Friday, May 29, 2009
There's a tiny island off the eastern coast of Geoje-do. Its name is Oedo (pronounced "WAY-doh"), and not too long ago some rich tycoon purchased the rights to it. And what did he do with it then, you ask? Why, he turned it into a botanical garden. That's right: the entire island is one big open-air greenhouse, overflowing with plants, trees, and jaw-dropping flowers. It's apparently one of the most beautiful sights in Korea, famous nationwide. There was a certain mystique about it; I'd only caught intoxicating glimpses of the island in the distance as I sunned myself on Geoje's beaches, or of its interior in travel brochures. What I'd seen piqued my interest. So, finally, after at least three wasted weekends (despoiled by prior engagements with Jirisan and Gyeongju, or poor health), I took the bull by the horns and set out to find the island come hell or high water. The Sunday after the Second Christmas, May 31st, I seized my chance and strode down to the bus station. I boarded the bus for Jangseungpo, a small civic area just on the other side of Okpo, on the eastern shores of the island. I figured I could either hop a ferry there or, if it was too pricey, grab a cab from thence to Wahyeon Beach, where I knew for a fact there was a ferry terminal servicing Oedo. After some initial confusion (I didn't get off the bus soon enough and had to hike a few kilometers back to the city center after the bus driver kicked me off), I located the ferry terminal and walked in. The price was ₩19,000...a bit steep, so I got into a cab and went to Wahyeon, hoping it'd be cheaper. It wasn't much better at ₩17,000...but when you add in the ₩9,000 I spent just getting to the beach, I actually lost more than a little money on the deal. Oh well, at least the Wahyeon route is more direct: you can see Oedo Island, sitting like a green jewel in the misty haze a few miles offshore. I paid up for a ticket, then went and sat on the quay (actually on the breakwater, a huge pile of cement weights shaped like children's jacks in a haphazard jumble). And I waited...and waited...and waited. The ferry was late. Not that the day wasn't enjoyable, mind you. This was May and it was getting on toward summer, but things weren't beatin' hot yet, and there was still a lovely cool breeze blowing off the ocean. So I laid back on one huge cement jack, put my hat over my eyes, and just relaxed for a bit. The ferry eventually did come, disgorge its passengers and let us on. Then the novelty began. The first I knew that I was in for a unique ride was when the ferry captain relinquished the controls to his first mate, came back to the passenger cabin and started singing karaoke. (He wasn't half bad, either...a nation of singers.) Apart from that, he talked. And he talked fast, too. He was pointing out the various sights and sounds of the places our boat was passing, but as he was speaking Korean, I only caught a word here and there. He even pointed to me once and asked me if I was single. He had to translate it into pidgin English before I got it. I replied in the negative. Then he asked if I spoke Korean (in Korean). Fortunately I did understand that, and knew enough to reply. "Hanguk mal jom haeyo," I said, to the delight of the passengers. I speak a little Korean. First up on our touring list was Haegeumgang, the jutting peninsula at the southeast foot of Geoje-do, famous for towering rock cliffs and pinnacles. If it looked impressive from the beaches and the air, it was incredible up-close on a boat. The sun was descending, and it caught the bushes and trees and green leaves clinging to the rock faces and the peaks of the cliffs and lit them with auburn fire. Shadows played in the intervening spaces between the stone towers, and lit the green water with an ethereal glow. Anybody who's a fan of The Goonies really needs to come to Korea and take that tour. And we didn't just circle around these rocks, either. The pilot bravely steered his craft in between them, and even partway into them. All the passengers piled out on deck as he maneuvered the ferry into some of the tightest spaces in these waters, all for our benefit. There was one tiny sea-cave that I swear I thought we were going to go straight through, only to stop at the last minute, close enough to reach out and touch the soggy lichen-covered walls and get dripped on from above. It was an astounding experience. But even that paled in comparison to what happened when we actually got to the island. After making a circuit of Haegeumgang, we went straight to the cement pier at Oedo and disembarked. After forking over another ₩8,000 at the gates, we were free to wander around the island wantonly for an hour and thirty minutes. How can I begin to describe the loveliness and bewitchment of that place? The air was heavily perfumed; a thousand sweet scents crammed in on my senses, nonetheless beautiful for their addition. The sinking sun illuminated every leaf, sprout, bud and shoot with that same golden glow I'd noticed on the peaks of Haegeumgang. Plants from every corner of the earth were busy exploding with flowers and new growth. There was a peace garden, a Greek sculpture garden, a cactus garden, and more flower gardens on that small patch of ground than I'm sure exist on any other island in the history of the world. There were palm trees, perennials, shrubs, bonsai, yucca plants, and more kinds of blossoms and blooms than I could ever have learned from a book in a year, all splashed all over the bumpy topography of the island's small interior. In a daze I wandered hither and thither, almost forgetting to check my watch, eyes wide open, desperately trying to suck in and retain every single sensation the place had to offer. There were breathtaking vistas of the East Sea, visible from lookout points and a two-story cafe cunningly built atop a cliff; there was ice-cream for sale at a booth by the entrance; there was wisely another booth selling extra cameras and film. The gift shop was nicely decorated and sold things like candles and incense (scented with the flowers of the island) at steep but affordable prices. The path from the gift shop led to the greatest overlook of all, spanning 200 degrees of the East Sea, the island's mountains, Wahyeon Beach, and the coastline of Oedo itself. My soul was washed clean, my mind was blasted by beauty and my heart contentedly massaged. I had no camera (I lost it on Jirisan, remember?) but the disposable one I'd grabbed was used up. Part of me worried that the film quality would be substandard; most of me, mollified by a concentrated dose of natural beauty, was content that everything would be OK. I waited out the final 20 minutes until our ferry came on that vista, soaking up the view and the deliciously cool sea breeze; then I boarded the ferry back for Wahyeon. The ferry driver's karaoke was the cherry on top of the sundae. He even had a sort of giveaway sweepstakes of sorts during the ride back; the prize was a whole dried squid. We parked at the pier, disembarked, and went our separate ways. I climbed the familiar, steep hill to the south of Wahyeon to reach the bus stop. I waited for a nerve-wracking 40 minutes for a bus to appear as the sun set behind the hill and things began to get dusky; but luckily one did come and I returned to Gohyeon in a timely manner. I had been absolutely astounded, twice in one day, by the absolutely unforeseen and unsuspected lushness and beauty of the southern region of Geoje and Oedo Islands. The rough pinnacles of Haegeumgang warrant the ₩17,000 ferry fare, without doubt; but Oedo is absolutely a must-see at any price. The beguiling scents and heart-stopping sights of that tiny rock, built by the generosity of a magnate and lovingly maintained by Korean staff, are well worth the trip and the precious hour and a half allotted to view such gorgeousness. It'll add five years to your life, I promise.
