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2016 travel diary 12: Hwangmaesan

Sancheong-gun, Gyeongsangnam-do, 17 May 2016, 2pm.

The Hwangmaesan Royal Azalea Festival

The azaleas of Hwangmaesan in full bloom
The azaleas of Hwangmaesan in full bloom (photo: Sancheong County)

After lunch my prime objective was to see the Royal Azaleas (철쭉) on Hwangmaesan. This was the one major scenic sight of Sancheong that I had yet to witness up close.  I had been warned not to expect much, but I was surprised to see what I saw.

Hwangmaesan has two meanings: “yellow apricot-flower mountain” and “rich and precious mountain”. It is also known as the Geumgangsan of Yeongnam because of its rocky peaks. The mountain with three names is also known as sam mu – the mountain of three nothingnesses (mu – 無). The moniker goes back to the days of the great monk Muhak (which could either mean unlearned or no need for learning). Muhak was a close adviser to Yi Seong-gye, founder of the Joseon dynasty. As a leading geomancer, he selected the site of the new capital – Seoul.

Muhak’s spiritual training took place on Hwangmaesan. While studying hard to achieve enlightenment he also had to look after his mother – who enjoyed walking in the hills but whose walks were hampered by the wild roses that scratched her legs, the tangled, trailing arrowroot vines that tripped her up and the snakes that hid in the undergrowth. The filial son prayed to the sanshin for 100 days, and ever since then the mountain has been free of those three things that troubled his mother: snakes, thorny plants and vines.

In May 2016 a fourth nothingness was added to the list: azalea flowers. A few years ago when I came to Sancheong for the first time I caught sight of a blaze of pink on a distant mountainside, so bright that I thought it looked artificial. Of course, I subsequently learned that the spectacular sight was completely natural. But not this year.

Kyung-sook explained that at the beginning of May there had been several storms in the area. Hail and rain had completely wiped out anything that had been blossoming on the hillside. Both Sancheong and the neighbouring county, Hapcheon, had suffered badly, and neither had any flowers to show for the festival that they share.

The only azalea blossom on the whole
The only azalea blossom on the whole mountain when we visited

Nevertheless, it was pleasant to walk up the hill, along a walkway constructed so that in a normal year you could walk through a pink sea of azaleas. The walkway leads to a tourist feature of modern construction but one which nevertheless does not seem too out of place: a stone wall with a look-out pavilion on top which was used in the filming of the TV drama Jumong. A decade or so earlier the location had been used for the movie Legend of Gingko.

Hwangmaesan's peak.
Hwangmaesan’s peak. The foreground should be pink.

We halted our walk at the pavilion, though if we had been feeling more energetic the path led all the way to the summit of Hwangmaesan. From the pavilion the whole of Sancheong County was laid out before you. Hwangmaesan is almost the easternmost limit of the county, and from here there are views across the hills to the westernmost point: Cheongwangbong, the highest peak of Jirisan itself.

A panorama taken from the lookout pavilion
A 180o panorama taken from the lookout pavilion

The views were stunning. Maybe they would have been enhanced by a brilliant pink foreground, but I was happy with things as they were. We were all content in each other’s company: Chris, Kyung-sook, the tourism chief and myself.

We wandered back to the car, past the stalls of small-scale retailers who were trying to make a bit of income by selling local crafts, foodstuffs or any azalea-related objects to the limited number of sight-seers who had come on one of the last days of what was objectively (because of the non-appearance of the star guest – the azaleas) a disappointing festival.

At the entrance to the festival
At the entrance to the festival

The remains of the day

We drove back down the hill along narrow, winding lanes back to our lunchtime restaurant to return to our cars. I wasn’t quite sure what was due to happen next. Chris left in her car to drive back to Seoul, and I got into Kyung-sook’s car with the tourism chief and drove to Donguibogam Village, the home of traditional medicine in Sancheong County on the slopes of Mt Wangsan.

