Ambassadors revel in Korea’s bucolic beauties

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Jul 3, 2015 - 18:35
  • Updated : Jul 3, 2015 - 20:48
BONGHWA, ANDONG, North Gyeongsang Province ― A group of foreign envoys traveled to Korea’s countryside last weekend, discovering the country’s unexplored treasures, while taking a break from their industrious diplomatic duties.

The “2015 V-Tour for Ambassadors and Foreign Correspondents” took a trip to Bonghwa County and Andong, North Gyeongsang Province.

The two-day trip from June 26-27 was organized by the Herald Corp. and supported by the North Gyongsang Province Tourism Corporation, Bonghwa County and Andong City. Some 30 diplomats, their families and journalists participated. 

Participants of the “2015 V-Tour for Ambassadors and Foreign Correspondents” pose in front of Gunja Traditional Village in Andong, North Gyeongsang Province. Yoon Sung-chul/The Studio

The envoys offered a healthy dose of feedback and lessons from their countries on how to make the region better known internationally.

“We diplomats are stuck in Seoul, with its ‘ppali-ppali’ culture, and do not have time to discover Korea’s beautiful countryside,” Austrian Ambassador Elisabeth Bertagnoli told The Korea Herald. “The experience was an eye-opener to all of us.”

In Andong, the group lodged at the Gurume Traditional Resort, which provides accommodation in hanok buildings.

“Sleeping in a traditional Korean house was very unique,” Romanian Ambassador Fabian Calin said. “I woke up at 6 a.m. to walk around the village and breathe the fresh ‘green’ air.”

Participants draw on Korean fans at Gurume Traditional Resort in Andong. Yoon Sung-chul/The Studio

Calin said Korea could upgrade its tourism by offering more detailed and tourist-friendly information in English. As Korea has over 20 national parks, Calin said caving options should be developed through advertisement and investment in facilities.

Andong is known as a bastion of Korean culture and history, with traditional houses, intangible heritage and timeworn artifacts ― paintings and calligraphies, wooden masks, woodblock prints and premodern scriptures and books.

Academies, temples and pagodas have survived here for centuries, embodying and spreading Confucianism, Buddhism and shamanism.

A part of the itinerary included a visit to the Dosan Seowon Confucian academy, which was built in 1574 in memory of Joseon Dynasty official and scholar Teogye Yi Hwang (1502-71), whose face is on the 1,000 won bill.

“Several factors, mainly architecture, festivals and food, are needed for successful cultural tourism,” Slovakian Ambassador Milan Lajciak said. “Unfortunately, the Korean War destroyed many buildings here, but your effort to pick up what’s been left behind and revive what was lost is admirable.”

He added, “Korea makes up for its relative lack of architecture by actively promoting its festivals and programs. Korea actively advertises the perception of the country, and this trip definitely broadened my perception.”

(From left) Korea Herald reporter Joel Lee explains Korean rice wine "makgeolli" to a British participant, British embassy second secretary Michelle Broadbent, wife of Slovakian ambassador Elena Lajciakova and Austrian Ambassador Elisabeth Bertagnoli. Yoon Sung-chul/The Studio

Andong is an “open air museum” with exhibitions and traditions that showcase folk arts, crafts, literature, food, drinks and fashion. Festivals celebrate the mask dance, traditional funerals, farmers’ ballads, freshwater fishing, pot painting and battle games.

The city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a member of the League of Historical Cities, Organization of World Heritage Cities and International Mask Arts and Culture Organization.

Dense pine forests encircle the city’s Hahoe Folk Village like folding screens, and the Nakdonggang River flows in an S-shape past stretches of white sand dunes.

Buddhist temples founded in the Silla Dynasty (668-918), Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392) and Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897) have incorporated nature into their garden landscapes and transmitted images of peace and harmony.

Spanish Ambassador Gonzalo Ortiz stressed nurturing local culture and identity for a global appeal.

“The best way to promote your country is by having first-rate assets,” Ortiz said. “Tourism is like gastronomy. Visitors will come back to your country like people revisit good restaurants. It is important to keep their trust and make them want to come back.”

Ortiz said that Spain invests heavily in preserving and repairing its rich cultural heritage. Tourism has been a key driver of the economy since the end of World War II, and the revenue has been reinvested for replenishment.

