Tag Archives: South Korea

Seoul – Vibrant Capital of South Korea

“The world is a book and those who don’t travel only read one page.”  Saint Augustine of Hippo 

After a surprise-filled, exciting journey of some 1200 kilometres that led me and my companion through the scenic interior of the Korean peninsula, vibrant, vital Seoul once again beckoned.  I was happy to find myself in the familiar surroundings of The Designer’s Hotel, especially as it is centrally located to much of what I could yet visit in the few short days left for me to explore this vast metropolis.  

A night view of the ubiquitous Seoul Tower, reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower it’s spotted almost anytime one looks up.  It provides a popular observation tower and useful off-air communications centre.

(Note: To improve your viewing experience click on the photos below to enlarge – once for medium, twice to zoom in.)

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After dark Seoul is a fascinating brightly lit city as in this photo.  I spent several minutes enjoying a fine laser show on the facade of this unknown (to me) building.  

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I had the sense the palpable hurly-burly of Seoul  nonetheless worked according to a well-designed urban plan.   When a full half of the nation’s population lives and works within the metropolitan area, 20 plus million souls need to adhere to an organized yet benign modus-operandi that works for everyone. The surface mass transportation system with countless buses servicing the effervescent downtown cores (there are four such within the city) is super efficient; the subway system served by 14 lines interlinks every district of the city.  The majority of the population uses public transportation with 8 million daily passengers; it  is spotlessly clean (in keeping with every thing else in Seoul) and in keeping with a  philosophy to encourage the greatest use of public transportation the cost of a ride is subsidized and by comparison with other major cities around the world a bargain, no doubt.   Further, if you’re in a particular hurry or simply want to avoid the crowds, taxis are extremely frequent and to my Vancouver jaundiced eyes, cheap beyond comparison.   In fact I’ll say it – the cab fare home from the airport by Seoul standards was obscene!  No wonder tourists to Vancouver soon become disenchanted with over-priced hotels, gouging restaurants and overall aura of creeping decrepitude.   I really believe there’s an established  policy by City Hall that sidewalks and public spaces  according to the whims of the rain, abundant here no doubt, hence deemed to be self-cleaning.  

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Seoul has one of the busiest subway systems in the world. In addition, in order to cope with all of these transportation modes, Seoul’s metropolitan government employs several mathematicians to coordinate the subway, bus, and traffic schedules into one timetable.   Nothing left to chance and it works!

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It seemed every evening was another sit-down to a feast and on this particular evening my guide led me to one of her very favourite restaurants, an all-you-can-eat seafood emporium that had two great features – mouth-watering food and the tab was a surprising delight.   As I was nearing the end of the my stay in Korea I can’t claim to have been surprised in the least and this may be as good a time as any to state unequivocally my holiday turned out to be the first time ever I’ve ventured abroad that I’d spent less than what I’d  budgeted for.  Prior to this happy event,  I’ll admit to never have returned home without necessarily augmenting a trip’s finances by making more liberal usage of a credit card.   

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A clever idea – patrons are handed a large plastic bag to hold their outer clothes.  Why? It’s a barbecue seafood place and thus the odour, alluring in the eating, is perhaps less aromatic in a crowded subway car.  Also notice the heavy linen gloves on the table; very useful to handle hot seashells.  

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Oh, yes is there any wonder I have this big smile on my face? In actual fact this evening out was to celebrate my companion’s birthday and I got away with it, drinks (four beers) included for just under $40 Canadian.  Imagine that anywhere in Vancouver, or Toronto, or anywhere else in this country, you’d be dreaming.   
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Notice the bucket at the top right hand? It’s for the purpose of getting rid of empty shells and whatnots.  Ara cautioned me not even to think of leaving before I had filled mine as she surely would hers.  A vigilant staff kept an eye out and hustled over with more of everything.   I assure my friends, I’m not shilling for this restaurant rather I’d urge you when considering making a trip somewhere other than the usual, put South Korea at the top of your list.  The people are invariably polite and kind, it boast of an ancient history, a sophisticated culture, a great cuisine and scenic sites to enjoy in or out of Seoul.  Moreover, you won’t bust your budget, I promise.  In fact, if Canadians in the business of tourism, government agencies or providers would take the time to see how it’s done successfully, this country’s ailing tourist industry would surely recover in quick time.   A ferocious stupidity  is in oversupply in complacent British Columbia, with astonishing arrogance fed by ignorance, it’s hardly likely to happen in this century if ever.  (Incidentally these last comments come under the heading of ‘How NOT to influence friends but rather to win enemies.’ )  
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Seoul has one of the youngest population anywhere on the globe.  Major corporations and government agencies attract workers and recent university graduates.  Evenings after a day at the office, as young people are prone to, they go out choosing from numerous eateries or to relax with a drink at local pubs.
 
