The checkered skyscrapers peel away…
As a clean wash of green fills my peripheral. The roaring highway reminds me that my vision is no dream, that cutthroat, grey reality still races dead ahead. But, as the pace of the road violently accelerates, the surroundings become gentler. Lush green with the occasional dot of orange and amber swirls. Autumn is here and the leaves have softened their sharp edges, ready to crumple and fall away. Indeed, there is an eerie chill of winter uncertainties, an ill-timed desire for balmy summer, but also, fresh air. A benevolent breeze. A mild wave to soothe the painful visit of its predecessor…finally, the case numbers have dropped.
We are visiting the Korean Folk Village.
The sensation of my Sister’s hand on my shoulder is kept warm by my Aunt and Uncle. They are introducing me to the re-envisioned steps of their ancestors, inviting me to walk as they walked, both nobles and peasants. I am a little sleepy in the car and my Aunt notices… a hearty meal can do that to you. The arrival is unexpected because I see no curved rooftops or traditional stone walls, but metallic vehicles. I soon discover that the ancient village is guarded by a thick divider of trees that stand like guardians behind the ticket booth. A few steps more and we are inside. Masks as per the regulations but the crispness of the air seeps through, as does the sunlight through the clouds — and even the leafy arms of the guardians.
Joyful music grows closer…
As does conjugate ripples of magenta and orange, appearing to dance with each other. A father holds his daughter high on his shoulders. She’s clapping and giggling at the display: The Tale of Chunhyang. An ancient folk tale immortalised by the voices of a hundred generations but, at its core, a feel-good love story where good triumphs over evil. How lovely it is that these simple yarns are the ones that weave themselves into our memories.
My Uncle teaches to make a wish…
Using a strange-looking boulder lined with paper bows. I wish for what I’ve always wished for: my family’s happiness — including that, now, of my extended Korean family. I guess that many of these knots hang tight with desire for the wellbeing of others. Of course, a wish is just a wish, whether in thought or on paper. And yet I still threw a coin into the Trevi fountain, and I am tying the knot here today…no husband of course. But, in failing to find the magic of some astral intervention, I feel content with the yātrā of desires just as it is. That we can be complete strangers, alien to each other by our geography, language and culture, but be united by — of all things — wish-making, to me, is simply wonderful.
The dusty path crunches a little beneath my sandals.
I am glad I wore sandals. My scuffed up Reeboks, while definitely ancient, would have sullied the illusion. We pass nurseries where native plants, both culinary and medicinal, are growing. I see a signpost for the pharmacy and go to take a look…crunch crunch crunch. There’s a collection of dried herbs with names as mystical as their healing properties: milk vetch root, ginseng, barrenwort… the latter has some very interesting alternate names, definitely worth a google search. It is abstract nature at its finest. The natural world boasts such exciting wildness that I wonder why we rely so much on fantasy to entertain us…must remember to level up my alchemy skill on Skyrim. A passing thought of the injured health service back home reminds me there are no magic beans within medicine. Neither green tea nor neat little pills are wholly curative, though both have their place.
An unlikely emblem of my trip.
I see a young girl in a traditional hanbok riding a horse. The hanbok rentals are certainly beautiful here and theres something special about them: the skirt billows in the same way I’d seen before but the fabric has been nipped in places. The translucent layer swirls inwards into the grooves, producing a unique constellation of sparkles when the light hits just right. And the horse’s gentle rocking brings rhythm to the shimmers. In a week’s time I will be riding a horse too, at a stable in Ilsan…no hanbok though.
Blooming in natural bouquets. Their naked colour and pattern look almost like a photo edited with high saturation. If I wrapped these flowers in brown paper and twine, I could sell them at a high price on the streets of Seoul. A Seoulite could brighten up their dull office or the spirits of a young lover. A passing thought reminds me of those perfectly vertical trees that line Cheongdam Fashion Street. Here, though, the flowers shoot lopsided and askew, far too chaotic to sit still in an arrangement. Suddenly they look as though I could sell them for nothing…I ought not to uproot them. Much like the language of the ‘folk’, the flowers here grow of their own vernacular. Delineated by latin names written on wooden planks but their manner is still that of the village.
Wild creatures too.
Past the days of roaming wild boars into a new era, where stray cats are our closest connection to the primitive. A pair of dainty paws appear from behind a shrub, creeping out in search of food…here comes Nabi. She’s certainly young and wild enough to forage alone, but domesticated enough to beg. Just like how flowers bloom towards sunlight, Nabi blooms at the sight of patrons and their snacks. Especially children, as they’re often the fussiest eaters — and the clumsiest — willing to drop a piece of pajeon (파전) or sweet bulgogi (불고기)…certainly not the strange, spicy cabbage that stuck to my whiskers! What serendipity this is, for both Nabi and the village ‘folk’. She gets to inherit her very own Garden of Eden, while the staff gain their newest attraction. And she does a stand-up job at making all those who walk past her smile and coo.
As I hear music once more, this time, flutes are the central instrument. I think of Scandinavia. Here too, there are plenty of wooden alcoves, greenery and inherent freshness. And my Dad’s face painted bright and happy by Norway’s natural beauty. The Folk Village has similar powers. Then, I think of Scotland, where my blood runs as calmly as the waters of the Fjords. If the breeze was a little chillier and they sold haggis instead of sundae (순대), with this music, it could be Scotland. My Uncle buys me a hun (훈) as a gift: an egg-shaped flute made of clay, with the faint etching of a Chinese character. The merchant plays adeptly, his well-timed blows flow in and the sounds of both Korea and Scotland flow out. The men with ribbons continue to dance… but where are the kilts?
The sun hangs low…
As do my drooping eyes. I am sleepy again but it is a kind of pleasant sleepiness. Not jaded, but tired with a full and happy day behind me. I have found my new favourite place in Korea, Folk Village. A healing oasis from my hectic, yet exciting, life in Seoul — and it’s accessible by subway! The village stands still in time but I imagine how it could change with the seasons. In the winter, maybe snow will pool in the dips of the rooftops. In the spring, maybe the flowers will attract an illustrious carnival of honeybees and butterflies. In the summer, maybe Nabi will move a little closer to the patrons resting under the gazebo, instead of sweltering alone in the hot sun.
When I return, maybe I will be with my family, my Dad and Brother in hanboks and still handsome even with their clashing knapsacks and walking boots.