A road trip through South Korea

In soft tones - A road trip through South Korea

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Almost three weeks we drive with a rental car through the country. About Couchsurfing we get to know Jason and Sung-il and notice in both encounters: Here is much different than we are used to.
It is the soft tones that confront us with challenges that ultimately make our time in South Korea something special.

With the mobile in my hand and our map app, I try to guide Sebastian through the city traffic of Seoul. But it does not work out that way. South Korea has not released maps to Google Maps due to security concerns and so I have to announce myself at the right time where we need to turn. In the chaotic rush hour traffic not easy. But slowly we find our way out of South Korea's capital and drive - still in heavy traffic - through a landscape that reminds me of Germany. Small hills rise up next to the highway, again and again we drive past villages. The soil is used for agriculture and the fields look just as carefully separated from each other as our parents in the Baden-Württemberg Gäu. Just under three weeks we have time for South Korea and will drive with a rental car once counterclockwise along the coast through the country.

Couchsurfing # 1 - From Amazement to Confusion

It is already dark when we arrive in Gongju. With prices for accommodations in South Korea well above our budget, we are delighted to be able to accommodate this night with couchsurfing host Jason. It's also a great opportunity for us to get in touch with a South Korean family. In the parking lot, he and his wife take us in and are probably wondering something about our swanky car. The fact that two backpacking couchsurfers with a huge Hyundai Grandeur ancestors, would surprise me too. So we explain that the smallest car class booked by us unfortunately did not exist and we got instead this giant sedan. The two are smiling.

In the apartment we can move into the room of the daughter, who will sleep with her younger brother tonight. "Are you hungry?" Jason asks. We say yes and we are asked to come to the kitchen. The family seems to have already eaten, because only for us rice, glass noodles, vegetables and very spicy fish are served. It tastes great! Short Jason and his wife sit down with us, but a conversation really does not want to get going. They answer our questions only briefly and do not ask us. Suddenly Jason's wife gets up and says goodbye. She drives overnight to her sister in Mokpo 200 kilometers away and we are suddenly alone with Jason and the two children.

The mood in Jason's house is friendly but quiet and reserved. We are a little surprised. The two children were presented to us on entering the apartment only in a subordinate clause and they will pass us during our entire stay only quietly and with bowed head. After Jason's wife closes the apartment door, Jason disappears into the nursery and we sit alone in the kitchen for dinner.

When Jason comes back to us after about half an hour, we try to talk to him about his holiday in Nepal , because he has mentioned in his Couchsurfing profile. But still, Jason does not really come out of it. Only when we put our map of South Korea on the table and ask for tips, he becomes more talkative. But the mood remains reserved. We are confused. Is Jason unsure how to deal with us or does not our visit really suit him? If so, why did he agree with him?

When we get up the next day, the children are still sleeping. Jason, who is already sitting in the living room, wishes us a good morning. "He informs Sebastian and points to the kitchen. He wants to wait for breakfast with the children. It feels very rude for us to just eat without our hosts, but on demand he says we should start. So we unpack our delicious, bought in Seoul bread and have breakfast. We smear Jason and his son, who is awake now, to try a jam bread and it seems to taste them, because it is quickly eaten. Today we talk a little nicer, but still not really warm.

"Let's just open the table, maybe they are waiting for us?" Sebastian says. And indeed, when we have finished washing our dishes and are done in the kitchen, Jason begins to prepare breakfast for himself and the children. Did he wait all the time for us to release the kitchen? He offers us nothing of the food. But that we could stay one more night, if we want. Apparently our stay was ok for him. We appreciate his nice offer, but stick with our plan to continue today.

Stay in Korean style

We spend the day at Gongsanseong Fort and enjoy a great fall day. When we finally arrive in Socheon in the evening, it is already dark. On the internet we have discovered a remote youth hostel and expect little audience. But this Saturday night, the parking lot is packed. A big car is next to the next and without worry we leave our sled on the last free parking lot. At the reception there are unfortunately no good news for us: The hostel is fully booked! We are standing there helplessly - what now? A normal hotel, we can not afford at prices of 100 euros and up. The receptionist seems to have pity on us and talks to her colleague. There is still a possibility. This night, we should spend the night in the emergency room, which is actually reserved for the employees.

The room looks nice, only: Where is the bed? We look into an empty, clean room with heated parquet floor, but there is no furniture. Neatly folded thin mattresses, blankets and pillows are stacked in the corner. Stay in Korean style . We agree, because we do not have an alternative. Converted 33 euros we pay for the small room without bed. That's something new.

The next morning, rested thanks to our additionally inflated sleeping pads, we go to the nearby sea. It has retreated so far that we can only guess it on the horizon. In front of us a plain of mud and small brooks spreads out and I have to think of my school trip in the 8th grade to the Amrum Wadden Sea. It is stormy today and really cold despite the sun. Still, we like it a lot and we want to stay a few more days, but it does not turn out to be very easy: the hostel closes for Sunday night and we still have to move out of the emergency room today.

We arrive at the guest house across the street, but unfortunately only for one night, from tomorrow there is a reservation. So the next day we move back to the youth hostel which has opened again. We are allowed to rent a small kitchen. Shared kitchens, as usual in hostels, do not exist here. Either we paid the equivalent of 8 euros per day and get exclusively for the key or we can not use the kitchen. We decide for the kitchen.

Couchsurfing # 2 - Everything takes time

We look around as we enter the restaurant, which our new couchsurfing host Sung-il has suggested as a meeting place. It is hardly visited, but in a corner sit three people: a foreigner and two dark-haired people, of which we only see the back of the head. Probably those are Sung-il and Alex, the Russian couch surfer Sung-il wrote us about?

