Korea’s maritime national parks bring nature and history together
Imagine you want to get out of the city, as far out of the city as possible. While metropolises like Seoul and Busan have nearly everything a modern urbanite could want, all of us sooner or later need to quench a thirst to escape into nature, however briefl y. At fi rst glance, this may seem impossible in a country as small as Korea, to have the kind of places both geographically accessible and far enough removed from the exigencies of 21stcentury civilization to satisfy this desire.
No matter where in the country you may live, one of its 21 national parks lies not far away. Each off ers its own rich experience of the natural world, especially the two major national marine parks, Dadohaehaesang and Hallyeohaesang.
What makes the national marine parks diff erent from the other national parks? Water, of course, and oft en a great deal of it. Th e more than 2,320 square kilometers of Dadohaehaesang, designated in 1981 as the largest national park in Korea, includes 1,990 square kilometers of water. Th e boundaries of the park encompass much of the coast and waters around Jeollanamdo, including an archipelago of over 1,700 islands, some of them host to fi shing villages and tourists and others completely devoid of human activity. Within it is the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve-designated Sinan-gun, consisting of 880 islands ‒ only 91 of which are inhabited ‒ a salt-farming county nicknamed the “Island Galaxy.”
A veritable galaxy of islands
Most of Dadohaehaesang’s 560,000 annual visitors arrive wanting to travel to its islands, and the most convenient way to do so is to take a boat from Mokpo, a port city well connected with Seoul by rail. Given the popularity of the ferry route, especially during the summer sightseeing season, those looking to beat the crowds would do well to catch one of the early-morning boats, though the seasickness-prone should be warned that the waters can turn awfully choppy at any time of the day. With enough islands to constitute a veritable galaxy, each with its own natural environment and even cultural heritage, how can travelers decide which ones to visit first?
It makes sense to work outward from the most visited islands, Heuksando and Hongdo, both of which have tourist facilities as well as residents ready to give advice about what the rest of the islands have to offer. Heuksando, about 100 kilometers off the Mokpo coast, has not just a population of over 3,100 but four mountain peaks as well as one of Korea’s finest fishery grounds. A ride around Heuksando’s circular road will take you all the way around the scenic shore, past many of its cultural treasures. The smaller, quieter Hongdo, 15 kilometers farther out and home to about 710 people, has a mountain range of its own with the peaks Gitdaebong and Yangsanbong. The rocks give the place its name: Hongdo means “red island,” referring to their distinctive tint reflected in the sun. First designated a Natural Preserve Area in 1965, the humble island has plenty of beauty on display, but its official status as a Natural Monument restricts visitors to the villages and other designated tourist areas, so travelers should do their best not to stray too far off the paths.
Even the most populated of Dadohaehaesang’s islands may not have received such modern conveniences as electricity and running water until well after Seoul did, but this part of the country has long been a source of a different kind of national pride as a seat of historic naval activity. Admiral Jang Bogo built a maritime kingdom there in the ninth century during the Silla era. Later, during Joseon times, it became the battlefield where Admiral Yi Sun-sin, now perhaps the most revered figure in all of Korean history, beat back Japanese invaders.
In more recent times, Dadohaehaesang has also drawn attention for its ecological wealth. Its species count comes to at least 1,698 plants, 24 mammals, 231 birds, 992 insects, 10 amphibians, 18 reptiles, and 146 fish. Its sweet-smelling flagship plant species, the endangered orchid Neofi netia falcata, blooms on the surfaces of rocks and trees every July. Conservation groups have begun to campaign for the protection of its fl agship mammal species, the black-bodied Neophocaena phocaenoides, or fi nless porpoise, who lives in the shallow seas not far off the coast. Evergreen forests with broadleafed trees grow in the mild, humid climate, and its volcanic rock formations contribute to a geological look seen nowhere else in the country.
