Monday, September 5, 2016

Our Roadtrip Begins. Woohoo!


St-r-e-t-c-h! I woke up feeling very well rested. I think my days of exhaustion and jet lag are finally over! I finally had a good night's sleep last night, crashing in bed around 8:30p.  You know I'm tired if I sleep more than 8 hours.  Both George and I were awake before 8a!

Breakfast was back at Starbuck's but this time, we went to one that was located across the street from Gyeongbokgung Palace.  I  have never been to Starbucks this often since I can't remember when.  Same thing for breakfast though - a cheese bagel and a cup of coffee.  Meh.....


Interesting fruit juices.  I was tempted to buy a couple bottles for the road trip.

After our quick breakfast, we headed back to the apartment and prepared to leave.  With this apartment, there was no need to hand over a key so we just pulled the door shut behind us.

Prior to arriving in Korea, I had rented a car off my favorite car rental site - Economy Car Rentals.  Our car would be provided by EuropCar and I had opted to pick up the car from their city office.  We gave the driver the address and sat back for the ride.

A short ride later, the driver dropped at the address.  We got out and nowhere in sight could we see any thing that looked like a rental car lot or a EuropCar logo.  I walked around, George walked around and nothing.  Where the pin was on the Google map was a bank in real life.  We were puzzled to know end.  I even pulled up the reservation to recheck the street address.  We were indeed in the correct location but nothing.

So we  finally broke down and asked for directions.  Not an easy thing to do because so few people speak English here.  Luckily, George crossed paths with a man coming out of a building.  We hit the jackpot!  The man was able to understand the questions and answer that there was a car rental agency on the 6th floor of the building.  We thanked him profusely and got in the elevator to check out the place.  When the door opened, we saw the agency.  We inquired if this was EuropCar and indeed it was!  They had been waiting for us.  I think they were as relieved to see us as we were to see them!  But....we had to go to another building to actually pick up the car.  So we followed the young Korean man back down the elevator, across the street, into another building and then up a few flights.  We then entered a parking garage.  Our car was here.

I had rented an economy sized car so when the white Hyundai Sonata pulled up, I knew it was ours.  I let George handle the rental paperwork duties as he has offered to do all the driving on our roadtrip.  He needs to familiarize himself with everything.  At the last minute, we also opted to rent the GPS unit.



Once George was ready to go, we hit the road.  Now, this is a guy who is normally very confident but when he's not fully sure of something, he gets understandably very nervous.  He's also impatient.  As we pulled out of the garage, the GPS unit had yet to get a proper satellite signal so there was no instruction on which direction to turn as we hit the street.  I told George to pull over and give the unit a few seconds to get the signal but impatient George insisted on driving on.  Thankfully, the GPS unit responded quickly and directed to the road out of town.

Our English version Korean GPS unit.  This thing is awesome!  The screen is large and the system is very accurate and informative.




When George and I first talked of coming to Korea, I happened up a 7 day conducted tour from a company called HanaTour USA that pretty much takes you around the peninsula.  I thought it would a good route for us to follow as it covers the major sites.  George had also asked about going to Jeju Island and I told him I didn't know if we could fit it in.  In the end, we decided to do Jeju so we modified the 7 day tour.

Seoul is quite a large city and so it took a while before we made it to the outskirts.  It was nice to finally be in the countryside - I was curious to see what Korean countryside looks like.  I was looking forward to fields and farms and was shocked to see none.  Instead, we passed through a lot of small towns filled with, of all things, clusters of tall high rise buildings.  I read somewhere that 90% of the Korean population lives in apartments.  I guess land is short here and there too many people to occupy it.


Following the 7 day tour itinerary, our first destination was the city of Gonju.  As you can see, the roads are good and the signs follow US design - now to the colors and the red, white, and blue symbols for road routes. 


To pass the time, we chatted about life and the world passing by our windows. Our GPS unit or Miss Kimchi as I nicknamed her was very informative especially when it came to alerting George that he was speeding.  He does have a bit of a lead foot.  Of course, he got annoyed with all the times she had to alert him but hey.....she's doing it for our safety and to avoid getting a ticket which God only knows would set us back how many won.

On the map, Gongju looks like it's far from Seoul but in fact, it's only about 120 kilometers (70 miles).  With the speedster behind wheel, we had arrived in a little over an hour after we had left the garage back in Seoul.

Exiting the highway put us on street that appeared to take us to the center of town.  We had no idea where we were going or what we were going to see when we arrived there....where ever there was.

