Monthly Archives: May 2014

Korea – Magical Anapji Pond; Tombs and Tiamo in historic Gyeongju

“The perfect journey is never finished, the goal is always just across the next river, round the shoulder of the next mountain.  There is always one more track to follow, one more mirage to explore.”   Rosita Forbes

Gyeongju is often referred to as ‘The Museum without Walls’ and for good reason given the abundance of splendid Buddhist temples, royal tombs and relics without mentioning present day music festivals and varied cultural activities.  The city was the capital of the great Silla Kingdom  (57 BC – 935 AD) and in its apogee claimed a million population – huge by any worldwide standards during the first millennium.    Low mountains are scattered throughout what is best described as a rural-urban complex that presently claims a population of just over a quarter million.

Already in a previous post I declared my enthusiasm for two very special UNESCO sites (Bulguksa Temple and Seokguram Grotto) and now I’ll share a surreal evening spent admiring magical Anapji Pond an artificial lake within Gyeongju National Park built in 674 by order of King Munmu.

(NOTE: To improve your viewing experience click on the photos below to enlarge – once for medium, twice to zoom in.)

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As part of the comprehensive Gyeongju Valley archaeological study, the Korean government temporarily drained Anapji Pond in 1972 revealing thousands of Silla artifacts that had fallen into the lake or were thrown in much to the delight of future researchers into Korea’s cultural heritage.  Many of these were restored and relocated to the Gyeongju National Museum.  In 1974 the pond was rebuild as close to the original minus the long-ago royal parties that were dazzling in pageantry and  magnificence.   “During the era of King Munmu a new pond was made in the palace and flowers and birds flourished in this pond”. 

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It was a cold but bracing evening’s stroll to admire the vast grounds; Ara, my guide, unlike me was perfectly outfitted for the occasion.  I was caught off-guard since only two days before the temperatures only a half-hour’s drive away by the East Sea shore was a spring-like 2o degree Celcius.   She explained that it was not unusual in South Korea to have dramatic swings in temperatures, up or down, due to it’s geographical location and so when traveling it paid to have an adequately varied wardrobe.  In my opinion a fashionable woman’s excuse to overload the suitcase with clothes; whatever, it was one big dip from short-sleeves to bone chilling temps.  

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See? This photo was taken a day before on the beach about thirty minutes away.  For two glorious days it was  an unexpected bonus to enjoy the sights in comfortable clothing; then the reality of the calendar set in.  

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Three illuminated islands artistically located to be eye pleasing lend further charm to the magical aura of the evening.  Traditional music wafted in the air carried by a soft wind added to the enchantment.

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Not quite the Pyramids but for centuries the royals were buried in elaborate chambers along with the paraphenerlia deemed necessary for a pleasant afterlife and then secured under huge grassy mounds.   Many of these have yealded rich artifacts attesting to the artistic accomplishments and wealth of the Silla Kingdom.    

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Today, within the city proper, the vast grounds provide a pleasant park atmosphere for those seeking a peaceful stroll and perhaps give a passing thought to the ephemeral life of the once rich and powerful.   In the final reckoning physical ‘death’ does indeed create us all equals and I for one find it a comforting thought.  

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I would feel remiss if I didn’t include an account of what turned out to be a great bonus to my stay in Gyeongju.  I had been somewhat surprised at my clever guide’s choice of accommodations but by now I should have known better.  The truth is that in my travels for the most part I have been the one to manage the search for and choice of accommodations.   In this instance since Ara had come up with splendid hotels in Seoul and elsewhere I saw no reason to ask questions and yet, this was different.   Within the city and yet in a semi-rural setting we drove up to a different type of lodging as far as I was concerned.  In a small compound of like buildings we found what she was looking for – the ‘Tiamo’, at first sight a pleasant looking small pension, for lack of a better word to describe it.   The feature of the place and the specific reason why Ara had chosen was that it offered a barbecue facility – not, I hasten to say, out in an open to all area but on your own balcony.  Furthermore, all that was needed was to advise the owner of the time you wanted to barbecue and it was done, to the minute, a perfect fire ready for your meats.

