Flower powerYEOSU, South Jeolla province - pending a night seated in a slow, second-class Mugunghwa train does not always guarantee a pleasurable ride, but it may give you one of the more genuine glimpses of life on the peninsula.
Travelers in Korea can find themselves overwhelmed by the smells of various snacks of choice. In my case, it was ojingeo, or cuttlefish, that the boy next to me ate with rapturous joy. He even offered me a strip, which made me smile at the little kindness rather than frown at the odor as I would normally do.
But the real delight, I knew, was in my destination - South Jeolla province, on the southern edge of the peninsula, by the seashore. There I would explore the camellias in full bloom.
Camellias, an ornamental shrub with roselike flowers, are among my favorite plants. I still have clear memories of reading "Dongbaek-kkot" ("Camellias") by Kim Yu-jeong when I was a high school student. It is a novel about a late bloomer of a boy in a small country town and a girl who has a crush on him. The girl's various emotional swings merely confuse the boy until, one day, the two fall into a thicket of camellias, rich with a "piquant and balmy" fragrance. The scent awakens the boy's romantic feelings.
On my train ride south, I noticed a couple in their early 20s who reminded me of a grown-up version of the boy and girl from the novel "Camellias" ?as they rode along, they whispered sweetly to each other.
I soon realized that the cuttlefish-loving boy, his parents, the young couple and a group of others were all headed in the same direction that I was: to the camellias. Having taken a night train from Seoul Station, we arrived at Yeosu at 5:10 a.m. We then switched to a tour bus, but the young couple was unable to sit together. "A sad separation," said our tour guide, an overly friendly, round little man.
After an hour's journey, our bus arrived at Hyangilam, meaning "the Hermitage Facing the Sun," where visitors can see a sunrise framed by camellia trees. At least theoretically. On this day, low clouds blanketed the horizon.
About 7:30 a.m. we went for breakfast at a nearby restaurant, where kkotgetang, a spicy blue-crab broth, and assorted cooked vegetables were offered.
The next stop was a small temple called Eunjeoksa, known more for its luxuriant camellia trees than its 1,000-year history. This year, however, the weather has been unseasonably warm, so about half of the camellia flowers, which are usually in bloom from January to late March, already had fallen to the ground. Despite the lack of flowers, the small temple was cozy and mysterious.
The real journey for camellias began when the bus took us to an island called Odong-do. According to the guide, there are about 320 islands just off the coast of Yeosu city, of which only 45 are inhabited. Odong-do is almost completely covered with camellia and bamboo trees. "There used to be only camellias," said the tour guide, a Yeosu native. "But sometime in the Joseon Dynasty a rumor swept the land that another king would be born in the place famous for camellias. Worried, the powers that be cut down many of the camellia trees, planting bamboo trees in their stead."
The island, a mere 0.12 square kilometers, was indeed full of crimson camellia flowers with bright yellow centers scattered among the dense canopy of deep green leaves. To Yeosu folk, camellias stand for prudence and the naive beauty of a country maiden, which make the plants a good wedding gift.
We reached the island after a five-minute walk along a breakwater. "There is a secret place up there in the bamboo woods," the guide said to the young couple, pointing to a tiny path among thick camellia trees and giving them a nudge. The couple politely declined. The cuttlefish boy's parents, who were paying more attention to their son than to each other, declined even faster.
It seemed a wise choice, though. For the next hour, there was a lot to see on the island, with its nicely landscaped roads and cliffs dropping into the sea, whose rocks and emerald-colored waters reminded me of a scene from the idyllic-looking movie "The Beach," starring Leonardo DiCaprio. The camellias on Odong-do island, unlike the ones at the temple, were just reaching full blossom, which is expected to last until late March. At about 11 a.m., it was time to go back to the mainland.
An early lunch was not included in our tour, and the group decided to check out the raw fish wholesale market back in Yeosu. For 10,000 won (about $7), a visitor can have a hearty meal of raw flatfish, but since I wasn't in the mood, I decided to check out a local fast food shop. The tour guide scolded me for not trying "real Yeosu" food.
