You step off the bus to see a lone ajumma waiting as the only passenger for the next ride out of town. You cross the road where there are four sets of fishing overalls hung up next to a convenience store with a muddy inflatable raft propped up covering all but the entrance. Your motel is on the same block, opposite a huge river carved into the towering limestone of mountainous valleys. Welcome to Danyang, South Korea.
Located about a 2.5-hour drive from Seoul, Danyang’s central market showcases the town’s speciality, with an entire strip selling nothing but garlic. A simple lunchtime order of samgyeopsal saw the owner pop out on three separate occasions. The first time was to buy the meat from a nearby butcher, the next two to buy makgeolli bottles from the nearest convenience store. Coming from Seoul, a city teeming with heavily staffed, busy restaurants, this stripped-down dose of country life was stimulating in its simplicity.
I’ve always wanted to hop off a local bus in the Korean countryside and wander through the small, traditional villages. So, along with some friends, I did just that. Strolling through the organically grown dwellings, we saw all manner of giant insects and animals, from praying mantises, crickets and lizards to countless golden orb spiders and snake skins shed along the road.
We saw kids wading through streams with fishing rods, while others were completely submerged, hunting with spearguns. Families gathered together for the harvest holidays in bungalows surrounded by corn fields, pepper gardens and pumpkins growing on vines along loose stone walls.
Whilst walking along rice terraces as the sun went down, the soothing sound of birdsong was a welcome refrain from the familiar and constant hum of the traffic back in Seoul. It was like hitting the reset button to all the stress of the city – a rewiring of the senses. The nature rhythms of the countryside acted as a cure for the mechanized sprawl of urban living.
A 30-minute bus ride from the town center takes you to the epic, sprawling mountainside temple complex of Guinsa.
Stepping inside a temple lets you step outside a sense of time. Maybe it’s the fact that people go there to escape the daily, external grind and attempt to find inner peace. The visually arresting architecture, which Guinsa boasts in abundance, can induce an altered state of mind, especially with the chanting of monks drifting through. With over 50 buildings and counting, this bountiful Buddhist retreat is a world unto itself.
The steep mountainside slopes, which the young and old alike endure here, are great for watching life unfold. It’s a physically challenging hike to the top, so one can only admire those toughing it out at a ripe old age, some soldiering along with walking sticks in each hand.
I watched an old man with cane in hand ascend one of the final flights of steep stairs. Yet, after following him around the corner, he vanished from sight. I looked around and saw a boy – same cane, same hat. Same guy?
When I asked him for a photo he jokingly pulled the crooked back pose with his own walking stick. An old boy. As a metaphor, this regenerative feat was apt. Danyang brought back a lot of childhood memories of the small, riverside, countryside town I grew up in. I still felt the physical presence of my adult self, but Danyang rejuvenated, to some extent, what the city had ground out of me.
Danyang is easily reachable by bus from Seoul, Busan, Daegu and other cities. Check the city website for further details: www.english.dy21.net. You can check out more from Simon Slater at The Secret Map: thesecretmap.wordpress.com
Photos by Simon Slater