CONTRIBUTED BY SIBO LUNGU
After a day in Seoul we jumped on the midnight train to Jangdongjin in Gangwon-do province to arrive just in time for the 5am sunrise. Sounds nuts right? What kind of sunset is worth skipping a night of sleep for 6 hours on the slow Korail Mughunghwa train? Well this one:
Seeing the sunrise is a Korean tradition that I am so glad to have witnessed. Traditionally, seeing the east coast sunrise is done on New Year’s Day when families travel to see the first sunset, eat rice cake soup, and with that receive good luck for the new year. This wasn’t New Year, but there were still a good 100 or so people who jumped off the train and walked the literally 20 steps to the beach. Jandongjin station is the closest station in the world to a beach. Pretty cool.
We walked out 20 steps and sat on the closest bench to enjoy the beautiful sunrise. Lots of selfie sticks made an appearance as we all took impressive view in, smiling at each other like we had just witnessed something great together. I love the community feeling in Korea. Even with strangers, you can sometimes feel like you are with aunties and grannies.
Summer is just about here and there is nothing better than heading to the beach to enjoy the soft white sand, clear blue water, and ocean breeze. Before this I’d only ever been to the west coast beaches and while nice, the sand on the west coast tends to be muddier (hence Boryeong Mud Festival), and the waters not clear blue. The beach in Gangneung blew my mind. Where was I, Hawaii!!?
Getting here is easy. You can go by bus to Gangneung from Seoul Express Bus Terminal or from Songtan Bus Terminal. From Songtan, it takes about 3 hours and the bus makes a stop at Pyeongtaek and Osan before continuing on its way. It makes one convenience break at one of the large Korean traveler stops on the highway.
The Korail train we took on the way there was the slowest and cheapest Mughunghwa train. It is the only train that goes to Jangdongjin Station overnight and arrives in time for the sunrise. The tickets were sold out the day we left so I am very glad I bought the tickets online about a month ahead of time. Standing for 6 hours like some people had to do just wasn’t going to work. One older man was snored away in the aisle! Buy tickets on the Korail website.
This isn’t a comprehensive post about what to see in the area since like most places in Korea, there is always so much more to do once you get there. Basically, there is beach, history, trails, and delicious fresh seafood. At many of the hotels, there are brochures in English to help plan. After a busy month of May, relaxation was the only thing on our to-do list. We chose to stay in Gangneung on Gyeongpo beach because there seemed to be enough to do there- Beach, a large lake, bikes, a nature park, a historical site ( related to the woman on the Won50, 000 note), water sports and restaurants (99% seafood).
Jangdongjin, about 30 minutes away, has similar minus the lake. It also has the famous cruise ship hotel and the Hourglass Park which is famous at New Year. It takes a full year to empty sand, so on N.Y.E, it’s quite special to observe the last grains drop through. R.O.K. soldiers walk the beaches patrolling for N.K fishing ships. It’s a bit odd, but just go about your way and disturb them.
One of the first things we did the first day in our sleepy state was to go on the Korail Sea-Train which is a modified (large windows and window-facing seats) viewing train that goes from Jangdongjin down to Samchoek. The trip is about 1.5 hours and the views are beautiful. For some portions of the trip, you are a bit far from the beach, but overall it was definitely worth doing. It’s a bit of a party train in that there is an MC/DJ on the train commenting on what you can see outside and playing songs in-between. You can text message to request songs too, which is fun. There is also a “car-cam” in each car. We danced and sang with new friends as the camera displayed our dancing selves on the TV screen. The Sea-train sells out fast too. We got lucky. Ideally, you should book ahead, but unfortunately the site is not the regular Korail site, but a Korean only website, so ask a friend or buy tickets in person at a KTX station.
One famous attraction you’ll see if you Google Gangneung is the cruise ship on land. It’s a full sized cruise ship in Jangdongjin built on land to be a hotel. I can‘t lie, it’s pretty cool. It was way overpriced over the holiday weekend we visited, but it is usually reasonable ($90 +). So we settled on paying the $5 to tour the grounds. This was so very worth it. One garden had sculptures and fountains and was so pleasant to explore on that perfectly sunny spring day.
There are 2 glass bottomed overlook which are not for the faint hearted. One seemed sturdier than the other, but the wooden precarious looking one was more spectacular by far. You walk down the wooden staircases until you get to the glass overlook. I must say, the wood hammered into the sand didn’t look too secure, but there was no way I wasn’t trying. All I can say is thank God Korea has no earth quakes! I am pretty sure we’ve all be gonners.
Some areas on the ship are closed off to non-guests, but the top decks, tiny museum, cafes, gift shops, and rotating lounge bar at the very top is worth seeing. In the rotating lounge, $9 for a Conrona is a bit much but hey, when you are on vacation a little splurge is worthwhile for the experience! There was even a duo playing piano and singing old English folk songs. Other than the sunrise the day before, sitting up there was definitely the “aaah” moment of our getaway, when all the stress just melted away.
I am car-less, so Korean bus schedules have been my friend since day 1. Gangnueng and Jangdongjin are about 30 minutes drive apart and I’d say are the main attractions in the area. Samcheok is a fishing village, and I didn’t see too much in Donhae. If you have a car, there are several beaches and camping spots all along the coast that looked perfect for a restful weekend with family and friends. As we are car-less, and were only there for 2 days, we settled on Gangneung and Jangdongjin. Note that the bus (city bus, not from the intercity terminal) between these two places runs every 2 hours so plan accordingly.
While there are several places to stay in all price ranges, not all are available on online hotel booking websites. You may have to do a search on Naver (Korean Google), get a phone number from there to call and book.
Even though it was perfectly sunny and hot, no one was in the water! Even at the Cruise hotel, the pool was completely empty! All weekend, I saw one Australian guy jump into the crystal waters. I told this to my co-worker and she said simply, “Well, it’s not summer yet”. If I can wear a t-shirt and no jacket, it’s summer.
Pro Tip: Summer season officially begins in mid/end end of July here, so if you go before then, you’ll beat the crowds and have these crystal blue waters and all the sand you can imagine all to yourself. And yes, they do sell fireworks on the beach for added nighttime fun!