Ulsan’s hidden charms put city on tourist maps : Long known for industrial roots, the town calls 2017 the year to see its nature

Mar 14,2017
Visitors to Taehwagang Sipli Bamboo Grove in Ulsan walk through the bamboo with family and friends. [PARK SANG-MOON]
ULSAN - The residents of Ulsan either haven’t appreciated the jewels of their city or have just been keeping them secret from the rest of us.

The beauty of the city has been rising to the surface in the past few months, however, as the city government is calling 2017 the year of “Visit Ulsan,” and tries to put the city on the map for something other than its industrial roots. Ulsan has been home to many of Korea’s heavy industry companies including Hyundai Heavy Industries, which has boosted the local economy since the early 1960s. The city aims to bring in four million travelers this year, up from the estimated 2.6 million last year.

“Ulsan is what’s known as an industrial city and needs to diversify itself to gain more competitiveness by fostering the tourism industry,” said Ulsan Mayor Kim Gi-hyeon at a press conference in Seoul last month, showing the city’s desire to showcase its jeweled travel hotspots.

Spend the daytime in the city hitting all the naturally-made spots, such as the forests and unique rocks along the coastline, and then enjoy the spectacular night views of the city’s decades-old industrial town.

From Left: Daewangam is also known as Great King Rock; Painted walls at Sinhwa Village.
Finding nature amid urbanity

New York has Central Park and Ulsan has the bamboo grove. Located in the Jung District in the eastern part of Ulsan, the forest of bamboo trees is just steps away from the residential areas and easily accessible. The green forest, also known as Taehwagang Sipli Bamboo Grove, is about 4.3 kilometers (2.67 miles) long, a tempting place to take in the fresh air produced by the bamboo. If you walk slowly from one end to the other, it could take hours, but you can always exit the grove as there are openings to the outside world at regular intervals. Four-person carts with two bicycles for kids are available to rent to take a tour of the forest.

The charm of the forest is that it’s located within the city. It is not only convenient for locals to get their daily dose of exercise but also for visitors from outside the city to use their time effectively. The area is becoming more popular among tourists as it was named as one of the 100 spots to visit by the Korea Tourism Organization this year.

There are two sections of the forest divided by the Taehwa River. To help visitors get the most out of spring, the city government also plants flowers in the north of the bamboo forests until around May. While the north side is managed for pedestrians, the south side is reserved for the birds who make their home there. If you want to get an aerial view of the entire bamboo forest, there is an observatory located to the south.

Time spent in green space can evolve to time spent in blue. The coastal city is home to rocks formed in all kinds of shapes in the East Sea. One of the most famous is Daewangam, also known as Great King Rock, a known spot for tourists. After centuries of erosion, the rock stands alone and the rocky coastline may look like a comb from above, as weaker sections are still being trimmed by the strong tides.

Visitors to the rocks can choose to stay overnight in the auto-camping lot and check out how the rocks look different depending on the position of the sun.

While many visitors want go to the Great King Rock, the trail along the coastline to the North from the rock to the parking lot is better for those who want to leave with some amazing photos to remember the trip. The multiple layers of rocks surrounded by pine trees provide the perfect backdrop.

For a longer trail along the coast, head out to the path connecting the rock to Seul Island, which can be seen from the rock looking to the south. An hourlong hike on that trail brings you to Ulsan Sound Museum, where you can hear different sounds found in the city. Visiting Seul Island is popular as it is close to a harbor where visitors can get some fresh seafood.

The man-made culture

Many cities are setting up photo spots to help visitors get the best shots of their surroundings. Ulsan Bridge Observatory is one of the major spots for photo opportunities, particularly at night. When the bridge lights up after dark, views of the industrial town are even more fantastic. Going to the observatory is free.

The city also has neighborhoods embellished by human touch. Sinhwa Village, which was formed by locals who had to leave their hometown due to industrial construction, has become one of the most popular tourist spots. Many local artists have painted the walls of each home in the town to make it brighter. There are many birds carrying seeds painted on the walls of the town, to depict the old Korean fairy tale of how a bird that brings a seed to town produces fortune, in hopes that the town will make it big. A local guide says that the town now seems to bring in more artists seeking new work studios.

From Left: Yeongnam Alps Complex Welcome Center; Eonyang-style bulgogi and Boksoondoga makgeolli.
Get your climbing skills up

What will surprise visitors to Ulsan is its proximity to grandiose mountain ranges, which gave the town its nickname of the Yeongnam Alps. The area, particularly popular in the fall with its silver grass, now has a year-round new Yeongnam Alps Complex Welcome Center.

In an attempt to have people get more interested in attractions beyond the mountains, the center has not only a theater that shows mountain-related movies, but also a climbing center. The center has walls for novice to professionals and attracts many families with young children on the weekends. The center opened in late 2015 and last year more than 10,000 visitors took classes at the center.

“The climbing seems to become more like a sport than a hardcore activity that only professionals do,” said Park Jin-su, one of the instructors at the climbing center.

The use of the gym without any lesson for four hours is 4,000 won for adults and 2,000 won for anyone younger than 19 on weekends. A 30-minute lesson is included.

After the novices are done with their training inside, they can also catch some of the professionals scaling 10-meter-high walls set up outside, if they are lucky.

Food and drink complete the trip

No visitor should leave Ulsan without trying the bulgogi. You may think you have already had a good share of bulgogi in Korea, but the style here is a bit different. While what is commonly known as bulgogi is grilled in a pan with some scallions, onions and sometimes even a bit of noodles in the natural juice that comes from grilling the beef and vegetables, the bulgogi in Ulsan is grilled right on charcoal.

The beef is sliced thin and marinated with soy sauce, minced onions and garlic, as well as liquid sugar and sesame oil, depending on the diner’s taste and each restaurant’s recipe, and then shaped to make what looks almost like a burger patty. The beef is then decorated with mushroom or other scallions. It is grilled on charcoals and served on the net-shaped pan it was grilled in.

This particular style is known as Eonyang-style. Eonyang, a town that’s a 30-minute drive from downtown Ulsan, has many restaurants that serve bulgogi. Usually a serving per person is around 19,000 won and a minimum order of two orders are required.

Local drinks can never be missed when traveling to regions in Korea. If you prefer getting what’s not widely available elsewhere, head out to Boksoondoga, a house which makes makgeolli, or fermented rice drink. Here there’s more than tasting. Visitors can have a quick tour of the alcohol-making house, which opened in 2015.

The family-owned business became widely known to the public after its makgeolli was chosen to be served at the Nuclear Security Summit in 2012. Since then, not only the locals who are avid makgeolli fans but also those traveling from foreign countries stop here for a dose of the fermented alcoholic beverage. This particular makgeolli isn’t available in retail shops in Korea, and those who want it either have to go to a restaurant that carries the drink or order by phone directly from the house. An order of a pack of six bottles costs 57,800 won including the delivery fee. One bottle is 8,800 won.

The entire place is not that large, as they really make only the amount their family of four can handle, but talking to them and hearing about the history is a very interesting experience. Mostly, the two sons take the lead to show visitors around. English tours are also available.

A nighttime view of Ulsan from the Ulsan Bridge Observatory.[PARK SANG-MOON]
BY LEE SUN-MIN [summerlee@joongang.co.kr]

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