Travel, Teach, Live in Korea
There are two major differences when traveling by car instead of by bus or train in South Korea. First the ability to stop willy-nilly wherever the heck you desire and it is your responsibility to pay for gas and toll fees. Because gas prices in South Korea are charged by the liter (a quart), we were invited on a road trip to Gyeongju in Gyeongsangbuk-do. Gyeongju is famous for its artifacts, ruins and relics from the Shilla Dynasty, 57 BC to 935 AD. In addition to the Shilla Dynasty the surrounding mountains and valleys hold a plethora of antiquity. The Gyeongju National Parks have hundreds of hiking trails leading to Buddhist carvings, shrines, stone pagodas and temples. Amazing sights to observe are the large green mounds housing tombs rolling across the cityscape called tumuli.
Starting from Paju city in the northwestern corner of South Korea the drive would take five and a half hours to get to Gyeongju on one tank of gas. Our departing time was five o'clock in the morning traveling down highway 23 into the outskirts of Seoul connecting to highway 100. Highway 100 loops the entire city and has several tollbooths attached charging 1,000 won to enter each segment. Once on the highway we would drive until it met up with expressway 1, paying another toll of 1,000 won and continuing our adventure south. Two hours and fifteen minutes later we pulled off at a roadside rest stop to use the bathroom, grab a cup of java, some snacks and fill up the car. 92,000 won later we pulled back out onto the expressway continuing the journey south.
As the sun rose over the horizon line the car zigged through the rural countryside zagging back across the small mountain towns. An ever-stagnant landscape of farmland with plows, rice machinery and farm houses piling up at the edge of the expressway. A scene of both poverty and wealth stretching out as far as the eye could see.
Just shy of three hours later we reached the outskirts of Gyeongju pausing at the tollbooth decorated with traditional Shilla Dynasty roofing to pay the ticket fee of 15,900 won. The reason this toll fee was incredibly larger than the previous ones was distance covered between tollbooths. After a day and a half of tourist activities covering Anapji Pond, Bulguk-sa temple, the Gyeongju National Museum, a hike on Namsan Mountain to Chilbulam hermitage, visiting Seokguram Grotto, and a stroll through Tumuli Park to get a glimpse of the far east's oldest observatory: Cheonmachong.
We repacked the automobile, purchased gas, beverages and snacks then drove out the Gyeongju tollgate back onto expressway one heading north into the Sunday afternoon sunshine. Our decision to leave earlier in the day was to bypass traffic in Seoul later that evening. There are two reasons for traffic on a Sunday evening, a car accident or congestion. Just shy of Suwon city, an hour south of Seoul we found traffic. Our driver hoped for an accident not congestion because congestion can last up to 24 hours. While explaining this we became aware of the several tow trucks sitting on the edge of the expressway. We were told they were awaiting car accidents in order to charge exorbitant fees and make off like thieves. Thankfully our return trip was unimpeded the remainder of our journey back to the countryside of Paju-si.