The Kimchi-ite: Hahoe, A Korean Village That Time Barely Touched

Jonathan Kramer, Gadling

Less than an hour bus ride outside of the nondescript city of Andong in central South Korea, a little village doesn’t just hold onto the past, it embodies it. Hahoe Folk Village (pronounced Hahwe) has been inhabited for well over 600 years, with many artifacts and buildings considered to be Korean national treasures.

Today, it stands as a unique relic for visitors to experience an authentic view into a historic village. If it weren’t for the information center, the surprisingly cheap admission fee and the two guides I saw, Hahoe would seem as if it were just a small village that modernization accidentally passed over.

Jonathan Kramer, Gadling
Jonathan Kramer, Gadling
Surrounded by mountains on all sides, Hahoe keeps hidden from the modern world.

Representative of Joseon Dynasty traditions, locals roam and work in period clothes, transporting water in wooden buckets strapped to their backs and de-wrinkling clothes by banging on them with wooden pins. The number of re-enactors is kept to a modest handful, and they offer stories and information to those that are curious while letting those that just want to silently peek around do so.

Jonathan Kramer, Gadling
Locals walk around in period clothing, blending in with their historic surroundings.

At Hahoe, you’re mostly left to explore on your own through the alleys and farms, on the riverbank and into many of the homes and unattended museums. It’s an experience best taken at one’s own pace.

Jonathan Kramer, Gadling
Views from the top of the cliff showcase the river that snakes around Hahoe.

The Nakdong River snakes almost completely around the village, creating beautiful sandy banks that were no doubt an amazing place to cool off. The striking cliff that rises over the river, referred to as Buyongdae, offers fantastic views of the village from above.

Jonathan Kramer, Gadling
Hahoe is famous within Korea for its expressive masks associated with ancient shaman rituals.

Many of the historical homes in the area, most of which are hundreds of years old, are available to the public to spend the night in. Disconnect yourself from modern society and go back to simpler living as the rooms often push the term “basic accommodation” to its limits. They are often just a 7-foot square with a fan, light, traditional futon-style bedding and an electrical outlet.

Jonathan Kramer, Gadling
Many of the historic homes function as guesthouses, offering authentic rustic experiences.

For more stories about Korean culture, eccentricities and more, browse “The Kimchi-ite” archives by clicking here.

Budget Hong Kong: Renting A Room At The Notorious Chungking Mansions

There are two types of travelers: those who would go out of their way to avoid a place like Hong Kong‘s notorious Chungking Mansions – and those who would elect to stay there.

I’d probably put myself somewhere in the middle.

Nestled between luxury emporiums on one of Hong Kong’s most expensive thoroughfares, the Chungking Mansions is a chaotic complex of shops, food stalls, restaurants, wholesalers, budget guesthouses and low-income apartments. The 17-story compound is home to around 5,000 permanent residents, most hailing from South Asia and Africa. That’s not to mention the estimated 10,000 people that pass through its halls each day, trading in currencies, refurbished electronics, counterfeit bags and other slightly less legal commodities. TIME Magazine called the Chungking Mansions the “Best Example of Globalization in Action” because of its extensive network of informal trade, while The Economist compared it to Spaceport Cantina in the original “Star Wars” film. Travel articles alternately refer to it as a “heart of darkness,” a “den of iniquity” or, simply, a “hellhole.”

Naturally, I was hesitant to check out the Chungking Mansions for myself. But I was also intrigued. With single rooms running from HK$150 (US$19.35) to HK$500 (US$64.50), Chungking Mansions is one of the cheapest budget accommodation options in town, stairwell drug deals notwithstanding. Anthropologist Gordon Matthews estimates that more than 129 different nationalities pass through each year.

%Gallery-174068%What I found was … anticlimactic. After a number of high-profile deaths and disappearances in the 1990s, the owners of the Chungking Mansions installed an extensive CCTV system and employed round-the-clock security guards to monitor the complex. There are regular police patrols, and I witnessed no fewer than five crackdowns during my visit.

