The Marvellous Gyeongju, South Korea
After each individual journey through Korea, I review my photos and find myself astonished. It occurred to me that perhaps my camera has magically gotten better through some invisible Korean technology. However, this seems like a rather unlikely scenario. Then, I thought that perhaps I had just become a better photographer. Well, I do believe I have become a better photographer, but it still doesn't explain some of the photos I now possess. The answer is that, like a friend who is a model, Korea is wonderfully photogenic. The picture I have posted to begin the blog should suggest that much. In many ways, Korean sites were established to be photogenic. I don't mean that they were made for great photographic potential, but rather to be aesthetically pleasing. Anapji Pond (above), for example, was originally built as a pleasure garden to commemorate the unification of the Korean peninsula under the Shilla Dynasty. Some of the buildings burnt down after many years in 935, so that gives an indication of how ancient this site is. They built the pond as a beautiful, and perhaps spiritual, area long before cameras existed, but the attention to the graceful details make it a photographer's dream. It may be the attention to the little things that makes Korea so photogenic, but it also doesn't hurt to have milky blue skies, and subtle mountainous backdrops.
Bri and I arrived in Gyeongju to a site that was perhaps not so photogenic. I am referring to the hostel we would call home for the next few days. That isn't accurate actually because we only really set foot in there to go to sleep. So, we actually spent the next few nights there.
We initially attempted to book a spot in a traditional Korean house, but to no avail. Hanjin Hostel was more or less our only option. We're very low maintenance and had our own room, so it was quite comfortable once you got used to it. Over Skype, my brother aptly suggested the exterior of the building looked a convenience or grocery store. The picture on the right could lead you to agree with such an assessment. It's actually listed under the "budget accomodation" section of Lonely Planet: Korea. The opening description says it best, "You'll either love it here or it will freak you out". I would probably say that I tended to love it there in a sort of roundabout way. The rooms were a tad dingy, and the bathroom wasn't up to Martha Stewart's standards, but it had plenty of hot water and fairly good pressure. Once you turned off the light for the evening (which looked like a hanging bug light) it felt like a hotel. The experience is what you make it, really. I saw a cheap, safe, and inviting hostel where others might have seen a dump. The owners are also very friendly and we even got personalized calligraphy done from Mr. Kim who owns the hostel. We chose a fitting Chinese poem entitled "Following My Own Nature" transcribed into beautiful Korean characters. It is as follows:
I don't bother people
Because I'm in high glee
I won't follow what others do,
If they aren't just right for me
I'll act upon my own will
As my own nature would dictate me
We're currently in the process of getting this framed for our apartment. It's a souvenir that you can't just buy at the side of the road, and something well worth bringing back to Canada. We also chose a poem that meant something to us which is vital as far as I'm concerned.
We dropped off our bags in our room and headed of to Tumuli Park. This park contains 23 tombs of Shilla monarchs and their families. It has a really unique look and awe-inspiring appeal. The glorious green tombs seem to grow from the ground on their own accord, thus truly paying respect to those from the Shilla dynasty. Quite obviously they had to be man-made, but you wouldn't know from the way that nature has adopted the circumstances. The pyramids in Egypt serve as a strong and imposing structure whereas these tombs pay a soft respect to ancestors. One of the tombs, known as Cheonmachong (Heavenly Horse Tomb), was built around the end of the 5th century and holds the remains of a former king. It also displays wondrous artifacts from times almost inconceivable to the human mind. I've had the privilege to travel across Europe, but parts of Asia have a history that seems to have begun before time itself.
From Tumuli Park we headed off to Anapji Pond. The walk seemed a tad daunting so we hopped in the nearest cab. The taxi driver asked if we were from America when we entered the cab to which we replied, "No, we're Canadian." He seemed rather happy about it, but it's difficult to tell sometimes which is preferred. Some people dislike Americans (probably for military reasons), and others revere them (probably for popular culture reasons). We arrived at Anapji pond only owing about 3,000 won, which is ultimately less than three dollars. Cabs in South Korea are wonderfully cheap, and keep in mind that there is no tipping. Once we arrived, we forgot about the cheap cab ride and started minding the rich history. Anapji Pond was commissioned under the throne of King Munmu in the year 674. It was, and still is, an artificial pond utilized merely for pleasure. However, back then it was used more for royal receptions rather than romantic wedding photos. As if on command, the sun politely set for us and the buildings were accented with soft lighting. It didn't hurt that the sky remained as soft and pink as a piglet. I was certainly glad that Bri was there as well because I'll be damned if this place didn't beg every man in Asia to bring a date there. Anapji Pond melted my heart, never mind an unsuspecting date's.
Bomun Outdoor Performance Hall
We headed off from Anapji Pond to the Bomun Outdoor Performance Hall which displayed a traditional Korean performance for free. We took our seats among the back rows and enjoyed the view of the stage. The backdrop of the stage was a five-story hexagonal pagoda that was sensational. We enjoyed a wide array of performances including traditional dancing, drumming, singing and story telling. Traditional is often code-word for "tourist-trap," but this was quite heartfelt and unique. We filled our stomachs with Korean BBQ, then headed back to our little slice of heaven at Hanjin Hostel and rested our tired eyes.
