Korean Holiday Day 4: Tongyeong (South Korea)

Compared to the relentless pace of teeming Seoul, Gyeongsangnam-do’s tiny fishing ports operate at a seemingly un-Korean standstill. Whilst mountainous scenery and neon lighting still dominate the eye line, palm trees sway in the gentle sea air and locals pause to gossip casually in the streets. Tongyeong – which feels more like rural Greece than hurry-hurry Seoul – offers a wonderful weekend respite.

This picturesque traditional fishing town is well endowed with stunning natural tourist sites. To the South a cable car whisks revellers to the top of the magnificent Mireuksan Mountain, where secluded trails lead to serene cliff-side temples. Inside monks sip green tea under sun-splashed pagodas and tap out entrancing percussion, seemingly oblivious to passing hikers. From the highest peak an awestruck silence prevails. Hundreds of small islands stretch to the horizon, each little arpeggio featuring a dramatic tree-covered slope that reaches from the sea to the clear-blue heavens.

Far below sits a collection of small, empty beaches: hidden rocky coves, half-shaded by towering woodland peaks. The occasional Visiting family scrambles around rock pools, splashing amongst the leaping silver fish and drifting, only their ice creams for company.

The mountains and beaches are the draw, but quiet Tongyeong town has plenty to offer too. Around the harbour the aging pagodas contain holes right through to the wooden frame: a feature that somehow makes them more beautiful, not less. The sun-bleached pastel rooftops are interwoven with an eclectic assortment of towering gardens and ancient fishing gear.

Quirky portside restaurants almost exclusively serve a regional speciality, Chungmu Kimbap. Each uses a stern image of a wrinkly Halmoni owner to entice diners in; inside garish mementos of her small-time TV appearances are spattered across the walls. The food – half a plate of peppery Tongyeong seafood accompanied by half a plate of thin, rice-stuffed Kimbap – is both unique and familiar.

The harbour walls burst with aging fishing boats. A pristine Turtle battle ship forms the centrepiece, bobbing around unstably in the gentle ripples and sporting a seemingly disproportional number of deadly looking cannons. Yi Sun Shin, the turtle ships hero designer, is the town’s claim to fame: he hails from Tongyeong. In the evening the pontoons come to life. Returning crabbers swap places with a procession of brightly lit squid-catchers, the glowing bait-ships make their lazy way out to sea, weaving amongst the emerald isles as they go, flickering in the night.

This could only be Korea, yet Tongyeong feels a million miles from Seoul’s skyscrapers. It’s a seductive place: semi-tropical and relaxed, quirky but accessible. Tongyeong may not have the poise or prestige of the Riviera, but the ‘Naples of Korea’ – an unpolished yet sparkling hidden gem – offers an enthralling taste of slow seaside life, Hanguk style.

(written as an article, I wasn’t going to re-write in a different style for the blog, too lazy!)

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