Kangnung Trip
by Brian Stuart

With a successfully completed PADI Scuba Instructor training course under my belt, it was time to head out to Korea’s East Coast to scout out possible training sites for my future students. I was looking forward to combining two of my passions: motorcycle riding and scuba diving.

Years of experience with Korea’s traffic has taught me to leave early in the morning. On my last trip to the East Coast, my girlfriend and I left our house at 4:30 a.m. What a pleasure it is to ride from the west side of Seoul straight through downtown to the east side in less than 15 minutes! But on this Friday morning, I just couldn’t get up that early and so I departed at 7:30 a.m.

After clearing the Walker Hill Hotel/Casino, traffic was pretty reasonable on the road that bypasses Guri to the south. It’s pretty much a straight shot from there to Tanwol on Highway 44/6. Although you can’t tell by looking at the standard tourist map of Korea, Highway 6 runs from Incheon to Yon-gok on the East Coast. On the map I was using, Highway 6 appears to suddenly start just east of Tanwol as a southerly branch off of 44, but in reality, Highway 6 appears on signs all the way out west to Incheon. It merges with Highway 44 and 46 at various locations near and in Seoul. My plan was to follow Highway 6 all the way to the East coast as it zigzags north and south of the Yongdong Expressway. At this point, I have a major gripe to get off my chest, so bear with me.

A couple of different Korean motorcycle aficionados have told me that about twelve years ago, the government banned motorcycles from the nation’s expressways. These toll ways are really super highways that run straight and level over rice fields, rivers and through mountains with a limited number of on and off ramps. The Kyungbu Expressway runs north-south between Seoul and Pusan, while the Yongdong Expressway is your ticket for east-west trips.

While I enjoy motoring down Korea’s scenic two lane country highways and reveling in the sight of green-covered mountains and picturesque valleys, I wasn’t really in the mood to meander my way all the way out to the East Coast. I had just driven out there about a month before with my girlfriend, and on that trip we had just followed signs to towns that were progressively east until we arrived in Kangnung. That trip took us six hours to complete, partly because we were not in a hurry and stopped for meals, drinks and rests along the way. On that trip, we took a little sojourn up north from Kangnung, and I noticed a scuba dive shop at Young Jin beach, about 15-20 minutes north of Kangnung. That was my destination on this trip—I wanted to get to that same dive shop and see if it was a good place to bring students to for open water scuba training. But I didn’t want to take six hours to get there.

Which brings us back to the expressway ban on motorcycles. Twelve years ago, I don’t think there were any motorcycles larger than 125cc’s on the road. When I arrived in Korea in 1994, the largest two-wheeled motorized vehicle I saw on the roads was either a Hyosung-Suzuki or a Daelim-Honda, both 125cc bikes. Sure, some elite policemen drove around on Harley’s, and there were a few old used foreign-made bikes you might be able to find over on T’oegyero, but for almost all of us helmeted death wishers, 125cc’s was the rule. My first four bikes were either Hyosungs or Daelims. The electrical systems on both models didn’t last long, but they were dependable. They didn’t seem to ever stop running (unless they impacted a vehicle head-on or were stolen and returned later completely thrashed). However, with a top speed pushing 120 km per hour (if you were lucky AND didn’t mind the shaking) there was no way I would want to drive one for any distance on the expressways. Many years ago, I took a wrong turn and wound up on a Korean highway south of Seoul. Even at full throttle, it seemed like I was on a bicycle and cars were whipping by me at outrageous speeds. At that time, I readily agreed with the government official who decreed that motorcycles should not be allowed on the expressways.

Now however, it’s a much different story. About 4 years ago, foreign bikes flooded the domestic Korean market. Honda CB 400cc’s seemed to be the most popular, and I think they still are. Two of my friends and I embraced the leap in cc’s and eagerly bought a 400 each. Our legs felt like rubber after the first day of exhilarating racing through the streets of Seoul at speeds we could only dream about before.

“Better than sex!” was the general consensus, although those priorities switched back to normal after a few weeks…

Two years ago, I was lucky enough to buy a Honda 1300cc X4 from a friend at a reduced rate. It is a sweet bike for touring. If I’m still in Korea when I’m 50, I’ll be riding this bike.

