Friday, 14 August 2009

Day 813 - Gyeongju

We opted to take the easy route out of Busan?by ferry. It retrospect it wasn't that easy, we had to carry the bikes down a flight of steps to the hydrofoil making it just in time for the departure. We didn't even know where the ferry was actually going, only that it was going somewhere on the island of Geoje. To make matters even more difficult we still didn't know exactly where we were when we got off the thing, the place name of where we thought we were wasn't in English on our map. What was on the map though was a Prisoner of War Camp which we were soon seeing signposts for, at last we had our bearings. We decided to stop there if it was close enough for us, it would be interesting and surely there wouldn't be anybody else there. Well it just shows how wrong you can be, there was a traffic jam before we even arrived, there were queues for tickets, the place was heaving. The reason for this is that is the very start of the holiday period, we had been warned that everybody would be on holiday, we had even seen photos in the paper of a 10 lane road in Seoul that was devoid of any traffic. But this place wasn't what we expected either, it was more of a POW theme park than a museum, its tackiness showing right from the start as we rode an escalator through a giant tank passing rows of Goodies on the right, and the Baddies on the left in the shape of North Korean and Chinese leaders as the place focused on the Korean war. It was all interesting giving further insight to the war and showing the living conditions of those contained there complete with model soldiers going to the loo that you could be photographed next too if you so wished. We continued out of the unknown town spotting a bike shop on the way. We stopped to try and get Christine's bottom bracket looked at, it's making horrible noises again already, they couldn't help her, but I did come away with a new pair of shorts, they were desperately needed, mine will soon be very indecent. They guy asked us where we were heading and was speechless when Christine told him I was cycling around the world, out came the camera and note paper as he asked questions so that he could put something about us on his website. It wasn't too long before we were heading up a climb, we had been warned that the roads were steep in South Korea and our first climb was confirming that. Once at the top we could see the descent down to the busy coastal resort so we made our way up a track into the woods and found a place to camp. It was tough work getting the bikes up the hill, but made for a lovely little campsite, well away from anybody else.

The following morning we dropped to the coast, the rode around the edge of the holiday island, it meant the roads were busy, they were also roller coasters, tough going. We aimed to hug the coastline, we were looking for a minor road, it was on our map, it was on a roadside map, but it didn't exist, the road came to an abrupt halt at a river estuary. Looking across clearly showed there had never even been a road going that way, it didn't inspire confidence in our maps. We took an alternative route up to a pass, by heck it was steep, very steep, it makes it bloody hard work on a heavily laden touring bike, no fun at all. I stopped and waited for Christine. When she arrived she wasn't happy 'We have made a terrible mistake, we should never have come to South Korea. If it is like this the whole time it will be no fun at all?' Thankfully it got easier, we coasted back down to sea level, then around the bays to a small town where we stopped for dinner. We chose a little restaurant and ordered some food, we had no idea what. It turned out to be some sort of stew with about 8 side dishes and a couple of barbecued fish which were replaced with another couple once we had eaten them. This also signalled the start of new eating habits whilst we are cycling. Eating out is probably cheaper than buying food in the supermarkets, so what we do now is stop at a restaurant at lunchtime and have a decent meal, normally sat on the floor at the low tables, emptying every side dish that they put in front of us, usually with a top up on the rice. We then buy some really simple food to cook in the evening such as noodle soup or milk rice. It makes a nice change from all the cooking we had to do in Japan. Once filled we were on our way again, the afternoon remained easy which lifted our spirits, at last we were making a little progress. We were heading for the bridge that would take us off the island but we could see that it was built up on the other side, so cutting our losses we took a track that led us beyond a reservoir and a nice secluded little camping spot. So far so good, 2 nights camping and 2 easy spots to find, much better than we had expected.

