Yangdong is a fabulous traditional Korean village, set amidst a wooded landscape of rolling hills that make it picture-postcard-perfect. Yangdong is a beautiful, peaceful and historic place, yet I can’t shake the feeling that something isn’t quite right. It doesn’t seem real, too quiet, a little too sanitised. It isn’t particularly touristy, the opposite in fact, but this doesn’t prevent it feeling more like an open air theme park than a working village.
People do live in the majority of the houses in the village – some are open to the public and inhabitant free – but as a designated cultural preservation area it has essentially been preserved in aspic for the edification of visitors. Having seen modern rural Korea from a bus window this is no bad thing, but it does make for a strange experience.
The village was founded in the 14th Century and is one of the two most historic ‘clan villages’ in Korea. My guidebook claimed it was difficult to reach, and with limited time I nearly didn’t go. Not for the first time in my life, I’m glad I ignored my guidebook. I got a bus near Gueongju train station which took me straight to the village entrance in 40 minutes. Nothing could have been easier. Did the Lonely Planet bother to visit?
I got a map with my entrance ticket, this turned out to be like all other Korean tourist maps: the woeful lack of scale not nearly compensated for by pretty pictures. It did have place names in Latin script, which I was grateful for; unfortunately all the village signposts were in Korean script. Like two competing technologies, map and signposts were totally incompatible. This left me to do my favourite thing, wander aimlessly, up muddy trails and into woods, without any idea where I was or where I was going.
This information seemed worth putting in a guidebook, mine just kept going on about a restaurant where you could get duck stew. Fine if you can find it, but that didn’t seem likely under the circumstances. I decided to let the Gods of Korean Tourist Maps take me wherever they saw fit. I ended up walking miles, but eventually landed in the heart of the ancient village. I never did get to try duck stew though.
There are 160 houses in the village, many over 200 years old, built to a traditional pattern across the hillsides. Houses come in two categories: those with stone walls and thatched roofs where common folk lived; large houses with wooden frames and slate roofs belonged to aristocrats. One of the largest aristocratic buildings contains a gigantic jar that was once used for storing grain. It’s so huge that it doesn’t fit through the doors, the building it sits in was constructed around it. That’s one way of making sure no one steals your jar.
The entire village is designed to fit into a rigid Confucian social system that dominated Korea for centuries; houses are situated to distinguish status and wealth, house size was strictly controlled to further establish a family’s position in society. All village life would have been governed by Confucian rules, which covered everything from the political, to the social, to the economic and the religious.
I don’t know much about Confucianism. Once, at a conference, a Korean academic said it was a major contributing factor to a preference for boys over girls. It’s not well known, but in the 1990s a massive distortion in birth rates between girls and boys existed in Korea. This situation is common in other countries, China and India especially, but thanks to government action the problem in Korea was addressed and reversed. I can now add Confucian village planning to my limited knowledge of this ancient belief system.
The tranquility and mountainous location make it a remarkably lovely place to stroll, although I started to get a little concerned by the fact that I hardly saw another human being. Where were all the people? Perhaps they were indoors cooking duck stew for tourists with the Lonely Planet guide? I’d seen photos of people wearing traditional clothing on market day, but the village seemed deserted the day I was there. I saw only two old people gardening, a collection of dogs and a small group of Korean tourists. Spooky.
I headed out of the village towards the bus stop wondering what everyone who lived in the village did for a living. There were very few tourist-related retail opportunities, and apart from some low level agriculture there seemed to be very little economic activity, or activity of any kind. It seemed fitting that my last day in Korea ended with this mystery.