Of South Korea’s principal regions, Chungcheong (충청) is the least visited by foreign travellers, most of whom choose to rush through it on buses and trains to Gyeongju or Busan in the southeast, or over it on planes to Jeju-do. But to do so is to bypass the heart of the country, a thrillingly rural mishmash of rice paddies, ginseng fields, national parks and unhurried islands. One less obvious Chungcheong attraction is the local populace – the Chungcheongese are noted throughout Korea for their relaxed nature. Here you’ll get less pressure at the markets, or perhaps even notice a delay of a second or two when the traffic lights change before being deafened by a cacophony of car horns. The region’s main cities are noticeably laid-back by Korean standards, and Chungcheongese themselves, particularly those living in the countryside, speak at a markedly slower pace than other Koreans.
Today split into two provinces, Chungcheong was named in the fourteenth century by fusing the names of Chungju and Cheongju, then its two major cities – they’re still around today, but of little interest to travellers (Cheongju did, however, produce the world’s first book). To the west lies Chungnam (충남), a province whose name somewhat confusingly translates as “South Chungcheong”. Its western edge is washed by the West Sea, and has a few good beaches – the strip of white sand in Daecheon is one of the busiest in the country, with the summer revelry hitting its zenith each July at an immensely popular mud festival. Off this coast are a number of accessible islands – tiny squads of rock stretch far beyond the horizon into the West Sea, and sustain fishing communities that provide a glimpse into pre-karaoke Korean life. Inland, the pleasures take a turn for the traditional: the small cities of Buyeo and Gongju fuctioned as capitals of the Baekje dynasty (18 BC–660 AD) just as the Roman Empire was collapsing, yet each still boasts a superb wealth of dynastic sights. Both are home to fortresses, regal tombs and museums filled with gleaming jewellery of the period, which went on to have a profound influence on Japanese craft. As you head further east, the land becomes ever more mountainous. Anyone hiking across the spine of Songnisan national park will find a couple of gorgeous temples on the way, and on dropping down will be able to grab a bus to Daejeon, Chungcheong’s largest city. North of Daejeon, and actually part of Seoul’s sprawling subway network, is Cheonan, which is home to the country’s largest, and possibly most revealing, museum.
Heading east instead will bring you to the province of Chungbuk (충북; “North Chungcheong”). As Korea’s only landlocked province, this could be said to represent the heart of the country, a predominantly rural patchwork of fields and peaks, with three national parks within its borders. Songnisan is deservedly the most popular, and has a number of good day-hikes emanating from Beopjusa, a highly picturesque temple near the park’s main entrance. Sobaeksan is less visited but just as appealing to hikers; it surrounds the lakeside resort town of Danyang, which makes a comfortable base for exploring the caves, fortresses and sprawling temple of Guinsa on the province’s eastern flank.