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Introducing Gangwon-do

Gang·won-do, northeast of Seoul and bordering the ocean and North Korea, holds many of Korea’s natural gems. Roads wind through wildflower-dappled valleys, rivers chase and meander their way to the sea, and verdant green mountains cloaked in mist rise up suddenly. Come here to trade the crazy neonscape of Seoul for rural majesty, or visit the quiet but still fun cities of Chuncheon or Gangneung.

Gang·won-do has several of South Korea’s most beautiful national parks, including Seoraksan, whose evocative, jagged peaks seem like giant, nature-made sculptures and whose trails offer hours – even days – of hiking. More sedate pleasures can be found in the beaches of Gangneung and Naksan, where Seoulites arrive in droves in the summertime to sunbake on smooth, white-sand beaches and splash in the sea. Bungee jumping, skiing, cycling, and white-water rafting are other outdoor options. Most of the more beautiful parts of the province are found in obscure valleys with dramatic gorges, raging rivers and dense forests, and the sandy coves and rocky headlands south of Samcheok provide serene sea views.

Approaching the northern border you’ll see tank blockades, barbed wire and lots of military: North Korean spies still slip through from time to time, and it’s a bit odd to see lines of spotlights that illuminate the beaches – they’re not for tourists, they’re to spot intruders.

History

Historically the province has been isolated due to its rugged terrain, and during the Korean War it was the site of many fierce battles for strategic mountain tops. After the war, the area’s rich natural resources, including coal and timber, were industrialised, bringing road and rail links. With the closure of many coal mines during the 1990s, the province was forced to create alternative employment opportunities. Tourism was the solution.

In summer 2006 a 100-year rainy season brought torrential downpours, and with it flooding, landslides and death. The disaster killed over 60 people, washed away roads and trails (including many in the Seoraksan National Park and other hiking areas) and destroyed homes and businesses. By the time this book is published much will be back to normal thanks to aid and industrious rebuilding, but the memory of the loss is fresh and painful.