Land of the Morning Calm

A few weeks ago, I spent a great weekend exploring Jeollonam-do, a province on Korea’s south east coast.

We stayed in Nagan folk village, which I thought was a fake village to give tourists an idea of what traditional life in Korea was like. I was delighted to discover that it’s a real village, where people actually live and go about their daily lives even as visitors come and wander around. It’s so quaint, and beautiful in its simplicity: typical Korean-style cabin homes on stilts, each with a tidy thatched roof, scattered over tranquil farmland.

We went to bed early that night, exhausted from a day of hiking and exploring in the scorching heat. As I sat outside our room enjoying the peace and quiet of my surroundings and waiting my turn for the shower, the ajumma from whom we were renting our rooms spotted me fanning myself and drinking the last of what was now a bottle of warm water. She disappeared into her kitchen and clattered around for a while, before emerging with a jug of iced tea and a chipped old mug, which she brought over to me and set carefully at my feet. Then she fussed around me, muttering in the way that these old ladies do. It’s as if she’s cross with me and yet also loves me, I said to South African Friend Two when she arrived back from wandering around panicky and lost in the dark for an hour. She’ll do anything to take care of me and make me comfortable and happy, and yet she’ll do it all whilst scolding me, as if I’m her mischievous little grandchild or something. She even came into our room in the middle of the night to turn off our fan, scowling and muttering at us for daring to risk our lives by sleeping with a fan on.

We understood next to nothing of what she said to us throughout our stay, but we were in little doubt that she spent most of the time telling us off. And yet, weirdly, that made us feel welcome! Like we were instantly part of her family. She was so kind and yet so gruff, and it was amusing to sit there watching cluelessly as she fussed around us, wondering what we’d done this time. Every one of us felt like she was our granny. She made the whole experience much more authentic, somehow. We weren’t just seeing an old village, we were really living in it with the local people.

South African Friend Two and I got up early and went for a walk around the village, enjoying The Land of the Morning Calm and understanding completely, for the first time, how it got that name. Everything was still and quiet, save for the singing of the birds, the buzzing of honey bees amongst the bright flowers, the clucking of hens, and the crowing of a rooster. We ambled along the dusty, winding paths, taking first this turn and then that turn, and finding working farmyards and barns, a bench under a beautiful tree in a field full of long grass and wild flowers, an old well, a blacksmith’s forge, an old women quietly working in her garden, a couple sitting cross-legged on the wooden platforms outside their doors, eating breakfast in comfortable silence. It did my heart and mind good to get away from the city for a while and breathe clean air, and smell trees and flowers, and see morning dew on green leaves instead of rubbish bags piled on kerbs.

I’m half-tempted to go there alone next time I have a long weekend, and stay in a little cabin by myself, sleeping on the floor and being fussed over and scolded by a Korean grandmother, rising early in the morning to walk for hours through the village, dining at the semi-outdoor restaurants, and reading and writing in that meadow under the shade of the tree. Just beautiful.

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