Some of my most memorable — and certainly most exciting — travel memories are tied to motorbikes. Whether that be my first ride across the Mongolian steppes, riding around both islands of Samoa with my friend Melissa, or my multi-day scoot to Taroko Gorge and back, I’ve had some truly epic adventures. But one thing I always seem to take for granted about my life in Korea is the ease with which I can own and ride a motorcycle.
The connection to place, to the land, the wind, the sun, stars, the moon… it sounds romantic, but it’s true – the visceral experience of motion, of moving through time on some amazing machine – a few cars touch on it, but not too many compared to motorcycles. I always felt that any motorcycle journey was special.Antoine Predock
My beau this time around has been Sleipnir — a worn-out looking Hyosung Mirage 250cc with more dents and dings than you could shake a stick at and –absurdly — a Colorado license plate. Totally not street-legal at all, but damn, has she been fun. We’ve only done a few trips this time around, but one of them was perhaps the most stunning ride I’ve done in Korea: the ride to Ha-ok and Okgye Valleys.
Owning a motorcycle makes hanging out with friends before or after work easier, as a huge chunk of time on either end isn’t automatically consumed by the bus journey. The time you can spend out is no longer limited by when the buses stop running, and you can get to those countryside locations that are just impossible to reach via public transit.
Most importantly, it’s just plain fun.
I’ve had three different bikes over the three years I’ve spent here, and each has been a little more rad (90s child, whoop whoop!) than the last. First, there was the 125cc scooter that I learned on, then the Daelim Daystar 125cc which was my first proper bike, and now, finally, my Sleipnir.
She’s had a hard time starting in the sub-zero temperatures, and I’d actually thought I’d have to replace her battery before I could take her out again. So when I was leaving yesterday morning and impulsively tried to get the engine to start, I was surprised and more than a little delighted when it did. I left the bike running and dashed upstairs to grab my jacket and helmet. It was time for one last ride!
Even as I started out, I had no idea where I was going. I’d planned on heading to Bukbu Beach, but it seemed silly to go somewhere so easily accessible with Sleipnir up and raring to go. As I approached the north end of town, I knew. I’d go up the coast, past Chilpo Beach, to my favorite little nook in the entire Korean peninsula: Daewonsa.
It’s a beautiful drive. A winding country road snakes up the coast, or you can choose to drive through the port on wide, straight roads that are oh so fun to open up the throttle on. Minbaks and pensions intersperse amongst the farms, and little fishing hamlets crowd the rocky shores of the East Sea. Occasionally, you can find a sandy beach — Chilpo, Odo, and Wolpo are a few. During the summer they are crowded and bustling with families, but during the winter months, you may find that you have the entire strip of sand to yourself.
And then, in the little village called Chilpo 1-ri, just over a small bridge and down a dusty, bumpy little road, is Daewonsa. If you pay attention, you’ll see it as you drive up — a literal dragon lying coiled up the hillside. It’s a small temple, in plain sight but just enough out of the way that most miss it. That’s part of the magic. The main draw, though, is the dragon.
There’s a small pond with a stone bridge over it, leading straight into the dragon’s gaping mouth. You can go inside, into an inner sanctuary lined with golden Buddhas. Further in, a dimly-lit tunnel houses Buddhist paintings and sculptures. It may feel like you’re in something’s stomach, and that’s because you are. The tunnel follows the twists and turns of the dragon’s body up the hillside. Welcome to the belly of the beast.
Atop the hill is a typically-styled worship hall, with its colorful panels depicting scenes and characters from Buddhist and Korean lore. Around the back are a number of seated Buddhas. It’s the kind of place to linger, to soak it all in.
Around back, a small path leads up the hillside, overgrown with weeds and slick with loose dirt and rock. I’ve been to Daewonsa many times, but this was the first I’ve chosen to go up the path. I’m incredibly out of shape, so even the relatively small hill set my muscles to protesting. The climb was steep in parts, but ropes have been attached to trees upslope to make the climb safer.
The summit was crowded with tombs, small mounds of dirt with rectangular headstones in front of each. The grass and weeds have been kept at bay, but some headstones have been knocked over. Empty bottles of soju have been placed on the occasional branch, presumably by family members coming up to share a drink with their departed kin.
It’s a beautiful place, the kind of spot a lover of the sea or of the land might choose as their resting place. The hilltop overlooks the grey-blue waters of the East Sea. It was calm that day, and I stayed for a while with the silent graves, looking out to the horizon.
I realized then that this wasn’t merely one last ride, and I wasn’t merely saying goodbye to Sleipnir. I was saying goodbye to Pohang, this place that has come to be my home away from home.
I’ll be back, I know that beyond a shadow of a doubt. I don’t think I’ve been able to spend a year away from this country since I first came in 2011. But will I live here again? I’m not sure. I think that’s what gives each departure a sense of finality — it’s the knowledge that this stage of my life is coming to an end, and a new stage is beginning.
With Georgia on my mind, I made my way back down the hill, to where Sleipnir waited. I set off down the coast, towards my home of three years. This ride was one of the first I ever did here. It seemed only fitting that it be my last — at least for this time around.
I’m going to miss this place.
How about you? Have you come across a place during your travels which has come to feel like home? What was it like when you had to leave? Tell me about it in the comments below!