At 2 p.m., our bus arrived at Suncheon city, just to the north of Yeosu. We went to Nak-an Eupseong, a folk village where people actually live. The place was authentic enough, complete with camellias lining the avenues and a group of well-preserved thatch-covered houses from the Joseon Dynasty. After spending an hour there, we wrapped up the tour and headed to Suncheon Station to catch a Seoul-bound train at 3:58 p.m.
Inside our car, fatigue overcame the group. Everyone fell asleep or at least sat quietly. In the stillness, I overheard the young woman talking to her boyfriend: "Do you think we'll ever feel shy about expressing in public how we feel about each other? Like that married couple that was with us today?"
Her boyfriend did not answer, at least not so I could hear. Perhaps the married couple should have followed our guide's advice at the island and explored the camellias' powers, just like the characters in the book I read long ago.
This camellia tour package costs 79,000 won ($60), and is available every Wednesday and Saturday in March. The same schedule is available for 49,000 won if you go by bus. For more information, call Jigu tour agency at 02-558-6200 (ext. 309).
"Snowflakes falling in springtime" - that is the way cherry blossoms are described. Though many people may first think of Japan as the only place for cherry blossoms, or sakura in Japanese, the southern part of the Korean peninsula, in spots such as Jinhae, South Gyeongsang province, and near Ssanggyesa temple in South Jeolla province, also reveal plenty of beotkkot, as cherry blossoms are known in Korean. Cherry blossoms will be at their best in Korea from late March to early April.
Ssanggyesa temple has a 4-kilometer avenue at the entrance, lined with many cherry trees. A train tour package that runs from March 30 to April 6 is available at 69,000 won. It includes a hot springs bath at a nearby hotel and a visit to Gwanghannu in Namwon, North Jeolla province, a traditional garden which is the setting of the Korean folk tale, "Chunhyangjeon." For details, call BL Club at 02-558-6200.
Another program, by Hongik Tour Agency (02-717-1002), heads to Jinhae, costing 167,000 won for two days and one night. Jinhae is Korea's best known city for cherry blossoms. The trip, available from March 25 to April 6, also includes a ride on a boat around islands in the South Sea.
If you don't have the time for traveling, your best bet is Yeouido, central Seoul.
Maehwa, or plum flowers, were once the favorite plant subject of aristocrats, along with bamboo, orchids and chrysanthemums. When plum flowers begin to bloom in winter, they symbolize a man of principle who has overcome every possible hardship.
Since plum is a popular flavor for juice and alcoholic drinks, plum farms have been throwing festivals since 1997. The Cheongmaesil (meaning "green plums") farm near Seomjin river, North Jeolla province, began this year's festival last Saturday, and it will continue until March 24. Flowers are expected to be in full bloom this weekend. Visitors to the festival can take "aroma baths," which mean a walk among the more than 1,000 plum trees. Also, plum-related goods, such as juices, extracts and liquors, are available at reasonable prices.
A one-day package tour to the festival is available for 54,800 won by Hongik Tour Agency, until Sunday.
On March 23, another schedule is offered, including visits to a plum tree farm and to Hwagae Jangteo, a traditional market place, for 75,000 won. For more info and tickets, call 02-558-6200.
Sansuyu, or dogwood trees, have small red fruits, good for curing dizziness and gynecological diseases, according to oriental medicine. The trees also have bright yellow flowers, good for sightseeing in late March. From Wednesday to March 24, a one-day train tour schedule for a dogwood flower festival is available at 49,100 won. The dogwood tree village is in Sandong county, near Imsil, Jeolla province. The name of the county comes from a legend that tells of a woman from Sandung, China, who came to live in Sandong and brought a dogwood tree with her. The oldest tree still standing (no word on whether it's the Chinese woman's tree) is specially protected. There will be concerts, contests and a ceremony for the guardian spirit of the mountain. An additional package, which includes a visit to the plum tree farm Cheongmaesil, costs 49,000 won, but is offered on Saturday only. For more info, call 02-717-1002.
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