While I sometimes prefer the agility of my 400 for the streets of Seoul, any time I head out beyond the city limits, I jump on the X4. With a top speed of over 190km an hour (with absolutely no shaking), it is simply ridiculous to ban such a bike from the expressways.

I actually drove on the expressway with my girlfriend on our return from Kangnung. I saw the sign for the expressway and thought, “What the hell, let’s take a chance.” The tollgate was fully automated with a ticket dispenser, so it was no problem. “This is great,” I thought while looking at a sign that read: “Seoul, 230 kilometers.” My comfortable cruising speed was 120 km per hour, 20 kilometers over the speed limit. I figured we’d be back in Seoul in about 2 hours. One problem: there are no gas stations on the expressway. So here I am passing almost every car on the road, with one eye on the gas gauge and another eye desperately scanning the side of the road for a gas station. It took us an hour to pass Wonju, almost halfway back, before I decided it wouldn’t be a good idea to drive on fumes. Unfortunately, the tollbooth to get off the expressway was not fully automated.

The look on the woman’s face as I pulled up was one of sheer amazement and incredulity. I could have sworn she had never seen a motorcycle before. If a leprechaun had pulled up on an oversized dragonfly, I don’t think she could have been more surprised. She was literally at a loss for words and action.

My girlfriend produced the toll ticket and, although she is Korean, wisely decided to remain silent. I, on the other hand, flipped up my visor and said in my best Korean: “Hello! How much is it?”

When I got a surprised look in return, I innocently asked, “Is there a problem? What’s wrong?”

Apparently, we were such an attraction that eight employees (I was guessing that it was the entire staff) from the office to the side of the road came out to gawk at the strange sight of two people riding a motorcycle. The lady in tollbooth finally recovered the ability to speak and started yelling at a man who I guessed was her manager.

“What should I do? He’s got a ticket.” she yelled.

“Is it a foreigner?” yelled the manager.

“Yes. He’s on a motorcycle!”

“Have him pay!” yelled the wise manager.

I should note that as soon as I pulled up, I noticed a policeman standing a little ways beyond the tollbooth. I think he immediately saw that I was a foreigner and decided to ignore the obviously illegal situation. He was a young guy and he just stood there at a distance watching. I’m glad he did.

So I paid my ticket, nodded “hello” to the policeman as we passed him, and stopped at the gas station that was just a few hundred meters away. I didn’t think I would be able to get back on the expressway after that experience, so it took us about another two and a half hours to get back to Seoul.

Slow moving tractors and construction trucks suddenly pulling on and off the road; kids playing in the street in numerous small villages along the way; stoplights at intersections and crosswalks; old men and women pulling carts down the road; driving up and down steep mountains on switchbacks that have hairpin turns; oncoming traffic passing other cars while coming at you in your lane at full speed—all contribute to extra time on Korea’s small country roads. According to the Korean government, the expressway—which doesn’t have any of these hazards—is a far more dangerous place for motorcycles. It’s high time the Korean Ministry of Transportation woke up to the fact that motorcycles larger than 125cc’s are now abundant on the nation’s country roads and it would probably be safer for everyone concerned to allow those of us who are in a hurry to drive on the wide, level and straight expressways.

Such were my thoughts as I blasted down narrow country roads sometimes at speeds in excess of 130 kilometers an hour, half hoping to be stopped by a policeman so I could give him a piece of my mind. It didn’t help matters that as I got closer to Kangnung, and started to hit the treacherous mountain switchbacks, I could see the expressway sometimes suspended on a bridge far above me and sometimes coming out of a tunnel far below me.

With a sore arse, I pulled up to the MacDonald’s in downtown Kangnung and got something to drink. It was almost noon and I had been driving for about four and a half hours with only gas station breaks. (Another reason to let motorcycles on the expressway—we’d use a lot less gas.)


