Ulsan has led Korea’s industrialization since the 1960s, and for years had a reputation for smog and pollution. But over the past 10 years, numerous species of fish and birds have reclaimed their natural habits in the area. Ulsan has transformed itself into an ecology city.
A sea breeze makes its way across the ocean and up the river toward the shores near Ulsan, gently rocking the bamboo blades. The breeze follows the bamboo stalks t0 the Adonis plants, commonly found in mountainous areas, which are the first to blossom with the coming of spring. The bamboo groves are thick and block out the sky above, and cover the area in every direction as far as the eye can see. Although it seems like a scene from a scarcely populated area, this bamboo grove is actually in the heart of the bustling city of Ulsan.
The Taehwagang River is located on the southeastern end of the Korean Peninsula and flows for about 50 kilometers around the city of Ulsan before emptying into the East Sea. Ulsan has led the way for the modernization and industrialization of Korea since the 1960s, and the city is home to large industrial complexes specializing in heavy industries like shipbuilding and refining. Ulsan played an important role in the modernization of Korea, where the expression the “Miracle of Korea” is often referred to as the “Miracle of the Taehwagang River”.
REVIVAL OF THE RIVER
Fast-paced development, however, also had its pitfalls. Like other industrial cities around the world, pollution took its toll on the river. As Korea’s roads swelled with cars and buses and property development increased, the Taehwagang River – the lifeline of Ulsan – became increasingly polluted. Fish species were wiped out by the contamination, migratory birds left and the citizens were left with a foul-smelling river.
People started to appreciate the importance of the river in 2002, around the time of the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea-Japan. The Ulsan city government decided they could not exist without the Taehwagang River and searched for methods to restore its health. The city paid substantially for its years of abuse. After extensive feasibility studies, sewage treatment facilities were built, sewer pipes were organized and laid underground, and the accumulated sludge was dredged from the river bottom. Ulsan planned a large bamboo grove by creating the Simno Bamboo Grove. Bamboo was planted along the shore and riverside to help protect the natural flow of the river. They also created trails for citizens to take a stroll or ride a bicycle.
A total of about 600 billion won (US$ 545 million) was spent on this project: 400 billion won for water improvement and 200 billion won to create an ecofriendly environment.
The city was succesful in its endeavor. The BOD (biological oxygen demand) levels improved form a Grade Six with 11 ppm quality rating in 1996 to a Grade One with 2 ppm rating. This turnaround also brought wildlife back to the area, transforming it into an impressive ecosystem with 430 different species of plants and animals, including 48 different species of birds and 41 species of fish. Sweetfish, salmon and otters, which only live in Grade One water, started populating the river.
In the summer, 4,000 white herons migrated to the river and covered the riverbanks with nests. And as the sun set one winter afternoon, 46,000 crows – which are believed to bring good fortune – flew in from the west and blessed the citizens with a beautiful sight that only nature can provide. The Taehwagang River has now become a pivotal part of the city of Ulsan, where water festivals and swimming competitions are held annually.
Another reason the Taehwagang River is garnering so much attention from Koreans is in part due to the whale watching cruise tours offered here. Ulsan borders the East Sea, where the warm currents during spring and summer attract whales. Prehistoric cave pantings in the Ulsan are depict men hunting whales – proof of the long connection between whales and Ulsan.
Before it was prohibited, one of the ports in Jangsaengpo, Ulsan, was infamous for whale poaching. Citizens now join whale watching tours to admire these great mammals. In April, before warm currents have yet to flow in, whale watching cruise tours are offered once a week. In June and July the tours run daily.
“We do not encounter whales every time we set sail, “says Kim Chul-seung, manager of the Jangsaengpo Whale Museum. “However, we spot thousands of dolphins playfully greeting the ships. Swimming in the ocean and flying in the sky have always been the dreams of many people, and observing these whales and dolphins brings about a certain feeling of satisfaction”.
Tourists who do not spot any whales on their tour receive free admission to the Jangsaengpo Whale Museum. The building itself is in the shape of a whale. The museum – the only one of its kind in Korea – describes in detail the life of a whale. Next to the museum is the Whale & Ocean Experience Center, where a large water tank houses Ulsan’s mascots: Three dolphins named Arong-de, Darong-e, and Kkotbun-e.
If calling Ulsan an “ecopolis” with its environmental history and struggles is not an exaggeration, there is another place that deserves mention as well: the Oegosan Onggi Village. Driving south toward Busan from Ulsan, you will encounter a small mountain called Oegosan. In the foothills of Oegosan, 40 master craftsmen make pottery using only natural clay, sunlight and fire. The pottery has something that modern porcelain does not: It breathes. The clay that is used to make the pottery forms microscopic pores. These pores are important for the fermentation process used to make Korean traditional dishes like kimchi.
The pottery is made from clay found in the area, naturally dried by the wind and finished by fire techniques. Although the process as described might seem simple enough, a meticulous science is involved in the procedure in which one piece of pottery depends on the strength of the wind, a difference in humidity, the temperature of the fire, and the philosophy and the heart of the craftsman.
Driving south form the village and toward the ocean, visitors arrive at Ganjeolgot, where the sun rises before anywhere else on the Korean Peninsula. The sunrise, whether it is New Year’s Day or any other day of the year, is known to give people new determination and hope for the future. With the rising sun, the morning stars slowly give way to dawn. A clear and intense scarlet wave of light covers the ocean and land. The grand sunrise will bring light to the land and all the wildlife that thrive in the area. Once again, we realize within this “ecopolis” that humans are nothing but a small existence compared to the majesty of nature.
You can take the KTX (Korea Train eXpress) train from Seoul Station to Ulsan Station. There are at least 1-2 trains every hour.
Bus are available from Seoul Express Bus Terminal every 30 minutes, starting at 6 am.
Korean Air and Asiana Airlines offer daily flights from Gimpo International Airport in Seoul to Ulsan Airport.
Source : Korea People & Culture Magazine, April 2011