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This past weekend I went to Chuncheon with Habiba. Chuncheon is a small city in central northern South Korea; it’s in the west of the northeastern province, Gangwon-do, and is a little south of Cheorwon, the DMZ area where Habiba and I first met. It’s a town of rivers bloated by dams, and we went there because I had the week off work, it’s my birthday, I wanted to go away for a weekend with Habiba, and Chuncheon looked as good a place as any … and it wasn’t too far away.


I spent Friday night at Habiba’s and got up around 5am on Saturday. Leaving her building half an hour later, we ran into some of her colleagues weaving their way home after a night of revelling. We got to Dong (East) Seoul Express Bus Terminal early and got tickets for the six-thirty bus. For a minute we waited in the wrong place, but a question to a bus ajosshi sent us in the right direction. And then we missed our bus.

We were in the right place at the right time, but the coach that left at 6:30 had no writing on it to indicate it was going to Chuncheon – so we didn’t get on board. Fortunately, we were first in line for the unoccupied seats on the 6:40 departure.

The journey was supposed to take an hour and a half – and that’s exactly how long it took (a bit less, in fact). I’d done a little work previously to look for hotels, but good English information isn’t readily available – or I just didn’t try hard enough. I had the details of one place near the bur terminal, though (I’d had a colleague call the previous day only to be told that they could only take reservations with advance payments. I was also told by my Korean colleagues that it would be easy to find a place to stay once there). Habiba and I went there in the warm morning – and found that they were full. As were several other nearby hotels and motels (the area was decidedly hotel-motel).

We started heading back to the coach station and then stopped at a ‘drama gallery’ which also contained a tourist information centre. (‘Drama gallery’, I think, meaning that it was a museum dedicated to TV and film made in the area, including one thing called ‘Winter Sonata’. There were a couple of mannikins of characters from this drama smiling directly at any tourist who happened to stand in front of them.) This place was closed. We sat on a bench outside and had some cucumber and cold rooibos/lemon/green tea. We watched a couple of young Korean guys come up to the closed doors then mill around uncertainly. A few minutes passed. One of the guys tried again, and they told us that it was now open. It was nine o’clock.

Inside we got a map of Chuncheon and some other leaflety stuff. We asked about hotels, explaining that the ones nearby had no rooms. The staff called a hotel for us and had someone come out to pick us up. Then they made us tea. Very sweet. The staff, that is, not the tea. The tea was a basic paper cup of nokcha (green tea).

An eldery man came into the gallery about ten minutes later – our lift. On the way to the hotel – Grand Hotel – he described a few amenities in very basic English. Pointing out the many banks, he said, ‘Bank, bank, bank, bank … Money!’ The Grand Hotel didn’t live up to its name, but it wasn’t bad – and you can’t really argue with ₩40,000 a night (especially for one night). The room had a large flat-screen TV, a water cooler/heater and a computer with internet access. English-language channels on the TV were limited to movies and crime drama.

Habiba had picked out the Animation Museum as a place to visit – and I had no particular preference as to what we did first, so, after a rest – it was still pretty early, after all – that’s where we headed. The taxi ride was about ₩10,000 – that’s around £5, but it’s expensive compared to most taxi rides one takes in Korea. The museum was outside Chuncheon itself, on the opposite side of the river. And it turned out to be more aimed at children than adults, and all the information panels were in Korean (although with English headings).


There were some interesting exhibits, though. An animation from 1895 of Gertie the dinosaur being given instructions via silent film text panes. Upstairs, there were examples of animation from around the world. In the eastern Europe room we watched a film of a discarded lump of clay that came to life and fought to be part of the sculpture he had been removed from; eventually the sculptor relented and made him into the bust’s bust. There were displays of old toys – among them some aged Disney stuff.

Once we’d finished there we wondered about getting a taxi back into town. It didn’t look like it was going to happen. We had a lunch of chicken galbi – a kind of barbecued chicken. It was nice – and there was a lot of chicken – but a little pricey at ₩35,000.


Afterwards we walked along a nearby road that led to the tomb of General Sin Sunggyeom. The road was populated by lots of small black and lime green frogs. The tomb vicinity was a pleasant, quiet area. Habiba and I sat under a weeping willow overlooking a pond – in the rain. I took photos of us together. Possibly the highlight of the weekend.


We had a look round the rest of the area, which was also very nice, but the rain dampened the atmosphere. We caught a bus back to town. After a further rest at the hotel we decided we would go to a temple somewhat outside town – Cheongpyeongsa. We’d been told that the way to get there was to take a bus to Soyang Dam, then take a ferry across the lake and then walk for an hour. I was particularly interested in going there – especially that day, the 2nd of May – Buddha’s Birthday. I’d listened to my Korean colleagues telling Sandy that there would be lantern festivals at every temple. I asked the old man at the hotel about it and he told me 12 o’clock. He couldn’t tell me more than that, so I could only assume that the festival would go until midnight.

