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A stage for dancing birds Geumgang Estuary

Geumgang Estuary in Gunsan is an excellent spot to observe baikal teals. They appear to dance in groups when they take to the sky. The city of Gunsan flourished during the Japanese colonial period, and vestiges of that time remain here and there.

When the sun sinks below the horizon behind Geumgang Estuary and the sky glows in shades of wine, a long island in the river comes alive. Did you read that correctly? What seemed to be a mere island a moment before is a colony of migrant birds. These birds hunt together and soar high into the sky every day around sunrise and sunset. When the leader takes off, hundreds of thousands follow, blocking out the sky with their numbers and making for a spectacular, surreal scene of continuously shifting shapes. People think of their impromptu movements romantically as “group dancing,” but in fact the birds are jockeying with one another to be as close to the center of the flock as possible, where it is safer.

The Korean Peninsula greets numerous migratory birds from Siberia every winter. Geumgang Estuary is an especially important destination for those winged visitors with its shallow waters, gentle currents, and vast farms nearby that afford excellent spots for resting and hunting. Some 90 percent of the world’s baikal teals come to this very estuary every year to spend the winter.

The teals rest all day long in the river, and when the sun sets, they fly over Mt. Manghaesan to the Gimje Plains in search of food, coming back at dawn.

They can be seen from a number of bird observatories, the best of which is Napo Sipjatteul Bird Observatory.


Visitors to Gunsan are strongly recommended to see the Geumgang River. Gunsan was the fastest growing city in Korea in the early 20th century, serving as the port of choice for the Japanese for shipping out their plunder of Korea’s bounty, be that rice, minerals, or other resources. The Japanese built a port and railways, and Japanese culture firmly took root across the entire city where about half the 16,000 residents were Japanese. The customs house, temple, and residences from the period remain. Especially famous are Dongguksa Temple, a two-story wooden house built by a Japanese named Hirose dubbed “Hirose’s House,” and the railway village in Gyeongam-dong.

If you visit Gunsan with children, don’t miss the Jinpo Maritime Theme Park in the inner harbor. The park was built in commemoration of Jinpodaecheop (Great Battle of Jinpo), a major Korean triumph against Japanese infiltrators in the Geumgang Estuary in August 1380, the sixth year of the reign of King U of the Goryeo Dynasty. General Choe Museon, who was also a scientist and inventor, led Korean forces to victory using cannons of his own invention charged with a powerful form of gunpowder. On display in the park are retired military vehicles used by the Korean Army, Navy, and Air Force.

Dongguksa is a typical Japanese temple surrounded by a lush bamboo forest. All the parts of the temple including the main buildings, toilets, and bath are connected by a corridor, revealing some of the salient features of Japanese architecture.

The reed field in the village of Sinseong is not part of Gunsan but of Seocheon. Still, it is near the bird observatories and is one of the four most important reed fields in Korea. Seen from the 1.2-kilometer embankment, the fields spread unbroken all the way to the Geumgang River and the hills of Gunsan far off in the distance.

When you get your first hunger pangs during your visit, you may want to try a bun stuffed with adzuki bean paste at Yiseongdang, Korea’s oldest Western-style bakery, which was founded in 1909 and run by Japanese owners before liberation in 1945. Every day, the bakery sells about 1,000 rice buns stuffed with adzuki bean paste. It also offers vegetable buns and croquettes stuffed with curry and glass noodles.

How to get there
Car: It takes about two hours from Seoul to Seocheon Interchange via Seohaean Expressway.
Train: It takes around three hours from Yongsan Station to Janghang Station.
Bus: It takes roughly one hour from Seoul to Janghang.

*Article from Korea Magazine (January 2013)

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