Ashlee’s Mom, Ellen Esther Johnson, came to visit us in Korea over Winter Break. You may be picturing a kind, little old Grandma, who knits quilts, plays bridge, and has the occasional Gin Fiz during square dancing night. This could not be further from the truth and why upon meeting Ellen 10 years ago, I gave her the nickname Edog. The reason for that is because Edog is OG, at that time partied like she was still in College, and simply does not mess around with anything or anyone. Over the years, she has developed other alias’s that all fit her dynamic character! Big Mama is when she is spoiling her kids, myself, or footing the bill. Honey, is how she refers to herself when around younger kids and the only time she is genuinely being sweet. The Old Red Wobbler comes from a Camping Trip when after stumbling around the campfire one night she could be heard snoring 100 yards away signifying her mating call in the wilderness. The most recent is Pork Chop which stems from the time when Edog thought she was putting frozen ‘cookies’ in her purse and instead carried around a thawing Pork Chop for several days. This case of mistaken identity caused a small dog to hang from her leg before she finally realized her mistake during family bowling night. All these different parts to her personality make up a kick ass person who quarantined solo in our apartment for 2 weeks just so that she could spend time with us in Korea. That is why when COVID numbers began to spike in Korea and we were worried that our booked trip to Jeju Island would be canceled, we decided to buy a car and tour the Korean Peninsula with Big Mama, Edog, the Old Red Wobbler, and Pork Chop.
Days 1-3: Seoul to Sokcho
The idea of freedom on the open road does not necessarily have the same meaning in Korea. Even though we had the feeling of independence with a car packed with all we would need for a 10-day road trip, we never experienced a motorway without other vehicles during our venture. The thought of breaking loose from Seoul on that first morning quickly disintegrated into a mind dizzying detour of missed exits, U-turns, and squandered on ramps that had us feeling like we were stuck on a hamster wheel trying to escape Hanam. I would like to say that once we started heading East to Sokcho our navigation improved, but then in the mountains my attempt to pull off at a Rest Area turned into a tunnel of 25km proportions in the wrong direction. All in all, a predicted 2.5hr drive turned into a 5hr unsolicited tour, thus making our arrival to Sokcho all the more triumphant! Fortunately, Pork Chop was still adjusting from social interaction and movement after two weeks of isolation and slept through the majority of the trip.
Ashlee and I had previously spent a long weekend on the East Coast (So Good in Sokcho) and knew that Pork Chop would love the rare combination of the mountains and sea. When Korea was split into two nations following World War 2 in 1945, Sokcho was included in North Korea. During the Korean War (1950-53), much of the battle was waged in this mountainous region and one of the outcomes of the ‘Endless War’ was Sokcho becoming part of South Korea. With the border and infamous DMZ located only 60km to the North, there is evidence of heightened tensions in the form of security measures such a barbed wire and lights on the beaches. Our Air B and B was something out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie meets an Edgar Allen Poe poem. My guess is that 40 years ago, everything was in vogue, but now the burgundy upholstery and flowing drapes gave it an awkward renaissance feel. To add to the mysterious lure, there was a one-person sauna off the living room and the wooden shutters that protected the hot tub rapped loudly in the oceanic wind. The following morning, we went into Seorksan National Park. Winter had consumed the park as the creeks and water falls were frozen in form and a biting wind limited our time walking around. Buddhist temples dating back almost 1400 years and constructed during the reign of the Silla Empire in Korea, majestically sat at the base of the peaks.
The next day we spent by the sea, mainly admiring from the safety of a brewery or bar as the gales coming off the water proved less than inviting. Pork Chop and I attempted a painfully staged photo shoot in the Corona tiki dotted shoreline that somehow inspired some other beach enthusiasts to follow suite. That night, we celebrated Christmas Eve at the forever Christmas themed Italian restaurant, Matsu, leaving us incapacitated for the remainder of the evening.
Days 4-5: Sokcho to Gyeongju
We left Sokcho in the rearview and headed back into the mountains before turning South. To break up the drive to our next destination of Gyeongju, we stopped off in Andong on the banks of the Nakdonggang River. Andong’s traditional name is ‘The Peaceful East,’ and we toured through a Hanok Folk Village that had been re-located to its spot in 1976 due to the construction of the Andong Dam. Just after nightfall, we arrived to our Air B and B which was situated in the back of a customary arts and crafts settlement. Pork Chop, being a 5 star rated Air B and B Host (@honeys_home.canyonlake), struggled to hold back after our WiFi did not work.
Gyeongju, the center of the Silla Empire which ruled Korea from 57 BCE – 935 AC, has been called a ‘museum without walls.’ Buddhism in Korea flourished during this time period and the Silla rule also formed alliances with China to fend off the Japanese and other foreign invaders. Tumuli-gongwon is a testimony to the impact of this reign as 23 tombs of Silla monarchs dating back to the 5th century are integrated into the park. As we walked around the natural gallery, covered bridges loomed over traditional villages and the burial mounds that measure up to 13 meters in height and 47 meters in diameter bathed in the sun’s golden light. Even with the temperature dropping from the falling sun, hardy families gathered to fly kites that cut through the sky. Following an afternoon of strolling around a chill had settled into our bodies and so we stopped off for refuge to warm up over soup and noodles. On our way to back to the car that night, the moon peeked through the clouds above sculpted temples.
Days 6-8: Gyeongju to Busan
We very easily could have spent several days in the Gyeongju area, but pressed on for warmer days on the southern coast. Busan is the second largest city in Korea and instantly became one of our new favorite spots. Like much of Korea, Busan was no stranger to war and some of the most famous battles took place in the waters off the mainland. Beiginning in 1592, the East Asian War was fought on the Korean Peninsula and involved Japan, China, and Korea. Yi Sunshin, a Korean Admiral, designed a ship which was constructed in the shape of a turtle shell in order to repel enemy onslaught. These turtle ships disrupted the supply lines of the Japanese armada and even though Yi and his vessels were greatly outmatched, they miraculously repelled the Japanese military in 1598.
During our time there, the temps were hovering around 60, the crowds were suppressed due to the pandemic, and we were able to access many sights on foot from our place in the Haeundae district. Buildings towered over beaches bursting in a sandy white and the distant bridges shattered the dropping sun in a scorched sky. During one particular night, we were treated by a gorged moon peeking out from behind the skyscrapers. Even though it was difficult, we did venture out from the Haeundae on a few occasions. One excursion was over to Igidae Dosijayeingingong- won where we hiked along the rugged coastline with the glass structures clustered across the bay. We also traveled North of the city to Imnang-Ri and basked in the sun outside a coffee shop before eating at a traditional Korean restaurant. Pork chop also found some peace at Haedong Yonggsuna which is a Buddhist temple perched on the seaside cliffs. The water was beyond calm that day as if greater forces seemed to be whispering to the waves for serenity.
Days 9-11: Busan to Hwasun to Seoul
The morning we were set to leave Busan, a cold front blew in with a relentless force and our drive to Hwasun ended in snow covered roads. Over the next couple of days, we holed up in our beautifully crafted home stay as our hopes of visiting the nearby tea fields didn’t seem worth venturing out into the weather. Our place sat up on a hill with powdery ridges breaking up the fading skyline. There was a type of tranquility in the snowfall as the flakes sifted like flower outside our window view. It was definitely not the way in which we thought we would be finishing our Korean road trip, but then again, that is part of what makes the adventure.
Throughout our overland voyage, the woman I am blessed to call my Mother in Law was an absolute road warrior. No matter what type of food or experience we threw at Pork Chop or how many times we packed up and loaded the car, she embraced it all as an experience of a lifetime!