If there’s one area Korea takes first place in, hands down, it’s festivals.  They have festivals for everything, and it all really kicks off in spring.  A few weekends ago, Lorna and I explored the island of Jindo, where they had the Jindo Sea Parting Festival (진도 신비의바닷길축제)–you can read about our experience here!  Slowly but surely, over the last three weeks flowers have begun to bloom.  First were the bright yellow tangles of forsythia, followed by budding cherry blossoms.  Once the cherry blossoms started blooming, bright purple azaleas started slowly spreading throughout the mountains too.

Cherry blossoms beginning to bloom.

A mountain-top azalea bush.

Red cherry blossoms?  Not sure, but it was among a row of pink ones!

This weekend, there were two big festivals: one on Yeongchwisan (영취산), a mountain in Yeosu (여수); and another up in the mountains of  Gyeongsangnamdo’s (경상남도) Hadong (하동) county, in a small town called Hwagae (화개).  Yeosu was our first stop, as we had friends there to meet up with Saturday evening after the flower viewing.

Yeongchwisan is famous for its mountaintop blooming entirely in purple azaleas each year. 
A view of Yeongchwisan from across the mountaintop.

We got off to a bit of a late start, unfortunately.  While the festival was still in full swing when arrived in the afternoon, the sky was slowly beginning to cloud over.  Not to be deterred, we set off among the crowd of ogling Koreans and began making our way up the mountain.

Korean’s have a tendency to go all-out when it comes to hiking gear.  They love brightly colored track pants, sparkling new trainers, various forms of sun visors and hats, and, of course, some top-notch hiking poles.  They tend to dress like this (accessories included) for even the lightest of hikes up “mountains” with paved paths, often getting eye rolls from foreigners.  But as we headed up the (steep) cement walkway, we didn’t realize what Yeongchwisan had in store for us…

At the end of the cement path…but the top of the mountain is in sight!

Still a long way to go….

…About 1/4 of the way up the mountain, the cement disappeared, giving way instead to an actual dirty path that was equally as steep.  While I’ve hiked all over Geumodo Island in my Birkenstocks, they weren’t exactly the wisest choice.  Lorna was in simple Mary Janes, and both of us were beginning to get looks from Koreans as we continued on up.

Taking a break on our way up….and being passed by several elderly Koreans.

The skies clouded further and further, until it finally happened: a light drizzle of rain began to trickle down on us.  With the path slowly turning to mud, our choice of footwear had officially gone from bad to worse.  But we were beginning to see azaleas, and I wasn’t going to let a bit of rain stop me from reaching the top!

Sadly, at we hit the 2/3 mark, there was a rumble of thunder in the distance.  Lorna (very wisely, we’d come to find) insisted we head back.  A few meters ahead I felt like I would at least be able to get a decent view of the azaleas, so she waited for me as I exhaustedly ran ahead–seriously, the entire hike was really, really steep!

This was as close as I got to the top.
It started to thunder pretty aggressively, but a lot of Koreans just kept going!

Still stunning from a distance!

Overlooking the other mountains of Yeosu from my lookout point.
Some Koreans laughed at me as I took this selfie with an azalea bush…
…but with the storm I we didn’t think it was safe to keep hiking up any higher.

I got my snapshots and hurried back to where she was waiting.  Then, very, very slowly, we began our descent.  As much as we may have snickered at the older Koreans in their bling-y hiking gear on less strenuous mountains, on Yeongchwisan they put us to shame.  50- to 70-year-old tiny Korean women were tromping right past us on the way down!  I have no idea how, but both of us miraculously made it back to the cement-paved part of the path without falling in the pouring rain.  it had started to come down rather heavily, but we were almost back to the festival grounds!

Once safely on level ground and already soaked through, we snagged some waffles and wandered into one of the tents all the Koreans had huddled under to avoid the rain.  There was some sort of talent show or competition still going on, despite the rain, and after haggling with some ajummas we took a break and had some hot roasted corn as a snack.

Soaking wet!

Cold, wet, and tired, we finally wandered back to the car and headed into Yeosu itself to check into our hotel.  It was Korean-style, with blackout shutters, and the frost desk was kind enough to switch on the ondol (floor heating system) so we could lay our clothes out to dry and chase away the chill.

Spotted a few cherry blossom trees in Yeosu that evening on our way back.

The next morning we set out for a tiny town called Hwagae, which is tucked away in the mountains of Hadong in Gyeongsangnam province.  Even as we reached Gurye, we could see the forsythia and cherry blossoms left and right!  But when my GPS said we were about 15min away, we hit a slight snag…the police were redirecting traffic away from where we wanted to go.

We quickly discovered that there is a river that runs between the mountains, with roads on either side.  A bridge connects both sides to Hwagae, so the traffic directing was simply to prevent complete and utter traffic carnage.  Our 15 minute drive slowly turned into an hour…and then two…and then nearly three before we finally found parking and were able to walk to the bridge.  Despite its remote location, the Hwagae Cherry Blossom Festival (화개장터 벚꽃축제) is a very, very popular event for Koreans!

And endless, endless line of cars…

Sitting in traffic…..

Traffic FOR HOURS.  Literally.  We were essentially parked.

But at least our drive in was pretty!
The bridge across the river to Hwagae!  We’re here!
Walking across the bridge; Hwagae is behind Lorna to the left

The cherry trees lining the river on either side made the drive entirely worth it.

We wandered across the bridge and quickly found ourselves immersed in a massive market.  Stalls selling food, pottery, plants, and various other items could be found at every turn.  Lorna got some Korean ice cream while I ordered some battered and glazed chicken that Koreans do oh-so-well.  Once again, we were the only foreigners in sight, and drew lots of oohs and aahs as we explored the stalls.  A group of young boys in the military mustered up the courage to talk to us and ask where we were from, impressing their peers.

Market stalls selling everything from spices to fresh foods, plants, and more!

I couldn’t resist the glazed chicken every festival seems to have.

We stopped to take some cherry tree selfies too.
Cherry blossom trees line almost every street, and the petals cover the walkways!

We walked between the falling cherry blossoms, and had a hot cup of tea–it was beginning to get chilly.  I managed to find a big jar of honey for half the price it is in Boseong, and Lorna purchased some cute, classically Korean sculptures.  Once we got back to the car, we stopped for a few photos at a “look out point” we’d crawled past on the way in.

Cherry trees, misty mountains, Korea.

Lots of little rivers and creeks running through the mountain towns.

While we were only looking to take pictures of and with the flowers, a large Korean family nearby with a bunch of young children saw us and struck up conversation.  They were cooking a huge amount of ramen in a massive pot, and invited us to join them!  Their mother was so sweet, insisting we eat more, and asking us about our countries and jobs herein Korea through her teenage daughter.  I couldn’t help but be reminded of my own mom, inviting my foreign friends to join us for holidays each year they couldn’t travel back home.

Petal-covered walks by the river.

And some roses?

Cherry blossom trees as the sun starts to set. 

Making new friends! 
Oh okay, NOW the roads are empty.  Thanks.

But soon it was time to say our good-bye’s.  Tomatoes (dessert) tucked into our pockets, we headed back to the car and began the hour and a half drive back to Boseong.  This time, when the GPS told us the road out of Hwagae would take us 15 minutes, it only took 10!  Spring in Korea is stunning, and there’s a festival almost every weekend.  Next year, maybe I’ll go to Japan for the cherry blossoms, or get to see the forsythia in Seoul.

A view of Hajeon village (하전마을) as it disappears into the fog.