Do you want to know the hardest thing about staying in Korea? Wrapping my brain around the similarly-named cities. I stayed in eight places altogether, three of which were called Gyeongju, Gwangju, and Gongju. That said, either my pronunciation is top-notch or the bus stations employ really excellent staff because I ended up in the right place every single time.
Although I didn’t know it before I got there, Gwangju is infamous for being the site of a horrific government-sanctioned massacre of protesters. The “Tiananmen Square of Korea” happened in 1980 and eventually sparked significant changes in Korea’s political situation, leading to the government of today. Nonetheless it remains deeply controversial, not least because nobody is entirely sure how many people died; 207 minimum, but some sources suggest ten times that.
Perhaps as a direct result of its murky history, and continued political activism, it’s gone from representing one of the poorest corners of the country to a very different side of Korea. I decided to visit on a whim (standard), solely because I’d learnt that they have an “Art Street” (again, standard).
What I hadn’t realised was that Gwangju is now the shopping capital of Korea. Whereas Busan’s citizens are seen as a bit shabby and behind the fashion times, Gwangju’s youth are the hippest around. Not that it’s particularly difficult for them, given the massive pedestrianised shopping area in the city centre which is almost entirely dedicated to beauty and fashion, with a few jewellery and electrical outlets thrown into the mix. Young female Koreans are obsessed with their beauty regimes. Make-up and skincare shops are so ubiquitous and competitive that they tend to throw in as many free samples as they can fit in the bag, half the time worth more than the products you’ve just purchased, with the hope that they’ll gain a new fan who won’t go to the identical place next door.
And so in Gwangju, entirely unintended, I spent most of my time wandering open-mouthed around the shopping area, completely lost, dazzled by neon and eternally clashing K-pop soundtracks.
The Art Street was lovely, and worth a wander for pretty ceramics, private galleries, art materials, and hand-painted scrolls. It’s right next to the shopping district so there’s an almost linear divide between age groups frequenting the two areas. Being a foreigner, I happily managed to straddle the divide (or look equally out of place in both).
Actually Gwangju was an interesting place to visit as a non-Korean. I only saw one western couple during my three days there, and everybody I spoke to asked if I was a student. Foreigners frequent the city’s two well-regarded higher-education institutes, but despite its recent history, Gwangju doesn’t seem to draw the tourist crowds. In a way, it recalled my reaction visiting Sarajevo: as an outsider, I was painfully aware of its gruesome history, and unsure how I felt about the new generation cheerfully drawing a veil over the past and striding into a new consumer-driven future. What was I expecting? A city of people still in mourning for an event 36 years in the past? Clearly, that would be ridiculous. But it is hard to ignore the fact that this city felt quite a bit richer than many others in Korea, and the dedication to immediate gratification greater than anywhere else. Simply a fact of modern life? Or the result of some savvy funding by the Korean government, resulting in a subtle shift in social consciousness?
One really stand-out aspect of Gwangju was my accommodation. For two nights I was in a private room and one night in the dorm. It was probably the swankiest hostel I’ve ever stayed in: all clean edges, neutral colours, pale wood, very Scandinavian (which probably means that everything was bought at Ikea). The kitchen looked like something out of Good Homes. The garden should have been on TV. In fact it was so nice that when I first arrived, I stood uncertainly in the road for about 5 minutes whilst I tried to decide whether I’d navigated to completely the wrong place.
Which probably made the switch to my next accommodation that much more of a shock.
After Gwangju I didn’t have a real plan. I wanted to be in Seoul for about a week, which gave me two nights somewhere else. After my continued bad luck with attempted hikes, I chose Gongju because it had a local national park which I could visit if the weather cooperated; and a fortress, if it didn’t.
In Russia, the visa application required all hotels to be pre-booked. But in Korea I haven’t exactly been planning in advance; I’ve been deciding on the route as I go, generally booking accommodation the day before. Korean cities are quite spread out and so it’s worth knowing where you’re headed on arrival at the terminus. But Gongju looked to be a pretty small city, and as I boarded the bus, I felt a thrill of the unknown. I recalled how this was the way I had always travelled in the past. Beyond the first night, I’d never made bookings in advance! This was real travelling! Look at me with my AirBNB and my Booking.com. I was getting old! What was there to fear? I had plenty of won in my pocket, an 8-year-old Rough Guide, and a positive outlook. I’d probably find a real gem.
Arriving in Gongju I was struck that this definitely wasn’t the sort of place frequented by foreign visitors. There were no hostels or an obvious area for guesthouses. With the wind slightly taken out of my sails, I headed instead for the cheap hotel recommended by the guide, but as soon as I saw the outside I realised it was way out of my price range and had a moment of panic. I turned to the establishment behind me. It was covered in lights and had an emblem of a unicorn and was called “Motelrear”.
A wizened but probably only middle-aged woman gestured at me. “One?” she asked. One night, one person, one room? Who knows? I nodded. She beckoned me in and gestured at the sign on the wall, proclaiming an hourly rate of W10,000 or – if one were feeling extravagant, or energetic – nightly at W45,000 (£25). “Discount!” she barked, punching 40,000 into a calculator and brandishing it in my face. Trying to ignore the Dynasty-chic decor in the reception area, I accepted my fate.
