There is no particular reason that Korea’s rural northeast is often overlooked. Rather, there are several small reasons: it’s out of the way from any significant city, the bullet train doesn’t run there, winter brings heavier snowfalls than it does most the rest of the country, and it’s not proximally close to either China or Japan, which could historically account for its underdevelopment. It’s the sort of area one would probably read a book through on a bus ride, though if you glanced out the window you’d notice mostly flat, traditional Korean roofs hovering over a sea of cabbage farms and some of the best mountain views in the country, widely unobscured by condominiums.
Gangwon-do’s southern half is rough and beautiful, like a female bodybuilder; you’re frightened by her toughness, but equally attracted by the challenge. It’s a perfect weekend trip for anyone looking for natural respite free from hordes of fashion-conscious Busanites and, well, white people.
I took the train out through Taebaek to the coastal towns of Donghae and Samcheok this January. Taebaek’s known as one of Korea’s best mountain resort cities, arguably second to future Olympic site Pyeongchang (more on this below). Donghae is notable for traffic signs cluttered with four languages (Korean, Chinese, English and Russian), and Samcheok, which is sort of a part of Donghae, is undeniably most famous for its signature park filled with penis statues.
Though Donghae is primarily industrial and dominated by Russian seamen, beaches like Mangsam and Chuam prove popular summertime hotspots—though refreshingly not as popular as Haeundae. The city’s star attraction, however, is what’s proudly labelled in tourist literature as “The Grand Canyon of Korea”, a.k.a. the Mureung Valley, a vast and national park with peppered with modest waterfalls and temples along pebbled riverbanks. It’s a bit far from the city centre (about a 9,000 won taxi ride), which is both pleasant in its escape and difficult to reach unless your Korean is good enough to navigate the bus system. Donghae’s Seafood Market is comparably the Jagalchi of the northeast and lays claim to some of the freshest seafood in the country. As a final option, from Donghae’s Mukho Port, would be to take the three-hour, 51,000-won (one way) boat to Ulleung Island (also reachable via Pohang, which is closer to Busan but further from the island itself). Though really a weekend on its own, it is purportedly as naturally beautiful as Jeju and significantly less touristy.
Samcheok, only a city bus away from downtown Donghae, offers fewer traditional tourist spots than its industrialized big brother, but is home to several beautiful and fragile mountain caves (Hwaseon, Daegeum) that are entirely overshadowed by the outskirts park filled with dicks. It’s called Haesingdang Park, and behind the bone-benches and phallic fences there’s a touching folk tale of a virgin bride who died at sea, coinciding with subsequent poor agricultural seasons, which in turn caused all the villagers to assume that her angry ghost really just wanted a slew of cock-and-ball statues erected along the coast. While walking through the park itself the schoolgirl-giggle novelty comes and goes, but the surprisingly gorgeous Pacific Ocean view alone is worth the 3,000 won entrance fee.
THE MOUNTAIN TOWNS EN ROUTE
There are good reasons to visit Gangwon-do now, not the least of which is the fact that Pyeongchang will soon host the 2018 Winter Olympics. This means two things: first, that the next few years a new 250-km-per-hour KTX line will be laid down through Gangwon-do to Incheon; and second, that winter tourism in the area will almost certainly skyrocket accordingly with a spike in ski resorts and the like, so you should probably check it out for the hipster cred of being able to say “I saw Gangwon-do before it was on ESPN.” Currently Pyeongchang offers some of the best mountain hikes in Korea, especially Mt. Seorak to the south.
Southeast of Pyeongchang lies Taebaek, a surprisingly clean and cultural city, and also a more convenient stop for the Busan route than its Olympic sibling. In addition to being one of Busan’s best options for ski hills with real snow, every January, Taebaek hosts a huge Snow Festival with beautiful snowy mountain hikes, ice sculptures and spunky Korean women doing a traditional Korean drum mash-up with machetes on blocks of ice. In the warmer months, like Pyeongchang, Mt. Taebaek is an excellent and massive hiking route crowned with the gem of Manggyeong Temple, uniquely built by Silla Dynasty monks at an altitude of over 1,400 feet atop the mountain.
Currently the best way to get up to Gangwon-do is to take the Mugunghwa, the rickety old slow train that sometimes oversells tickets to the point that 30% of passengers are forced to stand as if riding a city bus. No direct route means a transfer at Dajeon or Jecheon is likely, but a one-way ticket is still just over 30,000 to Donghae and the whole trip doesn’t take more than a few hours. You could conversely take an overnight bus direct from Busan straight to Donghae if you have more time than money. While you’re in the province, you might fancy checking out communities I didn’t visit or mention here and therefore know little about, like Wonju, the province’s largest city, or Jeongseon, birthplace of the “Arirang” song and home to the only casino in South Korea into which South Koreans are actually allowed.