Hiking, Korea, Mountains
Comments 13

Hit the North! #4: Mungyeong Saejae, a Beautiful Mountain Pass

And so we reach at last the final day of the school trip — and the best. This was the most beautiful scenery I’ve encountered in Korea so far, a “real” hike of a few hours, in forested mountains, along an excellent path with an amazing history.

But first, back to Seoul…

We left the amusement park and rumbled out of the most urban of environments…

..and drove up into a mountain hot-spring resort town called Suambo.

Another massive, run-down edifice, empty of other guests, was quickly overrun by squawking students, again free to do whatever they wanted short of burning the place to the ground. Hot-spring towns in Korea, it seems, like those in Japan, are the un-loveliest of settlements: enormous, ugly, crumbling hotels squat together over degraded river banks; garish souvenir shops and eateries jam surrounding streets. Most of the traditional architecture has long ago been progressed into oblivion.

Suambo is no different, but the mountains overlooking the town survive, spectacular and thus-far un-progressed. The hotel had no public bath, but with a voucher I strolled up the quiet and spectacularly lit streets…

..to another hotel, and for $5 got very clean indeed.

There really are few pleasures greater than a nice geothermal soak in the mountains. I slept well and got up early for another starter-hike up a small mountain with the standard viewing pergola…

..and down to explore some rice paddies in some of the rare flatlands.

The convoy deposited us somewhere up high. Again I had no idea where we were — my hosts enjoy keeping me guessing — and it was only after we got home that research revealed it was Mungyeong Saejae, a provincial park protecting one of the most important mountain passes of old Korea.

I was press-ganged into doing a succession of speed-portraits of each class, one miserable-looking, peace sign-flashing group after another…

..and we were off — destination…like anyone would tell me.

For centuries this pass was a crucial link between North Gyeongsang province and North Chungcheong province. It was on the Great Yeongnam Road linking Seoul with Busan, and the footpath we were now walking is one of the few remnants that remains exactly as it was in the days of foot and hoofed travel.


A more modern gate near the start

We climbed gently on a road dusted with fresh snow, which was soon exploited for effective missiles by the ever resourceful delinquent males. The sun was out, skies were clear, and my mood, at least, was buoyant. The scenery was superb and only got better.

Here’s one of the Mungyeong Gates through which the trail/old road passes:

The gates guarded the approach to Seoul for many centuries and this area saw a lot of fighting during the Japanese invasion of 1592. After a Korean general retreated near here, a civilian force was formed to hit the invaders with a surprise attack. These gates were further fortified in 1780.

Streams beside the “Barefoot Path”, as it’s known, gushed with snowmelt. Birds were chattering in the trees…

..and boys held each other close.

This, the second gate, was built during the (first) Japanese invasion, and later renovated several times, the last in 1976.

I really was extraordinarily happy, by my standards: this is the Korea I’d wanted to see since I first had the numb-skulled notion of coming here to live. With the winter thaw retreating, more of this kind of walking will become accessible, and Korea’s so small, a few hours on the bus or train (if I can work out the timetables and routes) will get me to some choice locales.

Many of the students were grumbling and apparently miserable, like they couldn’t comprehend the cruelty they were being subjected to.

And the more they grumbled, the happier I felt.

Most of them barely glanced at this excellent marker, which is the oldest stone post in Korea inscribed purely in Korean (without any Chinese characters):

Although I can read some of them (the top word appears to be “mountain”), the Hangeul here are archaic. The message, sans Smokey the Bear:


But whining, collapsing students was the immediate concern. The stream had now become a beautiful river — I could have walked all day, even in jeans — but at last I spotted some fluttering colour in the trees on the far bank. There was heraldry in there!

We entered an incredible cluster of wonderful stone buildings, temples, walls, and another great gate.

But hang on a minute — something’s not quite right here:

“Mrs Kim,” I asked the vice principal. “This place is incredible. What is it? Is it real?”

“Not real,” she answered. “They make dramas here.”

We’d entered a film and TV costume-drama set, a permanent fixture painstakingly recreating old Seoul. In fact, we had to hush the whining students as filming was in progress right now.

After the briefest exploration of this immaculate creation it was Back On the Bus for the journey southwards towards home, school and its attendant miseries. There was a lunch stop at a roadside restaurant, and then a final dose of history at the “Charcoal Museum”, where there was some great news.

“Ian, did I say this was a charcoal museum?” said “Dorothy”.

