“…You fear to go into those mines… You know what they awoke in the darkness…”
That was the warning given to Gandalf by Saruman as the two discussed how the Fellowship would get the Ring to Mordor. I have a feeling that, if they’d been talking about Hwaam Cave (화암동굴) near Jeongseong, the same words would have been uttured, but for vastly different reasons.
Used commercially as a gold mine during the first half of the 20th century, Hwaam Cave is now a popular tourist destination. Visitors can hike a short path up the side of the mountain (it’s a little steep, but not too bad) or pay to ride up in the cave monorail.
Once we stepped inside the tunnel, the temperature plunged. Before entering, we’d been dripping sweat from hiking up during the heat of a mid-August afternoon. Within minutes, our skin cooled and goosebumps rose on our arms.
The tunnel leading into the mountain was lined with recreated scenes from the mine’s operation. Miners worked on a vein of gold, pulled rocks off each others’ legs after a cave-in, and downed bowls of makgeolli (rice wine).
Soon, we came to an illuminated stairway which spiraled down, down, down, into the bowels of the mountain. It was a bit disorienting to descend. As more flights revealed themselves, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was walking into a bottomless abyss. If I were to stumble…
After walking through several caverns, we came to that thing which Saruman talked about–the thing woken under the mountain. In Moria, it was the Balrog. In Hwaam Cave, it was the adorable goblins of ‘Fantasy Land’.
True to Korean form, these goblins were far from the creep-tastic, slimy abominations in the Lord of the Rings. They were cute, colorful and ridiculous as they mined dazzling jewels from the ground.
After the strange, acid trip which was Fantasy Land, we were floored by the final showcase of Hwaam: a massive cavern traversed by lamp-lit paths and filled with marvelous stalactites.
We walked around the frigid cavern, gawking at each ancient formation from the confines of the path. One, a towering stalactite formation with an outgrowth resembling a small Buddha, was easily my favorite.
Further along, two huge pillars loomed just off the path.
Looking closely at the glistening formations and thinking about just how long it took for them to form was a great reminder of how awesome this planet is.
Finally, we emerged blinking and shivering from the side of the mountain. Looking back, all we could see was the unassuming slope of the mountain. Nothing but the small exit hinted at the cavern and treasures inside.
The Jeongseong area has become one of my favorite parts of Korea. Check back for another post about staying in the lovely Morebul Pension in Auraji (아우라지).