Sunday, November 15, 2009

Back to the roots in the Korean countryside

Before travelling to Korea, I made up a plan that I would like to visit mainly the countryside, since I had been to Seoul before. I thought, about 3 days Seoul and then off to the countryside, perhaps even touring around the whole of Korea (this country is about as a bit as Isan so this should be possible)

Such things however hardly go according to plans. We were somewhat stuck to Seoul in the first few days because it's an interesting and exciting metropolis where you can visit countless neighbourhoods and discover new areas, museums and not to mention the thousands and thousands of restaurants in every street.

Since we included the bf's dad more and more in our plans, he began to enjoy our company too and started taking us to all sorts of places. Suddenly, it became a family affair and this culminated in the visit to dad's home city over the weekend.

Dad's family hails from a proud dynasty of previously Chinese confucian scholars and is very rooted in his hometown. The town is very provincial and situated in the middle of Korea.

Here you can see a picture of Goesan (괴산), on this nice sunny winter day.

I was curious how the countryside would compare to the glitzy Seoul. Korea as a country is not as rich as its neighbour Japan, and nowhere near as rich as the main Western European countries. That doesnt show in Seoul, but it shows on the countryside.

The bus terminal had not been renovated in a few decades and in the shops, old people were heating up the room with an old-style oven, on which they brewed hot water for tea and coffee. It is not a charming place, but hardly anything is in Korea anyway.

I however am a countryside boy too and enjoy a bit of grittiness. It gives this place a real feeling. Nothing is pretended. Even though Goesan seems to be underdeveloped compared to Seoul, the enormous changes that have come to this countryside town in the last few decades illustrate the rapid development Korea has gone through.

The dad told us how they had no continuous power in his house until he was in middle school (about 40 years ago) and how there were no asphalt roads until a few years ago. His grandma was apparently brought to Goesan from the neighbouring village to marry the grandad on tiny dirt roads.

Now, the old house has been renovated and has a modern feel to it, included with a nice warm floor heating system, which is common in all Korean houses. There is cable TV and anything you could wish for.

But the family still own some rice and chili fields in the area. Anyway, the region is heavily agricultural, especially focused on chili, ginseng and cabbage, of which tons area needed for the famous Kimchi (conserved cabbage with chili), which is eaten to EVERY meal in Korean cuisine.

Everything Chili: Bus stops and taxis!

As the three of us arrived in Goesan, dad immediately said that there is nothing to see here and we'd better get on a bus to see the national park, 30 minutes up the mountain. After eating the local speciality (River Snail Soup, Olgaengi guk), we got on a bus to an even smaller town.

If Goesan was something like the capital of a very rural region, we were now in a small town of a very rural region. People in Korea, who normally do not care about Westerners were now surprised to see me and some local men even asked whether my boyfriend is a girl or a boy (he really doesnt look girly, just has a soft face).

The man said that these days in Korea, you'd have to strip people naked to see if they are a girl or a boy. How fitting, looking at the ads of ultra-femme boys in pink clothes smiling at us constantly.

We then proceeded to Songnisan National Park, which was gorgeous. The dad also showed us an ancient palace area, which was apparently where their distant ancestors lived. It was also freezing cold, so we didnt stay for long.

We then went back to the family house, which is usually empty most of the year. This weekend however, other people were there too, so 7 people shared a two-room house. This is easily done in Korea, where just before going to bed, people unfold a portable mattress, and just go to sleep.

These mattresses seem comfortable at first, but not not protect you much from the hardness of the floor. I am looking forward to the Thai massages in Bangkok to get my back sorted again:)

In the morning we woke up to a powdered white landscape and freezing temperatures. See the view here:

We then took the car for a short ride to the cemetery of my bf's grandad (and a range of other ancestors, seemingly). Family cemeteries in Korea are on peaceful hills, which is actually really beautiful I think.

On the back of the grave, my bf's name was engraved in the stone. This astonished him and he said: "I am surprised to see so many traces of me so far away." It made me happy because it was nice to see that he is rediscovering his family in a place he hadnt been to for many years.


Florian said...

I like the photo of the cementary. Really nice setting indeed!

JR said...


Once again a great post with beautiful pictures. I'm so happy you are getting the chance to see the countryside of Korea; it really is very different from Seoul. I look forward to more posts.