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Chungju City

Tour the mountains and city that once marked the exact middle of the Korea.

Chungju City (충주시; Chungju-si) sits near the middle of South Korea in North Chungcheong Province (충청북도; Chungcheongbuk-do).

Just east of the city, you’ll find Chungju Lake. This body of water transforms the Donggang River (동강강) into the South Han River (남한강; Namhangang). This makes Chungju City the first or last stop on the Hangang Bicycle Path.

During the Kingdom of Silla (신라; 57 BCE ~ 935 ACE), King Wonseong (원성왕) declared Chungju the center of the united Korea peninsula. Let’s explore this middle city.

The Stats
Chungju City
The Tangeum Bridge Bridge (탄금대교) crosses the South Han River near the northern boundary of downtown Chungju.
The Tangeum Bridge Bridge (탄금대교) crosses the South Han River near the northern boundary of downtown Chungju.

Bike Paths

Chungju City ends the Hangang Bicycle Path and begins the Saejae Bicycle Path.

The Hangang Bicycle Path enters Chungju City from the northern city of Yeoju, just over the border in Gyeonggi Province.

The bike path continues past Chungju Tangeumdae (충주탄금대인증센터) certification center in Tangeumdae Park (충주탄금대). It travels eastward, up the South Han River until the Chungju Dam certification center. This both marks the end of the South Han River and the Hangang Bike Path.

The Saejae Bicycle Path starts at Chungju Tangeumdae certification center. It slithers around downtown Chungju, down Dal Stream (달천; Dalcheon).

When the landscape tilts uphill, the bike path hops on the Seokmundong Stream (석문동천; Seokmundong-cheon) and climbs to the township of Suanbo (수안보면; Suanbo-myeon).

At the apex of the Saejae Bicycle Path’s first climb, just under Sinseon Peak (신선봉; Sinseonbong), the route transitions to Mungyeong City (문경시; Mungyeong-si) in North Gyeongsang Province (경상북도; Gyeongsangbuk-do).

The Sobaek Mountain Range (소백산맥) rises south of downtown Chungju City.
The Sobaek Mountain Range (소백산맥) rises south of downtown Chungju City.

Geography

Chungju’s primary population center sits on a flat delta, created by the sediment buildup from the South Han River (남한강; Namhangang) and the Dal (달천; Dalcheon) and Yodo (요도천; Yodocheon) Streams.

Waves of mountains and peaks surround the city. The Sobaek Mountain Range (소백산맥) crosses the southern border of the city.

Travel to the southern tip of the city’s boundaries. You’ll almost reach the Mungyeong Saejae Pass (문경새재), a mountain pass rich with history.

Just over Gyemyeong (계명산; Gyemyeongsan) and Nam (남산; Namsan) Mountains, you’ll find Chungju Lake (충주호; Chungju-ho). Chungju Dam (충주댐) created it in 1985. It’s one of the largest lakes in Korea and reaches into neighboring Jecheon City.

The Spirit of the Mountain

Southwest of downtown Chungju, over a branch of Chungju Lake, rises a mysterious peak known as Worak Mountain (월악산; Woraksan). Standing at 1,095 meters tall (3,593 feet), its peak crowns Woraksan National Park (월악산국립공원).

Throughout Korea, people flock to Worak to gawk at its natural treasures, including steam-carved valleys, waterfalls, and wondrous rock formations.

Since ancient times, kingdoms performed rituals and built temples along the mountain, including Deokjusa (덕주사). They believed the landscape held a strong mountain spirit.

Adding to the legend, during the mongol invasions in the 1200s, citizens fled up Worak Mountain for safety. When the mongol army pursued, the mountain’s weather suddenly shifted. Strong winds and heavy rain forced the army to flee. They thought the mountain grew vengeful.

The Sujupalbong (수주팔봉) waterfall flows between a shear rock wall in the southern, mountainous regions of Chungju City.
The Sujupalbong (수주팔봉) waterfall flows between a shear rock wall in the southern, mountainous regions of Chungju City.

Temperature

Chungju dwells on elevated terrain. It sits far from either the East or West (Yellow) Sea, too. This magnifies the daily temperature gap. In the spring and fall, morning frost will nip your toes in the morning. But by lunch you’ll wrap your jacket around your waist.

Additionally, the South Han River, Chungju Lake, and Dal Stream often shed moisture. This creates fog that can obscure even your hands gripped around your bike’s handlebars.

History

Chungju sits in the center of the Korean peninsula. During the three kingdoms period, the area, along with other cities in the North Chungcheong Province, became an inflection point.

Because Chungju perched near the borders of all three kingdoms, armies often crossed the settlement on their way to conquer their rivals.

