July 03, 2012

Of Bamboo Forests and Slow Cities

I caught a train to Gwangju, the nearest transit hub to the bamboo forest of Damyang. A helpful Korean lady at the Gwangju station drew an accurate rendering of which way I should turn, which stairs I should climb, and which direction I should walk to find the stop for the bus to Damyang. I followed the instructions and arrived just in time to catch the bus. I got off at the entrance to Juknokwon, a carefully cultivated bamboo forest that is the pride of the city. I wandered the gently sloping trails of Jukniwon for a couple of hours, before going to Damyang's main bus depot.

Public transit outside of the major metropolitan areas of Korea is very sporadic, with some bus routes being serviced with very limited frequency. Most Korean travelers either have their own car or go on a packaged tour, so it is not a issue for them. I wanted to go to a nearby "slow city" named Samjicheon. A "slow city" is an euphemism for a quiet town with an aging population that has not seen economic development in the past couple of decades as its youth has moved away to larger, more modern, cities in droves. I was told there was a long wait till the next bus, and introduced to a guy named Gyu who was also heading for Samjicheon.

Gyu turned out to be a unique fellow, with strong English skills, an independent mind, and extensive travel experience. He was in his thirties, self-employed, and unattached. Gyu explained that he travels until he runs low on cash, and then works on a freelance basis until he stockpiles some savings to fund further wanderings. "Korean women do not like poor guys" was his finding.

We reached the bucolic village of five hundred residents, rice fields, and traditional homes after a long and winding bus ride from Damyang. All the stores on the main street seemed to be shuttered even though it was a Saturday. We found a home style sit-on-the-ground-and-eat restaurant open a bit further down the road. A grandmother was sprawled on the floor and watching television. She got up spryly and called her daughter, who prepared a satisfying meal for us.

After lunch, we walked around the village. A couple passed us wearing matching clothes to show their undying love for each other. "When I had girlfriend, she made me do the same thing. I felt much shame." recollected Gyu. We caught a bus heading out in the direction of Gwangju, but had to switch buses midway to get to our next destination - the Joseon era garden of Soswaewon.

A friendly fruit vendor told us that it would be a long wait for the next bus and suggested we would be better off hitch hiking. He suggested using me as bait. "Me?" I asked. "Me!" he replied, poking me in the chest with his finger. We followed through on his idea, as a middle aged couple dropped us off at Soswaewon. Heralded for its unmatched beauty, Soswaewon was an underwhelming collection of pavilions and overgrown shrubs. It took less than five minutes to cover the grounds, followed by a much longer wait for a bus back to Gwangju.


"A garden without bamboo is like a day without sunshine." ~ Korean saying