Thursday, May 28, 2009

Oedo Botania

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 on that overlook, 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.

the second Christmas

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: a mimosa, in other words. 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.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

impending doom

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. Allegedly the Hermit Kingdom 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 cranked 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.

In keeping with the title of this blog post, I've included this, for your viewing pleasure: the first millisecond of a nuclear explosion. Doesn't that just do your head in?

Monday, May 25, 2009

Korean History 104

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 of the 1590s, the Manchu incursions, World War II, the Korean War, and what has followed after, leading to the foundation of the Republic of Korea. Joseon 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
Korea's battleships were something else, too.

Called geobukseon by Koreans, "turtle ships" by foreigners, they were really marvels of maritime military technology. Invented and built by Admiral Yi Sun-Shin, who apparently suspected the Japanese would invade, they were used to great effect in the Imjin War. They were shaped like boxy turtles, with a dragon figurehead, and cannon ports running down both sides of the hull. Unlike conventional ships that could boarded and taken by a force of infantry, turtle ships were nearly invulnerable to this type of attack, thanks to a sturdy layer of armor, studded with spikes, overlaying the top deck. Cannon fire bounced right off, and any foot soldier attempting to board would get his feet poked. Charles told me that sometimes the Korean sailors would lay straw over the tops of their turtle ships, luring the enemy into leaping aboard...onto the spikes waiting just underneath.

Rumor has it that the Koreans mastered the science behind chemical warfare, too: the dragon's head was actually a spout through which poison gas could be heated and vented. The Koreans had but to sail close to enemy ships, arrows and cannonballs ricocheting harmlessly off the armored hull, and spew out some gas. The hapless enemy soldiers would choke, stagger and fall, and the Koreans would sail off, leaving a dead ship in their wake. Admiral Yi Sun-Shin was a naval genius, and he used his brainchild to its full potential at the Battle of Okpo (the town just next to Gohyeon!) and also Hansando, held to be one of the four greatest naval battles in human history.

Joseon's inventions weren't just literate or military, however. There was also the Cheugugi, toutedly Asia's first rainfall gauge; and the Honchonui, National Treasure No. 230, an extraordinarily detailed and accurate astronomical clock, containing nine plates for horizon, meridian, equator, tropic, polar circle, ecliptic, and all the rest. Joseon's star maps were absolutely incredible in their intricacy and beauty as well.

Like all empires, however, Joseon was wracked with strife and infighting, and was doomed to fall someday. Not long after its bloody founding by King Taejo (formerly Yi Seong-Gye, the rogue general who did an about-face at the border of Korea and ousted the last king of Goryeo), things got ugly. If Wikipedia can be believed, the most capable son of Taejo was Yi Bang-Won, and there was no love lost between him and some of his father's advisors, prime minister Jeong Do-Jeon and Nam Eun. Seeing Yi Bang-Won's popularity, Jeong Do-Jeon went to the king and counseled him to choose his favorite son as his successor. Now, Yi Bang-Won might have been the most capable of Taejo's sons, but he wasn't his favorite. Grand Prince Uian was. After Prince Uian's mother suddenly died and Taejo was stricken with mourning, Jeong Do-Jeon saw his chance to rid himself of Yi Bang-Won, and plotted to kill him and secure his position in court. Hearing of this plan, Yi Bang-Won started an all-out rebellion, stormed the palace, and slaughtered Jeong Do-Jeon, all of his followers, and Prince Uian and his brothers. This was the First Strife of Princes.

It didn't do Bang-Won any good, though. Still grieving for his wife and horrified that his sons were killing each other for the crown, King Taejo went ahead and appointed his second son, Yi Bang-Gwa, to the throne. He switched capitals for comfort's sake and settled down. Undaunted, Yi Bang-Won began plotting how to make himself the legal successor to Yi Bang-Gwa (to his credit, assassinating him wasn't an option this time). However, out of nowhere, Taejo's fourth son, Yi Bang-Gan, got in on the action. (ARGH! Too many Yi Bangs!)

