ON THE ROAD The Road to Utopia

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 century.

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 Danyang.”

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 tourists.

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 stronger 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.

Gwak Jae-gu Poet
Ahn Hong-beom Photographer
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