17 November 2008

Gyeongju: Whirlwind Tour

Cities that have tons of historical relics strewn all around have a way of exciting me. Beijing certainly did, and I look forward to future visits to the likes of Xi'an, Kyoto, Rome, Athens, and even Mexico City. But for now, I find myself in South Korea, and the city that has the most historical relics around is Gyeongju. And I am just getting started.

My Hilton hotel hosted the German and Danish national soccer teams when they came to South Korea to participate in the 2002 FIFA World Cup. Here's a memorial commemorating their stay (and a goodwill autographed photo from each team).

I am leaving the Hilton's front doors. Over the parking lot, I see a number of national flags and the Hilton flag flying around. Except for Italy, I've been to all the nations represented here, though in case of Japan, it amounted only to a Narita stopover.

Looking back toward the Hilton, before boarding my car and starting my day. This hotel is toward the east end of Bomun Lake Resort District, which is located about five miles east of downtown Gyeongju. There are many other posh top-level hotels around here, as well as swan-shaped pleasure boats on the lake, plus other facilities. Even Gyeongju's cultural expo, held last year, took place nearby. City buses do run to this area, but it's best to get here by taxi or by car.

Instead of heading downtown, I decided to head farther away first. Bulguksa is a 10-minute drive to the south, and that's where I started off.

Bulguksa on Tohamsan Mountain. I have arrived. Admission is 4,000 won for tourists.

Take these steps up to heaven... er, the temple. The bottom seventeen steps are named Blue Cloud Bridge (靑雲橋) while the top sixteen are named White Cloud Bridge (白雲橋). They are now closed to the public, however, and I must walk around to a side gate to enter the temple grounds.

The main courtyard has two very famous stone pagodas. The west side has this one, Seokgatap (Pagoda of Sakyamuni), National Treasure No. 21. Its design is typical of the three-story stone pagodas that graced the Buddhist temples of Silla, the ancient kingdom that lasted a thousand years and called Gyeongju its capital. It's conventional, simple, and masculine.

On the east side stands Dabotap (Pagoda of Many Treasures), National Treasure No. 20. It's unconventional, elaborate, and feminine in character, and while it is as different from Seokgatap as it can possibly be, the two exist in perfect harmony.

Unfortunately, the pagoda is scaffolded due to archaeological work and restoration. It's very disappointing for me to come thousands of miles to visit this one-of-a-kind pagoda, only to see it in this state. Fortunately, the National Museum here in Gyeongju has a full-size replica of this pagoda, so I'll be able to see tomorrow what I missed today.

One of Dabotap's key features is the four staircases, one on each side. The west staircase has this lion. Originally, all four staircases had lions, but one is at the British Museum, while two have disappeared without a trace, leaving only this one.

Bulguksa's own 大雄殿 (Daeungjeon, Hall of Great Hero), the main hall which houses Sakyamuni. It's smaller than I had expected.

I have no interior photos from any of the buildings at this temple, as they are strictly forbidden.

This sermon hall has a very interesting name: 無說殿 (Museoljeon, Hall of No Words). The name means that even though human languages and concepts are being used to explain Buddhist concepts and the truth, in reality they are so profound that they can never be adequately explained that way.

There is a Japanese tour group in front. The Japanese have known of Gyeongju's secrets for ages, and have been coming in large numbers, either in groups or independently. Either they get by speaking Korean (which isn't all that different from Japanese), or they find enough locals able to speak Japanese. There also are a good number of English speakers coming to Gyeongju, but they always come with Korean friends or guides, as Gyeongju, despite its attractions, remains difficult for the English speakers to figure out.

The back side of Daeungjeon has some artwork. This one shows Kwan Yin riding a blue tiger, though I have no idea what the significance of a blue tiger is in Korean mythology.

Toward the northeast corner, there is 觀音殿 (Gwaneumjeon, Hall of Kwan Yin), which has this sign hanging. It says that the Korea Tourism Authority and the Korean Buddhist Cultural Service have designated this spot as the 23rd spot, in a 33-stop pilgrimage of Kwan Yin-related spots throughout South Korea.

