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.
Gongju and Bueyo are two small settlements in Chungnam that were, for a time, capitals of the Baekje dynasty which controlled much of the Korean peninsula’s southwestern area during the Three Kingdoms period. Once known as Ungjin, Gongju became the second capital of the realm in 475, when it was moved from Wiryeseong (now known as Seoul), but held the seat of power for only 63 years before it was passed to Buyeo, a day’s march to the southwest. Buyeo (then named Sabi) lasted a little longer until the dynasty was choked off in 660 by the powerful Silla empire to the east, which went on to unify the peninsula. Today, these three cities form an uneven historical triangle, weighed down on one side by Gyeongju’s incomparable wealth of riches. Although the old Silla capital sees by far the most foreign tourists, the Baekje pair’s less heralded sights can easily fill a weekend. Many of these echo those of the Silla capital – green grassy mounds where royalty were buried, imposing fortresses, lofty pavilions and ornate regal jewellery. Unabashedly excessive, yet at the same time achieving an ornate simplicity, Baekje jewellery attained an international reputation and went on to exert an influence on the Japanese craft of jewellery-making; some well-preserved examples in both cities can be found at their museums, which are two of Korea’s best. Additionally, the Baekje Culture Festival takes place each September, with colourful parades and traditional performances in both Buyeo and Gongju; see wwww.baekje.org for more information.
The two cities remain off the radar of most international travellers, and most who visit do so on day-trips from Seoul. Much of this can be attributed to the fact that there’s next to no higher-end accommodation in either city, though a resort has recently opened up just outside Buyeo. Though unheralded even by Koreans, the cities’ unassuming restaurants are a different story altogether – though extremely earthy, the food on offer here is some of the best and most traditional in the land, and an extremely well-preserved secret.
The Baekje dynasty was one of Korea’s famed Three Kingdoms – Goguryeo and Silla being the other two – and controlled much of southwestern Korea for almost seven hundred years. The Samguk Sagi, Korea’s only real historical account of the peninsula in these times, claims that Baekje was a product of sibling rivalry – it was founded in 18 BC by Onjo, whose father had kick-started the Goguryeo dynasty less than twenty years beforehand, in present-day North Korea; seeing the reins of power passed on to his elder brother Yuri, Onjo promptly moved south and set up his own kingdom.
Strangely, given its position facing China on the western side of the Korean peninsula, Baekje was more closely allied with the kingdom of Wa in Japan – at least one Baekje king was born across the East Sea – and it became a conduit for art, religion and customs from the Asian mainland. This fact is perhaps best embodied by the Baekje artefacts displayed in the museums in Buyeo and Gongju, which contain lacquer boxes, pottery and folding screens not dissimilar to the craftwork that Japan is now famed for.
Though the exact location of the first Baekje capitals is unclear, it’s certain that Gongju and Buyeo were its last two seats of power. Gongju, then known as Ungjin, was capital from 475 to 538; during this period the aforementioned Three Kingdoms were jostling for power, and while Baekje leaders formed an uneasy alliance with their Silla counterparts the large fortress of Gongsanseong was built to protect the city from Goguryeo attacks. The capital was transferred to Sabi – present-day Buyeo – which also received a fortress-shaped upgrade. However, it was here that the Baekje kingdom finally ground to a halt in 660, succumbing to the Silla forces that, following their crushing of Goguryeo shortly afterwards, went on to rule the whole peninsula.
Though local rebellions briefly brought Baekje back to power in the years leading up to the disintegration of Unified Silla, it was finally stamped out by the nascent Goryeo dynasty in 935. Despite the many centuries that have elapsed since, much evidence of Baekje times can still be seen today in the form of the regal burial mounds found in Gongju and Buyeo.
The smaller and sleepier of the Baekje duo, BUYEO (부여) is nonetheless worth a visit. The Baekje seat of power was transferred here from Gongju in 538, and saw six kings come and go before the abrupt termination of the dynasty in 660, when General Gyebaek led his five thousand men into one last battle against a Silla-Chinese coalition ten times that size. Knowing that his resistance would prove futile, the general killed his wife and children before heading into combat, preferring to see them dead than condemn them to slavery. Legend has it that thousands of the town’s women threw themselves off a riverside cliff when the battle had been lost, drowning both themselves and the Baekje dynasty. Today, this cliff and the large, verdant fortress surrounding it are the town’s biggest draw, along with an excellent museum.