There had been a funny clicking noise coming from my front wheel, I had checked all the spokes and none of them seemed to be loose, but I at last discovered the problem, it wasn't good news. The bearings seem to be going, the wheel wobbles slightly from side to side, I guess it is going to be a bit of a problem to get it sorted out here, I will just have to monitor it and see how it goes. If the worst comes to the worst I can get a new wheel here that should see me through the next few weeks. We crossed the bridge and were back on mainland, keeping off the main highways and hugging the coastline again. We passed a van pull of cyclists, their bikes on the roof. As they passed us a few minutes later they waved and took photos of us. Before long we had no choice but to get on to a dual carriageway. After a few kilometres we stopped for a break by some traffic lights, it gave us a chance to observe traffic behaviour. The most important thing we noticed was that it seems to be only optional to stop at a red light, but if you choose not to stop you have to go across fast. This rule doesn't apply to buses, they never stop at red lights, they whiz pass everything on the inside and straight through the red light without even so much as slowing down, they probably don't have any brakes! It was an eye opener and a good reminder to take extra care when crossing traffic lights. That said, I have to say that it is a lot safer cycling here than I expected. We had heard nothing but bad reports about the place, how dangerous it is, but other than the traffic lights and the occasional vehicle coming too close there are no problems at all. Oh, I suppose right turns are a bit iffy. Stuff coming from the right just seems to ignore us and pull right out in front of us, something else to be a bit careful of, but it may be that traffic from the right has priority, they certainly drive as though they have. Once off the main road we were back to grunting up the hills and flying down at break neck speed. We stopped at a town on the map that was a red spot, these seem to always have a restaurant, though we couldn't find one in this one. There is always somebody around that can speak a few words of English, so I just asked the checkout girl in a supermarket. I couldn't understand a word of the reply, but I could see that she seemed to be giving us definite instructions, so sure enough a few minutes later we were ordering food, though goodness knows what. To prove the point that I had no idea what I had ordered a minute later a beer arrived. We tried again with success. As I ate from the many side dishes the waitress walked past and saw that I was putting too much spicy stuff on "No, no, no?" she said, took one of my chopsticks and took some of the paste off for me. At least they keep an eye out for you. Once we were finished we were given some wonderful water melon, we hadn,t asked for it, at least not knowingly, and nobody else seemed to be getting any, but we didn,t complain, it went down very well. I also made an important discovery, coffee is free, you just help yourself. Christine doesn't drink the stuff, so I always get one for her and drink them both. An afternoon of more grunting up hills followed, but at least we had full stomachs. When it came to camping we were horribly close to an expressway, so we ended up in a small orchard near the rice fields, far from ideal, especially as a group of men appeared nearby and hung around ages chatting, but it all worked out well in the end. Drinking water here is a bit of a problem. In Japan it was so easy, there were taps everywhere on the sides of houses, many right on the roadside, but that is not the case here, besides, the tap water is not safe o drink, so we have to be a little more cunning. Drinking water normally comes in dispensers, so we fill up all the bottles at lunchtime at the restaurants, but water for the evening is a bit more of challenge. We found a very useful source in an unlikely place, a church. There are lots of churches here and generally open and they all seem to have drinking water dispensers, so this is our most reliable supply. Ask and the Lord giveths.

The following morning didn't dawn bright, but it did dawn a little wet. Thankfully we were packed and on our way before the drizzle really set in. The riding was a nice change, it was flat, flat, flat, we were making really good progress for a change, though sadly the cycling itself was pretty grim, busy roads heading for the city of Jinju. As we arrived it seemed to be getting darker. We were heading for the fortress, we could see it across the river. As we crossed the bridge it started to rain, so I thought we might as well sit it out in a caf?until it passed over, then just as I was about to suggest this idea to Christine there was a big flash and an enormous clap of thunder, she didn't take much convincing. We looked around for a bakery, typically you can never find one when you really need it. At last we spotted one, the good old local chain that we see in every city....Paris Baguette. We reached it just in time, the heavens opened. The door opened too, we were soon in the dry spending rather more than we had bargained for but it was far better than being out in the rain. After 30 minutes we thought it had stopped, it hadn't, we sat tight, it rained harder, we sat tight, it carried on raining, we refilled on the drinks and were tempted to pinch the food from the next table that had been left by others. After an hour and a half we decided we had to make a move, the rain had eased a little, we quickly cycled to the fortress and parked the bikes, but the rain was getting harder again. The fortress is a large park within the old city walls, we decided to dash to the museum in the middle of it, but we were soaked by the time we reached it. As we went around the museum we kept an eye on the weather, it wasn't getting any better. By the time we were ready to leave it was still raining, so we made a dash to the restaurant and had more food. At long last it seemed to have eased, though it still threatened. We walked around the temples and shrines within the fortress walls, then with the memory of Japanese rain still in our minds we decided to find a motel to stay in. We checked out a couple, too noisy, too expensive, before heading down a side street to a couple more. They were cheap and tacky, but at least they were quiet and didn't let the rain it. Once unloaded we didn't bother to shower but went in search of the local onchean (local bath house). We found it on the fourth floor of a tall building, then went in for a scrub down, sauna, dips in the different thermal pools before meeting up in our provided uniforms in the common area, all very civilised and far better than looking for somewhere to camp that wasn't waterlogged. After dinner we went in search of the very colourful water fountain that did displays to music. All very impressive and attractive, but it bore no relation to the music at all. On the way back to our motel we passed a building that advertised 'Room?' I was surprised to see images of naked women in the windows, hardly a salubrious place I thought, then we passed another, and another, but these had scantily dressed women sat around in the foyer, it seems that when you take a room around here you are paying for a bit more than just the room. It was 10pm on a Friday evening, there wasn't a bloke around, the woman all looked totally bored as they slurped on their noodles. With 'Love Motels' and 'Rooms' finding a night's accommodation here is potentially full of little pitfalls for the unsuspecting tourist.