Matters came to a head in 1400; apparently there was open fighting, which came to be known as the Second Strife of Princes. Yi Bang-Gan lost and was exiled; his followers were executed. Cowed, Yi Bang-Gwa appointed Yi Bang-Won his successor and got out of Dodge. Yi Bang-Won finally ascended to the throne, and changed his name to King Taejong. After some sweeping political reforms that lasted nearly two decades, King Taejong stepped down. That's when King Sejong came in, created Hangeul, and all that jazz. After that various other stuff happened. (I don't want to go any further or I'll either be accused of plagiarizing Wikipedia or worse, worshipping it.)

Various Japanese invasions of Korea, from 1592-1598, which became lumped together into the Imjin War, pushed Korea into a more isolationist ideology. The Koreans were victorious, thanks to superior naval commanders like Yi Sun-Shin, and timely intervention by the Ming Dynasty of China, who threw their lot in with the Koreans and helped push the Japanese and their European firearms back off the peninsula. After that, relations between Korea and Japan were nonexistent, and Korean rulers tried to limit the amount of contact and exposure the nation had with outsiders.

The years that followed were sometimes turbulent, sometimes peaceful; following the Manchu invasions in the seventeenth century, Korea experienced nearly two solid centuries of peace, during which a scientific and architectural revival sprang up. But Korea remained firm in its isolationism, only encouraged by the invasions and even a brief violent encounter with the French in the 1860s over the execution of some French priests who were preaching illegally.

Things really started to go south during the First Sino-Japanese War, 1894-1895. Most of it was fought on the Korean mainland. The current Queen of Joseon, Myeongseong, who opposed Japanese influence on the peninsula, was assassinated and her body defiled by Japanese agents. Almost as bad as this, the Chinese, who were still technically allies of the Koreans, were defeated. The treaty signed between the Chinese and the Japanese supposedly guaranteed independence to Korea; but feeling the Japanese fingers closing around their necks, the Koreans sent out a plea for Western military aid. The Russians responded. Then came the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. The Battle of Port Arthur was inconclusive, some say, but the very fact that the Russians failed to crush the Japanese completely took the world completely by surprise. In fact, some suspect it was a catalyst for the Russian Revolution, as it caused the Russian people to lose faith in the military.

But that's beside the point. If I ever go to live in Russia then I'll write up the history of Russia on here for you.

With the Russians out of the way, nothing stood between the Japanese and Korea. After signing a treaty, Korea officially became a protectorate of Japan in 1905. Not content with that, the Japanese annexed Korea by force five years later. The government, the old Joseon Dynasty, renamed the Korean Empire, but still maintaining the force and tradition of the old monarchy, crumbled soon thereafter. Joseon is thought to have come to its final end in 1910.

The rest you know. Korea was subjugated by the Japanese, liberated in World War II, divided into North and South afterward by the Russians and the Americans, embroiled in conflict once again in the Korean War, and ever since has existed as two nations, one a democratic, free society and a powerhouse of industry, the other a closed, dictatorial, uncooperative, immature Communist regime that oppresses and brainwashes its people and pontificates and postures pedantically at every juncture. How the world turns, and the mighty have fallen. I'm not saying I have no respect for modern-day Korea. I believe and always will believe that the good old ROK is the one of the best places for an English-speaking expatriate to live in the entire world. The food's great, the culture commands anyone's respect, the societal attitude ("can-do") is inspiring, and furthermore the products are of such good quality that even my grandfather, who tends to dislike Koreans, has said he loves Kia. (Don't blame Gramps; he was a flamethrower in the Korean War, so he saw some pretty ugly things over here.) But I mourn for the loss of glory, of heritage, of tradition, of momentousness.

On a final note, I would just like to point out, here as always, that my three main sources of information for the above were, in order of importance, (a) Wikipedia, (b) the Volunteer Agency Network of Korea's educational videos on YouTube, and (c) Charles, my Korean teacher. As such, the information I've provided here is more than likely inaccurate in some way, and more than a little subjective as well. I invite you to research on your own, and uncover the accurate information that's undoubtedly out there. If you spot any discrepancies, please inform me, and I'll edit 'em out. And thank you for reading.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Gyeongju: inhumation and indulgence

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 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, 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.