Presided over by the large fortress of Gongsanseong, small, sleepy GONGJU (공주) is one of the most charming cities in the land, and deserving of a little more fame. It’s also the best place in which to see relics from the Baekje dynasty that it ruled as capital in the fifth and sixth centuries: King Muryeong, its most famous inhabitant, lay here undisturbed for over 1400 years, after which his tomb yielded thousands of pieces of jewellery that provided a hitherto unattainable insight into the splendid craft of the Baekje people. Largely devoid of the bustle, clutter and chain stores found in most Korean cities, and with a number of wonderful sights, Gongju is worthy of at least a day of your time.
After years in the shadows, Cheonan (천안) is a city on the up: now connected to Seoul by subway and high-speed train, its population has boomed in recent years, both with disaffected office workers from the capital and migrants from Asia who have been brought over to work on one of the many construction projects. The new KTX line has enabled commuters to work in Seoul while living in a cheaper, more manageable city, but despite the flashy new department stores and housing complexes, there’s little here to detain travellers bar the superb Arario Gallery – instead, visitors mainly use Cheonan as a jumping-off point for the largest museum in the country, the fascinating Independence Hall of Korea.
Set in a wooded area east of Cheonan, Korea’s largest museum, the Independence Hall of Korea (독립 기념관), is a concrete testament to the country’s continued struggle for independence during its most troubled time, from 1910 to 1945, when it suffered the indignity of being occupied by Japan. Though this was a relatively short period, the effects were devastating, and despite the Korean government’s initial appeal for locals not to be “filled with bitterness or resentment”, the popularity of the place and the size of its seven large exhibition halls – each of which would probably function quite well as individual museums – show that the wounds are still sore. Scarcely an opportunity is missed to insert a derogatory adjective against the Japanese people and policies of the time, but this combination of vitriol and history makes the place an absorbing visit.
Each hall highlights different aspects of the occupation, with the most important displays labelled in English. However, many locals head straight for those detailing Japanese brutality during the colonial period – “Torture done by Japan”, a life-size display featuring some unfortunate mannequins, is one of the most popular exhibits, but there are also numerous photographs. Should you tire of the unrelenting indignation, the “Hall of National Heritage” is filled with less bombastic displays detailing traditional Korean life.
Within easy reach of Seoul, Chungnam’s coast is a popular place for anyone seeking to escape the capital for a bit of summer fun. Inevitably, the main attractions are the beaches, with the white stretches of Mallipo and Daecheon the most visited; the latter’s annual mud festival is one of the wildest and busiest events on the peninsula. It’s a short ferry trip from the mainland bustle to the more traditional offshore islands, a sleepy crew strung out beyond the horizon and almost entirely dependent on fishing.
Long, wide and handsome, DAECHEON BEACH (대천 해수욕장) is by far the most popular on Korea’s western coast, hauling in a predominantly young crowd. In the summer this 3km-long stretch of white sand becomes a sea of people, having fun in the water by day, then drinking and letting off fireworks until the early hours. The revelry reaches its crescendo each July with the Boryeong mud festival, a week-long event that seems to rope in (and sully) almost every expat in the country. Mud, mud and more mud – wrestle or slide around in it, throw it at your friends or smear it all over yourself, then take lots and lots of pictures – this is one of the most enjoyable festivals on the calendar (see wwww.mudfestival.or.kr for more details). At other times you can still sample the brown stuff at the Mud House (머드 하우스), the most distinctive building on the beachfront, where mud massages cost from W25,000. Admission gets you entry to an on-site sauna, at which you can bathe in a mud pool or even paint yourself with the stuff; all manner of mud-based cosmetics are on sale at reception, including mud shampoo, soap and body cream. In summer, rent banana boats, jet-skis and large rubber tubes, or even a quad bike to ride up and down the prom.
Nine kilometres south of the beach is Muchangpo (무창포), a settlement that becomes popular for a few days every month when the tides retreat to reveal a path linking the beach with a small nearby island, an event inevitably termed “Moses’ Miracle”; the sight of a line of people seemingly walking across water is quite something. For advice on the tides phone the tourist information line on t041/1330.
From Daecheon harbour, a string of tiny islands stretches beyond the horizon into what Koreans term the West Sea, a body of water known internationally as the Yellow Sea. From their distant shores, the mainland is either a lazy murmur on the horizon or altogether out of sight, making this a perfect place to kick back and take it easy. Beaches and seafood restaurants are the main draw, but it’s also a joy to sample the unhurried island lifestyle that remains unaffected by the changes that swept through the mainland on its course to First World status; these islands therefore, provide the truest remnants of pre-industrial Korean life. Fishing boats judder into the docks where the sailors gut and prepare their haul with startling efficiency; it’s sometimes possible to buy fish directly from them. Restaurants on the islands are usually rickety, family-run affairs serving simple Korean staples.
