I finally leave Seoul, and events are set in place which define the whole trip for me.
When I eventually managed to get out of Seoul on my last visit, I first headed to Geoje island, staying with my friend’s parents. Things started a little poorly with my father-in-law suggesting that the express bus was a perfectly good way to get from Seoul to Busan. I’m guessing he hadn’t caught the bus in a while (or at least hadn’t had a chance to catch the excellent KTX).
The express buses are clean and comfortable, so while I didn’t mind the journey, what did bother me was that the express bus terminal in Busan seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. From the bus terminal, I jumped on a train and made my way to the ferry terminal (which, annoyingly, I discovered to be extremely close to the railway station. Another plus for the KTX). I had planned to take the ferry from Busan to Geojedo, as I figured there was a fair chance the bridge they were building from the mainland would kill this mode of transport off by the time I made it to Korea again.
Using my copy of Moon’s South Korea (a decent guidebook for older, nerdier travellers, written by someone who obviously loves Korea a lot), I made my way to a cheap motel, which seemed to have suffered a bit since it had been written about. On the plus side, its somewhat run-down state meant that it wasn’t really suitable for love motel use, so I hoped for a decent night’s sleep. I made a brief excursion to find something to eat, then with convenience-store sushi, yukpo (beef jerky) and an awesomely cheap Hoegaarden in belly, I settled in for an undisturbed night.
In the morning, I grabbed kimbap and soup, almost walked out without paying, then lugged my attention-grabbing Aarn backpack (front and backpack?) to the ferry terminal. I bought my ticket, watched the ajumma cleaning army and chatted to a guy heading to Geoje for work. I would learn that the shipbuilding industry on Geoje brought many foreigners to the island.
I’d bought a giant, detailed atlas and photographed the relevant maps onto my tiny netbook, but picked up a physical map from a newsagent while waiting at the terminal. At this point, I still harboured hopes of walking my way along the south coast, but really wasn’t sure what Geoje had in store for me. I would find out soon enough.
Finally, I boarded the ferry. The windows were disappointingly grubby, taking some of the magic out of what was a beautiful day to be on the ocean. We passed the foundations of the new bridge, and I could see small groups of fishermen sitting on rocks along the coast. There didn’t seem to be any way for them to access the places they were sitting so I assumed someone had dropped them off by boat.
The ferry arrived at the Gohyeon terminal, and it was a stark contrast to the relatively shiny Busan terminal I’d left just over an hour before. Little more than a shed, I lugged my bags off the boat and headed to the main road, parking myself there while I organised my things. I kept hearing splashing sounds in the water, and realised that it was the constant sound of fish leaping out of the water. “The first settlers must have been very happy to find this place”, I thought to myself, and sat a little longer to take in the view.
I made my way toward an interesting looking building, needing somewhere to sit while I figured out exactly where I was. The large, boxy building was unsurprisingly called the D-Cube department store, a pretty standard Korean affair, with a supermarket (Tesco) on the lower levels and department store above. I wandered around, found the food court and tried something called a Rottibun, a slightly sweet bread roll with a melted buttery filling (which I recently learned is of Malaysian origin). Scarred by many burned lattes on my last trip to Korea, I stuck to my habit of drinking black coffee, downed my Americano and the Rottibun, then called my friend’s father, Mr Kim.
Between my broken Korean, and Mr. Kim’s similar English, I learned that I needed to go to Tongyeong. It was about now that I was learning that I was carrying way to much stuff to enjoy travelling. The walk to the bus terminal was uncomfortably long with a 16 kilogram pack and not much practice. I was having to stop frequently and was looking forward to lightening my load once I had accommodation. Still shy about my novice language skills, I only felt brave enough to ask kids on the street which way I should be headed.
I had survived though, sans-English. They understood and felt a slight sense of accomplishment as I arrived at the bus terminal, bought my ticket and was on the bus to Tongyeong. After arriving at the Tongyeong bus terminal I made another call to Mr. Kim, and he had soon arrived to collect me.
We first made our way to what Mr Kim explained to me was one of his offices, and the site of a new building he was constructing. He seemed almost apologetic at its incompleteness, and we headed off to see the head office of his company.
