Home to Expo 2012, South Korea’s coast of riches also offers plenty of attractions for tourists looking to unwind
Once a small and sleepy port city famous for its seafood and beaches, Yeosu in South Korea’s South Jeolla province blossomed during its two-year preparations for Expo 2012 Yeosu Korea, which kicked off last Saturday and continues through August 12.
Not to be confused with the larger world fairs that are held in years ending in 0 or 05, like Shanghai’s in 2010, smaller expos like Yeosu’s take place every four years and celebrate local life for three months.
With their peninsula surrounded by 317 islands and girded by a beautiful coastline, the citizens of Yeosu City are sensitive to the importance of the harmony between man and ocean. Hence the theme of the exposition, “The Living Ocean and Coast”, which aims to help shape a brighter future for humankind by showcasing old traditions and new ideas. The site stretches alongside the sea with promenades and exhibit spaces extending all the way to the island of Odong-do and the seawalls.
The expo has brought prosperity and modernisation to this port in the form of high buildings, pavilions for exhibitors, hotels, new expressways, as well as new rail links connecting Yeosu to other major cities.
Close to the expo site is the famed Odong-do Island, which gets its name from the Odong (paulownia) tree. It’s believed the island was once covered by a lush paulownia forest, though little evidence of it can be seen today.
Legend has it that in the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392AD) under the reign of King Gongmin, a government official named Shindon feared a new king would appear on Odong-do, because the phoenix, a symbol of royalty, always visited Odong-do to eat the fruits of the paulownia trees. Fearing an uprising against the current king, Shindon ordered his men to cut down all paulownia trees to prevent the bird from coming to the island.
The island is connected to Yeosu Port by a 768-metre-long breakwater, allowing visitors the choice between a stroll along the breakwater and a lazy cruise on the ferry.
The cool sea breeze and friendly company to chat shortens our long walk to the island but with no shade, a bottle of water and a hat are vital.
Looking down from the breakwater, we see several women shouting, laughing and digging something out of the rocks on the shore. They all wear long-sleeved shirts, gloves and hats to protect themselves from the strong sun. At their feet are buckets and baskets filled with something.
“Those women are catching oysters. They will sell their catch on the street. Sometimes you might find sea cucumber and abalone too,” explains Julie, our guide.
Odong-do island is famous for its camellia blooms, a symbol of Yeosu city and its people. Koreans also associate Yeosu with General Yi Sun-sin, who defeated the 16th-century Japanese invaders with his innovative “turtle ships”.
“The camellias here begin to bloom in November and they cover the island in a scarlet veil until April. The island looks like a giant camellia blossom. People here believe that the flowers symbolise chastity. This idea comes from a legend that the red camellias bloomed on the grave of a fisherman’s wife after she jumped off the cliff to preserve her chastity from a thief who invaded her home while her husband was out at sea,” Julie explains.
The hill on Odong-do is home to a pleasant walking trail. It is not very steep and the shady trees are a perfect shield against the strong sunlight. The city is planning to turn the island into a botanical conservation site.
Julie also takes us on a 40-minute drive from Yeosu city to Suncheon Bay Ecological Park in Suncheon city. This vast wetland on both sides of the Dongcheon and Isacheon Rivers provides a habitat for various marine species and migrating birds and is also one of the world’s five top coastal wetlands.
Suncheon Bay is a great place to visit no matter the time of year, as the atmosphere and mood change according to the season. Spring visitors will see the mudskippers jump, summer tourists will hear the crabs clapping their claws under the green reeds while autumn turns the fields of reeds a deep gold, and winter blankets the glades in snow.
An hour further on, in Gokseong county, is Gokseong train village, an absolute must for rail lovers and families with kids.
Here an exact replica of the steam locomotive that used to run in the region chugs the 10km between the old Gokseong and Gajeong stations, though rail “bikes” are also available for those who want some exercise.
The piercing engine whistle and billows of steam gave off a romance that modern-day trains simply do not have. The steady chug of the engine lulls me into a peaceful trance, drawing me back in time and making me think of how my parents must have travelled.
All too soon, the whistle blows and we reach our destination. Perhaps that’s why they say “time is too short for those who rejoice”.
_ The writer travelled as a guest of Asiana Airlines and the Korea Tourism Organisation.
If you go
<< Asiana Airlines flies daily from Bangkok to Incheon Airport in Seoul. Domestic flights leave from Seoul’s Gimpo Airport to Yeosu or you can travel by express train on KoRail to the city.
<< For information on the expo, visit www.WorldExpo2012.com.