Along my travels, I’ve reveled in medieval castles in Germany, the stoic, hard streets of Ukraine and Hungary, the crumbling stones of the UK, the chaotic technostorm of Japan, and the languid, classic beauty of France.
But there was one journey I’ve never had words to describe. My own country, to Korea.
This is the old Korea, the forever Korea that is always painted on the walls of smoky bulgogi joints and on disposable place mats advertising soju and cheap beer.
Korea is certainly not the oldest civilization in the world, but what makes it different from many others is the fact that it’s remained largely unchanged until recently. South Korea is known for its music, electronics, and the DMZ. Traveling outside of the major cities is more difficult for those who don’t speak Korean, but in good company it’s worth the trouble.
Yangdong Village, too cutely called a “folk village,” is famous for being a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Seeing it summarized in an dry, local tour book, I assumed it was like many other historic sites I’d already visited: a couple of empty, preserved houses with a gift shop and volunteer reenactments.
Boy, was I wrong.
Pulling up, all you see is a huge parking lot. No houses, just new and modern concrete walls, freshly shaved grass, and brand-new, still-bandaged baby trees. Walk through this new part, and then you come to a long dirt road. A few clay tiled roofs begin peeking through the trees, then suddenly – apart from the small welcome booth and a sad-looking coffee shack – you’re transported back in time.
This is the old Korea, the forever Korea that is always painted on the walls of smoky bulgogi joints and on disposable place mats advertising soju and cheap beer. It’s the Korea that everyone wants to remember, whether or not they have ever been to Yangdong Village. It’s the Korea my parents grew up in.
A small, friendly woman came out of the welcome booth and offered to show us around. We walked with her to the house at the top of the first hill, which was built in 1500. The late summer day was still and hot, the air was filled with the buzz of cicadas and the view from the garden wall overlooks the village in the valley, the mountains on one side, and miles of golden rice paddies on the other.
This style of house was the kind that mom used to live in when they escaped the area during the war, with the central courtyard, a boys’ wing and the girls’ wing, and the fire tunnels under the house that heated the floors. And with a view of the thatched-roof houses down below where servants lived. It’s so strange to think that my mother, a former Director of IT at an international newspaper, had grown up in such a place that seemed straight out of a movie.
A woman came out of one of the thatched-roof houses just below. She had passed us on her bicycle when we were walking up the dirt path and now she was bending over the grains of rice on the ground, spreading them on a blanket, rippling them around to dry in the hot sun. She had baskets of nuts and garlic and all kinds of things stacked outside the other buildings of her house.
This is how it’s done, how it’s always been done.
As we followed the pathways through the hills, we discovered so many things you’d never see today: men’s meeting houses, persimmon trees loaded with fat vermillion fruit, private garden plots growing sesame, turnips, soybeans, and cabbage, bright dancing songbirds, thousands of mating dragonflies, hornets, and yellow gingko trees. There was even a huge pond that was growing a large variety of mythical lotus plants (which I had no idea were so tall, and existed in so many varieties), and a stone bridge across it.
Here was everything one needs to survive in a village where time stands still.
And aside from the residents, we were the only people there.
When we got to the bottom of the hill, we saw a handwritten sign at the entrance of one of the thatched-roof houses advertising treats for sale. We walked up and a cheerful, friendly old woman came out and showed us what she had. She had sikhye in water bottles and brittle and those delicious fried cake things that I ate way too many of when I was a kid. She and mom talked for a long, long while and I could tell that this was the best part of the trip for her.
There are countless historic landmarks in Korea, but few as poignant as Yangdong Folk Village. I had spent three mind-numbing days staring at crumbling statues and grave mounds, but the minute I stepped into Yangdong I truly understood the significance of a country that had an ancient heritage that stayed ancient right up to my parents’ generation. I understood how close history was, not because of the museums and plaques and tours, but because history had been happening right until our politics and wars beat down the doors.
And suddenly time sped up, and here we are now in the country of condos, K-Pop, and Samsungs.
Where does all that time go? Is it here, still, stuffed between the hills? Will it die right here if people don’t keep driving 50 km out of their way to have a random conversation with an old woman of an ancient village?
I hope that it continues to live and breathe and stay exactly the same as it has for another 500 years. Only time will tell.*