EVERY ONCE in a while, even the most casual of daily routines can take a toll on you. During the midterm exams, there was one single powerful thought that kept me going throughout: I wanted to see the ocean. This desire came to my mind once more as I randomly recalled the lyrics to “Gwandong Tunes,” an old Korean poem that we learned back in high school. Jeong Chul, the poet of the Tunes, had sought healing from the nature of Gangwon-do as he waited for his king to summon him back to the royal courts. Coming to know the natural beauty of Gangneung thanks to studying Korean Geography and having been greatly inspired by the old poet’s praise of the region’s views, it felt right to retrace Jeong Chul’s steps towards the seaside haven. Without hesitation, I soon found myself grabbing a close friend and taking a short vacation to Gangneung as my own version of “Gwandong Tunes,” eager to survey its wonders with my own eyes.
Ohjukhun: bamboo forest of peace
As soon as daybreak arrives on May 6, 2019, my friend and I race to Seoul Station to board the reserved KTX train. Hopping off at Gangneung Station, our excitement for the journey knows no bounds. We get on a city bus to our first destination, Ohjukhun, the preserved home of Yulgok Yi-yi and Shin Saimdang. The mother-and-son duo had made it onto Korean money bills for their artistic, academic, and political influences in the Chosun Dynasty: Yi-yi on the ₩5,000 bill and Shin Saimdang on the ₩50,000 one. This historical site has many of their relics and houses, honoring the pair’s achievements. The name Ohjukhun, its Chinsese characters meaning “black bamboo house,” has a peaceful and poignant atmosphere thanks to the countless black bamboo trees.
The first thing we see when entering Ohjukhun’s grounds is Yi-yi’s statue and the words “When you stand to benefit, think first whether it is ethical or not” etched onto a stone at its base. Although we joke about there being a Yi-yi behavior education center in Ohjukhun, I reaffirm respect for Yi-yi’s philosophy of righteousness after entering the house he was raised in. Shin Saimdang’s artistic skills are celebrated in the Ohjukhun museum, with her paintings giving their characteristic tranquility. The most memorable part of the place is the preserved letter that Shin Saimdang had received from her son, a testament to the two’s mutual love and respect for each other’s achievements. Our visit to Ohjukhun let us glimpse Yi-yi and Shin Saimdang’s legacies with our own eyes.
Gyeongpodae & Gyeongpoho: an ancient lakeside journey
After having Gangneung’s famous soft tofu stew for lunch, I am quite excited to literally trace Jeong Chul’s steps in Gyeongpodae. Arriving via bus, we find ourselves in front of the vast lagoon of Gyeongpoho. Gyeongpodae, the pavilion built during the Goryeo Dynasty, overlooks the adjacent lagoon as if to stand and admire the view. Hanging in the interior of the gazebo are numerous plates of writings, whose authors range from Yulgok Yi-yi to King Suk-Jong. It is said that the Gyeongpodae pavilion used to be a banquet venue for famous academics and is one of the Gwandong-palgyung, the eight must-see spots in the Gangwon area. Sitting where they sat, I can see why, in the “Gwandong Tunes,” Jeong Chul had described the lake scenery as “pure and calm water, like pressed silk as white as ice.” Beside Gyeongpodae, there is even a Memorial Tower honoring the Gangneung-born soldiers who gave their lives during the Korean War. All of these make us sense how much history, both peaceful and violent, Gangneung experienced over the ages.
After climbing down Gyeongpodae, we decide to take a walk on the lakeside path that leads to Gyeongpo beach. Sharing the trail with countless bicycle riders, we comment on how calming the lagoon’s peacefully still water is, and how we wish our everyday lives were similar. The long trail eventually ends at the beach, and the sense of vastness I experience upon seeing the wide ocean is unimaginable. One side is lined with photogenic spots, and a canvas of waves crash upon the other. The scenery is one I have dreamt of for so long. Each opening a can of beer from a nearby convenience store, the two of us talk about how the view of the ocean is beautiful; the walk here has also been sweet.
Anmok beach café street: respite by the seaside
Our next stop via taxi is Anmok beach café street, a newly rising tourist attraction in Gangneung where a row of cafés overlooks a beach. We order two drinks from a café and climb to the rooftop balcony that surveys the magnificent scenery. To one side, an infinite stretch of beach lines the area, and a tall lighthouse decorates the other. Over some tea, we jokingly muse that this would not be a bad way to spend our eventual retirement.
Soon, the two of us cannot resist heading down to the water, dodging waves and collecting seashells as if we were 10 years old instead of 20. A plethora of thoughts floods my mind. The sea always took me back to my childhood, back when things seemed a lot easier. Memories of building a sand-castle by the shore when I was five, of watching the sunrise on Jeju Island shores back in elementary school, and of launching fireworks with my parents just before high school ended all come back to my mind. So much has happened since, like many of my friends leaving to study at the opposite side of the Pacific from where I now stand. For some time, the reason everyday life seemed mundane was that I kept questioning myself: “Is this all there is to it?” As if experiencing an almost existential crisis, I felt that my world was very limited. However, the ocean always reminds me that the world and what I have yet to experience are bigger than I could possibly imagine.
Joong-ang Market: A chaotic yet peaceful last stop
We again travel by bus to our last destination, the Joong-ang Market. Joong-ang Market is a famous traditional market that locals have carried on from the Japanese colonial days; it is mostly popular for seafood, chicken nuggets, and a variety of snacks. Inside the market gates, there was the familiar scene of customers bustling to buy food, and venders more than eager to sell them. Even as a vender yells, “You with the camera, our chicken nuggets are the cheapest!” I oddly discover peace amidst the confusion because everyone is treating it like a routine. We spend some time chatting with the venders before rushing to the fish market upon working up some appetite. Eager to try Gangneung’s famous raw fish, we cannot ask for better delicacies than the freshly-caught halibut and rockfish.
After dinner, my friend and I trudge further down the market and are shocked to find unique snacks like Shin Saimdang bread and squid ink ice cream. Unexpectedly, we find a beautifully-lit avenue called Wolhwa street near the market. As the sun sets, we also settle down on a bench and reflect on our journey through Gangneung. It dawns on me that our conversations have gotten more and more hopeful as the trip progresses, and I am eager to bring this new-found hopefulness back to my daily life. Despite our bodies feeling quite fatigued after the busily-scheduled trip, our spirits are higher than ever.
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As I thank my friend for accompanying me on this wayward journey and hop on the bus home, I feel as if this trip has changed me for the better. Retracing the steps of the old poets connected me with the past, present, and future of Gangneung. The sense of healing from the trip gives me the courage to stand up to everyday life. Knowing that the calming ocean of Anmok beach as well as the region’s peaceful yet invigorating beauty will be there waiting until the day I return, I will carry on.