I knew that I wanted to see more of South Korea than Seoul and following a random tip from a random American expat I met on the metro, I decided to head to Sokcho. I had asked the girl, who was teaching English in Seoul, where she recommended I go for a day trip. Not only did she recommend going to Sokcho, but she told me it was her favorite place in South Korea and recommended the very cool hostel/hotel I ended up staying in.
Sokcho isn’t a big place. It’s a couple of hours from Seoul by bus and when the bus is coming in you will be astounded by the gorgeous mountain scenery of the place and then if you are clueless as to what to expect (as I was) you will be very surprised to descend quickly to the Sea of Japan. Sokcho is located in Gangwon province and has a population of about 84,000. Despite this relatively small size, however, the city sprawls out for a fair distance in seemingly all directions. In the summer months it is a favorite holiday destination for people from Seoul, but in the winter it is a blissfully empty place.
In addition to the Sea of Japan and the very nice beaches in Sokcho, there are a couple of other draws that bring people. One is Seoraksan National Park and the other is the extreme proximity of Sokcho to the DMZ between North Korea and South Korea.
Arriving in Sokcho, I had no idea where the The House Hostel was located in relation to the bus station and since the weather was nice, I decided to walk. Not knowing at this point the sprawling size of Sokcho, I got extremely lucky and picked the right direction to head. I walked along the beach enjoying the snow on the sands and the many odd fish sculptures along the sea shore. It turns out that Sokcho is quite well known as a place for fresh fish.
Leaving the beach, I walked towards a large iron bridge and noted the thousands of fish drying on the roofs of nearly every house I passed. When I see a big bridge like that, I know that I should walk across it. So, that’s what I did and I found myself in the most interesting little warren of streets and fish shops I had yet seen in South Korea. There was something very different about this place but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Later, I was to find out that the island village I’d come to is called Abai and that it is populated almost exclusively by expats from North Korea who had escaped from Kim Jong Il’s insane country. Abai was the setting for a popular Korean TV drama called “Autumn in My Heart.”
While I was happy to be seeing this very interesting place and still wondering why it was different, I wanted to find The House Hostel and realized it was not on this little odd island. After about an hour of wondering around (thankfully I travel with just my satchel and it isn’t very heavy), I found that there were three ways to leave Abai 1) take a boat to somewhere 2) walk back across the bridge (I hate backtracking) or 3) take the very cool hand drawn ferry boat back to the mainland. You can easily guess which option I chose.
The ferry man used a metal hook and a cable to pull the boat across and as I stood watching he motioned for me to grab a hook and help him out. I was more than happy to work side by side with this North Korean ferry man to reach my destination. The cost of the ferry was 500 won, about half a Euro.
One other note about Abai is that it is famous for something called the Abai Sundae. Don’t expect ice cream though, it’s made of squid intestines, pig blood, kimchi and other things I chose not to eat, but the girl who recommended Sokcho told me it was one of the most delicious things in South Korea. In this case, I chose to avoid not take her advice.