Sancheong-gun, Thursday 5 May 2011. We have a light breakfast of coffee, fruit and muffin at the pension. We are sitting outside in the sun: it is the start of a beautiful day. Mr Min arrives, and the pension owner greets him. Through the faint haze, they point out the distant peak to me: Cheonwangbong. Jirisan is a mountain that sprawls over a large area and spills over into three provinces: Gyeongnam, Jeonnam and Jeonbuk. It is more a mountain range than an individual mountain. Its highest peak, Cheonwangbong (1915m), is in Sancheong County, Gyeongnam, while its second highest, Banyabong (1732m) is around 20km away as the crow flies in Gurye County, Jeollanam-do.
Cheonwangbong stands on its own on the horizon. I had not heard the name before, but as this visit proceeded, and in future years, it would loom ever larger in my consciousness.
Continuing my education in the lesser-known aspects of Sancheong County, this morning I am to learn a bit of Confucian history. Mr Min confesses that he has been somewhat dreading this day. He was quite happy the previous year telling me about herbal medicine and the gi on Wangsan – these topics were within the core curriculum for visitors to the county, but when it came to the life and philosophy of a 16th century Confucian scholar-official he had to do a lot of preparatory research. I smiled inwardly, secretly enjoying revenge for the stress I had suffered the previous day preparing for my appearance as a dokkaebi.
Our car draws up at the Sancheon-jae, where Mr Min starts his briefing, of which more detail can be found here. Sancheon-jae is the home where Nammyeong Cho Shik spent the last decade of his life, and from there we move to the academy built in his memory, and a riverside pavilion where he will have contemplated, conversed and maybe practised calligraphy.
My hosts are conscious that I am travelling to Jejudo that afternoon, and so we have a schedule to keep. We thus do not quite have time to visit Nammyeong’s tomb (I will return for that another year). Instead we head off for a farewell lunch, which features a colourful local delicacy: freshwater snails. The little creatures are served three ways. First, simply boiled: the flesh is extracted by spearing it with a cocktail stick with one hand while deftly twisting the shell in the other. The snail comes out in a little coil. Then a salad of the snail flesh with raw vegetables and persimmon sauce; and a beautiful jade green soup of broth with sliced dumplings. The festive lunch was a real treat – and another treat is the gift I am given as a farewell: a tea bowl by Min Young-ki – something that I shall always treasure.
After lunch, we drive to Busan’s airport at Gimhae, an hour or so’s journey from Sancheong. The plane to Jeju airport is uneventful, and Baek Uncheol was there to greet us. I had last seen Mr Baek ten years previously when I visited his Mogseokwon stone park on my very first trip to Korea.
Since then, Mr Baek had been tirelessly lobbying, fund-raising, organising, campaigning in support of his lifetime obsession: Jeju’s and legendary past as preserved in its stones. I would find out more about his project the next day, but for the present we were entertained to dinner at a local restaurant and then taken to self-catering tourist accommodation in a remote part of Jeju Stone Park to settle in for the night.