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 The barbecue idea is a popular week-end activity for city-bound folks who live in apartment buildings and don’t have the luxury of back-yards or large balconies, thus often a group of friends will get together and book a room for fun, a little drink and lots of tasty Korean-style barbecued meats.  For my part it was also my first experience shopping in a Korean supermarket.  I can vouch it was a pleasure to discover a splendid variety of food, fresh bakery goods, fish and meat and especially in my eyes (deprived as I am living in stodgy Canada) a vast array of wines, beer and other alcoholic potables to choose from to complement our choices of meat.   I wonder when Canada will ever get to the point where residents will not be treated as potential alcoholics who must be closely monitored and kept from spending their money as they see fit.  It’s been promised a hundred times over by politicians looking for votes and of course in keeping with their in-bred insincerity never acted upon (except in Quebec province) and so I keep on waiting but I don’t believe it will ever happen – maybe next century?  Just think about this for example, you can’t buy a bottle of wine in a B.C. winery for a nickel less than what you’ll have to pay in a government liquor outlet.  Ferocious official stupidity I call it and leave it at that although I could devote an entire chapter to this but why bore you? 

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The host and hostess with the ‘mostest’ – really this fine couple couldn’t do enough to make our stay as pleasant as possible.  The service was above and beyond what we could hope for as we were spoiled with home-made soup and in the morning we were surprised with a delicious breakfast not part of the arrangement.  Why were we so well treated, I wondered? They revealed their son had spent some time in Vancouver and always spoke highly of how well he’d been treated, thus they were paying back, in a sense.  I made sure Ara realized all the extra good stuff was after all thanks to me and a good reason to remember that in life you never know when a good deed will be rewarded in unexpected fashion.  

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Finally, an unsolicited bit of promotion for this fine establishment.  If you’re ever in Gyeongju do yourself a big favour and book yourself into these fine lodgings.  The barbecue will be there with a perfect fire waiting for you to enjoy.  
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South Korea – Ancient Royal City of Gyeongju

“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.”  Lao TsuLao 

As I stated in my previous post (East Sea – Port Hupo) Ara, my Korean friend, had expertly planned an itinerary that in the limited time available would give me the opportunity to view rural Korea as well as visit several splendid historic and cultural icons.  Gyeongju, the ancient royal city, she confided was on every high school student’s eventual tour list.  She had been on one such field trip and remembered the experience fondly as the first time she’s been anywhere with friends and teachers but no parents along – that was so exciting, she admitted.

Well, it was equally exciting for me I can assure as from the very first view I knew there would be things to see and do that would be worthy of banking in my memory vault.  The building below with its inner pagoda profile was striking in its imaginative architecture as you’ll surely concur; it’s a popular observation tower completed in 2007 along with Gyeongju Expo Culture Center.

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The structure is the equivalent of a 30 floor building and is the location since for numerous music festivals and other cultural events.  At night strobe lights and a kaleidoscope of colours makes for a magical spectacle.   

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Among the many featured historic sites, Bulguksa Temple is atop any list for  pilgrims and foreign travellers.  Within its walls are kept seven of the catalogued National Treasures and the temple itself is classified as Historic and Scenic Site No. 1 by the South Korean government.  The entrance to the temple, Sokgyemun, has a double-sectioned staircase and bridge (National Treasure No. 23) that leads to the inside of the temple compound. 

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 The stairway is 33 steps high, corresponding to the 33 steps to enlightenment.  I climbed with great anticipation and still awaiting the favourable results, yet to come hopefully. 

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The temple is considered  a masterpiece of the golden age of Buddhist art in the Silla Kingdom and currently an important  temple of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism.   The Silla Kingdom grew from one small tribal enclave to eventually rule over almost the entire Korean Peninsula lasting just short of one thousand years from 57 BC to 935 AD.   Buddhism, introduced in the 6th Century, played a significant role in strengthening royal authority, unifying the people, becoming the foundation of the area’s art, tradition, and culture.    In comparison  Western Europe was then well into what has been referred to as the Dark Ages, mired in centuries of superstition, wars and famine.  

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Bulguksa is a virtual cornucopia of history, art and culture, in 1995 it was added to the prestigious UNESCO World Heritage List.   In fact there is so much to be seen and appreciated in and around the town in 2000 five districts were added to the list of World Cultural Heritages under the title ‘Gyeongju Historic Areas.’  The following photos require no explanation.  

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Beyond this ornate gate private quarters for monks and temple staff. 

