Last October, my friends and I attended a dermatology convention in Seoul, South Korea. In a classic work/travel balancing act, we managed to sneak in a short road trip to the countryside south of Seoul.
Our road trip began colorfully enough in Seoul (read Part 1 here!), but the best was before us: beautiful roads, stunning lakes and mountains, traditional villages, the kindest locals, a thrilling late-night drive in the mountains, and a near miss encounter with an almost-wolf (spoiler: it was a big dog). An hour into the road trip, any misgivings we may have about trading extra days shopping in Seoul for a road trip to some unknown were immediately dispelled.
Here’s how the rest of our South Korea road trip went —
Andong – the one with the mask festival… supposedly…
A few days before our trip, we were deciding where to go on our road trip. A quick Google search brought up the Andong Mask Dance Festival, which luckily enough, coincided with our trip. Being culture-junkies, we planned our itinerary around this festival.
In a serendipitous mix of leaving Seoul at 1 PM, missing an exit and taking a 10-km-long detour, and having a Korean GPS that nobody in our group can figure out, we arrived at Andong just in time to see that the mask dance festival ended hours ago.
Which meant something A LOT better than participating in a mask dance festival: having the beautiful Hahoe Folk Village all to ourselves!
The Hahoe Folk Village is a perfect glimpse of the traditional Korean countryside, and a throwback to the Joseon dynasty. We spent a few hours meandering around the stonewalled dirt roads, taking too many pictures of the well-maintained Joseon-style houses, going in and out of courtyards, meeting very cute Korean children as we joined them in tying up our wishes to the Samsindang, a 600-year old zelkov tree in the village’s center, and spending an unhealthy amount of time in each of the souvenir shops, checking out items from traditional jewelry cases and intricate masks and fans to temporary stick-on tattoos depicting colorful animations of everyday life in Korea.
My personal favorite, though, was walking along the Nakdong River, which wraps around the Hahoe Folk Village in a “meander” (an actual geological term for this typographic feature which I learned about 5 seconds ago). As a girl growing up in an archipelago comprised of 7,107 islands, the call of the water is strong. Wherever in the world I find myself, I always tend to gravitate towards a body of water – be it the canals in Amsterdam, the Sumida-gawa in Tokyo, or the stunning Hallstatt lake. Of course it goes without saying that I am absolutely addicted to the thousands of lakes and beaches of the Philippines.
But back to Nakdong. After a 3-hour drive, it was certainly a treat just staring at the relaxing, calm waters and the stone hill beyond while a boatman nearby finishes for the day. Apparently I share this love for Nakdong with a lot of Koreans throughout history, as it has attracted many to build their homes along the river basin — all the way from the Neolithic period. It is also the longest river in South Korea, and I just might meet her again when I go to Busan next month.
After a few more walks around and some last-minute shots of the village, we were off to our dwelling place for the night: Danyang.
Danyang – in the middle of the mountains
The first part of our drive to Danyang was uneventful enough. With the concerted effort of maps.me, Navi, and Apple Maps, we found ourselves nearing our accommodation which had a very promising name: Happiness Pension.
Just a few hundred meters before the end point, however, we were distracted by the bright, shiny lights coming from the inside of – you guessed it – a BBQ restaurant! So after a quick discussion, wherein we all agreed in a heartbeat to have dinner first before checking-in, we were inside the cheery restaurant, ready to stuff ourselves yet again with meat.
While my friends were ordering, I stepped out and went back to the car to get my camera. I noticed that something was written on the curb in hangul and immediately I feared it might mean “no parking.” I started to scroll through the photos in my phone looking for the parking sign I took a picture of earlier, when a Korean couple came out of a nearby café.
“Hello,” I called out. “Is it okay to park here?” I said, making some weird gestures that I hoped made sense. They gave me a look that should have stopped me from making my weird gestures, but quite the opposite, it encouraged me to just make bigger gestures until I was practically flailing my arms like I was trying to fly. They reluctantly turned their backs at me, the weirdo, and called a third friend.
Once I had the third friend’s complete attention, I repeated my question and gestures, to which he replied with a big smile and perfect English: “Yeah, of course, you can definitely park there.”
Now it may just have been because I was tired and hungry and in the middle of a strange town, but he was definitely the cutest Korean guy I’ve seen. Or maybe, like every girl, I just needed someone who understands me – literally.
After a happy hour filled with meat and ban-chan, we finally set off to the pension. I remember looking it up a few days before and remembered that it was very near a river in a place which seemed to be buried deep within several mountains – definitely my kind of place.
So it was with an increasing sense of doubt that we approached the destination point set by Apple Maps, as there were no rivers or mountains in the area – in fact, we were in the middle of downtown Danyang, with night markets and shops left and right. And when Apple Maps announced that the destination was on the left, and I did take a turn to the left, it was with confusion that we found ourselves in the parking lot of what we made out to be a broadcasting company’s building.
