Busan

Finally, we have reached our first big Korean city with all the promises of congested streets, maddening crowds and zero parking.

We had only driven thirty klicks from where we had camped overnight when we passed the first metro station. As our plan had been to stop at an outlying station and go into the centre by train we felt a little cheated because the growing city in front of us was proving to be good fun to drive through. We had a quick discussion on the walkie-talkies and decided to pilot the trucks right down to the sea front – it has been months since we met such an urban sprawl and we had forgotten how exhilarating it is to plough right into some place you’ve never been before.

Luckily, for us, Busan’s roads are pretty well organised and we were never led into a dense market area or directed up one of the incredibly steep hills that lay just off the main roads. After thirty minutes of flyovers, tunnels, bridges, six-way junctions and dual carriageways we arrived at Gwangilli Beach – the southernmost point of our travels so far…

Gyeong-ju

Having parked up in one of the most historically interesting areas of South Korea, the capital of the ancient Silla kingdom, we cycled the 7km into town to do some shopping and have a look around.

As we were breakfasting in a supermarket car park, this taxi pulls up and the driver sprints into the shop. He returns with four blocks of tofu which he places in front of each wheel and a litre of soya milk which he splashes over the tyres. With all four of us staring at this bizarre activity, pastries half munched in open mouths, the guy proceeds to drive back and forth over the tofu until the stuff is splattered all over the tarmac. He jumps out to check his work and is about to get back inside and drive off before we manage to ask him what the hell he’s doing – he just looks at the sky, smiles and bows, hands together in prayer…

For us, this is very interesting, after seeing thousands of Korean devotees queuing up to bow and pray at every shrine and temple they are visiting, in, what seems to us, a mechanical fashion – we get to observe a proper bit of religion, downtown in a rush and at work.

Guinsa

One of the more spectacular temple complexes in South Korea awaited us a few hours drive further into the mountains of the east central area.

We weren’t sure what to expect – we knew that it had been established only in 1945 and had become the headquarters of  the Cheontae school of Korean Buddhism. We knew that the buildings there were quite fancy and that thousands of devotees were present at any one time.

As we pulled into the car park at the bottom of the steep valley where the complex is located, and saw the hundreds of vehicles, the gift shops and restaurants, the ongoing construction of a massive, ornate building next to a service station – I suddenly had a flash back to when I had visited the infamous pilgrimage site of Lourdes in southwest France many summers ago.

I think there is an underlying similarity to many Korean sites of interest – they generally seem to involve parking at the bottom of a great big hill then walking to the top. Now, Guinsa had a little bus that took us halfway but by the time we had arrived at the temple I certainly appreciated the extra oxygen in my blood from giving up smoking a few weeks before.

Hwanseongul

The biggest limestone cave in Asia. I don’t know whether that makes it the biggest cave of any kind or whether you can get bigger granite ones or whatever but it was a pretty impressive hole in the side of a mountain nevertheless.

There didn’t seem to be much in the way of stalactities or stalagmites but the caverns were massive and the formations were beautifully weird like some alien spaceship or an inside out Cappodocia. And the English language should surely come up with a special word to describe that feeling you get when wobbling around on a rope-bridge over a chasm that is too dark and deep to measure.

Sokcho

Our first taste of South Korea – Russia was, let’s face it, pretty much European all the way to the Eastern Sea so after a short ferry ride we seem to have made it to the other side of the world.

After a few days acclimatising (and not going more than 3km from where the ferry dropped us off) we were ready to venture southwards but we couldn’t miss the Sokcho Cultural Festival. And despite the free food, ball room dancing exhibitions, cuttlefish-gutting competition, stilt walking and the breast cancer awareness tent it seems Vaga was one of the star attractions as the people of Sokcho, young and old, came to touch her, stroke her back and whisper sweet somethings into her ears.

I’m beginning to wonder if Vaga resembles some cartoon character that’s on TV at the moment because, unfortunately for her (she dislikes this kind of child-like fuss), the attention seems to be a trend as we move into the Korean hinterlands – with everyone waving, whistling or blowing kisses at her as we pass by. And to think I was once intending to stencil “Apple iDog” on her back, attach the logo and put some LEDs on her collar in an effort to render her electronic and thus inedible because I was worried that some East Asians might think she was food…