Korea
Comments 12

The Grassy Tombs of the Silla Kings

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Summer grass, all that remains of soldiers’ dreams ~ Basho

LATE FEBRUARY, 2012

On any forest hike in Korea, the chances are the human dead outnumber the living.

Korea is a land of grassy knolls. Every hill or small mountain I’ve hiked has been dotted with small and often anonymous graves in the traditional style: hemispherical mounds in forest clearings, overgrown with grass and shrubs, more modern and ostentatious ones bordered with concrete and headstones, perhaps a few flowering bushes. Sometimes there is a pair, presumably husband and wife; sometimes time and weather have levelled the mound almost to ground level.

It’s a practice that needs to be allowed to die out. Apparently cremation is growing in popularity, a good thing since each burial mound requires the sacrifice of several square metres of forest; this is a small country with a big population, and human vanity has no business threatening the scant biodiversity that remains here. But in the past, for the ruling classes anyway, those mounds made even grander statements.

Gyeongju, in North Gyeongsang province, is the historical heartland of Korea, capital of the famed Silla (pronounced “sheila”) Dynasty that controlled the peninsula for a thousand years until 935 AD. It was also was one of my first inter-city bus trips — the local bus and three trains required to reach the inter-city bus terminal at Nopo, in outer Busan, took a lot longer than that actual bus journey to the old capital.

These buses, with their absence of English signage and English-speaking staff, were and are an intimidating prospect for me, but it usually works out okay. I’ve gone to Gyeongju twice now, and both times the transaction has played out like this:

ME: Gyeongju.

STAFF: (In Korean) Gyeongju, eh?

ME: Yes.

STAFF: 10,000 won.

ME: Thank you.

STAFF: Yes.

Actually, all my interactions in Korea follow that formula. I’m a disgrace.

But Gyeongju. An hour or less and I was there. I emerged into a mild and clear winter Saturday, ducked into the tourist office for a map which, like all Korean maps, began deteriorating as soon as my fingers touched it, and was soon strolling along a street as shabby and dusty as any I’ve seen in Korea so far (and that’s all of them). But the views soon improved. I was staying the night so there was no hurry; it felt wonderful to be out of my local area and seeing something different.

Just about all of Gyeongju is a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site, often called “a museum without walls”, and spectacular relics lurk in just about every direction and neighbourhood. Daereungweon Park, my first stop, has 23 burial mounds in a relatively small area. It was nearly deserted and admission was just a few dollars.

This family was using a guide:

In pictures of this place in Summer, the mounds are lushly carpeted in golf-course green.

This is Cheonmachong — Heavenly Horse Tomb. Remarkably, most of the tombs have not been excavated, but this one revealed all manner of royal artefacts, replicas of which are on display inside:

You’re not allowed to walk on the grass, unfortunately.

I loved the quiet here, the peace that lingered despite the busy roads not far beyond the walls.

I found myself pondering the all-too-human urge to leave a monument behind. The “bigger” the man, the flashier the monument. But apart from their size, there’s something almost understated about these simple bumps. There’s a lot of them, though — clusters all over the city and in the hills surrounding it, as I’d find out that afternoon and the following day.

A Korean princess making the rounds:

I liked the simple stone markers.

The golden grass glowed in the winter sun, and a few sparse trees made stark lines against the overlapping curves.

A peaceful place, but I wondered how ruthless these leaders — who’d suppressed their competitors for dominance of the land — really were. All the brochures talk about the “flowering” of Silla culture, the golden age that saw Buddhism become the state religion. Now dozens of generations of the first Parks and Kims slumber beneath tonnes of earth and blankets of grass.

All dead, all gone.

I strolled up the road and out of town…

~ And that’s all the Goat wrote

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12 Comments

  1. Well, I’m back! Slightly fatigued and a tad depressed, so an ambivalent thank you for this momento mori post. Have much to catch up on. In the meantime — great photos! If only mine were half as good . . . now where the hell is the Sony Nex I ordered yonks ago?