For Christmas last year, Adam, Elaine, Jeff and I all assembled at Adam and Elaine's apartment for a day of feasting, drinking, music, gifts and fellowship that will not soon be rivaled by anything on either sides of this world's oceans. We came, we saw, we exchanged gifts, we drank, we cooked, we listened to music, and we just generally had a gay old time. It was an absolute blast. I cooked beef stew and sweet potato souffle; Jeff whipped up some coleslaw and chicken wings; Adam did vegetables and Yorkshire pudding (a kind of dough that's baked and becomes as very fluffy pastry); while Elaine dished up some sausages wrapped in bacon that were absolutely divine. For presents, I got a bottle of J&B (now my favorite blended Scotch), some highball glasses, some whiskey glasses, a pocket watch from Mom and Dad, some meat on a stick and some other goodies. We all got loads of sweet presents and the event truly cemented our friendship. So we decided to do it again. One more time, before we all split up and headed in different directions. We'd follow the same template as before: convene at Adam and Elaine's apartment in the morning and spend the rest of the day slowly cooking and drinking, culminating in a fine buzz and a contentedly full stomach. This we did. We opted not to exchange gifts this time, but Jeff and I still received something wonderful and completely unexpected: personalized Newcastle United jerseys, courtesy of Adam's mother! Yes, it's true! Adam has converted Jeff and myself to Newcastle's cause, and I am now a die-hard supporter of their football (soccer) team. To that end, Adam had some jerseys personalized with our last names (well, mine; there wasn't time to Jeff's before our second Christmas celebration on May 30th), and sent over! Adam's mum is gorgeous (so are Elaine's parents; her dad's always asking how "that Andrew" is, which apparently is a mark of high esteem): she even sent me a Newcastle United ballpoint pen with my first name inscribed upon it. How sweet and thoughtful is that? Somebody I don't even know in another country is thinking of me. I was so grateful and blessed and cheerful and happy I thought I would burst. The jersey, replete with bold, vertical black-and-white stripes (Newcastle's colors), is now hanging in a place of pride on my coat rack, the name POST emblazoned on the back; and in the winter of 2010, when I journey to Newcastle for my beloved friends Adam and Elaine's wedding, you can bet I'll be wearing it when I step off the plane. And then we'll all head over for a "footie match" at St. James's Park! The food was grand, too. I did souffle again and also some Irish potato cakes (mashed potatoes mixed with flour, salt and butter and fried; they didn't turn out so hot); Adam and Elaine did vegetables and sausages again; and Jeff whipped up some delicious pork cutlets with mozzarella cheese and spaghetti sauce on top, as well as some delicious barbecue. This time, Charles and Anne came too, and they made some cold noodles which were satisfying but not too heavy. In all, it was a grand feast, maybe not as much in quantity as its precedent, but nonetheless delectable. We listened to tunes, cooked, drank, and talked and talked and talked. I remember I used to hate it when the "grownups" all sat around and gabbed for hours on end. What could they possibly find to talk about for so long? When were we going to get to the good stuff, like football or wrestling? Jeez. But now, I find I am finally old and mature enough to appreciate a good conversation. And boy, was there ever some good conversation, lubricated by the copious amounts of beer. Yes, we'd come prepared. Any Christmas celebration of ours necessitates a prior trip to Homeplus a few days beforehand to buy up ingredients. By "ingredients" I mean not only the raw materials necessary for our dinner dishes, but also about eighty gallons of beer. We pretty much cleaned out the import section again. Hoegaarden (Adam and Jeff's favorite, from Belgium), Tsingtao (one of my preferred brands, of Chinese origin), Asahi (Japanese dry beer) and Cafri (cheap Korean brew) were all in plentiful supply, and we all partook heartily. Also, there's a special little concoction native to England that Adam introduced us to: Buck's Fizz. It's basically champagne (or just sparkling wine) with orange juice. Adam uses cava, the Spanish version of champagne, which is a lot cheaper and tastes just as good, if not better. The result is agreeable, goes down smooth and sweet, and just tastes like a holiday. I also made eggnog again...we all like it, but Adam's a fiend for it, bless his heart. I had to make a double batch just to keep the poor lad satisfied. I got the recipe out of The Bartender's Bible. Four eggs, a quart of milk, a third of a cup of sugar, two teaspoons of vanilla, and some nutmeg grated over the top of each cup. Bingo, an American Christmas special. In short, it was an awesome day and night. We went at it for twelve straight hours. I'm still collecting all my stuff from Adam and Elaine's apartment. The jolly, chummy experiences of those two happy days (and the gastrointestinal benefits) will never be forgotten.
