From Russia’s Far East to South Korea. Back to real Asia. Nevertheless, a travel thru a country rather unusual to us.
If visiting this country please keep in mind:
1. A journey thru Korea without speaking and reading their language, not having a smartphone and not liking Korean food is the ultimate precondition to have an absolutely miserable life during the visit.
2. Not understanding Korean and not reading it – but munching Korean delicacies in absence of a smartphone is still a huge pain in the ass.
3. The same applies if you’re not enough innovative to interpret menus translated to English.
4. No language skills but being expert in Google’s translator and eating Korean barbeque or raw fish every day makes the visit just bearable.
Whatever your situation communication with Koreans is limited to next to nothing. In most cases language barriers are insuperable.
But let’s see how it will work.
Vladivostok, 16th August
Vladivostok – often called San Francisco of Russia. No clue who had this idea. In The City as well as in Vladi there are houses. Of course, but that’s probably the end of all similarities. Then, in 2012 some clever Russies had a great idea. They googled The City and found what it is famous for: the Golden Gate Bridge.
And that’s what the Vladies needed too: The Brigde. They don’t have any golden gates in Russia’s Far East. So the name has to be adapted. Looking at the sea the bridge is crossing, it might be called Dirty Water Bridge, Smelly Fish Bridge or last but not least eventually Rusty Barge Bridge. All not names really promoting this architectural masterpiece. Great constructions need great names. That’s the logic.
Finally they ran out of ideas. They simply call it Russky Bridge. Because it connects Vladivostok with Russky Island. Nevertheless, the bridge looks great.
Back to reality in Vladivostok. It’s the end of our overland journey thru Asia. Crossing North Korea to reach its southern neighbour is currently no option. Presently visiting Baby Face’s Clan Enterprise doesn’t seem to be the best idea. And we’re not sure if the South Koreans would appreciate Prado crossing the border between the 2 countries. So we have to get the ferry.
The 1st issue to organise in Vladivostok is accommodation. Not easy to find in July or August – if you don’t book it 10 years in advance. Most is fully booked and getting extremely expensive. No idea why. We have to change rooms several times. Finally we learn the reason for the acute shortage: the smog in Beijing. So 100 000s – or maybe millions of Chinese flock in to recover from the unbearable situation in China. We discover this in 1 of the usual 100$ hotels selling their last room. The Amur Bay. A former Soviet palace where renovation never took place. All rooms occupied by Chinese tourists presumably paying 10% of our room rate. Nevertheless, an interesting lobby – they really take care that the floor doesn’t get slippery when it rains.
Thus – rather a place to stay for hard-core travellers. Maybe better avoid it and sleep on a bench in a park.
Travelling to South Korea means to organise the journey by ferry. Normally you buy a ticket, drive on the ship, travel for a few hours and get off. Here with DBS-Ferries it’s more sophisticated. Prado is not a car, but a piece of freight. As we’ve already made the booking theoretically we simply pick up the tickets at the DBS-office. Simple – isn’t it?
But where’s the office? DBS’ website knows it. Unfortunately it’s not correct. The smart ladies we’re annoying in the indicated office are used to that. It’s not office 236, but 124. Ok, let it be 124. In 124 the even smarter lady is obviously responsible for our tickets, but she doesn’t know anything about our reservation. No problem – somewhen she finds us in her computer.
A very different situation for Prado; this piece of freight. Thus beyond her responsibility. We have to wait for the concerned person.
In the meantime another guy enters. After telling us a long story he informs us, that he’s Yuri of Link’s Ltd.; the guy organising the shipment for all overlanders in Vladivostok. Costs 150 bucks. Somehow we have the impression the smart lady behind her smart ticket counter called him to get rid of us. Whatever. He seems to be useful and, as we know from several websites, already acquired some reputation among other guys leaving Vladivostok. So we have a new employee. And a little later Prado’s cargo problem is solved.
And now it’s clear, we’ll not spend the next 30 years in a gulag in northern Siberia for overstaying our visa by 1 day. What a relief, the onward travel is guaranteed – this can only be rewarded with a beer at Vladivostok’s beach front.
Well, we still have a whole week until the departure of our ferry to Korea. So some time to discover Vladivostok and the surrounding beaches – but also a unique chance to explore a little more the Russian soul – at least some aspects.
