Paying for the privilege of sleeping like a servant

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Paying for the privilege of sleeping like a servant

The advertisement for a room in a traditional home in Andong, North Gyeongsang province, caught my attention:
“Become a Confucian scholar for a day! Experience the life of a nobleman inside his home from the Joseon Dynasty!”
After a long week at work, the idea of waking up in silk sheets in an ondol-bang, a room heated in the old-fashioned way, by warming up the flat stones underneath the paved floor, sounded soothing. I also imagined that they would serve light, healthy food. After all, the homes were owned by Joseon Dynasty (1392-1895) men who lived at a time when most meals consisted of rice and vegetables.
Soon I was on an express bus heading south-east for three hours. Only later did I realize that Internet reservations for the home stays must be made well in advance for a decent room, or you’ll end up sleeping in a servant’s quarters, which was what happened to me. (Whoever thought traditional homes that still use old toilets without running water would accept Internet reservations?)
Anyway, there I was in the “capital of culture mentality,” which is what Andong city’s 182,000 residents are supposed to call it. It is place where prominent neo-Confucian philosophers such as Yi Hwang and his disciple Ryu Seong-ryong were born and raised in the 16th century, filled with relics, ancient structures and centuries-old buildings that commemorate wise men. Grand sized hanok, traditional Korean homes, with their dark clay roof tiles and walls built of yellow earth, are scattered throughout the city. Some looked natural standing among the modern buildings, while others were in the woods, and some stood aloof along the bank of the Nakdong, a 506-kilometer-long river, the longest in South Korea.
After hearing from the Andong Tourism Information Center that over 100 gotaek, which means “old houses” but implies centuries of use, are still in the city, it took a while to decide where to stay the night. But not all the gotaek are used as homes, nor do they all welcome strangers and tourists to drop by. They were, after all, a private residence for the family clan.
Take for example Yang Jin Dang of the mid-Joseon Dynasty. The main family estate of the philosopher Ryu Un-ryong, who lived in the shadow of his younger philosopher brother Seong-ryong, was one of the four grand-sized manors in Hahoe Village, southwestern Andong. Like the other three gotaek in the village, Yang Jin Dang does not allow tourists to stay there, but Kim Myung-gyu, the wife of the Ryu family head, was amicable enough to take questions from the curious tourists who came in through the wooden gates to have a peek at the house, which is designated a national treasure, No. 306.
“I have no time to be bored because everyday I have guests like you asking me all kinds of questions,” said Ms. Kim, a 90-year-old who kept her silver hair in a slicked-back chignon. All her children live in big cities, but she has two hired hands to look over her house. The workers weren’t interested in talking to tourists.
“The place is still dominated by a yangban sense to distinguish nobility from servants,” said Kwon Moon-chuel from the tourism center. The yangban was the Korean mandarin class. “The workers don’t like to be reminded that they are still working for the people who were once their family’s landlords.”
Although a preservation law forbids people from building any more elite hanok inside Hahoe Village, the townspeople believed that a family with a servant background should never build a house with the black rooftiles used by the elite to build hanok, Mr. Kwon said. Instead, they dwelled in choga-jip, a type of thatched straw house used by the lower class.
About 110 families living in these choga-jip encircled the four tile-roofed homes in Hahoe Village. In comparison to the elite homes, a lot of them were open for tourist lodging, which became a popular way to make money for the locals, particularly after Queen Elizabeth || visited Hahoe in 1999 on her 73rd birthday.
The cost for spending a night in a choga-jip ranged from 20,000 won to 40,000 won. No reservation was necessary because so many were in the lodging business. Once a quiet traditional hamlet, Hahoe is an increasingly popular tourism site after the British queen reportedly called it the “most Korean place in Korea.”
As for myself, out of six gotaek residences that the tourism agency recommended, I chose the Imcheonggak estate, the head residence of the Goseong Lee family since 1515. (Millions of Koreans have the surnames Lee and Kim, but each family is further divided by clan and geographical origin; in this case, they’re from Goseong.)
Not only was Imcheonggak the hanok closest to the Andong train and bus station, it is also the birth place of Lee Sang-ryong (1858-1932), the first leader of the Korean provisional government in China during the Japanese colonial period. The 50-room mansion also has an interesting story: inside the main wing of the estate is a room called Umul-bang. According to legend, the room is host to a powerful source of energy and was favored by students in the family as a place to study. But the legend states that the room will produce three prime ministers, making it an irresistible place for women to use as a delivery room. People believe the first of these “prime ministers” was Lord Seo Seong, who was born in the room and served King Seonjo during the 16th century. The second was Lee Sang-ryong, the freedom-fighter-turned-provisional-president in the 20th century. The third hasn’t been born yet, said Lee Hang-jeong, a descendent of the Goseong Lee family who was visiting from Seoul.
Later, a guide at the Andong folk museum said that some mischievous newlyweds had asked to stay in Umul-bang, hoping that they could conceive a baby that would become a prime minister.
The servant’s quarters were near the gate, with five yards and separate reception halls for female and male family members. Even if you wind up staying in the servant’s quarters like I did, all the rooms cost 40,000 won per night. It costs 200,000 won to rent the main wing, which the male family members used for meetings, while the famous Umul-bang goes for 70,000 won. All the rooms looked the same, with blankets covered in silk and a screen door made out of thick paper. The only difference was that my room was located closer to the gates, while what used to be the master’s quarters was located further back.
A Joseon nobleman’s life must have been quiet and humble indeed. In the evening, the moon shone brightly outside the paper-covered window frame. The only sounds were from the wind, the grass and the bugs. The only electricity guests were allowed to use in the house was for lamps.
The wake up call was in the form of a concierge rapping on the door in the morning. Breakfast was provided in the open parlor within the womens’ quarters, which had a nice wooden floor. The meal consisted of cooked rice, steamed vegetables and pan-fried mackerel ― Andong’s specialty ― and was served for 5,000 won.
An American couple was already there, having rice cakes and green tea.
“Everything was what we had expected. We love the fresh air and the quiet town, and people are very polite,” said Marty Morles, from San Francisco.


by Lee Min-a

The Andong Mask Dance Festival, a 10-day annual folklore event, will be held here from Sept 30 to Oct. 9. Up to 700,000 tourists are expected to come to Andong. If you are going to be around, make a reservation for a traditional home stay first through Andong Tourism Information Center by calling 054-856-3013.

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