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The temple is surrounded by ample grounds, peaceful and propitious for quiet contemplation.

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The ornate, uplifted roof entrance to Seokguram Grotto (only four kilometres from Bulguksa Temple) examplifies classic Korean architecture; it sits atop a steep hillside and affords a vast panoramic vista of Gyeongju far below. 

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It is promised that banging the huge bell with the wooden log is a guarantee of good luck to the ‘banger’.  I wished to return soon and I have a strong feeling it might just be ringing true in the wind.  

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Buddhist monks are seen everywhere – I couldn’t help but ponder the difference between Asia and elsewhere, in Europe in particular, where ancient monasteries are closing for lack of vocations.   Even within the walls of fabled Mt. St. Michel where for centuries hundreds used to pray and meditate presently only a handful of monks remain to keep a flickering  candle of faith burning. 

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The paths leading to and from the grotto are steep and rugged but they don’t deter the devout pilgrims, not matter how hold or in poor health.  I couldn’t help but be full of admiration as I spotted the gritty efforts of so many who came seeking a spiritual help for physical ills.   

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Finally, before leaving I slaked my thirst at a fresh spring water fountain.  I look forward to seeing you at my next entry when I’ll share some spectacular, beautiful photos.  You’ll not find fault with my promise, I promise.

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Scenic Korea – East Sea and Hupo Port

“I have found out that there ain’t no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them.”  Mark Twain

After a few hectic, exciting days in Seoul I was fortunate to spend several days meandering through some 1200 kilometres of rural Korea.  Since time was limited, my host planned an itinerary she considered would be a representative cross-section of Korea’s countryside and historic towns.  Unerringly (with her trusty GPS)  she guided me to daily discover what is a picturesque country with scenic landscape around every bend of the road and proudly preserved historic and cultural achievements.   I have made no secret of my affinity for bucolic landscape and since as a boy I first dipped a toe in salt water seascapes around the world have pulled me to their shores.   Thanks to this thoughtfully designed tour I feasted on an abundance of all that I love best.   Traveling in harmony and good humour throughout, I can only express a deep debt of gratitude to you my dear friend.   

(NOTE: To improve your viewing experience click on the photos below to enlarge – once for medium, twice to zoom in.)

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P1100042Incidentally, a GPS is a wonderful travel aid and I plan to prevail myself of that technology any time I can in future forays to foreign lands.  Knowing my love of everything to do with the sea, seaports and seafood we headed for the East Sea, more precisely to Hupo Port, some 40 kilometres south of Uljin.  A geographical note here: in case you are wondering if there’s a connection with the Sea of Japan, indeed there is, it is one and the same.  Except the Korean people are a little more pragmatic reasonably calling the waters bathing their east coast, the East Sea.  The Japanese on the other hand seem to have taken full possession of it by naming it the Sea of Japan.   That reminds me of my great irritation as a boy learning about ‘La Manche’ (figuratively the Sleeve that connected the North Sea to the Atlantic Ocean) and coming to Canada to learn somehow it had been appropriated by the English, thus I discovered it as the English Channel in my new  school atlas.   I thought to myself what kind of jingoistic arrogance was evidenced by that bit of misappropriation? Okay, I’ve finally got it off my chest – oy, feels good!

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Highways are invariably several lanes wide and in great upkeep; it did take me a little time to get used to the numerous speed cameras until I opted to make use of the cruise control in the car.  At first a little boring to always dawdle at a sedate 100 kph (a far cry from European autobahns) gradually I got to appreciate the relaxed driving and non-aggressive behaviour of the traffic.   Along the highway there are frequent fuel stops to gas up and check over the local goods offered in what we’d refer to here as a strip mall.  Here too the Korean retail model for reasonably priced and tasty fast food is hard to avoid or resist.  I came to look forward to these brief stops just to see what might be there that wasn’t found at the previous one.

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Loved the grilled squid – crunchy, flavourful, easy to eat while driving and inexpensive, as most fast-foods are in Korea. 