All three kingdoms — the Baekje (백제), Goguryeo (고구려), and Silla (신라) — tussled over this middle ground. And all three occupied it at one point.

Adding to their precarious location, Chungju hangs at the lowest point of the South Han River. Why is that important? 

In the ancient days, access to the South Han and the larger Han River network determined which political force ruled the peninsula. Controlling Chungju allowed kingdoms to dip their military toes in the waterway.

Fortress Fortress

The Kingdom of Baekje (백제; 18 BCE ~ 660 ACE) was the first of Korea’s major three kingdoms to claim the Chungju area. They built the Jangmisan (장미산성) and Daerimsan (대림산성) Fortresses.

However, in the 400s, the Kingdom of Goguryeo (고구려; 37 BCE ~ 668 ACE) drove their armies south from their northern territories. They conquered Baekje’s capital, Wiryeseong (위례성; near present-day Seoul), and plowed down the South Han to Chungju.

Goguryeo occupied Chungju and renamed it Gukwon Fortress (국원성) in 475. They used Chungju to fortify their new southern territory.

In 551, Kingdom of Silla (신라; 57 BCE ~ 935 ACE) aided Baekje recapture their homeland from Goguryeo. A few years later, however, they surged from the southeast and snatched the fortress city back from Baekje.

Viewing Chungju’s central position strategically, Silla Kingdom built Chungju Mountain Fortress (충주산성; Chungju-san-seong) on Nam Mountain.

Middle City

The Kingdom of Silla conquered all rivals and unified the Korean peninsula in 668. During this time they built the Seven-story Stone Pagoda in Tappyeong-ri (충주 탑평리 칠층석탑).

The pagoda earned the name Jungangtap (중앙탑), literally meaning “central pagoda.” Why? Silla used the tower to mark the exact middle of their territory.

Today, the tower doesn’t pinpoint the center of South Korea. But it does still dot in the middle of the Korean peninsula.

The central tower rises in Jungangtap Park (중앙탑사적공원), just west of downtown Chungju. 

A marker lies along the bike path through the Saejae Pass near the city of Chungju in South Korea.
Chungju City sits along the old Great Yeongnam Road (영남대로), which acted as the primary connection between Seoul to Busan, Korea's largest and second largest cities, for five hundred years.

Weary Wanderers Waypoint

For over five hundred years, the main road from Hanyang (한양; Seoul) to Dongae (동래; Busan) was the Great Yeongnam Road (영남대로).

Like Korea’s Cross-Country bike path today, the old road followed the Hangang in the North and Nakdong River in the South. The flat basins created by both waterways eased the transporting of people and goods.

However, to cross to the northern or southern portions of the peninsula, one had to hop over the Sobaek Mountain Range (소백산맥), which cuts diagonally across the middle of the peninsula.

Over the years, travelers found the most efficient route: the Mungyeong Saejae Pass (문경새재). The problem? This low point climbed a spirit-testing 642 meters (2,106 feet), earning it the name Saejae, which translates to “bird” (새; sae) “pass” (재; jae).

During the Joseon Dynasty (조선; 1392 ACE ~ 1897 ACE), Chungju was the nearest northern settlement to the pass along the Great Yeongnam Road. This last (or first) stop allowed traders to prepare for the treacherous ascent. And, it gave those coming down the mountain a breather.

Japanese Invaders

May 1592, Japan invaded Korea. They landed in present-day Busan in the southwest tip of Korea. Within a month they conquered Gyeongsang Province and slashed and burned their way north, slaughtering every living soul, dog or human, that resisted.

How did they travel north? That’s right. The Great Yeongnam Road.

By early June, the Japanese army ascended the Mungyeong Saejae Pass and arrived at the fortified city of Chungju. This was the last wall of resistance before Hanyang (Seoul).

During the battle, Korean General Sin Rip (신립), mustered his troops on the plains, their backs to the South Han River. A last stand.

However, Japan had far greater numbers and superior artillery. Japanese troops decimated weary Korean soldiers by launching arrows from a distance. In the end, most of Korea’s troops died in battle. Many drowned in the South Han.

The Rise of Cheongju

At one time, Chungju and Cheongju (청주시; Cheongju) held equal clout in North Chungcheong Province. In fact, the name of the province derives from a mashing of both names: Chungju + Cheongju = ChungCheong.

However, today Cheongju holds almost 850,000 souls. Chungju? 200,000. 

The imbalance doesn’t stop there. Most of the province’s economic and political power centers in Cheongju.

What happened? What made Chungju valuable in the past makes Cheongju powerful in the present. Roads!

