[In this episode, we wander aimlessly until an ajumma hand-feeds us, get on a boat, and spelunk.]
This weekend, Kristen, Tom, and Lee, and I headed out to Chungju, a town (or tiny city), northeast of Daejeon. Chungju is the proud owner of the Chungju Dam, a hydro electric extravaganza that has created one of the most beautiful lakes in the country. There are regular ferries on this lake, too, so it’s an excellent opportunity to see the Korean countryside at its (mostly) unspoiled best. The lake stretches through to Danyang, a tiny little town that is best known for the surrounding caves.
Now caving is not my usual bag, so I was pretty excited when this opportunity popped up. (We went through Adventure Korea–I wanted to introduce the ‘new kids’ to the wonders of weekend-tour programs, and also it seemed like the easier thing to do.) I vaguely remember tromping around in Tennessee’s Cumberland Caves when I was a wee one, and I remember enjoying it immensely, but I also remember it not being nearly as cool as this.
In order to be ready for the bus in Chungju at 9:10, we decided to head into the city on Saturday night and stay in a cheap room. We didn’t get out of Daejeon until about 4:00, so we didn’t really have anything to do in Chungju except wander and eat. We made our way through the market, which is always intriguing. As always, I took market pictures… (I think my fascination with market pictures comes from a deep guilt of never taking market pictures in Ghana.)
Here are some various kimchi dishes for sale–I don’t think it’s regular kimchi because I believe that there are fish inside it.
And here are some pajamas and various Ajumma clothes for sale. I was pretty happy with the way that these pictures turned out. They are quite delightful. Anyway, after leaving the market, we wandered through a more hip district, where it seemed like all the young people were, and then we stopped in a random SamGyeopSal restaurant–which turned out to be the best decision of the trip.
SamGyeopSal is meat that you cook on your own little barbecue plate, and they bring it to you raw. Or–in this case, you retrieve the meat that you want from a buffet in the center of the restaurant, and you pay a flat price. (This one was less than eight dollars.) Here is Kristen stirring up our first batch of meat.
However, it soon became clear that the owner of our restaurant, a wonderful enthusiastic middle aged woman [or, ajumma] , didn’t see many foreigners. She decided to come talk to us, to which I sort of responded–but she had NO English, and I had only very limited Korean. (As in, I answer yes or no to what I THINK the question is.) But she was so happy to see us that she just wanted to help us understand how to eat SamGyeopSal. The whole time she insisted that the men at our table needed more garlic–to become strong men. “Maneul, MANEUUUL!” As with all Korean dishes, there is a proper way to consume SamGyeopSal. The meat should be eaten with a tasty red sauce, with a piece of garlic and wrapped in a lettuce leaf. The wrap should be eaten in one bite, so as to avoid lettuce-wrap explosion. Anyway, Lee didn’t really get it, so she did it for him–and then PUT IT IN HIS MOUTH. We were laughing hysterically as we watched him just sit there with lettuce poking out of his mouth, a look of utter horror on his face.
From there the night descended into uncontrollable laughter (it actually bordered a little on hysteria), too much food, and one seriously amazing good time. She even took a picture with us.
(from Left to Right, we have the woman, Lee, Kristen, me, and Tom.) She insisted that she was fifty five but I didn’t believe her. By the end of the night, we were calling her Ommah, or mom in Korean, and she gave us delicious glass-bottle pepsi, apples, and literally fed us until we were insane. Kristen and I were laughing so hard we were crying, and it was really over absolutely nothing. We decided we’d have to get out of there before someone offered us alcohol, because we were already so far gone that that was the LAST thing we needed.
After leaving the restaurant, we walked all the way across town, back through the market, along the river, and towards the bus station so we could find a place to stay near our departure point. We ended up staying in the Love Motel district, at a neon-lit, blinking cluster of buildings that cater to Korean couples. These buildings attract patrons through sheer gaudiness, and decorate the buildings with neon lights that make them look more like a cake than a hotel. Ours was named Titanic. Quite excited about the potential sinking that we were going to do, we booked two rooms at the unbelievable price of 35,000 a night. For this 35,000, we got a working computer, a huge tv, an amazingly clean room, a bathtub with JETS, and all of this fancy madness….
