Sunday, August 4, 2013

Summer vacation: Namhae

Namhae is one of Korea's largest islands, and by car is probably about two and a half hours away from Gwangju, but there is no bus that goes straight there. This handy google map is showing you where Namhae is:
Namhae is called the Treasure Island of Korea, and life on Namhae continues on in a very traditional manner. Namhae is very mountainous, and most of the inhabitants of Namhae are farmers or fishermen. Apparently garlic is the number one Namhae crop, but rice and other vegetables are also grown there. As I said, the island is very mountainous, and thus is famous for the terraced rice patties cut into the mountains. There is one main town in Namhae, which I call Namhae City, but it just has a population of about 15,000 (according to one website I found, but I don't know how accurate that is). Namhae City is the only place on the island with actual big apartments like you see all over Korea, but it only has a few of those. Everywhere else on the island people lived in old, traditional Korean houses, which was really lovely to see. As I said, Namhae is known for its very traditional way of life, and people say if you want to see what Korea was like 50 years ago you should visit Namhae.
I did not take this picture below- I found it on google, but it gives a great representation of the terraced fields and the houses:
Namhae is rather oddly joined to the mainland by a bridge that somewhat resembles the Golden Gate Bridge (also not my picture). This bridge is famous for being one of Korea's most beautiful bridges:

Our plan was arrive in Namhae City and take a bus down to Sangju, the island's most popular beach. There, we planned to find accommodations and relax for the next 60 or so hours.

Here you can see a more detailed map of Namhae. Namhae-eup is what I call Namhae City. You can see the island is kind of divided into a right and a left, with some connecting land in the middle. You can see Sangju Beach on the southern part of the right side of the island.

We got into Namhae at night fall, and by 8:30 we were on a bus to to Sangju. We sat near the front of the bus and the bus driver started talking to Jaeyun. It turns out that, although the bus driver was much older, they both did their military service training at the same camp location, so they talked about that and then started singing some of their marching songs together. Some older women (like 50+ years of age) also sat near the front of the bus and started talking with Jaeyun. I realized on this trip that Jaeyun is a magnet for older women- they just love him. He is so polite and sweet and nice and it's like older women have this 6th sense and can sense that in him and then they want to talk to him. He says he has always attracted older women, so I guess I'm just the freak young one.

We got to Sangju Beach around 9pm, and I think we were both surprised by the atmosphere and environment. As we got off the bus, to our left was the beach, and parallel to that was a partially dried up stream with little bridges over it. Parallel to the stream and on our right side was a road, and on the right side of the road (because the stream was on the left), were restaurants, festival tents, a lit up Viking Ship ride, another lit up amusement park ride that shakes people around, and many brightly lit tents with the festival games in which you try to shoot at balloons, or shoot a target, a certain amount of times to get a prize. Those types of things. And there was loud music playing and many people were walking around and the restaurant and food-tent people would practically grab you by the arm and tell you to eat at their particular establishment. It was very festive. The environment really caught me by surprise because we had just spent 40 minutes on a bus ride through the dark, mountainous countryside.

As soon as we started walking along this road, young men on mopeds drove up to us asking if we were looking for a room to stay in. We quickly realized that there were no motels here, only min-baks and pensions. I know pensions exist in other countries- they are usually a nice holiday apartment in someone's home complete with a kitchenette, etc. I think the word min-bak only exists in Korea. Min-baks are also usually in someone's home, and are very simple. They typically are just a small room and a bathroom with no extra amenities. Min-baks typically don't have a bed; rather, they just have some folded up blankets and pillows that you make into a bed on the floor, which is very traditionally Korean. We were shown three different rooms, and finally decided on the last one. The last one was advertised as a pension but was definitely really a min-bak. The landlady was very nice and when we told her (or rather, when Jaeyun and his super handy Korean-fluency told her) we would be there for three nights she gave us a big discount on the room. I think the room appealed to both of us because it was on the second story and the lady had a rather large min-bak- like it was a building with several rooms in it.

This is where we stayed- we had the second room on the top floor.

After putting our luggage down, we strolled out along the street looking for a good restaurant. We ended up at a seafood restaurant called Oasis, and were able to sit outside by the little stream. Unknown to us at the time, I found out later that Lonely Planet Korea recommends Oasis in their section on Namhae. We had a really delicious rice and raw-fish dish.

 The restaurant Oasis. It also advertised a pension and a karaoke room on its sign.

 The amusement park rides:

I know these pictures look pretty blurry at night. This is the road, all lit up:

After eating we headed back to the room and showered. We had had a really long day and were really tired. To our initial dismay, we realized there was no hot water in the bathroom. Luckily, the water was just cold, not like ice-freezing cold, so it was doable.

The bathroom. As you can see, there was no sink- just a faucet leading into a drain on the floor and a long shower handle thing. I thought it was really quaint and unique and really enjoyed having a bathroom like this for three days.

The next day we woke up and headed to a food tent outside for breakfast. We got some seafood pajon (like a flour and egg pancake thingy), and, after slathering ourselves in sunscreen and purchasing hats and a big mat for the sand, we headed to the beach.

