Tongyeong, Gyeongsangnam-do, Tuesday 27 March 2012. Having experienced the sea, islands and much of Yi Sun Shin the day before, today was the day to try Tongyeong’s highest peak, Mireuksan, which shares its name with the island of Mireukdo. There is a cable car which takes you to within a few minutes’ walk of the summit.
We arrive at the cable car station at 8:30, only to find the first journey up the mountain is not for another hour. The snack shops haven’t opened yet, but already the coaches have started arriving, bringing parties of pensioners who have come to enjoy the views. Most of these groups seem to have pre-booked, because by the time we buy our ticket we are numbers 420 and 421 for the day.
Looking at the map earlier that morning, it had seemed that there ought to be a trail which goes from the top of the mountain to a temple (Yonghwasa) and thence to a small art museum devoted to the work of Tongyeong’s best-known artist, Jeon Hyuck-lim (전혁림). It looked like an ideal way to spend the morning, but the map wasn’t too clear about what was possible. So we ask at the cable car ticket office whether there was a path to Yonghwasa from the top of the hill. He takes a look at our feet. “You haven’t got proper hiking boots. You’ll need to buy a return ticket,” comes the reply. We aren’t quite sure whether his prime concern is for our well-being or his revenues, but to be on the safe side we buy a return ticket.
We get into one of the small cabins with four other people and watch as the view of the Hallyeosudo National Park got more and more spectacular with every meter we climb. The park, according to the Korean National Parks Service, is a “unique marine ecosystem which extends along the 120km shoreline from Geoje-si in Gyeongsangnam-do to Yeosu-si in Jeollanam-do. Hallyeosudo which is known as the most beautiful waterway ever has 69 uninhabited islands and 30 inhabited islands spread out across the sea like jewels.” Very poetic, and in fact not far from the truth. Looking out towards Hansan-do and Goeje-do, it’s hard to believe they are just two islands, as the inlets and peaks deceive the eye into thinking there are many more.
We arrive at the upper terminus of the cable car, and walk past the café and gift shop to the viewing to take in the scenery unimpeded by the slightly dirty glass of the gondola. Totally breathtaking, though a little bit hazy in the sun. We start the short ascent to the summit, thankful that we are not unhealthy.
On the way to the top, along a purpose-built wooden pathway, there are various viewing platforms in honour of local things of interest. There’s the Park Kyung-ni viewing platform, which shows you where her tomb is on the south side of Mireuksan, and the Dangpo battle viewpoint, which locates an early Yi Sun-shin victory which led up to the big confrontation at Hansando in August 1592.
At the top, hikers are queuing up to have their photographs taken by the stone which officially marks the 461 meter summit. My phone rings. It’s the administrator from the Tongyeong International Music Festival to tell me that I’m invited to a seminar at 4pm that afternoon, after which I can interview the Festival’s music director. A perfect arrangement, leaving time for our walk to the temple, a visit to the gallery and a leisurely lunch, after which my friend Insoon would head back to Seoul and I would start preparing some questions for the interviews.
Clearly marked on various signboards around the summit are two paths which take you down to Yonghwasa. We elect for the shorter, steeper one and find that our lightweight trainers are perfectly adequate for the trail. Hiking boots definitely not necessary, though they wouldn’t have gone amiss. The first ten minutes are quite steep, but after that the slope is gentle, and after a descent of half an hour or so through pleasant woodland we arrive at the temple.
It’s remarkably undistinguished. Or maybe our impressions were rather dampened by the amount of construction going on, including a rather inauthentic three-story building which looked as if the place was gearing up to host a temple-stay programme on an industrial scale. But the spring water from the turtle-shaped fountain is refreshing, and it’s a quiet place to pause. The temple bell has a newly-carved fish-shaped hammer, but the atmosphere of the place is rather spoiled by the digger parked in front of it.
We leave the temple disappointed, and continue down the hill, past a small peaceful reservoir of dark blue water, and back to civilisation. The road is perfectly straight, and just before we get to a major junction we pass the Jeon Hyuck-lim art museum, which is sadly closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.
We wonder where we are going to find lunch, and in particular the sea squirt bibimbap which has been recommended as a must-have delicacy in Tongyeong. As we loitered at the crossroads to find a taxi, we turned and noticed a place which exactly filled our requirements. Over the entrance to a pretty and secluded garden there is a colourful sign which advertises what we are looking for, and inside is a comfortable restaurant.
Anyone who has had a normal bibimbap will know that you mix everything up together and stir in copious amounts of gochujang sauce. But the restaurant owner was visibly offended when we asked for the spicy red goo to stir into the delicate ocean flavours of meonggae, so I tried mine without. The ice in the sea squirt was soon melted by the hot rice, and the seaweed and other vegetables combined to produce a mild flavour of the sea.
I was crying out for some soju to go with the meal, but my friend was not in the mood, so we made do with the seaweed soup and water. Soon it was time to go back to the hotel, Insoon to pick up her bags to go back to Seoul, and me to get my head in the right frame of mind for interviewing the musical director of the Tongyeong International Music Festival. It had been a perfect morning, and the afternoon was going to be similarly enjoyable and informative.