Exceptional haven hidden behind prison fame

2011-06-23 : 18:19

Mt. Juwang is a national park with unique rocky peaks and other charms.
/ Courtesy of Cheongsong County

By Kwaak Je-yup

CHEONGSONG, North Gyeongsang Province ㅡ Ask any Seoulite about Cheongsong: they will respond, “Oh, you mean the prison?”

Even the people of North Gyeongsang Province, where the county is located, do not know much about what the place has to offer other than maximum security for convicts.

Furthermore, taking four-and-a-half hours by car or bus to reach and with no train connection, Cheongsong is one of the hardest places to get to from Seoul.

This physical distance, sparse habitation (27,000 people in an area bigger than Seoul), and especially the not-so-flattering reputation of the prison that have kept most tourists or developers away have preserved the county’s local character. And that makes it a place worth visiting and discovering.

In fact, at first glance, Cheongsong does not stand out as the closely-located big-name UNESCO World Heritages of Gyeongju or Andong do. The list of tourist attractions promoted by local authorities alone would turn few heads at best: a mountain, which is also a national park, quite a few temples, an age-old reservoir of movie fame, white porcelain, and apples.

While not all of them are must-visit sights, a closer inspection reveals quirky details that could win you over.

Mountain refuge for a would-be king

The best-known attraction of Cheongsong, Mt. Juwang National Park, borrows its name from a folktale: after a failed coup attempt in China, the rebel force’s leader named Juwang took refuge on these peaks.

The reasons for selecting the spot are unknown, but even at its modest height of 720 meters, the mountain’s exceptional beauty, especially of the rocky peaks and valleys are enough to make an outside visitor today want to take refuge there, too.

Maps point visitors to landmarks like its two caves, three waterfalls, and the famous Jusanji Lake, which merit a visit, but one would be advised instead to spend a whole day in miles and miles of hiking trails and stumble onto these sights of distinct beauty.

Origin-controlled white porcelain

The reputation of white porcelain in the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910) is already stellar among locals and foreigners, yet the Cheongsong porcelain has something more: the raw materials whose place of origin is not only controlled but owned directly by the county.

The porcelain here is produced with locally-mined stone that are ground up and watered to make a white paste with the consistency resembling traditional clay. It is strictly forbidden to take the raw materials out of the county, making it only available here.

To add even more scarcity value, at the moment, there is only one living master, Koh Man-gyeong, who first entered pottery-making more than 65 years ago. There are three local students currently at the workshop trying to inherit the expertise.

Local authorities say traditional kilns were common sights in the early 20th century, but with low demand and little financial support, the last one closed in 1958. The skill was forgotten for almost 40 years, but in 1997, the master and Cheongsong county officials decided that a revival was due.

At the most recent Seoul Living Design Fair in March, the Cheongsong white porcelain was the show’s biggest hit, with critiques raving the unique ivory color unavailable in other clay-based works.

The renaissance is still in its early stages, however: none of the works even have a price tag at the moment.

Peep into a century-old wooden house

There are already UNESCO-listed hanoks in Bukchon in Seoul, Gyeongju and Andong; so what is the big attraction of Songso Old House?

Unlike the tourist-infested sites above, Songso Old House is virtually unknown, at least for now.

As descendants of the original owners and still inhabiting the premises, Shim Jae-oh and Choi Yun-hee couple, have decided to open up the 99-room house to the public and welcome any overnight guests, too.

The number of rooms in a Joseon Kingdom house was capped just below a hundred, and so it was a symbol of the wealthiest noblemen.

If the visit is on a sunny day, one can observe another sign of opulence: silver sand in the main courtyard ― to make the house’s woman look more beautiful.

Meanwhile, the most unique and interesting architectural feature in the house tour is the little holes on a wall that separates the men’s and women’s quarters, specifically six on one side and three on the opposite. From the three-holed side, single daughters could observe their groom-to-be, usually arranged and engaged with sight unseen.

For more information on tour of Cheongsong county, visit www.cs.go.kr.