October 19, 2009
In East Asia, the primary date table was once a lunar calendar that measured months by the phases of the moon rather than the Earth’s revolution around the sun. Naturally, holidays that occur on lunar calendar dates do not coincide with the same date each year on the solar calendar. South Koreans celebrate two such lunar holidays: Lunar New Year’s Eve and Chuseok, a harvest festival that occurs either at the end of September or the beginning of October depending on when the full moon shows her face. Chuseok is often compared to Thanksgiving because it is centered around a family feast of traditional food, but Koreans prefer to have three days off instead of one. Unfortunately, the three days of Chuseok fell on the weekend this year: October 2nd, 3rd, and 4th respectively. It began on Friday, so I was off that day, and my school decided to cancel Monday as well, but no teacher’s off-days were the same; some got Thursday off.
With a four-day weekend ahead of me, I decided to do some real tourism. My previous two weekends in Gangneung and Sokcho amounted mostly to bar crawls and trips to E-Mart the next day. What is E-Mart? A multi-story grocery/department store with imported Western food like…cheese…and salsa. Korea doesn’t do cheese for some reason. But I digress. I was itching to see a city on the southeast coast called Gyeongju.
Shilla, one of the three ancient dynasties of Korea, built its capital at Gyeongju, thus peppering the place with relics from that era, especially on Namsan (South Mountain). Lonely Planet has this to say about Namsan: “Among the relics found (so far) are 122 temple sites, 64 stone pagodas, 57 stone Buddhas, many royal tombs, rock-cut figures, pavillions, and the remains of fortresses, temples, and palaces.” During my six-hour hike on Sunday, I probably saw about 7% of these, many of which required taking a side road off the main course.
Getting to Gyeongju, however, required a bit more than going to a bus ticket window and saying, “Gyeongju hana juseyo.” Chuseok causes a tidal wave of people traveling out of Seoul to spend the holidays with Mom and Pop in the country. Bus tickets are scarce, so I took the train. A 10am bus from Pyeongchang took me to the nearest big city, Wonju, where I boarded the standing section of the train. I was able to move to a seat after the first hour, but by then I was making conversation with a young Korean man seated on the floor with me. He was an English teacher in Suwon and seemingly overjoyed to practice his trade with a native speaker. Like most traveling yuppies that day, he was going back to his hometown in the country, and expecting a big, boozy reunion with high school pals. We parted ways as the train passed his home, and I moved from the floor to a chair.
The train stopped in Andong, and I had two hours to kill before taking another train on to Gyeongju. There wasn’t enough time to do any real sightseeing, so I cut it to barbeque and an ATM trip. On my way back to the train I noticed an advert for a Soju Museum. And thus marked Andong for a visit in the future.
Arriving in Gyeongju around 7pm, I reflected that taking a bus down on Thursday evening would have given me more time for sightseeing. Stuart threw a Mexican food dinner party that night, and I had been delayed by the burritos. In a way, they were worth it. I was afraid that I would arrive at the hostel too late to meet up with anyone for Friday night fun, but there was a crowd of foreign girls outside as I came walking up. We went to a traditional Korean music show, during which I learned that they were exchange students from Eastern Europe: Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Russia.
The show’s highlight was the drumming group. Five guys drumming at high speed with various drum sets. It sounded like a tribal dance out of the Congo, but with a hint of Asia. There was a funny silent skit between an eldery couple: a sort of courtship/fighting/flirting with the audience thing with musical accompaniment. The other shows were good, but marred by the background music. There must be a completely different view of taste over here when it comes to pitch and harmony, because some of this music is pretty rough on my ears. The drumming and the gong-banging is great, but then there are these twanging string intruments, and a whiny, screeching, high pitched clarinet sort of thing. It sounds like someone slaughtering a herd of bagpipes. Frankly, the North Korean music show we saw the next night was much more harmonious than the traditional music show. Of course, it wasn’t even in the same category: a concert on stage with lights, amplifiers and glamorous girls. Most of the music was probably from the 20th century rather than the 2nd. So…yeah, I miss South American music.
I went to Bulguksa with an American guy named BJ (just BJ, it doesn’t stand for anything), and Rory, a bloke from Kent. Both of them teach in Seoul, so we traded stories on teaching in the country versus the city. Bulguksa itself is a large Buddhist Temple compound with many separate buildings. It is hailed as a masterpiece of Shilla temple architecture, and thus one of many UNESCO sights in Gyeongju. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.
After touring Bulguksa, we hiked up to the Seokguram Grotto, another UNESCO sight and masterpiece of Buddhist artwork. The attraction is a stone carving of the Sakyamuni Buddha surrounded by guardians and lesser deities. The Buddha sits on a dais inside a dome carved into the mountainside. It is said that the architect of this relic, Kim Daeseong, calculated Pi out to seven digits when carving the rounded interior of the dome. The 3.5m tall statue is inside a small, closed pavilion, and a glass barrier prevents tourists from entering the dome. Not surprisingly, photography is not allowed. Wikipedia, however, managed to snag a photo, so search “seokguram grotto” on Wiki to see the statue.
The Grotto sits high up in the mountains where one can see the Sea of Japan. The Buddha faces east over the sea, and thus is seen as a protector of his country. FYI: Korea and Japan did not get along for the better part of human history. At the entrance to the park – because there are some windy mountain paths between the ticket booth and the Buddha – there is a red pavilion with an enormous bell. They say that the ring can be heard for miles.
