Beyond Seoul – Chuncheon

Posted on April 3, 2010


Original post, February 15 2009

The approximately two-and-a-half-hour train to Chuncheon, East of Seoul, took me for the first time away from the comforts of the capital. It took me past an endless wall of misty mountains, street lights in the shape of ducks, (with the plastic head and all and the actual lamp being the tail), my first rice fields, a miniature tour Eiffel, the wreck of a Jumbo jet and of an old train, and lines and lines of cold high-rise apartments dwarfing the occasional one-story houses with garishly bright roofs. Once again I was going there thanks to Sue.
Upon arriving at Namchuncheon Station, we realised that we had just missed the hourly bus to our destination, a destination which I had as yet no idea about, as Sue was leaving it as a surprise. Since I didn’t quite feel like wasting an entire hour of our trip, I suggested getting a taxi and she haggled for some time with a driver for a good price. The taxi we got on stank of socks and cigarettes, and the man almost crashed into a car in front of him in as yet another show of reckless driving, but somehow, about twenty minutes later, we managed to arrive at Soyang Dam.


The building of Soyang dam in 1973 had resulted in the creation of Soyang Lake, now a major attraction to the area. Sue explained that we would be taking a ferryboat, crossing the lake and hiking uphill to Guseong Waterfall and having reached the top, explore Cheongpyeongsa Buddhist temple. Despite suffering from intense sea sickness, I could not refuse the prospect of such a scenic walk.
We were the first to step on the boat. Being Valentine’s day, it was soon filled with young Korean couples, and it did not fail to amuse me how, on a trail which promised to be steep, slippery and muddy, there were still a few women wearing high heels. And while not being a huge St. Valentine’s day fan, I still couldn’t help but wish I was also one of those happy Korean girls, clinging affectionately to their boyfriends on this purely commercial but still inescapable day. I pondered this thought as we sailed over the water, smooth and surprisingly clean. It didn’t take long to get to the other side.




The first stretch of the walk resembled an abandoned battlefield, a space of raw earth and splashes of mud littered with small rocks. But the not-so-distant forest winding uphill promised a change of scene. Soon, the stark colourless landscape turned into one of naked trees. Winter in Korea is the dry season and while coniferous forests in Europe thrive, here everything, down to the bushes, shrubs and grasses lie colourless until the summer rains. There were of course, little occasional moments of colour held by branches which had retained their fiery red foliage as well as the piles of ochre leaves, remnants of the autumn shedding.



The main hiking path was bordered by a little stream. While the top was mostly iced over, the sound of the water streaming down beneath the top layer of ice was clear to hear. Here and there, like tiny works of art, were bronze-coloured leaves frozen into the ice, which I was ever so tempted to try and lick.
Lonely amongst the trees, silently posing in front of the flowing stream, we came across the statue of a young woman holding a large snake in her hand, as it gazed longingly into her eyes. The notice which explained the story behind the statue was only in Korean, so I had to rely on Sue to explain what it said. She told me that the woman had been a princess and a man who had loved the princess dearly had been killed. When he was reincarnated as a snake, he stuck to the princess’s hand and wouldn’t let go, until she found the temple at the top of the mountain and held a ceremony there. Only then did the snake leave her and she was finally able to return to her kingdom.

Leaving the princess lonely once more, we walked the last part of the trail and finally reached the temple. Nestled between the mountains, build on different levels, it was like nothing in this world. The smell of incense hung in the air, and occasionally, the wind chimes would resound as if struck by spirits. Glimpses inside the various temples revealed golden Buddhas and lantern-covered ceilings. During my visits in the Buddhist temples of Seoul, I had been afraid to step into the enclosed buildings, for fear of disturbing the people in prayer and of being disrespectful. When I told Sue this, she instructed me to take off my mud-covered boots and step inside. When I set on the warm wooden floor, I didn’t quite know what to do. I could feel that I was in a special, holy place, a place where I did not belong but with which I wanted to make a connection. I took long deep breaths of the incense-filled air and watched the ceiling of red and green lanterns above me. Not being a Buddhist and therefore not wishing to pray, I signalled to Sue that I was ready to leave and that I didn’t want to intrude too much in a worshipping space which should only be left for the worshippers after all.
Exiting the temple, Sue stopped to buy a couple of bead bracelets at a little stall. I was about to purchase something as a memento, but then restrained myself when, among all the wooden items etched or painted with natural scenes or animals, I spotted, out of the blue, a piece of wood with a painting of Elvis, which to my mind did not quite match the holy surrounding.
Not wanting to miss the ferry back which left every hour on the hour, we walked down at a quick pace, leaving the temple, the ice and the beautiful forest behind. I huddled up as best as I could as the air had got chillier and as we crossed back over the lake.

– Text and Photography by Denise Pulis @

Posted in: Chuncheon