In 2018 a lot of holidays fell in the middle of the week, Hangul day (the celebration for the language) fell on a Tuesday. At my school our principal, like many others, decided to give us Monday off as well, thus resulting in a four day weekend. Part of me just wanted to stay home. I wanted to read, edit and chill but that pesky travel bug roared its head. The thought of staying home for anything longer than a basic weekend made me feel guilty. An incessant need to travel stirred in my bones but with a huge problem. Where?
I quickly nixed going abroad. After my two day trip to Tokyo in September I really did not want a repeat of that. So I decided I’d go somewhere in Korea. I messaged friends, all of who were busy or didn’t have the weekend off which meant if I wanted to go somewhere I’d have to do so on my own. #solotravel But again…where?
I tried to figure out what was happening across the country. The Busan Film Festival was in full force and I spent hours scrolling through their website trying to figure out which movies were in English or had English subtitles as well as showings during the four day weekend and finally whether those shows still had tickets available. The options were slim especially when I added to it any personal interest in the film. I decided it wasn’t worth it so last minute.
I remembered when I went to the butterfly festival I had had an intense desire to return to Gwangju 광주 and spend more time in the city. I had, during my last trip, booked a stay at a motel only to learn that if it says it’s a motel there’s a higher chance that it’s a ‘love motel‘. When my friend and I checked in and asked for help turning on the AC (It was part of the remote for the TV) we were asked if we were “Russian”, which in Korea is a way of asking if someone is a prostitute. I’d been surprised and then took better stock of my surroundings, the fact we couldn’t see the person who checked us in from the blackened glass they were behind, the two massive beds, the giant dice, the black bag full of toiletries including condoms and a lot of other things suddenly made it very clear it was a love motel, despite reviews online from families who’d stayed there not mentioning it. (Though I commend them, the motel was cheap and had plenty of room for a family on vacation…just keep everyone away from the desktop included because my friend looked at it and it was covered in explicit popups) The motel was still great, our room was huge and clean, but since I was traveling solo this time I wanted to stay at a hotel where the staff wouldn’t ask if I was Russian.
I found a newly opened international business hotel in a similar area, booked tickets for four trains (two there and back thanks to that rural mountain life of mine) and researched what there was to do in the city. Turns out there was a huge art festival happening as well as an 80’s nostalgia festival. I decided to stay for a couple days in order to get a better feel for the city I’d just seen in passing earlier in the year.
Gwangju may not be as high up on the places visited in Korea as Seoul or Busan. I usually have people suggest going to Gyeongju more than Gwangju but Gwangju is a beautiful city steeped in tragic history that was at the epicenter of change for the country. On May 18, 1980 students from the local university (Chennonam National University) gathered together in political protest. The protest moved and grew and clashed with the military and many civilians died over the course of several days. The city has many spots commemorating this time period and the loss of lives. Most of the spots are marked with these statues.
They explain the importance of the spot in Korean and in English. The above pictured Historical monument is for Historic Site No. 25 and is located at Nam-dong Catholic Church. On the statue it says “On May 22, 1980, the resident priest and democratic leaders of Gwangju gathered at Nam-dong Catholic Church to deal with the situation. After the uprising this church was frequently used to promote the May Spirit with Memorial masses for the victims and with special gatherings to inquire into the facts of the May Uprising.” Underneath it on a plaque with a picture and map it says “This is the location where democratic figures, including the then- Provost Kim Seong-yong, gathered on May 22, 1980, to discussed and finalized the 8 sectioned plan to prevent further sacrifices of citizens. From July 1980 it was the location where they held mass and requested the release of the wrongly arrested and the truth.”
These statues can be found throughout Gwangju and if you have an interest in Korean History I highly suggest looking for them and visiting the 5•18 Memorial sites throughout the city. This wasn’t really what I was in Gwangju for, but it’d be remiss of me to mention visiting Gwangju and not mention 5•18 as it’s a part of the core of the city. I had an interest in learning about it but the main draw was the Biennale which just so happened to be happening when I went. By going I learned so much more about the city, 5•18, the country and the world by listening to stories from people shared around the world as well as Gwangju specifically. Gwangju is also a beautiful nature spot to visit with hiking nearby and plenty of beautiful parks. I loved my trip to Gwangju, and honestly don’t feel like I even scratched the surface of this city that seems to be the beating heart of political activism and change throughout history as well as a city that lives and breathes art.