in Category Travel
Written by Robert Koehler, The article courtesy of Korea Culture and Information Service (KOREA May, 2014)
The Seomjingang River is more than just a body of water; it's a cultural zone into itself. Traditionally a dividing line between Korea's southeastern Yeongnam region and southwestern Honam region, the pristine waterway glitters as it meanders its way through a captivating, bucolic landscape that has long bewitched poets, painters and musicians. To explore this beautiful and fascinating region is to step back into the Korea of yesteryear. It is a land of steam locomotives chugging against a backdrop of towering mountains and shimmering rice fields, where refreshing breezes carry the sounds of Korean traditional singing.
Small Fields, Small Villages
The Seomjingang River flows some 212km from the mountains and lakes of Jinan, Jeollabuk-do, in the north toward Gwangyangman Bay in the south. Along the way, it passes through the towns of Imsil, Sunchang, Gokseong, Gurye, Hdong and Gwangyang. The high peaks of Jirisan National Park, southern Korea's most conspicuous topographic features, from an impressive backdrop for much of the course.
Poet Kim Yong-taik, whose work extols the beauty of the Seomjingang River and the virtues of the people who live on its banks, described his home town of Jinme Village, a humble farming community along the Imsil stretch of the river, as a place of small fields and humble riverine villages nestled amidst the mountains. Like elsewhere in Korea, the Seomjingang region is no stranger to development, but there are few places in the country that have the simple rural beauty of a landscape that has been so well preserved.
To experience pastoral bliss at its finest, hike the roughly 9km stretch of river from Jinme Village to Janggumok.
The trail, well-marked by sings along the way, meanders around peaceful villages, craggy, ancient trees, scenic lookout points, stone bridges, fruit orchards and unusual rock formations. One especially lovely spot is a shaded hillock overlooking the river near Gudam Village - the water, mountains and dramatically gnarled zelkova trees planted on the hilltop assemble to create a scene pulled directly out of an Estern landscape painting.
▶ Boats and spring blossoms. Hadong (Courtesy of Hadong country office)
Riding the Rails to Yesteryear
Further down the river from Imsil is the small rural town of Gokseong, where you can explore the beauty of the river via a special, tourism-use steam locomotive. The train runs along a 10km track from old Gokseong Station to Gajeong Station and back. The 90-minute trip (including a 30-minute stop at Gajeong station) takes passengers past some lush, colorful countryside. Gokseong Station, a historic train station built in the 1930s, is now the centerpiece of Seomjingang Train Village, a small theme park with some pleasant gardens, fountains and rides for the kiddies.
If you'd prefer something a bit closer to the ground, there are four-person rail bikes available, too. This is a much shorter course, running 5.1km from Chimgok Station to Gajeong Station. There are also parallel hiking trails that run along the river, each one with a different theme.
Still further down the river is the town of Gurye, the point of entry to Jirisan National Park. In addition to its scenic beauty, the town is famous for its musical heritage. It is expecially know as one of the hearlandas of pansori, a form of lyrical storytelling. There's a school and performance hall in Gurye, the Dongpyeongje Sori Jeonsugwan, where you can see performances and, if you're up to it, take lessons.
▶ 'Couple Pines' of Pyeongsa-ri (Left), Pansori performance in Gurye (Right)
Tea and Couple Trees
As the Somejingang nears its estuary in the Gwantyangman Bay, it passes through the countryside of the towns of Gwangyang and Hadong; inf fact, the river forms the border between the two towns and, as geography would have it, the province of Jeollanam-do to the west and Gyeongsangnam-do to the east.
On the Hadong side of the river, the northern stretch passes the Hwagye Valley, which eventually leads to the important Buddhist monastery of Ssanggyesa, in the foothills of Mt. Jirisan. The temple interior is impressive enought to warrant its own visit, but for those passing through, the valley in front is lined by wild green tea farms, a legacy of the first Buddhist monks who bought tea seeds from China.
Just below that is the village of Pyeongsa-ri, where you'll find Pyeongsa-ri Park, a popular rest area. The area aroud Pyeongsa-ri is best known in Korea as the backdrop to the novel Toji, written by late author Park Gyeong-ri from 1968 to 1994. Several places mentioned in the novel, including the late Joseon residence of Choe Champan, have been preserved and are open to visitors. Photographers, meanwhile, flock to capture the village's famous "Couple Pines," two pine trees that stand alone amidst a large rice field.
▶Steam train, Gokseong
Where to Eat
The Seomjingang River is, unsurprisingly, known for its freshwater seafood. The Gwangyang and Hadong stretch of the river is famous for its jaecheop, of freshwater shellfish, which are served in a clear soup, or jaecheopguk. Dongheung Sikdang (T. 055-833-8333) in Hadong is especialy renowned for this dish.
Where to Stay
A good cultural experience is the Templestay program of historic Ssangyesa (www.ssanggyesa.net, Korean), where you can spend a peaceful night and experience life as a Buddhist monk. In Gokseong, a very pleasant camping experience can be had at Amnok Resort Auto Camping Site (T. 061-362-3447), wehre you can spend the night in a camper trailer for KRW 100,000 a night on peak weekends. If you ave your own tent, it'll cost you just KRW 15,000. One of the finest places to stay along the river is the Gokjeongjae (T. 010-562-5844), a century-old Korean manor home-turned-pension house in Gurye. During the summer high season, expect to pay KRW 150,000 a night.
Imsil: Buses to Imsil depart from Seoul's Nambu Bus Terminal (Travel time: 3hours).
Gokseong: Buses to Gokseong depart from Seoul's Central City Bus Terminal (Travel time: 3hours, 45 minutes).
Hadong: Buses to Hadong depart from Seoul's Nambu Bus Terminal (Travel time: 4hours)