Monday, 8 June 2015

담양 | Damyang

After the incredibly deep "hikers sleep", we woke up the next day to a slightly less stuffy, but beautifully sunny Gwangju. The view from the roof of our guesthouse was lovely, and it was quite nice to be able to see a large segment of the city from only the 5th or 6th floor.

The guesthouse provided us with some simple breakfast things like milk, bread, and fresh eggs, after which we packed up, paid, and headed out for Damyang, a small county on the northeast of Gwangju's borders.

The main reason I wanted to go to Damyang was because of its famous bamboo forests, which I'd seen photos of all over the internet, as well as being home to one of the festivals I'd read about a few weeks beforehand. According to 'the Internet' (my second best friend and my proverbial Hitchhiker's Guide) you could get a bus directly to Damyang's most popular bamboo forest - Juknokwon - right from Gwangju Station.

Slightly more savvy with the scale of the city this time, we hopped on a bus (second time lucky, busy weekend life) to the station and waited at the bus stop, which looked a lot more simple than the ones we're used to back in Incheon:

It looked a little bit sketchy, but considering someone had gone to all the effort to hand write the signs in several languages and stick them up, we had some faith and waited. Eventually, as promised, the bus arrived...

totally packed.

But this is South Korea, and so after a lot of shouting from the driver and pushing from the passengers, we squeezed on, standing in the front area where you usually pay, and praying for a distinct lack of the characteristic "emergency brake" pulsing that a lot of bus drivers here seem so fond of :p

The next problem was that we didn't have the right money (no T Money available and no 1000원 notes?!) so we were worried we'd be booted off at the next stop but this isn't Seoul, so apparently different customs apply. After a bit of stumbling in Korean we worked out that he'd be making a slightly longer stop in Damyang at which point we can quickly dash off the bus, get change for our 만원 and finally pay him.

Despite the crush we were too thankful to worry even with my thumb mysteriously bleeding (?!), managed to get change at Damyang's tiny bus station, and hop back on to go the last 20 minutes to Juknokwon.

Now, the only bamboo I've properly seen is probably those weird curly things you can buy in IKEA so anything was going to impress me, but this forest was immense. I didn't realise bamboo could grow so tall, but also it's so weird that despite being so tall, it's also incredibly straight?

Considering how many people were in the forest at the same time, it was surprisingly quiet. I'd love to see it on a low-traffic day! It was also really nice to wander around in the cool, leafy shade, sheltered from the awful midday heat.

The bamboo forest was actually on (I think) part of a small mountain. Something we didn't realise until we were inside and getting tired, although I suppose it was hinted at when we had to walk up an intensely steep incline just to buy an entrance ticket...

After a while the upwards incline became a downward one (not before seeing yet another outdoor gym at the peak?!) and we ended up in a lovely little hanok area with traditional style houses and historical exhibitions like games of tuho and some sort of craft display that seemed very popular with the children. There was a lady setting up a gayageum for a performance which we wanted to watch, as Nick is currently learning how to play it, but we were worried about the time and so we head off in search of an exit.

Preferably one that didn't involve hills.

Using the very vague and inaccurate maps dotted around infrequently, we managed to find a slightly less upward way back to the main street, although the way we went did involve us going through a side entrance where people were coming and going without the need to pay. Hrm.

There was also a very cute (but busy) little hanok shop selling all kinds of trinkets but mainly traditional 'wardrobe' boxes made from woven bamboo. Things I'd probably buy if I was on holiday!

I did also spot a little food spot run out of what looked like someone's garage maximising on their proximity to the entrance. They were selling bamboo ice cream, and considering unusual bamboo-based foods were one of the reasons I wanted to come here, I snapped one up. It was VERY good. The photo makes it look a little bit gross because I'd already started eating it, but the taste was really interesting. Unsurprisingly, it was faintly grassy and not just a green vanilla soft serve (which I'd had a brief concern about)

As I mentioned somewhere before, one of the main reasons we came to Gwangju and Damyang is because they supposedly have some really great local specialties. Considering eating could probably be considered one of our hobbies, we were determined to try Damyang's two main dishes, 대통밥 and 떡갈비.

대통밥 (daetongbap) is rice that's been very slowly steamed in a large chunk of bamboo, covered with a sheet of (I think) hanji paper. The rice is also full of chestnuts, jujubes, and various other nuts and grains to make it really flavourful and nutritious.

떡갈비 (ddeokgalbi) are, simply and slightly inaccurately put, traditional Korean 'hamburgers'. The 'galbi' part of the name means ribs, except rather than having to eat your way round a load of rib bone and gristle, it's all been ground down into a mince and reformed before cooked on a skillet next to you, full of sweet and savoury juices.

They were both really good and I'd definitely eat them again! I'm glad we found the restaurant we went to, tucked away in an upper floor of a building. All of the other places we'd walked past had enormous queues stretching quite a few feet out of the door and waiting lists with dozens of names on them. We didn't have enough time to hope we'd get inside, so when we took our chances with this little place we almost left upon being told sadly that there'd be a 1 hour wait.

Luckily, we did wait because we were shown to a table about 10 minutes later, with an apology for the fact the table hadn't been cleared. It looked like a family-run restaurant, and this must be one of the busiest weeks of the year for them, so I don't blame them and just appreciated the quick thinking.

The food itself appeared quite swiftly, too (as is the Korean way) and all of it was great. Our meal came, as usual, with several dishes of banchan that were all very interesting, full of flavour and went perfectly with our meal.

I've seen a few blogs where people complained that ddeokgalbi is incredibly expensive and they were really disappointed, so I was worried. But our meal came to about 25,000원 each, which although expensive for your average South Korean meal was a) about standard for a meal out in the UK especially one of the same quality and size, and b) not an average South Korean meal, but a specialty. So I'd expect to pay a higher-than-usual price for it. And the taste is worth it~

We didn't want to take too much time eating because we felt bad that they might have to turn more people away, so rather than our usual drawn-out, leisurely pace we ate a bit more normally and started heading back to the bus area.

On the way I bought...something that I can't remember the name of but was basically bamboo shoot-shaped 붕어빵 (bungeobbang). It was crispy and tasty but other than the shape I couldn't see or taste much that related it to bamboo. Oh well.

Our options for that day were either risk heading on to Jeonju and finding a motel or guesthouse to spend the next day there, or saving it for another day and heading home. Considering the best way to Jeonju was via train from Gwangju and there were, inexplicably, NO trains running from Gwangju that day, we stayed on the bus until Gwangju Express Bus Terminal and bought tickets for Seoul.

Again, our easy breezy ways worked in our favour. Buying the ticket from the lady at the desk was quick, easy, pretty cheap for such a long and last-minute booking, and there was plenty of space.

The coach itself was blissfully comfy, with plenty of legroom (a must for me!) as well as HD TV streaming live at the front of the bus. Amazing for something like 26,000원 (about £15)

One fun little thing is that, before the bus left the station, there was a screen at the front indicating which seats had been filled, determined by scanning the little QR code on your ticket.

Anyway, we had a good trip and I'm happy we saw as much as we did, even if it did destroy me a little bit.

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