Today we went to the Garden of Morning Calm, which is a privately owned garden northeast of Seoul in Gapyeong City. It’s actually the largest garden in South Korea and was inspired by a Korean professor’s visits to American botanical gardens. From December to March they have a “Lighting Festival” and millions of lights are hung up. The pictures on the website make it look otherworldly, and I can confirm that it looks truly magical in real life.
We were going to visit the garden as part of a Koridoor/MWR bus trip but the trip was canceled due to low registration. And by low registration I mean our family was the only one that registered. That’s a major bummer because when I did the math, the trip was a heck of deal at $40 per person.
We decided to do the trip on our own. We sort of started on the wrong foot by missing our first train (see my notes about the train below). We were able to get a refund on our tickets to Cheongpyeong Station (because Korail is awesome like that) and apply them to the purchase of tickets for the next available train.
We arrived at Cheongpyeong Station (the main train station in Gapyeong City) without too much drama, except for when we almost missed our connection in Yongsan. At Cheongpyeong Station we tried to find the Gapyeong City Tour Bus, which takes you all around the area and makes stops at tourist locations, including Garden of Morning Calm. I had read this post about the city tour bus which has pretty good albeit older info, but once we got there it wasn’t immediately obvious where the bus was going to pick us up at.
By that point, Sir 3 Year Old was getting hungry. We all were getting hungry. So we decided to start walking in the direction of town.
The Visit Korea app is actually pretty handy for getting a feel for where restaurants are and mapping the general area since Google Maps doesn’t work in SK and Waze is really more about driving directions and less about search. Even when the Visit Korea app can’t give you restaurant recommendations for the exact area you’re in, it can at least show you some local restaurants on a map, so you have an idea of where food can be found.
We found a pretty good Vietnamese restaurant and then realized that we weren’t far from Cheongpyeong Terminal, which is the bus terminal in town and where the tourist bus makes a stop. As we were wandering up to the bus terminal The Sarge saw a street sign for bubble tea, and if there’s bubble tea, he’s there. We stopped in and as we sat at Thumb Coffee sipping taro bubble tea (like coconutty taro heaven in a glass) and vanilla lattes, we saw the tourist bus drive by. We shrugged and decided that we’d catch a cab instead. (There are lots of cabs across from the bus station!)
Our cab driver was a bit of a hippie with a long ponytail held back with a headband and as we got into his car, we realized his radio was playing “Country Roads Take Me Home” by John Denver, which is kind of a family jam of ours. We started to sing along and the driver turned up the song for us. I have to admit I got a bit choked up when I sang the bit about “radio reminds me of my home far away.”
It was also surreal to be driving through the mountains in South Korea listening to some of my favorite folk music and the similarities between the geography of that part of South Korea and the Appalachian foothills are pretty amazing.
It only takes about 15 minutes by taxi to get to the Garden of Morning Calm from the bus terminal and it’s about 15,000 won.
The garden is amazing. We walked around in the early afternoon and even without lights on, it was pretty and tranquil. There was piano music playing through hidden speakers and paths took us to smaller gardens that seemed hidden away waiting to be found.
As idyllic as it was, it was also freaking freezing, so we stopped for a snack at the bakery in the garden and waited for the lights to be turned on at 5 PM.
The lights were gorgeous once they were turned on! As the sun started to go down the lights became more brilliant, though we had to leave before it was fully dark. I imagine in full darkness the effect is amazing to see.
Of course, now I’m ruined for seeing Christmas lights when we go back stateside. No longer will I be impressed by three strands of Christmas lights blinking on and off to “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer”.
We actually met one of the electricians who helped create the display which was neat. He wanted to practice his English for a bit while we waited for a cab and we thanked him over and over again for creating an amazing light display while he thanked us over and over again for The Sarge being in the Army. There was a lot of appreciation going on!
Side note: Our cab driver on the way back to the train station was also playing American folk music in his car, so it was either a coincidence or part of a citywide marketing attempt to lock in that mountain town vibe. Still not sure on that one.
Our trip home was okay. We seemed to have a harder time getting to the right trains and the assigned cars on the trains, but we’ve learned that if we just keep asking, someone knows where we are supposed to be. In one instance a man overheard us asking someone where Car 1 was on our train, and he said “I’ll help you!” He took Sir Three Year Old by the hand and guided us to our seats, which is yet another example of the incredible kindness of the people here in South Korea.
We can’t wait to go to Garden of Morning Calm again. They have many types of events throughout the year and since I’m a gardening fan, it’s right up my alley. Gapyeong City reminds me a bit of Asheville, North Carolina. It’s a pretty mountain town with fun tourist sites and some amazing looking restaurants. There’s a lot to it we didn’t get to see and I plan to do more research and check out this detailed blog post before we go for a long weekend.
About the Train:
We used Korail to get from AK Plaza in Pyongtaek to Yongsan, and then Yongsan to Cheongpeong. If you are going to book tickets on Korail try to book ahead if possible and make sure you have immediate access to a printer. That’s what snagged us up – we purchased tickets the night before our trip but didn’t have a printer. So we had to go alllll the way to the USO the next morning to print them. I suppose you could just scan the ticket right from your phone, but I get the feeling they really prefer you to have a printed copy.
If you decide to purchase tickets at the station the day you want to travel be sure to ask if the tickets you’re buying are sitting or standing because if the train is full you’ll buy standing tickets. Standing tickets aren’t that bad but if you’re going a long way with kids, a broken leg, or a drunk person, it might not be ideal.
And if you can’t find your train, ask the information desk or find the station management office. If you can’t find one on the floor you’re on, go to another level of the train station. We discovered that asking locals for help sometimes didn’t help us because we were taking ITX trains which cover more distance, and many people we asked had more familiarity with local (shorter) subway routes. But, if you can’t find an information desk, then just keep asking people around you until you get the information you need. We’ve found that most people have been kind and helpful here.