Monday, February 11, 2008 Korea (South) South Korea

Gyeongsangbuk-do Province

Seonbichon traditional hotel [Enlarge]

Just outside Yeongju, near Misun's grandparents' house is Seonbichon, a traditional folk village, which has been recreated as a living museum. There are a variety of houses, rich and poor. In each house there is a central courtyard which is open to the sky. When you walk through the main door into the courtyard a raised semi-open area faces you—this was used as a living area in the summer. The bedrooms and winter living rooms have small doors opening onto the courtyard. Everything is built on large wooden stilts so that the floors can be heated from underneath by fires.

Seonbichon also doubles as a hotel for tourists and Koreans who fancy seeing what it would have been like to live in an old Korean village, and so this was where we would be staying the first night of the Year of the Rat. Misun had negotiated one of the best rooms in the whole village for us at a bargain price. It was off-season and we nearly had the place to ourselves, but even so, getting it for a third of the normal price was an incredible achievement. So, we would be living as the lord and lady of the manor for a night. We arrived at sunset so we didn't have much time to look around the village. Being February it was bitterly cold anyway. After climbing in through the tiny paper doorway to our room we found ourselves in a small but warm cocoon with a huge Korean-style mattress on the floor and several layers of brand new, soft silk sheets over it. The furniture was made of dark wood with inlaid mother-of-pearl and heavy brass fittings, and a painted screen stood at the end of the room.

Korean breakfast [Enlarge]

In the morning a knock on the door meant that breakfast had arrived. We had been given the choice of a Western breakfast, but we had chosen the Full Korean instead, to our hosts' delight. It was a banquet of kimchi (did you doubt it?), rice, soup, seaweed and various pickled vegetables.

After breakfast we braved the freezing morning to go for a shower in the bathroom, which was in a small shed outside the courtyard. Putting in ensuite bathrooms would be impossible in a place like this.

Misun and her mum arrived at the village and after a look round Sosu Seowon, the Silla (pronounced Shilla) school next door to Seonbichon, we hitched another ride with Misun's mum to Yeongju railway station to catch a train to Gyeongju in the south-eastern corner of Korea. On the train we met up with Tae Eun, Misun's university friend and a history major. She had left Seoul earlier in the day.

Gyeongju was the capital of the Silla empire, one of the ancient Three Kingdoms. It's one of the top tourist destinations in Korea, famous for four main sights:

  • Cheomseongdae: an ancient astronomical observatory
  • Cheonmachong: an excavated burial tomb
  • Seokguram: a giant stone Buddha statue in a cavern in the hillside
  • Bulguksa: a Buddhist temple with two famous stone pagodas

The historic sites are well worth a visit; also worth dropping into is Shilla Millennium Park: a brand new historical theme park. We were walking through the sculpture park towards the arena to watch a display of ancient military techniques when we noticed that three westerners and a Korean were listening to Misun and Tae Eun telling us all about Silla history. They turned out to be Norwegian oil prospectors on a business trip who had been caught with nothing to do during the new year holiday. Their Korean minder spoke only a little English (and no Norwegian) and in any case he wasn't from the area, so they were all feeling a bit lost.

Silla warriors [Enlarge]

Misun, who loves to talk to everyone, was happy to act as an impromptu tour guide to three Norwegians, as well as two Brits. They were so grateful they invited us to join them for lunch as a thank you. It seems there is such a thing as a free lunch!

For our third night away from Seoul we took a local bus to the coast and all stayed in a pension on the seafront. It is a Korean tradition to go to the East Sea (which the rest of the world usually calls the Sea of Japan) at Lunar New Year to watch the first sunrise of the year. Misun, ultra-reliable as ever, made sure that we were awake just before dawn, then told us that it was cloudy and we wouldn't be able to see the sunrise!

We went back to Gyeongju after a breakfast of instant noodles for more sightseeing, and after a long day ended up in a slightly strange coffee shop waiting for our train back to the capital. Finally, Tae Eun and the two of us left Misun in Gyeongju as she has a job interview there. Five hours later we arrived into Seoul Station at 03:00 on Sunday morning. Tae Eun had volunteered her dad as a taxi driver, so we had yet another free ride to get home.

As we directed Tae Eun's father to our apartment, we drove around the ancient southern gate to Seoul, Namdaemun. Seeing the gate lit up as always, and surrounded by the skyscrapers of Seoul's financial district, was nice—it felt like coming home. We didn't know it at the time but we will probably never see our favourite Korean landmark again...

Map of Days 441-442

Days 441-442
Yeongju to Seoul

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

Friday, February 08, 2008 Korea (South) South Korea

The Year of the Rat

Lunar New Year rituals [Enlarge]

Yesterday was Seolnal (Lunar New Year), and the oriental world entered the Year of the Rat. Coming round every twelve years, a year of the rat is, apparently, a time of hard work, activity, and renewal. So 2008 is going to be a good year to begin a new job, get married, launch a product or make a fresh start. But for us, the best bit about lunar new year was that we got three days holiday! We decided to celebrate by taking a friend up on her offer of spending a traditional Korean new year with her and her family in the countryside.