Realizing that Apple Maps was no longer to be trusted at this time, it was time to rely on our – trusty or rusty? – map-reading skills. Luckily, we were born long before the advent of GPS navigation systems and had a bit of old school spirit in us, so we had a printed vicinity map of the hotel.
So we drove away from downtown and deep into the mountains – zigzag roads, total darkness, and the biggest dog we’ve ever seen crossing the road in front of us completing the picture of our night-time mountain-driving adventure. And, seconds after crossing the bridge over the promised river, we made it!
The neighborhood was, by that time, all sound asleep with only one or two lights still shining. We kind of felt bad arriving at such a late time and disturbing the peace, and we were a bit worried that our room has been given away to someone else — but, lo and behold, the elderly woman who owned the pension was standing right by the door as we drove up. Like a kind grandmother, she was waiting up for us!
We immediately shuffled in, apologized profusely for arriving so late, to which she replied with smiles and reassuring shakes of the head, quickly showing us to our spacious and homey room. Needless to say, after a long adventurous day and a stomach filled with BBQ, we all fell asleep soundly soon after.
The next morning, we at last came to appreciate just how magnificent the surroundings were. We were really in the middle of mountains!
We spent a good few hours in the early morning just admiring the view and breathing in the fresh air. The motherly hotel owner then spent half an hour herding us to all the beautiful photograph spots around her hotel, smiling and taking our pictures the whole time. Though we did not exchange a single word, it was definitely one of the best conversations I’ve had in that trip.
Finally, it was time to head to Jecheon.
Jecheon – The Healing City
The road to Jecheon was one breathtaking scenery after another, accented by yellow fields, calm lakes, and mountains whose trees were starting to show early signs of fall. We passed several small towns, in which of course, we found a BBQ place in time for brunch.
But this was a BBQ place unlike the others before. We were greeted by a Filipina, who was so pleasantly surprised to see her fellow-women as tourists hardly ever passed by the small town she has called home for the last two years. So excited was she to speak in her mother tongue that she hovered around us, generously refilling our ban-chan and even treating us to a round of drinks. And we were finally able to order for exactly what we wanted – which had been kind of tricky in the previous days of mime.
Our new friend told us many stories about her life in South Korea, filled with equal parts of gratitude for having such an opportunity to live a good life abroad and a longing to come home. After a good hour, however, it was time to continue on.
By noontime, we made it to the Cheongpung Cultural Heritage Complex and a few minutes inside the very green, very breezy, and very relaxing complex and we were already convinced of Jecheon’s tagline as “The Healing City.”
The place was basically a sprawling garden set on a ridge, with views of the Chungju Lake and neighboring countryside below. There were several beautiful pavilions and a recreation of a traditional Korean folk village where a couple of mini-TV series were filmed.
Outside the complex was an interesting bazaar, with all kinds of oriental medicine on sale. We later found out that this was actually the source of the name “healing city.”
With our flight schedule dangerously approaching and still a staggering 200-KM distance away from Incheon, we tore ourselves from Jecheon and started on the long way home.
But as all good road trips are bound to lead to, we passed by an incredibly irresistible roadside café sitting on the edge of a cliff, overlooking the Cheongpung Lake. Now, a combination of mountain coffee, carrot cake, and views of the lake definitely cannot be ignored, so we chose to risk it and spend half an hour reflecting just how #blessed we are for being able to go on this trip – couldn’t resist, sorry!
The last stop was Incheon, and while by this time, the mountain roads which turned to expressways which eventually slowed down to a crawl nearing the major cities were common sights to my now world-weary eyes (just kidding), I do have to admit that the 18,384-meter bridge connecting mainland Incheon to the international airport definitely left us gawking like country bumpkins for a good 10 minutes or so — we definitely DO NOT have this in the mountains!
And I know that last line probably did not make sense, but it is a direct translation of a Filipino expression – “wala kami nito sa bundok” – which implies that we are mountain folk unabashedly impressed with the modern technological advancements in the city.
After navigating Incheon’s impressive network of flyovers, finding the Avis drop-off point, and making a run for a desperately-needed restroom break (damn that mountain coffee!), all that was left to do was dash around the airport and have one last bulgogi burger + Korean fried chicken combo meal for the trip back home to Manila.
End of road trip — until next time!
And there you have it! Our KDrama-worthy road trip across South Korea’s countryside – complete with a slew of cameos by a Korean hottie, a motherly hotel-owner, and an overseas Filipina worker; with too many montages of us eating barbecue; a trip to the countryside that results in strengthened relationships and a new appreciation of life; all culminating in a mad dash across the airport — with the ultimate lesson that when plans fall apart, as long as you keep an open mind and a cheerful disposition, it can certainly be wonderful.
Now it’s your turn: if you’re up for a road trip check out this guide to driving in South Korea.