“One creative way to promote your country is making a film set in a local backgrounds, using a protagonist from another country,” the ambassador pointed out. “Korea’s attraction in the West 30 years ago was very limited. Now it’s growing, and it will inevitably grow in the future.”

Foreign ambassadors and Andong Mayor Kwon Youngse (front, right) raise a toast during dinner at Yemijeong restaurant in Andong. Yoon Sung-chul/The Studio

At restaurant Yemijeong, the group had a course meal of traditional Korean dishes ― an assortment of vegetables, seafood and meat ― presented in colorful arrangments. Even for Europeans, Korean food is “delicious, healthy and well balanced,” noted Lajciak, as the side dishes, called “banchan,” allow personalization of tastes and textures.

Andong food includes: Andong Soju, a vodka-like spirit made from rice; “jjimdak” a chicken dish with large pieces of potato, spinach, green onions and bean thread noodles in a soy bean sauce; and mushrooms, apples, sesame, salted mackerel and beef, among other dishes.

British Queen Elizabeth II visited Andong in 1999, and after trying local delicacies, repeatedly said “very good” and “wonderful,” and “even raised her glass for a toast,” according to a tourism guidebook.

After dinner, there was a traditional musical performance of singing and traditional instruments gayageum and haegeum.

“I liked all of the music presented,” said Austrian Ambassador Elisabeth Bertagnoli, a music enthusiast and soprano singer. Bertagnoli, who sings in The Diplomats’ Choir and participated in the Peace Concert in the Demilitarized Zone on June 5, described Korean music as “deep and emotional.”

“Korean music has an emotional undertone. You can really feel the emotions of love, joy and sorrow from the melodies and stories,” noted Bertagnoli. 

A musician plays the gayageum, a Korean zither with 12 strings. Yoon Sung-chul/The Studio

In Bonghwa County in North Gyeongsang Province, the participants had a train ride between Cheolam and Bidong Stations, moving through the lush green Taebaek Mountains. They went trekking along valleys and rivers, which led to the Buncheon Railway Station.

The county is famous for its mountainous landscapes and scattered farms, which help its promotion as a retirement destination for city-dwellers. The region produces ginseng, pine mushrooms, apples and brown rice, and is home to 103 pavilions.

On the second day, during a walk around the Andong Dam on Nakdonggang River, Singaporean Ambassador Yip Wei Kiat said Korea can better promote its natural assets and ecotourism.

“In Singapore, since the beginning, we tried to build a garden inside a city. The new concept is building a city inside a garden,” Yip noted. “Our government in recent years has made more effort to preserve heritage sites, and to bring green elements into buildings and neighborhoods.”

Rooftop gardens have sprung up across Singapore, helping cool the city and buildings, purify the air and beautify the landscape, the ambassador highlighted.

Noting the lack of awareness by foreigners of Korea’s green attractions, Yip agreed with Ortiz that filming a movie or drama in a natural background would generate interest overseas.

“Tourism in New Zealand saw an increase following the film trilogy ‘Lord of the Rings,’” Yip said, adding that the locations where the movie was shot have become tourism hot pots.

Participants take the V-Train from Cheolam Station to Bidong Station in Bonghwa County, North Gyeongsang Province. Yoon Sung-chul/The Studio

Malaysian Ambassador Rohana Ramli said areas outside of Seoul, namely Jejudo Island, small islands along the coast, Busan and Jinju, would appeal to Malaysian tourists, who have flocked to Korea following the “Hallyu Korean Wave” boom.

“Malaysians started traveling to Korea in droves after the TV drama ‘Winter Sonata’ was released in 2002,” she said. “As a result, Namiseom Island, where the drama was filmed, became a must-visit site.”

Ramli said she started watching Korean dramas to understand the culture since being an ambassador here. “Touring historical places here reminded me of the movie scenes,” she said, adding that Korean historical dramas are gaining popularity in Malaysia.

Regarding the causes behind hallyu’s high currency in Southeast Asia, Ramli pointed out to the Korean government’s active promotion of the pop culture, which has happened alongside the decline of Western pop.

“Malaysians can psychologically relate to Korean culture,” the ambassador explained. “My generation idolized the Hollywood stars, but my nephews and nieces are crazy about Korean celebrities.”

By Joel Lee (