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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