Thursday, August 18, 2011

Traditional Living Experience in Mungyong (문경새재 오는 길)

I've finally gotten through the White Paper and the pile of backlogged work that trailed in its wake, so I have time to post some photos.

Last month, Unni and I traveled to the countryside for an overnight trip accompanied by three of Unni's friends. Our destination was the mountain village of Mungyong, which is fairly well-known to Koreans and easily accessible by highway despite its remote and bucolic image. I once got confused and hilariously referred to this town as Wolgyong (*wol = moon, wolgyong = menstruation).

We stayed in a log-and-earth cottage built and managed by a formidably talented married couple, who in their previous lives had been chefs at a high-end hotel in Seoul. Unni had read a feature article about this place in the travel/food magazine Essen, which can be viewed online here. They accept only one "team" per night, and tailor the meals based on the team's particular composition (a team must have a minimum of 5 people). The cost was 150,000 won per person, including meals, lodging and use of the local bathhouse. I was told that foreigners would normally be charged 200,000, but this presumably included the cost of an interpreter. I paid the normal Korean price.

We arrived somewhat late, after Unni's car navigation led us on an adventurous circuit of narrow farm roads carving through terraced hillsides awash with heavy runoff from the rain; we had to make several calls to ask for directions. When we arrived our hostess was waiting under the front awning to receive us.

Our sleeping quarters were in a small annex set apart from the main building and equipped with traditional ondol (heating by woodfire beneath a clay floor). The room was pre-heated to be toasty warm when we arrived and some of us eagerly dove right under the covers to warm up from the monsoon-season chill outside.

The evening and morning meals were meticulously prepared and featured an assortment of local produce. Most of the vegetables were grown on-site, and a neat arrangement of pickling jars stood just off the driveway.

By the time we settled in, it was time to start dinner. We were seated at a circular stone table around an iron stove/chimney contraption. Half of the room was taken up by a series of cooking stations and a whiteboard; they also teach hands-on classes on country cooking techniques.

Our host Mr. Huh stayed in the adjoining kitchen preparing dish after dish, while his wife, the indomitable Mrs. Pak, shuttled back and forth serving us. She also lectured us on the healthful properties of the food we were eating and how to properly enjoy it, including a rather stern lesson on posture directed at one of our companions who had been sitting in a way that was apparently harmful to digestion.

Health through diet was the theme of the program. The food was rather minimally seasoned by Korean standards; Mrs. Pak explained their underlying philosophy that modern Korean food has become excessively salted and flavored, departing from traditional Korean tastes and contributing to unhealthful eating habits. They emphasized that their courses hewed more closely to the "original" diet of pre-modern Korea.

After the evening meal, we moved to the living room and enjoyed a lengthy discussion with our hosts over pink makkoli and dried fruits. As we sipped our drinks, the couple told us the story of how they decided to start this business and the process of constructing the lodge.

Mrs. Pak explained that building her own home was a childhood dream of hers, inspired by the birth of her younger brother and the realization that he would inherit everything from her parents, including the house. "I thought then, why is it that this kid gets everything and I get nothing, just because I was born a girl? And I vowed that one day I would have a house of my own that would be far superior to anything my brother had."

The couple met when they were both working as chefs at a major hotel, and Mrs. Park made the first move in their courtship. The couple had discussed going into business for themselves, and were spurred along after a serious car accident nearly claimed both of their lives.

Five years ago they designed and built this lodge in Mungyong, a superstructure of sturdy log beams with clay-like earth filling in the gaps. The description of the construction got quite technical and I couldn't understand most of it, but I gathered that they sought to imitate a building technique that dominated in the Korean countryside in the early post-war years, when people had to rebuild their homes quickly and used whatever materials were abundantly at hand.

After this discussion, Mrs. Pak gave us a demonstration of her skill in diagnosing people based on Korean astrology/physiognomy charts. We were given forms to fill out which included a variety of rather detailed questions: blood type of course, as well as the year, month, date and hour of birth, and a sort of personality test which involved making a drawing  out of a given set of geometric shapes. I tried to make my drawing look as much like a kitty as possible.

After we were finished, Mrs. Pak collected our papers and got out an enormous reference book which she cross-referenced with each of our answers. She also closely examined the shape of our hairlines across our foreheads. After about 45 minutes of intense calculation, she addressed each of us in turn and explained what her research had revealed about our personalities, physical types, life histories and fortunes. For instance, she told Unni that she sensed she had a lot of untapped potential, and that she would soon reach a point where she would have to make an important life decision. She told me that because I was born in mid-winter that meant I was uncommonly strong and sturdy physically.

She shared more details to the other women in our group; all were amazed at the accuracy of her diagnoses. But as she talked, I realized that everything she said could have been deduced or inferred by an attentive person based on our physical appearances or the contents of our earlier dinner discussion. Once I realized this, it was rather fascinating to watch her work: sort of like living in an episode of the Mentalist.

After more drinking and discussion, we finally retired to our separate quarters at about 10 pm. The room was still as warm as a jimjilbang from the ondol floor heating, which would have been quite pleasant in the winter but on this particular evening in mid-July was rather uncomfortable. The sleeping arrangements were completely Korean-style: no beds or mattresses or even futons, just a cloth mat spread out over the clay floor. There was just barely enough floor space for the five of us to stretch out side by side. I discovered that one end was somewhat cooler than the other and claimed my space there.

Once we turned the lights out the room sank into the kind of total darkness in which you cannot see your hand in front of your face. We had opened the windows wide to try to let out some of the heat, but that meant we got the full blast of the chorus of frogs outside. Though the heat and the hard floor kept me awake and the outside noises bothered Unni, this sort of sleeping arrangement is considered the height of comfort by many Koreans including our other three companions, who were soon snoring sonorously.

We woke up early the next morning and headed off to the local sauna/bathhouse before breakfast. Our hosts had arisen much earlier, before dawn, and had breakfast ready upon our return. The breakfast meal featured various fruits, steamed potatoes, mushroom sushi, colorful rice cakes, and pork shumai. One interesting innovation was American-style pancakes which we were instructed to dip in juk (rice porridge) as a kind of sauce. After the meal we were urged to write in the guest book; they were particularly eager for me to write something in English. I noted that there were a number of entries written in Japanese. Then it was time for a group photo!

Unfortunately it rained throughout the duration of our stay, so I was unable to do what I had most been looking forward to - stargazing. The nice thing about this weather was that the mist lying low on the mountains made for some very pleasing views from the lodge.

Unni made such a good impression during our stay that the couple commissioned her to make 10 ceramic plates depicting their home and garden. Unni had to rush to get these done in time because they were expecting some kind of big-shot in the ceramic business as a guest at the lodge the following weekend.


  1. 또 다시가고싶다...아주추운 눈내리는날 다시한번 떠나보자ㅋ

  2. The place in Mun-gyŏng looks cool. Where exactly is it?

  3. It's on I45 just over the Chungcheongdo/Kyeongsangdo border, near Sokri-san National Park.
    The address is
    경상북도 문경시 문경읍 각서리 242-1
    (reservations only)