Anyway these types of hotels, if you don’t already know, are designed so that couples who either a. both live at home, or b. have spouses, can spend some time away from it all for cheap. These are extremely discrete places. The hallways are dark. Cars license plates are covered with blue wooden planks, in case anyone is looking for them. Keys are left in a corner in the elevator, not with the desk woman when the deed has been finished. But for travelers, these things are the best thing in the world–because they really are paradise for half the price.
Our night was uneventful. We watched a plethora of English tv, like Scrubs, and then we crashed out early. We woke early and headed back to the bus terminal, met our Adventure Korea bus, and then headed to the Chungju Dam, where I aggressively played a broken “Wack a Mole” until our ferry was ready to depart.
On the lake it was frigid, because we were traveling so fast, but it was beautiful. The water was very low, and so layers of rock were exposed, with the most intriguing coloration from years of water rising and falling.
The mountains in this part of the country are jagged, with exposed rock. They look fuzzy in the winter, because there are no leaves on the trees. The cloudy day made things seem awfully sinister, and the freezing wind on the deck added to the feeling. It was invigorating.
As we got closer to our destination, the water became greener and greener, and there was more and more rock standing there, strong, still, and perfectly straight. Like I said in my last post, there is something inherently ‘Asian’ in my head when I see those kinds of rock formations. It just doesn’t seem to happen elsewhere, not like this.
Our final destination was a ferry terminus some ways away from Danyang, situated inside this gorgeous valley. It is a part of Korea’s “Eight Famous Sceneries”, or things in this area that Koreans have uniformly decided are beautiful. That includes stone pillars, climbing mountains, and an all around glorious display of rock, mountain, and water.
From the ferry terminus we left these mountains and moved onto new ones–this time mountains that we could go inside. We visited Gosu Cave, or Gosudonggul. I was really unprepared for how beautiful it was inside–I had no idea how much the earth could do in its spare time.
The cave had been developed with rather precarious looking metal stairs, but they didn’t move or teeter, so I was happy. There was a course which we should take–as there always is in a Korean tourist destination–but it was not a disappointing one. Stalactites and stalagmites were everywhere, forming in groups, forming in patterns, forming in enormous organ-pipe shapes that took my breath away.
The cave walls were one thing, but the ceilings were the most impressive. Looking up, row after row after row of dripping stone could be seen, stretching up into black forever. It amazes me how long this took, and how long it went on doing this without any eyes to watch it. There are so many things under the surface of the earth that we don’t know about… so many beautiful things that we won’t see until we look under the barriers.
I was also extremely pleased with how my camera behaved. I switched it over into Manual and actually felt like I had some grip on the controls for the first time since I’ve had it… and I didn’t use flash for ANY of these pictures. Props to my awesome Canon. Switching cameras before coming here was a 100% good decision. Now if only I could get up the courage to do more people shots….
Anyway, more about the cave… inside the cave there were certain points where men with digital cameras and huge flash umbrellas waited to take pictures of couples and travelers tromping the cave course. They stood in front of some of the more famous stalactite formations, and it was kind of intreguing–these older men (adjoushis–the male version of ajummas), just sitting in these boxes with cameras, attached to the metal framework of our course. It must be an odd underground job. Despite the fact that they were doing tourist things, their little booths looked industrial to me, and I got a rather cyberpunky feeling from the whole thing.
The course was wild–curving through the cave, spiral staircases, wet with water that dripped from the top of the cave–at one point my friends were twenty feet above me. Tom said he thought that the cave was overly ‘sensitized’ and ‘touristy’, but I rather liked the course and the lights that lit up the different formations. It helped me get pictures, and it helped me appreciate everything.
Anyway Gosu Cave is a must see. It’s not really a day trip from Daejeon, as it took us 2 buses and about 3-4 hours to get home, but if you made a weekend out of it, you could hit up some of the other caves in the area as well. (Gosu is extremely popular for tourists, and so in the summer months may be more crowded. There are others.) Also in that area, which I plan on seeing soon, is the famous Guinsa Temple.