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(Yonhap Feature) So slow, so good: Nostalgic escape in Jecheon hails urbanites

All News 09:00 July 18, 2016

(Editor's note: This article is the sixth in our feature series on South Korea's lesser-known tourist spots.)
By Chung Joo-won

JECHEON, South Korea, July 18 (Yonhap) -- Some people travel to forget the present, some to recollect what they left behind in the past.

"Jecheon is not exactly the place for enormous skyscrapers and celebrity bars, but I've seen many tourists getting all nostalgic about what they see in Jecheon," says Yoo Hee-jin, a Jecheon native who studied in the U.S. and now works in an information technology company in Seoul.

"It's funny how tourists end up being huge nature lovers by the time they leave Jecheon. Make sure you try the mountain herb dishes and the red fish cake."

In the herbal city of Jecheon, 168 kilometers southeast of Seoul in North Chungcheong Province, a population of 136,000 is spaciously spread across 890 square-kilometer tract of land. Lush Mount Worak, Mount Bibong and Mount Geumsu give the fresh air that entices city moms with kids suffering from atopy and other allergy symptoms. Jecheon Station is about two hours by Saemaeul train from Cheongnyangni Station in eastern Seoul.

At the first sight off the train is the small medicinal herb store, built inside the station. The shelves are full of bundles of "hwanggi", "doraji", "chik" and other dried herbs, in addition to mountain honey adorably jarred in different sizes. The lady at the cash counter lets the tourists browse the goods in a calm manner -- a sharp contrast to the hawk-eyed sales employees at metropolitan stores with whom visitors strive to avoid eye contact.

Just outside the station is a tourist information station, where travelers can arrange for transportation. It is located next to a taxi stop, usually with three to four available cabs.

"Some of the most visited tourist sites in Jecheon are Uirimji Reservoir, Cheongpung Lake and Baeron Shrine," says a woman at the station.

Just across from the station are packed with small kiosks selling green tea hotteok, or fried dough stuffed with brown sugar, and "bbalgan odaeng," or red fish cake. At first sight, this Jecheon-style odaeng, skewed and coated with red pepper sauce, looks daunting.

"All foreign tourists order bbalgan odaeng, and try at least one skewers. Then those who like spicy food go for more," said the owner lady of Gwangjang Bunsik.

The price of bbalgan odaeng is 1,000 won ($0.88) for three skewers, a skewer or two more generous than the servings of the same price in Seoul or metropolitan cities.

An hour by bus to the south of downtown Jecheon is Cheongpung Lake and Mount Bibong. At the Cheongpung Cultural Heritage Complex stop is a cultural complex, a filming site for the popular Korean entertainment show "One Day Two Nights" in 2012. The complex is largely a replicated village with traditional hanok houses, antique houseware, dolmens and gardens with queer-looking trees and rocks. Chickens peck insects in hanok yards and bunnies run around the garden -- a view far worth more than the 3,000 won entrance fee.

Some of the tourists are amused by every small detail of the traditional house. "I thought nothing could beat my tiny 26 square-meter flat, but this room is far smaller -- no wonder they could fit so many rooms in hanok houses," said one of the male tourists, driving the crowd into laughter.

On the hillside of the complex is the famous "yeonriji," or two trees that grew to become one. Yeonriji is an emblem of inseparable love and friendship, which appears in ancient Korean and Chinese documents. On the way to the yeonriji spot are piles of pegs and small stones built up into "wish towers." It is a long-standing custom for Korean tourists to contribute a couple of stones to the stone tower in mountains and Buddhist temples wishing for happiness and well-being of their loved ones.

"We read about Jecheon from the tourist brochure that they give out in information offices in Myeongdong," said Xin, a 22-year-old Malaysian girl staying in Seoul on a working holiday program. She was accompanied with two female peers of the same age, one from Taiwan and the other from Hong Kong.

"I want to visit Uirimji and try traditional Korean cuisine," Xin said.

A round trip on Cheongpung ferry is a popular tourist activity for both domestic and international travelers. Lining up the banks of Cheongpung Lake, or sometimes called Chungju Lake, are white cherry trees, rocky cliffs of Oksunbong Peak and Gudambong Peak. Also part of the panoramic lake view is Cheongpung Bridge, a landmark of the region, along with bungee jumping and other recreational sport sites. The bungee jumping deck glows in colors of the rainbow, catching the eyes of passersby.

The ferry does not sail in inclement weather or when the lake is littered with buoyant objects, so visitors should check with the reservation center.

The most recommended it-place for travelers to Jecheon is Cheongpung Lake's sightseeing monorail, a refreshing 20-minute ride to the summit of Mount Bibong. But reservations are extremely difficult, often sold out online three months before. One-day Jecheon city-run tour, 20,000 won per adult, has its own quota of monorail tickets in stock, so it is safer to go with the tour package.

About 10 minutes from the ferry dock is Jecheon Mountain Training center in Songnaeri, Jecheon's up-and-coming place for mountain leisure sports. It offers a variety of survival games with paintball guns, ziplines, rafting, tower climbing and maze tunnel crossing. While the center is frequented by Korean residents, it is not as well-known among the international crowd, according to the program operator.

Jecheon's traditional sightseeing venues mostly close down after sunset. But Uirimji Reservoir, one of the country's oldest reservoirs, exudes its most beautiful asset after nightfall. Every season, photographers from all around the country flock to this old reservoir, surrounded by willows and pine trees. During the day, the reservoir bustles with parents and their kids, riding duck boats and having picnics on the reservoir banks. But at night, the traditional architectures around the reservoir lights up, creating a fantastical view.

At the side of the reservoir is a small, old-fashioned amusement park, shining in faint yellow streetlight -- a place that would drive fans of the nostalgia-inducing television series "Reply 1988" into frenzy.

The reservoir is not so far from downtown Jecheon, but it gets quite difficult to catch a cab at night.

"When you try to catch cabs near Uirimji at late night, make sure to cry out 'downtown' to the drivers," says a taxi driver in Jecheon, who wished to remain anonymous. "Then you'll save a huge effort in getting a ride."

The Gyodong Minwha Village, or an old village decorated with colorful murals, conjures up a warm sense of family life.

Built on hillside of Gyodong, northeast of downtown Jecheon, the village is mostly inhabited by the elderly.

At the break of dawn, old women with hunched backs, seemingly in their 70s and 80s, take a casual stroll up and down the hill, wheeling around boxes on trolleys.

"I like the village more with the paintings than without," said an 80-year-old female resident of the area who identified herself only as Huh. "I like to take little kids along and show them around the wall paintings," she added.


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