Where: Sokcho, north east coast of South Korea, Gangwon-do province.
When: July 2011
Why: Weekend break with my boyfriend (now husband), whilst I was visiting him in South Korea.
Sokcho is a resort town on the north east coast of South Korea. It has beaches and attractions and sits on the edge of the gorgeous Seoraksan National Park – a wonderful, dramatic, craggy, national park which is very, very popular for hiking and climbing.
Sokcho itself is a nice city, located between the sea and the mountains. Sokcho is a sprawling, port city which is based around two huge lakes and which runs inland along valleys and along the coast. For most of our visit we were based in the area of Sokcho beach and the express bus station (which is in the south of the city).
I liked Sokcho. It had a relaxed, unpretentious air about it and I loved Seoraksan National Park. I think Seoraksan National Park is somewhere that will be different each season that you visit. We saw a Seorakson National Park of monsoon flooded rivers, clouds and crags, mists, mountains and magic; but if we return in autumn I think we would find a wonderful land ablaze with the turning trees; in winter it must be a magnificent white wonder-land and in spring I bet it’s lush and gorgeous, and bursting with life. We will have to return to find out.
Getting there and getting around
To get to Sokcho we caught the bus. We thought that buses only ran from Dong Seoul bus station in Seoul, which is in the east of the city, so we headed here on Friday night and then stayed in a jimjilbang by the bus station (more about jimjilbangs below), before catching an early bus to Sokcho. It took about three hours to get from Seoul to Sokcho and the journey through the dramatic mountains was wonderful. The bus dropped us off at the intercity bus station, which was in the north of Sokcho. We walked into the town center and then caught bus 1 to the express bus station, which is by Sokcho beach.
To get back to Seoul we caught a bus from the express bus station which took us to the express bus station in Seoul, which is on the south side of the city, where we wanted to be. These buses ran every hour. The weekend we were there, the buses were very popular and sold out quite quickly, so I recommend pre-buying your tickets if you can. The journey again took about 3 hours ish, though this time we were travelling through torrential rains.
The journey cost approximately ₩15,000 each way (about £10).
Sokcho to Seoraksan National Park
Buses 7 and 7-1 went to Seoraksan National Park. Each journey cost us ₩1,000 and took about half an hour. To get to the national park, we travelled through some lovely countryside, which becomes spectacular when we got to the park. The bus stopped at the main entrance to the park, about five minutes walk from the cable car.
What we did on our weekend away
Went on the beachy
Sokcho beach is quite resorty: there’s shops and ice creams and umbrellas for hire, and one of those floaty things that gets dragged behind boats. Most visitors seemed to hang out at the north end of the beach, so about half way along it all quietened down and we had quite a large, quiet stretch of sand to ourselves – and it was nice sand.
We went on the beach on the Saturday afternoon, as the sun was shining (and we wanted to make the most of it before it started raining again).
The only thing about Sokcho beach is that it is overlooked by machine guns as it’s quite close to the North Korean border here, and incidents have happened along this coast (if you go to Jeongdongjin, they have a North Korean submarine which was captured when it grounded itself, whilst spying on South Korea in 1996). It’s a little bit surreal.
Find out more about Sokcho Beach and it’s facilities at the Visit Korea website.
Seoraksan National Park and Seorak cable car
North east South Korea has incredibly dramatic, craggy, mountain scenery, which is stunningly beautiful. Seoraksan National Park is a gorgeous national park which is a great place to go hiking. It is about half an hour from Sokcho by local bus, and is a beautiful place to visit.
We visited Seoraksan National Park on the Sunday of our visit. The weather had worsened and though it wasn’t raining, the clouds were hanging heavy overhead. We caught a local bus to the national park, traveling alongside a white water, rapidy river.
We jumped off the bus at the main entrance to the park (it cost ₩1,500 to go in) and then we headed to the cable car, to go up to the top of Seorak mountain.
On the cable car it was hot and steamy, and the windows kept misting up; but the fog inside just reflected the fog outside. The clouds closed in and all we could see was steel cables leading off into the mists, the raging river in the valley below us and the occasional craggy rock face looming up ahead.
At the top of the mountain we decided to walk through the rain to Kwongeum Castle, but first I needed the loo. Whilst we were at the toilets we discovered a teeny, stony path that led to a Buddhist shrine; so we set off over wet rocks, being dripped on by the trees, into the mysterious, mythical mist of the top of the mountain. It wasn’t a scary trek, as we couldn’t see the drop that was right next to us. We could hear chanting emerging from the fog, and we followed this.
The Buddhist shrine when we found it was pretty but similar to many other Buddhist shrines in South Korea. It was the isolated, high location which made this one special.
In one of those strange, serendipitous moments that you get whilst traveling, in the middle of nowhere, on top of a mountain, at an isolated shrine lost in the mist, we bumped into a fellow passenger from the DMZ tour which I had been on a few days previously. We were literally the only people on this section of the mountain, and we’d already met. (I had also seen a lady from my DMZ tour the day before on Sokcho beach).
