The Mountainous Land of South Korea

Have you ever heard about the ancient art of geomancy? Known in Chinese as Feng-sui and in Korean as Pung-soo, geomancy was a way people calculated the best location for important places. The location for the city of Seoul was chosen this way. Read on and learn more interesting facts about the environment of South Korea!

Apartment Buildings Chilling on a Rock Forest Pond Garden Statues Mountain Water Moutains in Seoul Outdoor Gym Paper Lanterns People Hiking Seoul Trail Map View from Namsan

How are people connected to the environment?

When I first came to Seoul I had the opportunity to visit Namsan Tower, the tower itself is 236.7 meters tall and the Namsan, the mountain it is built on is 243 meters tall, according to the official site for Korean tourism. How tall does the top of Namsan tower stand in meters? How about in feet?

Going to the top of Namsan Tower is an amazing experience. From the top it is possible to see almost the entire city of Seoul stretched out beneath you. When I was standing at the top looking down on the city I noticed that there were small mountains dotting the landscape. It looked as though the city had grown up around these islands of trees. In fact this is exactly what had happened!

According to the United State’s Library of Congress, the majority of South Korea is made up of various mountain ranges. Only about 22 percent of the land can be used for farming. There are many small mountains in Seoul and many people, especially older retired people, go for hikes on these mountains. I am lucky enough to have Ansan also known as Muaksan located only a ten-minute walk away from my dorm! In Korean, the word san (산) means mountain. It comes from the Chinese character 山 (shahn). Does it look a little like a mountain to you?

I went on a hike there the other day and saw many older people enjoying the weather by taking a walk up the mountain. At the base of the mountain there is also a gorgeous Buddhist temple called Bongwonsa Temple. A temple has existed on the site for 1,000 years according to the official site for Korean Tourism. It has however, been destroyed on a few occasions and been rebuilt. When I was visiting it looked like they were in the process of repainting one of the buildings.

While many Koreans enjoy going on hikes up the various mountains in and around Seoul, the mountainous nature of the Korean peninsula has caused farming related problems, because it means there is not much land to plant crops.

What makes this environment special or different?

The city of Seoul itself has an interesting connection to its environment that I only just learned about. This is the principle known in English as geomancy. You may have heard of geomancy referred to by the Chinese term Feng-sui (fung-shweh). In Korean, the word for geomancy is Pung-soo. The idea of Pung-soo stems from the belief that there is energy that flows from the earth and this energy affects the people that live on the land.

According to my research, the mountain range known as the Behkdoo-daygan is the backbone of the peninsula. The Behkdoo-daygan mountain range begins in North Korea and makes its way down the peninsula along its eastern edge, finally coming to an end in the middle of the southern part of the peninsula. People believe that the energy of Korea flows from it through the many streams and rivers that have their beginning in these mountains.

Pung-soo was often used to determine where to build important sites as well as where to build tombs. The location for the city of Seoul was actually determined by the principles of Pung-soo during the reign of Yi Song-gyeh who started the Chosun Dynasty in 1392. That’s a little over 600 years ago!

According to a book called Notes on Things Korean, it is ideal that a site has high mountains to the north and hills to the east and west. It should also have a low hill to the south and overlook a plain that has a river flowing through it. The city of Seoul has spread out much since it was originally founded over 600 years ago, but it is still possible to see the features that made it an ideal location. Sitting on top of Ansan I noticed the tall mountains to the north, as well as mountains to the east and the west, and to the south runs the Hangang or Han River.

What parts of this environment help people to live here?

South Korea is lucky enough to have its drinking water supplied by various lakes and basins located around the peninsula. Some of these are natural and some are man-made. According to the Water Environment Partnership in Asia there are four major reservoirs in South Korea. They are the Paldahng, Mul-guhm, Day-chong and Juam reservoirs. Most of the water in Seoul actually comes from the Paldahng reservoir, which is located near Seoul in the North-West of the Korean peninsula.

When I told my doctor that I was going to South Korea, she warned me not to drink the tap water. I had seen this warning on many websites about Korea as well. Coming here I was expecting to have to buy bottled water, or find filtered water. However, I attended a lecture by a doctor from Severance Hospital (the hospital that is part of my university) and he told us that it is perfectly fine to drink the tap water in Seoul. There are even places in the mountains where it is possible, and completely safe, to fill your water bottle with mountain water!

In recent years South Korea has also begun to develop solar technology, and according to Discovery News, Korea’s ability to produce solar energy has doubled since 2007. I spoke with Suzanne, the woman that runs my study-abroad program, and she told me that many houses in Seoul have begun to install solar panels on their roofs. By doing this they are able to gather energy to power their homes. There are even solar power plants such as the Shin-an power plant. According to Conergy, the company that built this plant, the energy produced is used by about 10,000 Korean households a year. This is one of the ways that Korea is working to reduce its carbon emissions.

What challenges do people face living in this environment?

Much of the Korean peninsula is covered in mountains leaving only about 22 percent of the land available for growing crops. Korea does grow some of it’s own crops on this land. According to the United State’s Library of Congress crops include rice, barley, pears and cabbage. Rice is the most important crop that South Korea grows and according to the International Rice Research Institute, much of the land where rice is grown is situated along the western coast of the Korean peninsula.

While Korea does grow some of its own food it does not produce enough food to feed its large population. Since only a small portion of the land can be used for growing crops it is difficult for Korea to produce enough food on its own. In order to compensate for this South Korea imports much of its food from other countries. I have looked at a number of different resources, but have not found an exact number for the amount of food that Korea imports. However, it appears that South Korea imports somewhere between 65-80 percent of its food from other countries. This means that South Korea does not have its own secure source of food.

How have people been adapting to this environment?

Koreans have adapted to their environment in much the same way as other countries around the world have adapted to their own environments. In the regions where it is possible to grow crops Korea does. Many of Korea’s mountains are too steep to plant on, but Koreans have started terracing the mountains that are not too steep. They cut away at the mountains creating flat areas to plant crops. When this is done it looks a bit like there are giant green steps going up the mountain.

Back before international trade and refrigeration it was very difficult to get vegetables and fruits during long, cold winters. Kimchi is actually one example of how ancient Koreans adapted to their environment. In order to be able to eat these foods in the winter people came up with the concept of pickling or fermentation.

Kimchi is a product of this idea. There are many different types of Kimchi. Kimchi is often made by taking a vegetable, often cabbage, salting it, and adding different seasonings, like red pepper. After this is done the cabbage was traditionally placed in a large ceramic jar and buried in the ground. Overtime the good bacteria in the jars break down the sugars in the vegetables and produce acid. This may sound bad, but the acid actually preserves the vegetables! That way, even in the cold winter, people were still able to get the nutrients they needed from these preserved vegetables. Kimchi is still an important part of the Korean diet, but today many people have what is called a Kimchi refrigerator in their homes. Since many people live in apartments they do not have a yard to bury Kimchi pots in, so they keep their Kimchi in the refrigerator.

Korea has also developed water filtration facilities in order to clean their drinking water so that is safe to drink. The water filtration plant that processes the water for the city of Seoul is called the Ttukdo Water Purification Plant, and according to its website it supplies water to more than 1 million people living in Seoul!



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