Gyeongju: Royal Recreation, Peasant Peregrinations
Peregrinations: travel from place to place, especially on foot and with the suggestion of a roundabout route ~ The Free Dictionary
I left Daereungwon, the walled cluster of elegantly rounded ruling-class burial mounds thatched with winter grass, and moved east towards the outskirts of Gyeongju, on foot and with the suggestion of a roundabout route, as is my preference. As I left most of the commercial buildings and traffic behind, the landscape opened up and I began to appreciate how special this place was.
Tombs began to turn up everywhere.
This is Cheomseongdae Observatory, or what remains of it, built in 647, Asia’s oldest astronomical observatory (they charged admission, so I shot this over the fence like the cheapskate I am):
It’s made of 361 stones, the number of days in a lunar year, the capstones aligned with the four cardinal directions, and its precisely south-facing window admits light to the floor during the Spring and Autumn Equinox.
Next time I’ll pay the three or four dollars and go in.
The landscape was quite pleasantly semi-rural now, and lots of people were strolling around the tombs and ruins or zipping past on rented bikes. The sun was doing its damnedest to subdue the winter chill, and winning most of the time.
There’s a patch of remnant forest called Kyerim where the founder of the Kim clan was apparently born, within which are the sparse remains of a fortress called Wolseung. This mound within the woods is not in fact a tomb, but a primitive 1,500-year-old refrigerator called Seokbinggo where ice was stored for the royal household:
(Checking the anglicised spellings of these names with tourist brochures is driving me crazy. Hope you appreciate it.)
I was peregrinating like a demon now. The afternoon was getting on and after setting out along the main road in the direction of Bulguk-Sa, Korea’s most famous temple, I quickly realised reaching it before closing time was a lost cause; I sat down on a wall, ate a Snickers, and considered my options.
Much closer at hand was Anapji Pond, but I thought I’d wait till dusk, when the lights, my guidebook promised, provided “a romanic view”. The masochist in me delights in soaking up romantic views whilst hand in hand with myself, so I saved it for later and took a gamble on a side-road. This took me nowhere fast, so I backtracked, went down through these gardens along the Namcheon River bank (which provided one wall of the long-gone fortress)…
..and returned to the forest to kill an hour or so.
This was a stroke of Goatly brilliance. I hadn’t seen this almost deserted section earlier, and the trees were stately, with the late-afternoon sun coming in low over the river bank, setting the trunks aglow and throwing slender spears of shadow over the thick carpet of leaves.
Korean women love to wave their arms around, walk backwards, and clap their hands together with eardrum-fracturing force while walking. They’re a delightful counterpart to the Korean men who enjoy setting the woods on fire with blaringly awful cheap transistor radios as they stroll. All the bears and big cats are long gone, but walking in Korea is fraught with perils like these.
Now, where was I? Oh yes, that lovely patch of forest. I suppose most of Korea once looked like this:
Men with chainsaws had been at work earlier; they’d gone now, but many of the trees were marked for execution or, hopefully, a full reprieve.
Dusk descended through the branches at last, and it brought a decent chill with it. It was time for the Love Pond.
(Please indulge another pointless digression. I used to live in western Tokyo with a Newfoundlander friend called Shawn P. Kelly, in an apartment building called Green Casa Koigakubo. We were notoriously unlucky with the females of the species, a trend that shows no sign of abating a decade later, and found it hilarious one evening when we asked a local lass what “Koigakubo” meant and she pondered it carefully before answering, “Love…pond.”)
Well, it was worth the wait.
Anapji Pond, dating from Silla times, was a place of entertainment and meetings within the palace grounds. There were once three islands and 12 peaks; gardens and exotic animals were housed within. Excavations and pond-draining in 1974 unearthed copious treasures of gold and bronze as well as numerous everyday objects, 30,000 relics in all; the prince’s palace and other buildings have been restored.
It began to get cold though — finger-paralysingly cold, a definite romance-killer as well as an impediment to pleasurable photography. As couples aplenty began materialising to do a slow circuit of the tastefully illuminated pond, I split…
..and scurried back to the far more prosaic town centre in search of the cheapest and most run-down love hotel I could find…
~ And that’s all the Goat wrote