The beach road by day, with the stream:

Yeeeaaah Koreans like to wear clothes in the water:

We spent about three hours at the beach playing in the water and relaxing on the sand. It was so wonderful. I love beaches and I haven't really gotten in the water at one in over two years. Around 1pm it started sprinkling rain a bit, and we left. We went back to Oasis for lunch, and had oysters and different kinds of shellfish cooked over a grill on our table. It was absolutely delicious.
After lunch we headed back to the room, showered, and got ready to go on some afternoon excursions. One of Namhae's tourist attractions is a German village (more on that later), so we decided to go there. We headed for an information booth by the beach to ask how to get there by bus. After Jaeyun figured it out, we walked to a nearby bank. As Jaeyun was inside getting cash out of the ATM, a Korean woman about my age came running up to me outside saying "Excuse me! My mother overheard you guys talking to at the information booth! You are going to the German village? We are going there now and we have a car! Do you want to ride with us?" We readily agreed, and presently her mother pulled up and we got in. The girl, named Yeh-Ji,  spoke really good English, and she explained that she lived in Seoul, and her teenage brother (who was also in the car) and mother lived on Jeju island. They were in Namhae for the day because her brother had a baseball game there. Her mother and brother didn't really speak much- Yeh-Ji said that while they both understood English well they felt uncomfortable speaking it. I thought it was so kind of her mother to offer two random strangers a ride, and it was so nice for us because it saved us the two bus trips (one way, so four buses round trip) we would have had to make to the German village. 

A word on the German village: In the 1960s and 1970s South Korea's economy was terrible. Like, on level with Somalia's economy. Like, North Korea had a much stronger economy. So, Korea sent about 20,000 workers to West Germany to work, and these workers sent some of their paychecks back to Korea, which helped the Korean economy. Some of these workers settled long term in Germany and married German spouses and had mixed children. At some point Korea became worried about the aging population on Namhae and offered the workers and their families still in Germany a deal- which is that if they would come back to Korea, the government would give them cheap land on Namhae and subsidize the construction of houses in the German style, so the workers and their families wouldn't miss Germany so much. It's really a very thoughtful way to deal with citizens who had become so dual-cultural. That was several decades ago, and while many houses in the German village are legitimate residences, it is now also very touristy. I am sure that to live there residents must promise to keep their houses and gardens looking nice.  

I really enjoyed the German village. We walked around it a bit with Yeh-Ji and her brother, but after about ten minutes they had to leave for the bus terminal, so after thanking their mother, we explored the place alone. The location for the village is just perfect- it is on a mountainside overlooking the water. 

It was really beautiful. At one end of the German village was another tourist site called "House N Garden", which was a large garden with a path that ran throughout. The House N Garden had rose gardens, a statue garden, as well as residential houses and gardens built in particular different international styles (thus, the name House N Garden). It was really nice to stroll around, but it was very hot and humid. 

After about an hour we made our way back to the German village, and found a restaurant/cafe in which we had some German beer. Not from draught :( From a can. But it was still good! As I implied earlier, there is not a direct bus that links the German village and Sangju beach; rather, you must connect to a different bus at a small fishing town called Mijo. We got the bus to Mijo, and arrived there around 7pm. We had an idea that Mijo and Sangju beach were close, and wondered if we could maybe walk the distance. Jaeyun asked our bus driver how far apart the two towns were, and he said 2 kilometers. Two kilometers is just about 1.2 miles- not far at all. As it was evening time it was cooler, and we decided the 15 minute walk on the mountainous road overlooking the ocean would be lovely, so we set off. The road was very mountainous and curvy, and had no sidewalk. It was probably not the best of ideas to walk it, but we were careful and looked out for cars. We saw some goats! And Jaeyun sang some of his army marching songs from when he did his army training last December. The scenery was absolutely breathtaking with all the greenery and the mountains and the blue sea below us. After about 15 minutes we still appeared to be in the middle of nowhere, which surprised us. We kept looking at the gps on our phones, and it confirmed that we were on the right road heading for Sangju, so we kept walking.... for over an hour. Dusk fell and it started getting really dark and suddenly the danger factor of walking on a curvy, mountainous road was really amplified. Just as it started getting dark we saw lights in the distance by the ocean, so we assumed it was the Sangju beach area. After about another 20 minutes of walking, we reached what turned out to not be Sangju beach, but Songjeong beach, and our gps showed us it was only about halfway to Sangju. 

Confused, Jaeyun asked a woman how far it was to Sangju beach, and she said about 7-8 kilometers, which is about 4-5 miles. It was already after 8pm and very dark- there was no way we were walking that. We called a cab and after about 3 minutes it came. The cab driver was super friendly and had one of the most melodious voices I'd ever heard- like a Korean Morgan Freeman. He was really surprised that we had walked as far as we had. We were so confused as to why the distance between Mijo and Sangju ended up being about 10 miles, when the bus driver had told is it was just over one mile. When Jaeyun asked the cab driver about this, he said the bus driver just blatantly lied to us for some reason- like he probably was tired and said whatever he thought of to make us leave him alone. 

Waiting in Songjeong for the cab. I have on Jaeyun's backpack and baseball cap.
 We got back to our room around 8:30, put our things down, and then went back to Oasis for the second time that day. This time we had abalone porridge. After eating, we walked down to the beach and strolled along it for quite some time before heading back to the room and sleeping. I think we were both so exhausted- it had been a really physically tiring day with the beach in the morning (I love the sun but it always wears me out immensely) and the insane heat of the German village and garden in the afternoon, and then the hour+ mountainous hike on the road.

This post is insanely long and I have spent over two hours writing it. The rest of the Namhae trip will be in the next post, which I will write in the next few days! And it will be shorter, I promise! 

And I leave you, dear readers, with one last picture of myself:


  1. I enjoyed your story in namhae! I live in Namhae and i I know every places you visited! Amazing!

  2. I enjoyed your story in namhae! I live in Namhae and i I know every places you visited! Amazing!