Thursday, May 28, 2009
If you've been following the news, it seems North Korea has once again failed to (a) live up to its promises and (b) have any respect whatsoever for the United Nations, for it appears that it has once again fully restarted its nuclear program and has conducted an underground nuclear test and fired at least five missiles in the past week. Smoke and steam sightings lead some to believe that it has fired up its nuclear fuel processing plants again, which you may remember were demolished about a year ago now, right after I got here. Furthermore, North Korea has stepped up the bluster. It insists that it will respond with strong, "horrifying, incalculable" vengeance and military action should South Korea or the United States impede its shipping, or interfere in any other way. Yeah, right. Heard it before. I don't care if they mean it or not, though. I think we should take the bastards. I realize that the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan is not fully resolved, but I'm getting a stronger and stronger "Saddam Hussein" vibe from Kim Jong-Il here, and I think it's time he and his entire regime were removed from power, the dictatorial government dismantled and North and South finally reunified and placed under a democratic government. Furthermore (as I'm writing in my novel) I believe it is the duty of the most powerful (in this case, the United States) to forcibly effect such drastic action against an oppressed country under the brutal rule of an egomaniac. Moreover I don't want a nuke dropped on Busan when I'm sitting here less than fifty miles away on an unprotected island. So could the U.S. military kindly step in and stomp on those buggers before they get out of hand? Like, now? The North Koreans, by their own admission in their propagandist "newspapers," spit on U.N. sanctions. They're as ineffective as striking a rock with a rotten egg, as has been stated in the commentary section. Politics is not going to work here, people. It's time for hard, decisive action.
Tuesday, May 26, 2009
So here we are in 1392. The Joseon Dynasty has just been established. Joseon was the last great kingdom of Korea before that little thing we call "modern history" happened: you know, the Japanese invasions, World War II, the Chinese invasion, the Korean War, and what has followed after, leading to the foundation of the Republic of Korea. It was the longest-lasting Buddhist dynasty in Korea (roughly 500 years, until 1910); it saw the relocation of the capital to Seoul and the modern-day boundaries of Korea established (through subjugation of the aforementioned Jurchens to the north); and it heralded the height of Korean culture. It is to the Joseon Dynasty that modern-day Korea owes much of its customs, habits, thought processes, and etiquette...not to mention its very alphabet. Yep, Hangeul was created during the Joseon Dynasty. Mighty late, it's true. By order of Sejong the Great, one of the Joseon kings, the Hall of Worthies (a bunch of scholars) created the "great script." Sejong, you see, was a keen observer. He noticed that Chinese characters, which are ideographs, were proving to be rather tricky for the peasants and uneducated folk to deal with. So he ordered up a new alphabet that was easier to understand and write. The Hall of Worthies managed to crank it out in 1446, and spent the next few centuries trying to promulgate it. It did catch on eventually, though, and is now on every billboard and road sign in South Korea (although many signs are still to be found with the old Chinese characters, or Hanja as they're called in Korean, and some Koreans, like Charles, can still read them). It worked. According to Discovery magazine (as quoted by VANK), Korea now boasts the highest literacy rate in the world, thanks to Hangeul, which Discovery called "the most logical alphabet in the world." Today Hangeul is held to be one of the foremost among Korean achievements. Joseon was also foremost in the fields of architecture and shipbuilding, especially as regards to fortresses and battleships. Hwaseong Fortress was constructed in the late 1700s in Suwon, Gyeonggi-do Province (same province that Seoul's in). There are differing opinions for its construction. One theory is that it was built to commemorate the memory of Prince Sado, who was locked alive inside a rice chest (and thereby killed) after disobeying his father King Yeongjo's order to commit suicide. Prince or not, this seems like a mighty thin reason to build a whole dang fortress. I'm more inclined to believe that the fortress was built as a bastion against invasions such as those the Japanese daimyo Toyotomi Hideyoshi, leading a newly unified Japan, perpetrated against Joseon in the latter sixteenth century (otherwise known as the Imjin War). Some unique features of the fortress include:
- it was not built with coercion; rather, all those bourgeoisie involved were duly compensated with sacks of rice
- the fortress incorporated both Eastern and Western martial doctrines; whereas the normal Korean fort would've merely been a fortified wall, Hwaseong was replete with turrets, crossbow parapets, sentry towers, beacon towers, multiple gates, serried walls, and an inner keep
- a complete record of its instruction was written in 1800; and it was fortunately left lying around, for it proved to be invaluable for the reconstruction efforts after most of the fortress was destroyed in the Korean War
Saturday, May 23, 2009