Anyway, after the ‘wows, how freaky to meet you heres’ Jeff and I went off to climb up to Kwongeum Castle. This was a fort built in 1253 during the Koryo dynasty to defend the country against the Mongolian invasion. Legend has it that it was built in one night by Kwon and Kim – hence the name.
The walk up to the castle was pretty easy going, although there were a lot of steps and it was a little slippy in the rain. Also we found that the Korean tourists were very pushy and wouldn’t wait for us to go over the thin bits – which made it feel more unsafe. But hey ho: it was pretty and wet and there were chipmunks.
There isn’t a fortress at the top anymore, but there was an interesting peak which Jeff went off to climb. The views were foggy and misty, but occasionally a mountain peak would appear, or a rocky crag. I would love to go back on a clear day, when apparently you can see row after row of mountains.
The cable car is open till 18.00 in summer, 17.00 in winter. The return trip cost us ₩17,000 (about £12).
By the time we got to the bottom of the mountain the heavens had opened, so we decided to head back to Seoul. The journey back was amazing as it rained and rained and rained – and we followed a dramatic white water river which started as a mountain stream and slowly grew and grew until it was a mighty waterway.
I hope that one day we can return to Seoraksan, to see it in every season. It was a magical place to visit and stunningly beautiful. Like all of the national parks in South Korea, there were great, well marked hiking trails with lots of public toilets and facilities etc. I’m looking forward to going back to walk and to explore this amazing place further.
Where we stayed
Riverside Spa (by Dong Seoul bus station), Seoul
The night before we caught the early bus to Sokcho, we stayed in the Riverside Spa jimjilbang. Jimjilbangs are Korean bath houses, where you can sleep on the floors for a few hours with a brick for a pillow. It’s a strange but nice idea, but not very comfy.
However, the bath house section is amazing! The Riverside spa had jacuzzis, saunas, hot and cold pools to wallow in and masseurs. It was fully naked, which does put a lot of westerners off, but I found that you soon get used to it and it’s not too bad. When I checked in they gave me a locker key and a jimjilbang uniform of badly fitted, pink pajamas – this is what we had to wear in the communal areas. In the changing room there was a little stall which sold beauty products (including shampoo and conditioner), and there werenail bars, masseurs etc. I had a full body massage and hair wash for ₩20,000 (about £13) and it was amazing! I have never been so relaxed in my entire life – which made sleeping on the floor with a brick for a pillow a little bit easier.
In the communal area they had a cafe, a PC bang and areas where we could sleep on the floor. There were rooms with special temperatures (my Canadian boyfriend wanted to sleep in the igloo), there were wierd oven like pods, there was an oxygen room and a cinema room. By the time we got there most of the floor space was full, so we slept in the main hall. There were mats and blankets available to hire for ₩1,000 each (about 80p).
It wasn’t the comfiest nights sleep I’ve ever had, but it was OK and I did get five hours sleep. When I woke up I went back into the spa to work out all of the kinks in my back. That was nice.
Jimjilbangs are basic places to stay whilst traveling and though they’re not exactly comfy, it is something I’d do again. It did feel a little cult like (especially with everyone in the same jimjilbang uniform) but that just added to the hilarity.
The Riverside Jimjilbang was cheap: ₩10,000 (about £7).
Goodmorning Family Hotel, Sokcho Beach
To make up for the uncomfortable night we stayed in a nice, three-star hotel located between Sokcho beach and the intercity bus terminal. The room we had should have been ₩80,000(about £55) but the hotel dropped the price to ₩60,000 (£40). The room was fabulous and large, had a kitchen, huge flat screen TV, yummy bathroom and abseiling equipment in case of a fire. Our room had a view of the mountains. Some rooms overlooked the beach.
I’ve not been able to find a website for the Goodmorning Family Hotel, but it is listed on Hotelscombined.com.
Stay in a pod which looks like a zit
If you like ‘alternative’ style accommodation then you may wish to stay in one of the pods which are by Sokcho beach. These red and white pods, which look like huge zits, are semi circular rooms which contain a bathroom and bedroom. Although they are slightly zit like, they do look really cool. Our friends have stayed in them and they said that they are quiet and comfy. We had a peek inside and they look like a cool, fun place to stay. The pods are located by the Sokcho beach car park.
Again, I’ve tried to find info about these pods, but can’t find anything on the internet. Our friend stayed there and she thought they paid ₩90,000 per night (about £60), for 3+ people.
You can camp behind the beach, but I’m glad we didn’t do this, as we would have been washed away by the monsoon rain.
You can pick up a fab map of Sokcho from the information centre at the bus station. Like many of these tourist maps, there is loads of useful information on the reverse side.