I found my Andong accommodation through AirBNB, which is making more of a stir in these parts than I’d expected. Although recently built, it was the real Korean deal: a tiny, self-contained, hanok-style apartment in the garden of the main house. It sat next to the front gate – an old, pleasingly solid wooden number sealed with a weighty beam that got hefted into place at night.
The owners, who didn’t speak a word of English. were all smiles, even though I’d arrived far later than intended. They turned on the ondol (underfloor heating, found in every Korean house) and left me to it. With handy bus times stuck to the wall, wifi, and my own bathroom and kitchen, I needed nothing else. Well, actually, I could have done with a hand translating the loo which – somewhat incongruously against the classic sliding doors, wood-carved wardrobe, and frilly counterpane – was a terrifyingly modern Japanese device with buttons on the side. After two days using that contraption, I’m still not entirely sure that the water jets went where they were supposed to and frankly I feel rather violated.
I was in Andong primarily to visit Hahoe Village; a little place out in the countryside which, although now open to visitors, is still a functioning place of work and habitation, using traditional techniques and building methods.
Most of the families living there have done so for hundreds of years and (apart from the appearance of cars and indoor plumbing), life remains much the way it always has.
Several of the buildings open to the public are still inhabited, but since English signage was sparse, and I didn’t really know what I was looking for, I just wandered vaguely from place to place, admiring the old homes against their quietly beautiful backdrop.
At one point I came across a home with a display board proclaiming it to be one of the oldest houses in the village. I trailed in, saw the full-length shutters flung wide-open and a sign ordering “Do not walk on the floor”. Ok, I thought, noticing a pair of trainers and some ballet pumps at the top of the steps, I just have to remove my shoes (standard Korean practice) before popping in for a gander. So I climbed the steps, unlaced my boots, and strode into the open-plan sitting room with an air of expectation. At this point I realised that there was a TV on in the next room and the sound of chatting and dinner being prepared. It dawned on me that I had just cheerfully intruded on somebody’s home. I nervously tiptoed backwards out of the open window before anyone saw me, leapt into my boots and stumbled up the road before I got done for trespassing.
Back in Andong, it was time for dinner: an event which only served to fan the flames of my attraction towards this gorgeous little town.
Many Korean dishes involve a sort of barbecue, usually set right into the restaurant table, but these days such traditional techniques are shunned for little camping stoves which are bunged directly on top of the old set-up. Not quite so atmospheric nor picturesque but still, they get the job done.
They’re notoriously anti single diners at these places, partly because eating alone simply isn’t done in Korea, but mostly, I suspect, because these dishes are often designed to be shared and dividing it up creates all manner of problems. I’ve been turned away from various restaurants which was embarrassing at the best of times, but considerably worse when it was somewhere that I had stood for a long minute, unlacing my walking boots, and padding barefoot across the restaurant, only to be given the “x” sign (hands across chest = no you can’t / we don’t have it / doesn’t exist / please go away) and being forced to do the walk of shame back to my boots and out of the door, all the while watched by curious and baffled dining duos.
It’s kind of ironic, though, that Korea is so appalled by a person eating alone when of all the cuisines I’ve encountered, it’s arguably the most conducive to solo dining. This is mostly down to the side dishes, of which I’ve rarely been given less than four, and sometimes as many as ten. Every meal is a DIY affair, whether it be mixing and then adding a smidgen of each side as you go, or literally preparing each section a mouthful at a time.
Although I quite enjoy eating alone, I understand why some people don’t find it so easy. But the first mistake such nervous nellies make is going for a simple meal. Sitting there with a bowl of pasta? No wonder you feel so uncomfortable: blindly forking the food into your mouth and there’s nothing else to do but feel uncomfortable. But each mouthful of a Korean meal demands active consideration to decide which flavours you’ll next select. Kimchi? Dried fish? Pickled radish? A touch of that nameless paste? Pair such deliberation with the concentration necessary for chopsticks and you’ve got yourself a meal which requires your full attention and doesn’t allow for a moment of self-consciousness because you’re simply far too busy to allow it.
This was the case for my delicious bulgogi that night. The beef was brought to the table in a pan of vegetables and juices and simmered away on the camping stove. It’s fun to eat: you place morsels of meat, hunks of sticky rice, and various sides into a lettuce leaf, roll it up, and eat the little packet in a single bite. There’s a similarity to Beijing duck except with lettuce instead of pancake which basically means it’s healthy goddamnit, HEALTHY. Finally, the sauce left in the pan is decanted into the remaining rice and polished off. It was the best meal of my trip so far and every mouthful inspired groans of delight. I didn’t want it to end.
But sadly it did, and so did my time in Andong. All too soon I was waving farewell to its windy streets, little temples on corners, hilly backdrop, and smiley old ladies sweeping the porches of their low-rise traditional houses. It was on to Gyeongju.
This city is famous, and justifiably on the tourist trail, for being the former capital of the Silla empire: a single line of kings which ran from 57 BC to 935 AD and was the first to unite the Korean peninsular. They were responsible for bringing Buddhism to the country, in a deliberate attempt to deify themselves, but eventually, after a millennia of unbroken rule, faded into obscurity after one too many attacks from the neighbours (we’ve all been there).
