Planning this trip didn’t really allow time for panic. It happened so quickly, in the event, that every spare moment was taken up with the practicalities of leaving home for six months and planning the initial stages. I doggedly fixated upon making it to Vladivostok via all the intended stops, and didn’t allow myself to think much beyond that.
The Trans-Siberian passed in something of a whirlwind and without any warning, it was time for Peter to leave. We had previously made the decision to part ways post-Russia; he to Melbourne for a wedding, and then to New Zealand for three weeks. Having already visited New Zealand, and with no overwhelming desire to go to Australia, I decided I’d rather spend my precious time exploring South Korea; a country that Peter had already been to and I knew nothing about. So I tearfully waved him off on Vladivostok’s airport shuttle train and suddenly there I was, alone, at quite literally the ends of the earth.
And suddenly it all felt very overwhelming.
I’ve travelled on my own before, quite considerably. But over the past three years I’ve grown so used to travelling with Peter that no longer having him next to me was quite a shock to the system. After spending the day exploring Russky Island, I retired to my bunk (having downgraded somewhat unhappily from our quirky double room with a bed made from an old piano and an upside-down table attached to the ceiling as a plant pot, into a six-bed dorm sharing with three Korean men, an unidentified couple, and a single shower).
I settled down with my Rough Guide and Booking.com and got to work. I had one goal in mind: find somewhere to stay for the first night. The ferry was to arrive in Donghae, by all accounts an uninspiring port town with little to recommend it, and all I wanted was somewhere within a couple of hours bus or train ride which looked vaguely interesting.
The more I looked, the less I found. Overtired, lonely, and suddenly terrified about my lack of Korean, I became increasingly fearful of what I was about to do. Booking.com wasn’t helping. Wikitravel was being useless. The Rough Guide might as well have been written in Mongolian. The three Korean men returned from their night out to ask what I was doing. They were sweet, charming, and spoke excellent English. They flicked through my book with idle fascination, but on hearing that I didn’t speak the language, and possibly concerned by the blind fear coursing across my face, suggested that I head straight to Seoul and stay put.
Of course the suggestion that I might not be able to survive on my own was a timely kick up the bum which galvanised me into doing precisely that, so I made a snap decision and went for an AirBNB in Gangneung, just up the coast. I spent my final night in Russia dozing fitfully, dreaming of missed ferries and people without mouths.
The journey, really, was causing me more grief than anything else. I had taken an overnight ferry once before, a Chinese monstrosity which no longer runs. That time, we had carefully booked 2nd class and were in four-berth cabins but the lowest class were simply thrown into an open empty space; no beds, no storage, just a single enormous room filled tightly, haphazardly, with bodies and bags.
This time, I’d been given an economy ticket and no alternative. My nightmares included visions of a cavernous hold of a ship with me huddled in a corner, awkwardly straddling my rucksack, valuables clutched to my chest, unable to sleep for fear of theft or worse.
By the time I boarded, without Peter to allay my fears and bring me back to reality, I was hovering around the fringes of a panic attack and had pretty much abandoned all hope. So it was with some astonishment that I entered the economy cabin and discovered that it was, by all accounts, really rather pleasant. Although it slept some 30-odd people, we each had separate bunks, which were wider than regular beds, therefore allowing luggage to be stored in with the sleeper. And they had curtains which covered the entrance so it felt like sleeping in a little private pod. And there was evening entertainment!
It was so far away from everything I’d feared that it felt like a luxury cruise ship.
And to make matters even better, I turned out to be just across the aisle from Helen, a lovely Vladivostokian English teacher who was taking six of her students on a half-term trip to Seoul. We started chatting before the ship had even left port and didn’t really stop for the duration of the journey.
Thanks to the reality being so completely removed from the fear, and Helen’s unexpected but wonderful company, what I had convinced myself would be a nightmare journey soon became a truly enjoyable experience. Even if the rolling waves out at sea forced me to clutch the walls as I headed to the restaurant. (Yes, there was actually a restaurant. It only took Korean won, though. So Helen had to pay for my breakfast. Sorry Helen). I learnt that her students had never met a Londoner before and so they insisted on photos – as if I could possibly refuse . . . Best of all I’d finally found people who appreciated my Paperchase London stickers. I gave them phone decorations, they gave me salami and chocolate, and we all disembarked as happier people.
