I’m now only two weeks away from my departure for Denmark, and I’m trying to make the most of my time here in Korea before I leave. Although I’m insanely busy during the week with teaching and test grading and preparation I’m free on weekends, and with my husband already back in Denmark I’m even free to spend them any way I like.
This past weekend I headed to Jeonju on the KTX right after work. I had booked the trip on a whim the previous week to cheer myself up on a day where I was feeling particularly lonely in monsoon-ridden Seoul. From Yongsan station, I hopped on a southbound KTX train and leaned back to enjoy the ride. I love riding the trains in Korea. They are so fast, modern, efficient and comfortable, and I’ll miss them when I’m back in the bumpy older-than-time-and-belong-in-a-museum Danish train cars (I love Denmark, but someone seriously dropped the ball on public transport).
Around an hour and a half later, I arrived at Jeonju station and quickly hailed a cab and gave the very talkative driver with the thick Jeolla-do dialect the address of the guest house where I had booked my accommodation. He then asked if I had a number for the host, which I confirmed, and then he just called up the host to let him know that an American lady was on her way. This happens to me a lot, to many older Koreans, all white people are just Americans. Anyway, this turned out to be a good idea, because when we came nearer my destination a friendly man was standing by the curb waiving at the car. This was the host of the guesthouse who had come to greet me and carry an umbrella since it had started to rain since my arrival in Jeonju. He led me the last 100 meters down a narrow alley to a lovely hanok house (traditional Korean house) where I had my own private room for the weekend. He was glad to find out that I spoke Korean and happily shared information about the many sights of the Jeonju hanok village.
My room was lovely and minimalist with a sleeping mat on the floor, a large blanket and two traditional Korean buckwheat pillows that provide excellent neck support during sleep. I loved how I could just open the door and step right outside – a much welcome change from stepping out into a crowded hallway and waiting several minutes for the elevator to reach the 12th floor and take you down again.
I immediately went out to take in the atmosphere of the village and was welcomed by a crisp air and a light drizzle. Just enough to warrant the purchase of a 3 dollar pink umbrella but not enough to ruin the joy of being in a new and exciting place. I strolled along one of the side alleys when I saw a sign advertising green tea soy ice cream. I have a weakness for anything green tea, so I figured that would be a good place to start. I found a seat on a patio overlooking the people passing by and enjoyed my ice cream while considering where to go next. I then headed to Taejo-ro, the main street of the village, and immediately the atmosphere around me changed. There were so many people and many of them were dressed in beautiful hanboks that could be rented on every street corner. After having walked around for about an hour, I started to get hungry and decided to treat myself to the Jeonju specialty – Jeonju bibimbap. For those unfamiliar with bibimbap, it’s rice mixed with a variety of fresh vegetables and spicy sauce. It also usually comes with meat and an egg, but I just asked for that to be left out. It was beyond delicious and the side dishes were plenty. On my way back I snapped a few shots of the night view and went home to sleep.
I slept surprisingly well on the floor mat, but having had a Korean mattress for two years, I’m used to sleeping on a hard surface. Korean mattresses are about as soft as a dining table, something that I’ve learned to appreciate. Since I went to bed early the night before, I woke up at 6 am, feeling rested and ready for the day. I showered and got ready and shortly after 7 I was out exploring again. If Seoul is a city that never sleeps, the same cannot be said for Jeonju. I walked the empty streets in the early morning alone and just enjoyed the peace and quiet and all the free space around me. There were no tall buildings to block my view and no loud traffic noise. Just the smell of the crisp morning air, the sounds of the birds and the lush green mountains surrounding the village.
Most shops and cafes were still closed but I managed to find a cozy coffee house open before 8 am. I walked in and ordered a black coffee which I enjoyed on the veranda in the middle of the village. Then I headed back to Taejo-ro where I spent around an hour strolling the yards of the Gyeonggijeon shrine. This shrine was so beautiful with decorated halls, a small bamboo forest and a portrait museum of all the Joseon kings and emperors. Well worth the entry fee of 3000 won (3 dollars).
Before lunch, I paid a visit to my favorite Korean designer Leesle. I bought my first skirt when she had a pop-up store in the Hyundai department store in Sinchon, and since then I’ve just loved her designs. All her pieces are subtly inspired by the traditional Korean dress hanbok, but in modern styles and with modern materials. I found a lovely black knee-length dress and couldn’t resist buying it. If you’re interested in checking out her designs you can check it out in this link.
Back in the village I enjoyed a lovely lunch, did some more old house watching and strolled along the small stream running through the village. In the afternoon the temperatures rose above 30 degrees Celcius, so I decided to go back to my guesthouse for some much-needed rest.
For dinner, I found another bibimbap restaurant, where I had to disappoint the middle-aged serving lady who asked if I was maybe an American movie actress. “No, I’m just a lecturer in Seoul. – Ah, I see…”. Outside the restaurant, I noticed a young boy of 3 or 4 looking at me with noticeable interest. I smiled and waved and his dad told him to say an English “hello” to the foreign lady. He shyly turned away but when I then said “annyeong” to him he lit up and started talking. He told me his name and proudly showed me with his fingers that he was four years old. We chitchatted for a short while and when I left he gave me a big smile and waved “goodbye noona”. Noona is what Korean boys call older sisters. Ah, my heart nearly melted!
The next morning I was back at my “regular” cafe for my morning coffee before doing some last minute sightseeing. My train to Seoul departed at 10:30, so I left the village around 9:45 to make sure that I wouldn’t miss my train. This time the KTX train was sold out, but I actually didn’t mind taking the regular ITX train. I was in no hurry and actually enjoyed the slow three hours of quietly rolling through the beautiful Korean landscape of mountains and green rice paddies.
It was my first time doing this type of backpacking alone and I greatly enjoyed it. I’m already contemplating where to go next!