Young Jin Beach along Korea's East Coast

Driving along Korea’s scenic east coast will make anyone forget their troubles, and so I pointed my bike north with renewed vigor. I was getting a bit worried that I wouldn’t be able to find the scuba shop again, when there I saw it just before a sharp corner that marked the beginning of Young Jin beach. I pulled up and asked the people sitting at a table in front of the shop if this was indeed a “skin scuba” shop. (How “skin scuba” became standard Konglish is beyond me—Korean waters, as I was about to experience, are way too cold to be diving without a wetsuit…)

Mr. Im Chang Guhn, a very nice guy who at first glance looks like a Harley-riding Hells Angel, complete with goatee, motioned for me to sit down at a table in front of his shop. We then began the familiar (to me) foreign-language communication dance. Now, I’m not really that good at Korean, and Mr. Im obviously doesn’t have much opportunity to practice English, but we managed. He and his assistant, Mr. Kim Chang Moon, were very friendly. After experiencing their hospitality, my ideas of the typical Korean ajoshi were very much changed—further proof that stereotypes simply don’t wash.

I went on two boat dives with them that day. Our first dive was shallow, probably because we had a student diver with us. Before our dive, I felt like I was sweating buckets just getting the gear together. It was a warm, humid day. Just before the dive, Mr. Im and Mr. Kim looked at me in surprise and wondered why I wasn’t wearing a hood. Actually, all my dive experience has been in tropical waters, and I have never felt the need for one. Once underwater, I was very happy that I was wearing a full-length 5 millimeter wet suit with a 3 mm shorty over it. The water temp was about 20 Celsius. I didn’t really need a hood, but I figured I would wear one on the next dive. Our deepest point was only eight meters. Nothing really to tell—lots of hard sand, boulders, starfish and two regular fish in a crevice.

On the next dive I was very happy to be wearing a hood. We went down to 27 meters and my dive computer said the temperature was 15 Celsius. Call me a wimp, but I have never dived in water that cold—I simply have never felt the need.

There were four of us—our divemaster Mr. Kim; a Catholic priest from Kangnung; the same student diver from the previous dive; and I. Mr. Im stayed topside with the boat.

As those of you who are living in Korea this summer (2003) know, this summer has been unusually wet. It had just finished raining hard the day before, and this has a negative effect on the visibility. We could only see a few meters underwater. I’ve heard from various sources that the visibility off Korean coasts is excellent, especially in winter (dry suit!!), but that was not the case on that day. We couldn’t really see anything except each other and the shadow of a really big rock. After about 15 minutes, Mr. Kim gave me an exaggerated shrug and suggested we go up. I agreed.

An interesting thing occurred. Mr. Kim is a PDIC and BSAC Instructor. The Catholic priest, who was my dive buddy, was a NAUI Advanced Open Water diver. At first, it seemed my buddy was not ascending. I gave him the “thumbs up” and he nodded and showed me his depth gauge. I gave the signal to rise slowly and he nodded, but did not move. So, trying not to be too forward, I gently took hold of his elbow and we rose slowly together. At five meters I stopped for the three-minute safety stop, but my buddy kept rising. He didn’t seem to be in trouble, so I tightened my grip and held him level. He’s a real nice guy, and after the dive he thanked me for “assisting” him in the ascent. I wondered why he didn’t go up at the signal and he told me he was making a 15-meter safety stop for one minute. “Oh,” I said and let it go at that.

There are a lot of diving organizations in the world. If you list them, you wind up with alphabet soup. NAUI, BSAC, PDIC, PADI are some of the more popular ones. While diving theory is basically the same because the laws of physics don’t change, the techniques vary slightly between organizations. I’m no expert on the various acronyms, but I’m sure that all of these organizations follow safe guidelines—otherwise, they wouldn’t exist. As someone who came up only in the ranks of PADI, I can’t say that one way is better than another. But it is obviously a good idea to review the different techniques if you are diving with divers from different organizations, or you will wind up wondering what the heck your buddy is doing as you descend or ascend.

Anyway, between dives I checked out the area just off the shore. PADI regulations require that many skills for the beginning course, Open Water Diver, occur at a depth between 6 to 9 meters. Off of Young Jin beach, there many wide hard sandy areas that would be perfect for training. No coral to worry about, no sea urchins to accidentally kneel on, just rippled sand and a few boulders here and there.

