Korea, Urban Walking
Comments 4

Hit the North! #1: Sosu Seowon

I know I promised a far earlier start to my school trip chronicle, but what can I say? Reality post-convoy hit hard; I was left concussed and disoriented, and Friday was perhaps my worst workday yet… No mood to write.

Then two weekend days of fabulous weather, cherries busting out all over the place, and my 39th and 40th walks in Korea — there are plenty of hiking blogs out there whose authors forgo actual walking for ultra-wicking underpants reviews and such — a fate worse than death — but I’ll always put a walk before a session at the keyboard.

But here I am, assuming the position on the unheated floor (my last monthly bill was $123!) so let’s board the bus (# 9 of a dozen, since you ask) and Hit the North! First stop: Yeongju in Gyeongsangbuk Province, the next one north…

Teach Asians for a while and soon enough one of them will type something on their electronic dictionary and hand it to you to explain what’s unique about their culture; filial piety will be the translation. And that won’t help much, since it’s barely English these days either.

F.P. is one of the cornerstones of Confucianism, and Korea absorbed the hegemonic influence of either Chinese wisdom or Chinese arrows for centuries. Essentially, it’s about respect for and obedience to one’s ancestors, and not just the living ones. Not bringing shame to the names of forebears and long-gone ancestors accounts in part for the relative group harmony and adherence to the status quo in Korea.

Why this uncharacteristic scholarship? Because our first stop was Sosu Seowon, the first Korean Confucian academy to receive royal funding and protection. Established during King Jungjong’s reign in 1543, several of the old buildings survive in a peaceful setting outside the small city of Yeongju.

Here’s the front entrance, with a glimpse of its famous pine grove:

I walked in with mixed feelings. I could see this would be a great place to explore in solitude and at one’s leisure, but there were 350 reasons why solitude was out of the question for me — not counting the other bus groups of students rolling in at that very instant — and there was no room for leisure in the tight schedule.

I quickly saw that this guerilla tourism would necessitate guerilla photography, and the pattern of the ensuing days was established: leap off the bus, camera cocked, and try to outrun the kids, always thinking a few shots ahead.

With luck, a few seconds of atmosphere might be enjoyed — and a shot or two squeezed off — before it was trampled underfoot or chased into the hills by the cacophony of shrieks and shouts.

Failing that, all hail the authority of the frame, and narrow depth of field!

One thing working in my favour was the herd mentality. Blame filial piety if you want, but those kids surged through in one seething, self-contained mass. Sometimes it was just a matter of grabbing hold of something solid, or climbing a tree, and letting the tide sweep through.

Then the place would be yours again.

The kids, too, had little time for old trees, rocks and pathways. They barely glanced at this magnificent old (unfortunately deceased) ginko tree:

ginko tree

And to crudely paraphrase Blake, the grove of pines that moves some to imagine a troupe of sinuously swaying dancers is in the minds of others only another brown thing that stands in the way of lunch.

pine tree trunks 2

At last I got away. The kids and other teachers had all swarmed to the other end, a recreated traditional village called Seonbichon. I’d crossed a stream and was hightailing it into Silence and Serenity when my phone rang. It was “Dorothy”, a co-teacher.

“Ian, where are you now?”

I forced down a gut-full of bile and replied, “I don’t know…near the stream…down the end…somewhere.”

“The buses have moved to the Seobichon parking area. Please don’t be late.”

Confucius would have blushed at the words I muttered as I hung up. I went racing back, past this clique of free-thinkers…

..and found myself within a really rather pleasant maze of mud-walled farmhouses, thatched roofs and the odd domesticated animal quivering before the onslaught of this herd of semi-domesticated teenagers.

korean folk village

Again, it was like photographing the pretty flowers on the riverbank from a log hurtling towards a monumental cascade.

But urban 21st-century Korean kids, fortunately (and probably like kids from developed nations everywhere), have little interest in straw and livestock (till it ends up on their plates anyway).

(The livestock, not the straw.)

(Actually, I can’t guarantee that.)

straw bale

Dorothy was hanging close as well. I gave in and let her guide me out to the parking lot — where lunch was served! A wide gulf of bitumen separated students and teachers — a pattern constantly repeated at mealtimes.

I don’t know what those poor beggars got — WHO CARES? — but from who-knew-where enormous quantities of gimbap appeared, quickly distributed to staff, along with water and mountains of fruit — and plastic stools. I’d never dined in a car park before. It’s better than it sounds, but not much.

This portion was just for me! I could only eat about a third of it:

Lunch over, we were swept back into the bus for the next spot on the itinerary. I had two front seats allocated for my use for those three days. I farewelled the old guy who’d watched over us at lunch…


..and made myself comfortable while the young ‘uns filed into the bowels and we prepared for another hearty portion of history, culture and tradition…

~ And that’s all the Goat wrote



  1. I enjoyed this write-up — and your photographs. (I’m thinking of getting a Sony Nex 5N myself — the even newer Nex 7 is relatively just so expensive at the moment, though obviously the price will go down over the months.)

    Now, that mountain of fruit looked good for lunch, but I’m not sure I would have relished the plastic stools. A Korean delicacy?

    • Yes, I thought stools were a North Korean delicacy…

      Thanks for the comment. Glad to hear you’re thinking about a NEX – have recently converted another friend. The 7 is expensive, and I gather from the “fora” that there’s a worldwide shortage of NEX cameras and certain lenses – the floods and tsunami in Asia among other causes. Ebay is a good option (from Hong Kong usually – new products, not used). Most of the 7-owners seem very happy, though there is a large body of user opinion that the 5N is superior.

      The 7’s strengths apparently are its menu and especially its built-in EVF. It has extra pixels but again a lot of people seem to prefer the image quality of the 5N (do you remember when three or – gasp – four megapixels were cutting edge? Now 16 is not enough for some?). If I had to buy another camera (and shooting several hundred images a week, it’s on the cards), I’d still go for the 5N at this point. It’s a bloody fantastic travel/walking camera – even with the kit 18-55 lens, it still fits in a generously sized pocket, and with the 16mm pancake it’s even tinier — but oh, that sensor, that colour, that focus peaking, that all-round sex appeal…

  2. Wow, I’m the world’s largest man, but even I wouldn’t be able to put away that lunch. Are they insane? Lovely photos again, but I’m picking up on a little bitterness that’s about to be unleashed soon?!

    • Hmmm…it may have been a record: 3 days of placidity from yours truly. Well, almost. There was a bit of bother on the third afternoon, but you’ll have to wait for that!

      I wish people could see me on my good days. I really am a different animal. Today I had one of my greatest days ever in Korea or anywhere. I was just walking along (a succession of little peaks in the Busan area, all covered with forest and amazing flowering cherries and camellias) saying out loud, “This is incredible! THis is amazing!” And it was a Wednesday (holiday)! I should have been suffering in a classroom, so the pleasure was all the sweeter…

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