Chungju and Danyang in the central inland province of North Chungcheong are full of spectacular scenery
with rocky cliffs that descend to the waters of the Namhan River. Jungangtap, or the “Central Tower,”
located in the middle of Chungju, is a monument left behind by Silla when it unified the ancient Three
Kingdoms in the seventh century. It continues to stand today, marking the nation’s geographic center.
The rain fell softly.
As old stories go, rain is a welcome gift for travelers. When mountains and fields, flowers
and trees are quietly obscured in the rain, so does the traveler escape the web of life
for a moment.
Coming off the expressway, I parked the car by the road leading to Jungangtap-myeon, the
“Town of the Central Tower,” in Chungju. Taking a deep breath, I said hello in my mind. Whenever
I’m about to enter a city, breathing deeply is an old travel habit of mine. When I think of the
traces of the lives of people who have lived on this land for generation after generation — their
pain and joy, sorrow and longing, the dreams they harbored, and the despair they suffered, all
floating in the air somewhere — I’m filled with a sense of awe. For a long time, it’s been my
belief that the greatest cultural heritage of any city is the air that hovers over it.
The Chungju locals like to call their city Jungwon, or “the midlands.” (Until 1995, its administrative
name was Jungwon County.) They take pride in the fact that Chungju is the geographical
and historical center of Korea. Any traveler will come to agree after spending just a couple of
nights in the city. Embracing this city, formed alongside the Han River flowing through the center
of Korea, are a legacy of old pagodas and monuments that attests to its past.
Land of Warriors
The first place I wanted to visit to pay my respects was the Goguryeo monument. Though it
is now officially called the Chungju Goguryeo Monument, many locals are still in the habit of
calling it the Jungwon Goguryeo Monument. It is the only stone stele of the ancient kingdom of
Goguryeo remaining in South Korea. The stele is presumed to date back to the mid- to late fifth
century, when Goguryeo, founded in present-day northeast China, also known as Manchuria,
had expanded its territory southward to the central part of the peninsula. Part of the inscription
carved on the surface says, “Goguryeo and Silla were like brothers, and the Goguryeo king presented
some garments to the Silla king and his officials,” giving a glimpse at relations between
the two ancient kingdoms.
The Goguryeo Monument in Chungju is
the only Goguryeo relic of its kind remaining
in South Korea. Standing 2.03 meters
high, it was presumably erected in the fi fth
The stele is on display in an exhibition hall built near the spot where it was discovered and
next to a wooded slope nearby is a replica of the monument; the hall and its displays serve
to educate visitors on the history of Goguryeo, which for the most part ruled the territory that
is now North Korea. A replica of Anak Tomb No. 3, North Korea’s National Treasure No. 28,
is reproduced in 3D computer graphics.
Clearly depicted in the tomb murals are
members of the Goguryeo cavalry called
gaemamusa, or “iron horse warriors.” Consisting
of soldiers and horses fully clad
in armor, the cavalry comprised the raiding
units whose attacks broke through the
enemy lines as well as the protective force
that defended against attacks. At the height
of its power, Goguryeo is said to have possessed
an iron horse cavalry force of more
than 50,000 warriors. In Western history,
armored horses did not appear till much
later: the earliest known record dates back
to the battle between the Persians and
Mongols in 1221.
In 668, Goguryeo fell to Silla, the neighbor
it had for some time seen as its subject
and younger brother. It is not hard to imagine the Goguryeo monument’s subsequent fate, considering
that it stood in the middle of a road in the “midlands.” Some believe
that Goguryeo refugees, fearing persecution, would have buried
the stele underground, while others speculate that it may have
been used as an anvil stand at a blacksmith’s workshop, where
it endured centuries of hammer strikes and puffing bellows, its
inscription battered and distorted almost beyond recognition.
Symbol of a Unified Nation
I turned my steps to the seven-story stone pagoda in Tappyeongri,
my next object of tribute in the region. The Chungju locals like to
call this pagoda the Jungangtap, meaning the “Central Pagoda.”
Indeed, the current name of the administrative district to which it
belongs was changed to Jungangtap-myeon, the “Town of the Central
Pagoda.” Silla, which conquered its two neighbors Baekje and
Goguryeo after many years of war, erected this pagoda in the middle
of its territory. Around sunset, I circled the pagoda three times.
