Upon first sight
The moment you set foot into the bizarrely colourful road and spot houses that seem to grow into hexagons, octagons and other unidentifiable shapes, a sign board catches the eye reading -‘Welcome to Gamcheon’. Jumping in for a quick ride on the subway from Toesong Station- Busan, the journey is only about 6 kilo meters to what is called the ‘Macchu Picchu’ of South Korea. Upon first look, the whole area appears as if drawn into a rainbow-like maze. The shanty roofs, the trippy patterns and zigzag alley ways only topcoats the quirky design of the cube shaped village. But what one does not guess is that it encases seeps of history within its modern hues. The story of this little patchwork of colours, fondly called ‘Lego Village’ dates decades back.
Suffering the outbreak of war, poverty and sheltering refugees is its enclosures, Gamcheon stands as a relic unknown to many. This village nestled along the Saha-gu Hills on the outskirts of Busan, the second largest city of South Korea may seem nothing more than rows of ramshackle houses and painted stone walls from afar. But a keen eye will reveal a timeline so intricate and a history behind the precariously built structures along the winding length of the little hobbit like village. The curious line of ceramic birds with human faces perched upon a building welcoming tourist are a prelude to what is inside of this maze like village which has earned itself its other name “Santorini”. This man made heritage site is easily accessible by trains and buses plying to and from Gamcheon to main city of Busan. Besides being a cultural site on steep piece of land, it is also self sufficient.
In 1950 a three year long war broke out between North and South Korea that led to the South’s resistance pushed down till the city of Busan. This is what awakened people to the existence of this sleepy mountain village. Today it is a photographer’s hideout, but back in the day it housed as few as 20 refugee families that fled to its console and lived incognito until the followers of Taegukdo – a religious sect, occupied this hole in the wall settlement of Hanguk (South Korea) and built a terraced village in a poor-man’s architecture style. Cho Cholje the man that propagated the Taegukdo religion turned his attention to Gamcheon when the people of the village needed an anchor of faith and more than anything were in need of rice and supplies that he gave them in return for their religious compliance. Almost 3000 people settled in Gamcheon and by the time the 70’s came, the count multiplied and the wooden shacks transformed into larger houses, the makeshift roofs were replaced with cement and bricks. The village even saw its first two storied house. While some of the houses have gone through a face-lift, many remain untouched as war relics. Don’t be surprised if you walk past a few run-down houses along the way. It is history that makes up most of Gamcheon’s landscape.
Topography & Things-to-do
The toy-like houses found clustered together are inhabited by families that have lived here and have seen the village being built from scratch. Now, it is a bustling site that UNESCO volunteers helped re-design without smudging the landscape of its original uniqueness. Quirky designs like the floating fish on the walls that are meant to guide tourists and the whimsical dab of colours at every nook gives this village that has seen the worst of days, a touch of surrealism and an almost psychedelic character. These structures along the way are based on the wide Korean culture and represent different gods and characters from mythology.
The village is open to a steady influx of tourists, photographers and film makers all through the year. South Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism visualized the village’s artistic potential in a large canvas project called “Dreaming of Machu Picchu in Busan” and in the wake of its success, followed the project “Miro Miro” in 2010.
These projects have given the life and soul to Gamcheon making it all the more picturesque and tourist friendly. You can observe the expert brush strokes of the artists who remodelled the village along the roads. Many of the abandoned homes have been transformed into art galleries and book cafes. There are concept cafes scattered around the perimeter of Gamcheon representing ideas like ‘peace’ and ‘darkness’ piquing the interest of many. It is particularly hard to miss the book cafe shaped like a giant coffee mug that sits at the edge of a quiet in-road. Tourists are also invited to take part in hobbies and recreational activities like painting, cloth dyeing and pottery.
The tour comes to a fairy-tale end by dusk each evening when the village retires for the day at 5 pm promptly. The last spot left unchecked in your list would most probably be the Hanuel Maru Tourist Information centre which is a bit of a climb uphill. But it also happens to be an outrageously cool Observation deck with a five-star view of every spot you have treaded by feet and beyond. Gazing down from the quiet spot, the panoramic vista offered by the Busan harbour and the crisp blue evening waves seem to make for a perfect ending to a thoroughly interesting few hours.