Gyeongju and Hapcheon-gun (2 – 5 October 2013)
The conventional tourist trail of South Korea seems to be overwhelmingly dominated by the remains of the Joseon era. The Five Grand Palaces, Jongmyo, Hwaseong Fortress, the seowons and Hahoe, they were all built during the Joseon era. The culture of South Korea as we know it today is a continuation of Joseon culture. The hanbok, the language and the food, Korea owes them mostly to Joseon. But I suppose that is to be expected since Joseon existed for about five centuries and preceded modern Korea.
However, my last stop on this Korean discovery was not about Joseon. It was about something far older. Gyeongju was the centre of the Kingdom of Silla, a kingdom that left behind quite a mark on especially the southern part of the Korean peninsula. Interestingly, this was also the period of Korean history that had female heads of state who succeeded to the throne without usurpation. The sexes appeared to be more equal during the Silla period than during the Joseon period when the country became much more infected by the more toxic parts of Confucianism.
Queen Seondeok was a famous Silla queen and her story was made even more famous by a recent major hit drama serial. But I had not gone to Gyeongju because of her since I did not watch that serial.
The historical monuments of Gyeongju are all part of the Gyeongju National Park, South Korea’s only historical park. It consists of a series of non-contiguous sites spread out all over the city.
There are burial mounds, or tumuli, from the Silla period right in the middle of the urban areas of the city. I know that they are very old, but do the locals not mind at all living and working around dead people? It looked as if the locals did not even notice the tombs anymore. I am not sure if the Koreans think differently about burial places but I do know that it is taboo for many people in East Asia to live so physically close to dead people.
At the tumuli park of Daereungwon, visitors ambled about as if they were in a public park. It did look like a public park but is however a historical place with more than twenty tumuli in there. One of them, the Cheonmachong, is open for visits. The tumulus, as with most other tumuli of the Silla period, is quite huge. It was therefore quite an anticlimax when I got in and saw the tiny coffin in the more than 10 metre high and almost 50 metre wide space. It goes without saying of course that many offerings were buried with the king laid to rest in there. One of them was a saddle flap with the picture of a cheonma, or a heavenly horse, on it. The tomb was named after that horse.
After Daereungwon there is another park not only with more tumuli but also a much more interesting structure. This is the Cheomseongdae, an astronomical observatory from the Silla period built during the reign of Queen Seondeok. It dates back to the 7th century and is the oldest surviving observatory in East Asia.
The origin story of a later line of Silla kings is pretty mythical and it is said that everything for them started in Gyerim, nowadays just a tiny grove of trees though it might have been a forest in the past. The baby, Kim Alji, was found in a box guarded by a rooster in that forest. He was discovered by the royal family then and his descendants became the rulers of Silla. In fact, Gyerim was even used to refer to the entire kingdom in some sources.
Next to Gyerim are the remains of the Banwolseong, the royal palace of the Silla rulers. Sadly, I could hardly see the remains of the palace with my untrained eye. It all looked to me like any ordinary wooded grassy hill. Part of the moat still exists though.
Surprisingly on Banwolseong stands the remains of a Joseon structure and this was the most visible manmade structure on the archaeological site as far as my untrained eye could see. This is Seokbinggo, an ice storehouse of the Joseon period.
Leaving Banwolseong, and crossing a very busy road, I found myself outside Anapji Pond. This was part of the Silla palace complex but is now a public park. The pavilions surrounding the pond are replicas of the original ones.
Gyeongju being such a historically important city has an important museum. The Gyeongju National Museum very near the Anapji Pond has a wonderful collection of Silla period relics.
If one walks further down the busy road outside Anapji Pond and crosses some rice fields, one can reach Bunhwangsa and the remains of Hwangnyongsa. They are temples, or in the case of the latter the remains of one.
Bunhwangsa was built during Queen Seondeok’s reign (her again) and she had also commissioned the construction of an enormous pagoda in Hwangnyongsa. At the time of its completion, this pagoda is believed to have been the tallest structure in East Asia and the tallest wooden structure in the world. Sadly, the pagoda was burnt down by the Mongols in the 13th century during an invasion. No original Silla wooden structure survives today.
I stayed at a hostel again in Gyeongju. The Nahbi Guest House had very good reviews on Tripadvisor and the rates were cheap too. Not only that it was right in the city centre not far from the bus station. I have to say that service at the Nahbi was splendid too. The owner whom I did not get to meet was very kind and was terribly apologetic when he realised that he could not give me a private room after all for my first night after he had accepted my reservation. That was quite alright with me though I did wonder whom I would have to share the room with.
It turned out that my roommates were a gentleman from Thailand and an older gentleman from Japan. The Thai gentleman was having his little trip around South Korea on his own. The Japanese gentleman was having a break after his work was done. He told me that he was a diplomat. Why was he staying at a cheap hostel instead of a better hotel with toilets that could actually handle toilet paper? He said that he did not believe in wasting money on more expensive accommodations when the hostel worked just as well for him.
I had a lengthy conversation with the Japanese diplomat that night, about his life and about his travels. He was very willing to share his experiences with me. I took the chance to ask him about the radiation situation in Japan after the Fukushima disaster and whether it was safe to visit Japan. I had heard stories from friends who apparently knew of people suffering from different ailments after trips to Tokyo. One particular lady was even advised not to conceive within the next few years after such a trip. The gentleman’s short answer to me was “Don’t go”, and he was not being unfriendly. Apparently even the tea trees, sensitive creatures that they are, in Kyoto were found to have been affected by the radiation. The Japanese government is of course hiding the truth of the situation from the world. However I do not think that the government is entirely blameworthy because of that. What can anyone do anyway? Evacuate the Tokyo metro area? Sometimes ignorance can be such blessed bliss I think.
