The ride from the airport to my hotel in Myeongdong was a struggle. My cab driver was fighting Seoul’s morning traffic; I fought the grogginess from being on the red-eye flight.
At the hotel, I was told to leave my bags and get on the bus. The trip had already started and people were waiting. I hurriedly dug my jacket out of my luggage and joined the group, panicking momentarily that I didn’t have a workable SIM card and I hadn’t had any coffee.
The day was packed with a succession of sightseeing stops, pedicab (rickshaw) rides, marketplaces and walking around various shopping destinations. However, what I was looking forward to was still ahead. I was scheduled on this media trip to visit South Korea’s Unesco World Heritage sites and gain a better understanding of the people.
But before all that, I had to get used to being very cold.
On royal grounds
It was early December and the temperature on my phone read 4°C (and kept falling throughout the trip, even dipping below zero) the next morning. And it felt like it.
People quickened their pace on the sidewalks, hot coffee in hand, as they hurried to their destination, unfazed.
Thankfully, my ride arrived and I was bussed to the famous Changdeokgung Palace. The palatial grounds are expansive and was originally built in 1405 as one of the royal residences during the Joseon Dynasty (1392 to 1897). Rebuilt in 1610 after the Japanese invasion, it continued to house the royal family for nearly three decades.
This Unesco World Heritage site is made up of several colourful buildings decorated with traditional Korean flourishes and accents. In the winter, the hues seemed subdued and the grounds took on a sombre atmosphere. Against the steel grey sky, the beautiful architecture fired up my imagination as to how the place must have looked in its glory days.
The now large empty square in front of the throne hall would have been filled with ministers and dignitaries seeking an audience with the king. They would have stood in line according to their rank – their allocated spots can still be seen etched in stone on the floor centuries later.
The Joseon Dynasty saw its share of wars, going up against Japan, Russia, China, the United States and even the country’s own dissidents. I wondered if military campaigns were announced and discussed on a winter’s day just like this one.
Some areas were cordoned off for preservation and the only way to see the throne room was to peek through windows or stand behind the threshold of doors. The imperial room was ornate, as a throne room should be, but unlit. The only light came from the flash cameras and cellphones of the tourists.
The palatial grounds come complete with pavilions, rolling gardens and lakes. In the winter, the usually vibrant lotus plants floating in the lakes had turned black and shrivelled, but that only added to the atmosphere of the place. A section of the garden is cut off from the rest of the grounds. Called the Secret Garden, this was where the royal family would spend private time together. I wondered what they talked about, or what family activities happened there.
Perhaps it was the cold, but visitors were oddly quiet and reverent, as if afraid to disturb the ghosts of the past.
The next day’s trip to Andong, south-east of Seoul, took about three hours. At rest stops, I cursed whenever I stepped off the bus – more from the cold shock than out of habit. It was getting colder and everything outside was snow-covered.
I arrived at Hahoe (pronounced ha-huay) Village, another World Heritage site after lunch. The name, meaning “river” and “return”, comes from how a river loops around this hamlet, almost completely surrounding it.
Totem poles that mostly featured faces – some wildly smiling while others were threatening and angry – stood at the entrance of the village. “They are to ward off bad luck,” says my guide, and I decided not to take it personally.
While I wouldn’t like to have strangers walking around my home grounds and trying to peer into my windows, the people of Hahoe didn’t seem to mind. Truthfully, there wasn’t a single villager to confirm this. The only signs that people actually lived there were the cars outside the homes and the satellite dishes.
During warmer months, there are festivals, boat rides and even firework displays at the village. I don’t blame them for remaining indoors now, even if that made the village feel a little eerie and deserted. Only tourists would want to be out in this cold.
Hahoe is 600 years old and the houses have remained largely unchanged. The Ryu family is attributed for starting the settlement, following the philosophy that people of different social status could live side-by-side. My guide explained that the roof is a tell-tale sign of one’s status. Thatched straw roofs are for those who are poor, and the tiled ones are the homes of wealthier people.
The village is also famous for mask-making. The intricately carved wooden masks, similar in design with those on the totem poles, feature the same smiles and snarls. In the past, they were often used ceremonially and sometimes for subtle social commentary.
Thriving in winter
Next year, South Korea will host the PyeongChang Winter Olympics and Paralympics, and the race to have everything ready in time for the games has already started.
On the snow-capped slopes of the Alpensia Ski Jumping Centre, a venue for the games, final touches were put in place. Together with visitors, both local and foreign, I was taken to the top of the ski jumps and got a view of what the athletes will see during the games. And just by being there, we all felt a sense of anticipation and excitement for the games.
Not all the events will be held in PyeongChang; some will be taking place some 60km away in Gangneung, we were told during a visit to the Winter Olympics information centre. There, we were also assured that preparations were right on schedule and that everything was 98% complete.
Behind the glamour of their pop culture, Koreans are a hardy people. In the past, the people have faced wars, endured economic downturns and survived very harsh winters. Following this tradition, making the Winter Games a true success and bagging gold medals in the cold is not only achievable, but almost a certainty.
This media trip was sponsored by Korea Tourism Organization (KTO).