If you consider yourself an interesting personâi.e., someone of good intelligence and a rare personality who is in quest of meaningful cultural experiencesâthen chances are you do not have much money. This means that when you travel, you are stuck with déclassé yeogwans and love motels (not that you want to sleep among yuppies at touristy hotels). Such a limitation is a great disappointment when visiting Gyeongju, Korea’s famed museum without walls, which abounds in garish backstreet motels around the bus terminals and luxury hotels by Bomun Lake, with little in between. There exists, however, a cheap option in the center of the city that costs even less than a yeogwan while providing an enchantment unknown among budget accommodation in Korea: Hanjin Hostel. More unusual still is its friendly, English-speaking owner, Clint Kwon, who can act as a tour guide anywhere around town.
The hostel was founded in 1977 by Clint’s father, who worked in heavy industry and construction before then. It has thus lasted for an extraordinarily long time for a small business in Korea, especially since it was not until around 1990 that the country began to receive many foreign visitors. The fact that Hanjin, whose name means Korea Let’s Go, is still going strong after more than three decades means it must fulfill some continuing basic need that goes beyond being cheap and centrally located. To understand what it does, you need only to meet the man in charge.
He describes the English as all the way gentlemen, while the French are very soft and nice. Swiss and Germans are also very nice. Americans, who comprise about one third of Kwon’s guests, have their own individual characters, and are all trying to learn something about Koreaâexactly what, he does not know.
Clint Kwon took over from his father seven years ago after working in America for companies like Samsung Electronics and Daewoo. Asked what he sees as the mission of his hostel, he says he just wants to provide a comfortable, homelike place for travelers. He tells guests the place is your home, not my home, although he does in fact live on the premises. By running his hostel, Kwon feels he is preserving Korea’s cultural heritage, which he believes is being lost to modernization. Korean people today are changing too much, he declares, and are confused, not doing business well because of their debts. Therefore, he tries to keep old Shilla ways alive, to the delight of his many guests from around the world.
Normal people, Kwon says, go to hotels, interesting people come here to save money. Therefore, he only charges enough to maintain the building, while making spending money for himself as a tour guide. The interesting people to whom Kwon has played host include writers, photographers, professors and bike travelers. One of the more distinguished guests he has made to feel at home is the Harvard-educated American travel writer Madison Morrison (www.madisonmorrison.com), whose photo is displayed in the foyer; he stays for several weeks every year. Kwon clearly has some regard for his guests, whom he calls good people. Asked if he has ever had any terrible guests, Kwon responds, Terrible guests go to terrible places, all my guests are very good. Given such service at such a price and the remarkable guests, who would want to stay in a pricey hotel like a normal person?
When asked his opinion about which nationalities make the best travelers, Kwon responds that none is better than any other. He describes the English as all the way gentlemen, while the French are very soft and nice. Swiss and Germans are also very nice. Americans, who comprise about one third of Kwon’s guests, have their own individual characters, and are all trying to learn something about Koreaâexactly what, he does not know.
The Lonely Planet Korea guidebook’s entry for Hanjin Hostel mentions that it is rather showing its age, and this is true just looking at the outside. Inside, the place is clearly run-down and cluttered. Nevertheless, there is a certain tumbledown charm about Hanjin that complements its informal, familial character and mission. The single rooms on the ground floor have tiny bathrooms with tubs squeezed into the corner, and the doorways are low if you are over six feet.
On the second floor are the dormitory rooms with bunk beds and shared baths. One prime feature of Hanjin is its flat roof, which has old chairs on which one can sit in the evening and socialize with other guests. There is also a worn-down courtyard beyond the kitchen that also has chairs and a table. Among Kwon’s devoted guests are a Canadian physician who is donating money to renovate the upper floor, and there is a Chinese who is helping out with the ground floor. There is no fear that the hostel will fall apart, but one suspects it will remain ramshackle, the way its regulars apparently like it.
Kwon plans to retire in five years, tour the world by electric bike and write a memoir about it. He has a daughter and a son in their late twenties who live in New Jersey, but neither is interested in taking over. Instead, Kwon says he plans to select a host from a different country to run Hanjin for a month at a time. He claims to have candidates from many nations, which is doubtless true. One hopes that none of the hosts becomes greedy and tries to extend his or her term of office.
As for eating and drinking spots in the immediate vicinity, Kwon provides a map of the neighborhood with the best local restaurants marked on it. Across the street is Juliet Bar, but it is expensive; the best choice for drinking is to buy something at the nearby 7-11 and take it to the courtyard or roof. Anyone wanting to bar hop can go to the Dongguk University area to the west. Next to Juliet Bar is a tiny moksal, or lean grilled pork, restaurant.
If you you are interesting enough to stay at Hanjin Hostel, you should make a reservation âsince many other interesting people also want to stay there. Once in Gyeongju, take a left out of the Express Bus Terminal and walk east less than 100 meters, then take another left on the lane between Hotel the DY and McDonald’s. Hanjin is 200 paces north on the left.
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Main photo from The One One Four