Now that I've waited so long to tell you about the rest of Gyeongju that I actually went ahead and told you about something else unrelated to it (Jirisan), I'll finally finish. What follows is the account of my final hours in Gyeongju on the morning of May 4, 2009. I woke up the next day not in the least bewildered by the previous night's circumstances (it was only one beer, for Pete's sake). After some deliberation, I decided not to re-up for a fourth night and promptly checked out, hefting my heavy bag down to the main road to decide what to do next. It was here that I encountered my only real delay in regards to navigation. The dang tourist map was all out of proportion. Instead of being sensibly printed to scale, it was one of those nasty cartoonish affairs with sights and landmarks and activities all blown up and expanded, so they look closer together than they really are. The upshot of this irksome tendency is that blockheaded tourists like myself attempt a leisurely stroll to the nearest attraction, only to discover it's much farther away than anticipated. That's what happened to me when I set out to find Bunhwangsa (according to Wikipedia, that means "Fragrant Emperor Temple"), in which is housed a pagoda built by Queen Seondeok to commemorate a dead husband. Evidently she thought he smelled good. This pagoda... ...used to be nine layers tall, in fact, but due to weathering and wars and whatnot it's been reduced to a humble three. Nonetheless its architecture is unique. There are no fewer than two stone guardians carved at each entrance, and the whole design of the thing, though based on Chinese Tang Dynasty models, is Korean at heart. But that's neither here nor there. First I had to find the damn thing. My map said it was pretty much straight across from the National Museum. I strode out, bold as brass, and before I knew it I was out in the middle of nowhere, nearing the sticks. I couldn't detect the slightest trace of a temple anywhere, sweet-smelling or otherwise. Hot, sweaty and irked, I directed my steps eastward, and once I finally neared the National Museum I set my portmanteau down in the shade of a tree, plonked myself down on it, hauled out my map, and reconsulted it. Newly discovering that my destination was, in fact, a twenty-minute walk down a tree-lined road from the museum, I hailed a cab in disgust and peacefully handed over the several thousand won, just for the sake of getting there faster. It was a lovely sight, if not a very lengthy one. There were one or two buildings, a well, some lanterns strung up, the obligatory gift shop, a few trees and that was about it. Having spent less time in viewing this sacred artifact of a bygone time than I'd planned on, I vacillated. Head back to Gohyeon now, and spend the rest of the day vegetating? Or stick it out? Maximize my time in Gyeongju, the historical nexus of the Gyeongsang Provinces? Naturally I opted for the latter. I caught a cab back to the bus station (quite a distance, I was irritably gratified to learn) and then hopped on the next bus for Bomunho. What's Bomunho, you ask? Well, I'll tell you. It's a lake. Some kilometers east of Gyeongju proper, not quite as far as Bulguksa or Seokguram Grotto but a decent distance nonetheless, is a large, man-made lake set in between some scenic little hills. This area is the more hoidy-toidy, idealized version of grubby, short-stack downtown Gyeongju. (Seriously, the tumuli are the tallest buildings in that town.) That is to say, this is where the rich people go. The whole place is pretty much a resort. There are fancy hotels all along the lakefront (Hyundai, Lotte, even the Gyeongju Hilton). A fountain in the middle of the lake is nice and pretty and pointless. Shops and paved paths dot the shore. Paddleboats scud slowly across the water. Korean teens blow all their savings on rides and cotton candy at Gyeongju World, the theme park replete with Ferris wheels and roller coasters. And...there was this place. This is Gyeongju Expo Park, which I happened upon during the Millennium Car Show. After a little deliberation and some tantalizing glimpses... I caved and forked over nine thousand to get in. I wouldn't soon have cause to regret it. In addition to some of the killer cars they were showcasing... ...not to mention a few gorgeous Korean supermodels who were softening up the hard edges of the vehicles a bit... ...there was Gyeongju Tower! The sight of it alone titillated me into entering the park. It sat like a vast, jagged tooth, rising out of the ground as though newly upthrust from the craggy jaws of a dragon, looming over Bomunho Lake like a sentinel. I knew the view from up there was bound to be dynamite, so I hopped the elevator and went up. As if the view from the top of Gyeongju Tower wasn't good enough, the view of the top of Gyeongju Tower wasn't all that bad either. They had some archaeological exhibits set up that looked like they'd been scooped up from the National Museum a few kilometers over...ornaments, trinkets, roof tiles, platters, plates, carvings...plus this amazing diorama of the entire city when it was at its prime. I took a picture of it not only because it was phenomenal but also because I thought I might use it for the comic book later. After gawking for a while, inside and out, I headed back down and back out. I thought I'd take a stroll over to the lake and see the fun. To get there I had to cross the main drag, and then the river, in the bed of which people were happily renting ATVs and scooting up and down to their hearts' content. Soon, however, I'd bridged this gap and was under the comforting shade of the lakeside trees. I strolled along for a while, admiring the Western-style restaurants, the foliage, and the indulgence Koreans see fit to partake of whenever they've been sufficiently productive. The beautiful day was in full swing. Multitudes of children were riding around on little motorized cars and jeeps, bumping into each other and sending adults scurrying for cover. People sat on park benches and stared off into space. Families in minivans cruised slowly up and down the narrow, shady streets, searching for a parking spot. I threaded my way through all this and finally, overcome by the laid-back mood, settled down outside a small shop, bought two ice cream cones, and took the receiver off the hook for a bit. That was the end. I walked away from the lake, past the Gyeongju Hilton (where one of my students, whose father is some Samsung bigwig, was staying at that very moment), and back to the bus stop which would deliver me to Gyeongju, there to board the bus for Tongyeong (a three-hour ride, ugh) and another from thence to Gohyeon. I arrived safe and sound, if a little travel-worn, impressed at my travel prowess and resolve. In three days I'd seen what it took the Silla Dynasty the better part of a millennium to build. I'd walked in the shadows of history, stood in the hallowed halls of antique memory, been privileged to gaze upon the worn but untarnished past. My soul was wrung out, my mind singing. I won't soon forget it.