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I suppose there’s no harm in yet one more example of fine eating at a great price; this eatery specialized in barbecued meats, lamb shishkebab particularly delectable.  
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It was also a fun place with a chattering ambiance and laughter in the air.  Hanging above every table a clever contraption would be lowered to an appropriate height and it  effectively sucked out the smoky air.  
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My predilection for food and eating must be left aside, oh, except for one last photo; as a coffee aficionado I must share this most delicious cappuccino, perfect in taste and presentation.  I’ve been attempting to duplicate if not the appearance at least the taste with my own Italian coffee maker but not even close, as yet.  
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Finally, after leaving my friend (poor girl) to return to her office I finally had the time necessary to visit the last must-see on my agenda.  I’m not suggesting there weren’t many more such to see in Seoul but I was on my last full day and so off to the ancient  king’s palace.    On my way I noticed several folks who were demonstrating against the indiscriminate killing of birds of all feathers, chickens and ducks included.  There was a recent outbreak of bird flu and the government was wisely using preventing measures however these nice people were concerned the effort was going overboard, at least that’s what I sort of understood.  Notice the numerous city buses in the background.  

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The main avenue leading to the ancient imperial palace along which imposing statues, various government ministry buildings and the United States Ambassy are found along the way.  

Admiral Yi Sun-Shin of the Joseon Dynasty earned a reputation among many historians as at least equal to England’s Horatio Nelson, if not superior taking into consideration the numerous battles he won most often with definitely inferior forces. He fought 23 battles against overwhelming superior forces, sinking thousands of enemy ships and yet never lost a single battle.  

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A regal fellow that, a face loaded with purpose and charismatic leadership in my view.  Notice there’s not a bit of pigeon droppings anywhere on the worthy and yet the statue is several metres tall.  How do they keep it that way? Coming from Vancouver presently infested by crows in flocks of thousands, of course with pigeons everywhere and a proliferation of Canada Geese I soon notice and appreciate such free-from-bird droppings environment. I can’t imagine there’s a man with a tall ladder going up to clean up every day, so how do they do it? Incidentally when I mentioned the crow problem to the current city mayor, his surprised comment was, “Really, I didn’t know we had a crow problem.”  When I called the Wild Life Service of the federal Environment Ministry the answer was a pat one, if rather weasel-mouthed, “Crows and Canada Geese are protected by the migratory bird act.”  Maybe I suggested these birds should be made aware they ought to head south at least half of the time but nope, they hang around and proliferate.  Alas, if  intent and purpose is lacking  the official bullshit is in no short supply.   

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The ‘Turtle Ship’ was improved by the astute admiral and used to great effect against the invading Japanese fleets.  Heavily armed, it used sails and oars located in a second deck added mobility crucial in close combat.   The spikes atop the roof kept Japanese sailors from using a favoured tactic that of boarding and hand-to-hand combat.   The Admiral wise to this always managed to keep his ships from being boarded and overwhelmed by superiors numbers. 

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Along just a little further up the avenue the regal statue of Sejong the Great, a monarch deservedly revered in Korean history and national culture.   A king and learned scholar (please note English folks, what has Elizsbeth II done for you sitting on the throne for six decades? Oh, wait she and her family got filthy rich, jolly good and pip pip) he created Hangul, the distinctive Korea alphabet ridding his country of the usage of Chinese characters.   I’m sure this fact has probably caused heartburn across in Japan where they are still (and I assume forever) wedded to Chinese characters but that’s another story.  For my part I applaud any country that has the pride to create and celebrate their own style – bravo!  At first it wasn’t welcomed by the upper classes as they alone were educated in reading and writing but that was precisely to break this monopoly this very wise man decreed a new and much easier method to write the national language. 