Gyeongbu Expressway

First started in 1968, the Gyeongbu Expressway (경부고속도로) became the first modern vehicle highway that crossed from Seoul to Busan.

To save time and money, the expressway detoured around the taller portions of the Sobaek Mountain Range. That meant, instead of connecting with Chungju, the vital transportation artery passed Cheongju.

Speedier access to Seoul and Busan boosted the western city of Cheongju, while delaying Chungju’s access to the modernizing world.

It wasn’t until 2004 when workers completed the Jungbu Naeryuk Expressway (중부내륙고속도로) that Chungju gained access to a proper high speed road.

Night Chungju City brings LEDs to Chungju Stream (충주천), which runs through the heart of the city.
Night Chungju City brings LEDs to Chungju Stream (충주천), which runs through the heart of the city.

Economy

Like much of eastern North Chungcheong Province, Chungju lags Cheongju. However, the city is investing in its future.

The Old Industry

Chungju still makes a good bit of its cash the old fashioned way: farms. Chungju’s major crops include pears, sweet potatoes, and apples.

The area’s apples gained a reputation throughout Korea. Large daily temperature fluctuations caused by the inland, mountainous terrain generate high sugar content in the apples.

At the turn of the century, some factories dwelled in city limits. However, none provided enough opportunities needed to sustain or expand Chungju’s population. 

The New World

However, Chungju fought back. To stimulate the stagnating economy, they helped create several new industrial and residential districts west of downtown (서충주).

In the early 2020s, developers completed three sites that can accommodate manufacturing and industries facilities. The investment attracted pharmaceutical, automotive, and more manufacturers.

Suanbo Township

  • Suanbo Township (수안보면; Suanbo-myeon)
  • 73 km² (28.1855 sq mi)
  • 3,266 people
  • 45 folks per km² (115 per sq mi)

The Township of Suanbo (수안보면) lies deep in the mountains of Chungju, on the southern border.

The village (면; myeon) reaches into Woraksan National Park in the east, and touches North Gyeongsang Province’s Goesan County (괴산군; Goesan-gun) in the south. 

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The Seokmundong Stream (석문동천) runs leads to the township of Suanbo, which boasts unique hot springs.
The Seokmundong Stream (석문동천) runs leads to the township of Suanbo, which boasts unique hot springs.

A Borrowed Village

In times of old, Suanbo belonged to the defunct Yeonpung County (연풍군; Yeonpung-gun). (A village named Yeonpung sits just south in Goesan County.) Locals called it Sangmo (상모).

Goesan County claimed Suanbo in 1914. In 1963, Chungju wrestled it away and changed its name to Suanbo (수안보).

Interesting name. Does it mean anything?

What’s In a Name

It’s a configuration of 보안쪽의물탕. What?

Let’s break it down.

  • 보 (bo) means rock.
  • 안쪽의 (an-jjok-ui) translates to inner.
  • 물탕 (mul-tang) means water bath.

So, Suanbo means “water bath from inside the rock.” Yes.

The Hot Springs

Suanbo’s name spells out its most famous attraction: the Suanbo Hot Springs (수안보 온천).

Since the Kingdom of Goryeo (고려; 918 BCE ~ 1392 ACE), people bathed in the 53°C (127°F) mountain water. They believed the mineral infused water, gushing from two-hundred and fifty (250) meters below the mountainous terrain, arrested the hands of father time.

In the 1800s, entrepreneurs built the first hot spring facility in Suanbo. Thereafter, a swell of resorts sprung up in Suanbo. The town reached its peak in the 1980s.

Town Layout

Though the borders of the village sketch about fifteen (15) kilometers, the long part of downtown Suanbo runs a mere six-hundred (600) meters.

Seokmundong Stream (석문동천; Seokmundong-cheon) runs along the road leading to the village and through downtown Suanbo.

Other than a few staple offerings — a supermarket, bank, and school — resorts and hotels dominate downtown Suanbo. All focus on offering a hot spring spa experience.

Multang Park

When approaching Suanbo from the north, you’ll first stumble upon a large amphitheater. This is Multang Park (물탕공원).

(The Suanbo Oncheon (수안보온천인증센터) sits in front of the amphitheater. Don’t forget to stamp your bike certification passport.)

Anything interesting in this small park? How about a free, public foot bath (낙안정) using Suanbo’s famous mineral rich spring water? Take off your shoes. Dip your footsies.

If you have the time, check out Suanbo’s other highlights.

Highlights

Lying along a historic road and seated in the dead center of a kingdom awarded Chungju some interesting landmarks and highlights. Let’s take a brief tour.

The Sobeak Mountains rise behind the city of Chungju.
Chungju city forms half the name of North Chungcheong Province. Thought Cheongju, its rival provincial neighbor, grew much faster, Chungju holds a few treasures.