This requires a little prior explanation. Jirisan, as I may or may not have mentioned elsewhere, is the oldest national park in Korea. Founded in 1967, it is named after the large mountain (1,915 meters tall, or thereabouts) within it. Jirisan is part of the Baekdusan Range, which extends all the way into North Korea. The park itself contains not just one mountain but a whole bunch of them, connected by ridges and valleys. To hike the full ridge trail takes the better part of three days...it's 49 kilometers from one end to the other. The highest peak is Cheonwangbong, but there are numerous smaller peaks scattered all about. There are also temples, shelters, a few campgrounds, potable springs, and (closer to civilization) numerous hotels and private houses. Second, gorp is another word for trail mix. It's a ridiculous word, and I don't like it myself. But it's stuck. Why am I telling you this? Well, because Jeff and I encountered consumed copious amounts of gorp this weekend, when we climbed Jirisan. Or tried to, anyway...we didn't have much luck. I mean we didn't have much luck climbing Jirisan, not consuming gorp. We had elected to reach the summit of Jirisan, the tallest mountain in the park, its namesake, located on the eastern edge of the park itself. Cheonwangbong, the peak, stood at about 1900 meters...a far cry from Gyeryongsan at 566 meters. (Gyeryongsan is the mountain just behind my apartment, which we all climbed back in autumn.) That disparity would haunt us. We awoke at four o'clock in the morning, so we could make the six o'clock bus to Jinju, a town of some size two hours northwest of Geoje, at the veritable gates of the park. We had stayed up late the previous night, planning and calculating a route, as well as logistics like supplies, tents, sleeping bags, routes, maps, guidance, shelter, water, and so on. That meant that we got only four hours of sleep. We catnapped on the bus, but it didn't work out. I detest buses, for reasons I've mentioned elsewhere, and this bus was no exception. It lurched, swerved, and roared like a bull at a rodeo. But, finally we were deposited at the Jinju bus terminal, on an overcast but nonetheless dry day. Having forgotten to purchase bread the previous night, we were in possession of peanut butter and jelly but no sandwiches, which we'd planned to make in advance and eat on the trail. Fortunately, contemporary Korean culinary custom was on our side. We easily located a bakery, purchased bread, and sat down and made twelve hulking PBJs. The reason we had time to do this was because we missed the nine o'clock bus from Jinju to the trailhead at Jirisan, and we forced to wait one whole hour for the next run. After a one-hour bus ride (we were the only ones forced to put our enormous backpacks in the storage compartment, and there were several people aside from us who had 'em), we arrived at Jungsan-ri, a traditional village at the base of the mountains. I'd love to be able to show you some photographs, but I can't, the intriguing explanation for which I shall divulge later on. After first thinking that we'd come to the wrong spot (due to the large sign out in front of the convenience store that read SACHEONG instead of JUNGSAN-RI (the name of the district instead of the town), we got all set to go. Jeff relieved himself while I purchased a flashy red bandanna at the shop for ₩4,000. Then we hoisted our packs and set off up the hill to the trailhead proper. We got a little bit lost at first; we followed what we thought was the trail instead of the road, and wound up in somebody's field; but we eventually came to the trailhead and the information center, where we got a map. By this time it was 11:30, but we were in possession of our PBJs and a map. We thought nothing could stop us. And so we climbed. The trail was intensely, and I do mean intensely, rocky and steep. There was hardly ever just a flat patch of dirt or trail to step on; 99% of the time we were clambering over rocks, jumping from rock to rock, or more often traversing them like staircases, so drastic was the incline. There were some lovely sights to be seen along the way...Kalbawi, a gigantic rock sitting by the river, just off the trial, had been split by the action of water and ice and was now an enormous two-pronged monolith standing quietly in the verdant forest. Again, I took some pictures and would have shown you some here, but I have not yet related to you the reason in its proper place. The actual climb itself doesn't warrant further description. Suffice it to say that the forest was extraordinarily beautiful and multifarious, at times resembling a jungle with bamboo and ferns (whence tigers once roamed, and some say still do, not to mention the actual and elusive Korean bears who make this forest their home). At others times I might've been walking along any trail back home in the States, so familiar was the flora. A marvelous cool breeze began to rustle among the leaves as we ascended, and cooled our heated, sweaty brows as we toiled up and up the ridiculous slope. The bandanna I'd purchased was earning its keep; I'd wrapped it around my neck, where it was soaking up the torrential runoff from my head. Eventually we made it four kilometers up the side of the mountain, to Beopgyesa, a Buddhist temple, and the Rotary Shelter nearby. It was two kilometers further to the summit. The trail, populated with people but not crowded, opened out to a clearing with trees, rocks, the shelter, the temple, and even a helipad (from which a small helicopter was busy going to and fro; we surmised that it was delivering supplies to the temple). All this was perched precariously on the side of the mountain. (This would have been a lovely place for a photograph.) There was a multitude of people here, resting, eating, and going to and fro. We found a big, flattish rock and spread out our lunch. It was 4:30 already. We'd lost more time than we'd thought on the climb, and were already beginning to have doubts about our ability to reach the summit. Our plans kept changing, too. If we could get a room at the shelter, our success was assured; we could reach the summit and then retreat a mere two kilometers to safety. If the shelter was not open, we faced a difficult decision; turn back and camp at the foot of the mountain, whence was located the only camping site; or try our luck summiting anyway and trying to scout out a camping site for ourselves, which was not only iffy, but highly illegal. Things weren't looking good. After we finished lunch we set off. I was nearing the end of my rope. My lungs were fine, but my legs felt like rubber. Each step became a trial in and of itself, where before only individual slopes had posed a challenge. Not long after departing the shelter, after a particularly brutal ascent (necessitating a climb