Mallipo beach, Taean-gun, Thursday 4 May 2018, 11:30pm. It was with a slight sense of adventure that I found myself unexpectedly on my own, in an unknown seaside town, at 11:30 at night. There was no way that I was going to settle down to sleep right then, so I left my pension room behind me and set off for a stroll, heading down the slope to where I guessed the beach might be.
It was a still night, but on the beach there was plenty going on. Groups of people sitting on the sand having a midnight picnic or quietly chatting. Other, livelier groups, letting off fireworks. An elderly couple sitting on a bench looking out to sea, a bottle of soju and some snacks placed between them. Lining the sea front were seafood restaurants just finishing up with their last customers. The beach looked extensive in the dark, and it all looked very attractive and appealing but in the distance there were colourful lights, and I wondered what darkened structure it was that they were decorating. What would the morning reveal? So many beautiful locations everywhere in the world can be scarred by human intervention. But for the moment I just found myself a bench, bought myself a beer and some snacks from a convenience store, and sat people-watching and enjoying the atmosphere.
The following morning I emerged from the room, had a coffee and cake at a nearby coffee shop and returned to the beachfront to renew my exploration started the previous night. 10am, and the shoreline was virtually deserted. I could not believe that on Children’s Day, when presumably parents are meant to be indulging their little ones, there were practically no children to be seen. The funfair had a sprinkling of visitors, but not enough to keep all the rides busy all the time.
The weather was perfect, the pristine sands smooth and unsullied – apart from the occasional spent firework from the previous evening. The beach seemed to extend for ever. There was no wind, and the surface of the perfectly clear water was undisturbed, flat as glass. I walked to the north end of the beach to where the previous night I had seen the coloured lights. In the daylight, not much was visible, and I realised that the lights were there to decorate a cliffside walkway rather than anything more industrial. How refreshing that the area was still unspoiled. It was hard to believe, too, in all this beauty, that the area had been the site of a devastating oil spill ten years previously.
Along with a pleasant looking hotel at the far end of the beach there was a pair of permanent scaffolding towers, one at the edge of the beach, the other up on the cliff, which secured either end of a zipwire to provide a thrill to visitors – you could dangle from it high above the waters below.
I could have stayed on this beach for hours, days even. My mind was as calm as the surface of the sea. I was perfectly still and content, and if I had been abandoned on that beach I would have been very happy to stay, visit various of the seafood restaurants, maybe even shatter the peace and quiet with a ride on one of the rental quadbikes, but more likely sit, read, walk and rest.
I almost resented it when Chris rang to say that she and her friend would be arriving at my pension in half an hour’s time. I reluctantly strolled back along the beach to the lodgings and awaited their arrival.
But I wasn’t grumpy for long. We had a little stroll along the sea front with a coffee, and as we got back in the car one of them suggested that we visit a local park. I picked up the Korean word 수목원, with which I was not familiar. But as we drove for a mile or so north along the coast Chris started explaining how a foreigner had started a garden there, and it finally dawned on me that we were about to visit the famous Chollipo Arboretum, which I had read about in Simon Winchester’s book on Korea and in various articles about the best horticultural sites to visit in Korea.
The arboretum was started by Carl Ferris Miller (1921-2002), who renounced his American citizenship and took the Korean name Min Byeong-gal. He had come to Korea in 1945 with the US Navy and “fell in love with the place”, according to Simon Winchester, who met him in 1988 on his long walk in the peninsula which gave rise to his book Korea – A Walk through the Land of Miracles. After the Korean War he eventually left the navy, got a job with the Bank of Korea, and then retired to play the Korean stock market.
Although he would not renounce his American citizenship and get his Korean passport until 1979, he was going native long before that. In 1947 he was instrumental in relaunching the Royal Asiatic Society, Korea Branch, ultimately serving as its president. Even thereafter, he continued as an active council member, leading tours and eventually hosting visits to his beloved arboretum.
The arboretum had its beginnings in 1962, when Miller bought some land in Chollipo and built a cottage so that he could spend weekends there swimming. The following year he met up with Korean plant expert Professor Lee Changbok while hiking on Seoraksan; that meeting is said to have started Miller’s interest in Korea’s flora, and in 1970 he started planting trees in Chollipo, systematically adding land and additional specimens as they became available.
He became noted for his expertise in magnolia and holly. A trip to Wando-gun in 1978 unearthed a hitherto unclassified hybrid variety of holly that later became known as Ilex x Wandoensis. And his own hybrid of magnolia, the Magnolia x loebneri “Raspberry Fun” was registered with the Magnolia Society in 1994. What is less well-documented is the variety of oak named after him, the Quercus dentata “Carl Ferris Miller”.
Such was his contribution to the world of horticulture that in 1989 he was awarded the Veitch Memorial Medal by the Royal Horticultural Society, “awarded annually to persons of any nationality who have made an outstanding contribution to the advancement of the science and practice of horticulture.” Chollipo is renowned for its extensive collection of magnolia, holly, camellia, maple, and rose of sharon, which together with all its other specimens currently amount to over 16,000 plant taxa; it was the first Asian arboretum to be designated an “Arboretum Distinguished for Merit” by the International Dendrology Society in 2000.
The weather was perfect for our visit. Sunny, but not oppressively hot. The azaleas were out in a blaze of colour, as were the magnolias, and there was plenty of non-flowering interest to the garden as well. When you got bored of trees, shrubs and landscape there was the view of Chollipo beach, the nearby island and the crystal blue sea. According to Winchester, Min had bought the island in 1987 and built a summerhouse on it, only to be told by the authorities to demolish it in case it became useful to infiltrating North Korean agents.
It was one of those perfect times. Maybe if the weather had been less ideal, or the calendar more rushed, or the company less congenial, the lunchtime food less tasty, the coffee shop less, relaxing things would have been very different. But Taean-gun is a place I shall definitely re-visit, preferably for more than the 15 hours that I spent there this time around.
Thanks to Michael Duffy for the tip that Simon Winchester’s book has a section on Chollipo Arboretum. There is little else available in English on the subject, unless you visit the museum at the arboretum.