Thursday, May 17, 2007

Swimming with the fishes in Yulpo

This post completes the details of our trip. (See part 1, part 2)

We left Mokpo and drove to nearby Wolchulsan National Park. We stayed at the hotel there close to the Dogapsa entrance.

We enjoyed a quiet walk in the park the next day before heading off for the nearby Yongam pottery centre. We found the kiln and a gift shop in the very pretty village of Gurim, but despite the shop keeper's attempt at giving us directions, we were unable to find the pottery centre. The village must be one of the most attractive we've seen in Korea, with a small area of traditional houses and stone bridges over the stream.

view of traditional houses in Gurim village
We headed south to another pottery centre at Gangjin. This was much easier to find as it was marked on our map! The site includes another traditional wood-burning kiln, many shops and a museum housed in two large buildings.

Note the porcelain tile wall on the exterior of the museum and the large pot in the foreground

Here is the traditional wood-burning kiln. Used to make royal celadon ware for centuries.

The first museum displayed mostly potsherds of Korean celadon (blue-green) porcelain with just a few explanations in English; it was a little disappointing, the second museum had a special exhibition of around thirty pieces from the Limoges region of France and a selection of modern Korean and Chinese ceramics.

Here is a very fine modern piece from China

The grounds around the museum are scattered with large pieces of original celadon, each worth a considerable amount. Here is a celadon fountain with perhaps 13 individual porcelain pieces.

Leaving Gangjin we drove around the headland and arrived in Yulpo. We inquired at the huge Yulpo Spa resort about the cost of a room. 248,000 won was a trifle above our budget, we'd been paying maximum 50,000 won up until now, so we drove a few hundred meters back into town and found a minbak beside the SK petrol station, above a restaurant, for 40,000 won instead.

We were in green-tea country, just a few kilometers south of the main tea-producing area in Boseong, and so everything had a green-tea theme. That evening I sampled the delights of green-tea-pork, which is a local speciality, but I couldn't tell the difference between that and the normal Samgyeopsal I've had back in Seoul.

Yulpo Spa is run by the local council and is open to the public daily from 6am to 8pm; the spa is best known for Yulpo Haesu Nogchatang ( seawater and green-tea bath ) though it offers much more than this. The spa occupies 4 floors and offers views of Yulpo Bay from the baths and from the open area on the top floor. Visitors may don yellow-earth-impregnated kit and wander about the very spacious, warm facilities luxuriating in a sense of Korean "well-being", to use the industry jargon. Yellow earth is very well-known in Korea and China for its healthy properties.

The next morning we returned to Yulpo Spa, we paid the 5,000 won entrance fee and separated to go to our respective gender's saunas. I was relaxing in one of the hot pools when one of the attendants came around asking for a "Mister Jon". I was the only westener, so he found me fairly easily and led me back into the changing area and indicated I should put on some shorts and a T-shirt he proffered. He then led me upstairs to the fourth floor and a large pond filled with green tea and thousands of small fishes!

The Bat joined me and explained that she'd gone exploring, found this treatment area available to both sexes, and she'd paid an extra 5,000 won each for the experience called 'Doctor Fish'. The idea is that you sit in the pool wearing a bathing costume, exposing as much flesh as you wish, and these small garra rufa fish gently nibble at your dead skin and revitalise it. Personally I found it was very tickly and a bit too high on the 'ick' factor for my liking, but apparently for psoriasis suffers it does offer some relief.

Dr Fish is also available in Icheon at the Termeden Spa we discovered later [Infact visitors to the Ceramics expo can get a 30% discount off the entrance fee to the spa. Pick up a voucher at their stand at the fair] , and The Guardian had a report on it at a spa in Ireland too. It's got a great photo of what to expect. If you go to Yulpo, make sure to ask for 'Doctor Fish' at reception as there are no posters or information at the cash desk. There are two other saunas in the treatment area, one with hot pebbles and one with hot quartz rocks to lie on, both were very pleasant indeed.

Suitably refreshed we continued our journey north. For the last night of our trip we stayed just outside Deogyusan National Park in another minbak. The small village near the Anseong entrance was very quiet, almost deserted, we found out the next morning this was because the route into the park here was closed temporarily. There was nothing in English on the sign, but I believe this restriction was due to the risk of fires at this time of year.

We drove around the park towards another entrance, but this time, rather than use one of the major paths available from the ticket booth, we chose a road leading into the park that was shown as petering out to a dead end. We parked at the end of the tarmac and continued on foot on a small path past the cultivated area up into the woods. This approach gave us the least disturbed visit to a national park we have ever experienced. The path was a little more difficult to follow and a little overgrown but we met no-one once we passed the ginseng (Korean "insam") field at the head of the valley. The scenery was a lush green and the wildlife was much more in evidence than on other national park trips.

Gentians ( Gentiana sp.) are generally alpines but here they were at low altitude in Deogyusan.

From there we drove back to Seoul along the expressway.

Some observations on our trip:
  • It does not have to take three days to get to Jindo, you can get a bus from Seoul, it takes about six hours, but we decided to take the scenic route and see more of the country on the way down.
  • All the locations we visited can be reached by public transport. The Lonely Planet guide book has detailed instructions for this.
  • The best places to find small hotels and minbak (rooms for rent in private houses) are near the serice areas of the national and provincial parks. It's a good idea to learn the Korean for minbak as most of them do not have signs in English. The owners are unlikely to speak English, but with sign language we had no problems.
  • For good places to eat look out for the 'Good Restaurant' sign, we've not been let down by any establishment showing this sign.
  • The road atlas we used is published by the Jungang Atlas Co. Their website is Korean only, but the atlas has most place names in English and Korean. Available in bookshops for 12,000 won.
  • The National Parks Authority publishes a guidebook for the National Parks of Korea. It includes maps and photos of all twenty parks. The maps do not have any detail of the area outside the park boundary, but are very useful for deciding which entrance to aim for at each park. Available in large bookshops and some park offices for 10,000 won.

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