over a steep boulder with the aid of a rope), we reached a vista. It was a flat table of rock overlooking the entire valley, including the ridges we'd traversed to get here, and the village vaguely visible in the distance. In the light of the sun (already descending quickly) it was sublime. I reached for my camera and discovered it wasn't there. The bag was intact, but the camera was nowhere to be found. I didn't know what else to do but go search for it, causing us another costly delay. Leaving Jeff at the vista with the backpacks, I forced my aching body into a headlong run back down the trail, casting my eyes to the side at every juncture for the missing appliance. I didn't find it. I became convinced I must've left it at the shelter where we'd had lunch; that was the last time I remembered having it. I had to stop and wait for the helicopter to take off before I could get back to the shelter, however...a delay inside of a delay, maddening. I was brought up short by a Korean in a red shirt and red gloves who held out a hand like a traffic cop. I looked up and noticed the helicopter was just on the hilltop above me, not thirty yards away, revving up to go. The noise and wind were tremendous. After a length of time that only seemed interminable, the whirlybird lifted off and I resumed my headlong dash along the trail. The camera was nowhere to be found at the shelter. I searched all around the rock, along the trail, everywhere. I even yelled out in Korean if anybody had seen a Fujifilm camera...? I got no reply. I got a few funny looks and then everybody went back to their business. Cursing Korean social customs for the first time since my arrival here, I resumed my run...back in the direction of Jeff and the backpacks. Along the way, pausing for a rest, panting, a trio of concerned middle-aged Koreans (who must've thought I was desperately trying to summit before sunset, and that I had reached the end of my endurance) stopped and told me there wasn't time, only increasing my distress. They even offered me water (I must've looked like hell), which I politely refused. I only resumed my run. I found Jeff sitting on his hunkers looking contemplatively over the valley, his arms cupped in his hands as though he were cold. After some discussion we elected to keep going. We made it a few hundred yards further on up the excruciatingly steep and rocky trail before we met a Korean party coming back down from the summit. One of them spoke very articulate English, and so we asked him if there was time left yet to summit. He looked at his watch, told us he reckoned it was two hours to the summit from where we were...a definite no. We asked about buses back to Jinju and he said they were probably all gone. Jeff and I looked at each other, discussed our situation quietly, and then wisely elected to give up the summit. It would've been stupid to keep pushing ourselves in our condition, and it was pointless to reach the summit after dark anyway, not to mention that it would have made our descent infinitely more hazardous. So we went back to the shelter, inquired about rooms; finding there were none, we punished our brains and our bodies (and Jeff's re-swelling ankle; he injured it a while back and it didn't heal right, and our climb had aggravated it) into descending all that steep and rocky way that night. It was almost as bad, if not worse, than the ascent, and it seemed to take infinitely longer. My calves, thighs, knees and ankles went from smoldering and aching to numb and metallic. I began to view my task rock-by-rock; just get over this one, Andy. Just get over that one. My brain had been shut off. There was nothing in the world but the climb. Even my exhaustion and thirst took a backseat. We had plenty of water, but no matter how much I drank I was still thirsty. Gorp would not satisfy, even though we'd consumed lots of it on the trail up. We were rather depressed as well, seeing as how we'd failed to reach the top; such failures work subtle but insidious harm on a man's mind and ego. Eventually, though, we cheered up again. To take our minds off our aches and pains (mental and physical) we started singing crude parodies of pop songs, all on the subject of gorp. Some of the less inane were: "Para comer la gorpa!" (La Bamba, Richie Valens) "Gorpin' with the deviiiiiiiiiiiiiil..." (Runnin' with the Devil, Van Halen) "I ain't sayin' she's a gorp digger, but she ain't messin' with no trail mix..." (Golddigger, Kanye West) In addition to this, we also came up with what seemed like truly witty gorp-related sayings to our sagging brains. Some exemplary gems were:
- Gorpin' it real
- Gorped out
- Gorpin' on over
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
Here's the recipe first, and then the rigmarole.
- 1½ ounces vodka
- ½ ounce cherry brandy
- 1 ounce lemon juice
- 1 maraschino cherry
Saturday, May 16, 2009
I awoke on the morning of the second day (the first full day) in Gyeongju, the "museum without walls"...or perhaps it is more appropriate to say that I came to myself. Sleep is a liberal word for what I did in that room. It was so hot and stuffy in there that I hardly got any rest at all. I had to kick the covers off and just sleep on the bare mattress. I did snatch a little rest, however. I got up, re-dressed (I'd slept in the previous day's clothes), arrayed myself with water and camera once again, and advanced boldly to the nearest bus station. It was my plan to see Bulguksa, the famous Buddhist temple some 16 kilometers east of Gyeongju, and Seokguram Grotto, an even more well-known monument, an enormous Buddha presiding over the eastern face of the mountains behind the aforementioned temple. I expected it to take all day. If I had any time left over, however, I figured I'd just go the rest of the way to the East Sea (the Sea of Japan) and view the sea-tomb of King Munmu, said to be the only underwater tomb in the world. It was at the bus stop where one of those fateful international travel meetings occurred. I bumped into a fellow foreigner. Actually, he struck up a conversation with me...not in my usual mold at all. I'm usually the more amiable one who starts talking first, but he just sauntered up and said hello. His name was Jerry. He was taller than I was, fair-skinned, with curly, almost frizzy brown hair and a few freckles. His accent was difficult to place. It definitely sounded as though it originated in the U.K. somewhere, but there was something off-kilter about it. It was the same sort of confusion I'd experienced in trying to place Adam and Elaine's accents upon first meeting them. But Jerry wasn't a Geordie. He revealed himself to be German-Irish (born in Germany, raised in Ireland, bilingual...no wonder I'd been having trouble). He was a friendly fellow. He was on vacation from a teaching job in Japan, and