Th e rocks of Dadohaehaesang even appear in myth. Many of the area’s islands and peaks have their own legends, but the uninhabited and rough-terrained Baekdo, distinguished by the presence of Maebawi, or “Hawk Rock,” produced a starkly memorable one. A fi sherman, out on the water alone late at night, spotted what looked like a woman thrashing to stay above the deep water and certain to drown. When the fi sherman approached to lend a hand, she revealed her true form, that of a female water demon trying to seduce him into the depths. Just before the fi sherman fainted from fright, he saw a hawk swoop down and attack the demon. Upon waking the next morning, he found himself deposited safely onto the hawk-shaped Maebawi.
Korea’s first maritime park
With more than 300 islands, Hallyeohaesang stretches along 120 kilometers of shoreline from Yeosu in Jeollanam-do on the country’s southwestern coast to Geoje in Gyeongsangnam-do on its southeastern coast. Th ough much smaller than Dadohaehaesang at just over 545 square kilometers, it became a national marine park, Korea’s very fi rst, much earlier, in 1968. Just like Dadohaehaesang, water covers the majority of Hallyeosudo ‒ which, with its 30 inhabited and 69 uninhabited islands oft en compared to jewels – now viewable from a cable car above – has become known as the country’s most glorious waterway. Its ancient rock formations give ever-varying shape to an environment home to 822 plant species, 20 mammals, 141 birds, 8 amphibians, 16 reptiles, 2,134 insects and 146 fish.
The Zostera marina, or common eelgrass, although far less common than it once was, doesn’t just hold the title of Hallyeohaesang’s fl agship plant species, but also provides a spawning ground and habitat for all sorts of sea creatures while using its long, fan-shaped leaves to control the waves of the ocean and purify the environment by fi ltering sea deposits. Its fl agship bird, the endangered Pitta brachyura or fairy pitta, lives in Hallyeohaesang’s deciduous tree groves. Th ough shy, these birds can be seen every once in a while, the deep greens, blacks and reds of their feathers accenting the natural scene for the eyes of tourists and residents alike.
A personal touch to nature
Hallyeohaesang’s humans are also doing their share to make this national marine park more interesting all the time, most recently by opening a trail called the Bada Baengnigil, or “100- li ocean path,” a li being a Korean traditional unit of distance equivalent to half a kilometer. It crosses the six islands of Somaemuldo, Hansando, Maemuldo, Yeondaedo and Mireukdo, following the routes used by their inhabitants since time immemorial and providing mountain and ocean views all the while. Using ferries to get from one island to the next, it would take even the fastest walker days to fully experience the path on foot.
Who enjoying that experience would dare miss Somaemuldo, with the iconic lighthouse that draws almost 400,000 people every year? Visitors may well recognize it from movies and television, but if they then continue on to the island of Hansando, they’ll fi nd themselves back in history ‒ back, in fact, to the time of Yi Sun-sin, who once established a naval base and, in 1592, fought the Great Battle of Hansan-do there. Back on shore in the coastal city of Tongyeong, Yi Sun-sin Park immortalizes the great admiral in statue form at the center of a complex featuring a traditional arts hall and pavilion, a viewing deck, a walking path and more.
Saryangdo’s Mt. Jarimangsan is very popular with hikers.
The national marine parks’ plentitude of walking opportunities, not at all limited to Hallyeohaesang, take on a special character on Dadohaehaesang’s Cheongsando, an island named for the blue color of the sky above it, the ocean around it, and even the mountains on it. Th e sheer beauty of the surroundings, and the way it inspires visitors to reduce their pace to take it all in, gave rise to the amusingly named Slow-gil Road, whose 11 trails cover over 40 kilometers of the island. Designated an “ecological road telling a story” by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism in 2010, it was also honored as the fi rst “slow road” by the International Slow City Association in 2011.
Walkers may also take notice of another unusually named road that wends its way between low stone walls through fi elds of barley: Seopyeonje-gil, a tribute to the acclaimed fi lm of the same name by the respected director Im Kwon-taek, who shot it on Cheongsando in 1993. Th e island’s striking visual quality as a setting has not been lost on the makers of movies and television shows ever since, and several fi lming locations here and there have remained open for curious tourists.
