Korea. I found the architecture to be quite varied and a welcome surprise. Here are a couple of the more interesting buildings I found. The green and yellow one is a cafe. I think the pink and white one is a residence, but I'm not sure.

As I was getting closer to the beach, I was worried that it wouldn't be very habited. So I was making mental notes about the last stores and restaurants that I saw. When I got to over the final hill, those concerns were quickly alleviated. The entire stretch of road across from the beach was lined with restaurants and hotels. The only thing missing was water. The tide was low and with Ganghwa's gently sloping shore, the water was nowhere to be seen. So I headed down to the beach area to find a camping spot. After seeing a price list, I went to pay a woman who seemed to be collecting money. She brushed me off and seemed to indicate that someone would be around later to collect my money. She also seemed to tell me that I couldn't actually camp on the beach. So instead, I was left to set up on the terrace above the beach. Which was covered with rocks. They were smooth rocks, but rocks nonetheless. Given the wide array of services nearby, I decided to stay for the night anyways. There was an interesting set of performances that night by various high school groups. But there was also a constant stream of people hanging out on the beach all night long. I believe the last group finally dispersed around 5:30 am. So between the rocks and the people, it isn't a very good place to get a good nights sleep.

Distance: 46 km

Day 2: Climbing Mountains

After my restless night of sleep, I headed out Sunday morning to climb a nearby mountain. Mani-san is the tallest mountain on Ganghwa, and one of the most popular destinations. Biking around the mountain, I easily found the "base camp." A little town at the base of the mountain a flutter with activity. Lots of cars and lots of people milling around. Staying on the trail was quite easy, as it was well marked and there was a steady flow of people to follow. The view from the mountain is well worth the hike up. You can see the surrounding landscape and nearby islands. And you can actually make out parts of Incheon through the smog.

The big draw of Mani-san is actually Chamseongdan, an old altar on a site that has been reportedly used for 4,000 years. The site is considered one of the most sacred in Korea, and holds a great deal of historical significance.

At the top of Mani-san, a crowd gathers to rest, eat, drink, and take pictures. There's even an ice-cream saleswoman up there. If you notice, there's a helipad there as well. I'm not sure what the story behind it is. I did hear a helicopter in that direction as I was hiking down, but I didn't see if it was actually landing. Maybe it's used to refill the ice cream supply.

After hiking down Mani-san, I headed west to the ferry terminal. After a short ride on the ferry, I was on Seokmo-do. There's one mountain on the island, and one road that goes around the mountain. So it's easy to figure out where you are going. The destination on this island is Bomun-sa, a Buddhist temple. Finding the spot isn't hard, as there is again a busy area with shops and restaurants where all the Korean tourists gather. The temple itself is pretty interesting, but the highlight is the Buddha carved on the side of the mountain.

After returning to Ganghwa-do, I decided to head towards a campsite near Ganghwa-eup (the main town on Ganghwa). Since the sun was about to go down, I decided it would be better to take a less busy side road. On the map, it looked pretty straightforward, as this secondary road ran parallel to the main route, and merged at about the exact spot I was headed for. Unfortunately, trying to maintain the road proved a little more difficult than I thought. So in the dark of the evening, I ran into a dead end, and still hadn't reached my destination. I tried getting directions from a couple of Koreans that I saw, but they did want anything to do with the foreigner. So as I was back tracking, I noticed a bank of light towers lit up. Looking closer, I realized they were lighting a tennis court. And people were playing tennis. Figuring that I might find someone who would help me, I headed to the tennis court. While no one there spoke much English, they were quite helpful in pointing me in the correct direction.

So after getting directions, I headed back to the main route. Fortunately there wasn't much traffic, and nobody ran over me in the dark. As I got closer to town, I kept an eye out for the campsite but failed to spot any signs. Given the darkness around me, and the sprinkling of rain falling, I decided to continue heading into town. Since I'd been there before, I had a general idea of where to find a hotel. After a bit of pedaling around, I was able to find a nice little Yeogwan, which is a type of Korean hotel. There, I settled into a pizza and War of the Worlds, dubbed into Korean.

Distance: 52 km

Day 3: Meeting the Marines

Monday's goal was to tour the northern end of the island. There were a couple of dolmen sights marked on the map, and numerous battlefield remains line the coast. It's also just south of North Korea. My first stop was to see the Ganghwa dolmen. They actually have quite a few dolmens on the island, but this seems to be the best preserved and most popular dolmen to visit. There's a small park around the dolmen with models of other dolmens from around Korea.

After seeing these dolmens, I wanted to visit another dolmen site on the island. As I was getting close to the Gyosan-ri Dolmens, I stopped to check my map. Somebody stopped their car and pointed me in the right direction. He also told me that there would be a checkpoint, and to tell them that I was not going fishing. Since I didn't have a fishing pole, I figured that wouldn't be too hard to pull of. So I found the checkpoint, they asked if I was going fishing, and I quickly told them no. So they let me pass. From there, I headed up to the dolmens. These other dolmens aren't nearly as impressive as the Ganghwa dolmen. Although trying to actually find them in the woods is like going on an archeology exhibition.

After visiting the dolmen sight, I decided to take a little tour around the north coast and check out the DMZ area. So after an hour or so of roaming around, taking pictures, and getting water from the locals, I saw a bunker. Not unlike the one I saw up by Aegibong. So I decided to take a look around. After getting some pictures of the bunker, the South Korean fence, and North Korea, I headed back to my bike. Just as done packing my things back up and ready to head out, I saw a Marine truck go by. I could hear it come to a stop, and back up towards me. They pulled up next to me and the guy asked if I had taken any pictures. Thinking that it wouldn't be a good idea to lie to him, I told him yes. So he had to call his commander and report me. He then went through my pictures and deleted everything from the area. Pictures of the bunker, the fence, North Korea, and even pictures of the rice fields weren't acceptable. After that, they let me continue, warning me that I shouldn't be taking pictures. But not to worry, they missed this photo from when I was checking out the dolmens. Behold, the forbidden look at Ganghwa's northern rice fields, the Han River, and North Korea. Not very exciting. And a lot less informative than Google Earth.

