A winter's joyride

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A winter's joyride

JEONG-EUP, NORTH JEOLLA - The elderly man rose from behind his desk at the entrance to the visitors center at Naejangsan National Park, which straddles the Jeolla provinces south of Seoul. You could almost see him changing mental gears from Korean to English as he prepared to meet his visitors. In serviceable English, he greeted us and answered some questions about the park, handing over a sheaf of brochures, magazines and maps of the park and the surrounding area.

Eun In-ki is 79, he mentioned in passing, so by Western reckoning he is 77 or 78. Two years ago, he said, the mayor of Jeong-eup, the city adjacent to the park, had asked him to volunteer his services at the visitor center because he spoke some foreign languages. From 9 to 6 every weekday, he said, he was here at the center.

"What languages?" we asked politely. "English," he replied, "and Japanese and German."

One question led to another, and we listened to an abbreviated tale of a life that could qualify Mr. Kim for some sort of personal historical designation along the lines of those given to some of the physical landmarks at the park. Travel, it seems, is broadening not so much for the things you see as the people you meet. And Mr. Kim, born in 1924, had seen and participated in a lot of Korea's rough and raucous modern history.

It was just before the end of the year, and I had an unaccustomed string of three days off. The new west coast highway has made it much easier for Seoul residents to escape the city and visit parts of the country that in the past would have chewed up too much time sitting in traffic jams. With no idea of specifically where we were heading, we began paying the incessant string of 1,100 won (80 cent) tolls on the Seoul bypass roads, crossed the scenic new bridge over Asan Bay, and continued south.

We arrived in time for a late lunch at Gunsan, in North Jeolla province, a port city along the west coast and home to an American air base. Wending our way to the inner harbor, we selected the Gunsan Hoe Jip, a raw seafood restaurant in a high-rise building. The seventh-floor public dining room featured a nice view of the harbor and an extensive menu of raw seafood delicacies. I negotiated a steamed lobster, despite the waitress' protest that this was a raw fish restaurant, but she returned shortly to report that there were no lobsters in stock. We dined on a plate of assorted sashimi; the 21,000-won serving was generous, easily enough for one raw fish enthusiast and one guy who would have preferred something a bit more well-done. But the oysters on the half-shell ?ahhh!

Gunsan has little to offer the tourist except as a jumping-off point for some offshore islands, so over lunch we discussed our next destination. We settled on Naejangsan, which was featured in the Joong

Ang Ilbo English Edition on Oct. 24 for its dazzling fall foliage display.

We left the expressway for a smaller road, and the road signs were a bit of a puzzle. They helpfully pointed the way to Gimje, but even after passing through an urban area of that name, the road signs still insisted we were heading there.

But there were also signs for Jeong-eup, which is just outside the park. That city prides itself on three counts: It was the site of the Gabo peasant revolution of 1894 against the decaying Joseon Dynasty and foreign influences; from much further back in history, it is the origin of the "Jeongeupsa," the only remaining lyrical epic of the Baekjae Kingdom (18 B.C.-A.D. 660); and in autumn, 13 varieties of maple trees turn the crevasses and mountain peaks of the area into a riot of fiery colors.

Autumn was long gone, and snow was beginning to fall in the dusk as we navigated toward the park's entrance. We picked a small hotel at random; the quoted 25,000 won room rate seemed too good to be true, but the rooms were clean and comfortable, with the possible exception of the foam rubber-on-plywood bed, a staple in small inns across Korea. Now for something to eat.

Out of the dusk loomed three huge balls jammed together, each a couple of stories high. Something like portholes are cut in the balls. It looked like a bad bathysphere accident, but it is, I am informed, a "theme restaurant." The restaurant's name is Bison, which evidently means nothing in Korean but is a name associated with a couple of French restaurants in Seoul. French theme? Perfume bottles? Who knows.

Inside one of the balls, there was a bouquet of artificial flowers under a plexiglass cover on the floor. A waitress appeared, bowed, left the menu, and bowed again. She returned shortly with a water pitcher, bowed, filled our glasses, bowed again and retreated. A few minutes later, she came back to take our order, again with bows coming and going. The food, served with more bows, was quite acceptable Western food - a cutlet and spaghetti, and the bill, about 13,000 won per person, was also reasonable. On the way out, I glanced into the neighboring ball, and there was a life-size astronaut in a space suit against the wall. Theme mystery solved.

The next morning, the snow-covered mountains were a pretty sight as we headed for the park entrance for breakfast. The tourist village seemed garish against the mountain background, but some human pleasures were there among the tourist kitsch.

We climbed the stairs to a coffee shop, and the proprietor bustled up behind us and made a pot of coffee. She told us to help ourselves to more coffee or cookies, saying she would be in the store below the coffee shop. We took her up on her offer, drained the pot and went downstairs to settle up. We were charged for only two cups - try that in a Seoul coffeehouse.