Because of the heavy monitoring, Chungking is actually a quite safe place to stay, compared with other Asian backpacker ghettoes. It is also conveniently located in the heart of Tsim Sha Tsui, a lively district in the Kowloon side of Hong Kong. Luxury hotels like The Peninsula and The Sheraton are steps away, along with malls, restaurants, museums, MTR subway stops and the scenic Tsim Sha Tsui promenade. If you don’t mind the cramped quarters and chaotic surroundings, it’s not a bad budget option. Some even claim it’s a quintessential Hong Kong experience.

Not all Chungking Mansion guesthouses are created equal, though. Quality varies wildly, and photos on booking sites like Hostelbookers and Agoda are often heavily edited. The best way to score a good value room is simply to show up and make the rounds of Chungking’s 80-plus options, most of which are clustered in blocks A and B. The Ashoka Hostel, consisting of nearly 100 rooms across three floors, is a popular option; their head reception desk is located on the 13th floor of Block A. The price per night depends on the month (or even the day) so don’t be afraid to negotiate, particularly if you’re traveling during off-season.

The reward? A chance to experience not only a different side of Hong Kong, but also the world. One guesthouse owner showed me his logbook of guests, hailing from Ghana, Bangladesh, Holland, Malaysia, the Philippines, Germany, Japan and even America. “People from everywhere come to stay here,” he boasted. Globalization in action.

[Photo Credit: Jessica Marati]

Budget Hong Kong” chronicles one writer’s efforts to authentically experience one of the world’s most expensive cities, while traveling on a shoestring. Read the whole series here.

Hong Kong Travel Tips

Hayete: Beautiful Budget-Friendly Beirut Guesthouse

Hayete

Hayete, a budget-friendly guesthouse in Beirut, is a rare bird: stylish, in a fantastic location, and relatively inexpensive.

Budget-minded travelers who also enjoy a bit of style are usually out of luck when it comes to accommodations. Budget-friendly options generally consist of hostels, folksy guesthouses, smarmy bed & breakfasts and budget hotel chains – all honorable and fine, but only rarely stylish.

There are very few super stylish rooms in in-demand cities with rates in the $100 per night territory. Boutique and art hotels charge several times this amount in most buzzing cities. Budget hunters usually have to rely on the occasional off-season rate dip to enjoy anything approaching boutique style.

hayete Hayete, located in Beirut‘s exciting, intrigue-drenched Achrafieh neighborhood, provides an exception to the rule. The place looks and feels like the setting for a photo shoot in an underground European style magazine. It occupies an old classic building, built in the early 20th century, with original detailing intact. The tiled floor is particularly beautiful.

On the walls here are several huge photographs of color-saturated Russian landscapes by Liza Faktor. The design template is clever and very contemporary, capturing several impressions at once. There is the breezy feel of the carefree 1970s in several pieces alongside a fussy mid-century sitting room aesthetic, itself unsettled by contemporary upholstery. Throughout, there’s a strong sense of place.

hayeteThe location is right in the thick of the Achrafieh action. Guests breakfast on a communal balcony that sits above a lively intersection, just beyond the main lounge’s enormous antique aviary with its live, singing inhabitants. From the balcony, guests can spy morning traffic extending through narrow streets, old mansions, and the noises and sights of construction and renovation projects. The Lebanese breakfast (labneh, pita bread, juice) provides a pleasant, if light, start to the day.

Hayete has just four rooms. Two, with shared bathrooms, run $105 per night for a double (or $75 for single occupancy.) Two en suite rooms start at $125 (or $95 for a single). The rate includes breakfast, tax, coffee and tea from a shared bar, Wi-Fi and use of a communal refrigerator.

These nightly rates are particularly impressive in light of Beirut’s hotel rate index, which is not generally easy on the wallet. While Hayete is not an extreme budget pick, its nightly rates put it in an all-too-slim category of reasonable, stylish hotels. For this alone it deserves to be championed.

[Images: Alex Robertson Textor]

Round-the-world: Chantemer, a Mauritius guest house

“This is not a hotel. This is a private home.” With these words, Indra Tinkler, widely referred to simply as “Madame” by taxi drivers and other tourism providers across the south of Mauritius, introduces us to Chantemer, her small guest house. There is a flourish of the hand in the delivery. I assume–it turns out correctly–that we are in for an entertaining stay.