Then I spotted the walled complex on our left side.  Anything walled immediately brings to mind something old.  We decided to park our car in the lot at the base of the structure to check it out.  But before that, we would first have lunch as the teeny weeny amount of food we had for breakfast had long been digested.

We figured this place was a tourist attraction of sorts and therefore, there must be plenty of places nearby to eat.  So we crossed the street to find some places and were sorely disappointed.  We had a few places to choose from.  Actually, we only had one place to choose from :-(  Well, at least it was an easy decision....


....and the menu pictures posted outside the entrance looked enticing.


We entered inside and were the only two diners there.  I think it was still too early for most Koreans to have lunch.  The tables were long and low.


We took two spots and ordered our meals from the pictures.



George ordered a pork chop thing and I went for the mandoo. I figured you can't go wrong with dumplings. My mandoo were okay but George's thin slice of pork smothered in a brown gravy of sorts could not look more unappetizing.  I felt bad for George so I shared my mandoo, which were good sized dumplings, with him.  We polished off our plates but it was not a satisfying meal.  I hope we'll have better bites in the days to come.


Located right next door to the restaurant was a coffee shop.  George is a full on caffeine addict....the kind that gets a headache if he doesn't get his caffeine.  He drinks a lot of coffee.  A quad shot, at least twice a day, is not unusual.  So, we made a quick visit to the coffee shop so George could get his afternoon pick me up.



I opted for something sweet - a bubble tea.  George had never seen bubble tea before....this coming from a guy who lives in a neighborhood surrounded by Asian supermarkets and restaurants.  He took a sip so he could taste the large tapioca pearls.  I don't think it was quite to his liking but at least he tried it.


With our caffeine and sugar fixes taken care of, we headed back across the street to where our car was parked.  George bought our tickets at the booth. 


We still had no idea what we were paying to see until we read the posted sign.


The structure is Gongsanseong Fortress, a mountain castle which was established during the Baekje Period (234-678).  Today, it is a  UNESCO World Heritage site.

Originally called Ungjinseong, the mud fortress was used by King Munjuwang (reigned 475-477 A.D.) as the Baekje capital during the Baekje Dynasty. In 538 A.D., however, King Seong moved the capital to present-day Buyeo, although Gongju remained fairly important (and close to the capital) until the Baekje Dynasty collasped in 667 A.D.

The fortress was rebuilt with stones during the Joseon Dynasty, and King Injo hid here for a short time as well.

On the way up to the fortress, we passed by a row of stele.   Most are modern-day recreations except for one which dates back to 1817.


The castle is about 2.5km long, and there are two ways of touring the castle. One way is to start from the parking lot, pass the west gate, Geumseoru Pavilion, and walk along the cement road.


The other way is to turn left at the beginning of the cement road and walk along the top of the castle, which is called Sanseong Road.  We chose to do the cement road.

The steps, situated beneath Geumseoru Pavilion, lead up to Samseong Road.

Geumseoru Pavilion is considered the main tourist entrance.  The original was destroyed to make way for the construction of roads, but was rebuilt in 1993.

A view of Geumseoru Pavilion from inside the fortress. 

The cement road gently wound its way through the forest.  It was lovely place for a stroll and would have truly been enjoyable if not for the heat and humidity that was shrouding us.  Note to self.  Only ever come to Korea in either the spring or the fall and that would be late fall.

The signage along the road was actually very good.  We decided to turn off to check out Jinnamnu Pavilion which is the southern gate of the fortress, an important gate for it led to the three southern provinces of the peninsula.  The gate pavilion has been repaired several times over the years and the current structure is the result of a complete dismantlement and restoration project undertaken in 1971.




The bright yellow and red flags mark the fortress wall.  The orignal rammed earth fortress was replaced with stone in the early Joseon Period.




We continued our walk through the fortress complex but really had no idea of what the highlights were to see so I'm positive we missed on some important structures.  At one point, we did make our way to another series of buildings but there was a group of people doing some filming with a drone.  So noisy.  That completely erased my zen mood and from that point, all I wanted to do was leave the place.  I felt I got enough of a *taste* of the place that I was okay walking away.  George did not object so we decided to leave the fortress.


We continued our road journey.  Following our 7 day itinerary, our next destination was Daejeon.