By morning the weather was looking a little better, we were on the road again, heading out of town on the busy route 3. We missed our turning off, we had to stay on it a lot longer than expected. Most of the roads we use are numbered, but every now and again they are not numbered on the signposts. If they aren't numbered that creates a bit of a problem. Firstly if there is no number on the signpost there is not anything else on it in English, and secondly most of the time we don't know where the road is going, the signposts rarely match what we have marked on the map. To make matters even worse there are far more roads than there are on the map, so if there is no decent signposting how do we know which road is going to be ours. On this occasion we just carried on and took a slightly longer route, though it was probably much quicker as I suspect it was much flatter than our desired route. After a lunch stop we were on much quieter roads, we were really enjoying it until the road took an alarming turn upwards. We missed another turning. The smaller roads are marked as green on the map, they are rarely numbered and signposted, sometimes they just aren't there or they are such small roads that we don't even notice them. We carried along the roller coaster in the heat, sweating buckets on the climbs before descending to a large reservoir. I called in at a motel with a great view over the water and mountains only to discover on my return that my bike had fallen and taken Christines with it in the process breaking her stand. She wasn't best pleased, added to that my reaction to hers wasn't a good one either meaning that we both set off in a thoroughly bad mood. We eventually found a good camp area with a view over the lake, then sat done and had a clear the air chat. Things were looking much brighter, even if the bike stand wasn't.

The following morning we had a very steep climb just to get back to the road from the campsite, the bikes were pushed the whole way, the heart was pounding, the body sweating and we hadn't even got on the bikes yet. The next few hills seemed tame in comparison, but such exertion takes its toll. Steeper climbs soon followed, at the top of the second and with just 16km covered I sat down for a rest, knackered! Christine arrived a little later "There is no way we are going to make it to Haeinsa today" she said. "Yes we will, it won't be all as bad as that" I told her, "Yes, it will, this is South Korea" came the instant reply. She set off on the descent before me, I stopped again to take a photo, then was called to from the people of a nearby parked car. I went over and couldn't refuse the coffee they were offering me. The descent continued followed by a nice flat section, suddenly we were getting somewhere again, life was looking a little better, we would make it to Haeinsa after all. The next town brought us to the dead end route to Haeinsa. At Haeinsa is a revered Buddhist Temple, it was a Sunday and the roads were busy, clearly we weren't going to be he only ones there. The road started to climb again, we climbed for the next 7 kilometres. We entered the National Park, stopped at the gate to pay our entrance fee, told it would be 4000 Won, then waved through without having to pay. To our surprise it was a 1.2km walk from the road to the temple, strangely enough up another steep hill, but it was no deterrent for South Koreans on their holidays, they were arriving by the bus load. We managed to get a shop keeper to allow us to leave our bikes outside of his shop, then bought some snacks from him and sat down to eat them. A couple sat next to us and offered us some of their food, we accepted and gave them biscuits in return, then were force fed with more of their food. We walked up to the temple with a constant flow of people in both directions, though once we were there the place didn't feel overwhelmed with people. Temples here are generally made up of a number of small buildings, so people are soon spread out. Some of them were under restoration, but also some of them had obviously been recently completed, the colours of the decorations inside and out were just amazing. The unusual feature here is the library of wooden printing block texts that are stored in partially opened buildings. They are hundreds of years old. The government in the 1970s invested money in housing the blocks in closed, temperature controlled buildings, but they soon had mildew on them so the exercise was abandoned and they are now stored in the same way as they have been for hundreds of years. We needed somewhere to camp, there were 3 campsites marked on the Park map so we went to see if they were being used, I suspected they would be empty. It's not often I am right and I was wrong again, they were packed. We returned through the village were the touts were out for the motels, so we decided to check one out. It was reasonable at 30,000 won (15 pounds), so we decided to stop there the night. Despite this being the holiday period most of the motels seemed to be empty, is it due to the world recession or do most people stay on the coast for their summer holidays?