At Donghae ferry port, Helen and the kids headed off on a bus to Seoul. My AirBNB host had given me detailed instructions of how to reach her place and to my intense relief (perhaps karma was giving me a break? Perhaps I was simply so worked up that in comparison everything was delightful?) everything went according to plan. The taxi was accommodating, the terminal clean and open, and a nice man had looked at my ticket and made sure I boarded the correct bus. Within an hour of disembarking the ferry, I found myself sitting on a very comfortable seat on board a Gangneung-bound bus, winding around the mountainous coast of northern South Korea.
From the snowy Siberian wasteland, via wintry, tree-lined Vladivostok, I found myself back in autumn again. Unlike Britain’s oranges and yellows, the predominant colour here at this time of year is red, due to the predominance of the Korean maple tree. Korea’s undulating hills were covered in thick swathes of green pine trees, with glorious splashes of copper. Particularly astonishing – given that a week previously I had been surrounded by what felt like a total lack of life – was the abundance of what I took to be orange trees, but turned out to be persimmons. Having not flown anywhere, it’s even stranger to witness this total change of nature. In Vladivostok we’d been comparatively close to the North Korean border, and in Gangneung I was probably equally close in geographic terms to its southern border. So apparently in that one tiny country, everything changes: cultures, landscapes, histories, people, seasons.
In Gangneung, my host Gina was every bit as kind and welcoming as I had hoped. Most people coming to Korea arrive in Seoul, and some at Busan, but she’d never met anyone who had come by ferry; much less who’d spent their first night in Korea in Gangneung. No pressure, then. Her flat was in one of the typical Korean tower complexes which I’ve seen all over; huge blocks, usually around ten of them clustered together, with their block numbers painted in 5-foot high letters on to side of the buildings. They’re not unlike posh council estates, really, except they employ more technology, are better-kept, larger inside, and generally infinitely nicer in every possible way. Her complex was a little outside of the town but almost right on the beach, and next to a pine tree walk. Gangneung is known as “Pine Tree City” and those things are everywhere.
On arrival at the flat, I remembered the primary benefit of travelling alone. Had Peter still been with me, he would have insisted on a lie-down to recover from the stresses of travelling and the trauma of arrival – not an unreasonable request, I’m sure many would agree, but one which inevitably makes me whine about wasting precious time. However, he wasn’t there, and I only had myself to answer to. So I dumped my bag, pored over the map with Gina, grabbed my coat, and charged off down the pine tree walk. Freedom!
The walk followed the line of the beach. The weather that day was perfect; mild, calm, dry. The sky was azure against the flat expanse of water, the waves lapped gently against the sand, and the sand banked up against metal fences and barbed wire. Wait, what? Yes, the entire length of Gangneung’s beach – and indeed, apparently, more or less the entire northern coastline of South Korea – is lined with defensive measures. As well as this rather primitive (if effective) razor wire topping eight-foot fences were concrete bunkers, tyre-lined trenches, and dug-outs. All easily accessible to the public and nestled within this very pretty pine tree walk, frequented by middle-aged power walkers and teenagers with toy dogs, striding towards the local lake and steadfastly ignoring the army accoutrements. I decided against taking photos since I was fearful of military police appearing from under a blanket of pine needles and stamping on my camera, but suffice it to say that the incongruity was startling, and an interesting introduction to South Korea’s feelings towards its northern cousins. Gina, if anything, was embarrassed by the local defensive mechanisms, stumbling over her explanation and rapidly changing the subject. I wonder if this is representative?
After successfully navigating my way back to the restaurants I’d seen earlier, I decided it was time for dinner. By this point everything had gone so well in the previous 36 hours that I had swung from terrified of the Korean language to convinced I could converse with the locals. I happily mosied up and down, peered into some tanks of live fish, and eventually ambled into a restaurant with several couples inside. It was a very small strip of shops in a relatively untouristed town so the proprietor seemed slightly perturbed by my appearance, but nonetheless guided me to a seat and left a menu on the table. Which obviously was in Korean and, of course, incomprehensible. I stared blankly at it for a few minutes, and just as I was planning on pointing to one of the mid-priced options and hoping it wasn’t live octopus, he came back. Seeing my lack of understanding, he pointed to something, gestured to me that it would be for one person, so I agreed and hoped for the best.