The number had no particular meaning, but I was thinking about
the Three Kingdoms — Silla, Goguryeo and Baekje. All three had
competed fiercely with each other, pursuing the dream of making
history and creating an advanced civilization, but eventually, Silla
emerged victorious. As I circled the pagoda, I could feel a strange,
inexplicable energy emanating from it.
I love the energy surrounding ancient pagodas. Once on a visit
to the Khajuraho monuments in India, I sat in the shade of a stone
stupa and wrote as many as 30 poems in half a day. Likewise, I
wrote dozens of poems in one day at the Taj Mahal in Agra. Circling
the shade of an old pagoda, I can almost hear the breathing and get
a whiff of the smells of the people who over the ages dreamed and
sang songs as they walked around it.
The road following Chungju Lake to
Danyang passes by spectacular craggy
karst landscapes and views of the winding
course of the Namhan River. The famous
“Eight Views of Danyang” can be seen up
1 close by taking a ferry cruise.
The Song of the Balmy, Rainy Night
Tangeumdae is another place to visit if you want to fully appreciate
the geographical and historical significance of this region. In 552, during the reign of King Jinheung, a man named Ureuk came
to settle in Silla. He was from Gaya, a small state to the south of
Silla, where music and rites were deemed highly important. There,
he had invented a 12-stringed zither named gayageum and composed
12 beautiful pieces of music for the new instrument; the 12
strings of the instrument represented the 12 months of the year.
The Silla king warmly welcomed this eminent musician and had
him stay in Jungwon to teach music to court musicians. Tangeumdae
is the riverside rock where Ureuk played the gayageum. The
sound of plucking its strings would have exquisitely complemented
the picturesque scenery of the winding river. There is indeed something
gratifying about the way the ancient kings placed importance
on rites and music as their tools for ideological guidance in state
affairs. I wondered what a utopia is. What people value the most in
life nowadays doesn’t seem all that different from those who lived
hundreds of years ago.
In Chungju, there is a place called Muhak Market. This lovely
name somehow evokes the image of merchants and shoppers
dancing joyously like cranes around each other. The market takes
the shape of a fishbone, with a long central path forming the spine
and smaller paths branching off to the left and right. I followed the
spine and made a turn into one side road, then another and yet
another, until I managed to lose my way. There is nothing wrong
with wandering around a market and getting lost, but finding my
car posed a bit of a problem. After wandering about some more, I
saw an old traditional house named Banseonjae. This is the house
where Ban Ki-moon, the former United Nations secretary-general,
grew up. The name reflects the goal of living in “a good and upright
manner.” Unable to find my way back through the maze of small
paths, I circled around the market on its outer rim. The happiness
at finding my car two hours later was accompanied by a fit of hunger.
I went into a place selling hot noodles, where the serving lady
gave me an extra bowl of rice. It was as if she knew I was famished.
Oksunbong, or “Bamboo
Shoot Peak,” is so named
because of its bluish-white
rocks that rise up into the
air just like fresh bamboo
shoots. It is one of the most
prized of the “Eight Views of
If there are no signs of human life, beautiful natural landscapes often seem incomplete. The beauty of
nature gains utopian charm when the spirit of the people who lived there seems palpable.
That night in my room, I opened the window and listened to the
rain falling all night.
Back in the days of Silla and Goguryeo, there would also have been those who opened their windows and listened to the rain fall throughout the night. Was there a
piece about the rain among Ureuk’s 12 works, of which no trace remains today? A song about the sound
of the rain on a night when the flowers bloomed? I dare say there was one. In the morning, the rain kept
falling softly and quietly.
Reveries at the Old River Port
Driving along the river on Road No. 599, I headed for Mokgye Ferry Port. Since the Joseon period, the
largest market along the Namhan River has flourished here for centuries. Back then, products from the
east and west coasts were traded here, and boats carrying grains paid as taxes in the three provinces of
Chungcheong, Gangwon, and Gyeongsang, stopped here on their way to the capital. The waterway was
open from March to November, and in July and August, when the rains swelled the rivers, even the bigger
merchant vessels stopped here. Traveling by water, it took around 12 to 15 hours to reach Seoul, and
going against the current, it took anywhere from five days to two weeks to return to Mokgye. During the
Joseon era, some 800 households lived in the riverside village, and 100 boats were regularly docked
there, which gives a good idea of the size of the port. On the hillside is a monument inscribed with the
poem “Mokgye Market” by Shin Kyung-rim.