Appreciation of these islands hardly began in the modern era. Take Bogildo, for instance, just 12 kilometers off the coast. One of the fi rst two people to set foot on it, alongside the politician Uam Song Si-yeol, was the 17th-century Confucian poet Yun Seon-do. On his way to Jejudo, he had only meant to make a brief stop on Bogildo, but its sheer unexpected beauty essentially forced him to take up residence then and there, and his gardens remain there for all to see, as does a poem that Uam, who had also been en route to Jeju, felt moved to chisel into a rock.
Ancient wisdom on the sea
Th e islands of Korea’s national marine parks could put anyone into a contemplative frame of mind, and no manmade settings better suit that contemplation than Hyangiram and Boriam, two Buddhist hermitages in the towns of Yeosu and Namhae, respectively. Founded on the side of Mt. Geumosan in the year 644 by the renowned monk Wonhyo, the Hyangiram Hermitage, which served as a base camp for the monks who fought with Yi Sun-sin, burned down during the Imjin War in 1592.
Although Hyangiram Hermitage was rebuilt in 1715, fi re consumed its main hall once more in 2009, but restoration eff orts made the building whole again and it stands as a symbol of endurance ‒ as well as a vantage point for majestic sea views and the destination at the end of an enjoyably vigorous hiking trail. Wonhyo also built the nearby Boriam Hermitage, located on the summit of Mt. Geumsan, in 683, still a serene place despite the traffi c it draws with its famously stunning sunrise and sunset views.
Clearly this kind of ancient wisdom remains alive and well in the national marine parks, which possess two of the country’s four Buddhist hermitages. However, they have also hosted modern scientifi c wisdom in action as well, specifi cally in the form of environmental restoration, preservation and research projects. Th ese include investigations of the marine ecosystem and international natural-resource studies as well as work on climate change and the maintenance of threatened local varieties of seahorses, tritons, fi ddler crabs and mudfl at crabs. Th e parks have also proven ideal locations for the study of East Asia’s migratory birds, many of whom stop there along their migration routes.
People: the greatest natural resource
For all the fascination of Dadohaehaesang and Hallyeohaesang’s animal, mineral and plant worlds, however, we mustn’t overlook one of the most important assets of the Korea Peninsula’s south coast: its people. Over generations upon generations, beginning well before the very concept of national parks, the people of the islands have built up an immense and thorough body of knowledge about the place in which they live, all of it incorporated into a vibrant and varied set of communities. However, with the high rate of migration to the cities, the populations of these traditional farming and fi shing villages have aged over the years. As times, the economy and demographics change, the interest and demand for an alternative course grows.
Some of these coastal areas have, taking their natural assets into account, begun fi nding new ways to capitalize on their inherent appeal and to strengthen their connections with industries both local and national. Dadohaehaesang’s island of Gwanmaedo set the example. Its fi shing village, typical in having a population of 200 with 80 percent of its residents above age 60, took advantage ofthe boom in ecotourism by establishing the fi rst Myeongpum Maeul, or “Village of Excellence.” Th e process involved building tourist infrastructure by converting older and even abandoned buildings into modern lodgings, laying networks of pathways, and starting bike-rental shops. Th e project also developed signature dishes with locally sourced ingredients, experiential programs for visitors, and educational programs for residents. With government support and a branding and marketing push, Gwanmaedo saw the number of visitors increase more than tenfold between 2010 and 2011. Some of its migrants who had previously left for the cities even moved back home.
So far, out of 14 such villages, Dadohaehaesang has fi ve and Hallyeohaesang has two, with more surely on the horizon. Interest in Korea’s national marine parks has grown, not just because of their value as getaways from busy city life, but because of their rich ecology, long history, deep-rooted communities, and even their relatively newfound potential in business and science. As long as the people remain to love and protect them, they’ll continue to off er much more than an escape for a long time to come.
* Article from the Korea Magazine (July 2016)