Gangneung at a Gallop

The route from the station to the guest house looked straightforward enough. Cross the roundabout, down the main road. Last side-street on the left before the bridge, then take the first right.

The 202 and 303 buses ran between the Intercity Bus Terminal and the railway station. Just make sure to check that the destination board read 시내 (downtown) and not 경포 (Gyeongpo).

A 202 appeared at the top of the hill and pulled into the stop, then a 303, then a few more of each. None was heading 시내. The passengers from the Intercity bus from Gyeongju thinned out until I was the only one left. Other Intercity buses came in and disgorged their passengers and they, in turn, bundled into buses and taxis, got picked up by friends or set off on foot down the road.

Ojukheon

The train station would have been a perfectly sensible point of reference had it not been torn down to make way for a new line since my guidebook had been published. I would find that out later, though.

The tourist information centre gave me a route map and circled the stop nearest the guest house. It was on a street without obvious landmarks but I got there by counting off the stops on the map.

I should have taken another bus to Ojukheon House after I had dropped off my stuff but set off walking instead and was committed by the time I realised how far it was. It was a boring route with nothing to see except concrete and road signs and petrol stations.

Ojukheon

Ojukheon was the home of the sixteenth century artist, Shin Saimdang, and her son, the Confucian scholar, Yi I. Neither is exactly a household name in the West but they are celebrated enough locally to appear, respectively, on the 50,000 and 5,000 Won notes.

The walls are surrounded by coiffured bushes and bursts of azaleas in purple, pink and red. Two flights of steps lead through a gateway into the complex of wood-framed houses topped with swooping tiled roofs.

Further up the road, and further than I thought, is Seongyojang House which is an eighteenth century complex of hanok* houses set into woodland studded with pine trees and overlooking a lotus pond.

Seongyojang

After trooping round the houses and up through the trails in the woodland and looking back down on the complex, I did not much relish the long walk back to the guest house, so carried on up the road to the beach. It was, yet again, a much longer walk than expected but I eventually came to a stop for the 202 bus.

First thing next morning, I walked to the building site where the station used to be and took a rail replacement bus to Gangdong-Myeong, where the military stands ready for when the shooting starts again.

So far as the rest of the world is concerned, the Korean War ended half a century ago: a little-read chapter of a Cold War which itself is fading in the popular memory. But there was only ever a ceasefire agreement, never a peace treaty. The international forces fighting on either side went home, but the hostility between the two Koreas remained as hostilities went into uneasy stasis.

Jeongdongjin Beach (via Shutterstock)

The road to the beach is an agglomeration of tank traps, razor wire, sentry posts and heavily-armed patrols. At the optimistically-named Unification Park, there is an old US warship and a North Korean spy submarine which snarled up on rocks nearby in the Nineties and triggered an urgent manhunt. One of the crew remains unaccounted for.  

But the bellicose air evaporates at Jeongdongjin Beach at the bottom of the hill. Turquoise waves froth onto a pleasant stretch of sand. There are seafood stalls, a scenic train and a whimsical hotel in the shape of a cruise ship at the top of a hill.

Back in central Gangneung in the afternoon, I walked the five-mile trail around Gyeongpo Lake which meanders through grasslands, between pine trees, along boardwalks, past flowerbeds sculptures and statuettes, and from there up to the beach where I lazed until the light started to fade.

Gyeongpo

I stopped to eat at one of the seafood restaurants which line the road along the beach and then took the bus back to the guest house.

Maybe it is was the Kloud beer which I washed the fish down with, but the journey seemed oddly exhilarating as the driver flung the bus round the corners and a warm breeze wafted the through the windows and the neon of the night shimmered from the facades of the buildings. 

I had allowed two weeks to make my way up South Korea from Busan to Seoul but that was tight and I was pushed for time at each stop on the way. I had to press on the next morning to Sockho.

© Richard Senior 2020

* traditional wooden houses

On a Slow Boat in China

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I embarked at Guilin on the boat for Yangshou and went up on deck and leant on the rail at the front in the sun.

It was a slow boat and chugged sedately down the Li River, winding its way, in convoy with other boats, between the ranks of misty karsts. They stretched into the distance and faded into silhouette in shades of blue and grey and smudged with the sky at the horizon.

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Every karst with an arresting shape has a legend attached to it and a picturesque name. There is Elephant Trunk Hill and Pagoda Hill and Ox Gorge, where a peak is reckoned to be in the shape of an ox and other features to resemble lions, tigers, bats and dragons.

The word resemble does a lot of heavy lifting along the Li River. Yearning for Husband’s Return Hill, which is not such a mouthful in Chinese, has a rock which is said to resemble a man in ancient costume and another supposedly resembling a woman with a baby on her back who is gazing in his direction. A rock which is claimed to resemble a container of rice is also part of the legend. TL;DR: the couple only had rice to eat, gave it to an old lady, starved and turned to stone.

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Buffalo waded into the green-blue water and snacked on reeds. Cockle-pickers sifted through sand at the side of the water. Vendors rowed up to the boats on bamboo rafts with boxes of fruit and called out like market traders. Around towns, flotillas of boat taxis scudded out to meet passengers with tiny outboard motors screaming. Occasionally there was a river barge with a patina of rust and a roof made from corrugated sheets. Sometimes a fisherman with a cast net.

At Nine Horse Mural Hill, the cliff face looms a hundred metres above the river and the rock is exposed in piebald patches which are believed to take the shape of horses, sitting, standing, galloping, or nodding to drink from the water.

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You might notice one of the horses even if you knew nothing of the legend, three or four if you had heard it and were trying your best to see horses. The others take more imagination by orders of magnitude, and those who see them all would likely tell you that any given object you pointed out looked like a horse.

Along the river, there is Green Lotus Peak where a group of karsts is thought to look like a lotus flower and there is a two-storey pagoda first built in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE). Beyond it is Schoolboy Hill, which is a karst said to bring to mind a schoolboy reading a book.

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It takes half a day to get to Yangshou on the slow boat, but I was in no kind of hurry. The sun was hot and the landscape pleasant and the sense of peace was welcome after the bustle of Chinese cities.

I ignored the announcement to go below decks as we neared Yangshou and had the deck to myself until we docked and I went down and out and along the jetty and onto the street to find my hostel.

© Richard Senior 2020