Located at Pointe d’Esny near Mahébourg, Chantemer’s neighborhood is a prosperous one, occupying an idyllic stretch of coastline between a resort called Preskil and the town of Blue-Bay. The surrounding area is full of lovely villas, none garish or McMansion-like. Most of these villas boast a stretch of white-beige beach of their own.

Chantemer is the sort of quiet, good value guest house that cost-conscious travelers yearn for, treasure, and then recommend to the like-minded. The house’s downstairs, where Madame lives, is stylishly appointed. Guest rooms are tasteful and simple, with many of Madame’s own paintings hanging throughout. The basics for budget-minded and midrange leisure travelers are all there. The water heater works. The breakfasts (fruit, bread, and coffee) are fresh if small, though a boiled or fried egg can be ordered for an additional 25 rupees, which is less than $1. Rooms also have refrigerators, and two of the three rooms have balconies with sea views. Rooms do not have televisions. If anything, this amenity absence adds to the bolthole atmosphere. Chantemer’s backyard, which leads down to the beach, is populated with palm trees and bougainvillea, among other tropical flora. After nine days spent checking out many different beaches on Mauritius, we came to the conclusion that Chantemer’s beach was the best on the island. That claimed, the constant presence of windsurfers and kiteboarders playing with the robust wind means that it’s infrequently completely empty.

To be sure, there are some downsides. The wireless Internet did not work while we were there, and there are no phones in rooms. This latter fact means that, until they get their bearings, guests are dependent on Madame to call for taxis. As the guest house is a good 20-minute walk from the nearest restaurant and taxi availability slows down dramatically at night, this dependence can be a little bit difficult, especially in light of Madame’s busy social calendar. These logistics can be handled with a little advance planning.

While Mauritius has its share of extravagant five-star resorts, the island is less well-known for small, unassuming guest houses. Chantemer is the perfect pick for anyone looking for a simple, relatively inexpensive retreat. There are three rooms currently on offer. Ours, with a direct view (see below) of the beach, ran €78 per night. A more expensive unit has a kitchen. My sole recommendation, if you find yourself considering a booking, is to request a room with a sea view. Chantemer is one place where a kick-ass dawn view is certainly worth a few extra euros.

Check out other posts in the Capricorn Route series here.

Chilhowie, Virginia: farmhouses and…fine dining?

Although I write about food for a living, it takes a lot to get me to make a pilgramage to a restaurant. For me to fly from Seattle to the East Coast, and then drive across a state (staying at a campground down the road from a correctional facility, en route), I need more than just the promise of a great meal.

Town House, in the far corner of southwestern Virginia, is that sort of place. Six hours drive from Washington DC, the acclaimed restaurant is located on quiet Main Street in rural Chilhowie (pop. 1,827). Twenty miles from both the Tennessee and North Carolina borders, Chilhowie is pure Americana. Pastoral imagery abounds: dairy cows grazing in rolling pasture, dilapidated barns and silos, weathered buildings shedding peeling paint. There are shady groves, creeks, wineries, mountain biking and hiking trails (this is Appalachian Trail country) and sleepy little villages. It’s like an episode of “The Twilight Zone;” where you’re driving along, and bam! It’s 1930. I’m originally from the strip-malled badlands of Southern California, so it’s easy to see why this region appealed to me.

In addition to the Appalachian Trail, there’s the Virginia Creeper Trail, Hungry Mother State Park (do names get better than that?), great fly fishing, a flock of community theaters, galleries, and museums in nearby Marion, Abingdon, and Bristol. It’s an absolutely beautiful, little-known part of the U.S.. But certainly, Town House isn’t the only rural destination restaurant (Virginia also has The Inn at Little Washington, and The Barn at Blackberry Farm is just outside of Knoxville, two hours from Chilhowie). It is, however, a lot more rural than most non-urban, fine dining destination restaurants.

I don’t give a hang about eating at a place based on its hipster credentials, or because it’s on the checklist of self-proclaimed “foodies (a term that needs to be banished from existence, in my opinion).” A dinner at Town House gave me an opportunity to explore the Virginia countryside, but I was also curious to see how chef John Shields was pulling off a somewhat eccentric menu in such a remote location. I also loved that he and his wife/Town House pastry chef Karen Urie Shields–who aptly describes her desserts as “whimsical”–develop their ever-changing menu around seasonal ingredients that are foraged, or sourced from local family farms and food artisans.

