Tongyeong, Gyeongsangnam-do, Monday 26 March 2012. It’s another beautiful, crisp spring morning. The sea is calm, the sky is cloudless, but the temperature out of the sun is not far above freezing. The light is perfect for a few early photographs of the view from the hotel and from its waterside terrace, though it’s tricky to take a picture which doesn’t include signs of Tongyeong’s latest industry: shipbuilding.
In search of breakfast
We catch a taxi across the short road bridge back to Tongyeong proper and are dropped outside the fishmarket.
In 1932, during the Japanese colonial period, the narrow waterway (only 4 metres wide) between Tongyeong and Mireuk-do was dredged and widened. The existing bridge was pulled down, and instead of constructing a new bridge the Japanese dug a road tunnel. Why they did so, rather than build another bridge, is a bit of a mystery, but Tongyeong is consequently proud owner of the first undersea tunnel in Asia. It is now a tourist attraction. Two road bridges now span the stretch of water now known as Tongyeong Canal.
The fish market
We had asked the taxi driver to take us to a restaurant where Tongyeong’s seasonal delicacy was served: Dodarissukguk (도다리쑥국). This had been one of the recommendations that Suzy Chung had given us over smoked duck bulgogi in Daehakro. The other was Sea Squirt Bibimbap.
The taxi driver duly obliged, and we found ourselves tucking into a very non-western breakfast of floounder and mugwort soup, with plenty of side dishes. It was one of only two dishes the restaurant was serving.
Rather full, we have a gentle stroll round Seoho-dong market (서호 전통시장). At the entrance, an ajumma preparing blowfish greets us. Inside are stalls selling fresh and dried fish and seafood of all types. Every conceivable variety of dried anchovy is laid out, the silver of their tiny scales shining in the muted light. Seaweed and fresh fruit, vegetables and herbs add to the colour.
The plan for the day
We made our way to the ferry terminal which connects Tongyeong to the myriad of outlying islands. Our plan is to catch a boat out to Somaemuldo (소매물도), which is one of the top scenic attractions of the Tongyeong area (according to the official Tongyeong City website). A stroll up the hill behind the small village (about 20 households in all) takes you to Mangtaebong peak. “The peak is a natural observatory to enjoy the many islands of Tongyeong and Geoje Haeguemgang River,” says the KTO website. “The view of Deungdae-seom Island is indescribably beautiful. Somaemuldo Island is also one of the best tourist sites toward the end of the year because of the magnificent view of the sunset and sunrise.” Deungdae-seom (등대섬) is the other main attraction of the trip to Somaemuldo: it is joined to Somaemuldo by a shingle causeway which is only usable at low tide.
A boat to Somaemuldo is advertised for 11am, and we are told to come back nearer the time. As we have an hour and a half to kill, we decide to explore the harbour area, where replicas of Admiral Yi Sun-shin’s turtle ships are moored.
Admiral Yi’s Turtle Ships in Tongyeong’s Gangguan Harbour (강구안)
As we round the corner which takes us to the harbour, the sight of not only three turtle-ships (geobugseon – 거북선) but also a two panokseon (판옥선) greets us – the latter vessel, as the workhorse of the Korean navy, was much more common than the turtle ship in its day1, and much less celebrated now.
The panokseon had an open top deck – where the marines were positioned – and was thus more vulnerable to the main Japanese naval tactic of grapple, board and engage in hand-to-hand combat. The construction of the turtle ship was such that it was immune to such tactics, being protected by a thick curved roof covered in sharp metal spikes.
It specialised in the main Korean naval tactic: sink the enemy ship with superior firepower2, or by ramming it. The main turtle ship is open to the public, so we had a quick browse round.
Dongpirang wall-painting village (동피랑 벽화마을)
We continue along the harbour and up the hill the other side to Dongpirang, a part of town famous for its wall-paintings.
These are regularly renewed by a different set of local and international artists. The view across the harbour from the narrow streets of Dongpirang is good, but you can’t help feeling that it would have been much prettier thirty years ago before some of the more pedestrian modern buildings which line the harbour were built.
By now it’s time to head back to the ferry terminal to catch our boat to Somaemuldo.
A change of plan
We were to be disappointed.
Since I had arrived in Korea three days before, I had not felt a breath of wind and hardly seen a cloud in the sky. But the previous night, so we were told, out among the islands that dot the sea around Tongyeong, a freak tornado had hit Somaemuldo and had damaged the harbour wall, preventing the ferry from docking3. They hadn’t told us earlier because they’d hoped that the divers which even then were trying to fix the damage would have everything sorted to enable the daily boat to sail. We had the choice of viewing Somaemuldo from the nearby island of Daemaemuldo (대매물도), or doing something else.
We pondered and consulted the local map, and noted that there seemed to be a few Yi Sun-shin relics on the nearby island of Hansan-do, so decided to combine a shorter boat trip with a bit of Joseon dynasty naval history.
A very good decision.
- Indeed, at the battle of Hansan-do there were only around three turtle ships in the Korean fleet of 56 vessels. Source: Stephen Turnbull, Samurai Invasion, (Cassell & Co, 2002) p103
- See Matthew Jackson’s article on Joseon dynasty naval firepower
- Other common reasons for the ferry not sailing include fog