When I settled into Cheongju eleven months ago, I arrived at the beginning of the rainy season, the day after the 15th annual Boryeong Mud Festival. I heard stories about it all year and now I am going to miss the next one, leaving just the week before. Cooped up in pubs all winter, I admired the photos of like-minded expats who had an interest in venturing beyond the dank and dirty keeps of the over frequented drinking district.
I heard all the time that I needed to check out Songnisan National Park, located within our province of Choongbuk. And it was definitely on my list of things to see while I was in Cheongju. More specifically to the Hwayang River Valley where you could go for a swim and escape the blistering heat. Though how to get to this coveted oasis is kept highly secret by the few longterm transplants who have been. Unless you have a set of wheels or a Korean buddy to get you there, there is apparently no getting there. One sunny afternoon, with the park still unchecked, some of the gals also nearing the end of their contracts and I hopped a bus we heard would take us to the outskirts of the park. This strategy generally pays off in Korea.
End of the line.
We took these painted smiling rocks as a good sign and headed toward a bridge.
10 o’clock and already feeling the burn.
We’ve found the river, now there’s just the matter of finding the secluded side of the valley.
Where there’s a mountain, there’s a temple.
On the hike up the road a park ranger stopped at the sight of us. As if having to deal with foreigners every summer, he warned us that if we had come to swim, we’d be fined 50,000 won (about 50USD) each and banned from the park if we set foot off the path. We tucked the ties of our bikinis into our collars and promised we wouldn’t dream of it. He scooted away on his golf cart and we climbed on, deliberating innocent-sounding stories to tell if and when we got caught. We became more determined to break the law with every group of locals we saw splashing in the river along the way.
Up and up and up then oops, no go back, down and down until finally…
It might not seem like much but for the nature-starved country girl in all of us, we were thankful for a far away place to submerge.
Feeling like a kid again is heavenly. I wanted to give everyone a spirit name and suggest racing barefoot through the woods but I kept that to myself and Pocahontas-swan-dived, to my heart’s content instead.
About five minutes into lunch the ranger found us! He said we could not be out naked (in our bathing suits) for all of the park to see. Thankfully a band of actually naked Korean guys floated by. They were male so he paid them no attention. Terra, our resident women’s studies graduate, pointed this double standard out and while he chased the men down to the river bed, we packed up and headed higher up stream. We knew we were caught but we figured we bought ourselves another half hour of fun in the sun before being asked to leave lovely Songnisan for good.
It turns out the park ranger wanted to tell us we could in fact swim in the water, but we had to be fully clothed; we could only sunbathe in our suits. This seems a little backwards, your body being hidden under the water after all, and that heavy clinging clothing might even impede your ability to swim but he only had to say “Water play, OK!” once and we were back in it again.
Honestly our street clothes probably show more skin.
Back through the thicket,
On up to the path,
Haha, past these guys…
Along mini Cambodia,
through a light rain,
And we were on our way back home.