The Korean peninsula has thousands of islands on its fringes, but the seas around the coastal city of MOKPO (목포) have by far the most concentrated number. Though many of these are merely bluffs of barnacled rock poking out above the West Sea (also known as the Yellow Sea), dozens are accessible by ferry from Mokpo; beautiful in an ugly kind of way, this curious city gives the impression that it would happily be an island if it could.
Korea’s southwestern train line ends quite visibly in Mokpo city centre. The highway from the centre of the country does likewise with less fuss, but was not completed until fairly recently. For much of the 1970s and 1980s, public funding also ran out before it hit southern Jeolla – poor transport connections to the rest of the country are just one example of the way this area was neglected by the central government. For much of this time, the main opposition party was based in Mokpo, and funding was deliberately cut in an attempt to marginalize the city, which was once among the most populous and powerful in the land. Though the balance is now being addressed with a series of large projects, much of the city is still run-down, and Mokpo is probably the poorest urban centre in the country. Some Koreans say that taxi drivers are a good indicator of the wealth of the cities, and here cabbies have a habit of beeping at pedestrians in the hope that they want a lift, occasionally swinging around for a second go. Things are changing, however, especially in the new district of Hadang, which was built on land reclaimed from the sea, but it’ll be a while before Mokpo’s saline charms are eroded.Read More
Wolchulsan National Park
Wolchulsan National Park
A short bus-ride east of Mokpo, WOLCHULSAN NATIONAL PARK (월출산 국립 공원) is the smallest of Korea’s national parks and one of its least visited – the lack of historic temples and its difficult access are a blessing in disguise. Set within the achingly gorgeous Jeollanese countryside, Wolchulsan’s jumble of mazy rocks rises to more than 800m above sea level, casting jagged shadows over the rice paddies.
Just five buses a day make the fifteen-minute trip to the main entrance at Cheonhwangsaji from the small town of Yeong-am; alternatively, it’s an affordable taxi ride, or an easy walk. Yeong-am itself is well connected to Mokpo and Yeosu by bus. From here a short but steep hiking trail heads up to Cheonhwangbong (809m), the park’s main peak; along the way, you’ll have to traverse the “Cloud Bridge”, a steel structure slung between two peaks – not for vertigo sufferers. Views from here, or the peak itself, are magnificent, and with an early enough start it’s possible to make the tough hike to Dogapsa (도갑사), an uninteresting temple on the other side of the park, while heeding the “no shamanism” warning signs along the way. There’s no public transport to or from the temple, but a forty-minute walk south – all downhill – will bring you to Gurim (구림), a small village outside the park, on the main road between Mokpo and Yeong-am. A couple of kilometres south of Gurim is the Yeongam Pottery Centre (daily 9am–6pm; free). Due to the properties of the local soil, this whole area was Korea’s main ceramics hub throughout the Three Kingdoms period, and local artisans enjoyed trade with similarly minded folk in China and Japan. Sadly, the centre is as dull as the clay itself, though the on-site shop is good for souvenirs; you may get a chance to throw your own pot for a small fee, and there’s a decidedly brutalist sculpture outside the main entrance which would look at home in Pyongyang (were it not for the South Korean flag). The downhill walk from Gurim to the centre is much more interesting – the town remains an important base for pottery production, and accordingly many of its houses have eschewed modern-day metals for beautiful, traditional tiled roofs. There are few concessions to modern life here.
Formula 1 comes to Mokpo
Formula 1 comes to Mokpo
In 2010, the Formula 1 circus finally came to Korea, with the inaugural Grand Prix taking place at a brand-new track just east of Mokpo. The first hosting of this event was fraught with problems: the track was only given its safety certificate days before the race, spectator enclosures were hastily put together, and there were only three acceptable hotels in the whole of Mokpo. Most fans, and even some VIPs, were forced to stay at love hotels – one BBC journalist returned to her room to find that it had been used in her absence (a used contraceptive on the floor providing the evidence).
Race day itself was also memorable for the wrong reasons. Traffic jams resulting from poor access to the track meant that thousands of spectators arrived late – and in some cases, not at all. Rain didn’t help matters, with the newly built track stubbornly refusing to drain; concerns about driver safety led to the race being delayed for over an hour, and at one point the embarrassing possibility of cancelling the event entirely was raised. In the end, the clouds parted, and after several notable drivers had spun off the slippery track Spanish driver Fernando Alonso emerged victorious.
Some, inevitably, questioned the wisdom of hosting the Korean Grand Prix in this out-of-the-way corner of the country – the simple truth was that Jeonnam province had made the most generous offer to the F1 powers. Despite these inauspicious beginnings, F1 is likely here to stay, and the lessons learned by local authorities will eventually make Mokpo one of the more comfortable stops on the motor racing calendar.