It was a good idea to rest out tired eyes because Day 2 was headlined by a steep and serendipitous hike up Mount Namsam to the summit called "Geumosan," and then some. It was steep because of the actual physical denominations, and serendipitous because of what we would happily discover on our path as we traversed the mountain. I departed in a t-shirt, a pair of running shoes, and khaki shorts. All around me Koreans were clad with state-of-the-art hiking gear that I barely knew existed, and I'm from Canada. It was as much exercise as it was a performance it seemed, including costumes. The course we chose to take was about 5 hours and would deliver us to another village altogether where we could take a bus back into central Gyeongju. We began our journey up from Samneung to a Buddhist hermitage with stunning views called Sangseonam. On the way we stumbled upon impressive ancient Buddhist relics and statues. I felt a certain satisfaction leaving the beaten path and walking the extra distance for something I may never have the opportunity of seeing again, and I know that Bri felt the same. We're a rather good team that way, but not really like Batman and Robin, more like Batman and Batman (without the nice car). We arrived at the hermitage and let the cool mountain spring water aid us in our rest. Oh, and the view was alright I suppose.
We spent some time adoring a mammoth Buddha carved into the mountainous rock-face, and then headed up the summit. On the way to the summit we were kindly interrupted and given some fruit which was well appreciated. It appeared to be a sort of soft tomato, but tasted more like a soft apricot - I was later to find out it was a "persimmon". I had never in my life seen or tasted such a fruit, and this lightened my spirits even further. We reached the summit, paused to eat some food, then continued to Yonjangsi which is a famed temple site on the other side of Mount Namsan. The path became steeper and more treacherous, but it was all part of the descent to Yongjanj-ri. On the way down, we came across an ancient pagoda that was made during the unified Silla period. It is considered an excellent work and has quite a bit of creative juices flowing through the rock. The foundation of the pagoda is shaped like the actual mountain, and it is built in such a way as to like higher than the sky itself.
It was interesting to see all the mountains enveloped in trees. They almost appeared as giant rocks covered in moss. However, those rocks were full fledged mountains, and the supposed moss were trees. It is such a stark contrast to hiking I did in Norway and China. Norway's mountains were snow tipped as if in a fairy tail, and China's mountains seemed to have a wondrous wear and tear, as if the mountains themselves had been in battle. Perhaps then it is fitting that Mount Namsan, so strewn with Buddhist artifacts, remains a soft and peaceful sight. We arrived in Yongjang village about 5 hours after setting off and enjoyed a nice, cold, and well deserved beer. I can tell you now that it is far nicer to reminisce on magnificent mountains over a cold beer than just about anything. We made our way back to Gyeongju and feasted upon glorious steaks and (surprise, surprise) one more thirst-quenching beer.
We awoke in a hurry to try to fit a full day in before hopping back on the train that would take us back to our doorstep. The first stop was Bulguksa Temple which is a head temple of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I drool when I hear the name UNESCO World Heritage Site, and on this lucky day I would see two of them. Bulguksa happened to be my fortieth World Heritage Site I have been blessed enough to visit, and number forty-one would come late that day in Yangdong Folk Village. I have been truly amazed by each and every one of these wonders that I have had the privilege of visiting. Bulguksa was no different and is widely considered a masterpiece of Buddhist art.
We basked in the glory of Bulguksa, then made the pilgrimage to a crown jewel of Buddhism - Seokguram Grotto. We hiked another few kilometres up a seemingly endless incline and found ourselves nearing this marvel. I should mention that while Bri and I had taken a short break on the mountainside, a kind Korean woman gave me an apple for being "very handsome." It was a nice pick-me-up to get up the rest of the mountain. I was referring to the apple, of course, and not the compliment. We arrived at the top of the trail and quickly hopped on another. I was surprised to find a rather extensive line-up to view the stone masterpiece. Although, in retrospect, it was a Korean holiday and Korea has quite a few people if I remember correctly. Seokguram Grotto went under construction at the height of the Unified Silla in the year 742, but wasn't finished until 774. After visiting it for just a brief moment, I am entirely convinced that it would take that long to create. It rests 750 metres above sea level and from the top you can even see the Sea of Japan. Simply put, it is one of the best known cultural destinations in Korea, and perhaps Asia.
Although I have written a fair amount about Gyeongju, I believe it is the photos that speak the loudest about this special place. I haven't ever adorned a blog with so many pictures, but with Gyeongju it seems criminal not to. This place is an open-air museum with mountains as walls, and statues as security.
Before we finally departed we squeezed in one more precious site. We grabbed a bus to take us about 20km outside of Gyeongju in the opposite direction to the Yangdong Folk Village. Thatched roofs and ancient houses were only the tip of the iceberg in this quaint little village. It was more the feeling of it all, as if finding this place was a treasure in itself. I always find that whenever we are the only white people that can be seen at a tourist sight, then we have done our research. This place preserves a taste of the history of the Korean aristocracy and maintains Neo-Confucian traditions. It is also the other World Heritage sight which was the maple syrup on my pancakes (Canadian for: "Icing on my cake").
We got back to the train station just in time and departed for Suwon. From there it was only a cab ride away from our humble abode in Yongin City. Often, going back home signifies the end of a journey, but in Korea for me it merely signifies a continuation. Each and every day is an adventure, even with my students, and right now I wouldn't trade this life for the world. Although, I suppose in many ways this life is the world.