We headed back to the hostel after Seokguram, then to dinner, then to a large central park for the North Korean music show. When it got too cold, we headed bar-ways. I remembered seeing a western bar on my way from the train station, so we retraced my steps and discovered: Oolie Boolie. I’ve no idea where they got that name, but it sounds slightly Australian to my ear. The important thing was that Oolie Boolie has by far my favorite menu in South Korea. You can order liquor by the bottle or by the “grass,” and slurp down such fine whiskies as “Johnny Waker,” or perhaps try the “West In Dies Yellow Bird” cocktail. It was a treasure trove of Engrish. I was there with Rory, a French girl, an American who works at the international tribunal in The Hague, and Shinya, a Japanese-Canadian who has been traveling through Asia since New Years’s Day. I couldn’t even begin to recount all the stories he told me that night, but suffice to say: the man has lived. He did tell me this one yarn about how, while hiking in rural Thailand (or was it Laos), he came upon a village and learned that the next bus back to civilization would be along in three days. As he pondered what to do, a local asked him if he would like to teach their children English in return for food and lodging. So he did. Shinya’s advice to me on backpacking – especially in Southeast Asia – was not to try and whirlwind it (see as many countries as you can in a small amount of time). He said the best way was to pick one country and enjoy it for all it was worth. With the time on his hands, he’s done that with just about every country over here except Korea. And now he’s here.
According to Shinya, the Japanese – and I can say that the Koreans do as well – have a very anti-PDA culture. It would be rare to see a husband and wife kiss goodbye at the train station or the airport. Rory reported that a Korean girl we was dating waved goodbye in his face a full arms-length away when he tried to give her a goodbye smooch. I find it interesting that on the other side of the planet, in South America, public make-out is completely acceptable. Probably in certain areas of Europe as well.
Rory and I went for the Namsan hike on Sunday. Shinya planned on going too, but he slept in late. He made it to the mountain eventually, and our paths crisscrossed without a meeting, as we figured out that evening. We began at the Samneung Tombs: three burial mounds of Shilla kings, and headed up from there. Along the way, we kept having to take side-paths to see the various Buddhist carvings and statues. Some had little cabinets where the devout placed offerings of fruit, memorabilia, and…soju. Giving a drink to the ancestors is a popular custom over here, as you’ll see when someone opens a bottle of soju and pours out the first few drops into a bowl or a plate.
We passed a hermitage on our way to the granite ridge up top. Some people come and live with the monks for a spell at these small communities. It’s something akin to a church retreat, I suppose. As we were stopping by each piece of Buddhist artwork along the way to take pictures, we felt slightly awkward as the Korean couple behind us set their packs down and began bowing in reverence. The didn’t seem to mind us though. When we reached the top, we could see miles of green rice paddies running along pine-tree clad mountains. Finding a shady spot, we sat down and devoured two rolls of kimbap apiece. Kimbap is like sushi, except made with cheap ingredients like tuna salad, imitation crab, chopped vegetables, and kimchi, of course. I’ve come to like it more and more, and it makes an excellent hiking lunch.
After a detour down the slope to see a Buddha and a pagoda (during which Shinya passed us), we climbed back up to the central ridge and pressed on towards a hermitage on the far side. Before we arrived there, we inadvertently took a side-path to a particularly dramatic Buddha. The path became a narrow trail against a cliff and turned a sharp, 90 degree angle around a jutting boulder. As we came around, we found an old woman feverishly chanting under her breath. She was seated on a rock and facing a circular carving of Buddha on the boulder. Since the path turned so sharply, the Buddha was framed by the boulder on the left, and a panoramic of far-off mountains and rice fields. Later on, after receiving a postcard from the head monk at the last hermitage, I realized why the sign by this carving said that on a misty day, the Buddha has the appearance of floating on the clouds. Hope, that postcard is yours.
The last hermitage was called Chilbulam (hermitage of seven Buddhas). It showcases Namsan’s largest relic: seven images of Buddha (and perhaps some Bodhisattvas as well) carved in two stone pillars. Once again, I’ll let the pictures do the talking. As we arrived, a young man came up and offered us coffee and a piece of candy. Then, the head monk, a young woman with her head shaved bare, gave us each two high-quality postcards, one of Chilbulam, and the other of the aforementioned Buddha on the cliff. As we left, we exchanged the usual Korean words of parting: “Go in peace,” and “Stay in peace.”
The path led us down to a traditional Korean village at the edge of the rice fields. The rooves were grooved and curved at the edges like temples. When we plopped down at the bus stop, we checked our watches and concluded that we had been hiking for over six hours.
That night was another boozy gathering on the hostel rooftop. Traveling yarns weaved in with teaching experiences, politics came soon after, and I was well ready for bed when the drowsiness came.
The next day, I had lunch with Shinya after we bought our bus tickets. He was going on to the west and caught the bus right after we ate. I, however, had three hours to kill before I could make the journey back to Wonju, and from there to Pyeongchang. I wandered toward downtown taking pictures of the burial mounds, and decided to explore Tumuli Park. I wasn’t disappointed. The park is a walled collection of gardens and the grassy burial mounds of kings, one of which has been turned into a museum. On the other side of the wall, I saw traditional Korean rooftops peeking over. There was the old part of town that I had been expecting to see. Unfortunately, it would have to wait, along with the history museum, until my next visit to Gyeongju.
The trip back to Wonju took over three hours, and I was long past the last bus to Pyeongchang when I arrived. In this situation, one has to ride to Jangpyeon, and from there catch the late bus to Pyeongchang. I had about an hour to kill, so I made a B-line for a restaurant I had yet to try: Chicken and Beer. I’d seen it many times before, heard favorable reports, and now there would be spicy chicken tenders to wash down with lager. In retrospect, I should have gone for the sweet tenders. The spicy chicken had me breathing fire in minutes. Not even the drawings of impossibly slender beach babes on the wall could take my mind off of the inferno I was tasting with each breath.
Arriving in Jangpyeon, I caught the last bus to Pyeongchang at 9pm; arrived home around 10. On Tuesday morning it was off to work again.
Coming soon: My first trip to Seoul