From the beginning, our overnight trip to Hanelnari Village was a trip into an idyll. As Adventure Korea had promised, our trip included time to hike and explore, time to learn a thing or two about Korean culture, time to hang out with some kind people from the village, time to make new friends within our own group, and time to get run over by a steam train.
Since the weather forecast included rain in Jeollanam-do, my friend and I were hesitant to sign up. A last minute call to Seokjin eased our concerns. What if we didn't sing up and the weather turned out fine? We signed up and were happy we did. Good fortune smiles on those who take chances. The weather turned out to be sunny and clear the entire weekend. Plus, as I came out of the subway exit at the express bus terminal, I ran into two of my friends who live right down the hall from me. That's exactly what I needed. I was certainly glad I had decided to come.
Conversation on the bus made the time go by quickly. After a couple rest stops, we arrived in Goksung at the steam train station. What I recall foremost about Goksung was the sleepy serenity of the town. While the steam train beckoned little kids and big kids to climb aboard with a toot of its whistle, outside the station the streets quietly allowed the few cars to pass. The steam train was fun for its novelty. After riding back and forth on the flat-faced subway cars of Seoul or the sleek-nosed KTX where speed is the fun, the steam train of "Taegukki" fame had presence of character. Steam wafted up from beneath the huge black engine and while several visiting classes of elementary school children safely clambered over every grate, gate and gear, the grill in front of the train dared any cow or kangaroo to play "chicken." We were going to ride to the end of the line. The steam train followed rice field and river over the countryside now made famous by the story of Shim-cheong, the little girl raised by a modest village who later married the Dragon King of the Sea to help her father and restore sight to his eyes. Across the river from the train, we could see her name written with dark-colored flowers and manicured bushes against the lighter green of the mountain grass. We stood on the train so the little kids could sit and giggle and say "hello" and dare each other to make conversation with the foreigners. The two small children seated in front of me held hands, whispered sweetly in each other's ears, shifted stares between me and the person next to me and occasionally looked out the window to see why the train was tooting its whistle. At the end of the line, we took a short break to walk around near the river and take some pictures. On the way back, there was room enough for us to sit down, taking in the view, and still all the more welcome fresh air, of a slightly different track. Back at the station, we rented rail bikes and chased each other around the oblong shape of the park. Our guides pointed out parts of the station we might have seen in the movie. To help us appreciate the station there were some displays of the movie along with some explanations. The train didn't reach to our village in the mountains, so we boarded our bus again, bought snacks and refreshments and made our way to Hanelnari.
As we approached Hanelnari Village, a car came out to greet us. It stopped and two passengers got out and climbed aboard our bus. The elderly man spoke first introducing himself as the mayor of Hanelnari and welcoming us to the village. His eyes and his voice were gentle; everyone on the bus took his greeting to heart. The elderly woman spoke next, intorducing herself first as the mayor's wife and then as former governor of the region. She was quick-witted and made us laugh before they both exited and went on their way back to their car and to another engagement. Their kindness and sincerity were the first examples of what we would see again and again over the next two days.
When the bus pulled into the parking lot in front of the town hall, the heads of the families were waiting for us. We were surprised to find out that there were only twenty-three houses in this village which has been surviving for hundreds of years. We were assinged to our host families and quickly made it to our rooms to drop off our bags and get ready to explore and have some dinner. My friends and I stayed in a detached part of the house, across the courtyard from a large, outdoor, walk-in kimchi refrigerator. Our rooms were simple and clean with enough space for two to sleep comfortably across the floor. We walked around the village for about forty minutes before it was time to have dinner. Dinner was delicious. Even though we were up in the mountains, the fish were fresh. Although Seokjin promises "some traditional Korean cousin," we only got to meet the nephew, who bade us a good meal of traditional cuisine before stepping out. Everything tasted great, meal after meal. From lots and lots of veggies and tofu to strips of marinated beef, hard-boiled eggs and soups. Our hosts were so kind they made us feel right at home. After dinner, we walked around the village some more and then back to the town hall.
On the first evening, we learned how to make beeswax candles. They took the time to explain the process of taking the wax from the hive, adding water and then boiling it off to a usable product. I thought we might be dipping and hanging candles to dry. The village had a better, more Asian, idea. Seated at low tables within the town hall, they gave us segments of bamboo. We learned to set the wick and then poured the melted wax to make our candles; our first souvenir from the village. While the candles cooled, we went outside to sit and mix around the bonfire. We played drinking games and croned a few songs. The villagers wanted to hear more and they tried what we tried and they even gave us a song of their own. Not succeeding at the singing so much, I turned my attention to cooking. I had my mindset on making s'mores this trip. I couldn't find marshmallows or graham crackers, so I settled for whatever I could find. This trip, I came equipped with Chocopies and chocolate chip cookies. If you think Chocopies aren't much of a snack to begin with, you oughta try biting into one that has been cooked over a bonfire and pinched between two chocolate chip cookies. The taste doesn't improve. Not being able to sell them, I began giving them away to whoever was bold enough to try. A few traveling companions ate the whole mess. One was honest enough to ask if it would offend me if she threw hers in the fire. An elderly village man asked for one, which I gladly cooked up. After his second bite, he began to slowly walk away, the gleam of his expectant eyes running as tears down his cheeks. He must have slept off the pain, because I saw him again the next morning.
The next day there was lots to do. We woke up early to the sounds of birds and fresh, fresh air. Oh, the fresh air! Breakfast was another delicious meal. We hike through the morning on a winding mountain road, chasing fresh breezes and, in turn, being chased by bees and other bugs. The sun was bright, the trees getting greener and our steps buoyant to match the kaleidoscope of our conversation. On the top of the hill we climbed was a helipad for village emergencies. On the way back down, we sought out a special herb to pick for the special rice cake we were to make later in the day. We cut and dug out one or two particular herbs, put them in a basket and ambled off in several directions. Time for some impromptu free time that always works into a good Adventure Korea trip. Some found a stream alongside the road and found it fun to drink from. Refreshing. Cooling. Thirst quenching. From the mountain road, we could see across the small valley; in the late morning, many of the families were working together seeding a field with rice. One of the girls made it over to the field and into some long rubber boots and gave them a hand stretcing plastic over the flats of rice seeds to keep them moist. A few of the children began to appear more often playing in the fields and in the mud "helping" their parents and having serioius fun the whole time.
After everyone was back from the hike, we harvested honey from the village hives. Several of us put on netted head gear so we could get closer. We ate honey directly from the hives, honeycomb and all. Sweet and yummy! The bees became a bit more aggressive when the handler showed us where the queen was living. We took the honey and meet the village moms outside the town hall for some rice cake and warm herb and honey tea. What a fine day!
There is never anything rushed about an Adventure Korea tour. We had plenty of time to amble aorund the village, meet new friends, try out our Korean pronunciation on our host families and eat, eat, eat. There is so much to do, but not too much that it overwhelms. I'm glad I was introduced to Adventure Korea and the simple plans Seokjin and his colleagues arrange for us. So this time around, we rode on a steam train, took and easy hike through the mountain fresh air, made candles from beeswax and chit-chatted with elderly Koreans the didn't understand a thing we were saying.
Oh, yeah, I almost forgot. Before leaving we made small books of rice paper the traditional way, with thread to tie the binding. If you have seen those small books for scholars while walking aorund in Insa-dong, then you get the idea what kind of books we made.
We were home before it got too late.
Within a weekend we had taken an adventure to another part of Korea. I can't wait for the next one.
Peace and health,
Sean M. Reed