Naejangsan National Park is relatively small, covering about 7.5 hectares along the border of the two Jeolla provinces. It is home to two major Buddhist temples: Naejangsa in the north and Baegyangsa further south.

The few cars we saw in the park area all sported Jeolla license plates; only the autumn leaves, it seems, lures many tourists from outside the area. Near the park's entrance is one of its most stunning views: an amphitheater-shaped curve of mountains - seven named promontories in all - guarding the valley where Naejangsa temple is nestled.

We took a cable car to the skyline as the snow fell; our only companions were a few vendors lugging their supplies up to the peak to begin their day's work. At the top, a path led to a pagoda on an outcropping, but the shopkeepers advised against trying to walk the 150-meter snowy path. We contented ourselves with admiring the view from the cable car station.

Korea's mountain temples all seem pretty much the same to me, albeit with some remarkable exceptions like Bulguksa in Gyeongju and Haeinsa at Mount Gaya. The Naejangsa temple was founded in A.D. 636, but its existing buildings date back only to the end of the Korean War and were rather unremarkable. After a short look around, we stopped in the visitor center, where our plans to pick up a map and see more of the area were hijacked by Eun In-ki.

As he began to show us around the visitor center, he also told us something about himself.

Mr. Eun graduated in political science from Tokyo Imperial University (now Tokyo University) in March 1945. Immediately after graduation, he was drafted into the Japanese Army and sent to Manchuria to oppose the Russian advance there. After the Japanese surrender in August, he was interned in a Russian work camp, managed to escape, and made his way on foot and by train back to his ancestral home in Jeolla. The trip took about three months, he said. After a short stint as a translator for the American occupation forces, he began a 42-year career as a secondary school teacher and principal and raised seven children. His four sons, he said proudly, are all professionals and one worked for the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration as a physicist before returning here to work for Korea's communications satellite agency.

"I've seen a lot of Korea's modern history," he said with a smile. "I should start writing my novel before I die and it's too late."

The visitor center was attractive, and Mr. Eun showed us a three-dimensional relief map of the area and a diorama with samples of the flora and fauna of the park area.

Mr. Eun mixed some personal tales with his explanations of the park's attractions, and we ended up keeping him and his staff beyond their lunch break. We belatedly excused ourselves to find some lunch ourselves and decide on the next leg of our ramble.

Back at the tourist village again, we encountered a second surprise - an outstanding restaurant called the Jeonju Restaurant that served us an assortment of about 20 main and side dishes for 10,000 won per person. The cuisine was touted as authentic Jeolla - as if I could tell the difference - but the dishes had distinctive tastes, not just slight variations on the red pepper and garlic gochujang paste theme. One of the two main dishes in particular, a mushroom saute, must have included a sprinkling of wild mushrooms, judging by its special tang.

I asked the proprietor if her prices were the same year-around; she said that the restaurants in the area did not raise their prices in the autumn high season, although prices for lodging do zoom.

Several other destinations in the region sounded appealing - Jirisan National Park, for example ?but we decided to head further north to Yuseong, a hot-spring resort on the outskirts of Daejeon. On the Honam Expressway, we saw two of the new World Cup stadiums, at Jeonju and Daejeon.

Instead of a rustic spa setting, Yuseong, about 10 kilometers from central Daejeon, looks like a tourist village on steroids. The Lonely Planet travel guide had the same reaction, noting that visitors should not expect to frolic in a steaming outdoor pool at a Korean hot spring. Spas pipe water in from the spring source.

Cheek-by-jowl restaurants advertise Japanese food and the ubiquitous raw seafood. After the previous night's sponge-on-a-board bed, we decided to check in at the upscale Riviera Hotel. The walk-in price was 140,000 won per room - and that, we were assured, was a discounted price. Only later, back in Seoul, did I see that price posted on the hotel's Web site as the posted rate. The room was about four-star quality; overpriced, we thought, for a provincial hotel.

If Buddhist temples are generally indistinguishable to me, I am even less adept at distinguishing "good" mineral water from poor water ... or from tap water, for that matter. But my companions assured me this was the hot spring to end all hot springs.

Be that as it may, the hotel's spa was modern, clean and relaxing. Two sauna rooms offered a choice of over easy or cooked to a crisp, and three marble pools ranged from chilly to a place I could have cooked the lobster I couldn't find in Gunsan.

As I soaked the road vibrations out of my hide, I thought about what one of our reporters had told me about women's spas in Korea: as much a place for conversation and gossip as for bathing, and as much a social ritual as relaxation. This men's spa was quiet; several men were there with their sons, but there was little conversation of any sort.

Reports of impending snow got us on the road to Seoul early on New Year's Eve day. Watching the snarled traffic inching through the falling snow from my apartment window later that evening, I thought about what stood out during this short trip - seventh-century Buddhist temples, a modern spa, one restaurant with food in a centuries-old style and another serving spaghetti in a space ship - and an elderly gentleman who grew up in a traditional age and now lives in a modern one.

by John Hoog

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