Continuing on my sojourn through the forbidden zone, I eventually reached another checkpoint. As I was about to cruise past them, one of the Marines told me stop. He told me it was a restricted area and I shouldn't be there. So they called up their commander, undoubtedly the same guy the last Marine called, to tell him that there was a foreigner riding around the forbidden zone on his bike. Of course the commander already knew about me, so they waved me through. A short while later, I came across an interesting cemetery. Built on the side of a hill, each plot has a small hill built on it. Much like the historic burial mounds that are scattered around Korea, but on a much smaller scale. Since I'd already been through the checkpoint to get out of the restricted zone, I decided to take some pictures. Pictures of the cemetery and of North Korea, which could be seen across the river. Soon after leaving the cemetery, I passed another checkpoint. So I'm assuming these pictures weren't suppose to be taken either. But here they are.

A look at North Korea. Not much different then the view from Aegibong, so I'm not sure what the big to do was all about.

After passing through the final checkpoint, I headed down the east coast towards a campground I was planning to stay at. Since I hadn't had a chance to eat much, I ended up stopping at the little Eel Town along the coast. It's a collection of several restaurants that specialize in eel. While I've had eel sushi, I've never had an entire meal of eel before. The meal was rather expensive, at 30,000 won, or over $30, but it was very good. The eel was filleted and sliced up, then grilled at my table. There were also 20 side dished. And if you know anything about Korean food, it's all about the number of side dishes. A cheap-o kimbab place will give you two - pickled radish and kimchi. And low range neighborhood joint will offer between five and ten side dishes. But to actually get 20 side dishes is the mark of a quality dining establishment.

After my big dinner, I managed to drag myself to the camp site. As I was getting something to drink at the FamilyMart just outside the camp grounds, another foreigner showed up on his bike. We started talking and he turned out to have some pretty impressive credentials. He has spent much of the last 10 years biking around Asia, including his current trip, which is at just over 1.5 years long. He started in Turkey, biked to the Caspian, took the ferry to Turkmenistan, went through the stans, into China. After wintering in Thailand, he biked up from there and just recently took the ferry over from China. He was headed to Busan, the ferry to Japan, and is going to bike around Japan for several months. I spent a fair amount of time talking to him over the next couple of days, picking his brain for tips and pointers. I've considered biking from Korea across Asia, and he's definitely been an inspiration for my future endeavors.

Back to the campsite. It's called Hamheodongcheon, and it's located on the eastern side of Mani-san, just by Jeongsu-sa. Campsites are terraced up the side of the mountain, with bathroom and shower facilities available. There's a small camping fee, W1,500, that seems to be sporadically collected in the non-camping season. I didn't go all the way the top of the grounds, but it seems that the higher you go, the nicer the campsites are. For anyone looking to camp out, I highly recommend this location. A FamilyMart is right there, the beach is a few kilometers away, as is the small town of Onsu.

Distance: 63 km

Day 4: Pedaling Around

My bike is a tad too small for me, so after several days of riding, especially up and down hills, my knees start to ache a bit. So on Tuesday, I decided to take it relatively easy and save my energy for the ride home.

My first stop was Jeongdeung-sa, a Buddhist temple not too far from my campsite. It dates from the 17th century, and is one of the best remaining temples I've seen here. Many of Korea's temples were destroyed by the Japanese during their occupation.

Continuing east to the coast, the road became quite congested. Cars were backed up for a couple of kilometers on the way to the bridge crossing back to the mainland. There was a side path most of the way, which I believe, in theory, is for bicycles. Instead, it was lined by tents where local farmers sold their grapes, and in turn, a car of people buying grapes. So biking along this path wasn't very feasible. Instead, I had to squeeze between the cars and the edge of the road. Once I got past the bridge, traffic cleared up quite a bit. When I stopped by a convenience store for some water and ice cream, I found this store. It looks more like a tourist trap in South Dakota than something from Korea.

Continuing along the south, I eventually made my way back to the beach. And this time, the water was there.

Distance: 45 km

Day 5: Returning home

My final day was just packing up my gear and heading home. The only difficulty was when I departed from the main road and ended up heading the wrong way - back to Ganghwa. After some tricky maneuvering through rice fields, and an odd industrial town out in the middle of nowhere, I was eventually able to get back on track and find a subway station. While numbered roads can be interesting and fun, it's not the way to travel quickly.

Distance: 51 km

Overall, I highly recommend Ganghwa. If you're driving, there are tons of minbaks (minbaks are like a Korean bed-and-breakfast), pensions (the equivalent of resort condos), and motels all over the island. There's also a great camping site as well. If you bike, it's not too far from Gyeyang Station, and the island is pretty easy to get around. It'll more than likely be a repeat destination for me in the coming months.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Return to Si Island

This weekend, I returned to Si-do and the Full House beach. My last visit is detailed here. I didn't visit the sculpture beach on Mo-do this time, nor Jangbong-do. But I did get to camp out on a beach completely free of anyone else. I think there was a caretaker staying in the house, but I only saw him once, when he was getting coffee from the machine. So there were no fireworks, no late night singing, no noise at all. It was quite nice.

I got a nice sunset, courtesy of China and its pollution. I'll have to remember to find a more westward facing beach the next time.

Saw my first jellyfish up close and personal.

At low tide, the gap between Si-do and Sin-do disappears and turns into a mud flat. In the old days, this was the only time people could cross back and forth between the islands.