Our next port of call was to be Gyeongju, getting to it was going to be a problem. We could either head straight to it passing through the massive city of Daegu, or head south around it. The problem with the southern route was that there was very few roads going east/west so I guessed it would be very hilly and very busy. We changed our minds a few times before settling for the Daegu route, then at the last minute we opted for the southern route. The best thing about the southern route was that it meant we would retrace the first 15km, all downhill. We then needed to cross a pass on the 1036, easy to find as it was just after an interchange on the expressway. It wasn't signposted. We gave it a lot of thought before deciding which road to take, we only had a choice of two. The 1036 went through the hills, the other one which was not on the map went along the river. We set off, but right from the start I had a bad feeling about the road, the bad feeling only getting worse as it got steeper, narrower and still not a car in either direction. After 250m of lung busting climbing the bad feeling couldn't get any worse, the road came to an end at some sort of resort complex. To say I was pissed off in an understatement. No matter how much I looked at the map and back at the road, it just didn't seem to change anything. The only thing to do was head back down with hard braking all the way. We followed the main road around instead which as it turned out would have been a much flatter and quicker option despite it being much longer. We stopped for lunch and had a nice barbecue to lift the spirits. Things got even better in the afternoon as we used a road not marked on the map to cut a long corner off, the even managed to find the 'green' road we needed to take. Judging by the lorries coming the other way this road was actually going to lead somewhere. The whole of the afternoon the route was flat, still picturesque and a joy to be riding again. When the roads are hilly we seem to move across the map so slowly, but on the flat sections I can hardly believe we are progressing so quickly, it makes a huge difference. We wanted to camp before we reached the main road 20. We were getting desperate, we only had about 500m to go before we reached it, to I made my way across an unused field, went through the undergrowth, over a pile of rocks and was surprised to find a tiny little spot amongst some bamboo, just enough room to put the tent up, a perfect spot where nobody would ever see us.

The morning started the same as every other morning seems to, with a climb. It was an easy pass to get over, no more than 3.5km of steady climbing, then a similar sort of descent followed by a whole load of flat to our surprise. We also passed a large town for which the road turned into dual carriageway, but there was hardly anything on it. As we started on another climb we were passing a whole group of fruit stalls, I stopped to take a photo of one of them. Having asked if it was ok to photograph them we were rewarded with 4 large peaches. The Koreans are generous and outgoing, always very friendly. We supplemented the peaches by picking roadside plums. There are also loads of little green things growing on trees, they look like green acorns, our guess is that they are almonds, but we can't be sure. We also pass cattle, though they don't grow on trees and they are never outside, always in sheds. I doubt if they ever see the outside world, the land around them is normally rice fields. It started to rain, jackets went on at the top of the climb but we were still pretty wet after a swift bit of downhill. The restaurants were we stopped weren't much good, one even turned us away for some reason, it happened the previous day as well, may be we smelling bad. We camped in a small wood near a village, just in time for it to start raining, it was to rain for most of the night, though thankfully everything stayed dry apart from the tent.

We had a short easy run into Gyeongju. We found an area with lots of motel, the glitzy variety, otherwise known as Love motels. They are very similar to hotels really, though they have a very discreet reception so that you don't have to even face anybody if you don't want to. They are good value with all the mod cons, including 2 PCs, one each side of the bed. Now why would you want 2 PCs if you really want a love motel? But why do they have them in the first place? Our guess is that in such a densely populated country it gives couples the opportunity to be discreet. Most people here, certainly in the towns, seem to live in high rise flats that are grouped together (photo), there are literally hundreds of them. Gyeongju is the number one tourist attraction in South Korea, described as an outdoor museum, where there are ancient tumuli, tombs, temples (photo), rock carvings, pagodas, the whole works, spread over a good few kilometres. The tumuli are impressive, large perfectly shaped earth mounds, a sort of small scale equivalent to the pyramids. Also like the pyramids, one had been opened up showing the burial chamber of one of the kings. We spent the last couple of days cycling around several of the main sights, calling in to a restaurant at lunchtime. We ate the local speciality, sasambap. We ordered one each which resulted in over 30 dishes being placed on the table. It is basically what everybody else was eating too, though we did notice that we were about the only ones to finish everything. With the aid of our massive television we have seen the weather forecast. Thankfully it would seem the rain has moved on, we are now blessed with sunshine, a bit too much of the stuff, it's getting a bit hot!


Maria said...

Hey John - we are seeing some parallels with your experiences here - high rises in any town of ay size in Slovakia and Poland, brightly coloured church (temple) in Krakow. Roads ith no ZEnglish signs here in Poland. Keep safe. Keep enjoying. Keep writing!

aoiffe said...

I don't know which impresses me more - the photo of the bridge looking gold and silver in the lights, or the 30 dishes of food in front of Christine.

James returns from India this morning and has a simple hope for his return - weetos and milk instead of potato curry for breakfast.

We haven't heard you mention white chocolate yet, does it exist in South Korea?