Here is Gwaneumjeon, where a monk is busy showing his devotion to my transgender matron saint. Nearby computer printouts talk about Kwan Yin and her ability to grow a thousand hands and eyes, and even eleven faces, to better be able to do her work.

It's possible to see a glimpse of the hall's golden Kwan Yin statue in this photo. Notably, while it has a feminine body shape, its robe exposes the frontal upper body, which has a very masculine chest shape. Moreover, caption boards nearby continue to use the Sanskrit male name Avalokitesvara when referring to Kwan Yin in English.

Honestly, I don't think I'd be very happy if someone did a portrait of me in my trademark pink mini, drew me topless in it, gave me a flat masculine chest, and captioned the whole thing with a male name.

This is 毘盧殿 (Birojeon, Vairocana Hall). Vairocana stands for truth, wisdom, and cosmic power. The Vairocana statue inside this hall is National Treasure No. 26.

This tower houses Buddhist relics, and is typical of many found in Buddhist temples all over South Korea.

The lovely Bulguksa skyline. Toward the upper left, the roof of Daeungjeon is visible, with its swastika. While the Buddhist swastika is a mirror image of the Nazi swastika (and turned 45 degrees while at it too), and the two swastikas have absolutely no relationship, I still don't like seeing it.

This is 極樂殿 (Geungnakjeon, Hall of Supreme Bliss), dedicated to Amitabha. The Amitabha statue inside is National Treasure No. 27.

This boar in front of Geungnakjeon is a symbol of good luck. Visitors are encouraged to hug and rub it. All sorts of pigs, for that matter, stand for good luck in Korean culture, as the chubbiness of the pig stood for prosperity. After all, only the rich could afford to eat and idle enough to get fat.

A monk walks toward a private quarters.

The gift shop has some Happy Buddhas and a Kwan Yin, plus a miniature temple bell and a golden Dabotap.

I spent 21,000 won here, buying plastic miniature models of Dabotap, Seokgatap, and Cheomseongdae (visited later today), a Dabotap keyring, and Dabotap and Seokgatap mug set. Still no luck getting my Kwan Yin automotive ornament.

Most Korean temples have bells. Here is Bulguksa's own bell.

The parting shot, with a side view of the Blue Cloud and White Cloud Bridges. This is the angle that most postcards show the temple from. Sure enough, there are serious photographers next to me, with their tripods, aiming for that perfect shot. The turning maple leaves are making today picture perfect. And while a cold snap grips Seoul (which is not cracking even 10C/50F today), it's reasonably warm down here, about 14C.

Another sign of religious coexistence in South Korea. This van at Bulguksa's tourist parking lot belongs to a Catholic congregation. And sure enough, a few Catholic nuns were around the temple.

I'm doing my mix and match with religious traditions. Even as I drive to all the Buddhist sights and do everything to soak up the spirit of Kwan Yin, I am playing Christmas carols in my car. While it's odd from an American standpoint, it's perfectly normal here.

Next: Seokguram, a grotto higher up on Tohamsan. If I walk from Bulguksa, it's 50 minutes and 1 1/2 miles. I drove, and it took me 20 minutes and 5 miles over a very twisting road. I pushed my rental Sonata a bit, asking it to perform like my BMW 3-series; it was certainly up to the task, though it is not a sports sedan by any stretch of imagination.

Both Bulguksa and Seokguram are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, so designated in 1995, the first for any South Korean site. Unlike Bulguksa, however, Seokguram charges 2,000 won to park a passenger car.

Above is a view east from the parking lot, with the Sea of Japan in the distance. King Munmu, who turned Silla into the first-ever unified Korean kingdom, is buried underwater out there, and I will visit the tomb tomorrow if time allows. Although a Korean-ruled multiethnic state, named Balhae, existed alongside Unified Silla, it is nevertheless generally agreed that from about 660 on, when Silla unified Korea, until 1945, when the US and the USSR divided Korea in two, Korea was a single, unified nation.

Looking west from the same parking lot. The village in the foreground is the tourist village serving visitors to Bulguksa. There are many restaurants, souvenir shops, and budget lodgings down there. Bulguksa is just a short walk from the village's parking area.