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In explaining the need for the new script, King Sejong explained that the Korean language was fundamentally different from Chinese; using Chinese characters (known as hanja) to write was so difficult for the common people that only privileged aristocrats usually male, could read and write fluently. Hangul was designed so that even a commoner could learn to read and write and an old saying states, a “A wise man can acquaint himself with them before the morning is over; a stupid man can learn them in the space of ten days.”

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Almost directly across the wide avenue, notice the US compound was mightily protected with scads of Korean police, barbed wire over tall fences  and plenty of security cameras.  One can never be too careful these days.  

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Also on this great avenue, a government ministry office with lots of security too; it’s not a simple world anymore.
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The main gate to the Imperial Palace (Gyeiong Bok Gung) that was originally constructed in 1394 by King Taejo, the first king and the founder of the Joseon Dynasty and expanded by succeeding kings.   Owing to its status as the symbol of national sovereignty, the palace was demolished during the Japanese occupation;  during their colonial rule (1905 to 1945)  it was an official policy to destroy historic buildings and monuments that might keep alive nationalist sentiments of the people.  Presently the Korean government is committed to restoring to its original beauty much of the past glories no matter how many decades it might take.  As of 2009, roughly 40% of the original number of palace buildings still stand or have been reconstructed.  Splendid!

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Rain or shine,  each and every day, from ten a.m. to 3 p.m. a splendidly attired royal guard parade to the sounds of military music and a colourful  changing of the guards takes place with great pageantry to the delight of onlookers.
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Mount Bugak as a backdrop and the Street of Six Ministries outside the main gate the daily parade by resplendent palace guards reminds onlookers of past glories.  
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In the background a fine structure originally built for the leisurely pleasure of the Royal family and retinue.  The pavilion has been reconstructed exactly to former dimensions and design and is designated as National Treasure No. 224.  
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No commentary need be added to the knowledge and fine workmanship required to recreate buildings to their original splendour.
 
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 The Imperial Throne Hall – National Treasure No. 223
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In front of the Folk Museum on the castle grounds I came across an interesting statue display of the Zodiac according to Oriental lore and here I am in front mine, the dreaded Dragon.  Yeah!P1100722
And so, I’ve come to the end of yet another photo essay dedicated to the praise of ‘The Land of the Morning Calm.’  Indeed, throughout several postings I have without stint heaped positive commentary on this fine country, but I stand by all I wrote because I saw and personally experienced;  it is sincere and in keeping with my journalist’s credo  objectively described.  Once we get past admiring the God-given scenic wonders, the ancient history, the cultural achievements and the friendly and ethical conduct as I experienced it on a daily basis  is an accurate reflection of the  superior quality of its people.  I’ve mentioned it elsewhere on this blog but any one who is looking for a great travel adventure on a limited budget, South Korea is the place for you.   For my part I’m already plotting a return with a longer stay.  
The International Airport at Incheon is state of the art, handling huge passenger and commercial traffic with cool efficiency; it is considered by many international organizations as travellers, me included, as the best in the world .   The buildings are vast and airy, spotlessly clean in keeping with all such Korean venues; the long distances between check-in and departure gates are easily managed by long moving sidewalks.  Notice the skating rink for kids to while away time before departure.   
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At this juncture it’s appropriate since she took the photo to give thanks to Ara, my hostess, travel companion, guide and translator.  Her considerable knowledge of Korean history and culture, her good humoured nature and generosity no doubt contributed mightily to the enjoyment I had throughout my stay.  Merci beaucoup ma chère amie.  Gamsa-hamndia!
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I’ll be seeing you soon, blowing bubbles, yep, big, enormous bubbles.  It’s guaranteed awesome, don’t miss the fun!  Annyeonghi-gaseyo!
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South Korea – Windmill Green Power; Andong UNESCO World Heritage Site

“Travel makes one modest.  You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” Gustave Flaubert

Reluctantly leaving splendid Gyeongju behind the next destination was a UNESCO World Heritage Site I was assured would be, for the small-town boy that I am at heart, a visual treat.  On the way, atop one of the innumerable hills in the area I spotted a windmill farm.   Never close up to one before without hesitation I turned off the highway and found the way up to discover more than I’d expected to see.  

(NOTE: To improve your viewing experience click on the photos below to enlarge – once for medium, twice to zoom in.)

