Give Boryeong a chance
Traveling in rural Korea is not nearly as daunting as some think. English signs abound, Hangeul can be learned in a few hours anyway, and everyone speaks fluent body language.
The main problem is undervalued assets. Natural beauty and friendly people can attract tourists as much as big convention centers and new airports. Unfortunately, the Korea Tourism Organization’s interactive website completely ignores a provincial loop through South Chungcheong Province that has everything green tourists crave.
I call this ``the Middle Kingdom tour” because, like a middle child, the Baekje Kingdom (18 B.C. – 660 A.D.) is lodged between the more-celebrated Korean rivals Goguryeo (37 B.C. – 668 A.D.) and Silla (57 B.C. – 935 A.D.) and suffers from an identity crisis. The loop takes in great scenery, ancient sites and an 18 meter-high, 10th-century Buddhist sculpture that looks shockingly modern.
Korea’s west coast lacks classically beautiful beaches but still has a strong draw in the immense power of its tides ― a differential of as much as six meters. The west coast also hosts some of the world’s largest migrations of birds and, controversially, one of its biggest land reclamation projects.
The Boryeong Mud Festival (July 16-24) adds a huge messy spot to this tour. Raunchy wrestling, beauty packs ― everything to do with mud ― is sloshed together. Visitors play in and paint each other with mud brought to sandy Boryeong Beach from nearby flats. Here the participants are the show with people of all ages and nationalities intermingling and enjoying each other’s company.
Photographers love Boryeong because everyone in the friendly crowd looks good covered in mud. Organizers allow young Westerners enough freedom to amuse themselves while maintaining enough restraint to keep families from being scared away ― a difficult balance deserving of the national awards won.
One memory from the 2007 festival tells a lot about Korea: people in two long lines waited to compete on a large inflatable obstacle course. An impatient father pushed the scrawny teenager in charge aside and placed his two kids at the start of each line. The teenager was obviously humiliated, but the students waiting accepted it as beyond anyone’s control.
Should that father receive praise or scorn for teaching that you get ahead by being pushy? Anyway, Koreans now routinely take turns and efficiently blend into one line, at least at parking lots and ski lifts, where only the pushiest, oldest or best attired moved to the front quickly in the ’90s.
Another reason that memory is important, the father flashed the sheepish grin Koreans sometimes give when embarrassed ― the implication being that everyone must surely understand his desire to please his children. That grin has likely enraged Westerners caught in some unforeseen problem. Anyone who deals extensively with Koreans should be aware that their smile can sometimes mean,
``I feel horrible about this, but there’s nothing I can do.”
Buyeo and the Eunjin Mireuk statue of Gwanchok-sa by Nonsan fill out this roughly 380-kilometer tour. A car is not needed because buses from Daecheon and Nonsan train stations link all the locations nicely. Green tourists might flock to a train-bicycle-train route, if Chungcheong officials and Korail made bike rentals and maps available at Daecheon and Nonsan stations.
Many would love to travel to one of those stations, bike on country roads for two to three hours to Buyeo, see the sites, enjoy a relaxing night out there, and continue to the other station the next day. They could drop off their bikes and then glide back into Yongsan Station, past highways jammed with those returning from spots that the KTO does recommend.
David Kendall is a former editor/writer for Yonhap News Agency and Korea.net who writes about Korea’s lesser-known points of interest. More information can be found at unlockingkorea.blogspot.com.