Tangeumdae Park

Tangeumdae Park (충주탄금대) covers Daemun Mountain (대문산; 107-meter peak) on the northwest bank of downtown Chungju, where the South Han River and Dal Stream converge. 

The park’s site gained fame for two historical events.

Ureuk Paradise

First, this hilly outcrop, bedecked with oversized stones and pines, attracted the famed musician Ureuk (우륵). He would perch upon a bolder, gaze out into the South Han River and strum his gayageum (가야금), a traditional stringed Korean instrument, plucked like a zither.

During the time of the Three Kingdoms, Ureuk foresaw the overthrow of the Goguryeo (고구려; 37 BCE ~ 668 ACE) and the ascension of the Kingdom of Silla. The Silla king, therefore, recognized Ureuk as the preeminent musician of the land.

Sin Rip’s Twelve Trips

The other historical event? Let’s travel back to the time of Japan’s invasion in 1592.

The Japanese army invaded Korea from Busan, stormed north, crossed the Mungyeong Saejae Pass, and landed upon Chungju.

On June 7, 1592, Korea’s army assembled, tired, upon the Chungju plains. This battle was their last stand. If they fell, the Japanese army had a clear path to Hanyang (Seoul), the Joseon Capital.

Korea’s general, Sin Rip (신립), station himself on Daemun Mountain in Tangeumdae Park. He stood upon a cliff overlooking the battle, cheered on his troops, and fired into the enemy invaders with his longbow.

To improve his accuracy, Sin Rip sprinted up and down the cliff-side and soaked his bow strings in the waters of the South Han.

However, Japan’s massive army and superior artillery handily defeated Korea’s battle fatigued troops. Sin Rip lost almost all of his 8,000 men. In disgrace, he drowned himself in the South Han.

Inside the park today, you can find a statue dedicated to Sin Rip. And the cliff where Sin Rip sprinted up and down? It’s now known as Yeoldudae (열두대).

Does that mean anything? Of course. Yeouldu (열두) translates to “twelve.” The number of times Sin Rip ran up and down the cliff-side.

Also inside Tangeumdae, you’ll find a cultural museum, sculpture park, sport facilities, and a monument to both Ureuk.

Jungangtap Park

Jungangtap Park (중앙탑공원; Central Tower Park) holds the tallest Silla-era pagoda in Korea: the Seven-story Stone Pagoda in Tappyeong-ri, a.k.a. Jungangtap (중앙탑).

Why the name “central tower?” The Silla Kingdom, which first unified the Korean peninsula, erected the fourteen-meter-tall stone tower in the 500s. It marked the exact center of their territory.

The park also includes a recreated Silla-era village, Chungju Museum (충주박물관), and Liquorium (리쿼리움), a museum dedicated to Asian spirits.

Just along the eastern boundary of the park, the Rainbow Bridge (무지개다리) bobs on a section of the South Han River called Tangeum Lake (탄금호). Color filled LEDs light the pontoon bridge come sundown.

Just north of the park stands the Tangeum Lake International Rowing Regatta (탄금호 국제조정경기장). It’s one of the few facilities in Korea certified to hold rowing competitions. It hosted several international rowing competitions.

Woraksan National Park

The expansive Woraksan National Park (월악산국립공원) covers four administrative districts, including Chungju City, Jecheon City, Danyang County, and Mungyeong City of North Gyeongsang Province. 

The park’s title comes from Worak Mountain. Both the park and mountain earned notoriety for legend-filled temples and wild landscapes.

Over millions of years, streams flowing from the park’s twenty-two mountaintops carved gorgeous scars in the rocky terrain. These created sheer cliffs and granite faces.

The famed Songgye (송계계곡) and Eoksu (억수계곡) Valleys below offer unique rock formations, transparent waters, and crashing waterfalls.

Chungju Light World (충주라이트월드) glows nightly near Tangeumdae Park (탄금대) in Chungju.
Chungju Light World (충주라이트월드) glows nightly near Tangeumdae Park (탄금대) in Chungju.

More Highlights

Chungju offers a few more highlights within its borders. Let’s check them out.

  • Chungju Goguryeo Monument (충주 고구려비) is an ancient stone monument carved sometime between 449 and 495 ACE by the Kingdom of Goguryeo. It’s the last remaining monument from the kingdom. Chungju built a museum to protect the tablet, which locals once used as a washboard.
  • Chungju Dam Park (충주댐) is a group of recreational facilities around Chungju Dam, Korea’s largest multipurpose dam. They include observation decks, a park, and a dock from which you can board a cruise that tours Chungju lake.