…Upo Wetland Changnyeong : A Fountain of Life…

A fisherman rows his boat through the dawn fog, his face weather-beaten but tranquil. Migratory birds scoop up their prey in slender beaks. Take a trip to Upo Wetland and discover just how exquisite nature can be.

Families of whooper swans float atop the lake, paying no heed to the strong winter wind. With feathers as white as cotton and bright yellow beaks, the whooper swans swim gracefully, like meandering middle-age gentlemen.

Not unlike their human counterparts, this family of whooper swans comprises a mom, a dad and two kids. The feathers of the young are gray, not white, making it easy to distinguish them from their parents. The swans are surrounded by small, black birds, each focused on its own task. Coots totter on top of the ice, and the bean geese enjoy the waste water under the sun. Next to a group of falcated teals, two pochards brush by as if expressing their love for one another.

KOREA’S LARGEST INLAND WETLAND
When the lazy afternoon sunlight shines aslant in Upo Wetland, it becomes a heaven for birds. Winter migratory birds settle down on the swamp and then disappear at the change of season. Birds come back to Upo Wetland because of the abundant prey they can find here, and because it is safe. The birds detect these two things instinctively.

Birds usually feed on insects or plant spores. In the wetland, which never runs dry, a diversity of water plants and insects coexist. Upo Wetland, a protected ecological preserve, is especially safe because it is largely free of human interference. Some people say that because of the large-scale apartment complex built in Changwon City, many of the migratory birds that once called its Junam Wetlands home ended up resettling in Upo Wetland.

Upo Wetland, located in the southern county of Changnyeong-gun in Gyeongsangnam-do Province, is a natural swamp. 140 million years ago, as the glacier on the Korean Peninsula melted, this region was flattened into a plain. The melted water flowed into the ocean, and as the surface of the water rose and could not flow further, the earth and sand piled up, creating a dike that later became a swamp.

Upo, Korea’s biggest inland swamp, stretches across 8.54 million square meters. The water surface alone stretches across 2.31 million square meters, 21o times the size of a football field. Upo comprises four swamps spread over 3 myeon (districts) and 4 ri (villages). Of these, Upo takes up the largest area with 1.28 million square meters, which is why the name “Upo” became shorthand for the entire area.

Due to its natural ecological value, this expensive, beautiful wetland has been assiduously preserved. Wetlands are generally harmonious spaces, with countless plants and creatures helping keep things in balance. Plants and microorganisms filter the sources for pollution, sending the purified water flowing into rivers and oceans, and filling the empty spaces with a blizzard of organisms. Swamps also temporarily hold the water when it rains and emit it slowly afterward, preventing floods from occurring. In this sense, swamps are natural dams.

BETWEEN MAN AND NATURE
Upo Wetland is the habitat of about 1,200 species of animals and plants: around 750 species of plants, 250 types of insects, 160 types of birds, 14 kinds of mammals, 13 types of fish, 11 types of reptiles and 10 types of amphibians.

The gasi-yeonkkot, a floating leaved plant, has small and soft pads in its early stages, but takes on a unique appearance by growing splinters on its pads and flower as it grows. A pad of the gasi-yeonkkot can be 2 meters wide, making it largest-leafed of Korean plants. The lotus’ purple flower, which blossoms in summer, and its splintered stems are beautiful in color, but are so strong that they can pierce through the pads. Though they grow in the wild in Korea’s southern regions, they have been pushed to the brink of extinction by neglect and mismanagement, making the ones in Upo even more special and valuable.

A variety of water plants, such as yellow floating-hearts, reeds, water chestnuts, irises, and salvinia natans, lace the swamp’s surface with greenery. When you’re there in spring, summer or fall, it’s hard not to be astonished by the Great Willow Tree. The drooping branches of the Great Willow, which must have been planted in the spot 100 years ago, sway in the wind, a sight that reminds the visitor of the well-brushed hair of a beautiful, sophisticated woman.

In the early dawn, Roh Gui-yeol, a resident of Jangjae Village, stands on a small barge and slowly rows a bamboo rod. He is entering the swamp to haul in the net he cast the day before.

“I’ve been fishing here for 30 years, in all four seasons except when the ice freezes. You could say these swamps represent my life.”

Roh’s image, floating toward the swamp’s center in the dawn fog, is like a fragment of a poem. In the past, fisherman were a common sight in Jangjae, but now only nine remain.

In 1998, after Upo Wetland officially became a Ramsar Wetland and joined a string of other wetlands protected by an international treaty, it became Korea’s mecca of natural wetlands.  The number of animals, plants and organisms has grown and diversified. In addition to Upo Wetland, 12 other wetlands in Korea, including Yongneup Swamp of Mt Daeam and Suncheon Bay, have been designated Ramsar Wetlands.

It takes there to four hours to walk around Upo Wetland, with a trail offering a very scenic way to do it.  Visitors can also borrow bicycles at the swamp entrance and ride around the swamp’s perimeter instead.

Before looking around the swamp, it really pays to learn a bit about the place at the Upo Wetland Ecosystem Pavilion at the swamp’s entrance. The exhibitions in the two-storied center provide a wealth of information on the ecology here, including the countless organisms that reside in the swamp.

An oxcart slowly rolls along the dike roads. As the cow trudges along, the trill from its bell echoes above the swamp. Visitors to Upo Wetland will be able to find themselves here – a place where man, animal, plant and water coexist in an alluringly slow way of life.

Source : Korea People & Culture Magazine, February 2011

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