Every now and again you come across a place on your travels that has a distinct similarity to another place close to your heart, that’s a million miles away. For me, Gamcheon Cultural Village’s tiny winding alleyways, historical features and artwork around every corner reminded me so much of the seaside town of St Ives, Cornwall, England. St Ives is a precious place for me, it holds so many of my childhood memories – of family holidays with my dogs, of visiting friends and chatting away into the night, of long walks along the promenade looking down into the clear turquoise water on a summer’s evening with the sunset framing the lighthouse across the bay. In Gamcheon I had this same feeling, although I’d never been there before there was a feeling of family ties and childhood memories in a foreign land. It was a place that touched my heart. It was a day to remember.
I arrived in Gamcheon around midday on a Thursday in August, it had been raining in Busan that morning and I’d had to sit in the most banal of Paris Baguette cafes with just my phone for company while I waited out the rain. Sitting there, I watched a lady fall off her motorbike as she was driving down a hill. She’d hurt her leg so much that she couldn’t get up. A man walked out of a nearby building and came to check on her, phone in hand and ready to call an ambulance – but she stopped him. I asked myself if there was anything I could do, but frustratingly my lack of Korean would only have made the situation worse. Eventually my bus came.
By the time I arrived in Gamcheon just a few minutes later, after the bus took us up and down some very steep and narrow village roads on the way there, the sun was finally out and the day was getting hotter. The first thing that caught my eye was the way the houses swooped down in and amongst each other, making for a beautiful view from pretty much any angle.
Being founded on history, Gamcheon was cultivated during the Korean War (1950-1953) as a place where people relocated to for safety. The way that the village is designed is not an accident, it was made so that no house blocks the view of any other, hence the way the village rolls across the valley. It’s a crucial element in how and why Gamcheon thrived during and after the war.
As I made my way through the village I used a map from the information centre to help mark off some of the less-obvious tourist spots. For me, this was a great challenge. Some of the spots on the map were very difficult to navigate and I enjoyed getting lost down stairwells and back streets and sometimes I even wondered if I was trespassing. However the local residents were very welcoming. They asked me where I was from and gave me directions to where I was trying to go, and this was when I realised that this place felt a lot like home, in St Ives. There, there are tiny stairwells and back alleys too and local residents go about their daily lives as tourists mingle in the fudge shops and art galleries. Often in Gamcheon I came across doorways that had been decorated with personal artefacts by the owners, and in St Ives its not rare to come across little bits of quirkiness like this that say “Hey! People live here. We cherish it and you should too.”
And cherish it, I did. Walking from one spot to another I practically breathed in the art and the love that surrounded me. Paintings and murals were endless and there was no shortage for fascination in Gamcheon. From quirky wall installations to alleyways painted like bookshelves, the vibrancy just kept on coming.
One of my favourite places in Gamcheon was a printmaking gallery, filled with hand drawn postcards by artist Wi Gil Ho. His illustrations wonderfully brought the village to life on paper and focused on the structure of the houses against the sea. I bought a couple of cards, one on which there was a story about travelling along the coasts of Korea and drawing. He compared this kind of observational travel to one in which people write about online, like this. It made me feel like a bit of a phony, but I took solace knowing that I too can understand that kind of travel and do partake in it regularly, sometimes deciding not to bear the weight of my heavy camera on a trip – if only to feel lighter in my mind without the burden of needing to document every experience I ever have. I decided that both kinds of travelling were important.
As the day wore on, I gradually felt more and more homesick. Looking out to sea from Gamcheon, I imagined the St Ives seagulls flying overhead, even hearing their all-too-familiar annoying yet comforting squark. I imagined the lives and the family histories of the Gamcheon residents and was envious of this beautiful place they called home. So much walking, seeing and photographing had left me weary in the August heat and so I headed to a nearby small restaurant and had a bowl of Naengmyeon, a cold vinegary broth served with cold noodles and chunks of ice (one of most people’s favourite dishes to cool down with during summer here in South Korea).
At around 4.30pm I said goodbye to Gamcheon, knowing for sure that I would be back again. Not for the shops, not for the cafes, not even for the art, but for the stories hidden on every corner, for the residents’ kindness and pride and of course, to feel a little closer to home.