I love the outdoors but it’s been decades since I’ve built a fire or eaten out of tin cups. If someone asked me about setting up a tent or sleeping in a trailer in Korea a month ago, I would have said it wasn’t very likely. But as it turns out, that’s exactly what my brother and I ended up doing last weekend.
I had some reservations about going camping at first- where was I going to sleep, how far away were the bathrooms, or were there bathrooms and shower facilities at all? What if it rains? What are we going to eat!? It had been just a few weeks in Seoul but I was loving it here, and the thought of leaving the comforts of this beautiful Park Hyatt Seoul to go rough it outdoors wasn’t too pleasing at first. But that was just a fleeting thought. I spent four months in India after all and this camping trip meant that I would get to spend a lot of quality time with my younger cousins whom I didn’t know very well. So off we went to Donghae (East Sea).
It was a long holiday weekend here in Korea (Buddha’s birthday was celebrated on May 10 as a national holiday); that meant we had four days and my cousins were off from school to go on this camping trip. We packed ourselves into a van and during that process I learned that unlike me, a city mouse, my cousins were seasoned veterans of camping. They had everything that could make our trip fun and comfortable, all of which I fully learned to use and appreciate later. Until the day we left we kept hearing that it was going to rain the entire weekend. But the skies were kind to us, and our journey to the seaside and the days that followed we had gorgeous spring weather.
We arrived to the camping site late in the afternoon and found the place packed with camping enthusiasts. My cousin had reserved two trailers practically right on the beach and he quickly set out to pitch a large tent in between our two trailers. My brother, having been a Boy Scout, helped out with various tasks but I took the lazy route and hung out with the other ladies on the trip. As the afternoon sun slowly disappeared we had our dinner of Korean style steaks, pork belly, fire-roasted potatoes, and relaxed with beer and good conversation. I did note that the bathrooms were quite far (we were as close to the beach as one could get but that meant we were at least 50 meters away from the facilities) so I kept my intake of liquids to a minimum. I definitely didn’t want to get up in the middle of the night to make a trek down to the bathroom!
I woke up a little after 5AM the next morning and was rewarded with a view of the calm blue ocean and the orange glow of the rising sun. I was ever so grateful for the opportunity to be there and the generosity of my cousins for thinking of us moved me. But just as I was feeling the cool morning breezes and enjoying the silence of the early morning, I heard a low mechanical sound in the distance. It seemed to get louder and louder, and when I looked behind me I saw that there were half dozen fully armed soldiers spaced out evenly across the beach and marching towards me. A helicopter flew along the shoreline barely grazing the ocean and I realized that the soldiers were actually scanning the beach. Then it hit me. This is Korea. They are looking for possible signs of North Korean soldiers or anything suspicious. While there has been a ceasefire declared in the Korean War (July of 1953), the North and the South are still at war and by no means are they at peace. I had not once felt threatened, unsafe, or sensed any anxiety in Korea but I realize that the terrible truth of this continuing separation is always humming in the background. That evening my young cousin spoke of his duty for the mandatory military service he’ll have to do in a few years and told me about a secret tunnel the South Koreans discovered near the DMZ recently. It’s heartbreaking to know that after so many years there has been so little progress made…
After a quick breakfast, we took a trip farther down south to the scenic Mureung valley. At a local restaurant near the entrance of the mountain range, we had an amazingly healthy and delicious meal of vegetarian bibimbap, scallion pancakes, soybean soup, and various Korean herbs. Everything was so fresh, rustic, and full of strong flavors. If I can say one thing about the Korean food I’ve had on this trip to Korea is the emphasis on conscious and mindful farming. Everywhere we went, we were informed of the provenance of the main ingredients used. For each item, there’d be a sign telling us where it came from: beef from Korea, Australia, or from New Zealand, etc. Even at McDonald’s there was a sign showing where their meat came from. Eating organic and local produce is very important in Korea and it seemed that the entire country is on what they call the “well-being” path.
Koreans have always loved and appreciated their mountains, but my cousins told me that recently more people have taken up mountain climbing and walking as part of this “well-being” movement. It was evident when we went up the Mureung valley ourselves. People of all ages were walking up and down the mountain, and I was only too happy to join them. We had a bright clear day and the new tender green leaves greeted us at every turn. It seems to me that you can find a Buddhist temple in every mountain in Korea and this mountain range was no exception. We took a brief tour of a small yet tranquil temple before heading farther up, but as my young cousins were not very keen on climbing themselves we returned back to the base rather quickly.
We stopped at a fish market on the way back to see what the day’s catch brought in. The market was was very clean and neatly organized (not at all fishy smelling even on a hot day). You could pick up a few things (say a pound of squid, a handful of sea urchin, a few mackerels) and walk over to a section of the market where a group of ladies scaled, gutted, and cleaned your fresh seafood for you for just a few dollars. I was so fascinated by how fast they worked that I stood there with my eyes fixed (and my camera clicking away) for a while. It was awesome to watch. We got two small octopuses (a local Korean variety I didn’t know the name of) and some ridiculously fresh sea urchin that one of those ladies painstakingly took apart and scooped out with a small teaspoon.
When we returned to the camping site we built a fire for dinner and my cousin brought out a big Dutch oven; how he packed and brought this heavy beast was a mystery to me but there it was. Our mollusks were prepared simply by boiling them in the Dutch oven over a roaring campfire, and we grilled some mackerel and sea bream. We ate the sea urchin and the boiled octopus with Korean hot chilly paste mixture and the grilled fish was served with just some sea salt. It was a simple but a memorable meal. Why does everything taste better outdoors??
The last full day of our trip didn’t quite go as we planned due to intermittent showers in the morning but our appetite was as big as ever. We drove up towards Seoraksan and while our hopes for a day of hiking faded away, we stopped at a famous sundoobu place (soft tofu) with a view of the most famous mountain in Korea. I climbed Seoraksan back in 1993 but I was a bit disappointed that I couldn’t do it again. I think Korean mountains are unique and beautiful in their own way. We vowed to come back another day soon… With the weather being what it is, we switched over to our backup plan- we took advantage of the rain by going to a nearby hot springs resort. The water was HOT, soft, and felt slippery from all the minerals. It turned out to be a nice way to wind down our trip and I finally got a chance to soak and melt away any remaining dirt and grime I was carrying around from India.
This camping trip was more than I could have hoped for, both in terms of the natural beauty of Korea I was able to experience and the kindness of my cousins whom I got to know better. How lucky am I to have such thoughtful and knowledgeable guides? My brother and I would never have been able to do something like this on our own. I am more grateful than I can say and will be thinking of ways to somehow reciprocate…