I brought my own scuba gear with me, and since I am an Instructor, Mr. Im only charged me 40,000 won for the two dives. This was really cheap considering he also provided me all my meals and accommodation. Normally, it costs 35,000 won to rent a full set of gear and 10,000 won for a tank. I’m not sure, but I think there is also a small fee for boat dives, as opposed to free beach dives.


Young Jin Aqua Zone and Mr. Im
As for accommodations, Mr. Im showed me the upper part of his shop. His entire dive operation is constructed from large shipping containers, like the one Mel Gibson and Danny Glover used to crush the bad guy with in Lethal Weapon 3. He’s done a nice job of fitting the one that is located on top of his shop area with the standard Korean flooring, a bunk bed, two other beds, a TV and a couch. Very cozy. He told me that he’s had as many as ten students sleep there at one time. He offered to let me stay there, and as I was all by myself, I readily agreed.

I was really impressed with Mr. Im’s hospitality and generosity. After the last dive, I told him I was going to hop on my bike and take in the surrounding area. He offered to go with me. Mr. Im has a Honda 1,100cc Shadow, a cruiser-style bike with chopper-style handlebars. When he and his wife got into their riding gear, the Harley resemblance wasn’t just a resemblance any more: it was identical. He even showed me pictures of him and his wife that were published in American motorcycle riding magazines. A strategically placed black leather jacket covered up the Honda logo on the bike, so they were the picture of a hard-core Harley riding couple.

After a nice tour of Odaesan National Park with a drive-by of Yong Pyeong ski resort, we came back through Kangnung, through the Kyongpo Beach Resort area and back to Young Jin. Normally, when I ride my bike and have the chin guard on my helmet flipped up, I am easily recognized as a foreigner. I am used to the stares I generate, especially in the country. On this trip, I was getting a huge kick out of the stares Mr. Im was generating all by himself. He and his wife were not wearing helmets, and we weren’t going that fast. I felt like I didn’t exist as all the people on the sidewalks and streets were gawking at the Harley biker look-alikes who were leading the way.

All this riding was making me hungry. For all you Korean readers, I have a confession to make: I’m not a big fan of Korean food. Hey, I made a good effort when I first came here, but I can’t change my taste buds, and why should I have to? But whenever a Korean asks me if I like Korean food, and they all do eventually, I almost feel guilty saying, “Not really.” I know Koreans are disappointed to hear anything negative about their country, almost fanatically so. So I try to soften the blow and make the excuse that it’s “too spicy.” (Even though I am a huge fan of Mexican food, and I do love to occasionally eat Chun Chon Dak-kal-bi despite my burning lips.) I gave that general excuse to Mr. Im before we set out. Near the end of our ride, I yelled to Mr. Im over the sound of our engines that I wanted to treat him and his wife to dinner at a restaurant in Kangnung. I wanted to show him my appreciation for his hospitality, and I also wanted to have a bit of control over what we ate for dinner. But he refused and said we’d eat back at his shop.

When we got back, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that they had ordered Chinese: fried mando (pot stickers) and the like. For breakfast the next morning, I was shocked to the core when Mr. Im showed up with a loaf of bread, a carton of milk, a box of cereal and a jar each of jam and peanut butter. Not only was this guy one of the coolest Koreans I’ve met in my eight years here, he was also extremely sensitive to a “foreigner’s needs.” Of course, that could be what he normally brings to the shop for him and his employees, but I kind of doubt it.

At about 8:30 a.m. on a foggy Saturday morning, the first of his customers from Seoul showed up and the shop began to get busy. I figured it was time I got out of the way and let Mr. Im and Mr. Kim go about their business and stop worrying about making the “special needs foreigner” comfortable.

I strapped my duffel bag on the back of the bike, said my thank-you’s and good-byes, and headed out into the Korean countryside. I didn’t feel like pushing my luck with the expressway again, so it took about 4 hours of shattering every speed limit on Highway 6 to get back to Seoul.

All in all, a successful trip.

For more information on scuba lessons and diving in Korea
please head to Brian's homepage at http://www.brianjstuart.com.

You can also check out 1stop's Dive Korea page.

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