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These are so much bigger close up than can be imagined seen from the valley below.   I was surprised other than a softly blowing wind, no discernible sound other than a gentle whoosh emitted from the giant spinning wings generating valuable electric energy.   All in all a peaceful scene that was so much more agreeable to the eye and kind to our natural environment than the gigantic containment towers of radiation spewing nuclear power plants and carbon laden smoke belched out by coal burning power generating effectively ruining our atmosphere.   When I think about the killing wounds inflicted to our fragile blue planet, I wonder just what are they thinking the self-annointed ‘Captains of Industry’? Abetted by craven politicians who meekly kow-tow, do they not have offspring of their own or are they all as I suspect sterile eunuchs?  Well, I answered my own question.

Incidentally, to add weight to these admittedly acerbic comments, I have personally observed up-close the machinations of politicians (grubbing for votes and money to buy elections, always) and the lobbying pressure from industry to allow unrestricted action in the pursuit of the almighty dollar.  I say this as a former journalist and having also spent time within the Canadian Ministry of the Environment.  When Brian Mulroney took power (1984) with the Conservative Party (correlate to G.W. Bush and today’s Republican Party) the first order of business was to slash research budgets into pollution and to expunge any lofty ideal about controlling let alone punishing polluting industries.  What a pathetic human being!  Today we have a sordid mental midget, a weasel Prime Minister if ever there was one who has wantonly destroyed Canada’s former stellar standing in the international community by (without consulting the Canadian people I may point out) slithered us out of the Kyoto Treaty we were almost first to ratify and who  presently is moving heaven, no, make that hell, to promote the sordid Keystone Pipeline project to ferry dirty oil from the Alberta Tar Sands, across an entire continent all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico.  Who for? To enrich further the venal oil barons sitting in Houston, Texas and Calgary in Alberta his home province and of course political base.  Yet, Albertans are the heedless sheep who will bear the brunt of the ecological disaster to follow – a pox on him!

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If you can read the Korean language the statistics posted below are self-explanatory or,  much easier as in my case, asking Ara to translate. 

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I can assure you even intrepid Don Quixote would have thought twice about taking these giants on.  Image the height at 80 metres (263 feet) or if you can imagine it, the height of a North American skyscraper; individual wing span at 46.2 metre (147 feet) for a two wing span of 95 metres (312 feet) rotating at between 9 to 16.9 revolutions per minute.  These steel leviathans weight 11 000 kilos (24 25o pounds), are 4.8 metres (16 Ft.) measured at the base and 3 metres (10Ft.) at its summit.   These particular seven windmills provide a year’s supply of electric energy for the equivalent of a 12 000 household town.   Imagine now much more can be done if there is the political will to encourage and if necessary to fund the construction of thousands more across the world.   And here’s the not so secret method  to bend the for-hire political system to the will of an enlightened voting public to effectively prevail upon old, inefficient energy providers to mend their  ways.   Take it as an absolute that politicians are nobodies once booted out of office. The will of the people can be made to prevail with the power of the voting urn.   Use it!

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I’m a convinced believer in the green power of modern windmill farms.  Much as their forerunners made use of natural wind flows over hilltops, these giants are a technological and structural wonder creating electric power that is economic and  renewable without limits. Definitely the future is in innovative power generation, whether with windmill farms, developing unlimited potential tidal power and maximizing other environmentally benign power generation techniques.  For example a valued friend, Jim K. has recently converted his home (London, Ontario)  into a solar power generating station.   He’s done himself a big favour by mitigating the rising cost of electricity, moreover adding reality value and contributing to the well-being of the environment by meaningfully reducing what he refers to as, “My carbon footprint”.  Check and consider this intelligent alternative with your local electricity provider and personally contribute to a greener world. Not only must we demand political action and corporate responsiveness, but renewable energy should not be merely a pious wish for individuals.

Beginning the northern swing back towards Seoul, we first headed for Andong, a thriving city of some 160,000 inhabitants.  It was interesting enough on its own, the usual good food and eclectic market place, but knowing my proclivity for authentic rural life-style, Ara was quite secretive about the next morning’s outing and the surprise was indeed worth the anticipation.   I enjoyed the drive through bucolic countryside and there around a corner my first glimpse of what surely was bound to be a fascinating look backwards into Korean history.  

