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Published: February 26th 2012
The world is filled with historical villages that have surrendered their character to the dictate of twenty-first century tourism – ostentatious signs, souvenir shops and restaurants abound, or even worse, persistent hawkers who shadow your every step. After years of travel, I have finally discovered a place which exudes its history with only a hint of conspicuous modernity.
Whilst still breathless from the autumn colours of Bulguksa and Haeinsa Temples, I boarded another train to the town of Andong. My head leaned against the window and while watching the rural landscape flash past under grey skies, reminisced about my North Korean train journey; I saw more machinery on two farms and more cars at a single level crossing then I did during a whole day of train travel between the Chinese border and Pyongyang. The more I explore the South, the starker the differences with the North become.
I glanced at my watch, the train would be late; and since the time to reach the connecting bus was originally going to be tight, it would now be precariously close. On arrival in Andong, I rushed from the train along the platform, descended and ascended stairs, dashed through the station
building and onto the wet pavement outside, for if this bus departure was missed, it would necessitate a two hour wait for the next one. After being frustratingly halted in my progress at a pedestrian crossing (my cursing not forcing the red light to turn green any sooner), I resumed at greater speed, my 25 kilogram backpacks bounced awkwardly as I weaved through the pedestrians. I arrived at the bus only one minute prior to its departure and fell exaltedly onto a seat.
The thirty minute bus journey would take me to the 600 year old Hahoe Folk Village, home to only 230 residents from the Ryu
family, whose scions had reached fame in the field of scholarship and politics. Hahoe is derived from the word Ha
meaning “river” and Hoe
meaning “winding”, so named because of the sleepy Nakdong River that encircles most of the village. Hahoe contains only 142 buildings, described in the local brochure as 63 straw-roofed houses, 50 tile-roofed houses and 29 “other types”.
On arriving in Hahoe, I was again exposed to the Korean hospitality that has illuminated my travels. For the first time in journeying through East Asia, people on public transport
or at temples would initiate conversation and request my opinion of their country. In return, I was provided with a list of essential sights to experience and food to savour. Once when hopelessly lost in searching for a computer store in Daegu, a young Korean couple didn’t just point to my destination on a map, but they escorted me there and remained for 10 minutes to translate my questions to the shopkeeper. I had only experienced this scale of hospitality on the subcontinent and the Middle East. Korea provides that very rare combination of kindness and hospitality in a materialistic and wealthy society.
In Hahoe, this hospitality came in the form of the cultural interpreter stationed at the Information Desk, Ms Choi. She not only walked me over to my accommodation for the evening at the furthest end of the village, but personally showed me around other parts of the Hahoe later in the afternoon. This was not required or requested of Ms Choi, but she did it anyway.
Due to being a weekday, the village was subdued with few visitors. Ms Choi and I arrived at the modest straw thatched L-shaped house that was to be my
home for the evening; I needed to bend to proceed through the low doorway to my Royal Yellow floored bedroom devoid of all furniture. My host family were a diminutive elderly couple who spoke no English, so communication was via a phrase book and the proven technique of demonstrative facial expressions and sign language. Whilst reposing between sightseeing excursions, I observed equally elderly neighbours visit my host family to share tea, food and conversation. Life proceeds languidly here, and there was an obvious solicitude between the inhabitants of Hahoe.
Prior to my exploration, I was offered lunch, eaten on a small table facing the alley. Whilst consuming this excellent meal, a Korean tour group walked passed, and expressed delight in seeing a foreigner eating a traditional Korean meal in a traditional Korean village. I was subjected to much pointing, smiling and photographs, which I duly obliged by striking a pose with my chopsticks.
With my appetite satiated, I eagerly explored this pastoral village, which sat beneath a ceiling of heavy cloud that only allowed glimpses of sunshine during my entire stay. Narrow winding alleys were lined by stone walls and leafless trees in many parts, with other thoroughfares
passing small farms bordered by short hedges or shrubs. Hahoe was exhilarating for it felt as if I had been magically transported to an earlier era. Authorities have implemented extraordinary measures to preserve the heritage of Hahoe. There is only one modest gift shop, and no restaurants or garish signage to pollute the environment. Even the postman has to change from his usual attire into traditional clothes to walk around the village to deliver the mail. Upon leaving, he will revert into normal clothes and board his modern form of transport. Hahoe Folk village should be an example to the world on how to tastefully retain the historic ambience of a place.
One long alley in the village’s centre lead to a 600 year old zelkova tree which is believed to be the home of the goddess Samsin
, and lines of written paper prayers surrounded the venerable tree. I remained out until nightfall blackened the gray clouds and an amber street light cast its lurid tune onto the buildings. Walking back to my lodging, I occasionally heard the sound of televisions, thus demonstrating how modern conveniences can be provided without usurping the traditional veneer. Arriving back at my lodging,
underneath my bedroom fired into life – the heat passing through the floor maintaining a perfect temperature. The deepening night brought even cooler conditions, and after another satisfying meal, retired from the silent evening to the comforting warmth of my room.
Hahoe is known for its dawn beauty when a mist rises from the river and engulfs the trees and buildings. I awoke before sunrise to witness this scene, but no mist was forthcoming. Instead, I became a flâneur to this pastoral and peaceful village as it slowly stirred to life. The good folk of Hahoe emerged from their houses to shower or attend their garden, and a smiling cyclist greeted me as he trundled by in the morning’s muted lustre.
After consuming a late breakfast, I bade farewell to my hosts and mournfully boarded the bus, which shuddered into life and swung from its parking area onto a narrow road. As the vehicle passed the Information Desk, Ms Choi walked outside and sighting me, waved extravagantly with both arms. With that, I departed the bounds of Hahoe with a longing to return to this village from another age, a village that holds some of my
fondest travelling memories.
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