Destination restaurants have always intrigued me. It’s hard for a meal to live up to the hype, but sometimes, it’s about the experience as a whole. An absence of atmosphere and sense of place can kill a meal, even if the food is divine. I’ve also had bad food transformed by the right dining companions (I’m recalling a remote Tuscan osteria I ended up having to hitchhike to. The food was godawful, but what would have otherwise been an abysmal, depressing experience was turned into a wonderful night by the arrival of ten boisterous Icelanders who invited me to join them). Still, given the time, expense, and effort required to dine at a destination restaurant, there’s a lot of pressure on the chef and staff to execute nothing less than a stellar performance.

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The majority of Town House diners come from Roanoke or Knoxville (Roanoke is also two hours away, and has a small airport), or DC. Others, like my boyfriend and I, make a road trip of it. We drove down from northern Virginia, turning the six-hour drive into a three-day camping trip, broken up by an overnight at Town House’s sister property, Riverstead (276-646-8787). The two-bedroom guesthouse (there is no staff on-site, if these things matter to you) is located on a 30-acre hay farm, four-and-a-half miles from the restaurant. The painstakingly restored, 1903 farmhouse is a draw itself, and blissfully free of gag-inducing accoutrements like dolls, frilly, Victorian-era decor, and cutesy signage.

Earlier this year, thirty-three-year-old John was named one of Food & Wine magazine’s “Best New Chefs,” and he participated in June’s Food & Wine Classic in Aspen (a three-day bacchanal of seminars, tastings, demos, and more tastings). Yet he’s been drawing crowds with his “inspired cuisine” since he filled the chef position at Town House in 2008. Prior to that, the restaurant had a humdrum menu that John has described as “from another era.” He and Karen, 32, credit farmers and producers on the menu, which, ironically, is a rarity in rural areas. As John, an intense young man (the skater shoes and slightly baggy jeans he wears with his chef’s jacket are nothing less than endearing), explained to me, “People often comment on how it must be hard to get good products, living out here. We respond by saying, ‘Where do you think big cities get their food from?’”

As for why they left the big city to try experimental cuisine in rural Virginia, John says, “We knew it would be a challenge, but we never wavered with the menu once we moved forward. We stuck to our guns, because we believed a true identity was what would make this restaurant stand out. Our staff and employers are passionate, as well, so the biggest challenge has been the lack of dining options for us on our nights off! We’ve been most surprised by the amazing reaction people have had to what we’re doing.”

The couple met in the kitchen at Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago, where John was sous chef, and Karen was pastry chef. In 2005, John became sous chef at Alinea (he credits chef/owner Grant Achatz as his mentor). In ’08, Trotter hired John to run his (since closed) Las Vegas restaurant. It was while waiting for that restaurant to open that the Shields’ decided they were ready for something more low key. A “chef wanted” ad at Town House kept popping up on Craigslist, so they went to Chilhowie (they were initially unable to locate it on a map) to meet with owners Tom and Kyra Bishop. The rest, as they say, is history.

My boyfriend and I arrived at Riverstead just as a thunderstorm hit, which was great, because the two-story farmhouse is my idea of a slice of heaven. The expansive front porch affords a view of pasture and the neighboring farm, and a short path leads down to the South Fork Holston River. Waiting for us inside were Karen’s chocolate chip cookies, a full kitchen stocked with coffee and tea, and a note directing us to the refrigerator. There, we found part of our pre-checkout breakfast: Mason jars of freshly-squeezed orange juice, Karen’s farro (emmer wheat) cereal with dried cherries, and two soft-boiled eggs. The kitchen itself is a dream: robin’s egg-blue walls, commercial-grade stainless appliances, weathered oak butcher block, and vintage cookware displayed on the matching shelves. The living room is a bit more genteel, with antique rugs and original oak floors, and a sofa by the fireplace.

