Cheongsong’s ancient pleasures make ethereal magic on rainy daysCHEONGSONG ― There’s a certain pleasure to traveling without purpose. Or at least that’s an option to keep in mind when planning a trip to Mount Juwangsan, the jewel of North Gyeongsang Province. Especially at this time of year, when frequent rain discourages hikers.
Cheongsong County, a small farming town known for its rocky mountains and fresh apples, is an ideal place for travelers with humble ambitions. After all, if there is rain one can spend all day lying on a hot ondol floor in a hanok guesthouse that was once the home of a local clan in Deokcheon-ri, munching on baked yams out of the furnace.
But that’s a diversion one should not settle on too quickly. The county, which has a population of just over 30,000, has other treasures that are too precious to miss.
Aside from its grand mountains, which are part of one of Korea’s three granite mountain chains, the county has earned the heart of visitors with more modest attractions, such as small waterfalls and streams.
The first place to visit in Cheongsong is Jusanji, a pristine reservoir surrounded by a stretch of pine forest. The place, which is part of Mount Juwangsan National Park, attracts a flock of amateur photographers every summer. That’s when the willow trees growing just above the lip of the reservoir seem to merge with their shadows, making it hard to decide which are real and which are reflections on the water.
Jusanji in winter can still create a hypnotic illusion. With an early mist it’s almost chilling to look at: The giant trees, with their grotesque dried branches stretching out of the reservoir, conjure up an image of a sea monster reaching out for its prey. The color of the water, a pale green, seems spectral in the dawn light.
It’s almost as if the haunting sound of streams and the magical views of the mountains on the walk to Jusanji from its parking lot, which is about 550 meters away, exist to prepare the mind for a supernatural experience.
According to Yun Jin-cheol, a taxi driver and a tour guide of the county, the reservoir was almost unknown to outsiders until a few years ago.
Perhaps the turning point was Kim Ki-duk’s film “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring,” the story of an orphaned Buddhist monk. It included the stark image of a temple set in the middle of the reservoir. (Unfortunately the temple was only a set and was removed shortly after the film wrapped. The film with its alluring images of two monks rowing around the temple, won Kim many awards.)
The history of the place, though, isn’t so dramatic. Jusanji is a farming reservoir constructed during the reign of King Sukjong (1720) to provide water for the county’s residents. Despite droughts, it has never dried up.
Ever since Kim’s film the reservoir’s fame has spread and its striking imagery has attracted many television producers. One example is the TV drama series “Hwangjini,” an epic about a Korean female poet who was also a famous gisaeng. After losing her first love the heroine gets drunk and walks into the reservoir to kill herself, only to be saved by another man, as if to prove that Jusanji is capable of magic.
Then, of course, there are the apples and the mountains, of which the locals are especially proud. Local farmers maintain that apples grown in the region are sweet and crunchy and free of pollution; they also insist that local apples, which they dub “honey apples,” prevent tooth decay ― don’t ask how, the reasons behind the theory are as mysterious as Jusanji at sunset and the farmers only made me more confused when they tried to explain. Visitors can always test this theory for themselves. On major highways in the region there are local farmers selling boxes of apples for close to nothing. A large bucket of apples costs around 10,000 won.
At Mount Juwangsan, which rises 720 meters above sea level, locals recommend nine highlights.
One is to watch the clouds during the early mornings amid the rocks that have tumbled down the mountain. Then there is sunrise over Wanggeoam peak on Mount Taehaengsan, the highest point of the park on its northern border, which rises to 933.1 meters; a waterfall on Haksodae; autumnal leaves near Naejuwang, or the “inner mountain;” the old trees in Jusanji reservoir; a moonrise from Mangwoldae, which is midway between the mountain’s temple and the water fountain; the view of Korean azaleas from Jubangcheon Stream; a view of snow-covered mountains from Woloe Waterfall and, finally, an ice cave at Juwanggul, which forms ice pillars throughout the year.
According to legend Juwangsan was originally called “Seokbyeong,” meaning “a shape made up of a folding screen of rocks.” It was renamed after Juwang, a nobeleman who rebelled against the Chinese Tang Dynasty, towards the end of Korea’s Silla dynasty. He hid on the mountain after his defeat by Tang warriors. He died as troops attempted to capture him in a cave that now bears his name.
When you are finished with mountains, the Old Villa of Songso is the place to stay. The locals call it “the Rich Sim’s” because of the wealth of the family that once lived there.
The house, a traditional hanok, has been designated as a cultural asset. It was once the home of Sim Hotaek, who belonged to the clan of “Cheongsong Sim,” the largest clan among Koreans with the last name Sim.
The house has 99 rooms, only king’s were allowed more that 100, and it is typical of a luxurious hanok built for Korean aristocrats during the Joseon Dynasty. Rooms are heated through a furnace located beneath the floors of each building. Toilets have been modernized, but they are still located outside the house.
A stroll down to the village of Deokcheon-ri in the early morning is a blissful experience. It’s a folk village where residents maintain a traditional lifestyle and there are persimmon trees in the garden of almost every house.
A decade ago the family of Cheongsong Sim is said to have owned the entire neighborhood.
It’s said that the current mansion was built with the money they had left after they were the victims of a major robbery during which they lost a fortune in valuable goods stored in their warehouse. One can only imagine how much money they had before the theft, looking at the grandiose mansion they built with some of the money they had left.
The generous spirit that people say the family possessed still exists. If you show just a little politeness ― like folding your blankets in the morning, they serve you a free breakfast, a lush meal complete with grilled fish and soybean stew.
For additional fun, try strolling around the county’s traditional outdoor market, which takes place near the bus terminal on dates ending with 4 and 9. Visitors will find merchants selling small quantities of hand-picked weeds, like gosari, a Korean delicacy. The market is also a good place to taste country-style rice-cakes fresh from the mill and to buy cheap apples.
So traveling in rain isn’t so bad. It’s cheaper and you get more attention from the hosts as there are fewer tourists. Most of all, you can learn to nourish the Zen pleasure of traveling with humble ambitions.
To get to Cheongsong County there is an express bus to the county leaves from East Seoul Bus Terminal at 9: 20 a.m. It takes about 3 to 4 hours. If you don’t have a car the best way to travel around is to reserve a taxi; there is a cab rank at Cheongsong Bus Terminal. There are concerts held in the garden at Seongso Mansion during summer. Accommodation costs from 50,000 won for a small room to 180,000 for a whole house. For more information, check out www.songso.co.kr or call 054-873-0234.
by Park Soo-mee