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A view of Hupo Port from my hotelt, it turned out to be a mecca for the seafood lover that I am; a splendid eating experience was guaranteed anywhere, in a restaurant or cooked  right on the docks.  
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It was difficult, in fact well nigh impossible to keep from sampling freshly cooked King Crabs right there on the docks.  The tantalizing aroma wafted from every corner and from behind every crab pot, who could resist? Not me, I assure you. 
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Then to top it off with  a tasty local delicacy, something akin to a waffle in the shape of the ubiquitous King Crab that is the mainstay of the local economy as far back as can be remembered.  
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My hotel rather strangely called ‘Motel Theme’ was centrally located and from my room’s window I could survey what I always love, a seaport, fishing boats and the limitless horizon of the sea.  
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No kidding this was the room’s decor, a full wall, top to bottom – I felt as if I was sleeping in an aquarium and maybe that was totally appropriate.   Come to think of it that might explain why it’s called ‘Motel Theme’.  I should have checked out other rooms and see what else there was to see.  
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To my surprise the flat rooftop below my room was used to dry fish.  I suppose the cold weather kept any hint of fishy smell under control and probably not allowed later in warm weather.  A photo op I was happy to take – notice the fishing fleet in the background.  
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Green branches are lashed to the top of the mast of each fishing vessel.  Why? I have no idea and since there was no one around to ask I have no answer but I’ve not seen that anywhere else.  Perhaps a good luck charm to ensure a big catch? 
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A night view of the port and an interesting discovery; the string of powerful lights on the deck of a boat meant it was exclusively dedicated to fishing for squid who can’t resist the temptation of bright lights.  Maybe there’s a moral there, somewhere.  Do you think?
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Reluctantly I was convinced no matter how much I loved Hupo Port and feasting on crab and delicious raw fish prepared sashimi style, it was high time to move south along the seacoast road.  Around a bend and look! What came next was equally satisfying, in fact I dare say I found my perfect get-away next time I want to spend a few weeks by a gorgeous  emerald tinted sea.  
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My friend informed me that big city folks desirous to spend a few inexpensive days or weeks in a peaceful surrounding can find the perfect get-away here, in a kind of local B&B in a fisherman’s home.    Immediately I expressed my interest since as I was  already drugged by the iodine-loaded air.   She was doubtful I would be comfortable in a sparsely furnished room and to sleep on floor mats, although she thought I’d most likely enjoy the daily meals.  I countered that I liked sleeping on a hard mattress and I could always buy an air mattress if really necessary.  Indeed, it’s not an outlandish idea and I may yet spend a few weeks in this enchanting seaside get-away recharging my creative battery.  First though, I need to learn a little more of the language than I presently possess.  
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I noticed at frequent intervals decorative gazebos, usually found in a pleasant nook in rural settings, perhaps by a river or a beach; these for the most part have been built by nearby residents or local council.  They are freely to spend leisurely time with a gathering of friends and neighbours.  Nice!
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I’m seriously contemplating staying a few weeks and joining the fellows on the rocks  who I’m sure would  share with me local fishing secrets.   I assure you, I’ve never met an unpleasant fisherman, the world over, concluding the pursuit of fish simply doesn’t attract anyone other than fine, peace loving men (and women too) akin to my own placid disposition.  OY!
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A visual surprise awaited on the beach close by.  A fine tableau of imposing bronze sculptures depicted the historic significance of fishing and the prized snow crab in the economic well-being of countless fishing communities on the East Sea.
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Always reluctantly I have to be dragged away but then we came to a beach and a splendid scene of blue skies, blue-green waters, soaring seagulls and after a long walk a rewarding sit-down to another fine seafood feast.
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Pointing to the one I want – and after a long stroll breathing in a bracing sea breeze I had no feelings of guilt.    On my plate it came as succulent slices of sashimi.
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Yes, that’s the one!  Let me assure the victim was much appreciated on my plate. 
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The fine view from the adjoining window and on the table.  As usual in a Korean restaurant the entree is always preceded by an array of condiments, kimchi and tasty tidbits.  
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On the way back to the car park we came across this archeological curiosity, the Tomb of King Munmu (661 – 681) built under the mound of rocks about 200 metres off-shore.  The king gave specific instructions to be buried in the sea after his death so that he would become a dragon and protect the Shilla Kingdom.  A thoughtful monarch, don’t you agree? 
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Here ends a memorable jaunt  along the East Sea coast of South Korea.  Next I’ll escort you on a tour of the royal city of Gyeongju, a famous temple, royal tombs, surreal Anapji Pond and that’s only a hint of much more to discover.