had picked Korea as the cheapest destination. We were both headed to Bulguksa and Seokguram Grotto, so naturally we decided to stick together and go venturing as a duo. That was a happy decision; the day was made so much more fun and memorable for it. After a twenty-minute bus ride we were in the main parking lot before the temple, in the foothills of the mountains. The day, partly cloudy in Gyeongju proper, had degenerated into a sort of sullen overcast. The ground was soggy and muddy, but at least the sun wasn't beating down as we climbed the wide causeway up the hill to the entrance of the temple. There were some beautiful ponds, ringed with pines and weeping willows, into which quiet waterfalls were trickling with a cheery sound. We passed the gate, and the four imposing temple guardians which guarded it with massive weapons and snarling visages, and entered the temple proper. Inside the temple it was a zoo. It seemed the traffic I had endured on the bus ride to Gyeongju hadn't passed this place up. It was, as I mentioned before, a double-holiday weekend. Indeed, the monks had strung the entire temple complex up with multicolored paper lanterns in recognition of Buddha's Birthday, an amazing feat, as the temple was of no small size. And so Jerry and I began to wander; up this hill, down that staircase, across the other courtyard. It was an impressive place, and bigger than Bongeunsa in Seoul, if I was any judge of size. I peeked inside the temple buildings (I didn't take any photos out of deference to the monks' wishes), and though the architecture was not as grand nor complex as Bongeunsa's had been, it still invoked awe and reverence. In the central courtyard were the two pagodas whose replicas I had seen at the National Museum the previous day: Dabotap and Seokgatap. Dabotap was swathed in a scaffolding, wreathed with opaque sheets of burlap; there was some kind of renovation or restoration going on, I guessed. But Seokgatap, the plainer of the two obelisks but nonetheless impressive, was revealed in all its glory. We wandered on, out of the crowd, and passed through the remainder of the temple. There was something odd I hadn't been able to put my finger on at first, but it was just about then, as we were exiting the central courtyard, that I realized it. I hadn't seen a single monk. They were nowhere in sight. Only the uniformed exhibit guards, clothed like the priests but not shaved bald and obviously not part of the doctrine, were present in the temple that day, it seemed. Jerry and I tossed around various explanations for this, the most convincing and least insulting of which held that the monks went under hatches on big tour days like this and came out again to clean up the mess afterwards and get on with the monking business. We passed some intriguing and, I'm ashamed to admit, inexplicable sights. I always have wondered how journalists and writers manage to divine the purpose for or origin of the strange customs and phenomena they witness during their peregrinations. I suppose the obvious answer is that they ask. I am neither sufficiently fluent in Korean nor resilient enough against the half-imagined potential for ridicule to ask that kind of question aloud, so I either resort to inane guesswork or merely present facts as I see them for the reader to interpret. I'll do better next time, I promise. One of the inexplicable sights Jerry and I witnessed was this: People had collected bunches of loose, oblong, amorphous rocks in this one place and had stacked them up into intricate little piles. I've seen these tiny, precarious cairns in several other places around Korea since then (all of them outdoors) and can only assume they have something to do with good luck or good health. And then we were on our way out. I couldn't just leave one of the most famous Buddhist temples in Korea without some kind of proof, and if that proof could also serve as a good-luck charm for whatever harrowing circumstances or imbroglios I might find myself entangled in years down the road, so much the better. To that end, I stopped in at the gift shop and purchased, for two thousand won, this little number. It's a yeomju, a Buddhist wish-maker and protection-giver. It saves you from evil, and you can also make wishes on it, if I'm not mistaken. The larger varieties can fit around the gearshift of your car, for the stimulation of beneficent vehicular fortune. We had bigger fish to fry. After departing Bulguksa, we made a quick stop by the tourist information booth to obtain the route up the mountain to Seokguram Grotto, a UNESCO World Heritage site and home of an enormous carved stone Buddha, seated in an artificially buried temple facing east from the mountain face to the Sea of Japan (sorry, the East Sea, as the Koreans call it). We got the route, but missed it. Somehow or other we wound up walking up the road. Fortunately we realized our mistake and turned back after a kilometer or two; otherwise we'd have been walking uphill for five hours. We retraced our steps, went a little ways back toward the temple, and finally found the correct trail. On our way up (it was not hot, but the trail was steep, and we got quite sweaty) we discovered this! It's a spring, a spring of fresh mountain water trickling down the mountainside. We both drank of it. It was largely tasteless, but fresh. Seeing as how I couldn't drink the tap water back in Gohyeon, drinking from a source of water welling up out of the ground was quite novel to me at that point. I know what you're thinking. The whole effect is rather tarnished by the rubber hose sticking out the dragon's mouth and the cell phone advertisement on the sign board. But what are you going to do? This is Korea. Not long after this (thank goodness) we were at the top. Not quite the summit, mind you, but the top. From here it was an easy walk along the ridge line to the grotto. Or at least, it would have been, if it weren't for the line. I'm speaking of the humongous line of people waiting to get in to see the grotto. By some cosmic twist of fate, there was a troublesomely large number of people trying to see this Gyeongju attraction as well. I am, of course, being extremely sarcastic. Of course there were a lot of people here. It was a holiday weekend, and this was another scenic wonder of Gyeongju (and Korean National Treasure No. 24), for Pete's sake. I don't know much about who built it or why, but it was truly astounding close-up. Recessed into the grotto, barely swimming up out of the shadows and dim electric light, loomed the enormous figure of the Enlightened One, his head geometrically aligned with the lotus flower or sun thingy or whatever it was on the grotto wall behind him, presiding silently over the assembled company (and indeed, the entire countryside) as he had been for some time, and