Underground scene unsuitable for faint of heartCaves loom large in Korean history. For the Neanderthal man on the peninsula, they are thought to have been the primary shelter. For centuries, Buddhist monks have retreated to grottos for extended periods of solitary meditation.
There are about 1,000 known sites, including limestone caves, sea caves and lava caves on Jeju island. Still, many of Korea’s caves were undiscovered until the late 20th century.
In Danyang, North Chungcheong province, several now-famous grottos were found in the 1970s. Today, 13 “show caves” in Korea have been embellished with lights, railings and admission fees, but that wasn’t the case 30 years ago.
“You can’t describe the early days,” said Um Kyung-seop, 49, one of the early explorers of Gosu cave, located across the Hantan River from Danyang. “Now there are stairs and so forth but [back then] we had to wade through water ― there was nothing.”
Though Gosu is the best known of Danyang’s four public caves, the area is home to some 100 caves, though most are off-limits.
Mr. Um, who fulfills his exploratory urges with Korea Caving Society teams, still stays close to his beloved Gosu cave. On a recent Sunday, he helped collect tickets as visitors, mostly families and groups, swarmed through the turnstile.
If you come to Gosudonggul (donggul means cave in Korean) on a Sunday, you won’t be alone, but don’t judge this cave by its tourist village. Though it may not be in the league of Carlsbad Caverns in the United States or those in Sabah, Malaysia, the geological delights found inside ― stalagmites, flowstones, curtains, soda straws, cave pearls ― still exceed most expectations.
Better yet, Gosu and a handful of other caves nearby can all be explored on an overnight or even on a day trip from Seoul and environs. And with a consistently cool temperature of 15 degrees centigrade (59 F), it’s a great place to be on a hot day.
To enter Gosu’s chambers, you first ascend a narrow staircase and shortly come upon the first of many impressive formations: the Ten-Thousand-Faced Figure. Here’s where the bottleneck kicks in, as folks stop to gaze and pull out their digital cameras for a snapshot.
En route, you come upon dozens more forms, such as Eagle Rock and St. Maria’s Image, that do in fact bear striking resemblance to their namesakes. Others, such as Chanhyeon Palace, may require a brushup on history to figure out.
At another turn, a small pool has been filled with coins from wishful visitors. Such an act, Mr. Um said, harms the cave ecosystem and is forbidden.
Though no helmets are offered here, taller visitors would be advised to bring one; there are a couple of low spots.
At the Fairy’s Garden, you begin a steep descent toward the Hundred Story Pagoda. At the bottom, a man will offer to take your picture for 7,000 won ($6). Flipping a switch, he illuminates a stunning backdrop with powerful beams that bring out the scene in a way that most camera flashes can’t.
About 30 minutes in, you get a little vertical as you descend a spiral staircase. You know you’re on the ground floor when you see an immense lighted stalactite and another photographer.
About four kilometers (2.5 miles) from Gosu, near a trailhead for Sobaeksan National Park, is Cheondong cave, discovered in 1977. Unlike the arm’s length observations at Gosu, prepare to get intimate with rock here.
To reach the entrance, you walk steeply uphill on a wooded path for about five minutes. “Reconsider going in, because it’s extremely difficult,” admonishes a member of a bubbly group that’s just exited.
An entrance sign puts it more bluntly: “People with high blood pressure, claustrophobia, heart disease or disc problems are not allowed to enter due to this cave’s many low areas.”
If you’re brave, strap on a helmet and plunge inside, but only after removing any brand-name clothes you’re loath to get torn. The crawling starts early in this 300-meter cave, which is basically a vertical drop.
At your first breather, you’re rewarded with a view of a “hairy” stalactite, which is supposedly very rare. Further on, some more oddities: a stalagmitic “mushroom” floating in a small puddle, and a bunch of “grapes” that grow about one centimeter per century.
Along the way you also encounter the Statue of Headless Venus, the Stone Forest and the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
While first-time spelunkers emerge from Cheondong with an Indiana Jones-sized ego, it’s still a show cave, with artificial lighting, steel staircases and lots of protective green fencing. The intrepid souls in the Korea Caving Society have none of these luxuries on their trips, and that’s the way they like it.
“You will see the real darkness in these caves,” says An Jung-hwa, a graduate student in zoology who joins these monthly trips. “It’s the same when you close and open your eyes.” Society explorers carry lanterns in addition to headlamps.
If you want some solitude, try Nodong, the least-visited of the area’s four public caves (the fourth is Ondal). Set off an isolated stretch of rural blacktop, and challenging to reach without private transport, Nodong is a 1,300-meter-long vertical cave boasting an intricate network of staircases and rails straight out of a Hardy Boys mystery. Just don’t look over the rail.
And watch out for low-flying bats. They’ll come circling, squeaking and flapping, without warning. That, with the blue and red lights, can make for a few spooky moments.
Yongduam, the Dragon’s Head, greets you toward the end of the long grind up a stairway. At a three-way junction near the Citron, the weary should make an escape by turning left.
Those continuing on a 15-minute loop will wend through some tight, slippery and steep sections before being rewarded by the Amelie Bell, the Breast, the Devil and the Tower of Babel.
Some may come away from Nodong disappointed at seeing so many broken ’mites and ’tites, the work of vandals.
“It used to be that way quite a while ago, but not anymore,” said Woo Kyung-sik, director of the Cave Research Institute at Gangwon National University. “There were several educational programs about it on TV, and some people actually got arrested.”
An equally strong deterrent has been the public’s realization that such natural wonders are valuable in luring tourists to the area. Said Mr. Woo: “Local people are beginning to realize that our heritage is very important.”
All caves are open from 9 a.m. to 5 or 6 p.m. daily, and cost 4,000 won ($3.50) for adults, 2,500 for youths and 1,500 for children. Discounts are offered for large groups. Call the Danyang tourist office at (043) 422-1146 for more information. English assistance is available.
Trains for Danyang depart regularly from Cheongnyangni Station in Seoul (9,000 won and up). Buses leave hourly from the Dong Seoul Bus Station, at Gangbyeon Station on line No. 2, from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Local buses from outside the Danyang bus terminal go to all caves, but only twice daily to Nodong.
Several mid-priced motels (30,000 to 40,000 won) line the road along the Hantan River in town, as well as the more upscale Danyang Tourist Hotel and the Daemyung Condo.
by Joel Levin