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Mirror of Jeju's diversityAppreciating Cheonjiyeon Waterfalls: 'The pond where heaven and earth meet'
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승인 2011.05.14  19:04:25
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▲ Cheonjiyeon Waterfalls attracts thousands of tourists daily. Photo courtesy Seogwipo City Hall

At the beginning of October, 2010, the Global Geoparks Network announced that Jeju Island would be made its 20th member, making it Korea’s only province to be assigned Geopark status. In the categories of geology, archaeology, biology and cultural interest, nine sites on the island were inspected and later certified. This article introduces the fifth site: Cheonjiyeon Waterfalls— Ed.

Jeju is like a treasure island, bejeweled with hundreds of natural phenomena. If you drive around the island in a day, around each corner you will see and experience many different environments and landscapes.

The southern end of the island alone, where you see one of Jeju’s most astounding natural phenomena, the Seogwipo Formation, is only the tip of the iceberg when we think about its resulting geologic and biological wonders.

One in particular, is the Cheonjiyeon Waterfalls, which stand as a microcosmic mirror of Jeju’s geologic and biological diversity.

From the one-of-a-kind waterfalls, to the sub-tropical, warm-temperate and temperate plants growing in the valley below, to the sacred animals within its waters and surrounding forest and the culture-rich legends that have trickled throughout time, this area is a haven for all life.

The Cheonjiyeon Waterfalls are one of three famous waterfalls; the others are the Cheonjeyeon Waterfalls and the Jeongbang Waterfalls. However, Cheonjiyeon is unique even amongst its closest peers. It’s probably the only one of its kind in the world, says Dr. Jeon Yong Mun of the World Natural Heritage Management Bureau.

Located about one kilometer inside the mouth of the Seogwipo port, the Cheonjiyeon is 22-meters high and, after heavy rainfall, is up to 12-meters wide. Typically, a waterfall is formed when a river flows over a high gathering of rocks, but here, the source originates from a spring flowing out of the floor of the Somban Stream.

Also atypical is the 20-meter-deep pond, or plunge pool, below the falls. The top layer of the falls’ cliff is made up of hard, resistant basalt rock, which came from the volcanic lava flow called the Seogwipo Hawaiite. The rock under the basalt is, however, made of the soft sedimentary rock of the Seogwipo Formation. The southern coast of Jeju was uplifted after the lava flow of the Seogwipo Hawaiite about 400,000 years ago. This produced a 200-meter-high fault scarp, or step, along the shoreline, allowing existing water flows to gush over the fault line, or newly formed cliff, toward the sea.

Because the rock stratum below the hard basalt rock consisted of soft sedimentary rock, the splashing back of the water slowly scooped out the soft rock, forming a plunge pool under the falls. Since the tectonic uplift 400,000 years ago, with continuous splashback undercutting the soft rock and collapsing the hard rock above, the falls have retreated inland about 650 to 700 metres, forming the large plunge pool we see today.

Fortunately, it doesn’t quite end there. The valley that stretches in front of the falls is home to a wealth of biodiversity. “The Cheonjiyeon Waterfalls area is highly valued academically for its extraordinary distribution of flora,” says Dr. Koh Jung Goon of the Research Institute for Halla-san, Jeju Special Governing Province. More than 450 plants inhabit the area. Two plants in particular, the Gasittalgi (Rubus hongnoensis) and the Jejujusangsahwa (Lycoris chejuensis) are indigenous to Jeju, says Dr. Koh.

This small area alone is divided into three forests: an evergreen broad-leafed forest, a deciduous broad-leafed forest and a coniferous forest.

“It is very unique that both warm-temperate plants and sub-tropical plants can be seen together,” Dr. Koh said. The year-round humid environment created by the falls has allowed for warm-temperate plants to flourish, and because it’s located at the Northern limit of the sub-tropical zone, sub-tropical plants can flourish as well. One of the area’s most cherished species are the 150 Dampalsu trees growing at a height of 10 meters.

“These plant species have high academic value as they are classified to be in the Northern limit zone,” Dr. Koh said.
If plant life flourishes here, so must animal life. A rare tropical eel, known as the marbled eel, or giant mottled eel (Anguilla marmorata), lives in the plunge pool. The fact that Cheonjiyeon is the world’s northernmost limit for this species makes this area a rare residence for this sacred creature and a natural monument in Korea, Dr. Koh said. Females grow to be two meters, while males grow to be about one and a half meters. They weigh up to 20 kilograms and can live for as many as 40 years.

They are not eaten, says Dr. Jeon. They are sacred and “we worship it as part of the waterfalls’ lifeline.” They feed only at night and never surface, so it is nearly impossible to see them. The eel hasn’t been found anywhere else in Korea.

In January 2007, the sub-tropical bird species, the plumbeous water redstart (Rhyacornis fuliginosus) paid a visit to Cheonjiyeon Waterfalls. It’s a solitary traveler, says Dr. Koh. This is the first time it has been seen in Korea.

Other land-dwelling animals include the Jeju yellow weasel, the horseshoe bat and various reptiles and amphibians.
It comes as no surprise, then, that “Cheonjiyeon” means “the pond where heaven and earth meet.” “Cheon” means sky or heaven, and “ji” means land, says Dr. Jeon. There is an old folk tale that says nymphs secretly visited the falls, and bathed in its waters before ascending to heaven. Another story tells of a dragon who lived there as a protector of beauty’s constancy.

The best time to visit depends on what you want to see. The falls are most thunderous in the months of July and August, during typhoon season, says Dr. Jeon. In spring, you can see various species of cherry blossoms. In summer, the dampalsu trees blossom. In autumn, red fruit from the dampulsu and meonnamu trees mature. In winter, evergreen trees, camellia flowers and green ferns grow on the walls of the cliff. Winter is also best for closely examining its geological phenomena, Dr. Koh said.

The most popular time of day to visit the falls is evening, when they are illuminated, allowing you to see the “hidden face” on the cliff behind the falls.

The Chilsimni Festival, the festival of eternal youth, is held at the Cheonjiyeon Waterfalls every September. The falls are open year-round, from sunrise until 10 p.m. in winter and 11 p.m. in summer.

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