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(2011 - Winter/Spring Issue)



The bright, modern terminal of Incheon airport beckoned, with electronic signs in English alongside the neat block letters of the Korean alphabet. Luggage. Customs. The long ride into the city passed in a blur of dull shapes and black water. Reaching the hotel at last, I sank into sleep on the other side of the world.

Three hours later, I flung open the curtains to discover high-rise Seoul, bordered by green hills with a river running through it and endless avenues boasting six lanes of cars and buses in each direction. I chose scrambled eggs, tofu and smoked duck for breakfast, then met my companions for the trip south to visit two historic villages recently named UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The road to Yangdong

Leaving behind the capital’s dizzying buildings and waves of people and traffic, we were soon surrounded by hills carpeted with trees. Who knew the Korean peninsula was 70 per cent mountains? Brown sheaves of harvested rice stood in perfect rows in the narrow valleys, while red apples dangled from skinny trees like Christmas ornaments.

Four hours later, we turned off the highway at Gyeongju, capital of the Silla kingdom that ruled most of the Korean peninsula between the first and ninth centuries. Among the famous sites in this museum without walls is the giant sitting Buddha hidden in the Seokguram Grotto and the restored Buddhist temple of Bulguksa. 

Forty minutes east of Gyeongju by bus is the south’s newest treasure, Yangdong, designated a UNESCO site in July 2009. For more than 500 years, this village of several hundred, nestled in the mountains, has been home to the Son and Yi clans, who produced high-ranking government officials and Confucian scholars.

Under a tent beside the village reception centre, more than a dozen local women wearing long taupe cotton skirts and dusky-peach jackets sat cross-legged, cutting squares of glutinous rice and rolling them in pale yellow bean powder for visitors. While they worked, two women in front of the tent picked up huge wooden mallets and began pounding a mass of freshly cooked glutinous rice dumped on a wooden slab. The finer the rice, the more delicate the rice cakes.

Yangdong’s elegant wood and clay houses, with ample verandas overlooking mountains, rice paddies and the thatched cottages of common people, were built in the Korean version of one-upmanship. In the 1500s, when the Son family built a home deep in the valley, the Yi built their main residence over the ridge, facing the opposite direction. When the Son built House of Growing Posterity near the village entrance, the Yi countered with Fragrant Alter in the next valley. To match the Son’s Pavilion of Water and Clouds, a quiet spot for study and contemplation, the Yi built Pavilion of Heart and Water on an equally propitious site.

Thanks to this friendly competition, visitors can easily spend two hours wandering up and down narrow paths, some steep, past pavilions, study halls, schools and shrines, while enjoying scenic views across the valley. Yangdong is not wheelchair accessible. The now-empty courtyard homes usually require a few steps, and doorframes are built almost a foot off the ground to keep out unsavoury spirits. 

Homes of current Yangdong residents are closed to visitors, including the prestigious address originally built 500 years ago for Confucian scholar and royal favourite Yi Eon-jeok so he could care for his aged mother. 

While our guide explained 5,000 years of Korean history, with its tales of dynasties and powerful kings, dashing admirals and clever government officials, we were more interested in how the villagers survived the winter by building a fire beneath their home’s foundation to heat the stone floors. And we wondered how it would feel to find strangers peering into your windows and into your backyard.

At lunch, with metal chopsticks in hand, we sat on the floor of a courtyard home around a long low table, sampling local vegetables and fish from a dozen small dishes. Our host, a Yi descendant, said that while most residents are excited to be celebrities, all the attention has made life a little “inconvenient” and his 15-year-old son, for one, resents it. Mr. Yi, however, has embraced the influx of visitors. He and his wife are happy to provide shelter and 10,000-won ($10) meals to the Korean, Japanese and Chinese tourists who now arrive by the busload. He’s even thinking of offering horseback rides up into the hills.

Hahoe bound

Rather than spend the night on mats in Mr. Yi’s spartan rooms, we opted to head north to Daegu, home of South Korea’s textile industry, to enjoy king-size beds and free Internet at the sleek Grand hotel.

The next day dawned sunny and golden as we drove to Hahoe, a community built by the Ryu clan to celebrate Confucian values of family, loyalty, peace and harmony with nature. Although their village has been a UNESCO site for less than a year, Hahoe-ians handle crowds with ease. They’ve been managing since 1999, when Queen Elizabeth came to visit, setting off a mad rush of visitors. 

Hahoe’s parking lot is a kilometre from the village entrance, reached by forest path or by pink bus. A tourist booth offers a comprehensive map in several languages, including English, and there’s even a museum dedicated to the Queen’s visit. One floor-to-ceiling photograph shows Queen Elizabeth watching local women preparing another national treasure, kimchee, their wrists thrust into bowls of brick-red pepper paste, ready to slather on wilted cabbage leaves to create the spicy condiment served at each meal. Every family keeps dark brown porcelain urns outdoors to age their own stash of kimchee, sometimes for several years.

With few tourists wandering around Hahoe on a weekday morning, we truly felt like we’d travelled back in time. Wide, well-marked paths stretch along the Nakdong River, past traditional homes enclosed by stone walls. I still managed to walk through a half-open door into a private area. A polite “Hello! Excuse me! This is my home!” brought me back out to the main courtyard to meet a seventh-generation Ryu busy talking on his cellphone. We were desperate to know if he was the father of the hot young Korean singer from the village whose photograph was propped up on a nearby ledge. He didn’t answer the question directly, but our guide said it was unlikely.

An elderly couple who have turned their home into a restaurant invited us into their courtyard garden, where we shared generous platters of sweet-and-spicy chicken stewed with clear, slippery sweet potato noodles. The meat, accompanying greens and year-old fermented kimchee were all local, and even the sesame oil was homemade. Our hostess, in a red apron that read “Welcome I am cook,” said she was honoured that so many foreigners want to visit their village. Her husband recalled the Queen passing by in 1999 and Prince Charles the following year. After lunch and many thank-you bows, the 71-year-old woman returned to washing dishes, crouched over a stone basin on the patio.

Time to go, said our guide, but nobody moved. After a leisurely few days in the Korean countryside, we were in no rush to head back to the big city, with its 11 million inhabitants. A familiar feeling, it seems, no matter what side of the world you’re on.

Travel Planner

For more information, go to

The new KTX high-speed rail link between Seoul and the southern port of Busan aims to cut the four-hour trip in half. To access Hahoe Village, buses run frequently from Seoul Central City Terminal to Andong. From there, take a bus to Hahoe. Total travel time is 3.5 hours. Before leaving Hahoe, visit the famous Mask Museum. Mask Dances are held on weekends from March to December.

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