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2013 Travel Diary #14: Gwangyang and the journey into Jeollanamdo

Sancheong-eup, Sancheong-gun, Monday 9 September, 11:30am. We have an appointment in Jeollanam-do. We are to meet former LKL contributor Shin Eunjeong and her husband Tim Anderson for lunch in Gwangyang, a coastal town known for its huge steelworks. It is also known for its Gwangyang bulgogi, a variant of the dish where the meat is seasoned just before being grilled, rather than being marinaded for a while beforehand.

The GPS takes us to the restaurant, just by Gwangyang town hall, in less than 90 minutes from Sancheong town centre, and we are soon tucking in to piles of beef on a bed of proper charcoal, while finding out about Tim and Eunjung’s new life in Gwangyang. Eunjung is heavily pregnant, but still needs to be persuaded to take things easy. Together they run a small English language institute, with Eunjung’s family connections providing the first customers; but word of mouth is quickly spreading.

Gwangyang bulgogi
Gwangyang bulgogi (image source: )

The beef is going down very nicely, and we go for a second round. But once again I have forgotten about the carbohydrates. This restaurant specialises in noodles as well as Gwangyang bulgogi. My bowl of cold noodle soup is big enough for two, and I haven’t got a hope of finishing it. But it’s very refreshing, with bits of savoury ice floating in it. We drive onwards to Suncheon with heavy stomachs, wishing Eunjung a trouble-free delivery. Two weeks later, young Alf would arrive into the world.

The main reason for visiting Suncheon is for the International Garden Expo. Hwang Ji-hae, two-times gold medal winner at the Chelsea Flower Show, has designed a garden for the Expo, so as I was in the area I thought I’d take a look. I had got to know her through her Chelsea projects, and even had a tiny hand in the construction of her second award-winning garden. If Ms Hwang had been in the country, she would have popped down from her base in Gwangju to say hello, but at the time she’s in France, overseeing a garden in Lons-le-Saunier which is shortly to open. But although it would have been nice to see her in Suncheon, we did not need to have her company. Seeing how Korea does a large-scale Garden exhibition was reason enough to go and pay a visit, and Ji-hae had said she would try to arrange a guide for us from the Garden Expo team. Her first Chelsea garden (in 2011) had been partly sponsored by Suncheon, to provide publicity for their 2013 Expo, and she had spent many months overseeing the construction of her Suncheon garden, so she was reasonably well-connected locally.

Suncheon has plenty of other attractions apart from this Expo: for example, its famous bay with its mudflats provide a unique habitat for migrating birds; the nearby folk village nestling within the walls of Naganeupseong, a Joseon Dynasty fortress; and others that I hadn’t had time to research yet. So there was more than enough to keep us occupied there for a two night stop before heading off for our temple visit.

Again, the GPS does its job, and leads us straight to the Garden Expo entrance. We had just passed Yeonhyang-dong, an area which looked promising for a motel or hotel, and so we turn round and hunt through the back streets for a likely-looking candidate.

The view southwards from the Hotel Venezia
The view southwards from the Hotel Venezia

The Hotel Venezia fitted the bill (map). Around 95,000 Won buys us a stay in a large room with two double beds, a civilised bathroom with a proper shower and bath, and pleasant views southwards over the main road towards perfectly flat fields and hills that are so typical of the region.

It’s incredibly hot outside, but the room has good air conditioning. Kyung-sook takes a nap while I switch on the room’s PC to find out a bit more about the Suncheon Garden Expo, and the sights to be found in the Suncheon area. And try to wrap my mind round the Institute’s publicity materials.

The Suncheon Garden Expo campus, viewed from the Hotel Venezia
The Suncheon Garden Expo campus, viewed from the Hotel Venezia

As I continue my editing efforts, the size of the task begins to dawn on me. The folk village looks like a bit of a way outside of town and inconvenient to get to. The famous bay and its mudflats are best seen in spring or autumn rather than summer. We haven’t had any joy in getting anyone from Suncheon, either from the City Hall, or from the Garden Expo itself, to show any interest in our arrival, or even return our phone calls. For all these reasons we feel that maybe we aren’t meant to stay long in Suncheon and accordingly decide on a change of plan. Instead of a full day at Suncheon tomorrow, we resolve to skip the fortress-cum- folk village and all the other attractions. We’ll just spend a morning at the Garden Expo, focusing on Jihae’s garden, and then head off to our next destination, Unjusa temple, the very same afternoon. We will thus cut a day out of our journey into Jeollanam-do and leave an extra day in Sancheong to finish looking around the sights of the expo (that we now have to call “Fair and Festival”) and complete the editing of the Institute’s materials. Kyung-sook gets on the phone to Unjusa and to Sancheong County Office to reschedule the accommodation, and it’s all fixed.

The hotel bathroom came equipped with Beatrix Potter slippers
The hotel bathroom came equipped with Beatrix Potter slippers

Lunch was only two hours ago, but we need to think about where we’re going to have dinner. Most places you go in Korean you’ll probably find some special local delicacies. Among Suncheon’s regional specialities are goat burgers and a stew1 made out of the blue spotted mudhoppers for which Suncheon Bay’s mudflats are famous2. And of course there is a range of other seafood specialities. Kyung-sook decides on hanjeongsik, another dish for which Suncheon is known. A little bit of research on my part would have revealed that this wasn’t such a good idea. Hanjeongsik is based on palace food and involves a countless array of side dishes. In most places the dishes arrive in several courses, so you never know precisely how much more you have coming. But you know it’s going to be too much. At the restaurant Kyung-sook selected they brought all the dishes at once, so we could see from the start the scale of the task in front of us. The certainty that we were never going to finish it all somehow made us less willing to try to make any serious inroads into any of the dishes.

Hanjeongsik in a Suncheon restaurant
Hanjeongsik in a Suncheon restaurant

The ajumma in charge, maybe unused to seeing a foreigner in her restaurant, shows me which dishes go with which side dishes and condiments, and seems satisfied that I’m not too put off by any of the flavours. Now that we were well into Jeollanam-do the flavours in the food were much more pungent and tangy: the sesame leaves for wrapping some of the food, instead of being dry, were marinated in a vinegary sauce, and the local fish dishes came in a dark red sauce, salty and sharp, of which the memory is making my mouth water as I write these words. With all the flavours assaulting the taste buds it’s impossible to eat quickly. I wish that I’d had more appetite. We battle on bravely, the soju somehow helping to make space, but eventually we have to admit defeat, leaving rather too many bowls more than half full.

One of the side dishes - crunchy spiced crab
One of the side dishes – crunchy spiced crab

Despite being gorged with food, I fall asleep instantly back at the hotel. After 3 nights of sleeping on the floor, my hips and tailbone feel as if they are one big bruise. The comfort of a bed, soft mattress and crisp sheets is a luxury not to be underestimated.

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  1. The goat burgers are known as tteokgalbi, while the mudhopper stew is Jjangttungeotang (짱뚱어탕) []
  2. “The dish is great for regaining energy in the summer. The stew can be made in a variety of ways. Some restaurants boil the fish for a long time and then mash it, while others boil the fish whole with spices and condiments.” (accessed 17 October 2013)

    For other dishes typical of Suncheon,  []

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