The Silla kings were laid to rest in man-made hills, filled with treasure and left abandoned for many centuries. In the 1920s, a local man stumbled across one such tomb whilst renovating his house and subsequently each of the hillocks were explored, relinquishing a phenomenal amount of both riches and anthropological insights into the Silla era. Everything is now on display at the local museum.
It’s a fantastic place, on the outskirts of town, surrounded by the royal tombs. Unfortunately it’s so packed to the rafters with gold crowns, ceramic pots, intricate beaded necklaces, bronze daggers and countless scabbards that after a while even the most incredible finds lose their impact. There’s only so much millennia-old weaponry at which one can gaze and make impressed sounds before one starts thinking “oh, another sword. Oh, another national treasure. Have we reached the final bloody coup yet?”
In town there was the inevitable street market (from which I tried a sort of Korean sushi, except with vegetables and tofu), cafés, countless phone shops, and the typical hustle and bustle of an average Asian city. But scattered amongst all of this lie tree-crowned burial mounds, Buddhist temples, royal monuments, and resurrected history. There’s always something very pleasing about former capitals: the attractively crumbling relics, comfortable sleepiness, and offhanded proud acceptance of their historical importance. Unsurprisingly, Gyeongju was a place to wander, and I did.
I was staying at a guesthouse run by a wonderful lady who took the time to show me her favourite places in the city, and that was how I wound up taking the route I did up a mountain in a neighbouring national park.
They love hiking, the Koreans. It’s the national hobby. They’re born clutching walking poles. When they describe something as “an easy hike”, what they mean is “no need for ice picks”; or maybe that’s just my hideously unprepared body.
Thanks to cycling being banned for the month before I left, followed by weeks of sitting on trains, what residual fitness I’d previously claimed had rapidly escaped my flabby body. I heaved myself, wheezing and regretful, up the beautiful mountain along what was probably a very slightly inclined path.
It was almost entirely empty – a few people passed me on their way down – but once again, no foreigners at all. The foliage was beautiful (truly, autumn is the ideal time to visit this part of the world!) and I picked my way over trickling streams and stepping stones.
After the final push (200 steps? At the very end? REALLY?), I arrived at a sweet little hermitage. A small room served as a temple, inhabited by a handful of Buddhist nuns, taking care of seven Buddhas which had been carved between the 7th and 8th centuries. This national park is littered with such ancient monuments.
After I’d caught my breath, one nun, who spoke perfect English, presented me with coffee and cake and then suggested I go and find a nearby Buddha carved into the side of the mountain. “It’s only 10 minutes away” she cheerfully told me.
Well, my host had been quite clear that I should be off the mountain by 4:30 to ensure enough light to descend, but it had taken me considerably longer to reach the top than I had expected – a couple of hours – and by this point it was already 4 o’clock. But obviously I suffer from an acute case of FOMO so my protests were half-hearted, and off I went.
This path was barely discernible – in fact, at one point I got completely lost, scrambling up sheer rockfaces and over shiny boulders, and found myself at the summit instead, which I hadn’t planned at all. I took a few snaps, headed back, turned around, and finally found the Buddha. It was small, it was carved into the mountain, in did what it said on the tin. It had taken me 30 minutes, not ten.
Back at the hermitage at 4:45pm, the nun was barely able to conceal her alarm as she suggested I hurry back down the mountain since “it will be dark soon”. No kidding, nice lady; it’s already considerably less bright than it was when I arrived.
I’d justified my late return by assuming that the downward journey would be much easier than the upward one. Of course, it was less physically exhausting but going downhill is tricky in a whole new and exciting way, mostly thanks to the increased likelihood of sprained ankles as one charges willy-nilly down the precarious slopes in an effort to beat time itself. What had been an exhausting but glorious climb up became a nervous and sinister return, as the sun dipped below the horizon, the shadows lengthened, and I prayed I could find the exit at the other end.
“This never would have happened if Peter were here”, I thought accusingly to myself as I picked my way across formerly pretty stepping stones, now slippery harbingers of imminent death. I sang Disney songs to keep my spirits up. I regretted bringing just two small bottles of water (long since emptied). I forced myself to maintain a pace slow enough to avoid a broken leg, fearful of stumbling down a dark, crumbling crevice and being lost for evermore. I uneasily speculated on the local fauna. I clutched my torch with a vengeance. The way seemed bumpier than it had on the way up. The trees seemed taller. And then – suddenly – I was off the mountain and trotting through the quiet village at its foot, along a road, and a mercifully flat one at that.
Finally I reached the edge of the national park. As I approached the bus stop, night was well and truly falling, and an old woman waiting under its eaves pointed with some amazement at my walking boots and her watch. By the time the bus arrived, my joints were beginning to ache, and fear had been replaced by smug satisfaction. The jitters receded. The warmth returned. I triumphantly flung myself upon the back seat and gazed through the window at the inky mountain sillhouetted against the indigo sky. “Hahaha!” I thought with the misty-eyed nostalgia of a glorious returning hero, drunk on success and spectacularly forgetful of slippery rocks and suspicious noises. “That never would have happened if Peter were here!”