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Jeonju in South Korea is a slow city that peddles history and traditional food.
The bus is scheduled to leave at 9 am. There are just 11 of us inside. You wonder if the bus will wait for a few more minutes to pick up a few more passengers. But the bus leaves exactly at 9 am. This is South Korea.
We are heading for Jeonju, a small town about 200 km south of Seoul, famous for that four letter F word nobody can do without - food, of course. The bus moves beyond the city skyscrapers in no time and hits the 10-lane highway where hatchbacks, sedans and SUVs from the Hyundai and Kia stable race past us. A stray green Matiz evokes memories of another day when it was a familiar sight on the Indian roads. And a black i30 makes you wonder when it will be launched in India. Plenty of firang cars too fly by;the cutesy and classy Cooper one of them. "Every Korean uses the BMW, " says Boram Yoo, our translator, with a straight face. Then she smiles and expands, "Bus, metro and walking. "
The bus glides on the smooth concrete road like an ice cube on a seesaw. One is reminded of the Agra Expressway. Outside the weather is bleak and the smog very Delhi. We drive past rows of ginko trees. With their yellow autumn leaves, they are like the country's botanical signature. Over an hour later, we stop at a resting point packed with knick-knack shops, restaurants and convenience stores. Travellers gather around a couple of funny-looking mechanical dolls shaking and shimmying to the rhythm of K-pop.
We walk into the ubiquitous convenience store, 7- 11, pick up a Starbucks Frappucino and a Cantana Latte. Tinned hot coffee is kept in heaters on the shelves of convenience stores across Korea. Mr Lee, one of our hosts, settles for a fish cake on a stick, a common street-food in these parts. Having polished it off he goes for a fish cake soup, something that allegedly works wonders if you have a hangover.
We arrive in Jeonju in a little over two hours. In fact, there are two Jeonjus. There's an aesthetic and symmetrical old town and there's a new glitzy version with a plethora of shops. The older portion is called slow city, a term used to describe a laidback place that practices eco-friendly tourism. This part once had about 1, 000 hanoks or traditional Korean houses. Only 700 such homes are left but it is still the largest cluster of such houses in the country. That's the town's USP. Once upon a time, these hanoks were homes to noblemen of the famed Joseon dynasty of which it is the birthplace.
Visiting the old wooden homes built in the typical Korean courtconstruction gives an idea of how the Korean aristocracy lived in the medieval times. They are spacious, airy and artistic. Back in the 1980s, many people living in these homes moved out to the more modern and urban apartment blocks nearby. The area became an outpost for old people and the real estate sharks moved in. But then the government intervened putting a stop to buying and selling of these houses. Now, the state spends money in preserving these heritage homes. As a result, from certain vantage points, this part of Jeonju looks like an old hanok village as one sees in Korean historical films.
What also attracts hundreds of tourists every weekend to this quaint town is its reputation as the place for quality traditional Korean food. Guide Ji Young Won explains how Jeonju got that tag. In ancient times, the town was blessed geographically being close to several regions. It got beans from Insil, meat from Daejon, sea food from Busan and mountain vegetables from Jinan. It's obvious that the nobility were epicureans and had selected their home stay venue with care. Food and the preserved heritage homes have together turned Jeonju into a nice weekend getaway for Seoul-wallahs. Hundreds of tourists can be seen walking on the carefully cobbled streets or sipping Kenyan coffee at one of the comfy restaurants dotting the area while locals play the Korean version of chess by the pavement.
We check in to an artificial hanok. It is not an old property - the real ones turned into hotels were full - but a new wooden building designed like one. The hanoks are a minimalist affair. No beds here;you sleep over a thick silken mattress on the floor. For lunch, we amble to HanKookKwan, a restaurant famous for traditional Korean food. The decor is sparse - food is served on wooden table, each separated from the other by kanmaks (dividers) with Chinese characters printed on them. Bibimbap, a trademark Korean dish, is the preferred choice here. There are several variations to the wildly popular dish. Generally speaking, bibimbap is a mix of rice, bean sprouts, spinach, pumpkin, pine nuts, gingko nuts, mushroom and chestnuts. Yokhoe (raw beef) is the fancied topping over this spread. I settle for the poached egg option and but Mr Lee polishes off the raw beef, indeed the whole dish with plenty of banchan (side dishes), in quick time. But we leave much of the Moju, sweet rice wine with a cinnamon overkill, in the bowl.
Pedestrians are kings of the road in these parts of Jeonju. In fact, driving a car - and hardly a few do that - is actually denying oneself of the town's real pleasure. This is basically a soakin-the-ambience place. And taking the guided nature's walk helps you realise what this town's emotional core is all about - reminding everybody the forgotten pleasure of being able to "stand and stare, " as the Welsh poet WH Davies once wrote. A winding wooden staircase takes you to a hillock full of trees where the ground is a blanket of yellow and red leaves. One tree, about 500 years old, has been designated a wish tree where people tie pieces of cloth as done in dargahs across the world. Who says people are different everywhere?
After a dinner of steak and chips, there's a consensus on downing a few shots of soju. The traditional rice liquor is to Korea what sake is to Japan and vodka to Russia. The more popular version of soju carries about 20 per cent alcohol and is either gulped neat or cocktailed with the local Cass or Hite beer. But there's a problem. By 9 pm most local pubs have already closed shop. After a long search through the bylanes of the old town, we find one small but cheery place open in a street corner. For the next hour and half or so, we keep downing one shot after another with a bowl of steamed egg serving as accompaniment. We talk and laugh a lot - of simple and trivial things that flow easy with drinks. But even after seven shots, the liquor doesn't really do its job. Never mind, Mr Lee is happy. So are we. Despite the chilly wind that cuts through the quiet night, we merrily walk the long winding lanes to the hanok.
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