The Nahbi was very well prepared with answers to many questions that its guests might have. Things like what bus to take from where to get to this place and where to eat in the city, they even have a map for them! One recommendation for food that I was given was the noodle shop across the road. I only realised that this was a really Korean and non-touristy place when I got there. The owner, a middle-aged lady, or ajuma, spoke no English at all. There was not even a menu in English. I had to point at whatever someone else was eating and asked for the same thing and hoped that it was noodle soup. It was noodle soup.
One of the side dishes served with my delicious noodle soup was just three stalks of chilli. I watched this other ajuma at the shop eating those and copied what she did. She ate them with gochujang. Eating the first two smaller ones was just like eating vegetables. The heat was at a level that I could handle very well. Korean chillies are not all that hot after all I thought. If the smaller ones were not that spicy then I was sure that I would even feel any burn at all with the last bigger one. I was of course deadly wrong. Unlike in Southeast Asia, in Korea they go by the different rule of “the bigger the hotter”! I felt my mouth burning as if I had just swallowed a piece of red hot coal and thought that I looked like some Merrie Melodies character puffing smoke from his ears. It was really awful!
The Korean ajumas are really quite something. I met another one outside Bulguksa while looking for lunch. She spotted me wandering around and waved frantically at me to get my attention. She obviously wanted my business. Noticing how feisty she looked I was not about to refuse her! I ordered a bibimbap from her and got a free spicy tofu soup with it. The feisty ajuma left the eatery when a young man, I assumed he was her son, walked in. It looked as if the shop really belonged to her son and she was merely looking after it while he was away.
While in Gyeongju I realised that I did not remember seeing any Joseon era temples during the trip. And yet in Gyeongju there are numerous Buddhist temples and shrines and relics. Bunhwangsa and Hwangnyongsa were just two. There were also the important Bulguksa Temple and Seokguram Grotto, and not to mention all the sites throughout Namsan. Silla was staunchly Buddhist.
Seokguram Grotto is about 4 kilometres further up Tohamsan and houses an absolutely gorgeous sculpture of Buddha. There was something serenely beautiful about the statue and if not for the crowd that kept coming into the small grotto I could have stood there staring at it for a long time.
There are two ways to get from the temple to the grotto. There is a bus or one can leg it. I chose to take a bus up to the grotto and then walk down the hill from there. I thought that was the more enlightened choice.
My visit to Namsan was tiring to say the least. Despite all the promises to myself that I would not bother my unfit self with strenuous uphill climbs ever again, I hiked the 2 kilometre long trail up the hill to see Chilbulam. And that was not counting the wrong path I had taken up another side of the hill. Why do I always do things like that to myself?
I was hoping to see something quite phenomenal but the carvings at Chilbulam were smaller than I thought. I noticed a Caucasian monk at the hermitage and I was quite surprised to see him since he was the only monk among a group of Korean nuns. Later back at the hostel, the guy working there told me that the ‘monk’ was actually a nun from the Czech Republic. That was embarrassing for me.
Further up from Chilbulam (more climbing!) is the stone carving of Sinseonam. This one is in quite a spectacular setting on a cliff face overlooking Gyeongju and that made the climb a little more worthwhile. It was the part where I had to walk round the bend to get to the carving that unnerved me. It was round a very narrow ledge next to an almost vertical drop down to a certain death, assuming I should fall over.
Physical challenges aside though, I have to say that the carvings I saw that day on the hill were really beautiful. The other thing that was lovely was the view from near the top of the 500 metre high Namsan.
I also did a day trip to Haeinsa. This is not in Gyeongju and I had to find my way to Daegu first, find my way to a subway station then get to the correct bus station after a train ride away to catch the bus to the temple. I suppose I should have asked for the bus to that correct bus station in Daegu but it was all too confusing for me in Gyeongju. I was just thankful that I even knew how to get to the correct bus station in Daegu.
Haeinsa is practically in the mountains. Despite its remote location however, it is famous for its depository of the Tripitaka Koreana, the whole of the Buddhist scriptures carved into more than 80,000 wooden printing blocks. The depository, called Janggyeong Panjeon, consists for four buildings and was specially built about 600 years ago to house the printing blocks. Its design is so simple and yet so effective that even modern inventions seem useless in comparison. In fact someone had the idea of using modern preservation techniques on the printing blocks. They tried the new techniques on some test blocks and later found mildew on them. The plan was aborted after that.
The temple was also built during the Silla period and is a very pleasant place for a visit.
Gyeongju practically marked the end of my South Korean discovery. I had for myself a taste of the country and it was as delicious as some of the Korean dishes I enjoy. The people there were not always entirely pleasant but I think I encountered more friendly people than unfriendly ones. Maybe the older Koreans could be quite intimidating, but the younger Koreans especially were far more approachable. I was at this other noodle shop and was trying to place an order with the owner who again spoke no English. Seeing my difficulties, this young couple offered their help to translate.
Korean culture is to me so familiar and yet so strange all at the same time. It is similar to Chinese culture in so many ways and yet feels foreign as well. I am going to make it a point to see more of Korea and experience more of its culture and history in the near future. And that includes the weird north too.