Tongyeong has islands, trails and oysters galoreWinter is a season when all things wither.
And that could be a discouraging thing for travelers (besides those who love winter sports).
However, there is a place where winter is the best season to go: Tongyeong in South Gyeongsang.
The southern sea of deep blue leaves quite an impression, and the energy in fish markets is bound to trigger your appetite.
In particular, oysters are something that Tongyeong is proud of. Every winter, fishermen harvest fat, mature oysters and the scene resembles farmers’ harvests in the fall.
With radiation fears coming from Japan and people shedding seafood as a result, one would think that Tongyeong’s oysters would also be hit hard. However, that’s not the case as the nation knows that Tongyeong fishermen harvest oysters only from Korean waters, and never import them.
Oysters enjoy a special status in Tongyeong. Locals call the process of taking oysters out of their shell with a special term compared to other fishing villages. They call it baksin - bak means peeling and sin could mean body, me or myself, an indication of personification. An aerial view from a cable car also reveals that the ocean in Tongyeong is itself an oyster farm. The farm measures 5,371 hectares, thousands of football fields put together.
Oysters are, in fact, just one of the dishes to enjoy when one visits Tongyeong. There is chungmu gimbap (rice wrapped in seaweed), kkulbbang (sweet bread) and ujja (udon with black bean sauce).
But that doesn’t mean Tongyeong doesn’t have anything else to offer. Some of Korea’s literary and musical stars - like novelist Park Gyeongri, poet Yu Chi-hwan and composer Yun I-sang, among others - call the region home.
There is also Dongpirang, a poor hillside area which transformed into a major tourist attraction with art. Artists revitalized the area with murals. And it serves as a model case in which a slum doesn’t necessary have to give way to the construction of a new building.
Traveling through Tongyeong has gotten easier with the construction of a new road. In fact, the Korea National Park Service has completed the construction of the seaside road through which people can navigate the six islands in the waters off Tongyeong. The road is called Bada (Sea) Baeknigil (A Hundred-li Road, li being a unit equivalent to about 500 meters.)
So, by now you must have gotten a hint: Oysters and seaside walks are the highlights of traveling in Tongyeong. The JoongAng Ilbo accompanied fishermen harvesting oysters, visited ladies taking oysters out of their shells, walked the newly-opened road and stopped by historic sites. This winter is supposed to be a long, harsh one. Why not head out to Tongyeong?
What oysters mean
It’s the season to enjoy oysters.
Seoho Market and Jungang Market - two of Tongyeong’s most representative traditional markets - were packed with crowds: Farmers coming back from harvests; workers taking oysters out of their shells; and sellers and buyers bickering at an auction.
Tongyeong farmers claim that Tongyeong oysters are the best in the country. They say their oysters consume enough plankton, are large and highly nutritious.
Early in the morning, we accompanied farmers to their rafts, where they used cranes to hoist bundles of oysters and collected them in nets.
At Hallyeohaesang, which is usually how the waters off Tongyeong are referred to, there are about 250 such oyster farms. Every year, they produce 40,000 tons of oysters - that is, with shells removed.
“It is a good year,” Park Uk-ju, who has been harvesting oysters in Tongyeong for 25 years, said in a deep Tongyeong dialect. “The weather was good and so were tidal currents. Oysters taste good, as a result,” she said.
After being pulled from the water, the oysters are taken to the place where the baksin process await them. When we opened the door of the place, we could feel the heat. The heat was from the 40 middle-aged women working to remove the oysters from their shells. All the work is done manually.
For veterans like them, it takes three to five seconds to take one oyster out of its shell, warming their hands in a warm-water basin. If they work from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m., the result is about 50 kilograms of oysters without shells. Each oyster weighs about 10 grams.
As they are paid 2,500 won ($2.38) to 3,000 won for each kilogram, they try to spend as little time as possible for lunch breaks and bathroom breaks. There are about 300 such facilities in Tongyeong and nearby cities like Geoje and Goseong, and 10,000 people working there.
It takes four-and-a-half hours from Seoul City Hall to Tongyeong by car.
Among other restaurants, Hyangtojip is one that’s famous for oyster dishes. The main course of oyster rice, oyster pancake and raw oysters, costs 11,000 won. (055-645-4808)
Besides oyster dishes, ganjang gejang (crabs marinated in soy sauce) is another delicacy of the area. Dajjijip is one of the restaurants serving the dish.
Tours of the islands in Tongyeong waters are another thing travelers to the area must try.
The scenery of Korea’s southern ocean from the peak of Mount Mireuk (461 meters), which you can reach by cable car, is quite breathtaking. However, when you go into the islands, you are introduced to a whole new world. The scent of the forests and the sounds of the waves from afar add to the charm.
Bada Baeknigil refers to seaside roads on six islands: Namely, Mireuk Island (14.7-kilometer trail), Hansan Island (12 km), Bijin Island (4.8 km), Yeondae Island (2.3 km), Maemul Island (5.2 km), and Somaemul Island (3.1 km).
Besides the trail on Mireuk Island - which is connected to Tongyeong through a land route - Hansan Island is the easiest to get to. So we chose that island as our destination.
One of the historic sites on the island is Jeseungdang, a shrine dedicated to the legendary Korean admiral Yi Sun-shin (1545-98). The building used to be Yi’s command post. He continuously examined topography, tidal path and tidal currents on this island.
About 40,000 people visit this little, yet historic, island every year, officials of Tongyeong say. And a majority of them visit Jeseungdang but few of them tour the rest of the island. That is why the 12-kilometer trail on Hansan Island, dubbed History Trail, did not include Jeseungdang, which is already famous.
The trail was beautiful from the onset. Exquisite murals greeted us. Then there was Hakikjin Observatory, where visitors can get a panoramic view of the ocean where Admiral Yi must have had fierce battles with the Japanese during the Japanese invasions of 1592-1598, known in Korea as the Imjin War.
Then there came a 10-kilometer uphill trail filled with many trees. There were colonies of Japanese black pines, retinispora, snowbell and hornbeam. Then you reach the peak of Mt. Mangsan (293 meters). Here, we took a little break.
Then we came down to Jindu village, the last stop in the trail. Locals say it is one of the most bustling areas on the island, but to city dwellers it was such a small, cute village. It had a school, a post office and a bank, but little human traffic. The road connects a place in Korea’s history textbooks and a village where time appears to have stopped - it all seemed quite dramatic.
The ferry that connects Tongyeong Port and Hansan Island operates every hour. It costs 10,050 won (round-trip) for adults and 5,000 won for teenagers. There is a tourist support center (055-649-9207). You can also contact the Hallyeohaesang National Marine Park. (055-640-2400) www.knps.or.kr.
BY SON MIN-HO [firstname.lastname@example.org]