By Sarah Shaw
Last Saturday, I embarked on a weekend trip to the southeast province of Gyeongsangnam-do to bike around a famous wetland, mingle with other travelers and teachers, pick fresh strawberries and visit a festival celebrating the Daegaya Kingdom. Once again, I traveled with Adventure Korea, a well-established tour company catered to foreigners and travelers in Korea.
Because I recently moved to Nonsan, I spent a sleepless Friday night at a jjimjilbang in Daejeon and arrived at the pick-up spot around 9 AM the next morning, strangely located at a gas station. I awkwardly paced around the area and noticed a guy wearing a backpack doing the same. After several minutes, we realized that we were both waiting for the bus, and later, we would discover that he was the only guy on the trip. (Hint, hint, guys: Adventure Korea trips are mostly comprised of women.)
We spent Saturday afternoon basking in the sun and biking around Upo Wetland, the largest natural inland wetland in Korea. Footprints from dinosaurs that lived 110 to 120 million years ago have been found in sedentary rock layers, which have led some scientists to believe that Upo was formed approximately 140 years ago. Other scientists have hypothesized that Upo Wetland was formed 6,000 to 8,000 years ago as a result of a melted continental glacier. Whatever the case, I didn’t see any dinosaur footprints, but I did come across some interestingly-shaped trees and lush greenery.
And the bike paths were quite lovely.
On the other side of the wetland, we biked past farm fields and gazed at symmetrical rows of fresh crops.
Despite the highly-industrialized nature of the Korean peninsula, many species of plants and animals have managed to survive in Upo Wetland. I spotted a grey heron tip-toeing through the water.
After biking and relaxing in the wetland for four hours, we arrived at our “homestay” in Gaeshil village, comprised of traditional hanok. Some families and elderly folk live here, but we didn’t actually meet them.
We split up into groups and settled into a couple rooms filled with yo (traditional Korean floor mats), blankets, and bean-filled pillows, except for Alex, who had an entire room to himself.
While waiting for dinner, we floated on rafts down the stream beyond the village and tried out some traditional Korean games and activities. Now if only I could walk this tightrope without using the bamboo stilts as support…
Our guide mentioned that we’d have dinner at 7 and a barbecue party at 7:30. I was a bit confused, because it sounded like we’d be eating twice.
And that’s exactly what happened. Our guide, Kyungsu, and the bus driver skillfully cooked us samgypsal (pork belly), which I devoured between swigs of black raspberry-flavored rice wine.
We then mingled around a bonfire, and later a few of us joined Kyungsu and the bus driver for the “after party” where we listened to the bus driver perform his own rendition of “귀요미,” a cutesy song filled with Korean aegyo.
On Sunday morning, I rolled off my yo and walked around the village before our breakfast of toasted PB&Js. Around 10, we arrived at the historical Daegaya Kingdom Festival, celebrating the sophisticated culture of this aristocratic society during the Korean Three Kingdoms Period.
We dressed up in traditional warrior outfits and participated in a number of activities. Many people made Daegaya-style pottery, while others learned out to play the gayageum, a traditional instrument that was created during this period. On the outskirts of the festival, we walked among tombs belonging to previous kings and queens, comprised of rounded mounds in the earth.
I chose to partake in a Daegaya-style funeral?or more realistically, I experienced being buried alive. Lindsay, another girl on the trip, and I, changed into traditional burial clothing and white rubber shoes that were way too big for our feet. We shuffled to our coffins (while trying to keep our shoes on) between two men with stone-cold expressions, within the confines of a rope. I should have tried to appear distressed, but I couldn’t help but smile for the photo.
I climbed into the coffin to the sounds of somber string instruments. Once inside, the men in black closed the lid, and I was soon encompassed by a wave of darkness. Seconds later, I heard Lindsay bang on the wood, but I stayed inside for thirty more seconds, thinking about how I would never have expected to be wearing funerary hanbok and lying in a pitch-black coffin at that moment. We climbed out and bid farewell to the scary-looking men and the smiling ajumma who helped us out of our gowns.
I was too focused on the ghostly make-up slathered on the men’s faces that I never asked if, in the Daegaya Kingdom, anyone was actually led by rope and buried alive. What types of crimes must have been committed for one to be sentenced to death in this manner? Or were we merely seeing how dead people were dressed and placed in coffins? Who knows.
On a lighter note, soon after leaving the tombs, we saw this sculpture. We spent the rest of our time trying samples at each of the food tents, eating noodles and bindaeduk (mung bean pancakes) for lunch, relaxing in the sun, and meandering around the festival’s grounds.
Lastly, we stopped to pick fresh strawberries before our journey home. We were each given a plastic container, but while picking, we all pretty much ate our weight in strawberries. They were so sweet and juicy, but I ate so many that I couldn’t even look at my container until the next day.
Overall, this trip was comprised of active, fun and cultural activities, mixed with good company, delicious food, a hilarious bus driver, and some strange experiences that can only happen in Korea. I’m eating the last of my strawberries right now, and if I had a bucket list, I could gladly check off “being buried alive.”