When I say ‘his company’, I’m pretty sure that Mr Kim owns it, most of it, or a lot. I can’t quite figure it out from the public information. The guard gave a salute as we drove through, and we went into a portable office building where I was introduced to several people and offered coffee from a Korean-style coffee machine, sweet and fake-milky. Then we went into the shipyard.
SPP is the 10th largest shipbuilder in the world. They make big ships. Not super big by Korean standards, but certainly big enough by mine. I was impressed, the sheds that contained the ships they were building were massive, and hard to do justice to photographically. I would see traces of SPP all over the country as I travelled around later, but for now I was simply taking it all in.
We got back in the car, and we drove to Tongyeong Tower, a revolving restaurant that looked over the bridge between the mainland and Geoje island. Like a lot of things around the place, it seemed half finished, with a new building surrounded by gravel and some dumpy looking older buildings. Mr Kim asked me to order, so we sat drinking outrageously priced coffees, admiring the spectacular view as the sun began to set over the myriad of islands that dotted the shining water.
We were soon back in the car, and Mr Kim put pedal to the metal in an effort to get me around the island before the sun set. This was complicated by the difficulty of distinguishing Geoje’s many fake speed humps (ie. painted lines) from the real ones (ie. painted lines with lumps of concrete sticking up from the road). We survived thanks to mandatory seatbelt laws and good brakes, but it was seriously dark as I got out to look at Geoje’s pebble beach. Yes, it was a beach made of giant, round rocks, probably not done justice by the lack of light. We were back in the car, and soon arrived in Gohyeon.
Mr Kim lived at the top of an aprtment block that he owned. I was shown to a room on the penthouse level, and unloaded my gear there. It was apparently Mr Kim’s man-cave and was full of various gifts he had received as part of his business dealings. After settling in and greeting Mr Kim’s wife, we headed out for dinner.
I like some seafood, but crab has always been one of those dishes that I’ve avoided. Sure, it’s tasty, but the effort involved in getting the small amount of meat out of the shell never seems quite worth the payoff. I don’t remember now whether I fully understood exactly where we going for dinner, but the picture of the giant spider crab on the side of the restaurant made it pretty clear what I was up for. We were seated, Mr Kim ordered, and I waited to see what turned up.
We started with sashimi, sushi and a simple salad, and then the crab arrived. It was huge, and in what was to become a pattern for the next few days, Mr Kim and his wife ate a little, and spent most of their time loading up my plate with the best pieces. My incompetence at extracting meat from the more difficult parts of the crab no doubt made their decision as hosts fairly easy. This was dangerous territory, my western upbringing of ‘finish your plate’ in combination with Korean style serving. My protestations that I was almost full fell on deaf ears and five crabs later, I was ready to face the final part of the meal.
They had thrown me pretty much all of the legs, that being the easiest part to get meat out of, so I had discovered that ‘crab sticks‘ actually do look a part of a crab, just not a crab that we get in Australia. Ah, the embarassment of my sheltered, landlocked upbringing.
Sitting on our tables for most of the night were half-shells of what I assume were scrambled crab gizzards. As the final course, we threw in some rice, mixed it around and somewhat apprehensively, I took the first mouthful. Crab gizzards, it turns out, are pretty tasty. After this and some animated tongue-like things I ‘d eaten earlier in Seoul, I was starting to feel like a pretty adventurous eater. Mr Kim got the bill, and we were on our way home.
Back at Mr Kim’s house, we retreated to the man-cave. A large proportion of the gifts seemed to be high-end alcohol, so we proceeded to get through the remainder of a bottle of very nice scotch. Both Mr Kim and I gave up, he in order to go to work the next day, me to do a bit of planning for the next day ‘s travels. The roads hadn’t looked at all friendly for walking, with lots of cars and narrow shoulders like most of Korea. With my dream of walking from here to Mokpo looking shaky, I figured I was going to be catching buses. My maps showed a number of old fortresses around the island, so I took some notes in preparation, and went to sleep, excited about what felt like the real beginning of my journey.
Getting to Geoje:
Express buses run regularly from Seoul to Tongyeong and non-express buses run to Gohyeon. Alternatively, catch the KTX to Busan and make your way from there. Sadly, as I expected, the ferries no longer appear to be running, though Naver tells me the bus from Busan still takes two hours and forty minutes, which I find hard to believe. If that appears to be the case, the express would be the best option.