might conceivably continue doing for eternity. This was one of the few times during my trip to Gyeongju that I, desensitized to temporal displacement by fiction and literature, felt properly awed by the weight of ages. I remained respectful to the wishes of the curators and took no pictures. Perhaps it's best to let my memory stand on that count. A brief glimpse, the thrill of rarity and antiquity, an achievement after a long trial (we did climb the mountain by ourselves, when there was bus up the mountainside we could've taken)...and then we passed on. Predictably, as we made our way down the trail back to the parking lot at the trailhead, the line had disappeared. Figures. Due to our dwindling amount of time that day, Jerry and I elected to take the bus back down the hill. After a 20-minute wait, we accomplished this; after another 20-minute wait, we got the bus back to Gyeongju. We immediately resolved to set out for the Sea Tomb of King Munmu, as we'd previously discussed; but it was already dinnertime, and the sun was getting low in the sky; Bus 150 wasn't showing itself. We had just barely missed it as we got off in Gyeongju. We wouldn't have time to get 20 kilometers back east to the ocean in time to see the tomb in the glory of sunset, so we decided to skip it, and returned to Tumuli Park instead. Well, I returned...Jerry hadn't seen it yet. I'm ever so glad he came up with the idea of touring it by evening. My first look at it (visible in some of the pictures I've posted), under the leaden gray skies, was not encouraging. Now, lit by the glorious brilliance of the evening sun, it was a far cheerier and more satisfying sight indeed. We toured the whole park, strolling around in the warm, still evening air, the park itself filled with families and field trips and tour groups and even some other foreigners. I took loads more pictures; I had to recapture everything I'd photographed in the previous day's drabness. As an added bonus, the line to get into Cheonmachong (the Heavenly Horse Tomb, remember?) wasn't so prohibitively long that evening, so after we'd finished with the rest of the park we got in line and managed to get inside in what could reasonably called, by Korean standards, a jiffy. It was impressive inside. Once again, I took no photographs as per regulations, but I think I can muster up a decently florid description. They'd scooped out the inside of one of the tumuli, cross-sectioning half of it so that the king (whoever he was) and his tomb, remains and all, would be visible, as well as the striations of dirt and gravel used in the construction of the mound. They'd put in hard cement flooring, added a ventilation system and stainless steel gates, and in the inner walls of the mound (opposite the king's wooden burial chamber), they'd placed display cases with artifacts recovered from the tomb. There was drinking ware, and personal trinkets, and equestrian equipment, very well preserved. The Heavenly Horse Tomb, in fact, was named for the insignia found emblazoned on some of the saddles and saddle blankets found in the tomb. Standing there in that tomb, the dark vault of the mound's interior arching over my head, the almost religious half-light of the displays playing over my face, the very casket of the royal family within arm's reach, the weight of ages pressing down upon my shoulders...I could hear the voice of the king.
"Hey, what's the big idea?! I was sleeping peacefully in here until you bozos came along, scooped out my mound, stuck in some tasteful mood lighting and dropped a glass partition through my casket! Who the heck d'you think you are? God, as if subduing the entire Korean peninsula wasn't enough, now I have to donate twelve hours of my precious afterlife every day so moon-eyed tourists can waddle through my resting place and gawk at my treasures? At my very remains?! Whose brilliant idea was that? How did my tomb get picked for this kind of sacrilege anyway?"Indeed, it was hard for me to reconcile the two extremes: a Korea that claims to care deeply about and take pride in its long and time-honored history, and a Korea that turns its tombs into tourist traps. Don't get me wrong: there's nothing vitriolic in my musings. I lay blame on no one; I am not attempting to lambaste the commercial world we live in. I am merely speculating, and I invite you to do so as well. After this we headed north briefly (passing through Noseodong once again)... ...and wound up in the central downtown area of Gyeongju, whence began the bars and restaurants. After a little reconnoitering we finally decided on Pyeongyang, a restaurant whose name bears a vague resemblance to the North Korean capital. Any similarities to Communism ended there, however. The food was good (we had beef marinated in soy sauce, grilled over a bed of coals at our table, Korean style), the place was cozy, and even though we didn't have beer or soju, it was still a unique enough experience to indoctrinate Jerry with. He was used, as he admitted, to Japanese cuisine, which is somewhat bland compared to Korean food, I understand. Korean food is spicy. All of it. Pretty darn spicy, too, by most people's standards. I supposed I'd gotten used to it, or else my upbringing, fraught as it was with spicy food (my dad's a fiend for Mexican, particularly red chili sauce) has dulled my sensitivity. Things only improved from there, if that were possible. Retracing my route from the previous day almost to the letter (with the exception of the Gyeongju National Museum), Jerry and I proceeded to tour Wolseong Park and Anapji Pond...after dark. Nocturne, Korean style. It was transcendently beautiful. Some clever electrician had rigged up the whole of the Wolseong tumuli and the fringe of trees lining the old fortress walls with floodlights. Not only that, but they'd gone on and done it to Anapji Pond, too. The restored pagodas were lit up like skyscrapers on a holiday, and the pleasant little woodland surrounding the pond was splashed with luminescence of the most lurid and astounding kind. Even the little well, the washing-pond I'd noticed earlier in the day (and that I begged you to take note of) was brightened up with a series of submarine lights that changed colors every half-minute or so: first vivid red, then deepest blue, now warmly purple and green. And that was just about the end of our little adventure together, Jerry and I. We stopped in for a beer at the London Pub... ...and in deference to his hostel's probable curfew we split just before 11:00 p.m. We returned on sore legs and aching feet to our respective accommodations: he at the Hanjin, and myself right across the road at the forty-grand-per-night yeokwon I'd selected. We said our goodbyes, promised to meet up on Facebook, and departed as friends. The day was infinitely better for his company.