(Yonhap Feature) Gyeongju’s Yangdong Village, epitome of Joseon beauty

By Robert Koehler, Contributing writer

YANGDONG, South Korea, Sept. 29 (Yonhap) — As Korea’s newest UNESCO World Heritage site, Yangdong Village is no kitsch folk village of recently built traditional homes cobbled together to give domestic and foreign tourists a taste of old Korea.

Located deep in the countryside northeast of the ancient Korean capital of Gyeongju, it’s a place that takes pride in its isolation, which has helped keep it as one of Korea’s largest and best-preserved Joseon-era (1392-1910) communities.

Delightfully picturesque, it is a case study in Confucian aesthetics and Korean reverence for nature, with simple, rustic tile-roof and thatch-roof homes lining the hillsides and valleys in perfect harmony with the natural topography.

The grand mansion Hyangdan(Treasure No. 412), built in 1543 at the order of king as a home for the ailing mother of famed Joseon scholar Lee Eon-jeok. Courtesy of Robert Koehler.

Yangdong Village was formed in the 15th century by two aristocratic Korean clans, the Yeogang Lee and Wolseong Son families. The village grew and prospered throughout the Joseon era, producing a number of great Confucian scholars, most notably “Hoejae” Lee Eon-jeok (1491-1553), one of the so-called “Five Great Sages of the East.”

Many of the homes have, in recent years, been converted into restaurants and guesthouses, but several are still lived in by members of the Lee and Son clans, and clan members who live elsewhere return regularly for annual ancestral rites.

The village has over 160 homes, many over 200 years old and a couple over 500 years old. They spread out along several valleys and ridge lines in accordance with feng shui principles.

The village is often compared to its better-known cousin, Andong’s Hahoe Village, together with which it was registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in August. Both are clan villages formed by illustrious families in the Joseon era, and while there are similarities, the differences are also noteworthy.

Topography is an obvious one: While Hahoe Village is a typical oxbow village, Yangdong Village is built along the hillsides, the roof lines blending with the undulating terrain.

Kim Myung-soon, a culture and tourism guide with Gyeongju City, noted a cultural differences as well.

“Hahoe Village was made up of government officials, but Yangdong Village was made up of seonbi,” Kim said, referring to the gentleman scholars who passed their days studying the Confucian classics amidst the beauty of nature. “As you can see, the houses are smaller and more humble,” reflecting the rustically charming modesty of Korea’s Confucian scholar.

By examining the village landscape, one can gather a bit about the hierarchical social order of Joseon society. Tile roof homes — those belonging to Korea’s “yangban” aristocracy — are found higher on the hillsides. Below them are thatched-roof homes that once housed the tenant farmers of the yangban who owned the farmland in the valleys below. Household servants lived within the yangban compounds themselves.

All of Yangdong Village is designated a cultural property (and, of course, a UNESCO World Heritage Site), but 24 of the village’s assets are separately designated as heritage properties.

The large manor houses are the most spectacular, especially the Hyangdan, a stately mansion built atop a hill overlooking the entrance of the village.

Built in 1543 for the mother of Lee Eon-jeok upon his appointment as governor of the Gyeongsang region, it originally had 99 rooms — only the king could live in a bigger home — but many were sadly lost during the Korean War.

At another beautiful compound, the Gwangajeong, visitor and hobbyist photographer Park Jong-gil of nearby Pohang stands behind the tripod, deep in concentration.

“I come here from Pohang when I have time,” he says after snapping some shots. “This is the photographic center of the village … You can create images with real Asian beauty shooting through the windows.”

What he means becomes clear once you gaze out the windows. In the distance, the white clouds float over the green hills and glistening river against a blue sky; in the foreground, just beyond the wood and paper sliding panels, a lone tree stands in the garden.

You can easily imagine yourself as a seonbi scholar, passing the day sitting here, book in hand, enjoying the autumn breeze and captivating scenery.

Charming as it may be from the outside, Korean architecture, to be truly appreciated, must be experienced from the inside out, with each angle yielding a new, captivating view of the surrounding landscape.

Schoolchildren on field trip at Yangdong Village. Courtesy of Robert Koehler.

Only a few years ago, you could hardly find any outside visitors to this village. Gyeongju might be one of Korea’s most touristed towns, but the popular sites, most of which date from the ancient kingdom of Silla (57 B.C.-A.D. 935), are located in or near the town itself.

Yangdong Village, dating from the more recent Joseon era and located far off the beaten tourist path, was until recently able to avoid the flood of weekend tourists that descends on the rest of Gyeongju or, for that matter, Andong’s Hahoe Village.

This might be changing, however, thanks to the attention newly focused on the village following its registration with UNESCO.

Several classes of schoolchildren on field trips could be spotted wandering around the village. A couple of tour buses were parked at the village entrance, the drivers enjoying a chat and a cup of coffee in the shade of a nearby tree.

The increase in visitors might be a boon to the local tourism industry, but it also raises concerns about preserving the village’s uniquely serene atmosphere, which sets it apart from boisterously touristed Hahoe Village.

“After the village was registered with UNESCO, we’ve been getting many more tourists. I sometimes think we should adopt a system like that at Changdeokgung Palace (in Seoul), where limited numbers of visitors are brought around with a guide,” said Kim, the tour guide from Gyeongju.

▲ What to eat
A number of the traditional homes in Yangdong Village now function as restaurants. One of the most famous of these is Uhyangdaok (054-762-8096), an old yangban home that specializes in jeongsik: soup, rice and plenty of side dishes. The home also serves as a guesthouse. Yangdong Village is also famous for cheongju, a clear Korean rice wine similar to Japanese sake.

▲ Where to stay
Some of the homes also serve as guesthouses, including Uhyangdaok (see above) — call ahead to the village information center at (054-779-6105, Korean). Of course, you can stay in Gyeongju, too, where there’s a much greater choice of accommodation.

▲ How to get there
The quickest way to get to Gyeongju is to take the KTX from Seoul Station to Dongdaegu Station (two hours), and then take an express bus to Gyeongju (one hour) from Daegu Express Bus Terminal, a short walk from Exit 2 of Dongdaegu Station. There are also direct trains to Gyeongju and intercity buses from Seoul Express Bus Terminal, but these take longer.

From Gyeongju, take bus 200, 201-208, 212 or 217 to Yangdong Village (about 40 minutes). The easiest place to do this is from in front of Gyeongju Station, but you can catch one of these buses from a short walk from Gyeongju Express Bus Terminal (ask at the terminal’s tourist info booth). Be warned: The bus drops you off about 2 kilometers short of the village, so be prepared to stretch your legs.

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