Firstly, I challenge you to search the web and find anything substancial about Geochang, South Korea. Go on, I’ll wait. For those of us who live here, discussing our fruitless researching efforts before journeying here has become a sort-of tradition, you see. An inititation into life in our rural community. Everyone will tell you the same – there’s barely enough information to prove the existence of this town at all. Those few who do live here end up playing a strange variant of pin-the-tail, except in this case its pin-the-location. One thing is recurring though, and that is the Geochang massacre. Picture this: researching what is to be your home for the foreseeable future and coming up empty except for articles on a tragic historical event. You can imagine our trepidation, I’m sure.
Athough most expats have experienced the frosty pre-introduction, it soon proves temporary. A few days in this town is more than enough time to thaw any apprehension! To my constant surprise, this small rural town is bursting with people. There is a considerate number of expats here in public (state) schools and academies teaching English. Our community is close given that we are quite closed-off from the larger communities. The closest city is Daegu, a 50-minute bus ride away (we have yet to be graced with a subway system).
Our town used to be primarily a farming town a decade or so ago, and if you wander around the outskirts of town, you will soom come across huge expanses of rice fields. Nowadays, Geochang is slowly becoming more modernised. Newer buildings replace older structures every week. Clothing stores come and go quickly, and more Westernised eateries appear frequently depending on the current fast food craze (last year it was waffles, this year its corndogs). Italian pizza and pasta places, as well as Chinese restaurants are popular. Whenever a new Western place pens up, you can bet a few of the expats will visit, tentatively hopeful of an authentic eatery, or at least a different type of cuisine – I lie in wait of more Eastern, rather than Western, restaurants, particularly Thai and Indian food.
Walking around the town, you can easily see the popular habits of consumers in Korea. There is an excess of cafes, beauty stores, pharmacies, and bakeries. In Korea, you will never be short on coffee, bread, cosmetics, or medicine. Fact.
My favourite thing about Geochang has to be the river which runs throughout the town. It is beautiful to walk along it all-year-round, with each season bringing its own idea of beauty to the surrounding scenery. I enjoy taking long walks along the river during autumn and winter, and jogging along it during spring and summer. Sitting alongside the river is also perfect for people-watching! You’ll see many people regardless of the season: solo or group walkers, joggers, dog-walkers, cyclists, and in the warmer seasons you’ll see fishermen in the river catching produce. It is quite common to see fishermen up to their necks in water wading into the deeper parts of the river, though I was certainly shocked seeing them for the first time). During summer, there’s a distinct lack of rain which can reduce the river significantly, so much so that you can see the bottom in certain parts! In winter, if it is cold enough, the entire river will freeze. In fact, in 2017 my friends and I walked across the entire width of the river!
Every year in September, Geochang holds its ‘Apple festival’ (거창 한마당축제) @applefestival @applefestivalkr (Korean only). The apple is Geochang’s official symbol, owing to its commercial value. The apples are sold all across South Korea, and are even exported! As well as the ‘Apple Festival’, the town also holds an annual ‘Flower festival‘ (신원국화축제) in late October in memory of the Geochang Massacre at the Geochang Memorial Park @flowerfestival (Korean only).
Surely two festivals is enough for such a small rural town? Absolutely not! The third festival in Geochang is the ‘Geochang Summer Festival of Theatre’ (거창韓여름연극제) at Susungdae National Park @festivaloftheatre. This festival holds performances of plays, dancing, and singing in an outdoor theatre every year. Buses from the bus terminal take visitors directly to the event and take around 20-minutes. Susungdae National Park is relatively small, so be prepared for crowds!
Geochang is surrounded my two national parks: Gayasan National Park and Susungdae National Park. Gayasan National Park is close to Haeinsa temple in Hapcheon, while Susungdae is closer to Geochang. Susungdae is a lovely place to visit in summer with its picturesque bridge across the river, famous monuments, and hiking trails. In the trees bordering the pathways, the cicadas are INCREDIBLY loud, but as a Brit, I find them such a novelty that I can’t even be annoyed at the noise. There are wooden platforms where people can set up tents to go camping nearby the river with benches to rest nearby. In the park, there’s a cafe, restaurant, convenience store, and bathroom within walking distance but be sure to reserve seats if you wish to eat at the restaurant as it gets booked up quickly, particularly during the peak summer months.
Given that Korea is mostly mountainous, there are plenty of mountains to hike around the country and Geochang is no exception to this! In particular, there’s a short hike which gives you a beautiful view of Geochang and has resting platforms along the way.
When I initially moved to Geochang, I was comforted by the size of the town. It was small, easy to navigate, and relatively quiet. Given that information online is so sparse, Geochang rarely sees tourists. The foreigners in town are workers, teachers more often than not. Nowadays, the novelty of living in a rural town has mostly worn off. The lack of accessible variety can make life here stagnant after more than a year here, at least for me. As a lover of food, I despair at the lack of variety of cuisines here! And despite the festivals, activities outside of the celebrations are minimum. To counter this, I do spend most weekends out of town eating my weight in food, shopping, visiting friends, and exploring more of Korea.
Geochang has done a lot for me and made me feel incredibly at home in a country so far away from my own and for that, I am eternally grateful. I will always hold this cute, little town incredibly close to my heart, and all the wonderful people I have met here!