Vladivostok: quite nice town, but no real sights. More a place to hang out, to relax and to recover from the hardship of crossing endless roads thru Russia’s Far East.
Of course there are also some extremely interesting issues: e.g. a real Russian submarine. Some 30 or 50 years ago the guys from the US intelligence dreamt every night of the pics we could take here. Probably their wives didn’t allow them to travel, being too afraid of the awesome Russian girls in Vladivostok; or they had no budget to pay the entrance fee to the submarine. Whatever, who knows what happened to these strange guys at that time. Anyway, we don’t think nowadays the CIA will pay us any money for our pics of this formerly top secret Russian technology.
Don’t think Vladivostok’s adventures are restricted to strange army sensations. There’s much more: going to the beach. Of course not in town. Only locals survive the mixture of all these chemicals keeping a fragile balance with the sea’s self-purifying power. No, we have to drive some 200km eastwards. To the famous beaches at Nakhodka.
The road to the beaches: not really perfect and there’s the hell a lot of traffic. Finally it takes 4h for 200km to reach the town.
There’s a bombastic signboard. And then we discover that there’s just another big port.
Terrible town. Nevertheless, a pretty nice Japanese restaurant with great sushis.
A trip to the beach. A visit to a real Russian camp site. Maybe not exactly what we’re looking for. Not because of rainy weather – we’re simply not used to this kind of tourism.
Back to Vladivostok. A trip over the 2 suspension bridges to Russky Island.
There some rather non-descript villages, many fortresses witnessing the heroic willingness to defend Russia’s very own motherland against some Japanese guys, a few Soviet-area industrial zones without too much potential to get back to function …
… and some beaches. Presumably not too bad provided it’s not constantly drizzling.
Back to Vladivostok some real work: cleaning Prado. DBS Cruise Lines don’t accept dirty vehicles.
Then it’s time to say goodbye to Russia. A last beer at Vladivostok’s beachfront – still served in Burger King’s plastic cup, and a final Russian dinner at Studio’s. No it’s not Spagetti Putinesca – this famous pasta they created in honour of a Russian personality. We couldn’t find it at all in Vladivostok.
Gangneung, Korea, 17th August
We’re on the way to the DBS Ferry. Again we need to say hello in their office to get boarding passes and to pay harbour taxes. Then we’re honoured to wait 2h, pass all kind of Russian formalities …
… and we’re on board …
… astonished how well organised it is – well, every aspect is clearly explained. So no danger to make terrible mistakes.
We get our cabin – together with 6 other passengers.
Then we’re going to the upper deck, admiring Vladivostok’s harbour. 2 bikers from Switzerland – Monika’n’Pascal and Paul from the Netherlands joining us. And a group of backpackers – recovering from the long train journey and from carrying their backpacks.
Soon there are clear signs of the ferry’s departure – and we’re on our way to Korea.
On board not much to do: drinking beer, admiring the sea passing by …
… and at night developing roadside tales converting innocent fishing boats into a North Korean armada of war-hungry battle ships on their way to Uncle Donny’s Empire.
The next morning at 11am we arrive in Donghae. Weather as usual.
Many passengers queue in the corridors for hours to make sure that they can quickly pass all formalities.
For motorists it’s easier. The friendly staff of DBS Ferries ensures that they are the 1st 1s to leave. Simply because they want us to drive out the vehicles.
Accompanied by an English speaking staff we quickly pass immigration, drive out the cars and bikes, a custom officer checks the VINs and in the office of the ferry company we receive the temporary import permit and the insurance. Of course only after having paid several 100 $ for customs and insurance. Finally, 30’ after arrival of the vessel we and Prado are in Korea. The last border organised so efficient was the 1 between Germany and Poland. Maybe it would be a good idea to send some Russian immigration guys on a training to Korea. Of course this also applies to those of the DRC, Swizzyland
and similar countries.
We drive to Donghae. Looks pretty different to a Russian town. Not really modern, a lot of billboards, all written in Korean. We look for a bank. Not easy to find if you can’t read Korean signs. Asking also is a little problematic. It seems any English knowledge is strictly forbidden to Koreans, except to the guy at the harbour. Same problem with SIM cards. In this case even more complicated due to Government regulations – imagine a North Korean intruder would get access to a South Korean network.