It turned out to be a cold bibimbap – kind of a salad of pickles and vegetables – and, it transpired (to my great delight), raw fish. The ingredients are mixed in the bowl with chopsticks, before the rice (in a separate bowl) is added, along with chili paste. The side dishes – a dazzling array, which come with every meal ordered in Korea, regardless of price or type – are eaten alongside, but not mixed in. The man’s wife came over to cheerfully show me how to do it, barely concealing her guffaws as I dropped bits all over the table. It turned out that I’d chosen well for my primary experience, because in other restaurants and other cities, they’re rarely so accommodating towards first-timers and prefer to watch the drama unfold in stony silence. But luckily I’d chosen a family who found me a hilarious bumbling oddity rather than a cultural abomination.
I mean, they probably thought I was that too, but they hid it remarkably well.
Back at Gina’s place I discovered her sharing the delights of makeoli – fermented rice wine – with her other guests, a slightly nervous French couple. She invited me to join in so obviously I did. It’s a bit fizzy, slightly milky, and pleasantly aromatic. That stuff is easy to drink. Like way too easy. “One bottle will give you a very bad headache” Gina cheerfully warned us whilst knocking back another glass. I don’t doubt it.
I spent a couple of relaxing, interesting days in Gangneung, although the weather took a turn for the worse and I was beyond grateful that I had made the ferry crossing on an extremely calm night. The waves had woken me on board a few occasions and that was with barely any wind. On my final night, a storm picked up and the sea was no longer gently lapping but roaring with fierce abandon.
I was determined to explore as much of Korea as possible so after two nights, I packed up and headed for Sokcho, an unremarkable town which provided easy access to Seoraksan Mountain. But the weather had followed me and I arrived in bucketing rain. Island ferries had been cancelled. Puddles were ankle-deep. I met a Korean lady at the bus stop who had lived in the US for 16 years and spoke fluent English. “I was supposed to go up the mountain today” she said, “But it’s too dangerous in the rain, and I’ve cancelled”. Oh, I thought, with Peter’s voice of reason echoing in my head, winning the war against the bit which was saying “but it’s probably fine and I’ll take an umbrella just in case”. So instead I headed straight for my hostel and discovered that there was very little to do in Sokcho which didn’t involved embracing the elements. So I made myself a floor picnic and gave up. And the next day, it was still raining, so I left – but because buses were limited, had to go back to Gangneung again. Possibly the most useless detour in history.
In Gangneung I tried to buy a ticket to Andong but there were only two buses a day, of which one had already gone, and the other had sold out. It was Saturday, after all. I’d forgotten. It’s hard to keep track of these things when you’re travelling. Using the free public wifi (yes Korea!) I emailed Sean, my host in Andong, and apologised that I wouldn’t make it until the following day. He told me there was a train at 5:45, and I should take that. I had a recollection that Gina had said the train station wasn’t working due it being spruced up for the Winter Olympics, but perhaps I’d misunderstood. And Sean, I presumed, was working with recent intel.
The station was a 20 minute walk away, my bags were heavy, and it was still raining. So I hauled myself to the taxi rank and brandished the Korean characters for train station. The driver shook his head and made the “no” sign at me. He wouldn’t take me . . . ? I realised he was saying there was no train station. Gina had been correct. He gestured at me to get in. With a lot of hand movements, three words of English on his side, and one word of Korean on mine, I understood that he was offering to drive me to the nearest train station, some 20 minutes down the coast. We set off, me displaying blind faith, him bewildered exasperation.
It turned out that he was taking me to the village of Jeongdonjin, little more than a tiny collection of coastal buildings, it seemed: but home to the world’s closest train station to the sea. Indeed, the platforms were almost on the beach itself.
I bought my ticket (less than half the price of the taxi . . . but also, strangely, less than the price of the bus) and settled down to wait. With my heavy bags, nothing to do, and the rain continuing its assault outside, I found a coffee shop, bought an Earl Grey (keeping up the stereotypes) and cracked open my laptop.
A few hours later, the train pulled out of the station. A few minutes later I was idly staring out of the window when I noticed a ship. Sitting on top of a cliff.
I cottoned on, too late, that this tiny village was one of the Rough Guide’s “25 Things Not To Miss In Korea” – home to the clifftop Sun Cruise Hotel, built (extremely effectively) in the shape of a ocean-going liner. Therefore, I realised, the enormous grey boat casually sat at the edge of the single-lane coastal road, that we had passed earlier in the taxi, was an American warship from the Korean War, now open to the public. And therefore, if this was indeed Jeongdonjin, then it also housed a frighteningly real North Korean submarine, also open to the public, which had run aground during an espionage mission in 1996 and spawned a 49-day hunt for the missing spies.
And I’d spent my afternoon in a café.
Oh well. You live, you learn.