    • Hey, welcome back, SW! Actually my welcome is ambivalent as well. Every morning I’ve been clicking on “favourites” and found it weirdly satisfying that you hadn’t posted anything, which could only mean your adventure was continuing. By God, I envied you…

      Looking forward to reading what you’ve been up to! Yes, that NEX — I keep reading about how long it takes to get one. Meanwhile, while you were away they released a new model in the line-up, an entry-level number. Hope yours turns up soon and you can start playing. I spend two or three hours each afternoon now, post-work, scurrying along the riverbank, losing myself in that viewfinder…

  2. What a super post. You do write well. I particularly like the understated way you tend to end your pieces. While I was reading this, Shelley’s sonnet, Ozymandias, came to mind.
    Lovely photos, every one. The golden grass is compelling. BTW, that tree in the last two shots is an ent. Definitely. ;)

    • Ha, thank you! One thing I love about the trees over here is that most of the big ones have these bloody enormous bird nests in them, the Korean “magpie”, it seems to be called.

      The endings: well, that’s the usual way with my rambles: nothing dramatic, a bit of wondering, nothing too deep, and then on down the trail I go… Yes, I was delighted when I first saw those pictures on the screen and saw how well the colour had turned out.

  3. Robert says

    You find the most amazing places and present them so well! I’m taking lessons from you in the build up to my Nepal trek. Now I’m thinking I should ditch the idea of using my phone camera (samsung galaxy 2s). By the way, I’m sure Rachael is right; that’s Treebeard for sure!

    • You know, I had to go back and have another look at those pictures! Imagine that tree when it has another hundred years under its mossy belt.

      A Samsung, eh? You’d be a legend over here. But I dunno, unless you’re esp good at using that camera to its full potential, consider a decent “real” camera — I really want to see some jaw-dropping shots of yr trip!

  4. am says

    Splendid series of photos in this post, Goat. I’m continuing to appreciate seeing Korea through your eyes and through your writing.

    A friend today was talking about a Korean dish called bibimbap that I used to order frequently during the 1980s at a Korean restaurant in Bellingham called Seoul Garden. They served generous portions of delicious Korean food at that restaurant. They also made sushi. That was my first exposure to sushi.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bibimbap

    • Thanks a lot, Am. My relationship with Korea is, er, “problematic”, but I had a great day walking yesterday and I felt glad to be here. Must confess, though, I’m not at all fond of most Korean food, especially the smell, which I don’t find enticing the way good food should smell. Part of it may be that the stink of garlic permeates the very air over here: my stairwell, trains, buses, even people passing on the trail…

      Reading online, I see where I’m not the only one to feel this way, and apparently there has been a move to “tone down” the strong odours of kimchi etc to spread the cuisine internationally. I would guess that in a lot of Korean restaurants catering to westerners, this is the case.

      As for bibimbap, that’s one of the meals here I quite like. Quite hearty, and good for vegetarians. I don’t know, though — I’ll be accused of being a crank again, but I hate eating rice with a spoon!

  5. Your photos are just ridiculously good! Love the golden grass against the blue sky, looks very serene….reminds me of the Indian Mounds here in the South, except they are usually not that big.

    • Ha, thank you! First rule of photography: hide all your hundreds of rotten shots!

      I remember those Indian graves from my drive through the South in 1993. But yes, these ones are huge, quite ostentatious as mounds of earth go!

  6. They are nice shots with the contrast of the golden grass and the blue sky. I do like that path with the curve in it. In fact every time I see a bend in a path or track when hiking I take a photo! I reckon you probably do likewise!

    • Ha, absolutely! I think that’s part of what motivates we walkers: the next bend in the path. Even though what’s usually round the bend is more of the same! But yes, a nicely curving path in the woods or switching back and forth up a mountainside. Perfection.

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