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Saturday, June 13, 2009

Island hopping: Ganghwado

Rice as far as the eye can see. 

Desperately needing a change of pace and a break from Seoul, I searched through Lonely Planet this week eager to find nice day trip. After reading about the rural idyll of Ganghwado (Ganghwa Island), I decided that was the perfect place to be today. And luckily, Natalie wanted to go too -- it's always more fun with a travel buddy!

There's a direct bus from Sinchon to Ganghwa for 4,200 won. Bargain! It's about 2 hours door to door, allowing for traffic, crazy drivers, etc. The Sinchon bus terminal is SUPER sleek and modern:

Or not. 

We arrived at Ganghwado a little after 11 with absolutely no game plan. It was fun to have the entire day up in the air and just play it by ear. After consulting the always-helpful Lonely Planet and tracking down an English map of the island, we decided to start at Ganghwa Dolmen (burial tomb), a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Ganghwa Dolmen is the largest in South Korea, although there are about 150 dolmens just in Ganghwa; according to Wikipedia, more than 40% of the world's dolmens are found in North and South Korea. They exist all over Europe, Asia and the Middle East, too. 

I don't know what this hut is or why it was roped off. Reading Korean but not understanding it is really unhelpful. 

It was a little anticlimactic. Based on what I'd read and pictures, I envisioned climbing to the top of a mountain and seeing a massive structure, at least on the scale of Stonehenge. Instead, it's a single 3-rock structure in the middle of a grassy field, surrounded by fencing. Exciting?

What did make me laugh were the replicas of other famous world sites -- Stonehenge, Easter Island, etc. These replicas were MUCH tinier than the actual structures, which I assumed was as to not diminish the size of the dolmen. 

Natalie and I wandered around a nearby nursery before heading back to the main town. The nursery was half greenhouse, half Jurassic Park. There were huge statues of dinosaurs all over and a special fenced-off section that looked somewhat like a small-scale Jurassic Park ride.

Next on the agenda was Chojijin Fortress, built in the mid-17th century to protect Korea against invaders. The brochure kept referring to "disturbances" from other countries -- the French disturbance, American disturbance and Japanese disturbance. My favorite line: "Despite Korea's inferior weapons to these foreign countries, Korean soldiers fought against them fiercely." In other words: "Korea lost but put up a good fight." 

Fortress exterior.

We thought being near the water would provide a ton of seafood lunch options but the few restaurants there were way too expensive. Instead I settled on ice cream and my pre-packed snack of Cheerios and raisins for lunch. Delish? 

We snacked on mulberries fresh from the tree. Yummmm...

Before heading back to Seoul, it was time to make a stop at the the local market. Ganghwa is famous for its ginseng and an entire section of the market was devoted solely to ginseng products. There was also more variety of produce here than in Seoul -- I even saw my first raspberries of the season! 

Ginseng city

Despite being so relatively close to Seoul, Ganghwado is not nearly as touristed or Westernized as one might expect. There were no Western chains (that I saw) on the island and very few signs in English. Even the bus station didn't have information in English. People went out of their way to be helpful and friendly, though. One man from the information booth ran out to the bus stop to make sure we were going the right direction and give us travel advice. Another woman, sitting at a stand selling tea and snacks on the side of the road, tried to make sure we got on the correct bus as well.

Today was a gorgeous day, truly the perfect weather for walking around outside and exploring someplace new. I want to see as much of Korea as I can in short day trips over the next few months.

I'm happy that some traditions never die. 

Ideas? Bring 'em on! 

(The rest of my pictures are posted on Facebook. Check them out if you're interested!)