Carefully we step on the table, so does not react properly the Korean man, whom we expect as our couchsurfing host. "Sung-il?", We ask carefully in the round. "Yes," he replies, but makes no other way to greet us. We introduce ourselves to the three hands. At least the two Koreans seem surprised. Shortly after we sit down, fried chicken legs are already on the table. Then nothing. When I ask for a vegetarian variant, Sung-il and his girlfriend Suryeon speak. Without asking questions and as a surprise I am ordered corn with cheese, with cheese with corn would be more appropriate. I'm not really excited about this dinner.

With Alex, who has just traveled through Kamchatka and is now hitchhiking through South Korea, we understand each other well right from the start. But Sung-il and Suryeon are a mystery to me. They are reserved and quiet, do not ask us a single question and when I ask Sung-il about his life in Mokpo, he always looks at Sebastian and not at me when answering. I know that from rural areas of Pakistan or Iran , but I would not have expected this behavior in South Korea. I am annoyed and the longer our conversation continues without eye contact, the more annoying I am.

"What do you want to do, Alex?" Asks Sung-il. He does not ask us. "Sleeping?" Alex warily returns, having a long journey today. But the answer seems to be the wrong one for this evening.

Suryeon leads us to the sea where, at one point, a wooden footbridge crosses the water and gives us the opportunity to see illuminated rocks up close. Soon, however, she reminds you to leave - the next attraction is waiting. Near the shore is anchored in the sea a platform on which colorfully lit Wasserfontainen dance to the tune of the Titanic song. It is the evening light show. We are bitterly cold. For Sung-il and Suryeon, it is still not cold enough for an ice cream for dessert: You order Bingsu or "snowflake ice". Two giant sundaes of frozen milk, scraped into gossamer snowflakes, stand before us, one in the "original" version, the other with taste "green tea latte". It does not taste bad, but with three degrees outside temperature is clearly too cold for ice cream.

Although we are having a nice chat with Alex, Suryeon and Sung-il are pushing for a new departure: Now they're playing basketball! They drag us to one of the countless Korean gambling dens and I think, "What a nonsense!" But in the end, the Körbewerfen fun and the prices are surprisingly affordable for Korean standards. We can not test all offers of the gambling den, because Suryeon calls a taxi and we have to accompany her to the pick-up point. Although she is 26 years old, her parents are unaware of her relationship with Sung-il and she must not be home too late. After this planned evening program, we are finally allowed to drive to Sung-il's apartment and move into our sleeping place.

Busan - city by the sea

Three days later we arrive in Busan. We drop in the most beautiful hostel of our time in South Korea and fall into two single beds with great mattresses and real feather duvets. My bed is so cozy that when I close my eyes, I could almost lie in my bed at home. We immediately like Busan, South Korea's second largest city in the southeast of the country. The Haeundae beach is within walking distance and daily we walk through the soft sand, in front of us the sea, behind us the skyscrapers Busan. We find a restaurant where we can eat delicious and cheap. Nevertheless, we cook at least once a day ourselves, because alone with the fixed costs for hostel and car, we are already at almost 60 euros per day.

About Gyeongju and Danyang back to Seoul

We drive back north along the east coast of South Korea. In six days we have to return the car in Seoul. Our route takes us through the former capital Gyeongju, which is famous for its ancient royal tombs. We find accommodation in the center and visit on foot the UNESCO World Heritage Daerungwon . In the large park are 23 grassy burial mounds , which look rather unspectacular from a distance, but are very exciting from a close up: An entrance was dug into the tomb of Cheonmachong and together with school classes we visit the interior, which is more extensive than we thought. We are especially impressed by the tomb, where no skeleton is left, but properly tucked away the (non-original) grave items are presented. The burial mound is 13 meters high and has a diameter of 47 meters, as Wikipedia reveals, and was built at the end of the fifth century.

However, most visitors do not seem to care so much about the history of the place. The burial mounds are more of a popular photo spot and both locals and Asian tourists have thrown themselves into traditional garb and are posing in front of the hills for the best photos.

We make our last stop off Seoul in the small town of Danyang in the mountains of South Korea. We use our car for a trip to the Sobaeksan National Park and spend the day in the forest. It feels good to be completely out of civilization noise. For lunch, we sit on a log in the almost winter forest and eat the morning-bought gimbap, Korean sushi. Sung-il was outraged when we mentioned that we would like to eat gimbap. That would only be for students, only for people with little money, he said. That suits, we thought and are glad to have tried Gimbap, because it is our favorite and tastiest snack on our tour of South Korea.

The next day we drive back to Seoul. The car return is straightforward and quick. It is strange to be in Seoul with no plans, because three weeks ago we were mainly busy with applying for our Chinese visa. So we walk around the city for a while and visit the Seoul Lantern Festival in the evening. In a small watercourse in the middle of the city center, there are thirty figures between 1.50 and 2 meters high, made of translucent material, and in addition to the figures of old Korean legends, the Bol.comdrohne or the backpacker are also very modern. At the top of the watercourse, people make paper lanterns and carefully put them into the water together with a tealight.

Seoul is beautifully lit this evening in November. The cold, the packed people and the many lights remind me of Christmas. Instead of celebrating with our families, however, we will travel across the Pacific in a week on a container ship and then celebrate in Mexico. Too bad that we will drive back to China tomorrow. Now, after a month in South Korea, I'm starting to feel like I've arrived.

Especially the contact with the local people we have perceived very differently than in our previously visited countries of Asia, so we had to get used to and change. The quiet and restrained togetherness was new to us and regularly puts me to a greater test of patience than the sometimes intrusive behavior of people in other countries. Sometimes we realize only in retrospect that the gesture of a human actually was very nice, but because it was so quiet and inconspicuous, we have just overlooked it smoothly. It's the soft sounds that we had to feast on for the first time this month, but that made South Korea so exciting for us.

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