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First recorded presence dates to the 16th century, Hahoe Village is a traditional farming community from the Joseon Dynasty. Presently a valuable part of Korean culture as it preserves period architecture, folk art and customs, valuable ancient books and yet still maintains the old tradition of clan-based villages. It is organized around the geomantic guidelines of pungsu therefore in the shape of a lotus flower or two interlocking comma shapes.  Over six centuries, the Yu clan of Pungsan has persisted through hard times and good times steadfastly maintaining a one-clan community since its very first days.

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In keeping with the unexpected an elaborate entrance greeted us after a long walk from the parking lot kept well away from view so as not to spoil the rustic charm of the village.  Just so there’s no misunderstanding, this is a real to goodness working and living village with farmers tending to their fields.  The food stalls, souvenir shops and folk art museum are segregated away from the ‘real’ village to afford maximum privacy for the resident farming folks.  

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Inside the entrance an interesting gallery room was dedicated to inform visitors to the proud event celebrating the inclusion of Hahoe Village into the prestigious list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2010.  One year later locals were proud to receive none less than Elizabeth II on an official visit from the United Kingdom.   I semi-shocked Ara with a playful imaginary ‘up yours’ to Her Royal Majesty’s nose; a gesture in keeping with my well-documented aversion to anything resembling inherited wealth, power or position.  Without doubt it harkens to my father’s staunchly republican upbringing and my unwillingness to kowtow to anyone, period.    However, not to offend any of my Anglo friends, I assure you it was all in harmless fun; I’m not advocating a French-style ‘révolution’ although I wouldn’t oppose a bloodless version.  
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Okay, I’ll be a goodl sport and for my friends who value monarchy (Lord knows why? I can’t help myself, sorry.) I offer a good photo without tom-foolery.
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You’ll notice the gloves on a cool but overall pleasant day.  The advantage as any traveler knows that being on the road during a week-day and better still during off-tourist season usually results in much less congested visitor traffic.  There were a few tour buses but the village was large enough to wander freely about without more than occasionally encountering other sight-seers. 
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Walking by an affluent home with splendid tiled roof next to traditional structures reserved for artisans and farmers.
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The thatched roofs have been in continuous use for centuries and of course the reason why Hahoe village is so distinctive and unusual by modern building standards.  However, some years ago I was surprised to see many such roofs in Germany’s beautiful Swartzwald (Black Forest).  It is claimed with good reason a thatch roof is a fine insulator retaining heat during the winter and the interior cool in the summer.  Furthermore, new techniques are making it more viable economically; for my part it’s so much more attractive to the eye.
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New thatch rolled up and standing by ready for use to replace old rooftops after an average seven years of sturdily handling the vagaries of natural elements. 
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The reed material is grown and readily available locally as can be seen in the foreground of this next photo.
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In keeping with the folk tradition of the locals many of the entrances to homes featured a carved wooden effigy of mythical creatures meant to keep bad luck and evil spirits in check. 
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I couldn’t resist including plump magpies feasting on ‘organic’ tidbits selected from a pile of fresh manure provided via old time farming practices.  I love those clever birds as you must know if you’ve read the true to life tale entitled ‘Mac the Magpie’ found elsewhere in this blog.  Look for it under Fables From the Moonlight Garden, read and you’ll surely concur with my unrestrained admiration.
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A well-stocked museum featured ancient carvings, traditional costumes as well as face masks as modelled by Ara. The village is notable because it has preserved many of its original structures, such as the local Confucian school and other buildings, and maintains folk arts such as the Hahoe Mask Dance Drama which is a shamanist rite honoring the communal spirits of the village
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Strolling and gadding about the village compound a wide-limbed tree caught the attention; the sign gave the age of this stalwart as 400 years old and still growing large, tall and in great health.
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The village hugged a clear flowing river providing home drinking water and feeding irrigation ditches; it is well protected by surrounding mountains and Buyongdae Cliff.  
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We explored the outer limits of the village strolling along quiet lanes enjoying the  peaceful and attractive scenery – no wonder this village has been occupied for uninterrupted  centuries.  Now that it has been included as a worthy contributor to humankind’s historic heritage I’m confident under the auspices of  Korea’s Ministry of Culture but especially the prideful ownership of local inhabitants,  Andong’s Hakoe Village will delight new generations long  into the future.   Thus we come to the end of a most interesting visit, as usual too short lived but there’s always a next time for those of us who are forever optimistic, as I admit to have a natural propensity for such a happy frame of mind.  Next come along with me and Ara to charming Danyang City and a visit to an impressive  Buddhist temple complex.  
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