In Joseon dramas we often find characters travelling great distances across mountains to get to the capital – on foot if they are poor, by horse if they have money, or perhaps even on a palanquin if they are really posh. But they definitely don’t travel by car on nice expressways that go through mountain tunnels, so it was fascinating to go and see part of a mountain path that has been preserved just as it was during Joseon times – Mungyeong Saejae. Mungyeong Saejae is now a tourist attraction but in the Joseon period it was part of the route that travellers had to take to get from Busan in the south to Hanyang (now Seoul).
There’s plenty to see and do in Mungyeong as the Mungyeongsaejae KBS Drama Studio is also here – the largest historical film set in Korea where dramas such as Deep Rooted Tree (SBS), Horse Doctor (MBC), and Sungkyunkwan Scandal (KBS2) were filmed.
And the Mungyeong Chasabal Tea cup Festival is on this week too celebrating pottery making and tea culture in the area. So as it was a long weekend (today is Children’s Day and a national holiday) it was a perfect time to visit. Mungyeong is about 3 hours from Seoul in Gyeongsang Province.
We arrived in Mungyeong at around 11am. Visitors were starting to arrive at the festival. It was a warm day and a young lady in a hanbok got plenty of attention – it’s brave to wear a hanbok up a mountain!
Before going to the festival we went for a walk up the mountain path. There are three gates along the path that were built during the Joseon period. I like how the wall disappears up into the mountain as we approach the first gate.
Yeongnam Gateway 1 was originally built in 1708 (34th year of King Sukjong). It was built to protect the country from enemy attacks from the south.
After the first gate, one of the first sights we came across was this adorable wooden bridge. It’s not a functioning bridge though – there were barriers up to stop people attempting to cross it – and it looks like it’s part of the KBS drama set which is just across this stream to the left.
The stream runs alongside the path up the mountain. It was a hot day and many visitors took off their shoes and socks to enjoy walking on the cold soil.
This part of the path has been preserved just as it was in Joseon times complete with the resting places and inns where tired travellers could stop and rest. Government officials on their way to the palace, scholars going to take the national exam in the capital, and traders often passed through here. And there were different kinds of accommodation on offer depending on the status of the visitors. Here’s a rather grand resting place under a beautiful pine tree where government officials could stop for a while.
In historical dramas there are often scenes at a 주막 chumak tavern with tables outside where the characters eat jeon savoury pancakes and drink makkoli rice wine before retiring to one of the small rooms in the inn. Here’s an inn on the way up the mountain where commoners could stop for the night.
One of the customs for passersby on the mountain was to lay a rock in a pile and make a wish. The saying went that if you put a rock here and made a wish, it would come true. This was the path that scholars from Gyeongsang province had to take to get to the capital to take the gwageo national exam so they could leave a rock here and pray to pass the exam. Passing traders left rocks to pray for good business in the capital. Others might pray for good health or the birth of a son.
We walked to the second gate which took less than an hour from the first gate (at a leisurely pace). It was built earlier than the first gate in 1594 (27th year of King Seonjo) and renovated later during King Sukjong’s reign. It’s not a tough walk and only about 3km. There were families getting up there with buggies! In Joseon times we may have had to show the guards our IDs at the checkpoint to pass through, but these days we can simply stop to take a selfie before moving on 😉
It’s possible to continue on up to the third gate but we decided to turn back and go to the festival so we went back down the way we had come. (The third gate was built to defend against attacks from the north also during King Seonjo’s reign.)
Near the first gate is the entrance to the KBS historical drama set where the ceramic tea cup festival was being held. The film set was originally built for dramas set in the Goryeo period but then extended to make dramas set in Joseon too. There are now over 130 Joseon style buildings here including palaces, noblemen’s homes, tiled-roof and thatched roof houses where the poor lived. See here for more of the dramas that have been filmed here.
We stopped to sit and eat some Baskin Robbins ice-cream on some very un-Joseon green plastic chairs – a modern day resting place. Amongst other snacks on offer were baked goods from Paris Baguette and fast food from Lotteria!
The various drama set buildings were used as exhibition rooms for ceramics. The cups and pots varied in price from a modest 5,000 won up to eye-watering 500,000 won +. I’m always tempted to buy lovely pottery but I also have a tendency to drop things so I didn’t buy anything this time… I’m also addicted to tea though and so picked up some new green tea grown in the area.
We also caught the end of a competition for pottery students to throw a cup on a potter’s wheel. To make things even harder they are using the traditional style wheels. Watching the students kicking the wheel round and round reminded me of the drama Jung Yi, Goddess of Fire, which is based on the the first female Ceramicist of Joseon.
It was a relaxing day – not too many people even on a bank holiday weekend – and we spent a couple of hours roaming around the surrounding ‘palace’ buildings looking at more tea cups, green tea, and other local products on offer including mushrooms and omija berry juice. Then it was off to drink some omija makkoli rice wine