Ulsan is connected to Seoul by KTX, intercity buses, and flights. We preferred taking the KTX from Seoul Station to Ulsan. The train journey was slightly over 2 hours and time passed as quickly as the fleeting scenery outside our window. It was the third weekend in April and our journey coincided with Good Friday. Cherry blossoms were still blooming in the countryside and the plains were being painted with a fresh coat of green.
It can be difficult to travel in Korea, once you leave (or are accustomed to) Seoul. Ulsan is a metropolitan city with an industrial hub and is also the seventh/eighth largest city in Korea. Sadly, without a subway and regular local buses (for tourist sights), travelling in Ulsan isn’t a joy. The tourism counter at the Ulsan KTX Station is a lifesaver. You can book a city day tour that covers the key scenic attractions (including Taehwagang Grand Park) in Ulsan. The theme course tours are available only on certain days of the week and prior bookings have to be made before your trip. Ulsan City Tour is perfect for short trips in the city.
Our hotel was located just across (on the other side of the road) Taehwa River. In April, canola flowers and azaleas lined the walking/cycling path of the river. Taehwagang runs along a total length of 47.54 km, much of it passes through Ulsan City, before emptying into Ulsan Bay. The source of the river is a valley between Gijisan and Baekunsan Mountains.
We visited different sections and sights of the river, on each day, of our 3-day stay in Ulsan. However, if you rent a bike, or are up for a good walk, you can cover the whole stretch (in this post) in a day.
In 643, Taehwaru was built alongside a temple founded by the Buddhist monk, Jajang, in the Silla Dynasty. In the Goryeo Period (977), King Seongjong visited Taehwaru Pavilion. The pavilion was also a source of inspiration for renowned poets and scholars in that period. In the Joseon Period (1339 and later), the pavilion was rebuilt on multiple occasions and continued to inspire the literary souls of the kingdom. It is believed to be destroyed, in 1592, during Japanese colonial rule. Taehwaru was subsequently restored in 2014 with the support of the citizens of Ulsan City.
The First Floor
We were the only tourists on a (Easter) Sunday morning. The local tourism guide was ecstatic to see foreigners and gave us a warm welcome. He joined us on the upper floor of the pavilion and chatted with us.
It is a little complicated to reach the pavilion from either end of Taehwa River. It certainly will be a long walk should you attempt it. Since we hadn’t planned our trip, we took a bus to the pavilion, from the other tourist sight that we had stayed at, on the previous night. Our original plan was to visit Eonyang Catholic Church (built 1932), but we couldn’t find a bus, and opted to visit the pavilion instead. Looking at those gorgeous views and calming sights, I think we made the right decision.
Mr. Lee Sangyong, also known as Dragon Lee, was a travel enthusiast. He had taken up a job as a tour guide after retirement and made Ulsan his home for work. He answered our questions and gave us a brief history of his adopted city. Between 1970 and 1990, industrialisation and urbanisation had polluted Taehwa River. The citizens of Ulsan were the catalysts for change and paved the way for the greenery we see (and relish) along Taehwagang today.
We exchanged blog urls to stay in touch. Mr. Lee gave me a puzzled look when he heard the name of our blog. He reminded me of my dad who had the same expression. Basil jumped in and gave him the ‘muddy feet/walking’ explanation. I smiled, the ambiguity and duality in the name of our blog never fails to amuse me.
Old & New
The architectural style of the pavilion is in sharp contrast to the high-rises that have started dominating the river front. It’s like seeing the future — whilst being seated — in the past.
River Ecological Trail
We walked along a narrow dirt road that hugged the river. We heard fireworks and music on the other side. A cycling race had started and a flurry of bikes crossed the bridge.
It was cloudy and perfect to walk along the river. Few canolas had started blooming on this section of the river.
Taehwa River Bridge
The ecological trail joins a wooden bridge that leads to the main white bridge. This white bridge, probably called Taehwa River Bridge, is the one that connects the two sides of the river. We chose to continue in the same direction because we wanted to visit Taehwagang Simni Bamboo Grove.
The trail got quieter as we walked further away from the concrete development.
Taehwagang Simni Bamboo Grove
There are two ways to reach Simni Bamboo Grove. You can walk a reasonable portion of Taehwa River before entering the bamboo grove. In this way, you get to explore many sights along the way.
Entrance Option 2
Alternatively, you can take a bus or cab to reach the entrance of Taehwagang Grand Park. It’s easy to follow the trail that leads to the hidden entrance of the bamboo grove.
Inside Simni Bamboo Grove
We visited Simni Bamboo Grove on a weekday (Good Friday) and again on Sunday. The walking paths were deserted on Friday and saw a lot more footsteps on the weekend.
Dwarfed by Green
Simni Bamboo Grove features in the Top 100 Must-Visit Spots in Korea for 2019. Strangely, before our trip to Ulsan, we hadn’t even heard of this stunning bamboo grove in Korea. The walking trails are calming and we enjoyed being dwarfed by those ginormous bamboos.
There are multiple exits, should you choose to leave the bamboo grove, and walk along the river. There were a couple of interesting sights on the other side, however, we couldn’t find a way there. My guess: Taehwa River Bridge is a deciding point for which side of the river you’d like to walk along.
Back to the Grove
Simni Bamboo Grove is one of the many secrets kept by Koreans. Why else would such a stunning gem be off the foreign tourist radar? I wasn’t complaining. I enjoyed the tranquility and isolation of this sanctuary.
There are multiple places to sit back and relax. Small interactive games and photo-ops are scattered along the walking trail.
Is this Nirvana?
Simni Bamboo Grove, along with Daewangam Park (next post), has been a preferred holiday spot for Korean Presidents in Ulsan. Who would’ve thought: a 4 km long bamboo grove planted by villagers, during colonial rule, to prevent river floods would become a hidden oasis in a fast developing city.
The Azalea Habitat
Spring flowers bloom earlier in the southern section of the peninsula. Azalea clusters were in full bloom in Taehwagang Grand Park in April.
Ulsan is known for its dinosaur footprints and petroglyphs (next post). Little did we know that we’d stumble upon petroglyphs — a stone’s throw away from the bamboo grove. All boards were printed in Korean and I wished there were more English instructions around the park.
Osan Manhoejeong Pavilion
Osan pavilion was built by Bak Chwi-Mun (1617 -1690), a county magistrate in the Joseon Dynasty, in the 17th Century.
The river continues for quite a distance and there’s a narrow path to follow. We chose to retreat and soaked in the stunning view of canola flowers.
The main entrance to Taehwagang Park has bike rental options and it might be a good way to explore the park.
Coffee with a View
There are multiple coffee shops that dot the entrance to Taehwagang Park. The top floors are perfect to enjoy the view and rest those tired legs.
View of Taewangang from Hotel Riverside
Hotel Riverside lies on the other end of Taehwagang Grand Park. In the evening, we watched daylight slowly fade away and tiny dots light up every building around us.
Youth Street was just behind our hotel and we had a host of eating options to choose from. We settled on Yougaane Dakgalbi for dinner. It’s sinful and well deserved after a long walk along the river.