We took a train from Cheongnyangni, in the north of Seoul. It was an evening departure and the whole journey was in the dark, so sadly we didn't see anything of Korea on the way. Our friend Misun picked us up in Punggi, her ancestral home town and the place where her grandparents still live. After a comfortable night in the Punggi Hotel, we got all dressed up for new year's day, including a borrowed traditional hanbok for Isla, and Misun's mum picked us up.

As we drove out of town, we got our first real sight of rural Korea. We were in a flat valley surrounded by steep tree-clad mountains. It was a cold day, but we received a warm welcome at the family home. At least twenty people had already gathered when we arrived. Misun told us that her grandfather was away, visiting his elder brother's house. He would return to his own home soon and then the new year rites would begin. The tradition which almost everyone follows at lunar new year is to return to their home town, to the home of the oldest male relative on the father's side, to pay their respects to the senior members of the family, and to their ancestors. This is a Confucian tradition, so whatever the family's religion (whether Christian, Buddhist or atheist), they still tend to observe these rituals.

Wearing traditional Korean hanbok [Enlarge]

The family living room had been converted into an ancestral shrine: a low table was set up against the back wall, and a screen filled with traditional Chinese calligraphy stood behind. The women began bringing plate after plate of food from the kitchen. The food was set out on the table in a very particular and symbolic order—soju at the back, then beef, chicken and fish, ddeok (glutinous rice cakes), eggs, puffed rice cakes, apples, korean pears and dried persimmons. Then the women disappeared again and the most senior men in the family went through a complicated bowing ritual to the food and lit incense. The sombre atmosphere in the living room contrasted with the chatter and laughter we could hear coming from the kitchen. The women in the kitchen were not actually related to each other—this was the house of the male line and they had all married into the family. We all stood back from the shrine, Westerners and Koreans making awkward conversation via the translation services of Misun, who, since her father has passed away and her brother was back in Seoul, was representing her father at the ceremony. As we wondered what was going to happen next, Misun told us that we were giving the ancestors a chance to enjoy the food. Finally, we were allowed to sit down and enjoy the feast! We were honoured with a privileged position at the main table next to Grandfather, and after we had started eating the women came in and joined us.

Apart from an old armchair placed in the kitchen, the house was devoid of furniture. It was a single storey house with very low doors. The whole front of the house was a long glass verandah and the rooms opened off this towards the back of the house. They didn't have windows, and the bedroom had a tiny doorway through which you almost had to crawl. This design is great for regulating the temperature through the year. Many Koreans sleep on mats on the floor, which are put away in the cupboards every day. They also sit on the floor to eat and watch TV.

At times like this Glenn wishes that he was able to sit on the floor like a Korean. But he isn't Korean, and he can't sit on the floor. Trying to sit cross-legged and eat from a low table for more than five minutes is impossible. With extreme pins and needles in his legs, he kept making excuses to stand up and Grandmother kept shooing him back down telling him to make himself comfortable! She really had no idea that he was trying to do just that. It's a shame that this is one cultural gap that is seemingly impossible to bridge. Isla is OK on the floor: maybe she was Korean in a past life.

For the duration of the meal, every kind of Korean food kept appearing from the kitchen in never-ending production line. Never knowing how much more would actually be coming, we were unable to pace ourselves and very soon we were completely full. The food was excellent and we did our best, but as always, we hardly made a dent in it. The only thing we really didn't like was the blanched octopus tentacles. Imagine eating a hard pencil eraser covered with suckers.

After lunch, we were invited to visit the family's tombs. This is another traditional part of the new year rites. Outside town, on the side of a steep hill we clambered down through the snow and mud to stand beside a large grass mound. Standing with our backs to each tomb we could look out over the valley, and the new highway that cuts through it. Tombs are always sited in the most auspicious place possible, which for Confucians means having a hill behind and a river or stream in front. The dead ancestors were given soju, apples and oranges and after some more bowing we left them.

The New Year's rituals complete, we could now relax. We played the traditional Korean New Year's board game Yunnori with Misun's younger cousins, who all wanted to practice their English with some real foreigners. Then we drove up to Sobaek mountain with Misun and her mum for a walk. Up here there was plenty of snow and ice on the ground, and with a strong February sun melting it in places, it was very slippery. Misun's mum turned out to be very fond of sliding down slopes on her bum. Misun liked it too, but she wasn't such a natural. The whole atmosphere of the day was very Christmassy: too much food, playing board games, a family walk in the country. We were so lucky to get a look at real Korean life.

Map of Days 439-440

Days 439-440
Seoul to Yeongju

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.