Why would you live anywhere else? – Best Coast
Gwangyang and Beating the Summer Heat at the Valley
Saturdays are for driving, and we head away from Yeosu through Gwangyang and its steel city next door. This is a day that shouldn’t be happening thanks to a typhoon heading this way. Of course that’s what we think, and decide to race against the rain and wind and all those other things meant to ruin a weekend. This summer has been a strange mixture of cool and torrential and hot, so we’ve got to take a chance before the dice roll reveals rain and bad weather. We’re going to the valley to experience one of Korea’s best-known summer destinations.
Within minutes, we pass the massive POSCO complex and almost immediately switch over to the countryside, as the channel changes to much better scenery. Our 15-year-old Hyundai takes through the valley and Baegunsan’s beautiful green mountains surround us. Fun-promising signs appear at every intersection, and we turn towards the first one that sounds cool enough. My students and my wife’s coworkers are to thank for this day, with their constant references to the valley and its awesomeness during the summer.
The buildup is exciting, considering this summer hasn’t been much about the water. I used to love the beaches on the south and west coasts but for some reason, they’ve lost that magic allure. I blame places like Naksan on Korea’s east coast and Christina blames Southeast Asia. Either way, we’re not going to the beach today and it’s going to be a day for cold, freshwater. The weather is making me think that the forecasters are out playing golf with no crowds, thanks to their doom-ridden typhoon prediction. I wonder about my own misdeeds if in their position.
The car approaches a set of spots that will guarantee some quality water time, and finally decides on a popular-looking one in the Geumcheon Valley. We’ll just have a look and see what this is all about. It’s just a test. Walking down the entrance, we’re greeted by a decent-sized stream and tons of people in the distance, most likely camping here for the weekend. I notice an ankle-deep waterway that cuts through the stream and is the main walking path for visitors to pass through. This will cut it for now.
We settle on the nearest rock and it has enough water depth to keep us cool during the hot, late morning. The water is perfect and cold enough to fight against the sun that’s battling the clouds above. The typhoon is stirring in the back of my head but still hasn’t made its appearance. Dragonflies buzz all around us but I don’t hear that, thanks to nearby and faraway rapids rushing at a feverish pace and drowning out everything. There’s a big crowd but I don’t know that, thanks to the water. Cold and noisy is how I like my water from now on, I think.
The mixture of sun and dark clouds are welcome in July when it’s usually clear skies and too hot to leave our one-room apartment. With a team of water and weather like this, our day can’t lose. After a brief dip in the water, our bellies cry for something more than the snacks we’ve prepared, and it’s time to hunt for a meal. I’m bummed that we have to leave but the ubiquitous smell of sizzling pork belly cooking nearby, kicking myself for not bringing more than nuts and fruit. We say a momentary goodbye to our spot and head back to the car with appetites in mind.
Driving along the river, there are tons of pensions and minbaks offering a place to stay but more importantly, food! I love these places and remember a recent trip to Namhae, grilling on our porch and overlooking the sea. We find a pension and negotiate a picnic spot that’s right on the water, ordering some food and enjoying the scenes around us. The nice owner tries his hand at some ultra polite English and I appreciate him trying. Some guys are playing Korea’s unofficial sport (jokgu) nearby and they head down to the water after a match. Our makgeolli comes and really gets things started in a good way.
I’m getting hungry and devour the pre-meal pickled apricots and peppers that are sitting at our table, accompanied by various other wonderful things. Ban chan is not only one of my favorite reasons for living in Korea but it’s staving off the hunger for a bit. All that time resting on rocks and in the water has cooked up an awesome appetite. The chicken comes and I can tell this meal is worth the short wait. Marinated in sesame oil and brown sugar, I throw pieces on the grill and wait eagerly for the finished product.
The skin caramelizes and everything browns nicely from the hot coals, bringing our meal to near-perfection. My hunger grows and as we start eating, things get blurry for a little while. Minutes later I wake up and it’s all gone, with very few memories other than that first succession of bites. The owner comes by and after eagerly thanking him, we go down to the water and sit on some rocks, snapping photos and wondering how the day can get any better. We go back to the first spot and even though it’s crowded, a few hours go by without hearing anything other than the water.
Going back home, we think the weekend might’ve peaked and prep for the upcoming storm. The next day is even nicer and it’s official. The typhoon isn’t coming and we know just what to do. Driving back earlier than the day before, we search for a better spot in a different part of the valley. Stopping a couple of times, we find a rougher patch of water but less crowded than yesterday. With a shaded rock right next to the water, we park for the afternoon and forget about everything away from this spot.
I start to the think about the title track of Best Coast’s The Only Place, and why it’s been in my head a lot this summer. Of course that album is talking about California the whole time but right now, it fits. This really is the best of Korea. We’ve covered every corner of the country and the fondest memories will come from here. I know it will end soon and try to think about something else, as the water rushes past me just like before. This might be our final adventure because summer has won for now. Thankfully we’ve found a spot to fight against the heat in the valley. For now this cool water and shaded rock is the only place for me.
How do you beat the heat in the summertime? Where’s your favorite patch of water?
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