The Grassy Tombs of the Silla Kings
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:
STAFF: (In Korean) Gyeongju, eh?
STAFF: 10,000 won.
ME: Thank you.
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