My time in South Korea was marked by the distinct impression that I was entering the 25th century. Supermarket shelves sung product jingles to me as I walked down the aisles, with miniature TV screens showing exactly how Maeil Milk could figure into my breakfast. Subway commuters streamed HD movies on their cellphones even as we dove deep under the city, and developers were coming ever closer to legitimately replacing my job with humanoid, English-teaching robots. People were constantly connected, IT was king, and at night, neon lit up every building like a scene from Blade Runner. I wouldn’t have been surprised if traffic laws had changed to accommodate hovercrafts while I was there.
In this land of technological innovation, however, there were two bastions of traditional life that I was drawn to, far away from the glowing lights of the cities: Mihwangsa Temple, Korea’s quietest and endearingly plain Buddhist temple, and Cheonghakdong, the last village where people still live according to a traditional Korean lifestyle.
When I first heard about Cheonghakdong, it was from a two-page spread in one of Seoul’s expat magazines. An image of Samseonggung, the village’s main temple, was splashed across the pages and stood out sharply from the other Korean temples I’d seen. It looked like a whimsical rock garden, with big spiralling towers of stones piled one on top of each other, and heavy posts carved with the grimacing faces of guardian spirits. Samseonggung is completely unique in Korea as the only temple still dedicated to Dangun, Hwanung, and Hanin, the three mythical founders of Korea.
Neighbouring it is the village of Cheonghakdong, tucked into the southern Jiri Mountains. In a baffling contrast to the rest of South Korea, this small village has decided to stick fast to traditional Korean life and largely reject modernization. Residents live in hanok houses, farm their own food, wear traditional Korean clothing and (at least try to) send their children to Confucian schools. As the few English language websites will tell you, electricity didn’t even arrive to the village until about 25 years ago.
In a city like Seoul where even the sidewalks are lit up in neon, this seemed hard to believe.
I was intrigued enough to write down the village name in my planner, under a growing section called ‘Trips Around Korea.’ But my visit was impeded by minimal information, written mostly in bad English. It wasn’t until almost two years later, and my time in the country was drawing to a close, that I finally pulled together as much information as possible to make a trip happen.
Getting to Cheonghakdong and Samseonggung was not particularly easy, as it involved an intercity bus from Seoul to Hadong, then a regional bus from Hadong to Cheonghakdong, and then being told by the regional bus driver to get off at a lone roundabout and follow a bewildered young child to the village. I felt sorry for the kid. But he was walking where I needed to go, and the bus wouldn’t drive up any further, so off the mismatched pair of us went.
A visit to Cheonghakdong is largely an exercise in submitting to the universe. There are few explanations and little signage, and travellers keen to explore are largely left to their own devices. The village was smaller than I thought, its main road flanked by two massive wooden guardian statues, and a few streets of low, one-level hanok houses. Upon first stroll, Cheonghakdong didn’t shock me with tradition – throngs of men in hanbok-style dress didn’t come down the street driving horse carts, and I didn’t glimpse women with long plaits coming in with bundles of rice in their hands from the fields. Rather, Cheonghakdong was more subtly attuned to the old-fashioned: there were traditional houses, but modern dress; shops selling dried herbs and ancient philosophy books, but satellites hanging on windowsills.
At the back of the village was an old Confucian school with blue robes hung on the walls, black horse-hair hats above them – but no-one inside actually putting them to use. In all, Cheonghakdong was a quieter part of Korea, and a glimpse into what life might have been before the War, though it wasn’t quite as much as a time warp as I’d expected. It made me wonder how long the community had been here, and how quickly modernity might really be creeping in.
After all, I once glimpsed down at my cellphone, and was almost disappointed to see I still had full cell service. I could probably stream an HD movie out here.