A trip back in time

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A trip back in time

JEONGSEON, Gangwon province -- "In Seoul, even though your eyes are wide open, somebody will cut off your nose," goes an old saying. The capital, especially to rural folk, can be a ruthless place.

But as a native Seoulite I still have memories of when the city was more innocent. One memory that stands out is of a small traditional market in Hwigyeong-dong where my mother used to take me. Some of the merchants there would have no more than a couple of buckets of bean sprouts and a few boxes of other vegetables and fruits to sell. They were mostly middle-aged women, but had wrinkles like grandmothers. They would tell you about the hardships they'd been through, then break into a big smile and give you extra strawberries.

Though that market was neither superclean nor convenient, it was always a pleasant experience. I remember it fondly as the quintessence of Korea, of its people and its culture. Nowadays, however, those quaint markets, small but friendly, are being gradually swallowed up by giant shopping malls and department stores.

That nostalgia was one reason I boarded a train at 7:45 Sunday morning to come to Jeongseon in Gangwon province; the town is famous for its traditional market. The time sounds a bit early for shopping, but it takes 4 hours and 20 minutes to reach Jeongseon from Cheongnyangni Station in northern Seoul.

My fellow passengers on the train were mostly groups of middle-aged couples, who were eagerly studying pamphlets about the market. At about 11:30 a.m., about a half-hour before we were to arrive, a group of female volunteer guides got on the train at the small station of Jeungsan. The women were Gangwon natives, wore big smiles and yellow sashes that read "Welcome to Jeongseon County." For the last half-hour of the trip, the guides made the rounds, asking passengers if they had any questions about Jeongseon. I heard one of the guides, a woman in her late 30s who later introduced herself as Gwon In-suk, talk to one middle-aged couple who looked particularly excited to be Jeongseon-bound. The pair explained that they had done the tour a few months ago but had come back to do a variation on it.

The variation, I found, was a bus tour following the market visit. We had our choice of three bus routes.

At Jeongseon Station, and we got off to the delightful sound of the Jeongseon version of Arirang, Korea's national folk song. Jeongseon, with a population of slightly more than 50,000, looked friendly ?like Seoul used to be in the 1970s, I've been told. From the station to the market it was a 15-minute walk along an avenue lined with cherry blossom trees in full bloom. The volunteers, who were incredibly kind, accompanied us, so we didn't have to worry about getting lost.

The Jeongseon traditional market, founded in 1966, is open all day, every five days, from April to November, with more than 300 merchants on hand. The market has almost everything, from fermented soybeans to traditional slingshots. According to an official at the Jeongseon county office, Kim Jin-suk, many foreigners are coming to the area these days; so many that the office started providing free guides who can interpret for English or Japanese speakers. The service is available if you call in advance at 033-562-5461.

Inside the market, the first thing I saw was a man selling the unlikely combination of mounted fish fossils, allegedly from Brazil, and dried slices of bananas that he said were from the Philippines. I had until 2 p.m. to tour the market and have lunch, after which I'd choose a bus tour. I watched as the couple from Seoul, the Jeongseon fanatics, confidently headed off somewhere. They obviously knew what they were doing. Me? I was a bit disoriented.

Before long, though, a wave of nostalgia splashed over me. The atmosphere began to remind me of the old market where my mother used to take me. Then I began to see rare scenes, such as elderly merchants making folk crafts out of straw. One of them, Kim Seung-am, said he had been twisting straw into ropes for more than 30 years. I complimented him on his speed and dexterity. "It's nothing," he said with a smile. A few steps beyond, a group of old women was selling local vegetables like deodeok, or roots of climbing bell flowers, which is a favorite side dish in Korea and is used in Oriental medicine to control fevers. One of them, Park Geum-nyeo, offered me a bowl of the roots for 5,000 won ($4), a fair price. Compelled by the atmosphere, I asked for a discount. She said no, but then gave me extra. I moved on to a shop named "Moving Blacksmith," where a Mr. Kim sold old farm tools like handmade hoes and axes.

Markets make me hungry, so I checked out a small restaurant serving up buckwheat noodles, and got a steaming-hot bowlful for 3,000 won. Sufficiently nourished, I was ready for one of the three bus tours.

The first tour was a visit to a nearby cave, Hwa-am; the second a trip to Sogeumgang, which means Little Geumgang -- after the beauty of Mount Geumgang in North Korea; the third was a trip to Auraji, a beautiful confluence of two big rivers. All three options ended with a performance of the Arirang song by a local troupe. Jeongseon, incidentally, is where the song originated.

I decided on No. 3. As I bought my ticket, the salesclerk said, "Good choice." On the ride to Auraji, which used to be a ferry crossing, a tour guide told us a poignant legend about the place. Centuries ago, there was a young maiden who fell in love with a raftsman. During the Goryeo Dynasty, people used to ride rafts from Auraji to Seoul's Mapo ferry, though strong currents made the voyage dangerous. The raftsman proposed to the maiden and was accepted. He then started on a journey to Seoul, promising to come back after earning a fortune. She waited and waited, but he never returned. Scattered stories came back that a strong current had carried him far out to sea, where he perished. Overwhelmed with sorrow, she threw herself in the water. Now a bronze statue of the maiden stands over the river, gazing down. A pavilion was built on a patch of land in the river to soothe her soul.

To get to the pavilion, I had to cross a bridge made of brushwood and mud. It seemed dangerous, for it gave a little with each step. Ms. Gwon, the kind volunteer, assured me that it was fun, and not at all dangerous, but that the bridge is sometimes swept away by heavy rains in the summer. After half an hour at the sad and beautiful place, which embodied the sentiments in the Arirang song, the bus took us to Nanhyang valley. The locals there had created an impressive sight, 180 pagodas and cairns built of pebbles and rocks.

At 4:30 p.m., the bus took us to the county's cultural center for the Jeongseon Arirang drama. Jeongseon natives must have that folk song in their genes -- it was hard to believe that the performers were all amateurs.

Around 5:10 p.m., the bus finally brought us back to Jeongseon Station, and I boarded the train to Seoul. As we chugged out of the station, the group of volunteers stood on the platform and enthusiastically waved good-bye. I leaned back and relaxed, and overheard the couple seated near me -- the Jeongseon devotees -- already planning their third trip.

The Korean National Railroad charges 24,800 won for the round-trip train fare, 9,000 won for bus route No. 1 and 6,000 won each for No. 2 and 3. Tours run until November on calendar dates ending in either 2 or 7. For more information, call 1544-7788.

by Chun Su-jin

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