Well, we drive along the coast to the north. To Gangneung some 50km away. A strange observation: the whole coastline is solidly fenced – steel bars and barbed wire. Every few 100m watchtowers. Floodlights on top. All to stop invaders from the northern neighbour. Of course we also discover some doors in the fence allowing the poor locals to go sunbathing at the beach.
In Gangneung a nondescript motel and we’re on the way to a nearby microbrewery. Not really for Korean food, more for their beer. Nevertheless, we had 1 of the most interesting pizzas ever: Kimchi Pizza. Maybe the cook should invite his Italian counterparts to give them more innovative ideas than Pizza Margherita, Vulcano, Bomba Anatomica or simply Berlusconi’n’Ruby. Thus, real hot pizza: So Italians go for Pizza Berlusconi con Kimchi. Much hotter than Ruby.
Sokcho, 20th August
The next morning we drive to the town center. Rather uninteresting. Lots of shops, few parking areas for Prado. Monika manages to learn how to get a Korean invader-proof SIM card. It only takes 3-4h, requires an automated confirmation of the immigration, a few dozen calls to some English speaking staff of the company, and a couple of banknotes to pay. But finally it really works.
Of course, there’s something interesting in Gangneung. Some years ago a North Korean submarine tried to invade the town. Thanks to the highly efficient beach fence and the even more efficient rocks at the shoreline Baby Face’s toy damaged. Thus an easy prey for the South Koreans – even if the invading crew escaped and was much more difficult to catch. Whatever Baby Face planned to achieve, nowadays the sub is a tourist attraction.
Then on to Sokcho. A town some 70km to the north. An important center for eating raw fish in Korea …
… also offering the opportunity to see where this fish comes from.
Finally the town is the starting point to have a look at Baby Face’s beautiful people own empire further north.
A short drive along the shore. Some lookout points. We feel highly protected. All impressive fences’n’watchtowers.
Then a road block. Army. They want a piece of paper. We don’t have the correct 1. A few km back and we get the paper they want. Mainly a question of handing over some money to the guys. Then we pass the check point. And we’re in Korea’s famous Demilitarized Zone, the DMZ. We suppose a kind of buffer zone against Baby Face’s nukes. And an important tourist destination in South Korea.
By the way, maybe Uncle Donny should also establish a DMZ around America to keep this North Korean guy and other unpleasant guests out of the country and to booster tourism. Ooops, just an idea.
Then we arrive. Just 1 or 2 km from the border. We walk up a hill. And then we see what everybody wants to see: the Baby Face’s peoples own empire in all its beauty.
A visit to the DMZ museum. Really well done – even for guys like Martin who doesn’t like museums.
Back to real life with Baby Face a little more distant. Near Sokcho a visit to 1 of the best beaches in Korea. Maybe not exactly our dream. Could just be because of the weather.
Andong, 22nd August
The next morning: Weather as usual during the last 3 weeks. We drive southwards. We plan to reach Yeongju by the evening.
As it’s constantly raining we decide to visit the Hwanseongul caves on the way. At least inside it would be dry – hopefully. A huge parking waits for Prado.
Then a short walk to a monorail going up the hill to the cave.
The cave: huge. Some 2km long. Even inside foggy and surprisingly wet. Water dropping everywhere.
And if the Kories were afraid the walk thru the cave might become too boring – no problem; they simply add some attractions. E. g. a waterfall, lightshows, sensational names for odd things, etc. Whatever, still worth a visit.
Today we plan to stay in Yeongju. As it’s weekend we booked an accommodation. Back on the road we get slightly confused. The GPS tells us that our room is some 350km away; eventually we would be there tomorrow at 1am. Somehow according to our estimation we should reach the town after 50km. What the hell. We’re searching on maps, on the GPS on MapsMe, on whatever. Finally the secret is solved. In Korea there’s Jeonju and Yeongju. Obviously the accommodation we booked is in Jeonju. Just 2 letters and 300km difference. And the 1 with the other letters is a small village without any accommodation. Don’t discourage, Donghae is just another 30km away.
Our booking in Jeonju is definitely lost – and the money too. Nevertheless, the motel in Donghae is ok and there’s an excellent eatery with table braai.
By the way – on the way to Donghae Prado again wants to show its age. A rear wheel is getting hot. Tomorrow we have to check that.
