The atmospheric conditions were unchanged by the time we’d arrived and caught a taxi. The talkative driver, wearing black faux-leather pants, a puffy black jacket and black sports sunglasses, said that Gunsan was the hardest-hit city in the country because of its proximity to China.
On our right we passed a stately brick building ― a former bank built in 1922 that was now a museum of modern architecture ― and then a scattering of heritage buildings along the waterfront. Further on was a hillside neighborhood slated for destruction, its gutted buildings not quite old enough to warrant preservation.
As we passed an industrial complex and neared the ferry terminal, a beach and clump of islands came into view. But our destination, Seonyudo Island, one of 47 in the Gogunsan (Old Gunsan) group, would be visible only after the ferry cleared the industrial park, free trade zone and wind turbines at the end of the land.
Sheltering for most of the voyage in a lower cabin, we emerged to a scene resembling an oriental landscape painting: islands of all sizes, from grassy mounds with scraggly pines to mountains rising out of the sea in the hazy distance. Dominating the skyline were the sheer cliffs of Mangjubong Peak, connected to Seonyudo Island by a long strip of sand.
At the dock, we edged past lodging and island tour touts, including a character named “Macho” with a tiger-striped jeep, and set off toward the main town of Okdo, looking for a minbak (basic hotel) and a meal. While there were dozens of bicycles for rent, Seonyudo had few motorized vehicles, nor were there any ATMs or convenience stores.
Stopping at West Sea Minbak and Raw Fish Restaurant and ordering a late lunch, we were served a spread of side dishes quite different from those in Seoul, including crunchy fermented crabs, kimchi-mung bean jeon (“pancake”) and kimguk (seaweed soup). The proprietor, a hardworking woman named Lee Geun-jung, told us proudly that the soup was MSG-free, with short-necked clams for seasoning, and that fresh seawater was used to make her kimchi.
By the time the main courses arrived ― a seafood sampler of raw abalone, sea cucumber and sea squirt served on bamboo leaves, and rockfish hoedeopbap (rice and vegetables with slices of raw fish) ― our trip had been declared a success.
As we ate, Mrs. Lee told us that within a year Seonyudo Island would be connected to nearby Sinsido Island, currently the midpoint of a seawall road from Buan to Gunsan. Named the Saemangeum Seawall Project, the 33-kilometer seawall is the longest ever built.
To witness Seonyudo Island’s famed sunset and get a lay of the land and water, we walked through the forest from the village of Namak-ri and up the 150-meter-high Namaksan Mountain, arriving at the viewing platform just on time, at 6:25 p.m. But the smog had won that day, blocking out the sun entirely and even refusing to change color.
|A short “dulle gil” trail curves around one of Seonyudo Island’s most impressive stretches of coastline. (Matthew Crawford/The Korea Herald)|
The next morning, though, the fine particles had lifted and the islands were awash in sunshine. After a brunch of kimchi jjigae, we chose a pair of bikes, paid the rental fee of 3,000 won ($2.80) per hour and set off for Munyeodo Island. Like the smaller Jangjado Island, Munyeodo (meaning “Female Shaman”) is connected to Seonyudo by walking bridges. These convenient island links help make the area a “cyclist’s paradise,” in the words of one Korean blogger.
It’s hard to gauge whether it will still be a cyclist’s paradise when the vehicle bridge, going up next to the walkover, is completed. Already, the hills on the Seonyudo side have been shaved down for road construction. The thoroughfare will cross the island, hop across a narrow strait and end at the northern tip of Jangjado.
Backtracking to Seonyudo, we started on the course recommended by Mrs. Lee, a “dulle gil,” or circuit path, around one of its rocky bluffs. The walkway, supported by concrete pillars on rock that looked like a mishmash of candle wax drippings and broken swords, was bike-friendly, notwithstanding a few short sections of stairs. The course ended at Okdol Beach ― one of several sunset-viewing spots on the island, shaped like a natural amphitheater with flat stones fanning into the bay.
After a fiasco involving a sold-out ferry, a mutiny of stranded tourists and an impromptu ride to the seawall road on a fishing vessel piloted by Macho, we were back in Gunsan with time to see some of its early 20th-century heritage. The day before had been Independence Movement Day, marking the Korean uprising against Japanese rule in 1919. Many buildings from the days of Japanese colonialism remain standing in Gunsan, making it an ideal place to reflect on this period of Korean history.
While better known for hosting Korea’s largest U.S. Air Force base, Gunsan was a major port during the Japanese occupation, ranking alongside Incheon and Busan. A sign at a heritage building points out that “Gunsan became the target port of exploitation for rice and land in (the) Honam region” after the port opened in 1899. “Honam” refers to the North and South Jeolla provinces, the proverbial rice bowl of Korea.
Many of the historically insignificant buildings in the former city center had been abandoned and were falling apart, adding a ghost town element to the walking tour. Meanwhile, some of the Japanese colonial structures were still in use ― and not only as museum spaces. The Gowoodang Guest House, a compound of bungalows with Japanese-style interiors set around a pond and garden, is so wildly popular that it’s booked up two months in advance for weekends.
Not far from Gowoodang is the Japanese Buddhist temple of Dongguksa, the last of its kind in Korea. With its sliding doors, sloping tile roof and mindful landscaping, it now seems out of place, though it continues to operate under the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism. A stone tablet near the hanging bell communicates a long, elaborate statement of contrition for Japan’s colonial misdeeds, signed by the head of religious affairs of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism: “In Buddhism, all people, as Buddhists, have to be equal.”
On Seonyudo Island, West Sea Minbak and Raw Fish Restaurant charges 40,000 won for a room during the low season. Prices may double during the peak months of July and August. Reservations can be made at (63) 462-5090 (Korean only).
In Gunsan, Gowoodang Guest House offers accommodation starting at 15,000 won per person in a shared room. Two-, five- and eight-person rooms are available, with different rates for weekdays and weekends. For more information (Korean only) visit www.gowoodang.com or call (063) 443-1042.
With plentiful departures to and from the Express Bus Terminal and Nambu Terminal in Seoul, and service on the Saemaeul and Mugunghwa train lines, transportation to and from Gunsan should never be a problem.
The ferry to Seonyudo Island leaves at 11 a.m. and 1:30 a.m. and returns at 1:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. The ride takes 1 1/2 hours.
By Matthew C. Crawford (email@example.com)