We took a taxi to the temple. It took a long time. We travelled a long and winding road well outside Chuncheon up into the hills. When we got there, there was no sign of the temple in the darkness, and no real sign of lantern festival-goers. There were a couple of people about, presumably heading to the temple, but it seemed pretty much deserted. We realised we couldn’t get out here without being sure of a ride back to Chuncheon. The fare was at over ₩30,000. We agreed with the driver that he would take us back for a total of ₩45,000.

On the way back we talked about the importance of researching holidays and how neither of us like doing it. I was a tiny bit embarrassed and annoyed at the situation, but with Habiba there – and she didn’t seem too upset – I felt OK for having just wasted a small wad of money.

The driver nicely dropped us at a temple in Chuncheon itself. The festival was well over, although there were a few people around. There many many lanterns, and several large lantern figures – a couple of dragons and an array of zodiacal animal warriors. A few young kids said hello and some women pressed an armful of fruit on me.


From there we made our way back to the vicinity of our hotel, got some food and beer, then watched The Dark Crystal. I’d been telling Habiba that I had an extremely vague memory of having watched it in the distant past. But, having watched it in the very recent past … I don’t think I did – it was all new to me. She urgently wants me to also watch The Neverending Story and Labyrinth.

The following day we were thinking of hiring bikes, but we couldn’t find anywhere to do that (not that we tried all that hard). After breakfast at Starbucks (not Habiba’s favourite place in the world, but, as you know, I’m fond of the franchise) we bought tickets for 6pm for the journey home and then we went for a walk in the bright sunshine.


We passed through a sculpture park and wandered round a glass pyramid that contained a display of bonsai and flowers. Inside, we were asked to write our names in the guestbook. Habiba wrote, ‘Elisabeth Sarah Sura Amin Habiba Smallen’. I wrote, ‘Sean’. On a minor river channel, we saw a man catch a fish – he had about a dozen rods set up and he was notified of the bite by an electronic alarm.


When we got to the main channel of the river we took a swan-shaped pedalo out on the water – along with a score of other white and blue fibreglass birds. Afterwards, we had lunch on a wooded hill surmounted by a bell pagoda. The hilltop was populated by a modest swarm of large, excitable bees. They weren’t too bothered by our presence, but they appeared to be mating – and also chasing off butterflies and even birds.


Nearby there was something of a surprise. Namely and cenotaph and tiny museum dedicated to Ethiopian involvement in the Korean War. Apparently, about 120 Ethiopians lost their lives in the conflict. All the information (except headings, of course) were in Korean, so I can’t tell you much more than that.


Habiba got a little pissed off that I wanted to backtrack a little way to photograph the war monument. We separated while I did so, and then I had to walk about a kilometre to catch up to her. There’s something kind of addictive about taking photos – and when I’m sightseeing I tend to take a lot. I see so many things that interest me – the obvious stuff like monuments, buildings and what have, but also textural things like walls and foliage. Unfortunately, I also put too much effort into editing them before uploading them to Flickr.

We got a taxi, went back to pick up our bags from the hotel and returned to the coach station. At my suggestion, we’d passed a lot of time playing word games. As we were waiting at the terminal I concluded Habiba’s challenge of ‘I spy with my little eye something beginning with B.’ Having been stumped and had to request clues (Habiba’s first two efforts at I Spy, I got in one guess – she definitely improved over the weekend), I narrowed it down to something to do with the body. Eventually I asked, ‘Breasts?’ At which Habiba laughed – but not quite in way one responds to something silly or outrageous. I asked, ‘Is it a synonym for breasts?’ Turned out it was. Turned out it was ‘boobs’.

We managed to get on the right bus back to Seoul. However, the road was clogged with traffic – presumably everyone was returning from spending the holiday weekend on holiday. Just like us. In order to make up for this, when the road was clear the driver drove rather psychotically. This was particularly unnerving as the road traversed a mountainous river valley. At one point, going over a long curving bridge, I’m sure the bus clipped a barrier.

But we arrived home safely, if very late. I was pretty exhausted, and we didn’t watch another movie together nor do anything much in bed other than sleep.

The weekend had some definite highlights, and the lowlights weren’t that bad in the scheme of things. It was a bit of a challenge, too – one that I was eager for, to be sure, but it left me more than merely physically tired. I was a little depressed – but I’m not sure about what, exactly. The challenges and stresses of the holiday? Spending two days straight with someone – even my girlfriend? Simple fatigue? No doubt a combination of various factors. Now, two days after our return from Chuncheon, a day and a half after leaving Habiba in Seoul, I feel like I’m just about fully recovered.

Habiba, this wasn’t the best weekend it could have been and I’m sorry about that – I’m glad we went, though. I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you exactly how I was feeling on Sunday night – not that it was anything terribly bad. See you on Friday, pumpkin – let’s watch The Neverending Story and kiss and cuddle and all that stuff.

Categories: Life, Travel
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