Monday, 1 October 2012

Over coffee on the morning of Friday 8th July, in a French-style bakery place, i reflected on the abundance of essential and non-essential foods in South Korea, in contrast to the desperate shortages that have sometimes afflicted the North. At a tourist information centre i then asked about the local must-sees. Presented with a free tourist map, the assistant told me how to catch a bus to the Bulguksa (Buddhist) temple complex.

Bulguksa temple complex, Gyeongju
   Another UNESCO World Heritage site, Bulguksa was built in the 8th century, though many of its wooden buildings suffered severe damage at the hands of Japanese marauders in the late 16th century. Painstaking reconstruction took place in the 1960s and 70s, while the stone edifices, including two beautiful pagodas called Dabotap and Seokgatap, remain in their original condition. Among the things crying out to be photographed were a great, intricately carved wooden fish, and numerous outstanding examples of the ‘curled-up-at-the-corners’ roofing. There was also a pair of elaborately dressed, life-sized wooden figurines; one a man playing a kind of mandolin, the other a warrior, with his sword drawn menacingly – as if he’s about to kill you, while the banjo-player provides the soundtrack. I then took another bus journey of about 4 kilometres to a car park near the top of Mt Tohamsan, catching sight of a chipmunk on the way. Before ascending on foot to Gyeongju’s other great 8th century marvel, Seokguram grotto, i availed myself of a coin-operated spy glass, through which i could see the Pacific Ocean[1] for the first time. Then i took the winding path, with tourists from all round the world as well as native Koreans, through jungle-like forest to the spectacular shrine. A sort of cupola has been built into the mountain-side around a majestic statue of Buddha; at the museum in Seoul, a computer graphic showed the extraordinary sophistication in the way this was done. Besides the embrace of Buddhism, the flowering of Silla civilisation in the 7th to 10th centuries appears to have been tied closely to an extension of the Silk Road[2] into the Korean peninsula, whereby Gyeongju became its eastern terminus. Munmu was the name of the great king who facilitated this, by unifying the ‘three kingdoms’, and then successfully expelling the Tang Chinese forces who had helped him. If one sees in this an outline of Korea’s pre-eminent domestic and foreign policy considerations, the picture is completed by Munmu’s will, which stipulated:

“When I die, take my ashes to the East Sea. I will become a dragon and protect Silla against Japanese raiders.”

   Tourists are not allowed to take photographs of greatly revered Buddhas like this one, but we could peer into the grotto from a viewing platform at the front, captivated by its graceful proportions, before enjoying the view towards the sea from outside. On the way back to the car park i saw another chipmunk, and enjoyed a conversation with a young English-speaking visitor from the island of Jeju, off the south coast. My idea then was to find a hiking trail that was supposed to lead off from the main road, in order to try to reach the sea, but either the map or (more likely) my ability to read it was wrong, so i ended up returning, on foot, to the Bulguksa temple complex. After dark i had a tasty pot noodle for supper, before being kindly escorted by two concerned local ladies to an eminently affordable and welcoming youth hostel. 

Tree frog
   There were some exceptionally heavy downpours overnight and throughout the day on Saturday 9th July, so i lingered in front of a computer at a tourist information centre before getting away. I’d been hoping to walk all or most of the way from there to Busan, South Korea’s second city on the south coast, from where i was due to catch my ferry for Japan, but hiking a less than spectacular distance that day put me on notice that i’d soon need to make use of China’s most famous invention again[3]. A little abandoned porta-cabin behind a petrol station made an ideal place to spend the night, near to which i took photos of some tiny tree frogs, no doubt thriving in the wet conditions.

[1] Or to be precise the ‘East Sea’, aka the ‘Sea of Japan’.
[2] The Silk Road is often also mentioned in the context of Kazakhstan, and specifically Almaty, which was at one time a significant trading post on the Road.
[3] The wheel.

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