By Byun Duk-kun
CHEONAN, South Korea, Dec. 16 (Yonhap) -- One of many perks of living in South Korea, especially its capital Seoul, is that one can reach just about any part of the city using only public transportation.
What many, especially those from abroad, do not realize is that public transportation may also take them clear out of the city and to many destinations frequented by both local and foreign tourists at a very affordable price.
One such destination is Cheonan.
Throughout history, the city had been considered a transportation hub and gateway to Seoul as it is located directly below the capital region and nearly at the center of the country, making it a way point for almost anyone from southern regions traveling north and vice versa.
Still, a trip to the city had long remained laborious and costly, at least until 2005 when Seoul extended its existing subway services to the city located some 80 kilometers south of the capital.
"I remember walking four days straight to reach Cheonan from Seoul while fleeing from the Korean War, and even in the 1980s and 1990s, long after the Gyeongbu (Seoul-Busan) expressway opened, it used to take an entire day just to reach Cheonan," said Kim Hee-kap, 78, who was born in the western port city of Incheon but grew up in Cheonan after his family moved to the city during the 1950-53 Korean War.
Kim, who now lives in Seoul, meets his childhood friends once a month at Seoul Station to make the two-hour trip to Cheonan on subway line No. 1. The trip would normally cost around 3,000 won (US$2.50) one-way, but for Kim and his friends, or anyone aged 65 years or older, it comes free under Seoul's social welfare program. Free subway rides are also available to foreign expatriates who meet the age requirement and have permanent residence in the country.
"It takes a little longer than a KTX express train, but we have no reason to be in a hurry, especially when a subway ride is free," Byeon Hee-june said.
However, for the two and their two other friends from Seoul and Gyeonggi Province, the trip never ends in Cheonan, as their monthly trip has an aim -- to visit Byeongcheon, their true childhood hometown, and taste the famous Byeongcheon sundae, a traditional blood sausage.
Often, the four will make a brief stop to buy a bag of nationally famous walnut cookies for their 50-minute bus ride to Byeongcheon.
"For retirees like us who have all the time, but may be not too much money to spend, a trip to Byeongcheon is a great pastime that costs less than 10,000 won for the famous sundae gukbap (hot soup) and bus rides," Byeon said.
On a daily basis, the famous Byeongcheon sundae attracts hundreds, and thousands on weekends, from all over the country, according to Kim Il-soon, the owner of a sundae restaurant in the small town of 7,000 residents.
"Many come by the subway and bus, but many others also drive here themselves while many also stop by just to have sundae while on the way to Seoul or other parts of the country as Byeongcheon is closely located to the Gyeongbu expressway," she said.
Kim's restaurant is one of some 30 restaurants that specialize in sundae, and boasts 20 years of history, but is considered a newcomer by any standard considering the long history of the traditional dish.
"Byeongcheon sundae and its recipe had been unique but equally common to the people of Byeongcheon. It came to be known nationwide after old grannies here began to sell their homemade sundae at the five-day market in Byeongcheon some 50 or 60 years ago," she said.
If lucky, one can still witness the traditional market place form, nearly out of nothing, on the first of each month and every five days afterwards.
The name five-day market comes from the fact that such a makeshift market is formed every five days after starting on a set date each month. For instance, the Byeongcheon market is held on the first, sixth, 11th and so on each month, while a market in some other town may be first held on the second or third day of each month and then every five days afterwards.
Such a system is considered the most traditional form of a market in South Korea that had long offered a chance for people even in the most reclusive areas to shop or trade their goods at least once a week, while also offering a chance to merchants with no permanent shops to bring their goods to people in different places.
The Byeongcheon market, despite its long history of 300 or more years, has seen a steady decline in the number of merchants and visitors, ironically due to the development of public transportation, Kim Yoon-ho, 65, noted.
"I have been coming to the market for more than 20 years, and I see less than a half of the merchants than I had 20 years ago," said Kim, who sets up a makeshift restaurant every five days in Byeongcheon.
Now, the five-day market attracts 40 or less makeshift shops.
Still, they continue to be an important, if not the only, place to shop for many of the town's residents, some of whom may live further away from Cheonan with no place to shop for even their daily necessities.
For those looking to experience more than a taste of a traditional marketplace or the traditional dish of sundae, Byeongcheon also offers a glimpse at a small, but possibly one of the most crucial parts of country's history.
Located almost midway between Cheonan and Byeongcheon is the Independence Hall of Korea.
Composed of seven separate exhibition halls, the Independence Hall largely commemorates the country's liberation from the 1910-1945 Japanese colonial rule, but also offers a brief look into the country's entire history from prehistoric ages.
Situated on a vast land of 3.94 million square meters, the Independence Hall can be a museum, park and even a camp site, depending on how one enjoys it as its various activities include a 3.15-kilometer walk through maple trees and an overnight stay at its camp site that can accommodate up to 600 people.
Byeongcheon, or Aunae as it is traditionally called, is also home to one of the most famous independence fighters, Yu Gwan-sun, who had organized and spearheaded a peaceful march in the town in line with a nationwide independence movement in 1919, and was later imprisoned and killed at the age of 17 for such a role.
Byeongcheon and its people continue to celebrate their role in the 1919 movement, while honoring Yu and 19 other national patriots killed during the 1919 rally at a shrine located just outside of the town.
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