A 1934 poem about Seokguram, near the entrance. It mentions that the English can never give up their Shakespeare, even if they can give up India, and that the Koreans feel the same way about the stone Buddha at Seokguram.

Admission to the Seokguram grounds is another 4,000 won.

This wooden structure covers the entrance to the grotto. No photos are allowed inside. The visitors are separated from the actual grotto by a glass wall, except during designated prayer hours, when the faithful may enter the grotto itself.

There are the Four Devas lining the entrance hallway, and in the main done, the huge stone Buddha stands, surrounded by wall reliefs featuring various bodhisattvas. The eleven-faced Kwan Yin is in the very back, but as she is obscured by Buddha, she cannot be seen from the visitor's area.

Even here (and at many other Buddhist sites in Gyeongju for that matter), I can buy a roof tile and write a message on it. I didn't, but I did take time to read messages, left by many visitors from just about all parts of the world.

The above are from Canadian, British, and American visitors. I love the American's message, which shows an appreciation for the search for the truth and the peace that is embodied in Buddhism.

More messages, from France, Chile, Mexico, and Vietnam. Love the Mexican message, which includes "thank you" in Korean, and wishes for stronger ties between Mexico and South Korea.

I went into Seokguram's souvenir stall, and bought a guidebook of Gyeongju, in English, for 7,000 won. It's good, though its romanization uses the older McCune-Reischauer system.

Also at the souvenir stall is this collection of South Korean postage stamps, commemorating the inauguration of South Korean Presidents over the years. Clockwise from the top left, they are as follows:
  • Park Chung-hee (multiple terms from his coup in 1961 until his assassination in 1979), the military dictator who is remembered both for his risky, successful industrialization plans and for his ruthless oppression of pro-democracy and peace activists.
  • Choi Kyu-ha (1979-1980), who took over as President upon Park's assassination, until being overthrown by another military coup.
  • Chun Doo-hwan (first term, 1980-1981), another military dictator who rose to power in a coup, then killed hundreds of democracy protesters in the southwestern city of Gwangju.
  • Chun Doo-hwan (second term, 1981-1988), re-elected by an indirect vote, nevertheless laid down the initial steps toward democracy and prosperity, by ending nightly curfews, winning the rights to the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, and promising to not seek re-election at the end of his 7-year term.
  • Kim Dae-jung (1998-2003), who took over as the nation's first leftist President, when the previous government drove South Korea into bankruptcy. A longtime peace activist who almost won the 1971 election against Park Chung-hee (and sentenced to death shortly thereafter), he pulled off the first-ever inter-Korean summit in 2000, though its details remain very controversial. Liberals love him, conservatives hate him, but he certainly was a big player in modern South Korean history.
  • Lee Myung-bak, AKA 2MB (2008-2013), the current right-wing President, who is also the first businessman to rise to the Presidency. All his predecessors were either military generals or human rights activists.
  • Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2008), the leftist successor to Kim Dae-jung, but minus Kim's political and personal skills. Roh's presidency was marred by economic slumps, verbal gaffes, scandals, and even an impeachment attempt. His only real accomplishment was the second inter-Korean summit which happened last year.
  • Kim Young-sam (1993-1998), the longtime right-wing democracy activist who was the first civilian to be elected to the Presidency since the 1950s. He made history by trying his dictatorial predecessors and handing them severe sentences, but he is most remembered for driving South Korea's economy to bankruptcy - and not even knowing about it until a warning phone call from Bill Clinton!
  • Roh Tae-woo (1988-1993), the successor to Chun Doo-hwan and fellow military general (and co-conspirator in the 1980 coup). He was the first President to be elected under the democratic 1987 Constitution, and is best remembered for his Nordpolitik, which brought South Korea closer to the Communist Bloc nations, a decision that proved pivotal and beneficial when the Iron Curtain started falling.
Another fact about 2MB: before he was known as 2MB, he was known by another nickname - the Bulldozer. He got the nickname due to his stubbornness and his determination to get anything done at any cost once decision is made. It's certainly a positive trait when being a business executive in a piss-poor Third World economy, but as the President of a vibrant democracy and a modern economy, being a Bulldozer is actually a huge minus, sure to antagonize many and create lots of social discord.

