Our family

Entries in South Korea (3)


Alone in Korea...

A World Heritage site in the morning, how to spend the afternoon? I don't think I'd be the only one to assume it'd have to be another World Heritage site.

This one was Changdeokgung, built from 1405-1412 by the Joeson kings. It is an enormous palace complex, with multiple buildings and squares, pathways and gardens, all enclosed by a long wall. Very traditional North-East Asian style buildings with the classical oriental roof. I had to go on a tour to enter (there must be no tourists in Korea, only three English-speaking tours a day and only a handful of people turned up).

Right at the start is Korea's oldest stone bridge (built in 1411), then we wandered through the King's throne hall and bedroom. There were also stone counters where the Nobles lined up, numbered so they could line up according to rank, with military on one side and civic on the other side.

Most of the buildings are not as old as the complex, as they have burnt down multiple times. Outside the King's bedroom there were four old brass pots full of water, for just this reason. Not to put out fires, but rather to act as mirrors. Turns out that fire ghosts are very ugly, such that if they fly over the mirror and see their own reflection they die from horror, hence no fires. Also of interest in the King's bedroom is that unlike every other building it has no roof ridge (hmm... not sure what to call it? On a ship it would be a keel), because the roof ridge represents the dragon/god, and the King is a dragon/god, and two dragons is one to many. Also, the King's bedroom had no furniture, because it gave something for Japanese ninjas to hind behind when trying to kill the King. This happened a lot anyway.

I also walked through a doorway carved from a single stone block. It used to be reserved for the King alone, and inscribed above it was "never grow old" to grant the Kings eternal youth. However the average Joeson King (there were twenty four) had a life expectancy of 46 (mostly assassination), so I guess you could interpret the message in several ways. I should watch out in 21 years time for Japanese ninjas.

Also of interest was a replica of a Noble's house. The King was so out of touch with people that to find out how the Nobles lived he had a Noble's palace built on the grounds for him to play dress-up in.

My favourite part was the Biwon (secret garden). One of the Kings (like a good Confucian) decided to have a study glade built, with a library and a reading pagoda overhanging a scenic lotus pond (with an island with Chinese Juniper trees in the middle). It still amazes me that Confucism, a religion which forces Nobles to spend their entire life studying as part of their civic duty to those that owe them allegiance, managed to stay the State religion in many countries for hundreds of years (500 years in Korea). I guess it goes to show that social duty is a strong force once invoked, because the benefits are obvious. One of the Kings spent his reign inventing a written language for Korean. He boasted (and many modern linguists agree) that you can learn the alphabet in a day, since each letter (there are only 11 I think) is written in the shape the tongue forms when saying the sound it represents.

Afterwards I wandered around Iseong. I sat down for dinner in Dimibang, which Lonely Planet described vegetarian. They called it a 'Herbal Restaurant', which considering the extensive seafood and beef menu, I think is more accurate than vegetarian. I had to point again, but I ended up with a huge plate of tofu, pickled cucumber, radish and chilli-covered raw onion. They kept on filling up dishes I finished. The place was gorgeous, with beautiful furniture and a traditional Korea atmosphere. They had a TV on with a hippo documentary and then Kim Possible. An amazing day in a new culture, seeing history come to life, and I was all alone. I drank my beer by myself, wrote a postcard, and wandered off.



I woke up very early this morning to go to Suwon. Piece of cake - take line 3 to line 1 (make sure it is line 1 that continues south not west) then transfer to bus 13 to the Suwon fortress. Who needs language to use a subway? I am very good at subways now, they are so easy and truly the sign of civilisation. They don't have turnstyles at their stations, relying on the honour system for people to pay. Very nice, I guess that is what happens when you have a society infused with Confucian principles. At one point I became worried when a guy hopped on and start to announce. It looked important. He held up a sign. People looked at him. Then he started to sell hair ties. It was all okay.

Suwon was great. Meant to be a little town, but it was huge, it had all of those domino-style highrises that you see in South East Asian hubs.

I caught a taxi to the fortress. You would have thought that "free interpretation" (written in English) on a taxi would imply English speaking, but sadly no. Maybe it meant Japanese? There are a few (only a few) Japanese tourists here, but almost no western tourists. Luckily I had a picture of the fortress in my book that I could point at. Surely Suwon doesn't have so many attractions that a World Heritage site isn't the obvious place to take someone?

Very odd, a World Heritage site with no souvenirs or postcards, no tourists, just some locals sitting quietly or doing exercises. Very novel. Very nice. The taxi driver dropped me off at the best bit (not the bit Lonely Planet mentioned). Beautiful wooded hills with ramparts and forts lining them, rising up to the summit of Mt Paldal. The rampart is 5.7km long. Hwaseong Fortress was built between 1794 and 1796 under the reign of King Jeongjo (in honour of his father killed by being locked up in a rice basket - such is life). 80% of the fortress is intact, and much was been restored, making it a very impressive structure. The city continues through the fortress, but along the walls you can pretend it doesn't. It looks quite like Tallinn, except with pagoda-style roofs on the fortifications. There are four Jeokdae (gateguard platforms), two observation towers, two Dongjangde (command posts), five firearms bastions, five sentry towers, five secret gates (what fortress is complete without secret gates? They were cool), two floodgates (the south was destroyed though), a beacon tower, two nodae (multiple-arrow launcher platforms and a 170m bastion. Only seven of the fortifications were destroyed. Walking up and down hills for several hours in 35 degree weather made me sweat litres  but I got to see cuckoos (ugly little heads but beautiful blue feathers) and this wonderful fortress. I also saw an odd squirrel. The only let down was the South Gate (that Lonely Planet recommends), designated National Treasure #402, as are most historical National Treasures that are now the centre of round-a-bouts. Much preferred National Treasure #403. What are those beautiful Japanese trees that make up the woods?


South Korea

My holiday officially starts, a flight to Seoul. Yet again there was no vegetarian food on the plane, but this was made up for by the stickers "don't wake", "wake for food" and "wake for duty free" that I could stick on myself. I read Kris's two Russian books, and started on the history of 1812. Read Seoul Lonely Planet again. Became shocked when the whole plane put their arms in the air, then worked out that they were simply all doing the recommended exercises. Synchronised.

Hubris makes me attempt to use public transport to go from airport to hotel in a new country. The bus trip to the city worked out okay, but the map was useless to find the actual hotel! To be fair the map couldn't have been helpful anyway, due to the lack of names for the relevant streets. I wandered up and down for an hour, with my heavy backpack, sweating in the evening heat of Seoul, when I decided to do the only logical thing - pick the most European Restaurant to eat in, and ask them for directions. "Tom's Pizza", sounds like they would speak English, yes? They didn't. I had to point. Turns out that they understood English though, because when I left they took out a map and showed me to walk up the street and turn into the third narrow alley (then into a sub alley). Either I was going to find the Seoul Guesthouse or I was being lured into losing a kidney to the Korean blackmarket.

The guesthouse is gorgeous. It is a Joeson-era Hanok house, with a series of small rooms built around a central courtyard. I get to sleep on a yo on an ondol floor. The ondol floor is the traditional Korean form of heating, being a clay floor with a wood oven underneath to keep it warm (during winter that is). This is the reason why Koreans never wear shoes into the house - being the only warm spot, everything is done on the floor. To have a shower I opened up some ricepaper walls and closed off others to turn the bathroom into an ensuite. I like it, you turn walls into doors at will.