For centuries, perhaps even millennia, the ginseng root has been used in Asia for its medicinal qualities, particularly its ability to retain or restore the body’s Yin–Yang balance; for a time, it was valued more highly by weight than gold. Even today, Korean ginseng is much sought after on the global market, due to the country’s ideal climatic conditions; known locally as insam (인삼), much of it is grown in the Chungcheong provinces under slanted nets of black plastic. The roots take anything up to six years to mature, and suck up so much nutrition from the soil that, once harvested, no more ginseng can be planted in the same field for over a decade.
The health benefits of ginseng have been much debated in recent years, and most of the evidence in favour of the root is anecdotal rather than scientific. There are, nonetheless, hordes of admirers, and ginseng’s stock rose further when it rode the crest of the “healthy living” wave that swept across Korea just after the turn of the millennium. Today it’s possible to get your fix in pills, capsules, jellies, chewing gum or boiled sweets, as well as the more traditional tea or by eating the root raw. As the purported benefits depend on the dosage and type of ginseng used (red or white), it’s best to consult a practitioner of oriental medicines, but one safe – and delicious – dish is samgyetang (삼계탕), a tasty and extremely healthy soup made with a ginseng-stuffed chicken, available across the land. Or for a slightly quirky drink, try mixing a sachet of ginseng granules and a spoon of brown sugar into hot milk – your very own ginseng latte.
Every country has a city like DAEJEON (대전) – somewhere pleasant to go about daily life, but with little to offer the casual visitor. These, however, arrive in surprisingly high numbers, many using the city as a default stopover on the high-speed rail line from Seoul to Busan. There are far better places in which to break this journey, including on the lesser-used slow line through Danyang, Andong and Gyeongju, but if you do choose to hole up in Daejeon you’ll find a few mildly diverting attractions. Most vaunted are Expo Park, built for an exhibition in 1993, yet still somehow a source of local pride, and Yuseong, the therapeutic hot-spring resort on the western flank of the city. Daejeon’s best use, perhaps, is as a base for the small but pretty Gyeryongsan to the west.
Home to a rarified and almost resort-like air, the sleepy town of DANYANG (단양) is, quite simply, one of the most relaxing places in Korea. There’s little of the noise and clutter found in other urban areas, and life dawdles by at a snail’s pace – quite appropriate, really, since river snails are a local delicacy. These are dredged from Chungju Lake, a river-like expanse that curls a C-shape around the town centre; traversable by ferry, this route is Korea’s prettiest navigable inland waterway. Green, pine-covered ripples rise up from the lake – almost totally unspoilt, they make for a thoroughly enchanting backdrop. The loftiest converge at Sobaeksan, a pretty national park easily accessible from Danyang; on its cusp is Guinsa, one of the most distinctive temples in the whole of the land, and perhaps the highlight of the whole area.
Shoehorned into a tranquil valley northeast of Danyang is GUINSA (구인사), one of Korea’s more remarkable temple complexes. A great divider among Koreans, it’s viewed by many as the most un-Korean temple, which is emphatically true – the colours and building styles are hard to find anywhere else in the country, and the usual elegant restraint of the traditional layouts has been replaced by a desire to show off. On the other hand, numbers alone bear witness to its importance – well over one thousand monks may reside here at any one time, and the kitchens can dish up food for twice that number on any given day. Guinsa is the headquarters of the Buddhist Cheontae sect; once the most powerful in the country, it declined to near-extinction by the 1940s, but was given a second lease of life in 1945 by Songwol Wongak, a monk who put his overseas studies to good use by creating an altogether different temple. Here, the usual black slate of Korean temple roofing has occasionally been eschewed for a glazed orange finish reminiscent of that in Beijing’s Forbidden City, and some buildings show hints of Lhasa’s Potala Palace with their use of height and vertical lines. Buildings swarm up the valley and connect in unlikely ways, with alleys and bridges crisscrossing like the dragons depicted around the complex; you’ll often wander up a path, and on looking back discover three or four routes that could have brought you to the same place. Despite being infested with an almost plague-like number of dragonflies in late summer, it’s one of the most scenic places in the country.