Overview of Seokguram. The left is the grotto, while the right is a praying hall. In the lower left, there is a water spring; I took a sip.

I briefly stopped at the folk craft village, which is located between my hotel and Bulguksa, as I started driving toward downtown. I saw this thatched-roof workshop with two Silla-style statues. Not much to see here, unless I wanted some amethyst jewelry. I only bought a 1,500-won cone of ice cream.

My first sight, as I neared downtown, was Bunhwangsa, another Buddhist temple, which is mostly in ruins today. Even then, I had to pay 1,300 won - a ripoff - to enter.

Bunhwangsa is best known for its 3-story brick pagoda. It has a square footprint, and each side has a gate with Buddhist decorations inside and out, as seen above.

Another look at the pagoda. Architectural style suggests that the pagoda was originally 7 or 9 stories tall. But it was destroyed by the Japanese in 1915, and when restored afterwards, it was rebuilt in its current 3-story shape.

There is little more at this temple, though there are some archaeological excavations going on outside today, in order to determine what this temple was once really like at its peak.

Here's something I like, still on Bunhwangsa grounds. Stones and pebbles are stacked up for good luck, surrounding a seated stone statue of Kwan Yin.

A short drive away is Anapji, a pond, with the admissions charge at a more reasonable 1,000 won. As Silla predates the invention of paper, many messages were written on pieces of wood, as shown above. These fragments were dug up from excavations at the pond, which started in 1975 and confirmed many of the details that had been known from historical records.

The Anapji overview. There were once 26 buildings in this complex, located next to a royal palace that no longer exists. A few centuries ago, this place was in complete ruins. Today, only three of the buildings have been restored, and even then, they are guesstimates. The other 23 had their foundations re-buried, though they are indicated with modern stone markers and fenced off.

These two reservoirs carry water from nearby springs into Anapji Pond, and the shapes are designed for acoustics. Anapji's plumbing system is quite amazing.

A number of other attractions are within walking distance of Anapji, including the National Museum, which is closed today.

I am walking on a car-free road lined with cosmos flowers. It's too cold for cosmos farther up north around Seoul, but it's still warm enough down here. I am walking toward Cheomseongdae, an astronomical observatory, just up ahead.

Tombs in the distance, building foundations in front. Gyeongju literally has ancient relics and ruins everywhere you look. This is really my kind of place.

I paid 500 won to enter Cheomseongdae. This bottle-shaped observatory, built during the reign of Queen Seondeok (632-647), is the oldest astronomical facility in East Asia. The lower 12 rows of bricks were filled with dirt inside. Rows 13 through 15 has a square entryway, where an astronomer can bring up a ladder to enter. Observations would take place through the opening at the top.

This structure is National Treasure No. 31. I'm starting to lose track of how many National Treasures I am coming across just today!

Near Cheomseongdae lies this forest, named Gyerim. Legend has that a crying baby was heard in this forest, and when the king came here to take a look, he found a golden casket with a baby boy in it. The baby was named Kim Al-ji, and the Gyeongju Kim clan, one of the largest in Korea, traces itself to this baby.

Standing near Cheomseongdae and Gyerim is an old earthen fortress named Banwolseong (Half Moon Fortress), looking much like Mongchon Fortress which graces Seoul's Olympic Park, and dating within a few centuries of it.

This is Seokbinggo, an ice storage facility within the fortress. It was originally built 100 meters from its current location.

Somehow, the Koreans had ways of storing ice for the royals, even in the hot, steamy summers. Seoul also had two similar ice storage facilities, in the Yongsan area: Seobinggo in the west, and Dongbinggo in the east. Although few people even remember the ice storage facilities in Seoul, the names Seobinggo and Dongbinggo remain familiar, as modern-day district names.

I've left Banwolseong to return to my car. For now, I see a Hyundai Verna (second-generation Hyundai Accent in the US). In the South Korean domestic market, the Verna name applies to all second generation and later Accents, while the name Accent applies only to the original from the mid to late 1990s.

