Finding Haenggung Road

The traffic on the way in was as hectic as expected for a Saturday afternoon. We eventually managed to park the car, and then we wandered out into the afternoon.

In front of the old palace that sat in the centre of the city fortress, stalls had been set up for some occasion that were mostly selling snacks and bric-a-brac, or were flaunting some flyers for some form of a healthier lifestyle. We picked our way through it, stretching our necks to see what all the fuss was over at certain stalls and helping ourselves to free samples, but all the time veering to the shadier side of aisles in between the lines of white canopied stalls.

Generally unimpressed, we left and made our way away from the large plaza in front of high wooden palace gate. On the ground close to the gate was a large copper embossed plate fitted into the paving that  showed a landscape and lettering that read “PHOTO ZONE” in red. I looked up and tried to frame this scene the tile was hoping that photographers would be inspired by.

Of course it was a very nice angle to photograph that particular corner of the place wall against the forty-five degree like rugged slope of the mountain with its look-out post silhouetting behind it, especially with the bulbous white and grey clouds and sun shining through them in the background at that particular moment. But the thought of encouraging lines of people to queue up for an ideally angled portrayal of this unique attraction without any aerials or high-rise apartments interfering got to me. I think that photography, whether amateur or professional, should be an entirely personal experience, and having a ‘photo zone’ takes away from this.

Fortunately, there were not lines of tourists and, in fact, there was nobody at all lining up as they were all presumably busy wrestling in between the stalls with each other, or following their tour guides yellow flag diligently around the palace and fortress wall. That was enough palace for me for one day.

We left the neatly arranged plaza to its business-as-usual clutter and turned down a narrow alley that ran perpendicular to the road we had driven in by. It had been some time since I had last been down here and recalled the broken tar macadam, stinking drains, and what looked like lines of hardware stores and grotty restaurants and bars.

But now the tar macadam had been replaced by neat and colourful cobble-lock paving of sandstone and black granite. The drains and gutters were clean and decorative. Bright shop fronts with displays of crafts and flowers had replaced the previous occupants. The shops façades were of old wood and plaster or bright tiles, and murals decorated the gable ends of old dreary buildings facing into empty space. Here was a new street, a street that anyone who walked down it could feel a little proud of.

Now in its new glow, the street carried with it a refreshed but lazy village atmosphere that wound its way through it. And we entered it, arm in arm, sauntering from one window to the next, taking an interest in every detail to be seen.

Music rolled out slowly from a speaker as a man explained the merits of his pecan pie he was selling as he offered tastes. We obliged and bought one for ourselves. Children shouted as they raced by on bicycles. A man and woman stood by a wall beating a rhythm with sticks as they practised a drum sequence. A mannequin sat painting on a canvas opposite a clothes shop. A large pig sat in the shade with his legs crossed and his eyes focused furiously as it thought about something.

If you looked up you could see what remained of the old street; rusting signs and old dirty tiles, sun yellowed net curtains in windows, wires and dangling satellite dishes, and all those other things you would recognise in a forgotten alleyway in an old part of town. It looked like another place. Yet none of these mattered as they sat allowing the street to change.

We stopped for a short rest in a coffee shop. Herself had jasmine flower tea and I ordered a latte. As we chatted and read, classical music played low from a single set of speakers in the corner and the two sisters who managed the business kept busily moving between tables, chatting with customers, and relaxing on an old sofa in the corner when all else was satiated.

When we left it had become darker as the evening was setting in. We cut down one of the alleys that spidered off from the central street. The streets remained clean, the building fronts remained neat, and everyone continued to move around at an assured but happy pace. We passed by old buildings restored with new stonework, new roof tiles, and fresh paint on old plaster and wood supports. Every so often we would pass a new looking tea and coffee shop sitting there in the slowly darkening evening and its lights warming the street with their orange glow. Before long we passed back onto the main street from which we drove in initially.

Everything we had just experienced lost its normalcy as we stepped out onto that street that seems to always argue with itself. The difference was behind the rows of quiet buildings and found only by following a windy alleyway, seemingly worlds apart from the stubborn old city it sits quietly changing within.

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