“You did. And I couldn’t be more excited.”

“Sorry. I meant,” scanning her electronic dictionary, “coal museum.”

“Or could I?” It was a great museum documenting the local mining industry, but the experience was ruined by more class photographs and a surly janitor they brought with them, who, slightly intoxicated from his lunchtime makgeoli, proceeded to physically drag me from rock to mineral to crystal, trying to get me to repeat their names in Korean until Dorothy rescued me.

Quartz. Chalcedony. Arsenopyrite. These things are hard enough in bloody English.

He was an ass. You know who you are, Mr Park!

But even that unpleasantness couldn’t tarnish a day of — well, not quite high drama, but height and pleasure, anyway.

~ And that’s all the Goat wrote


  1. An enjoyable post, even if my lazy broadband took more than 20 minutes to load it! Worth the wait. I am curious about the freedom the children have to behave just as they like. It is not what I expected, especially as the Korean children over here are such hard workers. Are they allowed to let off steam because they have to work so hard? Or is it just a matter of different cultural expectations of behaviour in public?

    • Thanks, Rachel. Sorry about the load time — you’re not the first to mention it! Too many pictures, I suppose, and too big.

      The kids’ behavior: your guess is as good as mine, but I think it’s a mix of the factors you mention. I don’t believe Koreans work “hard” — and certainly not productively — so much as long. I’ve seen little evidence of hard work in my classes, that’s for sure. Perhaps middle school is seen as a transitional stage between childhood and adulthood, and those breaks outside class are opportunities for them to experiment with forming their own group hierarchies, seeing that the group always comes before the individual here. I was surprised too by the relative abandon. However based on my classes, they’re not much different in school. Many Korean teachers just let them go: sleep, talk, ignore me, whatever.

      I do know that one teacher told me teachers can’t choose to teach middle school or primary school — their training prepares them for both, and she, at least, regretted getting assigned to middle school. She said the students are much more disciplined in high school as they are forced to get serious about getting into the all-important RIGHT UNIVERSITY…

      • Interesting. It depends on the particular school too I suppose. My daughter is in the local junior school and it is very very strict. Very high standards of behaviour are expected. Some would say too high. But not all school are like that over here!

      • Having gone to a private boys’ school of some renown (which I hated, mostly, but that’s another story), I do believe strictness, while staying clear of cruelty and outright tyranny, is a good thing in school. I was thinking yesterday about how I would have loathed being a student in a Korean school. Not only are you reduced to being an almost anonymous unit in a class of 35+ students, but based on my observations in my classes, the rowdy, confident, outgoing and often obnoxious louts dominate, and the quiet ones are easily overwhelmed and reduced to human wallpaper. I was very sensitive and self-conscious, and would have detested a great many of the loudmouths surrounding me. Some strictness would level things out a lot.

  2. rivron says

    That tower of pebbles… They look just like the ones I saw on a beach on the Isle of Man a couple of weeks ago. I wonder how far pebbles migrate?

    • Well, Korean pebbles are made of styrofoam and have been known to reach the farthest reaches of the seven seas. I confidently predict that there will soon be a fully fledged Korean community on the pebbly shores of the Isle of Man. Hope you enjoy smelly cabbage with your (raw) seafood!

  3. Really enjoyed following your Korean school trip, and I suspect you did too on the quiet, despite the well-documented annoyances! The true blogger-reporter welcomes a little difficulty and adversity, does he/she not? All good grist to the blogging mill! I know you realise only too well a reader loves a bit of schadenfreude …

    • Thanks, mate. Yes, you’re right — just as in travel books a smooth journey makes for a dull story. To tell a guilty secret, I actually did comment to someone when debating whether to join this trip that I should probably do it as I was bound to be miserable, which would make for good posts! But I was pleasantly surprised. There was almost too LITTLE suffering!

      Relieved that saga is over, though, as my backlog of potential posts is mammoth. I’m closing in on my 50th walk in Korea!

  4. It’s a little unfortunate you seemed to be almost having ‘fun’ on this trip! Even the dreaded charcoal museum turned to coal. That’s not a bad outcome I guess. There’s certainly some fantastic vibrancy in your pictures. Everything has a bit of punch to it!

    • What exactly was the trouble? I use the same general settings used by most WordPress bloggers. Did you have trouble loading the page because of the number of pictures?

  5. Pingback: King’s Daughter: Filming locations (Revised) | Simply JO HYUN JAE

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