This Verna has a cross-shaped grille that resembles those found on Dodge automobiles. And that's for a good reason. While Hyundai sells the Verna (and many other models, including the crappy Porter mid-engined pickup truck) in Mexico, Hyundai does not have any dealers there, so Hyundai vehicles are sold at Dodge dealers, as Dodges. The grille is straight out of the Mexican-market Dodge Verna.

I'm back to my car (on the right). Note that even though it's a 2006 Sonata, its license plate is still of the pre-2004 jurisdictional variety, in the format of "Jurisdiction 12 X 3456" where X is an arbitrary simple Korean syllable. My car is registered in Seoul. The syllable used on my car is 허 (heo), which is reserved for rental cars. The meaning: everyone knows that I am a tourist who rented my car in Seoul. Fortunately, violent crimes are very rare in South Korea, and carjackings are virtually unheard of.

At least few people recognize that I am actually an American, as my Korean fluency and my mannerisms are hardly any different from that of a Seoulite. A cop would have to pull me over and check my driver's license before finding out my nationality. I love blending and disappearing into the crowds like that.

The left is a Daewoo Tico, a Suzuki design that was South Korea's first microcar. The Tico has since been replaced by a modern model named the Matiz. Although microcars make a lot of sense due to their fuel economy (up to 24 km per liter, or 60 MPG, without the need for hybrid technology) and easy-to-maneuver size, not to mention reduced highway tolls and other governmental perks, they still struggle to get respect when on the road, as size and price tags still matter a lot on South Korean roads. (Which also explains why I am driving a needlessly large Sonata, when the smaller, sportier European-spec Hyundai i30 would've served me just fine.)

Tumuli Park is a short drive away, but I missed it by a block, and ended up driving a few miles away before somehow finding my way back and parking there. I paid 1,500 won for entry plus 2,000 won for parking.

Its star attraction is a tomb that I can actually enter, named Cheonma (Heavenly Horse) Tomb. No photos are allowed inside, but I can see the reproduction of a buried king as actually discovered, not to mention replicas of the artifacts. The originals are at the National Museum.

Nobody knows who was buried here. The name Cheonma came from a leather object, discovered inside, bearing the image of a flying horse.

Tumuli Park is surrounded by these traditional houses.

For centuries, people had thought of the tombs (which then had trees and flowers growing on them) as local molehills, but only excavations in the past century or so revealed the true extent of the tombs.

A look at some of the many tombs at Tumuli Park. This place is amazing. They form a continuous complex with even more tombs near Cheomseongdae (see pictures earlier this post), just a short walk away.

I decided to visit one last attraction before turning in for the day. I arrived in the far west of town, at King Muyeol's tomb, which costs 500 won to enter. This turtle tombstone honors Muyeol, who was Munmu's immediate predecessor, and defeated Silla's key rival Baekje, sending its people on an exile to Japan. (It was a bonanza for Japan, who took in all the great Buddhist culture of Baekje and made it its own.) But Muyeol didn't live to see his other rival, Goguryeo to the north, defeated. Munmu did it with Chinese help, though China then betrayed Munmu and tried to annex Silla, forcing Munmu to fight again just to defend his sovereignty.

Here's Muyeol's tomb. There are a few more similar tombs behind it, believed to be Muyeol's relatives.

Nearby, there also is another tomb, dedicated to General Kim Yu-sin, but I can only do so many tombs in a short amount of time, so I skipped it.

All in all, lots of great sights covered over seven hours, and I am very happy that I rented a car and came to Gyeongju. I look forward to more tomorrow, and even later as I do my drive back to Seoul.

I wrapped up with a nice complimentary dinner at the Hilton, followed by a round of blackjack in the casino. As the casino is foreigners-only, all game calls and communications to/from pit bosses were made in broken English, but the dealers were still courteous and friendly. I played an entire 6-deck shoe alone, and came out 10,000 won ahead at 10,000-won minimum. My winning streak continues in blackjack, now with the additional benefit of getting to play it Korean-style (though it isn't all that different from Vegas, except for chips denominated in won).