The Bangseonmun terrain varies from rocks, to woodland, to grassland - to six-lane overpass. Photo courtesy Jeju City
Perhaps I have been on the island too long, but things just can’t be done for their own sake anymore: when I cycle it’s for well-being; when I eat it’s for stamina; when I walk it’s for digestion.
Naturally, I go to Bangseonmun Valley for a “green shower” of healing.
Rising between Shin Jeju and Gu Jeju, this valley of the Hancheon (river) inconspicuously rises southward behind Jeju Intercity Bus Terminal. Easing the rains and snowmelt seaward, the river is largely dry, but defined by steep canyon-like walls and wooded glades.
In this era of nine million tourists - 15 for every island resident - finding a hidden gem seemingly unknown by the North-Face-hordes is a rare treat. Double this delight when you realise you have found somewhere smack bang in the middle of urban Jeju.
Although you might not yet know the name, you know the river: every bus, taxi and cyclist has to cross the Hancheon when travelling between Shin Jeju and Gu Jeju. You might even have imagined trekking the inviting riverbed as the bus trundles over it into the old part of town.
This walking path is also an aspiring Olle, lacking official designation. The local citizenry of Ora went to work constructing the path, perhaps resulting in the path’s schizophrenic nature. Ora Olle, Bangseonmun Valley Course, the Hancheon Course, the Exile’s Path, or even the Temple Way are all the same beast, at one point or another.
The genius of the path is its variety: one moment you are in shaded glades with open vistas of Mt. Halla, and the next you are towered over by basalt columns which cast the riverbed into shadow. You also might find yourself scrambling over rocks, feet submerged in the Hancheon itself.
The valley is also renowned for the more than fifty engravings at the course end, known as “ma-ae-myeong,” etched into the valley’s towering rocks as “yeong-gak,” poems, and “myeong-gak,” names by Joseon-era scholars mostly between 1609 and 1750. In recognition it was designated by the Cultural Heritage Administration of Jeju Special Self-Governing Province as a National Cultural Property.
Immediately upon entering the urban environs are obvious, as you pass under a bridge rumbling with traffic. Stooped, head low, you are not yet feeling the country breeze, nor being treated to spring birdsong. In fact, initial visual treats include a rubbish tip lovingly fostered by constructors working along Bokji-ro; waste shamefully drips down the rapidly eroding riverside.
As you progress upriver, however, the traffic goes from a rumble to a hum. The river rises and the land around becomes wooded and rural. Snakes call this terrain home and the air freshens as you leave the road behind. Bit by bit you start to think, “Olle.”
All along the route, the riverbed’s rocks have been given names: “Baby Rock” looks like a submerged spine in a watery grave, while another, despite being decidedly rock-like, is “Chipmunk Rock;” it does make you wonder how much these owe to tradition, or to Jeju’s love affair with “concepts.”
The valley passes behind Jeju Halla Library and Art Center, providing a perfect point of rest (or embarkation). The local authority has fittingly provided a series of benches with images of the course you are walking, plus additional information about the valley.
You learn that every May the river bed comes alive with stringed instruments and refined arts for the Bangseonmun Festival. Attendees descend onto the riverbed rocks and enjoy the concert in the unique natural ampitheatre.
The festival site is at the actual Bangseonmun, or “Gateway of the Heavens,” at the course end. The rocks here are taller here than at any other point on the course and high up on the rock face you find the “yeong-gak” and “myeong-gak” of the Joseon era.
People congregate, some rest silently, others share a gimbap on a boulder. A few clamber the rocks and gaze at the lofty inscriptions, pondering, “how did he get up there?” Bangseonmun is thus part of Jeju’s exile culture, yet you needn’t be away from home, exiled or even scholastic to take a moment’s pause to admire the scenery.
Tell your friends: The Gateway to the Gods is due south of the bus terminal.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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