Sunday, April 25, 2010
Korea Part II: Places
Korea is a tiny country whose size is only about half of California. Of which, more than two thirds of the country is mountainous area, plus North Korea is off the limit to visitors. At a first glance this doesn't leave us a lot of land space to explore for visitors. So, given two weeks in Korea, we were hoping we could cover at least half of the places Min's uncle suggested. In retrospect we were entirely mistaken. We spent a week in Seoul alone and the other week in the southwest region only. And yet, we ended up with more places unchecked than the places that were checked off. Though this trip ended with a mission unaccomplished, we felt it was one of our best trips ever from which we brought many memories that would linger over many years to come.
One of our first destinations in Korea was the City of Yeonggwang in the southwest coast of Korea. My old friends whom I met on a bike tour in Europe in 2001 were to regroup in this small rural town for a cycling event on the third day of our visit. So, we borrowed a car from a friend and drove down to Yeonggwang. By the way, the GPS in Korea is awesome and you can practically travel anywhere without getting lost. Once we arrived in Yeonggwang, we didn't even need a phone call to find where my friends were. The downtown was so small that we ran into them on the street everywhere. Unlike many other cities in Korea, Yeonggwang still has an image of an old town. The intercity bus terminal looked as if it transferred from the 1970s.
We had so much fun walking through a maze of the seafood marketplace in Yeonggwang which branched off to small alleys which greeted us with surprises.
About an hour south of Yeonggwang is the City of Soonchun. The reed fields in Soonchun was quite an impressive scene. When we arrived there, we kept screaming ooh, aah, wow. We were told that this area is also one of the best migratory bird sanctuaries in the world where local and exotic birds come from all over the world. I could see why. How could the birds resist such pristine nature with a beautiful backdrop of never ending reed fields?
Before the Jewel in the Palace became popular, Toji, meaning the land, used to be a popular historical drama in the 1970s. It is a story about a Korean landlord in the Japanese colonization era. We happened to pass by the village which played a backdrop for this drama, so we made a spontaneous stopover to check it out. Sitting atop of a foothill, the house of Mr. Choi (the landlord in the drama) has a magnificent view of rice fields underneath. This place seems to portrays an important piece of Korean history.
Soon after we left the Toji village, we made another spontaneous stopover at Soonchang, a village famously known for Korean chilly paste. Soonchang is almost synonymous with one of the best selling chilly paste in Korea. The village comprises of rows of hanok, traditional Korean houses, each of which boasts authentic and traditional chilly paste making in house.
In the middle of the Mountain Jiri, there sits a cozy traditional tea house run by a young lady. We came across this tea house when we were on a detour in the Mountain Jiri because of a snowfall from the night before. It was a cold day. The tea house had a warm, almost sizzling floor which warmed me up instantly from my toe to head the moment we stepped inside. This place almost felt surreal to me given where it is. I had to resist the urge to sleep over here and head down the mountain the next day.
Jeonju used to be the spiritual capital of Joseon dynasty, since the first king of the Yi Dynasty originates from here. Today, the original Yi family still resides here. My last name is Yi (spelled Lee in English) and it originates from Jeonju. So supposedly, I must belong somewhere in the royal family but probably very far out in the family tree. There are so many Lee's in Korea that the significance of its royal lineage is seldom acknowledged unless you belong to the original family, meaning your father is the first son of your grandfather who is the first son of your great great father, and so forth. While in Jeonju, we checked out the hanok village. I find the beauty of hanok, a traditional Korean house, at its simple lines in natural color with subtle decorations that are almost unnoticeable. This reflects the philosophy - modesty and reservation - that ruled much of the lifestyle under the Yi Dynasty.
Seoul is not just the capital of Korea, but a country on its own. There is no city in Korea that resembles or attempts to resemble Seoul.
I noticed that Seoul has changed a lot since my last visit in 2004. The change seems to be in a specific direction: the modern Seoul meets the past. Pictures are worth a thousand words.
On the last day of our trip, we decided to check out jjimjilbang, a public bathhouse. We had heard good reviews about jjimjilbang but didn't have a courage to try it out until the last day. We did it at the end. We roasted our body in heated rooms, got a massage, and even shed a few pounds at the full-body scrubbing station. It was such a relaxing experience. We both loved it. What a way to end our two-week journey in Korea!