Anyone spending any time in Danyang is sure to catch occasional glimpses of Ondal (온달), the town mascot – you’ll see him, and his huge eyebrows, on everything from restaurant signs to toilet doors. According to local legend, he was the town fool until wooing a local princess (perhaps using those eyebrows) to one of the town’s caves for an underground tryst; after their subsequent marriage, Ondal became a soldier of such skill that he eventually found himself promoted to general, fighting fierce battles at the fortress up the hill. The extremely Korean moral of the story seems to be that anything is possible with a good woman at your side.
Far quieter than most Korean parks on account of its location, SOBAEKSAN NATIONAL PARK (소백산 국립 공원) is an unheralded delight. It is best visited at the end of spring (around May or June), when a carpet of royal azalea blooms paints much of the mountainside a riot of pink, but at any time of the year the views are impressive – the park is traversed by a relatively bare ridge heading in an admirably straight line from northeast to southwest, crossing numerous high peaks. A steep three-hour uphill path runs from the main entrance at Cheondong-ri to Birobong, the park’s highest peak at 1440m. After reaching the ridge most head straight back down, but if you follow it along in either direction you will be rewarded with a succession of amazing views. Many opt to head northeast to Gungmangbong (1421m), an hour or so away, but only the hardcore continue all the way to Hyeongjebong. Southwest of Birobong are three peaks, confusingly all named Yeonhwabong; on the central crest, taking advantage of the park’s clean air and lofty elevation, is Korea’s main astronomical observatory, though unfortunately it is closed to visitors. From here it’s possible to exit the park to the south through the Huibang park entrance, the two-hour walk mopping up small waterfalls and a secluded temple on the way.
Despite its comparatively puny size relative to its Korean brethren, GYERYONGSAN NATIONAL PARK (계룡산 국립 공원) is a true delight, with herons flitting along the trickling streams, wild boar rifling through the woods and bizarre long net stinkhorn mushrooms – like regular mushrooms, but with a yellow honeycombed veil – found on the forest floors. It is said to have the most gi (기; life-force) of any national park in Korea, one of several factors that haul in 1.4 million people per year, making it the most visited national park in the Chungcheong region. The main reasons for this are accessibility and manageability – it lies equidistant from Gongju to the west and Daejeon to the east, and easy day-hikes run up and over the central peaks, connecting Gapsa and Donghaksa, two sumptuous temples that flank the park, both of which date back over a thousand years.
When passing through rural Chungcheong, those who’ve been travelling around Korea for a while may notice something special about the way locals talk. The pace of conversation here is slower than in the rest of the land (particularly the staccato patois of Gyeongsang province), with some locals speaking in a drawl that can even have non-native students of the language rolling their eyes and looking at their watches in frustration. One folk tale, retold across the nation, describes a Chungcheongese town that was destroyed by a falling boulder: apparently it was spotted early enough, but locals were unable to enunciate their warnings in a speedy enough manner.
SONGNISAN NATIONAL PARK (속리산 국립 공원) is justly one of the most popular parks in Korea, partly owing to its position in the centre of the country, but also thanks to its temple and the visually arresting 33m-high bronze Buddha, the tallest such figure in the world. Songnisan’s myriad trails are a joy to hike, the paths winding uphill alongside gentle streams to heady 1000m-high peaks, but though the park’s name translates as “mountains far from the ordinary world”, the area between the bus terminal and the main park entrance couldn’t be more typical of a Korean tourist hotspot, with more souvenir shops, restaurants and karaoke rooms than you’d expect to find in the midst of such tranquil environs.
Inside the park, a short, shaded path leads to the park’s main draw – the glorious temple Beopjusa (법주사). Entirely surrounded by pine and peaks, its name means – somewhat tautologically – “the temple where Buddhist teachings reside”, and indeed it has been an active place of worship and religious study since built in 653. Standing with his back to the west (the direction of his death), the huge bronze Buddha statue stands atop an underground hall housing hundreds of figurines, including a rather splendid golden goddess of compassion. Back outside and facing the statue is Palsangjeon (팔상전), an unconventional five-storey building that, despite a rather squat appearance fostered by the shallow lattice windows, is also the tallest wooden structure in Korea. As with all Korean temple halls bearing this name, it contains eight painted murals depicting various stages from the life of the Buddha; however, this is likely to be the oldest such building in the land. Nearby are two elaborately decorated stone lanterns; two lions hold up the torch segment on one (though the flames have long been extinguished), while the other is adorned with four carved devas and a statue of a bodhisattva. This deity incarnate once held an incense burner until he was consumed by fire, presumably reaching nirvana during his show of determination.