Culture preserved, Yangdong Village

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.

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

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.

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

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 were 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.

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

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.

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

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.

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

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.

A Korean adventure

Other than a passing understanding of the Korean War, a little knowledge of Korean food, and a biased Western media view of Kim Jong Un (who I’m sure is charming when he’s not eating burgers while watching peasants starve to death), I didn’t really know very much about Korea, north or south. Two weeks of working and travelling in South Korea taught me a lot, but also led me to the conclusion that it may be impossible to truly understand Korea.

This feeling began at Seoul airport, where I spent an unpleasant 4 hour transfer watching what I can only describe as a K-pop choir perform. I went to find food only to discover the extensive food court was hidden in the bowels of the airport. There wasn’t a single window. Assuming these were quirks of Seoul airport I boarded my connecting flight for Daegu…I had a lot to learn.

Gyeongju, South Korea

Gyeongju, South Korea

Spring tree, Daegu, South Korea

Spring tree, Daegu, South Korea

Haein-sa, South Korea

Haein-sa, South Korea

Despite the fact that English is used in all sorts of advertising and on road signs, it seems to be  spoken only rarely. This makes eating, travel and using the toilet an adventure. I like adventure, but sometimes predictable can also be good. Call me old fashioned, but a toilet shouldn’t have its own power supply, come with a control panel with more options than a TV remote, or have a sticker warning you not to get water on the electrics. Nor should a visit to the ‘smallest room’ finish with your rear end receiving a shampoo (no pun intended) and blow-dry. I’m surprised there aren’t more fatalities.

There are, at least, toilets. In Europe if you want a public toilet you look for the nearest McDonalds. In Korea, there are toilets everywhere. The last time I came across a place with this many public toilets was China…Korean public toilets are superior on every level.

Fish stall, Seomun Market, Daegu, South Korea

Fish stall, Seomun Market, Daegu, South Korea

Korean food in Daegu, South Korea

Korean food in Daegu, South Korea

Korean food in Daegu, South Korea

Korean food in Daegu, South Korea

Food is one of the great joys of travel, although I find this works better if you have a basic understanding of what you’re eating. In the absence of a common language, or pictorial menu, I was forced to wander restaurants checking out other people’s food before ordering. Dumb luck had it that I didn’t have many bad food experiences, but that pre-supposes that you’re a fan of kimchi. If you’re not, Korea may not be for you.

No one can hear you scream in space, but after a week of eating Kimchi I’ll bet they can smell you in the furthest corners of the cosmos. Eating here also requires you to know your way around a pair of chopsticks, not the ordinary sturdy wooden chopsticks that I’m used to, but a devilishly tricky Korean version: needle thin metal chopsticks designed to make the novice look like an idiot. In one bar they took no chances, my spring rolls came with a pair of scissors and some ice tongs. Let’s just say I provided a lot of people with entertainment.

Korean food in Daegu, South Korea

Korean food in Daegu, South Korea

Korean food in Daegu, South Korea

Korean food in Daegu, South Korea

Of course, to eat it’s necessary to have the means to pay. This is not as easy as it may seem. Not many places take cards, certainly not outside the city. This leaves you firmly in a cash economy. Sadly, the Korean banking system has yet to join the 21st Century; in a highly developed economy ATMs don’t often accept foreign cards. This is not to say that Korean ATMs aren’t sophisticated. They regularly double as entertainment centres – playing music videos and showing TV clips – less regularly they dispense cash.

One day, after trying a dozen or more ATMs, I thought I was going to have to throw myself on the mercy of the British embassy. I’ve met British diplomats, mercy is not in their nature. I finally found an ATM that worked, to celebrate I took a taxi to the bus station for a trip into the countryside.

Daegu, South Korea

Daegu, South Korea

Haein-sa, South Korea

Haein-sa, South Korea

Daegu, South Korea

Daegu, South Korea

Taxis are a litmus test of a nation’s psyche. Taxi drivers in Korea universally wear driving gloves, in my experience this is rarely a good sign. Some are ‘professional’ leather gloves; others are clearly home made, possibly knitted by their moms. 97% of all taxi drivers approach their job as if they’re not just competing in NASCA, but have a shot at the title. None of them understand the English for, “Please, I’m begging, slow down before we all die. Look out for the school children. Arrrgghh!” Coincidentally, 97% is also the the number of Koreans who own and operate a selfie stick.

I did reach the countryside, unfortunately it was the weekend so I was joined there by several million other outdoor enthusiasts. The people of Korea take the countryside seriously. Most dress as if they are attempting an ascent of K2 – from the Chinese side. I have never seen so much technical walking gear, deployed for a short stroll on well maintained tracks guiding you around a temple complex. I’m not even going to mention the disproportionate number of couples who wear matching shoes.

Gyeongju, South Korea

Gyeongju, South Korea

Haein-sa, South Korea

Haein-sa, South Korea

Yangdong Village, South Korea

Yangdong Village, South Korea

One final piece of insider advice – every tourist map I was given was woefully inaccurate. Why bother drawing a map to scale, where physical features accurately relate to other physical features, when you can draw a map with nice pictures of trees, flowers and mountains? Even if there isn’t a mountain within 100km? Maps are far less helpful, but much prettier this way. I spent my first few days thinking I’d been given a map for a different city.

Bulguk-sa, Gyeongju, South Korea

Bulguk-sa, Gyeongju, South Korea

Yangdong Village, South Korea

Yangdong Village, South Korea

This is what I’ve learned about Korea. Not everything, just the important stuff. If doing battle with toilets and taxi drivers, navigating by maps that may not be for where you happen to be, or taking your chances with food, doesn’t discourage you from visiting, I’d say just go. You’ll have a lot of fun, or others will have a lot of fun at your expense. Either way someone is having fun and that’s the important thing.