We’re back! If you follow me on Instagram you probably saw some of our vacation experiences as they were happening.
We spent the last week travelling through the mountains of Korea discovering people and places along the way.
It was definitely an experience to remember. We had both good times and bad. So instead of just telling you about it, I thought I would “tell” you about it in a story-like form. Kind of like a travel journal. So this will take a few posts as I hash everything out from my brain.
A few things to know about our vacation beforehand:
- We didn’t use a travel agency or book any tours. The only thing we had booked beforehand was motel rooms (which got changed as you will read).
- Our entire vacation was paid for with cash on hand – except for our initial train tickets and motel rooms which we booked online with our debit card. We didn’t go into any debt – which is how we wanted it.
- We packed minimally to remain flexible and be able to carry everything along sightseeing if needed.
So without further ado – part one of our vacation story
Last minute change of plans
We were all set to leave on Monday. I had our train tickets and motel rooms booked online. Our first destination was Gyeongju – capital of the Silla dynasty and home to the mound-tombs of ancient kings. This was the one place I wanted to visit on our vacation – the place I was looking most forward to.
I get an email from the manager of our motel in Gyeongju asking if we wanted to be picked up from the train station and given a free shuttle to the motel. That sounds great, so I respond and ask about room for our kids in the shuttle vehicle.
Everything goes downhill from here. The manager responds in choppy English that the room is too small for 5 people (even though I made a note that we were booking the room with children). I try to explain, but it seems that he doesn’t want to give us the room. I contact the online booking site – there is a cancellation fee of our first nights’ rate. At this point, I’m upset. I didn’t cancel, the manager cancelled. But I still had to pay the cancellation fee and find another room before we left in less than 2 days!
I still haven’t found a room. Our options are to either go there and find something once we arrive, pay almost double for a room online, or change our travel plans.
That evening we go out to dinner with our italki tutor Miss Jee. She offers to call the motel and talk to him for us, but by that time I didn’t really want to stay in the motel if the manager was going to be this stubborn. As we are walking home after saying goodbye, the girls and I see on the news blaring out of a little shop that the typhoon that was hitting Taiwan would be reaching the Korean peninsula on Tuesday. My mind is spinning – Tuesday would be our only full day in Gyeongju, which was pretty close to the coast. If the weather was going to be cruddy maybe we didn’t really want to go there anyway.
At home, I share this information with Jay. The kids are afraid that vacation will be cancelled. Jay and I stay up late discussing options. Our motel in Danyang isn’t booked until Wednesday. Should we just postpone vacation until then? Should we go to Gyeongju last? Is there an alternative place we could go that won’t get hit too hard by the typhoon?
An unplanned destination – Wonju
Thankfully, switching train tickets is not a problem. I’m still miffed that we were charged $65 for a motel room we never got to use. But my hopes are up that maybe it was God’s plan we avoid Gyeongju during the typhoon.
After studying train routes and travel guides, I convince Jay that we could take a short trip outside of Seoul – about an hour – towards our destination in Danyang. That way, if we couldn’t find a motel room we could come back home in the evening. The train tickets are way cheaper and the train is slower – a Mugunghwa-ho class train. That way we can see more of the scenery (the bullet train to Gyeongju goes 180+ mph).
Our first vacation experience will be Wonju.
The air is crisp and clean. A cool breeze validates my insistence that everyone have a jacket or fleece vest as we head out the door, but the sun quickly warms our shoulders as we trek down the hill to the subway station.
Our train tickets are booked for 11:02 am which gives us plenty of time to explain our new vacation plans to the kids and fill up their bellies. The girls are generally excited – asking lots of questions about where we are going, what the train will be like, etc.
I’m a little nervous since this is our first train ride. I have no idea how early we need to be to pick up our tickets or how the kids will do motion sickness-wise.
Our carefully packed bags on our backs, we make our way through 2 subway transfers and up the escalators into the train depot. I have to ask a couple times where we can get our tickets but we eventually make it to the platform to wait on our train.
We have first class tickets – which basically means a slightly larger seat at the front of the train. The car is nice though, and practically empty. A few businessmen with briefcases speckled among the seats. Catty-corner to Jay and I there is a nun who greets us pleasantly and speaks a good amount of English.
The ride is relaxing except that I can barely hear the announcements at each station stop. Jay helps by looking out the window and reading the station names as we arrive but I’m afraid we are going to miss our stop and have to rush off last minute.
Asking the nun for help solves this and she assures us she will tell us when the train reaches Wonju. My mind calmed, I sit back to enjoy the countryside. The numerous tunnels are fascinating to Gaius – annoying to me. But we do get to see some gorgeous valleys and farms along the way.
Arriving in Wonju – making arrangements
The train station is on the edge of town, but there seems to be enough activity that we feel confident about finding accommodations.
Jay and I immediately sense that we are outside of Seoul. Hardly anyone speaks English, but a few kind elderly gentlemen saunter up to us as we stare at the town map and ask us where we are going.
Is there a bus station? (gentleman points to the nearest bus stop – not exactly a station)
Oh – we need to find a motel. Where is the main area of town?
At that point, the gents look at each other and then point to a strip of semi-tall buildings across the major road. “Motels,” they elaborate.
I thank them and kind of shuffle everyone towards the pedestrian crossing. Jay suggests we check out the first motel.
The building is grey on a long line of similar grey buildings. The only variance of architecture is the bright sign jutting out of the front edge that states, “Q Motel”. An attached parking area is covered by car wash style curtains. Inside the lobby is set back into the main floor through a dark hallway. The front desk is basically a window in a paneled wall.
The proprietors don’t speak a lick of English. I quickly dig around for my survival Korean phrasebook and express to them that we are interested in a room. All I catch from the lady is that the room is ondal – so basically a room with no beds just pads and blankets on the floor.
I look back to Jay and ask him if this is ok. We ask to see the room.
At this point, I’m pretty sure that the motel is a love motel. Rumors, myths, and legends are built around these short-stay hotels. This one seems to try to cater to both couples (with iffy vending machines in the upper hallway) and families.
The room is clean, the kids are in love with the big screen tv and computer right in the room, and the price is right. Jay is ok with sleeping on the floor (bless him – this was the one thing he feared I think) so I go downstairs to pay for 2 nights. I pay cash – $100 and get the key that runs the door and all the lights in the room.
After unloading our stuff and freshening up, we set out to find a place to have a late lunch.
Looking back – I have no idea why we just took the first room we saw. Wonju is not a small town – around 300,000 people. I guess being unfamiliar with the area made us feel like we needed a room right away. Later we would see plenty of nicer motels and areas we could have gone. But such is an adventurous journey- you can always look back and see what you could have done different. Proximity to the train station did make it handy though, and we never had any issues with the room.