Julian and I decided to check out Andong. One of the oldest surviving settlements in Korea, Andong flourished during the Joseon dynasty and became the center of Confucian studies.
Today there are still many villages that maintain a traditional lifestyle and I was eager to experience “old” Korea after swimming in the large streets of Seoul.
Somewhere along the drive from Daegu to Andong, the vista changed from grimy cityscape into rural tranquility and I found myself tearing up looking out over rice fields and rolling mountains. There was an ache in my heart that couldn’t seem to take in the beauty. It’s not a sight I’ve ever seen before, but I felt like I finally found my place here. This was the Korea I had dreamt about. Traditional style houses were nestled at the foot of tree covered hills, overlooking wet rice paddies and flourishing gardens sown with onions, garlic and greens. I could imagine myself living a quiet country life here and being quite happy puttering around with my kimchi bottles and daenchang.
Before we headed out to the Hahoemaeul- a small village where we planned to spend the night, we paid a visit to the Andong Soju and Food Museum. It only seemed fitting. Along with Confucianism, Andong is also famous for its potent soju. At 45 proof, maybe those scholars needed something to make their studies more palatable. We got a free shot at the end of the museum tour, which was a smart way to entice us to buy some bottles…not that any Koreans ever seem to need an excuse to buy more soju! It did come in handy later that evening when we missed any chance for dinner. Just as beer was a meal in a stein for German monks, the soju was our nourishment in a bottle for the evening (which led to tree hugging, standing on our heads and chasing after a full moon with camera and tripod).
Korea has charmingly seemed to embrace not only the autobahn system, but also the confusing road signage one encounters in Deutschland. (at least I seem to get to get turned around every time I set foot on the autobahn…place exit signs BEFORE the exit and not after, please!) We got lost on our way to Hahoemaeul and ended up in another small village which led to an adventure with a minister, a sinner and a scribe.
I’ve always heard of Korean hospitality, and even encountered it firsthand, but this has usually been with family friends or acquaintances.
To be honest, I’d been feeling a little cynical about my Korean experiences thus far as I’d already been ripped off a few times and looked down upon for my gyo-po inadequacies by strangers, so I was pleasantly surprised when Julian and I stepped into the courtyard of what I thought was a museum house (it was the home of a scribe from the Joseon dynasty) and was greeted by the man of the manor. He insisted we sit down on his open veranda and plied us with drink and a history lesson. I’d never seen a man so eager to entertain guests.
In another amusing turn of events, a local minister came up to the house to distribute the good word and…packets of tissue. I guess it was free advertising for his ministry, (address, phone number and a rainbow clearly printed on each packet) and as I realized during the rest of the trip…tissues come in handy. Ladies- when visiting Korea remember to always have tissues and hand sanitizer on hand as most of the public restrooms in smaller towns will supply you with neither tp nor soap! Something that didn’t sink in until about the 3rd time I reached for an empty toilet paper dispenser, cursed profusely and did the little drip dry dance! He was smart, that minister, as I did indeed thank god for the tissues the next time I walked into a bereft lavatory.
I guess not too many tourists make it up to this tiny village because our host insisted on giving us a little tour of another historical landmark and the minister tagged along, even though he was clearly displeased to be associating with a known sinner (our man was evidently not a churchgoer). In a little competition of- dance for the foreigners, the two of them were a veritable Laurel & Hardy, shooting off facts and tidbits of information. We made a curious group, a minister, the godless grandpa, the wei-guk-in and the gyo-po.
We had, what would be both our lunch and dinner, at this amazing restaurant on the way to Hahoemaeul. Most people are familiar with Korean BBQ, and I am no stranger to a good piece of meat, but I guess Andong beef is another speciality of the region. Perfectly marbled, juicy, tender deliciousness, our lunch kind of ranked up there among one of the best meals I’ve ever had. (These people really have a good thing going- good soju, good beef, fresh local produce and a tissue dispensing preacher) The banchans were also fresh, and the daengang was perfectly potent.
Finally at Hahoemaeul we found a room at a minbak that overlooked the river.
There was a peace and tranquility there that I had been looking for. I guess I’ve always been a country gal at heart. The sight of farms just really turns me on, and I’ve always dreamed of having my own ecologically sound, environmentally friendly, self sustaining piece of heaven. This was a close approximation, with a chorus of frogs, cuckoo birds and endless stars. In the morning our Minbak lady fed us a veritable buffet of local produce, including mackerel, pickled garlic stems, and soybean sprout soup. This woman was a true artisan or she was hooked up with some really good cooks. I’ve never tasted such delicious banchans…it actually even puts my aunt’s cooking to shame.
After a quick hike up to the cliff overlooking the village and a spin around one of the Confucian academies, we spent a lazy hour at a sandy riverside beach. I was feeling the fatigue from a night of Andong soju and an early morning wake-up call when the ahjumas staying in the room next to us started chattering at 6am. There’s nothing like standing on my head to get the blood and chi flowing. Once upside down, I noticed that the two hilltops behind the Confucian academy looked exactly like a pair of of breasts-the only way I could convince Julian to get vertical. He never saw the mountain boobage, but he got a good look at mine when I leaned down to take his pic. : P
gyo-po: someone ethnically korean that has grown up in another country.
banchan: the many different side dishes one gets when eating a traditional Korean meal
daengang: fermented soybean paste. Can be eaten as a paste with veggies, is also used in stews and soups as a flavor base
minbak: rooms to rent in people’s home. Kind of like a B&B but infinitely more spare (you sleep on the floor with mats- korean style) and widely ranging in levels of cleanliness. Our minbak at Hahoemauel was great.
ajhuma: korean word for an eldery lady..anyone ranging from as young as 40- grandmother..it’s more a mentality and way of behaving than an actual age thing…but beware those crowds of ahjumas with their sun visors and hiking sticks! they don’t let anything get in their way.
nengmyun: cold noodles eaten during the summer, served in a chilled meat broth with garnishes of cucumber, asian pear, pickled radish, boiled egg and slices of roast beef. it’s seasoned with a spicy mustard and vinegar…delish!
galbi tang: soup made from beef bones and ribs that are sliced in a special way. it’s one of my favorite comfort foods! (the one at this restaurant was adequate but not amazing)