Mokgye ferry port, which
was the center of water
transportation on the Namhan
River during the Joseon
Dynasty, is now a departure
point for river boat rides for
The sky urges me to turn into a cloud,
the earth urges me to turn into a breeze;
a little breeze waking weeds on the ferry landing,
once storm clouds have scattered and rain has cleared.
To turn into a peddler sad even in autumn light,
going to Mokgye Ferry, three days’ boat ride from Seoul,
to sell patent face powders, on days four and nine.
The hills urge me to turn into a meadow flower,
the stream urges me to turn into a stone.
— From “Mokgye Market” by Shin Kyung-rim; translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé
When the ferry goes 200 meters
upstream from Dodam Sambong, a
stone arch like a cave entrance hugging
the water can be seen on the left
bank of the river
I was lucky. The river market opens on the fourth Saturday of every month. That was the day I arrived
there. The market is a kind of flea market, but all the goods on sale are handmade. I liked everything
that I saw. I had two seals made, one in
Korean script and one in Chinese characters,
both of which turned out wonderful.
Then I bought some cheonggukjang
and doenjang (both types
of soybean paste, the former much
in taste) and citron jam as well
as a wooden figurine and a small purse.
When I paid for a few key rings, my wallet
ran dry. The mindset of people who
make things with their hands can be
summed up by the Korean word jeongseong,
which means putting your whole heart into what you are doing. People who work
this way are generally benign; I believe benign
people do not harm others. They are the very
people who make our world worth living in.
These people at the market told me that in April
the riverside gets covered in yellow rapeseed
flowers and so I should visit again around that
time next year.
Ferry Ride on Chungju Lake
It is hard to express in words the beauty of
the trip along Chungju Lake to Danyang. The
endless road follows the water. In the misty rain,
the road was warm and comforting. It seemed
as though it would never end, no matter how far
you went. But everything that has a beginning
also has an end. About an hour later, I stopped
the car at Janghoe Ferry Port. For quite some
time, I had meant to take the Chungju Lake
ferry from there. But the raindrops began to
grow bigger. I wondered if the ferry would sail at
all, but surprisingly, there were a lot of passengers
and the boat got completely filled.
I wondered about Gudambong (“Turtle Pond Peak”) and Oksunbong (“Jade Shoot Peak”) on the lake,
two of the Eight Views of Danyang.
Would I get a good view of them? The scenery here was a favored
subject for famous Joseon artists such as Kim Hong-do and Jeong Seon, and Confucian scholars such
as Yi Hwang wrote that it was even more beautiful than the Eight Views of the Xiao and Xiang Rivers in
China. But the rain had no intention of letting up. Grabbing my umbrella, I headed for the deck. The air
was filled with rain and mist, the sky covered in clouds, and sadly, the sights were not to be seen. Then
again, it was too much to expect spectacular views on my very first trip here. My encounter with the two
peaks, which I had longed to see since reading Shin Kyung-rim’s poem “Mokgye Ferry” in the 1980s, had
to wait until the next time.
Dodam Sambong is an island composed
of three rocky peaks sitting in
the middle of water in the upstream
reaches of the Namhan River.
Landscapes and the Lives of People
When I got back on the road, the rain began to thin. In front of me, I could see Dodam Sambong
(“Three-peak Island”), its three rocky peaks rising above the water’s surface in a bend of the upper
reaches of the Namhan River. A famous British traveler came here in the 19th century. Isabella Bird
Bishop, the first woman fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, described the scene in her book,
“Korea and her Neighbors”: “The beauty of the Han culminates at To-tam [Dodam] in the finest river
view I had then ever seen, a deep stretch with a broad bay and lofty limestone cliffs, between which, on a
green slope, the picturesque deep-eaved, brown-roofed houses of the village are built.”
Bishop had seen two things: the picturesque peaks of Dodam and the thatch-roofed houses on the
hill. If there are no signs of human life, beautiful natural landscapes often seem incomplete. The beauty
of nature gains utopian charm when the spirit of the people who lived there seems palpable.
At Dodam, I climbed the steps till I was some 300 meters up the steep mountainside and went about
100 meters down again until a gateway of stone appeared. The blue-green water of the river can be
seen between the caves. The ideal world of nature carries a certain dignity. I wonder how Bishop managed
to get here at the end of the 19th century, when transportation would have been difficult at best.
From where I stood, I could see the lights in the village come on one after another, shining beautifully
through the rainy air.