When you travel in Korea, you travel for one of three reasons: mountains, beaches, or food. Luckily, two weekends ago, I traveled for all three. This trip had been planned for a little while, but with no date set in stone, so on the Wednesday preceding the weekend, Molly and I met up to discuss plans. We, after little to no deliberation, decided that we both needed a break from Seoul and made plans to meet up early Saturday morning to head out to the east coast. Our original plan was to pack up and have a two day, one night hike in the Seoraksan Mountains, but instead – we headed straight for the beaches of Sokcho.
It wasn’t a total hiking trip wash, though, since Sokcho was actually a hub for Seoraksan hiking. See, Sokcho is a small beach town located on the jagged shores of the East Coast and up into the valleys of the mountains that rise as if out of nowhere. But instead of just mountains, we also experimented in taste-testing lunch, watching women mechanically clean fish, climbing to the top of a lighthouse, eating a full sashimi meal, and in hiking over eight hundred stairs to the top of a mountain. Not too bad for a weekend’s work and play. Surf and Turf.
The first day was all surf. Arriving at the express bus terminal, we noticed that the beach was a mere two blocks away. Although the weather was a good fifteen degrees colder in Sokcho than Seoul, we still braved the sandy beaches to watch small children run in and out of frigid water, parents look on with concerned but not all that interested gazes, and couples taking self-portraits every three steps. You do have to make sure the lighting is just right. Right?
With hunger setting in on us, we started off toward the main part of town. On the way, though, was a giant E-mart. E-mart is, for lack of a better analogy, like a giant Target with food, drinks, clothes, and books. It’s anything and everything you’d ever want in a shopping trip with the exception of a car or house, but I’m sure that could be arranged if you asked the right person. Molly and I ducked in here not for purchasing anything, but just a few samples. See, E-mart is great about that. Around lunch time there’s a feast worth of samples scattered throughout the store. Watermelon, kiwis, bananas, dumplings, kimchi, coffee, cookies, breads, it’s all you’d want out of a Korean deli lunch.
Satisfied and hunger at bay, we made our way over the Sokcho bridge and onto a small island famous for it’s Octopus Soon-Dae. Normally, Soondae is sweet potato noodles, garlic, meat, and onions all stuffed into a – hold your breath – pig’s intestine. But here in Sokcho, it was rice, garlic, salt, onions all in a ring of octopus battered and pan fried. It’s a specialty (and one reason you travel to Sokcho) and it’s amazing. Savory, salty, chewy, satisfying, and simultaneously not very heavy. Dipped in wasabi-soy-sauce, it was perfection at 4pm.
To get off of this island, we pulled ourselves, and a whole barge, across a small inlet onto the main area of Sokcho. Wandering with no true destination, we found ourselves down by the international ferry to Russia. That’s right, Russia. If you want to, for a small fee of about two hundred dollars, you can hop an eighteen hour ferry up to Vladivostok, Russia. I hear it’s beautiful up there. That’s a lie, but I’d like to imagine that it’s icy and cold and stoic and people wear big coats all year round and drink Vodka for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Who knows, though.
At the ferry, we didn’t only find an escape from South Korea, but also a huge fish market. This place was teaming with elderly people indulging in raw or live seafood. Women dressed in rubber aprons, rubber gloves, and rubber waders, would call you over to their stall, in hopes that you would pick out a moving fish for them to clean and serve to you all within five minutes.
In the belly of the market, Molly and I stood in amazement, watching these women mechanically kill fish and plate them. I’d say about four fish a minute. That’s speed. That’s precision.
At one point during our voyeuristic endeavors, a man tapped me on the shoulder and offered me a shrimp or some crustacean – I couldn’t tell you exactly what it looked like. But I can tell you that it wasn’t yet dead. I asked how I’d get around to eating it, and he demonstrated: by the tail dunk it in red pepper sauce, then into your mouth it goes. I nodded which, to him, meant it was go time. He took a crustacean, dunked it, and put it near my face. I opened my mouth and without thinking, ate it. I forgot it was alive at first, since it got a bite or two in on my tongue. I’m all good now, though. Molly squirmed in the background and refused his offer of another go. He laughed and slipped away into the market again.
After the market, we made our way up to the lighthouse to watch the sun set just behind the craggy mountains. As we climbed we talked about dinner – “What should we get?” “Well, we’re on the water, maybe some seafood” “Sounds like a plan, let’s do it big.”
But as some of you know, finding a restaurant with me isn’t the easiest thing. I look for the perfect one, even if I have no idea where I am. A good forty minutes passed then Molly just took the reigns – “let’s go here. I don’t care how much it is.”
Entering into the restaurant we were by far the only foreigners there. To be honest, I don’t know when the last time the waitress saw a foreigner. She shakily offered me her only English “Sashimi? Yes?” I agreed and said that we’d like a small set for two. She nodded and said that my Korean was very good. Lies, but nice to hear every now and then.
Then the feast started and it was anything but small. First one dish, then another, then a crab, then some cider, then lettuce, then another dish. I’d go through and tell you what these fish were, but I haven’t the slightest clue as to what they are called in English or in Korean.
We dove in, for lack of anything else to do. I watched other tables as they watched us put soy sauce on lettuce leaves resting in our hands and top it with raw fish. We cut into the crab and dined royally on the big plate of raw white fish. We drank small sips of the local alcohol and laughed the night away. The different fish ranged the gamut in terms of flavors. Some were light and delicate, taking to the soy sauce well. Some were robust. Some tough and chewy. And some – it was unclear if they were dead yet. Regardless, the whole meal was about as fresh as you could get, surrounded by friendly Korean companions.
The next morning, we’d turn from the surf and take to the turf. It was going to be an early morning to hike up to the cloudy peaks of Seoraksan.