Andong (30 September – 1 October 2013)
When Elizabeth II visited South Korea, she asked to visit the most Korean part of the country. They brought her to Andong. This was therefore also where I went to experience a bit of classic Korea.
Having arrived from Seoul, Andong felt like a part of another world entirely. It looked much more provincial and not quite the Korea of the period dramas. I was hoping to see some people wandering around in traditional Korean costumes but there were sadly none to be seen on the streets of central Andong.
There was nothing very much in the city centre as far as I could tell. I went to Andong however to see two places, both some distance away from the city centre and in the rural areas.
Andong city centre is quite a distance away from the bus station. But I had to go there to take a bus to get to Dosan Seowon.
A seowon is a school of the Joseon period. In particular, it is a school to prepare students for the national civil service examination. Doing well in this examination means a position in government and a way to fortune, glory and power. Seowons therefore mostly serve only yangban children since it is the people of the yangban class that rule the country. It also goes without saying that only boys got to attend school.
After an interesting ride through rural areas outside of Andong, I alighted at an area that looked like a public square with two rows of shops on either side. I was quite impressed with the buses of Andong since unlike those in much more modern Singapore the ones in Andong announced the name of each stop. There is a little path from the bus stop that leads to the seowon.
Before reaching the seowon complex, my attention was turned to the river on my right. It was the Nakdong River.
The seowon looks kind of like a big mansion. As a school however it does not look very big and I wonder how many students it could have had at any given time. The dormitories did not look very big either.
It was hard to reach the seowon, but I thought it was a wonderful discovery. I am glad I took the trouble to make it there.
Next stop, Hahoe. To get there, I had to return to the bus station and take another bus from there. Hahoe is a beautifully preserved Korean village and I had booked a room there for 2 nights. I was looking forward to staying in a traditional Korean house albeit with modern amenities.
By the time I got to Hahoe it was almost dark. I might have caught the last bus there and I was feeling quite proud of myself for making it. The trip to Dosan Seowon required some careful planning on my part to make sure that I could make it for all the buses I needed to take that day and still had enough time to see the seowon. I had some trouble finding the guesthouse since first all of the houses in the area looked the same and secondly there was no clear signage for the guesthouse. Very fortunately I managed to spot the A4 sized sign pasted onto the barrier to the guesthouse’s compound with some Chinese characters that could sound like RakKoJae if read in Korean which was the name of the guesthouse I was going to sleep in for 2 nights. I was right and that was one of the few times in my life I actually felt gratitude for being able to read Chinese.
The room was wonderful. It was in a hanok, a traditional Korean house, with part of the room segregated to create a bathroom. Despite the rural character, it was quite a luxurious room although the luxury was mainly reflected in the bathroom. There was a washlet and a wooden jacuzzi bathtub. The sleeping area however was quite stark with the room walls covered in white paper. I slept on the bed but the bedding was very comfortable. I guess it helped too that we Singaporeans generally prefer harder beds anyway.
I woke up to a wonderful traditional Korean breakfast consisting of a rice porridge and some side dishes waiting for me. There was a piece of fish which I believed to be salted mackerel, a specialty of Andong. It did not taste very salty and was really quite tasty.
After that delicious breakfast, and I wished I could have had more, I went out to explore the village. I thought the village was gorgeous! It was not big but it was a beautiful place.
There used to be two classes of people living in the village. It was quite apparent who lived in what. The ones with tiled roofs housed the upper class whereas the thatched roofed ones housed the lower class. I think nowadays people in Korea were segregated into classes based on wealth like in many other countries.
The village, not sure if it is for the tourists, has retained some of its shamanistic past. There is a huge zelkova tree, 600 years old apparently, that stands in the middle of the village. It is believed that a goddess called Samsin lives in there. Today many people write their wishes on strips of white cloth and tie them on strings hung around the tree.
Another aspect of the village’s shamanistic past can be seen in its Hahoe Mask Dance. This used to be performed once every few years to please the local goddess, exorcise bad spirits and ensure good harvests but is now performed every year as a tourist attraction. Although I could not understand a word of the performance it was quite fun to watch.
Despite all the shamanism going on in the village though, there is a small church in the village to my surprise.
Another highlight of any visit to Hahoe must be to take the boat across the Nakdong and go up Buyongdae cliff on the opposite side for a magnificent view of the village and the area around it.
It is hard to see from the photograph but Hahoe is actually surrounded by the river on three sides. This apparently somehow contributes to good fengshui, or pungsu in Korean, for the village.
One issue with Hahoe that I have is that it is not convenient to find food there. The only place to find proper food is some distance outside the village. The only real food I could find that day was at this stall selling Korean fish cake. It looked quite soggy being cooked in soup but was rather tasty. A condiment of chilli soaked in soy sauce was provided and applied onto the fish cake with a small paintbrush. It felt a bit odd to paint on the condiment but I enjoyed the food.
I enjoyed my time in Hahoe very much and I would even say that that visit was the highlight of my time in South Korea. If I should be in the vicinity in future I will definitely drop by again.
I am not quite sure if I have seen on this trip enough of classic Korea that is offered in Andong. But the seowon and the village are good representatives of what old Korea during the Joseon period was like. Andong is a good tourist destination, but only outside of the city centre.