Whenever I am there I seem to bump into my guide from 2010, Min Hang-sik, showing a group of tourists the Turtle Rock which provides so much gi. This time is no exception. While he is giving a lecture I step up to the rock and press myself spreadeagled against it. Either the coolness of the stone or its geomantic energy seems to revitalise my body.

Topping up my gi levels at the Turtle Rock in 2011
Topping up my gi levels at the Turtle Rock in 2011 – a photo which is now sometimes used in Sancheong publicity materials

But it seems I am not there to be cooled down and revitalised. I am taken upstairs in the main hall in front of the rock, the Donguijeon. Last time I had visited I was given a rather painful massage. This time was to be a lot more relaxing, though still uncomfortable in its own way. It was billed as a moxibustion treatment. But while with moxibustion proper you have some herbs smouldering on your stomach in a ceramic bowl, this treatment was simply to involve gentle roasting. You sit in a heated reclining chair, and a heavy electric blanket is placed over your stomach. The heat which seeps deep into your body is meant to improve the circulation of the blood, or maybe of the gi in your body. I oscillated between finding the experience pleasantly relaxing and uncomfortably hot. Thankfully the window in front of me was open and there was a pleasant breeze blowing through the building. Even though my body felt as if it was in a sauna, at least my forehead was cooled by the wind.

The view from my moxibustion couch
The view from my moxibustion couch

After being baked slowly for forty minutes, I was served a refreshing cup of tea. By now it was time to make our way to that night’s accommodation, stopping off on the way to buy some pastries, fruit and coffee for breakfast the following morning. We had stayed in the same place the previous year, when it had been a residential facility for a small chaebol. Since last year it had been sold off and was being reinvented as tourist accommodation. A new sports area and a couple of new accommodation units were being built to boost the potential revenues while still retaining the small-scale feeling of the place.

By the time we had unpacked it was time to make our way to dinner. We headed off to a restaurant near Wonji which I had been to once or twice before – it’s always good to revisit places to see how things are going.

One of the many courses at dinner
One of the many courses at dinner

Today I was determined to remain sober and succeeded pretty well. It was pleasant to have a couple of reasonably fluent English speakers there with whom I could chat in a relaxed manner. One of them had grand plans for setting up a Harry Potter themed guest house in Jinju (I hope JK Rowling’s lawyers aren’t reading this). But most of all it was pleasant to enjoy the company of old friends, whether or not I could understand much of what they were saying.

It had been another long and fulfilling day. Thanks to Chris for being my guide, chauffeur and friend in Buyeo, and to Kyung-sook similarly in Sancheong.

The weekend travel plans

Over dinner the subject of the upcoming weekend has arisen. My trip to Korea this year has been prompted by the RASKB’s two-day trip to Gurye to experience tea-making. Kyung-sook now has other ideas. There is a tea festival in Jinju those two days and she thinks that there is a famous tea master coming, a direct descendent (as far as tea lore is concerned) of Choui. I should not miss this opportunity to meet him.

I am torn. I owe Kyung-sook a lot. She has been my teacher in many aspects of Korean culture and has introduced me to so much. But also I have duties of obligation and friendship to Brother Anthony and the RASKB. The reason why I have come when I have come was the trip to Gurye, and if I were to skip this then suddenly the whole 10 days in Korea would seem unbalanced. Further, Kyung-sook had been intending to join me in Gurye, where I was hoping to introduce her to my friend Hwang Jihae as I knew they would get on splendidly.

Over the coming days we negotiate our way to a compromise. I will cut short the stay in Gurye on the Saturday, and instead will travel with her back to Sancheong early in the evening, forsaking a feast of makgeolli and local food in a restaurant within staggering distance of the Gurye accommodation, and also forsaking the Sunday activities with the RASKB. On Sunday I would then drive with her and her teacher to Jinju for the tea festival, and travel back to Seoul independently of the RASKB on the express bus from Wonji. It sounded like it should work, and everyone was happy, though I still felt guilty at abandoning more than half of my time with the RASKB tea tour.


  • The Hwangmaesan Royal Azalea Festival on the Hapcheon and Sancheong county websites.

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