You’ve probably never heard of Andong and neither had I. And neither had the Queen when she went during her visit to Korea in 1997, after ordering her minders to ‘take me to the most Korean part of Korea.’ Andong, a compact grey city in the south of the country, was selected by whoever was in charge of the visit – presumably some bespectacled goon from the Korean Tourism Organisation, who couldn’t quite work out why this foreign halmoni (grandmother) was being treated like the CEO of a major corporation. But bless him, his choice was bang on the money.
Andong is home to several well-preserved enclaves of Korean culture in the form of old Korean houses, rescued from destruction by (rare) government foresight and developed into living museums of traditional architecture and village life. Plus a few other curiosities scattered about that make for worthwhile detours.
The city of Andong itself is a solid, uninspiring mass sprawling along both sides of the Nakdong river. Typical of Korea’s many uniformly bland cities, only the scattered lumps of ancestral tombs and temples in the surrounding hills hint at the rhythms of a much older way of life pulsing underneath its concrete modernity. I went for a walk.
Along the banks of the Nakdong, nature soon reappeared. The trees were leafless brown hairs poking through the snowy scalps of the hills, balding but beautiful nonetheless. I crossed a wooden bridge proclaiming itself as ‘Korea’s longest wooden bridge’ and ignored its impressive steel supports to reach the folk village of Andong, nestled in the thinning hills beyond.
In 1976 the construction of the Andong Dam meant threatened to put a lot of old houses underwater. The government decided to save these houses, because they were hanok – traditional Korean houses made from wood, stone and plaster. These houses are a unique part of Korean culture, built with beatiful thatched or tiled rooves, paper screen doors and brilliant, underground heating systems called ondol. The ondol system is still used in – a modern form – in most Korean houses today. My own apartment has heated floors that are wonderful when it’s minus ten outside.
The reconstructed village, many of its houses more or less the genuine article, looked sublime under drifts of perfect snow. It was freezing but that meant I had the houses almost entirely to myself; a calm silence had settled with the snow. Weaving among the walls of wood and stone, I felt like the villagers had abandoned the place mere hours before I arrived. Opening creaking gates and peering in through wooden shutters, I felt like the rude 21st century neighbour peeping through history’s kitchen window.
The fantasy wears off eventually, and the reconstructed reality does set in to some degree. Everything is a little too clean and bare, for one thing, and at the back of the village, another bunch of houses were being re-thatched by typically gruff and un-historical Korean workmen. This section is where KBS film their historical dramas for Korean TV – imagine lots of bright silk costumes, thin beards and elaborate hair. Some of the houses in this part were so plastic you could put your foot through the grey ‘stone’ walls – someone already had.
I wandered through some lovely hills above the village, where pink leaves were scattered over the fallen snow. Below me was the soundless valley with its snow-topped village, the Nakdong river ebbing gently at the base of the dam. The whole thing – one part fantasy, three parts the past – was as perfect as the untouched snow on the houses below. Then a sudden nasal drawl rose up from below me – Australian tourists trudging through the snow. It broke the illusion, but not in a bad way.