Saturday, March 13, 2021

Our First Korean Road Trip! Jeonju, Damyang, and Gwangju

We just got back from a whirlwind long weekend road trip through some beautiful parts of South Korea: Jeonju, Damyang, and Gwangju. Renting a car was even easier than expected here, and it was so nice to get away from the city for a lot of time outside (especially now that the weather is warming up).

Our first stop was Jeonju, known for its hanok village of traditional style houses and being the source of signature Korean foods bibimbap (비빔밥, mixed side dishes over rice with red pepper sauce) and chocopies (초코파이, which you may know in mass produced form from your local Asian grocer). First, we took a romantic stroll through the hanok village.

Since we went on a random weekday, there was almost nobody around and we could easily keep to ourselves. We heard it can get crowded on the weekends, so that was a big relief. There are a number of traditional tea rooms there, too, but even if you're not a tea drinker there are plenty of cute cafes and restaurants where you can grab some refreshments.

After exploring the hanok village, we walked across the street to Jaman Mural Village, a graffiti-covered neighborhood with a completely different vibe. Pretty much every place there was closed, so it was very quiet and peaceful as we walked among the art. There was a range of styles from anime to pop art to realism to mosaics and more.

Next, we made our way to Damyang, my favorite destination of the trip. Damyang is well-known for bamboo, and we could easily see why after visiting Juknokwon Bamboo Forest. It was only about $3 per person for a day pass to the forest, and we spent hours walking around the various forest paths, taking photos, and enjoying the fresh air. (The first photo of this post was taken during that walk! It was so nice and cool in the shade of the bamboo.)

We also tried bamboo ice cream, which you can buy at the bottom of the art center in the forest or all over the place in the surrounding town. (I realized after eating the bamboo ice cream that a lot of bamboo ice cream has matcha or green tea in it, but after a few minutes of obsessive Googling I couldn't figure out whether all of the places add green tea. So as a side note if you're a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints like me or just don't drink green tea, watch out and maybe ask before you buy.)

There were a few sculptures scattered throughout the park, but one in particular caught our eye. This enormous reflective cube looked so futuristic and out of place we felt like we had stumbled onto a scifi movie set. We also saw various chairs, hammocks, benches, and even trash and recycling bins made out of bamboo. I never realized how sturdy and versatile bamboo was before, but whoever designed the park did a wonderful job showcasing some of its many uses.

A self-proclaimed "slow city", Damyang is more interested in preserving traditions and a simple way of life than throwing out all the old for the new. There's a road lined with metasequoia trees with pedestrian segments where music plays from hidden speakers, but we only saw it from a distance. (I'll admit, it was a little less impressive when the trees are still bare from winter, but the photos from the rest of the year I saw online look stunning.) We also tried to visit Gwangjuho Lake Eco Park, but it was admittedly a flop. I chickened out right at the beginning of our walk there because there were way too many mosquitoes. (And anyone who knows me in real life can attest to the fact that mosquitoes disproportionately love me.) I'm still glad we dropped by that park, though, so I could see three majestic king willow trees over 400 years old located right by the entrance!

I also snapped a picture of the cute, generic cafe where we grabbed lunch. For those back home who might be curious, you can see examples in the picture of how South Korea implements measures to mitigate COVID-19. Even though we were the only customers in the cafe, we had to have our temperatures checked to make sure we didn't have a fever. In addition, all customers needed to register for mandatory contact tracing either through a phone app or a sign-in sheet that includes your name, where you live, and your phone number. That way, if a confirmed case is found in an area where we've been, it's much easier to contact everyone and make sure we quarantine and get tested. On top of that, they had hand sanitizer for us to use and we had to wear masks unless we were eating or drinking. All of these measures are commonplace in South Korea, and we're impressed!

Our final stop was Gwangju, M's favorite of the trip (mostly because our super-tiny Airbnb helped him briefly live out his extreme minimalist dreams). There was a big contrast between his preference for the ultra-modern studio apartment and my favorite place we stayed, a traditional hanok with a gorgeous hanok cafe nearby.

Gwangju is famous as the site of a pro-democracy uprising starting May 18, 1980. It was largely led by many students back when South Korea was an authoritarian dictatorship. (CONTENT WARNING: VIOLENCE, RAPE) Activists were tortured, raped, beaten, and killed. Although the government squashed the uprising at the time, its legacy has played an enormous role in modern South Korean history and politics.

We visited the May 18th Memorial Park in the city, which held several moving monuments of the massacre including a monument of wounded activists and a statue of a woman mourning her dead child. I was horrified at the sheer number of names of those killed displayed in the Memorial Park and the rows and rows of graves in the 5.18 Cemetery, with smiling photos of the deceased next to each burial mound. If you've never heard of the Gwangju Uprising before and want to know more, I highly recommend watching the 2017 South Korean movie A Taxi Driver or reading the many related posts on Gusts of Popular Feeling, a blog run by a Canadian who writes for the Korea Times and has a deep knowledge of South Korean history backed up with primary sources.

Today, Gwangju is still known for its disproportionately large student population and its related innovative foodie culture at the crossroads of different regional cultures. After we paid our respects at the May 18th Memorial Park and 5.18 Cemetery, we explored the city, celebrating the vibrancy of Gwangju and South Korean life, something I firmly believe was only made possible by the courage of pro-democracy activists generations ago. We tried food the area is known for, including tteokgalbi (떡갈비, seasoned beef patties) and daetongbap (대통밥, rice cooked in bamboo), for the first time.

After Gwangju, we were ready to drive back home. On the way back, we decided to make a spontaneous stop somewhere where it looked like we might be able to take a walk. Imagine our surprise when we found a small neighborhood designed like a European town, complete with bakeries, squares, fountains, and boutiques! It was called Meta-Provence and is modeled after France, and walking around there really felt like we had briefly stepped into another continent. It was such a delightful surprise.

After that, we actually made our way back. It took a little over four hours due to some traffic on the way, but the only tricky parts were figuring out which lanes to drive in to pay our tolls properly and refilling the car when the pump didn't have information in English. (If you're new to driving in South Korea, I highly recommend this guide and this one.)

A road trip is a great way to explore South Korea, especially during a pandemic. The roads are wonderful and well-marked and renting a car was easy. Even if you're avoiding indoor attractions or sites with crowds, there are plenty of safe places to explore outside and enjoy Korea's extensive natural beauty. I hope as the weather gets warmer and more of the population gets vaccinated, it'll be even easier to get out and experience the country.

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