A few months ago an ex-student of mine, the one now living and studying in Milwaukee posted pictures on Instagram of his trip to Key West Florida, the Southernmost point of the United States. This wasn't the first "Omg I haven't even been there" moment while looking through his pictures, and I'd be lying if I wasn't the slightest bit envious. It's true though, that when you're in a foreign country you take much more time exploring, falling into old routines when you go home and losing that sense of adventure. I'm sure I've been to more places than he in Korea and just to prove it (not really, but coincidences occur) I was finally planning my weekend to the Southernmost point of Korea, Haenam.
After my friend Loudine had moved to Mokpo, a few years ago, we talked about taking a trip to Haenam. My old co-worker, now friend, Anna had lived there when she was growing up and told me a few times how beautiful it was, and that if I ever had the chance I should definitely visit. Loudine and I almost made a trip last fall, before I left Korea (again), but our lack of a valid international license prevented us from doing so, instead catching a bus to Jin-do for some exploration. Finally though, with our renewed license and a free weekend we made the trip South. Minutes after leaving we knew this was going to be a good trip, it may not be true for everyone but while living abroad I (we) thoroughly missed driving, oh how good it felt to be behind the wheel, and not waiting for a bus!
Feeling adventurous we decided to make it a full trip and camp instead of booking any kind of accommodation. Loudine had a student that went a few weeks prior and referred us to camping grounds, which in Korea are generally very nice, so we wouldn't be roughing it too hard.
The drive from Mokpo took about 2 hours and by the time we packed up the car and made the drive our arrival marked a perfect time for lunch. I was on Instagram the night before looking for good eats in the city and came across many recommendations for 기사식당 which translates to "driver restaurant" these places, usually meant for taxi drivers almost always offer delicious meals at cheap prices. Of course, upon walking into one of these establishments the two white girls will be met with many curious stares, but we're used to that after 6+ years in this country.
My favorite part about these restaurants is the plethora of 반찬 you get, and this place was no exception. We ordered 갈치조림 and it came out with easily 15 different side dishes, all of which were awesome (oh except the Spam). Bellies full we hopped back in the car and decided to make an afternoon stop at 미황사 before figuring out where we'd be camping that night. The temple was beautiful, and situated in the mountainside provided a peaceful atmosphere for relaxation, until a school group of 50 some students showed up. Thankfully though we had just about completed our visit and we ready to head South, set up camp and then catch the sunset at the end of the country.
We found the camp grounds with no problem, unloaded our things and set up our tent fairly quickly, thanks in part to the family that lent us a hammer after watching us pound in our stakes with small rocks. We were about set to leave for the sunset when a flustered 아주마 walked over and told us to leave. Of course she spoke no English, but it was easy enough for me to understand that dogs were not welcome here and because we had Soonhi we'd have to pack up and go. Loudine was stubborn in demanding a why from the woman, but with the language barrier I knew we wouldn't get our answer. Through the help of "phone-a-friend" we got no further (as I had expected) and ultimately packed everything back in the car, drove 5 minutes down the beach and set up (for free) under some beach-side palm trees. Why we had no just done this from the start I'm not sure, but I was happy with the results.
We had just enough time to drive into the (tiny) town of 땅꿑 to grab some supplies, beer and maekolli included and then up to the top of the hill. to 땅꿑 observatory. Our timing was pretty amazing, after a 10ish minute up the footpath we had arrived at the observatory as the sun was beginning to fade to the horizon. Loudine cracked a beer while I played around doing handstand and getting face kisses from Soonhi. Much to my surprise, but also satisfaction, there were hardly any other people around, only a few solo men who appeared to have been hiking or biking. As we sat enjoying the view there was one other group who arrived, two older couples, who upon seeing us could not stop giggling. I'm not sure if we were the first 외국인 (foreigners) they had the pleasure of meeting, but they sure seemed amused by our presence. After the usual "Where are you from, what do you do, nice to meet you" conversations and a few group pictures they were on their way. I guess sunset wasn't as much of a novelty for them as it was us. Alone and enjoying silence again we watched as the sun dropped below the horizon, reflecting off the ocean and sweeping the sky with a sense of calm. I can only assume that Loudine was having similar thoughts of reflection about this country we somehow have both come to call our second home.
We drove back to our campsite and although I was still full from our enormous lunch figured it was time to light the grill. I easily could have been content with makeolli and snacks, but as part of the experience Loudine insisted on the BBQ. There was one other tent a few hundred meters from us, and on one her trips to the water tap I heard Loudine making friends, we're so good at that somtimes. Soon, the couple from the other tent had joined us and we spent the next few hours grilling, eating, drinking and somehow managing a decent conversation in Korea. Although we had a few headaches with the process our first day in Haenam proved to be quite perfect.
The next morning we were up early, neither of us getting the most restful nights sleep on the hard ground. We tried to catch a nap in the car, but that proved utterly unsuccessful for me so I just accepted the fact that I'd be having a long, tired day. With nothing else to do we packed up the car, grabbed a much needed coffee and some snacks at the GS25 and began our drive back towards Mokpo. The car had to be returned by 1pm, but we had one more stop we wanted to make before getting back to the city. It was (somewhat) on the way out of town, so we drove to 대흥사, an impressive temple complex in the Mountains.
I figured this would be the more impressive of the two temples in Haenam and thus saved it for our second day, when I assumed we'd have more time. We spent a good hour at the temple, which may sound like a lot of time but I easily could have doubled that. The atmosphere here was so peaceful, with spacious temple grounds and a variety of ornate buildings that I could have explored forever. Simply sitting under the shade of one of the many beautiful trees and just taking in the fresh air and sounds of nature consumed half my time there. Eventually though, we pulled ourselves away from the serenity with just enough time to enjoy a mountain lunch, 산채비빔밥, one of my favorite meals in Korea (although if I'm honest I say that about 90% of the food there) and drive back to the city.
Although it was a short trip, only 24 hours in total, the beauty and peace of Haenam is something I'll remember, it's no wonder to me now that my co-worker kept urging me to go. I've been told the winter scene here is beautiful so I'll have to add that to my list of future trips to make in Korea, although I think I'll leave out the camping.
Where to start. After living in this country for three years I have memories, experiences and stories galore. I'll now always be a bit partial to the Land of the Morning Calm. Filled with delicious foods, beautiful nature and friendly people, I'm always happy to return.