The 5th floor hallway confirmed my fears: it was bathed in a noxious red light, and the carpet rendered our footsteps eerily silent. We entered the room together. It, too, glowed with a scarlet hue. The bedspread was a garish red and gold velvet. One entire wall was covered with a modern flower pattern which actually wouldn’t have been out of place in a boutique London hotel circa 2005.
And just as I was thinking “maybe this is actually a nice hotel in Korea and they just like this particular lighting arrangement and I am making very unfair assumptions”, the woman began demonstrating how to use the TV, and it switched on to a full-blown porn film, and she didn’t bat an eyelid. I hastily retracted my generous defence.
After she’d eventually worked out how to switch off the increasingly uncomfortable noises (for me. I was the only person way out of my comfort zone), I was left alone, solo in a love hotel. I wasn’t sure if it were comical or poignant. Maybe both.
And funnily enough, once I’d established that it was in fact possible to switch off the red lighting, and never turn on the TV again, and the noises from the room next door had eventually ceased (actually not eventually, it didn’t take very long at all. Awkward), the hotel became not unpleasant. In fact, I rather liked it. And, ironically enough, I had one of the best night’s sleep so far in Korea. After all, the bed was covered with actual sheets which had clearly been recently cleaned, it came with an en-suite and and free shampoo, and they apparently knew I was getting over a cold because they’d kindly left a box of tissues and a bin right next to the bed! Talk about thoughtful touches.
In fact by the time I left to scout out dinner, I was feeling rather relaxed about the whole thing.
For only the second time since I’d arrived in Korea, I followed the Rough Guide’s advice for dinner, traipsing down to the old part of town to indulge in a highly-rated bulgogi. This was similar to the meal I described in my previous post, but there were three fundamental differences. One, this was a traditional restaurant which meant shoes off, sit on the floor, and weep quietly at the supple oldies cheerfully folding their limbs under the foot-high tables whilst my knees violently protested; two, there were eleven different types of lettuce in which to wrap the meat and rice and I didn’t even know lettuce came in that many varieties; and three, there were seventeen side dishes.
I bloody love this country.
Whilst we’re at it, here’s a mini picture guide on how to eat bulgogi:
The following morning, in the cold light of day, I wondered whether it really was sensible to hang around for another night at the love hotel. So with no idea what time check-out was, I escaped as early as I dared without being mistaken for a Russian prostitute (if Russian prostitutes are known for their gigantic rucksacks, walking boots, and bunny rabbit hairties) and dashed over the road to the official tourist hotel, my original destination. I was slightly taken aback when the odd-smelling reception wasn’t remotely as swanky as the facade had suggested.
“How much for a single room tonight?” I asked.
“45,000 won” came the answer, “Free breakfast included”
Oh BLOODY HELL.
Well, if nothing else, at least I can say I experienced an authentic Korean love hotel.
And ironically enough, the new room wasn’t desperately dissimilar to the its counterpart across the road. The only difference was the lighting. In fact the gigantic photograph of a long-legged blonde woman sitting in a sports car which covered one entire wall was significantly less classy than the flower of the previous night.
Korea, you confuse me.
Of course, yet again, the weather conspired against me and the beautiful mountains through which the bus had driven the previous day were wreathed in cloud and off limits, even to people as stubborn as me. Instead, I went for a jaunt around the fortress walls, a route which is frankly quite up and down enough over a 3km course thank you very much.
It was easy to see why the Baekje empire had selected this spot: the views were quite spectacular from all directions, with views of both the old town (windy streets) on one side of the river, and the new (hotels shaped like Disney palaces) on the other.
And after that I thought I might as well make the most of my time in this strange little town, so I decided to head to Magoksa temple, as recommended by the Rough Guide.
Now this particular guidebook is honestly one of the best I’ve ever used, and is remarkably accurate despite being eight years old. But very occasionally the vague instructions are misleading or out of date. And so it was that I learnt the suggested route was no longer applicable and found myself down at a decrepit bus station in the old part of town where foreigners were clearly rare enough that all the schoolgirls giggled and waved at my shyly. I managed to locate a bus going to the right place and even how much the fare cost (two weeks in Korea and I’m basically a local) and there followed a really quite wonderful 45 minute journey snaking through the valleys of Chungcheong province, past hamlets and streams, temples and mountains.
Eventually we arrived in a tiny town – large village, really – at the base of the mountain with no signs whatsoever to the Magoksa. After walking around in circles and finally seeing someone I could ask for help, I eventually made it to the temple, known for its remote, forested, mountain setting. I doggedly set off up the path but after 45 minutes admiring the solitude and tranquility, acknowledged that I probably hadn’t seen any other walkers because night was falling, so cut my losses and headed back.
In the village, I navigated a wonky way back to the bus stop. At one point I passed an elderly man heading in the other direction. For the first time in Korea my presence solicited the sort of reaction we had received so regularly in China: a genuine double-take, and gape of pure astonishment. I smiled and nodded as I walked past him but he was too shocked to respond, and I left him standing in the middle of the road, staring at my retreating back.
It’s nice to feel special.
I hope he isn’t still there.