Chuseok Break has officially started. What better way to celebrate Korean Thanksgiving than going to vising one of the oldest cities in Korea in order to travel back in time. Andong is Korea’s center of Confucianism and folk history. This history is often celebrated in October with folk masks and dancing. Andong is also known for a few specialty foods none of which I tried (shame on me). This is one of the downsides of being a solo traveler in Korea, lots of restaurants serve dishes family style thus being way too much for one person to eat and a bit pricy to justify ordering a dish then not finishing it. Andong is also famous for being the epicenter of Soju (didn’t have any of that either) Korea’s inexpensive drink of choice. Here is a fun fact for you; Koreans drink more alcohol by volume than Russians. This is all thanks to Soju. It’s cheap, about $2.00 a bottle, and if you are a lightweight like I am, one bottle will definitely push you well past the tipsy limit.
I did not do much planning for the weekend as there were only two things I was interested in; first, to visit Hahoe Folk Village and second, see a mask dance. In hindsight, I probably should have been a little more meticulous with planning my agenda.
I made reservations through Airbnb about a month ago to stay in a small Buddhist temple located just slightly outside the main part of town. Only two monks live there along with a caretaker for the monks. This was not going to be a typical temple stay because I will have a lot of freedom to do what I want and come and go as I please. Breakfast would be provided between 6:30-7:30 a.m (insert wince emogi here) and lunch at noon. The only rule was no alcohol on the premises. I am not Buddhist, but I wanted to see what temple life was like for the monks.
Instead of the train, I decided to take the express bus from Gangnam in Seoul to Andong. I would have rather taken the train but I waited too long to buy the tickets. Now, Chuseok is the busiest travel holiday in Korea, meaning that airports and roads would be chaotic for a good portion of the week. In fact, the news said that if you were flying out of Korea to be at the airport three to four hours before your departure time. I am so glad I did not choose to go outside the country. I was worried about going by bus though because of the potential of getting stuck in road traffic. Jin Hee told me not to worry too much though because the buses have their own lane. This ended up being true.
I got to the express bus station early Wednesday morning because I heard the area can be a bit confusing since the station housed both metro and bus station, plus it has a huge shopping area. It is definitely very confusing and you must read the signs very carefully. The good thing was that every worker at this bus station spoke excellent English thus making it very easy to find the area I needed to be in. I made it safe and sound to my bus platform with plenty of time to spare.
The express bus was fabulous! The bus was newer with nice wide leather seats. It maybe had 10 rows of seats total, so you never felt like you were in a very confined space with too many people. Other than a school bus, I haven’t had much experience riding commuter buses, but I have to say, Korea does bus travel right. The bus driver got us to Andong without to much hassle despite the traffic. It is true that Korea designates a lane for bus traffic and for the most part, other drivers respect the rule.
I will break here for my little cultural observation about Korean bus drivers and Korean drivers in general.
- Traffic laws, such as stopping at red lights or yielding at pedestrian crosswalks are only suggestions, and therefore, usually not followed. Be aware of this anytime you are crossing the street at an intersection. Having the right of way as a pedestrian is non-existent here in Korea, and often times we as pedestrians must play a dangerous game of chicken with cars.
- Bus drivers here are crazy! Who knew the Daytona 500 can be done with multi ton city buses? Like I said earlier, my experience with buses ended in high school, besides the occasional bus I took when I visited Chicago. Here in Korea, bus drivers must go through some kind of stunt driver training because they will speed; zipping around cars, motorcycles, and pedestrians, and avoid a possible catastrophic collision by just a hair without so much as a blink. The only thing I can compare it to is my experience with taxi drivers in Cartagena, Colombia. When riding a city bus here you definitely do not want to be the passenger that has to remain standing on a full bus because chances are that if you don’t hold on to something for dear life, at one point or another you will find yourself face down on the floor.
I made it to Andong and to my accommodations with only one minor hiccup; the taxi driver took me to the wrong temple. Luckily the monk or abbot (not sure which one he was) was so sweet as to drive me to where I was supposed to be. He and the caretaker there were so sweet and kind, and went above and beyond to get me to the right place.
The room I stayed in was simple with traditional bedding on the floor. They had the ondal (floor heating) turned on so the room was toasty and welcoming, and immaculately clean. You could smell the fresh scent of the laundry detergent on the bedding as you walked into the room. The only other furniture was a small table and mirror. The room had a decent sized private bathroom attached to it. Perfect for this solo traveler. I dropped by bag off and decided to try and find some food. The monk said that if I walked down the street about 10 minutes that I would run into some small restaurants.
I made my way down the killer hill to the main road. He was right, about 10 minutes in I saw restaurants, but not one of them was open. Crap! I forgot that today was actually Chuseok day, all businesses would be closed. Luckily there was a convenience store open, as well as a few grocery stores. I grabbed my favorite snack, triangle kimbap from the convenience store and a few other snacks from the grocery store, then made my way back to the temple. I resigned myself to spending a quiet evening in my room.
When I got back, the monk was outside and asked if I had found something to eat. I told him I got a snack from the convenience store because all the restaurants were closed. I think he felt a bit sorry for me because he invited me to eat dinner with them at six, something that was not included in my package. I was very grateful for his kindness.
Temple food is vegetarian; the food here was so well prepared and flavorful, that this meat eater did not miss meat at all. The lady that does the cooking was a doll, and would talk my ear off in Korean. I hardly understood a word she said since not only did she speak in Korean, but also in the dialect of the area, which made it difficult for me to understand the very little Korean that I do know. We clicked instantly though. They fed me well that night and gave me tons of fruit to take home with me. All in all, it was a great day.
Here are some pictures I took of the temple. This concludes day one of three here in Andong.