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Exploring ‘The Land of Morning Calm’

Before South Korea became globally known for its beauty products, kimchi and pop groups, it was known as the Land of the Morning Calm. The name has long been used to refer to the Korean Peninsula, before the division of South and North Korea, because of its tranquil, temple-dotted mountains and serene forests where dawn breaks on the Asian mainland.

But calm is not a word that best captured the state of South Korea in the years running up to the pandemic. It experienced a cultural explosion of art, cuisine, literature and cinema with high profile films such as “Parasite,” which swept the Oscars in February 2020 and nudged the nation onto many travelers’ maps. A month later, the coronavirus hit and a calm returned. The bustling nation had closed shop.

But on June 1, 2022, Korea opened to foreign tourists again, issuing short-term travel visas for the first time in two years and lifted most COVID-related restrictions for residents.

The secrets of rural Korea are not widely known, even to many urbanite Koreans. According to the Statistics of Urban Planning, 92% of the country’s population now lives in urban areas, up from just 39% in 1960. As a traveler to more than 20 Asian countries, including popular destinations such as Cambodia and Thailand, lesser-traveled spots such as Laos, Bhutan and Taiwan, plus a dozen trips to Japan, I assumed the slow-paced side of Korea might be similar to those countries.

How wrong I was.

In March 2019, I spent two weeks hiking and touring through rural South Korea to explore the eight mainland provinces of this 38,750-square-mile country, slightly bigger than Indiana but smaller than Kentucky. Unbeknown to me, March wasn’t the best time to go. It’s mud season. Wildflowers hadn’t bloomed yet, many trails were still closed and smog was at its worst.

Despite the mud, I lost myself in tranquil thatched-roof hamlets, peaceful Buddhist temples clinging to mountains, glittering dark sky reserves and unhurried “slow food” towns where a generation of South Korean women older than 60 are preserving the country’s culinary heritage.

Leaving Seoul Behind

Getting out of metropolitan Seoul, home to a staggering 26 million people, is the first hurdle of any visit to rural Korea.

High-speed Korea Rail trains are affordable and efficient but tend to connect to other urban areas. Hiring a guide and driver is not cheap, but offers a good way to get a deeper understanding of the fast-changing culture. I did a hybrid of the two, which helped bridge the language barrier and let me move around freely, still allowing for independent exploration and unstructured downtime.

Escaping Seoul’s infinity pool of neo-Brutalist sprawl takes about two hours by car. The drive passes row after row of blocky uniform apartment towers, lined up like dominoes across the drab plains that surround Seoul’s bowl-shaped basin and eight surrounding guardian mountains.

South Korea’s northernmost province, Gangwon, two hours northeast, is a sensible first stop, not to mention the scenic shooting locale for “Okja,” a 2017 movie by “Parasite” director Bong Joon Ho about a lovable pig raised on a lush mountaintop farm. Gangwon is pressed up against the infamous DMZ (Demilitarized Zone), a 160-mile-long, 2.5-mile-wide buffer zone between North Korea and South Korea.

I skipped the DMZ to instead explore the northernmost parts of South Korea, where domestic travelers have long sought out the pristine beaches, granite-peaked national parks and forested valleys.

I was headed for Seoraksan (Snow Rock Mountain), one of South Korea’s 21 national parks and a UNESCO-listed Biosphere Reserve in the Taebeak Mountains, a spine running the length of the Korean Peninsula. At the park’s base is a smattering of gift shops and food stalls hawking hot coffee, noodle soups and fortifying bowls of dok boki, toothsome rice cakes drenched in a fermented red chili sauce.

If you have a spare eight to 11 hours, you could make the challenging climb up 5,604 feet to Daecheong Peak, the park’s highest summit. I didn’t. Like most visitors I opted instead for the shorter and easier cable car ride to another summit called Gwongeum Fortress, originally built to fend off the Mongolians, whose multiple 13th-century invasions left many traces in Korean art, cuisine and culture as we know it today.

The fortress ruins are scarcely visible today. But six honey-hued granite peaks give the illusion of a towering castle and jut like spindly fingers into the sky. The five-minute gondola ride to it whisked me up to a network of narrow hiking trails and boardwalk bridges. From the top station, I scrambled an additional 20 minutes up to the top, where I took in views of the East Sea, pine tree-spiked ravines, not to mention the park’s stupas, temples, bridges and a 48-foot-high bronze Great Unification Buddha.

It was Saturday in low season when I visited but the trails were crowded with groups of elderly Korean women in oversize visors angling for group photos with the granite peaks. To me, Koreans seemed more direct than some of their Asian neighbors, more in line with people in China or Germany. When people bumped into me — in a coffee shop, on the nature trails or, especially, on the cable car — it was all part of the experience.--NYT

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