Monday, 1 October 2012

I then set off across a bridge spanning the Han river, a fitting enough watercourse for a metropolis of more than 10 million souls. Along the other side it was just as well to have shelter from an extended stretch of fly-over, since the rain was coming down in cats and dogs, conditions in which it was encouraging to see not only numerous fishermen but large fish themselves, hurling themselves about in the river, though i also saw a number of carcasses. In the afternoon the rain eased off, but overcome with fatigue i took another nap, this time in a sheltered car park. Then in the evening i made it out of Seoul, and stopped at an authentic Korean restaurant for supper, where the waitress parked me down on a mat on the floor, and showed me how to eat Korean food. Partly this involved taking large leaves from the heaps of salad placed in front of me, and using them to pick up morsels which one transfers to a range of tasty dips, usually having something to do with fish – a technique which reminded me of Syria, where the local flat bread serves a similar purpose. Opposite the Catholic church in Gwacheon i snuck over a makeshift safety barrier intended to stop people going near a swollen river, which enabled me to bed down fairly successfully and without being disturbed under a pedestrian bridge.

   On the next day, Monday 4th July, dedicated to St Elizabeth of Portugal, i arrived only in time for the final blessing of the 6am Mass at the church, but was glad to be able to make use of the facilities for a cursory wash. The weather then was brighter and less muggy; a lady could be seen carrying a parasol rather than an umbrella as i made my way through the peaceful high-rise commuter-belt, noting a new kind of yellow-and-blackbird, and huge blue-black butterflies the size of sparrows. One also encountered squadrons of dragonflies, Korea being a place where they can be seen flying in formation (only joking about that bit).

Hwaseong Fortress, Suwon.
  The centre of the town of Suwon, which i reached in late afternoon, is contained within the crenellated ramparts of the fairy tale-like Hwaseong fortress, dating from the late 18th century[1] though extensively rebuilt after damage in the Korean War. There was a big library where i could have a go on the internet, after which i ended up spending the night, partially obscured by reeds, under the walls of one of the numerous handsome towers and turrets that stud the fortress at intervals along its parapet. Thankfully there was no rain, so i got away quite early on the morning of Tuesday 5th July, enjoyed a free cup of coffee in a cafe, and reached a satellite town under construction, where it took considerable effort to extricate my foot from some very thick mud. The sun then pounded down quite mercilessly as i reached a forested/jungle area near there, and took a nap in a glade next to an old cemetery, where there was a flock of woodpeckers. After that it was a bit of a palaver to find the best way forward, since the high-speed expressway was unwalkable, but eventually i found a parallel track through farmland, leading underneath the big road and west towards my goal. I was given a free bottle of water at a shop on the way, and came to the shrine of Our Lady of the Rosary of Namyang at about 10.30pm, finding an ideal spot to put down my sleeping bag, on a wooden platform under shelter next to the car park. 

   On the morning of Wednesday 6th July, dedicated to St Maria Goretti[2], i entered the grounds of the shrine, and left my bags in a shed for gardening implements at the back of a small chapel. In beautiful sunshine i then made my way along the 'rosary way', through immaculately tended gardens, laid out around a sort of bowl created by steep surrounding hills. Great big granite spheres represent each bead of the rosary. Like the church at Saenamteo, the shrine is built on a site where an unknown number of Koreans were martyred for their Christian faith. Of the origins of Christianity in Korea, Blessed John Paul II had this to say in Seoul in May 1984, as he marked the occasion of the canonisation of the Korean Martyrs:

“Yearning for an ever greater share in the Christian faith, your ancestors sent one of their own in 1784 to Peking, where he was baptized. From this good seed was born the first Christian community in Korea, a community unique in the history of the Church by reason of the fact that it was founded entirely by lay people. This fledgling Church, so young and yet so strong in faith, withstood wave after wave of fierce persecution. Thus, in less than a century, it could already boast of some ten thousand martyrs. The years 1791, 1801, 1827, 1839, 1846 and 1866 are forever signed with the holy blood of your Martyrs and engraved in your hearts.”

[1]  The King of Korea at that time, Jeongjo, had in mind to transfer the capital from Seoul to Suwon, and the fortress was built using the most sophisticated available technology. But in fact it was consciously intended to nullify the threat from Japanese invaders, based on Korea’s experience of 200 years previously, and it looks literally centuries behind the times. On account of her scrupulous avoidance of contacts with any outside countries except China, to whom she was effectively a client state, Korea in this period is sometimes referred to as the ‘Hermit Kingdom’, though the term was only coined in the late 19th century, perhaps because until that time, such a myopic outlook did not greatly distinguish her from Japan.
[2] Born in Corinaldo, Ancona, Italy in 1890, she was just 12 years old when a 19 year-old acquaintance threatened to kill her if she refused to grant him sexual favours. Saying that she would rather die, she was stabbed repeatedly by her assailant, but before dying of her injuries, she had time to tell her family that she forgave the attacker and wished to see him in heaven. He went to prison and was unrepentant for three years, but then had a change of heart, and after release from prison was actually among the 500,000 who gathered at St Peters in Rome for her canonisation in 1950. He spent his last years as a lay member of a Capuchin Franciscan community.

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