A trip to Jirisan National Park (지리산국립공원)
In Korea Children’s Day is on May 5 and is a public holiday, this year it fell on a Thursday and the government declared that the Friday would also be a public holiday. To celebrate we decided to do a road trip to explore the south of the peninsular. We booked accommodation in a set of condos on the edge of Jirisan National Park in Jeollanam-do (in the south west of Korea). On Thursday we got going relatively early (8:00 am) thinking that we would beat the worst of the traffic, but we were too late. It was a nightmare! What should have been a 2.5 hour drive took over 6 hours, apparently 10million other people had the same idea. There was an upside to the drive, every time that the traffic stopped completely, we ignored the GPS and headed cross country on minor roads. Trekking along the minor roads was slow but not as slow as the main highways (some of our friends took 8 hours to do a similar trip) and we got to see some interesting country side. When we finally arrived at the condo we were too exhausted to do any serious tourist activities, so we took a short walk around the village and settled for nibbles and a nice bottle of wine for dinner.
Friday was for the children, so we visited a local train themed amusement park that advertised a steam train ride (섬진강 기차마을 www.gstrain.co.kr). It was a lovely blue day and the park was busy but not packed, we booked the 1.5 hour ride on the train for the afternoon it cost ₩7,000. We wandered round the park generally enjoying being out and about, and the Kids had a wonderful time. Knowing that we were going out for dinner we had an early light lunch. The lunch consisted of an ice cold beer and some chicken sticks and Korean reconstituted fish things. I don’t know what else to call them, they look like an oversized icypol, I have seen them many times in the convenience stores and markets and always have avoided them. (I suspected that they were not real food, had no expiry date, could withstand a nuclear war, or were possibily created by the south Korean scientists so the population would have food after Amageddon with the North.) Once again there were some fundamental flaws in my thinking, it turns out that the reason that they are so common is that they taste really good. The rubbery texture was a little off putting but they tasted really good, there were even identifiable Prawn (shrimp) pieces in the mix. K and I prefer the chili (identifiable in the photo by the red/orange colour) but the Kids prefer the plain one. We all preferred them to the Chicken on a skewer.
After lunch we took the steam train ride, however as is common place here it looked like a steam train, sounded like a steam train but was actually a diesel/electric train, (this type of thing is very common in Korea, the guards at the royal palace are actors with fake beards). However this said, the trip was very enjoyable, it went through a picturesque river valley stopping at a quiet little village before returning.
That evening we strolled down to the village that our condo was in and went to one of the local restaurants that served (흑돼지 삼겹살) Barbeque Black Pork Belly which is a local delicacy of the area. To me it tasted much the same as all the Barbeque Pork I have eaten in Seoul, the traditional side dishes were as expected. The meal was good but not worth a special mention.
Saturday; we made the short drive to the next village and then on into the Jurisan national park to visit a Buddhist temple. The Temple was one of the oldest and largest in Korea, the monks still live there and if you are brave enough it is possible to do a temple stay for a couple of days. While meandering through the temple grounds we came across some women drying some of the local mountain herbs in the sun, we ate some very similar ones at the restaurant at lunch, more on that later.
One of the most beautiful things at the temple was the brightly coloured lanterns, many of them had messages attached to them, sadly my Korean is not good enough to understand the messages however I understood that the messages were for prosperous season. After we had finished exploring the temple we spent a short while looking at the tourist shops at the exit of the temple, we met a very nice woman who explained some of the local foods that they had for sale, we ended up buying some local “Special” 김 which is roasted seaweed paper, this was special as it had herbs and seeds on it. To me it just looked moldy, but I tried it any way, as roasted seaweed goes it was very nice. The woman also recommended a local restaurant that served the local dishes based on mountain herbs so we proceeded down the mountain to try it.
The restaurant was a typical basic Korean restaurant where you would expect traditional food to be served with Makoli, Soju and Beer. The food we ordered was a typical basic korean meal (산채정식) which included a mountain vegetable soup, grilled whole fish and 감자파전 (potato pancake), the food did not disappoint. The soup was tasty but the real winner was the ”royal” array of side dishes, they ranged from kimchi, acorn jelly, lotus root and seaweed to soya beans. The photo does not do them justice.
After lunch we took a stroll down to the nearby Creek, which was fresh and clear from the mountains in the national park. The afternoon was hot and the Kids decided that they just had to have a swim, usually this would not have been a bad idea but it was early season and the water was snow melt, however the children were undeterred and went for a swim anyway. It was freezing, when I put my feet in it was painful, due to the madness of my children we gathered a small crowd of locals watching the mad foreigners swim. Luckily I could not understand the comments, but one of the adjumas (old woman) wanted the children out as they were getting too cold. They lasted about 30 minutes but the majority of the time was spent in ankle deep water summoning the courage to get in, the adjuma was very relieved when they finally got out. I must be a bad Dad as I didn’t worry at all, they would get out when they got too cold. Once the Kids were dry and warm we headed back to the condo.
That evening we had our final meal in the little village, we walked down and my wife chose a Duck BBQ restaurant that seemed mainly to have a local clientele. It was a winner, the marinated duck was barbecued on an angled stone hot plate, at the drain point of the hotplate we placed the kimchi so it was also barbecued in the juices draining form the cooking duck. The approved method of eating was a to wrap a small amount of rice, apiece of duck and kimchi in piece of lettuce, and then eat and wash down with beer (맥주), soju or somek (Beer plus a shot of soju). The duck was tasty and moist, the lettuce fresh and grown in the owner’s mother’s veggie patch. It was a delicious meal and the owners were generous and fun, the kids even abandoned us for a while to play with the owners daughters puppy, the whole meal was a similar price to the Samgapsal the evening before being about ₩75,000 ($75USD).
Sunday, time to go home, after our experience leaving Seoul we were expecting a similar one on the way home, we were not disappointed! This time we had a plan we would stay on the main motorway until we hit traffic then we would exit and the the next most major road and then so on. This meant that I would all of the driving and my wife would navigate using both our smart phones (apple and android and four different navigation aps, Tmap, Waze, Naver and google maps) this allowed her to see the current traffic states and work out the optimal route. Sounds a great way to go about it!! and for the first half of the trip we made great time and by lunch we were nearing the satellite cities of Seoul, and all the minor roads were starting to choke. By the time we had stopped for lunch and got home the 280km had taken about 6.5 hours. All in all it was not to bad considering some people doing the same trip took 10+ hours. And we had an unexpectedly great lunch.
We were a bit late looking for a place to have lunch, because we had been finding roads that were flowing easily and our original plan was to go until we hit traffic. We were traveling down a minor road and spotted a likely looking village so we pulled off and drove towards it, on the outskirts we spotted a restaurant in the middle of nowhere that had a very busy parking lot. On the theory “if it is popular with the locals it should be good” we immediately pulled up and went in. As with most out of the way places communication is difficult if you have limited Korean, however we managed to order their recommended dish, (해물갈국수), seafood in a tasty broth with hand made noodles. This meal was the best of the trip and an unexpected and present surprise.
After lunch we had a slow crawl back to Seoul. By the time we got there I was exhausted and all I wanted to do was sleep. We had a great trip and saw a whole new part of Korea.
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