2017 travel diary 3: Sancheong – two festivals in bright pink

The peak of Hwangmaesan
The peak of Hwangmaesan and its famous azaleas

Donguibogam Village, Sancheong Country, Sunday 30th April, 5pm. Each time I visit Sancheong, something has changed. This time, on the edge of Donguibogam Village, Sancheong’s centre of traditional medicine culture, a comfortable hotel has been built – as far as I am aware, the first hotel (as opposed to pension) in the county. Very convenient for visitors to the annual traditional medicine festival or simply wanting a base in the region for hiking and exploring.

This hotel is to be my base for the next couple of days in Sancheong. Kyung-sook and I check in to adjacent rooms and rest for a while before dinner – which we don’t really want after the large lunch we had in Haman County after visiting the tombs. We are joined by some officials from the local tourism department, as well as friends from previous years, and tuck in to some grilled eel.

Donguibogam Village, Sancheong Country, Monday 1 May, 6:30am. Our agenda for the day is to meet a representative of the County tourism department at the County Office, and we would be taken to Hwangmaesan to see the azaleas. That appointment isn’t until 9:30, so I enthusiastically got up at 6:30 intending to go for a run along the Donguibogam Dullegil – the trail which extends from Donguibogam Village around the flanks of Wangsan and adjacent hills to King Guhyeong’s tomb, Yu Ui-tae’s healing spring and beyond. But I had both overestimated my fitness level and underestimated the hilliness of the trail, and after a while abandoned my attempt at a sustained jog and instead, at a slow crawl, started up the mountain path which leads through the forest to the peak of Wangsan. The total climb would probably take an hour to the top, time (and probably energy) that I did not have available, but I had a pleasant early morning walk and enjoyed some splendid views before returning to the hotel to meet with Kyung-sook for a coffee.

At County Hall we are met by Hyejin, who drives us to Hwangmaesan for the azalea festival. Last year, we had been thwarted by the weather – wind, heavy rain and hail had wiped out the blossoms before the festival began. This year we were not to be disappointed. The mountainside was covered with azaleas at various stages in their budding process, enough variation to ensure that the blaze of colour would last another couple of weeks.

I had not realised that this was the opening day of the festival. Hyejin marches us up a trail for ten minutes until we come across a cluster of people gathered around a lectern: and we had arrived more or less in time for the opening ceremony. The Mayor is in the middle of his welcoming speech, which is followed by a speech from the deputy mayor, while officials dressed as Joseon dynasty public servants look on. Behind the lectern is a table laden with fruit. Maybe I had missed a ritual in honour of Hwangmaesan’s mountain spirit, but if so it had been a muted affair as there was no pig’s head on the altar, unlike the one on Wangsan which opens the traditional medicine festival. But instead of pig’s head on the altar, there was pig’s head to eat in the form of brawn, which was served up to all attendees along with helpings of lean pork, kimchi and makgeolli to celebrate the start of the festival. There’s something about makgeolli and pork at 11am that sets you up for the day. Especially the makgeolli.

Distant hikers approaching the peak of Hwangmaesan
Distant hikers approaching the peak of Hwangmaesan

The trail leading to Hwangmaesan’s peak was busy with hikers visiting the festival and enjoying the mountain views and blossoms. On the path leading to the summit the distant hikers looked like a trail of ants. The urge to join them, to reach the summit, was pressing, but it would likely have taken the best part of an hour out of our schedule, and we had to press on.

In hindsight, we could have stayed a little longer. We had a relatively leisurely schedule for the rest of the day: we drove back to Kyung-sook’s house to see her new wood-fired kiln, the construction of which had prevented her from joining me on my road trip to Haenam-gun the previous year. A leisurely lunch of meat patties was had; and a coffee shop was visited to provide the necessary shot of caffeine to see me through the rest of the day. The coffee shop owners were obviously Anglophiles, with London-related decorations on the windows and doors. I was made to feel quite at home.

The main objective for the afternoon was to pay a visit to the temple which I had first visited seven years previously. We arrive at Daewonsa and are met by Hyeyeon Sunim, the monk in charge of templestays. It is two days before Buddha’s birthday, and things arebusy. Unlike at Jogyesa, where lanterns appear to be permanently on display, Daewonsa simply has wires criss-crossing the main courtyard like washing lines, just above head level, in anticipation of the big day. On Buddha’s birthday visitors would purchase a lantern from the temple and hang it with their own prayers from the wires.

The meditation master gives us a quick guided tour of the temple. Behind the main courtyard, behind a gate which keeps the general public out, are the meditation halls. Daewonsa is known for its meditation practice, and Buddha’s Birthday would give a welcome break to those who are in their meditation retreat.

Donguibogam Village, Sancheong Country, Tuesday 2 May, 8:30am. It is our last morning in Sancheong and we are escorted northwards to the County line by Hye-kyeong from the county tourism department: in Saengcho, the northernmost town in the main river valley that bisects the county before you get into Hamyang-gun, there is a festival (생초 ‎꽃잔디 축제) celebrating a blaze of pink flowers that flourish in the Sancheong International Sculpture Park. The bright pink blossoms – whose common name is Ground Pink and botanical name Phlox subulata – completely cover the undulating sides of the hills, almost hurting the eyes with the brightness of their colour. Dotted about the lansdscape are works by artists from as far afield as Venezuela, Canada and Australia.

Spring is the time of year when the yellow dust pollution is at its worst. In Seoul, the pollution tends to be attributed to sand from Mongolia and industrial pollution. Out in the countryside there is a different yellow dust: the pollen from the pine trees which gathers on car windscreens.

We say a farewell to our guide and motor on up northwards to Mungyeong.
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