Tuesday, August 21, 2012

[ANDONG] Queen Elizabeth Was Here

One of Andong’s more popular claims to fame, aside from astounding topography and well-preserved architecture, is Queen Elizabeth II’s visit in the 90’s. It is said that the monarch asked to be taken to the “most Korean” place in the country and they all ended up here. Andong seemed to be more than pleased to receive her and now they even house a collection of items and photos of her visit in a museum found by the entrance of Hahoe’s Folk Village. It also seems to be the only one with aircon in the area, so if you are dying of asphyxiation from the heat, you can seek refuge in there and pretend to admire the United Kingdom’s queen. The entrance fee is already included in the 3,000 won admission for the folk village.

How and why did I come to Andong anyway? Well, the polyglot community on YouTube is pretty small, and while not everyone knows each other personally, there are some of us who have become friends on FB and other networking sites. And so the only reason I decided to include Andong in the itinerary was to meet one of them, an American English teacher who was very keen on recommending his city. I was supposed to go to Daejeon but I am glad that I heeded his advice. I was not disappointed at all, and he was a very good tour guide, not to mention that we finally got to meet up and even do a language video together! And so I had decided to postpone Daejeon for another visit. Taking an inter-city bus from Busan’s Nopo, I arrived in Andong after three hours on a rather comfy and relatively inexpensive bus ride.

And so, back on topic. What is the real deal about Andong? Okay, let me think for a bit. Fine. Mackerel. Wait, what? Well, they have this mackerel dish that is just mouth-watering. Okay, you have to pay attention when I express fascination with anything that has something to do with food. This seldom happens. Sorry if we are skipping the details of the Folk Village for now, but I was hungry. That seldom happens too! After three hours or so of walking under the sun’s inconsiderate rays, we decided to eat at Dae Ga. Judging by the Chinese characters of the place's name, it means “big house” or "big family".

They only have around half a dozen dishes on their menu. Friend wanted to order another specialty which was braised chicken. I had to opt for fish. We had fish. The Japanese couple who didn't speak a word of Korean for whom we served as impromptu interpreters also ordered fish. Order fish when you are in Andong! You will not regret it! Ignoring the side dishes and concentrating on that mackerel and the white rice in front of me, I ate to my heart’s (or stomach’s) content.

Perhaps it's now time to discuss the village itself. Well, to begin with, the whole village is on the list of world heritage sites. That tag alone already gives you an idea that it would be worth the trip, depending on your expectations. If you expect clubs and malls then wow, are you not in the wrong place? As a refresher, this one is called Hahoe Folk Village. Take a hint, maybe? Nevertheless there's some stark contrast waiting here in the form of modern vehicles.

No, there is no traffic like you'll see in Pasong Tamo when it refrains from being a river during the rainy days. The thing about Hahoe Folk Village is that there are people inhabiting the place. Yes, people actually live there, like right now, as they did some hundreds of years ago. Because of this, the sight of cars parked next to a structure that came straight from who knows what century is rather common and should not come as a surprise. The buildings are well-preserved though, and the complex is huge, which leaves no room for disappointment.

The impressive looking residential houses share the spotlight with houses with thatched roofs, which would perhaps remind you of the ones you see in Southeast Asia. I recall Batanes in particular, on how the stone houses also had those straw-like material for roofing. The odd mix would've been awkward but somehow, Hahoe Folk Village just has this pleasant atmosphere that makes one think as though some form of time travel might have been involved. The residential places are perfect for those Hanbok dramas. The houses with thatched roofs give a rural feel. The cars and tourists keep you grounded to the present era. Awesome, it is a real thrill for the senses.

One site inside that you should definitely visit would be the Goddess Tree. It is said that trees reaching a hundred years old or more are automatically delegated such a status based on the belief that a deity inhabits them. Given that superstition, people generally make a wish by writing it on a piece of paper and then tying them to the tree's branches. There is no harm in trying and everybody else is doing it anyway so come on now, make that wish!

What did I wish for then? I only have one wish each time I find myself in South Korea: to be able to study Korean at Seoul National University. This one is trivial, though. I can afford to do this if the sole criteria would be the monetary aspect. It is time that I simply do not have, and that sentiment is more pronounced in this village than anywhere else, I presume. Anything connected to the material world will fade, with some having enough luck to be preserved as a memory of the past, as what happened in this village. Time is arguably more important than money. Being able to walk the narrow alleys that the ancestors of these Koreans have also set foot on, it is something magical, a connection to the past that would be fun to have been a part of. Time, time, time, how swiftly do you fly!

If walking under the sun and risking a heat stroke is not your thing, then you have the option to rent those ATV’s they have near the entrance of the village. They are quite pricy though, which is why I opted to just depend on my legs as I always do. It is up to you if you want to explore the whole village. As amazing as the sights might seem, they become a bit repetitive after an hour or so. This is not to bash the village or anything, but this is some sort of general truth for preserved ancient sites. Unless your imagination never runs out of batteries, you'll eventually get exhausted, but the memory of the place’s grandeur is bound to stay with you forever, and that is the good thing.

There are three sets of swings in an open field and three seesaws. The concept is similar to their modern counterparts but the swing is lower and you're meant to stand rather than sit on it. The seesaw is actually some type of catapult. Again, standing on it, the person on the other end jumps while the other person tries to calculate when he or she should follow through, with the objective of using the other’s momentum to boost one’s own resulting in a higher jump.

Once you get tired of the rides, you can head to the stream where you'll see a cliff which commands what is expected to be a magnificent bird’s eye view of the village from its peak. You take a boat to get there but as we weren't ready for such an exhausting attempt (this was before the mackerel episode), we just sat by the bench and had a chat while listening to the melody of wind and kiddy chatter. The cliff is a striking view in itself and is a good background for a souvenir photo. All in all, around two to three hours is enough to spend here. If you want to include the Mask Museum, then add another hour. Day tour, as they call it.

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