Korea has two faces. The first is the modern, westernized, urban side where couples walk, hand-in-hand, wearing matching t-shirts, kids spend hours cloistered away in ‘bangs’ (Korean for ‘room’) containing PCs, video games, karaoke, DVD players, and more, and the streets are crammed with buses, cars, businesses (cell phone stores by the block full), bars, coffee shops and just about everything else you’d expect to find in a major city anywhere in the developed world.
It’s other face however, is a more ancient, rural, pastoral, solemn, and honored one. This historic side of Korea can be found in the small villages that dot the countryside where farmers painstakingly plant ride paddys – by hand – live in huts with thatched roofs, and generally enjoy a very filling yet slow-placed lifestyle hearkening back thousands of years. The culture here is rich. This past weekend, I visited a place where Korea’s two sides meet face to face in the middle.
Gyeongju is a small city near the east coast, just north of Busan. They call it the museum without walls because the entire area is one history lesson after another, from the temples and statues, to the tombs of kings, and even further to the villages, fields, and homes (where people still live and work) that are reminiscent of a lost world without the conveniences of modern technology – or is it the technology of modern conveniences. I’m not sure.
Gyeongju, whose name literally translates to “Congratulatory District,” was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Silla (57 BC – 935 AD) which ruled about two-thirds of the peninsula between the 7th and 9th centuries. The Silla Kingdom was part of an era known in Korea as the Three Kingdoms; the other two kingdoms that make up the triad were Baekje and Goguryeo. Allied with China under theTang Dynasty, Silla conquered Goguryeo in 668, after having already conquered Gaya in 562 and Baekje in 660 to end this Era of Korean history. The Silla remained in control for another few hundred years as the prevailing power on the peninsula.
The starting point for my excursion was the mountainside temple called Bulguksa, the head temple of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism. This temple, built in 528, is considered to be the masterpiece of the golden age of Buddhism in the Silla Kingdom. It’s most notable feature are the twin pagodas in the main courtyard: Seokgatap and Dabotap. The two pagodas reflect a story in the Lotus sutra:
Dabo, a Buddha who had already achieved enlightenment, riding the Tower of Many Treasures, appeared to attest to the validity of Sakyamuni’s sermons at Vulture Peak. Dabo and Sakyamuni then sat side by side within the tower. This pagoda represents the Dabo Buddha, while the other pagoda represents Sakyamuni. Dabo represents the objective truth, while Sakyamuni represents the subjective wisdom to realize it. Dabotap is highly decorative and looks feminine, whereas Seokgatap is highly simplified and looks more masculine. The sophisticated Dabotap symbolizes the complexity of the world; the simple Seokgatap represents the brevity of spiritual ascent.
My next stop was the Seokguram Grotto – a 2 mile hike up the Mt. Tohamsan from the temple. Construction of the grotto itself began in the 8th century and took over 30 years to complete. The grotto is symbolic of a spiritual journey into Nirvana. Pilgrims were to start at the foot of the holy mountain to the Silla and make their way up to the shrine’s entrance where there was a fountain for refreshment. Inside the grotto, the antechamber and corridor represented the earth while the rotunda represented heaven. Within the rotunda are various representations of symbols but the main Buddha is over 4 meters tall (including the pedestal) and made of granite. Unfortunately, no photos were allowed inside the antechamber so if you want to see it, you’ll have to visit Gyeongju yourself (or google it).
When I returned to the downtown area for a late lunch, I found myself aimlessly meandering around until the buildings broke into a fast field of massive bright green hills. I was blown away by the site and had no idea what I had stumbled on to. One of the hills had oak trees growing out sideways! It looked like Middle Earth and I was praying that Bilbo would emerge and welcome me into his cozy hobbit hole for a spot of tea and second breakfast! In truth, what I had discovered were some of the Royal Tombs of the Joseon Dynasty – a series of 40 tombs scattered all over South Korea. They were built to honour and respect the ancestors and their achievements, and assert their royal authority. It was nothing like I’d ever seen before. During the part of my journey that transitioned between the hills and into Gyerim Forest, I wondered if Dr. Seuss visited Korea and based some of his illustrations on the local sights (maybe who-ville should’ve been hyu-ville).
The final quest of the day waited until nightfall; the man-made pond called Anapji which was part of the Banwolseong Palace complex. This place is a beautiful, national park lit up every night to create a very romantic experience for Gyeongjuans and tourists alike. I was surrounded by couples, young and old, holding hands and soaking in the ambiance. The center of the largest structure housed a diorama of the original layout of buildings from hundreds of years ago and I was saddened to learn that of the original two dozen structures, only three remained standing. But the three still there were exquisite at night with the lights reflecting off the pond. My photos don’t do it justice – I have yet to master the night shooting (I think I need a tripod).
I spent the night in a hostel called Nahbi Guesthouse and it was the best hostel experience I’ve ever had. For less than $20 bucks, I got a private room, a spacious common area for relaxing, wifi, and a free breakfast in the morning. Additionally, the proprietor (a young guy named T.J.) called me up while I was out traipsing around the downtown area and informed me he was having some friends over for a BYOB and invited me to join them. I made a dozen new Korean friends; we laughed and had a great time. One girl was from Busan and another from Seoul but the majority (I was shocked to find out) was from Daegu! It is a small world, after all. That night was by far (and so far) one of the highlights of my time in Korea.
Until Next Time…