In Search of Seoul, Part 3 – The Outside

Although we spent most of our time around Seoul and Seongnam, we did venture out and explore more of the countryside and mountains.

Who knew there was anything to do outside of Seoul? The capital is where everyone wants to be, evidenced by the absurdly high population density and endless rows of imposing apartment blocks. But there’s more to South Korea than Seoul.

The countryside is beautiful, with dense forest covering seemingly endless mountains (every one of which appears to have been tunnelled through). The contrast between the sprawling metropolis and the sparsely populated rural areas is stark. There’s an exponential drop off in, well, stuff in general. Fewer buildings. Fewer people. Surprisingly good roads though. The roads in the countryside seemed to be much better maintained than those in the city, though considerably less travelled.

We spent an afternoon in the foothills around Seongnam overlooking Seoul Air Base, and surrounded by little packets of farmland. It was refreshing to spend some time in a more natural environment, away from the concrete jungle. It doesn’t take long before I need to be out in the open when I’m in a big city. Smaller cities are a different matter, though. Plymouth feels more like a town by comparison.

We did a little exploration of the surrounding area, then had the only outside barbecue of the trip, which soon became an inside one because the weather was too good for October and we didn’t have enough shelter from the sun for Evie.

Hot Spring in Your Step

One of our trips out of the capital was to Termeden Spa, a hot spring resort situated in, what appeared to be, the middle of nowhere. Termeden has a range of facilities including large outside pools, hot spring baths, and a variety of saunas and relaxation spaces. It was a little chilly to be outside in a pool at the end of October, but we still had a great time. The facilities had wound down for the off season to a certain extent, as the bar in the swimming pool wasn’t operating, and a few other areas were a little quiet. I’m a sucker for a good spa, although none of the baths in Termeden were as hot as the onsens I’ve tried in Japan.

Termeden Spa (photo from Seoul Pass)

The Real Mountains

Being a particularly mountainous country, there are plenty to visit, although not all are accessible. We took a cable car up a particularly steep one to get some fantastic views of the surrounding countryside. The cable car tickets were for timed slots, so we had a couple of hours to kill in the park at the base of the mountain. There were a few interesting shops and a little tea room offering free tea to visitors. When our time came, we were shephered and crammed into a cable car (think of the London Underground at rush hour and you’ll get a better idea). The steps at the top were somewhat of a challenge for Evie but we got there in the end, and got chatting to a few Welsh people. At the top of a mountain. In South Korea. It really is a small world.

Sokcho and the DMZ

As part of the trip to the mountains, we were staying in a nearby town on the North East coast. Sokcho is a popular seaside resort with an endless supply of fish restaurants willing to serve you the freshest seafood possible. You can even watch them scoop it out of the tanks outside the front if you wish. We sampled a range of raw shellfish which were…interesting, and some fish sashimi which was much more palatable. Don’t forget about the fried tofu, rice, cold seafood soup, and fish stew. There is no danger of running out of things to eat in South Korea. There’s always another course.

We stayed in a rather luxurious apartment overlooking the beach, kitted out with a hot-tub and swimming pool. In the room. I have never seen anything like it, and yes it is as absurdly impractical as it is fun. We managed to fit in a swim in the sea before we left, too, although that was considerably more brisk than the heated pool water.

After leaving Sokcho, we headed up to the Goseong Unification Observation Tower (once we had passed the necessary security checks) which is about a mile from the infamous de-militarized zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea. Things are a little more relaxed here than at other points, and you could easily miss the tiny guard towers in the distance if you weren’t paying attention. The mountain and coastal views are fairly serene.

One thing I found particularly bizarre was the sale of realistic BB guns in the gift shops around the area. Do you really want kids wielding fake guns in an area with a heavy military presence? That seems like a recipe for disaster, but hey ho, so is coating a deep fried potato in multiple layers of sugar and cheese powder. The question is, which will kill you first?

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