Even though I technically just got here, I’ve been able to do a fair amount of traveling in the area, and will probably continue to do so most weekends in the future. Korea is a fairly small country, roughly comparable in size to Illinois, and you can easily cross it in under ten hours. When you compare it with my customary 15 hour overnight bus trips in Peru, it’s nothing.
There is plenty to explore in my immediate area, and I certainly haven’t even seen every corner of Tongeong yet. The city itself is located on a peninsula, backed to the northwest by rolling green hills with smaller towns and rice fields interspersed throughout them. An archipelago of islands crowned by small peaks lies immediately southwest of the town, many of them inhabited and accessible by ferry. These were the first things I wanted to check out.
One of the tourist attractions of the area is a short underground (and water) tunnel built by the Japanese during their occupation in the 1930s, which connects the mainland with the large island of Mireuk-do. Both of my schools are located on this island, one side of which is heavily developed and the other, on the opposite side of Mireuk-san island, very rural. The main attraction, however, is the cable car that takes you to the peak, which offers stunning views of the less developed side of the island as well as the sea dotted with green islands and rocky outcroppings. The scenery is like no place else I’ve seen (maybe closest to Rio de Janeiro) and I’m lucky to have landed here.
I’ve been out to two of these islands now, Daemaemuldo/Somaemuldo and Bijindo, and both offer their own charms. The first is actually two masses connected by a land bridge that is crossable at low tide. Daemaemuldo, where the ferry lets you off, is almost all vertical to the ridgeline outside of its small harbor, offering more of a hike than I had originally expected.
Before getting much into it, my ex-Peace Corps buddy Alex (who’s been in Korea half a year already) and I stopped for a quick picnic lunch of the local specialty- squid kimbop and turnip kimchi. Kimbop is very similar to sushi rolls, though not always raw. In this variation, the seaweed-wrapped rice rolls are plain, and the meat comes separate- squid in a spicy red pepper-based sauce heavily supplemented with what tasted like sesame and scallions. Kimchi is the ever-present national dish, involving fresh vegetables (usually cabbage, but in this case large wedges of turnip) fermented in a spicy, tangy sauce made from red pepper and brine and/or fish sauce. Overall it was a tasty meal, although I’m becoming less enchanted with squid every time I eat it.
After hiking the ridge and catching multiple spiderwebs to the face before wising up and leading with a stick, we came to the main attraction, the separate island of Somaemuldo, which features a lighthouse perched on sheer cliffs overlooking a crystal sea.
A couple of weeks later I visited another island on the same ferry line, that is also perhaps better characterized as two- Bijindo. It’s two sides are connected by a narrow strip of sandy beach that is likely man-made, but beautiful nonetheless. I went with a small group of fellow English teachers from the surrounding area, and we spent the entire day on the beach with beers in hand, swimming and gazing on the few small islands facing us, and enjoying the unseasonably warm weather. As Koreans tend to strictly follow seasonal conceptions of travel (summer is for swimming, fall is for hiking) over the weather, the beach was deserted, and it was easy to imagine yourself being in some more classical paradise, Thailand maybe, or Fiji.
This photo I didn’t take, but it’s pretty sweet nonetheless…
The last trip I took recently was in the opposite direction, to Daegu. Located in a valley with an altitude that passes as high in Korea, it’s about 2 and a half hours away by bus and is the third largest city in the country after Seoul and Busan. Its pleasures, then, are of the city (nightlife, McDonalds) and are not as interesting to read about than enjoy thoroughly. Outside of pinto beans and American cheese to purchase, Daegu wasn’t too remarkable, although its shopping district and vast underground mall/subway were quite nice.
The reason why I went was that I joined a group of English-speaking guys in a scavenger hunt through the city (against the girls, who went to Busan) that featured a checklist ranging from ‘bring back a banana for every team member’ to ‘have a team member buy a pair of tights and lead the team in a public exercise session’. We still haven’t tallied the points, but regardless of the winner (probably the less ‘easily distracted’ girls) it was a hilarious trip.