The next morning we’re looking for a doc for Prado. Not an easy task for a Toyota in Korea. They’re all on these Korean cars and Korean language only. And so afraid they even don’t think about touching a Japanese car. Finally, we find a guy inspecting Prado’s wheel. With the help of Google Translator we learn that the break is blocked. And after some phones that there are no spares in Korea. Wonderful. So the only solution is a little cleaning and carefully driving until Prado reaches the US. Fortunately, just 350km on the road left, the rest of the way will be on a vessel.
On to Andong. We have to see a little more of Korea – and as long as it is on the way to Busan in the south it’s ok. Hilly landscape, the valley densely populated.
In town we find 1 of these typical motels. Beautiful room, very colorful – maybe not exactly everybody’s taste. But, what the hell, …
… to balance we find an even larger barbeque than ever before …
… and then it’s time to admire the wonderful attractions of the town.
Andong is the starting point to Korea’s most famous Cultural Village: Hahoe. The Korean way to preserve its cultural heritage: Take a traditional village not yet having more than 1 McDonald’s per 2,78 inhabitants. Renovate the houses – nicely, not too kitschy …
… convert all inhabitants together with their homes into an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Install a ticket booth at the entrance and soft drink machines in every corner. Wait for the tourists.
And here we are. Not very enthusiastic about this rather artificial site but the only way to see something else than 3rd world architecture with modern shops.
The next morning we move on to Gyeongju. The cultural center of Korea.
Another 1 of these beautiful motels. By the way, the Kories call them Love Motels. Equipped for everything; so discreet that even the parking area is hidden by curtains. Neither a potential mother in law nor an over-jealous spouse will ever know what’s going on. Whatever it is – nomen est omen.
Back to culture: In addition to its name non-Kories will never spell correctly, many centuries ago Gyeongju was the center of the Silla Kingdom. Somewhen their kings passed away; however, their tombs still are visible. Mostly as huge piles of earth overgrown with grass, 1 you may even enter.
On to the Donggung Palace. Not much left. Just some rebuilt pavilions in a beautiful garden. Maybe it’s simply too hot’n’humid to further admire this place.
A few km outside town there’s another cultural village. Not as famous as Hahoe; but also perfectly organised. Nonetheless, as Korea’s sights are pretty scarce we have to see Yangdong.
To recover from all these highlights an excellent Sushi dinner in town. Also to balance the worst Korean dinner we ever had in this country the preceeding evening. To avoid this experience simply don’t follow beloved Lonely Planet’s hot tip: Even don’t think about going to the Pyeongjang – Cold Buckweat Noodle House.
There’s still more to see in the Gyeongju area: Bulguk-sa temple. 1 of the very few 1s that survived Japanese occupation during WW II.
Busan, 26th August
We drive on to Busan. The last city before we ship Prado to the States. The place where the car has to get fit for the challenges of the US administration.
So we use the time to give Prado a spa to comply with US regulations not admitting any soil, remains of insects or other sacrificed animals entering the US. Thus, intensive car washing.
Busan: finally a different Korea. We’re in Haeundae. The beach of Busan. Very urban, highrising buildings, lots of folks, eateries and watering holes. And secretely a few Kories are even allowed to speak a few words of English.
The beach not what we expect from a secluded, romantic beach resort. But those used to go to Costa Brava or Costa del Sol in Spain will feel at home in Haeundae.
Changwon, 28th August
Then it’s time to bring Prado to the port in Masan; some 50km west of Busan. We stay in Changwon. 1 of the strangest cities we’ve seen in Korea. Just ugly, nothing else. Rundown CBD, dirty, a lot of drunken guys. Exactly the place you don’t want to visit. But we take the chance to celebrate eternal Korean – Swiss friendship with some ladies taking some leave from their beloved husbands.
The next morning to the port of Masan. The hell a lot of difficulties to find the correct place – finally the customs broker picks us up and escorts us to the Masan I Car Port. And we release Prado for its journey to America.
18 740 km since we left Luang Prabang, Laos 3 months ago.
Hopefully we’ll see Prado again in Tacoma, WA – including all our stuff inside.
And us – we’re backpackers again. Not yet eating banana pancakes, but taking the bus back to Busan and then the metro to the CBD to stay in another lovely Love Motel.
More about our miserable backpacker destiny in our next post.