Our drive had us on a toll road.  For the most part, the toll highway works like the Jersey turnpike except you don't always just pay when you exit.  We discovered you can pay between toll booths. I'm sure there is rationale behind all this. In any event, it took us a couple of toll booths to figure out the system after which I was in charge of handing the coins and bills to George.  They also have their equivalent of our EZPass transponder based payment system.  In fact, in researching driving in Korea, many people had recommended renting a transponder from the car agency.  In all honesty, using cash is fine.  There are so few people driving on the highway, there was never a need for us to queue up behind anyone to pass the toll - the transponder would have only saved us a few minutes of time. In the end though, I have no idea how much we paid for tolls.


Gonju and Daejeon are only 26 kilometers (16 miles) apart.  With speedy George behind the wheel, we arrived in no time.

Last night, George had booked us a room at the Lacky Boutique Hotel which is very well rated on several hotel booking sites. That was the address that we programmed into Ms. Kimchi.  Every forum post that you read regarding driving in Korea will tell you that the most accurate way to enter in a destination in to a Korean GPS is to use the telephone number.  I didn't believe that at first but I can now tell you that it's true.  The easiest way to program in the Lacky Hotel was to enter in the phone number.

Daejeon is a small but very modern Korean city.  Unfortunately, I was too busy navigating George down the streets to take any photos.

On the plus side, driving on the streets was easy peasy and finding the hotel was just as simple with Ms. Kimchi's instructions.  The hotel is located just about a block off a main road and it has its own small parking lot next door.  George parked the car and we headed straight to the registration desk.

The lobby was very small but very chic and contemporary in design.  I had no expectations for what the room would be like and was very pleasantly surprised to find a very modern space.  Here's a tour of our room.  I had to point out the drainage strip to George because in the apartment was situated right next to the shower stall.  George didn't realize that's what the strip was for so he placed the bath mat right over it.  Yeah....that didn't work.


And yes, I was obsessed over the toilet which reminds me of the ones in Japan.  The toilet comes with its own control panel.


I have to admit, if not for the sticker above the control panel, I would not have figured out how to flush the toilet. Of course, later I would sit on the bowl and press each button to see what each did.  :-)


It was almost 5pm by the time we settled into our room.  George is an early diner so it was barely dark when we set out in search of dinner.  George had checked the web for recommendations on places to eat and he had found a sushi place called Sushi Hiroba that was highly recommended so that's what we set out in search of.  And search we did. It was like the car rental place all over again.  We made our way to the pin on Google Maps and there was no restaurant to be found. In fact, we standing in front of a large department store.  The address indicated the restaurant was located on the 9th floor of Galleria Baekhwajeom Time World. We decided to head up to the 9th floor to see if the restaurant was there and when the elevator doors opened, we found ourselves standing in the home goods department.  We asked a few people if the restaurant was there and we got negative replies.  Back on the ground floor, we asked the store's Information person for guidance and between responding to us and requests for assistance from other customers, she pointed for us to enter the store which we had just come out of. We were confused.  Outside, we checked out the building adjacent to the department store.  It looked to be at least 9 floors high but it was dark and empty inside. Not a place that we felt would be home to a restaurant.  George even asked for directions from a woman who was selling lingerie.  She pointed us in the same direction that the Information desk woman had. 


So, I suggested that perhaps the restaurant on the next street over so we walked in that direction.  We kept our eyes out for signs as well as buildings that looked to be at least 9 storeys tall.  We walked up one side of the street and down the other side and walked a few more other streets. There were plenty of eateries but George had his mind set on finding this place.  In fact, he was invigorated by the challenge.  I think he said something about how satisfying it would be if we actually found the place.  Uh huh....no.  In fact, grrr......!!


George is usually the impatient one but this time it was me.  Given that I eat pretty much everything, there is nothing more annoying to me than walking around trying to find a place to eat.


Finally, finally, George declared defeat and he asked me to pick a place.  Earlier I had spotted a Vietnamese place near the department store.  I decided we would go there.  We had wandered around for so long looking for that damn sushi place that it was a few minutes past 8p when we entered the restaurant.  It was small place but nice and modern.

Thank God for menus with photos.  I opted for a bowl of Pho.  It was simple bowl of food but a welcomed change from Korean food.  In fact, we both enjoyed our meals. 



When we got back to the hotel receptionist reminded us that we had forgotten to have our welcome drink.  George took his shot of booze and I ended up with this blue thing which I took back to the room.  It was a mocktail so no Blue CuraƧao for color; I think it was made with blue bubblegum syrup. I only took one sip - nothing worth drinking though pretty to look at.


Our road trip continues tomorrow.  In the meantime, I have to take my shower and then hit the sack.

Goodnight from Daejeon!