Our sunny room took up half of the second story. Like the rest of the house, it’s a charming mix of old and new: gleaming white bathroom with stainless fixtures, wood paneling, retro-black-and-white tiled floor, clawfoot tub, glass-encased shower, and two vintage-style sinks. A nightstand beside the plush, king-sized bed held a bottle of wine, and a glass dome-covered cheese plate. I work in a cheese shop, so I was thrilled to see a farmstead selection from nearby Meadow Creek Dairy. Their award-winning Grayson is a sticky, stinky, Jersey milk washed-rind with a luscious, buttery interior. It was accompanied by Karen’s panforte, a dense, chewy, sweet similar to fruitcake.

To fire up our appetites, we headed down to the river for a stroll, before consulting Riverstead’s thoughtful “local activities and attractions” sheet. We headed up to the Appalachian Trail entrance at Elk Garden for a short hike, and then drove back down through the picturesque “town” of Wilkinson’s Mill, with its wooden swinging bridge, abandoned buildings, and old timey convenience store.

At last, it was time for our dinner reservation. A major plus of staying at Riverstead is that you can have a glass of wine or five during your meal, because round-trip transportation to Town House is included. The restaurant is located in a 100-year-old brick building that once housed a dry goods store. The interior, with its dark, polished wood floors, tables, and chairs, faux tin ceiling (actually cleverly-disguised sound-reducing tiles) and contemporary art fixtures blends local history with minimalist modern design. Diners can choose a one-to-three-course menu composed of a la carte items, a $58 set four-course, or the $110 ten-course tasting menu, which offers a choice of starter, main, and dessert. We decided on the four-course (a hell of a deal, I might add). Wine is separate, but you can request they be paired with your meal.

Not every dish worked for me. A “soup of cherries” with bronzed sardine, sweet and spicy ginger, tomato, and “almond bread” (more of a foam) was just too out there for my liking. On the other hand, “scrambled egg mousse ” with smoked steelhead roe, birch syrup, sweet spices, and preserved ramp was delicate, decadent, and beautifully executed- an orgy of flavors and textures. Peekytoe crab roasted in brown butter with lime, salt cod, vanilla, and sea grapes came with ethereal puffs of caramelized onion, and lamb shank cooked in ash, with black garlic marmalade, salsify, and burnt onion was deep, complex, and soulful. It was while savoring that dish that it clicked for me; how John’s food fit into the context of this tiny corner of Appalachia. Not all of the ingredients are local, or even domestic, but even when he’s using something high-end, like foie gras, there’s an earthy sensibility to his food that somehow makes sense in Chilhowie.

We ordered both of Karen’s desserts, because they sounded so poetically strange: Powdered chocolates with steamed yuzu sponge, bergamot, and an “aromatic” salad of herbs, and the unexpectedly lovely combination of strawberry ice cream with braised artichoke and pink peony sorbet. Before we headed back to Riverstead, Karen stopped by our table with a still-warm galette of shallots and goat cheese (from local Ziegenwald Dairy) for our breakfast. After her desserts, a tart seemed deceptively simple, although great pastry is anything but.

That galette is one of the most outstanding things I’ve ever eaten. Buttery, caramelly, comforting. It may seem strange that a homely tart and a soft-boiled egg eaten over a sink were the highlight of my trip, but that’s the thing about destination dining. At its best, the place and the food are a reflection of one another.

Karen’s Hot Breakfast Cereal
Unbelievably easy, delicious, and nourishing, this is my favorite new breakfast for fall.

Serves 2-3

1 cup Anson Mills farro piccolo (If you can’t find at your local grocery or speciality food store, you can purchase it online from the online Town House shop or Anson Mills)
4 cup water
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 teaspoon grade B maple syrup
1/3 cup toasted sunflower seeds
1 cup of your favorite berry or other fruit, or dried fruit

Combine the farro with the water and bring to a boil. Simmer for 20-30 minutes until most of the water is evaporated. Meanwhile, toast the sunflower seeds at 350 degrees, for 10 minutes. Season farro with cinnamon, salt, maple syrup, sunflower seeds, and fruit. Enjoy warm or chilled.

My trip was sponsored by the Virginia Tourism Corporation, but the opinions expressed in this article are 100% my own.