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Traveling to Gaesong: A Familiar Sense of Wonder

Posted September. 09, 2005 07:43,   


I had no idea it was so close! Thus exclaims everyone who goes on a trial tour of Gaesong. I took the trip on August 26.

From Kong Village in Paju, on the shores of the Imjin River, you cross the water and take National Road No. 1 (Sineuiju~Mokpo) through the Civilian Control Line toward Gaesong. It’s a mere 18km stretch, easily covered in 10 minutes if you’re speeding along in a car. Of course, that’s if the iron railing of the DMZ had not been in the way. At present, it takes an entire hour and a half to pass through the CIQ offices of both the North and the South.

People ask, is a trip to Gaesong worthwhile? My response is always the same. Without question! Go there yourself. Generally, tourism is about sightseeing first and foremost. But there’s something even more important: the feel of a place. If a tourist destination has a good feel to it as well, then it’s a place that absolutely must be visited.

Gaesong certainly has a good feel. For instance: even though it’s not an ideal paradise like the Happy Valley or Shangri-La, there’s a sense of mystery to it, as if you’ve found the place of your dreams. There’s also a sense of coming home, as if you’ve returned to the house you grew up in decades after leaving it, or found a piece of graffiti on an alley wall that exactly echoes a piece of your childhood memories.

You get this feeling as soon as you enter Gaesong proper. The short houses and buildings are old and shabby but well-maintained. The sidewalks are as wide and spacious as a two-lane motorway, and the passers-by walk along them in sneakers much like the ones I used to wear over 30 years ago. It’s just as though you’ve traveled into your memories of childhood in a time machine.

People riding on bicycles get off at the curb and carefully lift their front wheels over it, lest the bicycles get damaged. The wide and empty roads, with not a car in sight, instill a sense of peace and quiet. Innocent children swim in the buff in the clear stream running through town. The residents peek through their windows with wide eyes at the parade of buses carrying strangers from across the border.

So begins your encounter with Gaesong. It’s a pleasant illusion, produced by an environment that seems lifted from a time 30 years in the past. The curious calm of a space where time appears to have stopped in its tracks—this is the quintessence, the one-of-a-kind charm, of a visit to Gaesong.

You can see traces of both the Goryeo and Joseon dynasties in Gaesong. Indeed, Gaesong is the birthplace of Joseon and Hanyang, and the place where two men from the Jeong family who shared the Chinese character for “dream” (mong) in their names—Jeong Mong-ju and Jeong Mong-heon—first came onto the scene of history, 700 years apart.

The tour takes you to Seonjuk Bridge, Seonggyungwan (the highest institution of education in Joseon, now housing the Goryeo Museum), and Sungyangseowon (a private school built as a memorial to Jeong Mong-ju). In a town the size of your palm, the three sites are just a stone’s throw away from one another. The Seonjuk Bridge, a stone structure extending 6.67m, is the place where Lee Bang-won murdered the faithful Jeong Mong-ju after the latter famously refused Lee’s invitation to take part in overthrowing Goryeo to build Joseon.

Thus was Joseon born, and its foundation was cemented by Jeong Do-jeon, who provided the philosophy for a dynastic revolution. A visit to Seonggyungwan becomes especially pertinent in this regard. Jeong Mong-ju and Jeong Do-jeon stood at opposite ends of the road, but they had formerly been fellow students studying under the same teacher, Lee Saek. Seonggyungwan is the hall of learning where teacher and pupils used to discuss the teachings of Chu Hsi.

The red stain on the stone floor of Seonjuk Bridge actually exists. Everyone tries to look for it, thinking it’s the mark of a faithful retainer’s blood, but it’s really just traces of rust caused by the oxidation of iron. Seonggyungwan still retains its age-old appearance. Some of its buildings, like Myeongryundang, are used as a museum of Goryeo artifacts. Works of Goryeo celadon and an original print made from the world’s first metal type draw the eye.

Sungyangseowon is a Joseon-era school built over the lot of Jeong Mong-ju’s house in 1573. Currently, the ministers of the Goryeo Dynasty are being commemorated here. A shrine atop a stair-like structure houses a portrait of Jeong Mong-ju himself.

The pinnacle of Gaesong tourism is the Bakyeon Waterfall (or Bakyeonpokpo). It lies in a valley between Mount Cheonma and Mount Seonggeo, some 40 minutes by car from Gaesong. Rather than the 37m drop, it’s the stunning scenery created by the harmony of two ponds (Bakyeon and Gomodam) over and beneath the waterfall, the Beomsajeong pavilion, and the surrounding forest that truly takes your breath away.

The waterfall is more picturesque in profile than seen straight on. Gomodam, a basin containing the fallen water, sits to the right of a large rock named Yongbawi (Dragon Rock) from which you can get a spectacular view of the cascading water as its sprays hit your face. Beomsajeong, built on a high rock on the right side of the fall, is a great spot for taking photographs.

Of course, you can’t leave out Hwang Jin-i, the famed “gisaeng” (singing and dancing girls who provided entertainment at parties) from the Joseon period, when you’re talking about Gaesong. With beauty and skill enough to cause Jijokseonsa, a Buddhist priest hailed as a living Buddha, to violate his religious vows and to entice the royal Byeok Gyesu to descend from his donkey with a single song, Hwang Jin-i must surely have left her mark on her “home turf.”

On Gomodam’s Yongbawi, a poem is carved in cursive into the stone. Legend has it that Hwang Jin-i wrote this poem, comparing the cascading water to the Milky Way, in a single stroke with her wet hair after washing it in the waterfall.

Mount Cheonma (762m) is the guardian mountain of Gaesong. Daeheungsanseong (or the Daeheung Mountain Fortress), which winds around the mountain over 10km, was built as a defense against invasion from abroad. Its northern gate lies close to the waterfall. Through the gate, just 850m along the mountain path, you come to a temple named Gwaneumsa. The narrow ravine trail connecting the upper reaches of the waterfall to the temple offers a quiet and lovely landscape of dense forest and shade. An hour is all you need to make the trip at a leisurely stroll.

Travel Information-

The trial tours ended on September 7, but the itinerary for the actual tours have not yet been released. For inquiries, contact the main office of Hyundai Asan at 02-3669-3000

Seung-Ha Cho summer@donga.com