Korea, Mountains, Urban Walking
Comments 10

Historic Gimhae: Two Tombs, a Fortress, a Temple & a Bus

JANUARY 21, 2012

Actually, let’s start with the bus.

For weeks I’d been watching the local buses, trying to penetrate their mystery and movements. It was like being a whale-spotter: “Thar she blows! Looks like a #58! Wait! She’s doing a U-turn! No! We’ve lost her!”

Forget searching online — it won’t help you. Asking your Korean colleagues will leave you more confused than ever. Those intimidating buses — where were they going? What was the procedure?

I lingered at bus stops and observed for the 2.5 seconds the driver allocated for passengers to enter before hitting the gas. There’s little English on the buses and none at the stops. But I had to do something. I was running out of mountains in my part of town.

Finally a colleague helped me buy a rechargeable token I attached to my Swiss Army Knife. No words or exchange of money would be required. I was ready for anything. Heart thumping, I boarded the #21. I knew I had 2.5 seconds to grab something — anything — or end up splattered against the back window.

I made it. The ride began:

It was the most exhilarating half-hour in recent memory. I’ve never smiled so much — in astonishment, in disbelief — on public transport, and I’ve repeated the experience a dozen times since, smiling and white-knuckled each time.

I wanted to thank the driver but he looked like he might stab the next passenger to approach him. Instead I slammed my token into the reader, which gave me a hearty feminine “Kamsahamnida!”  (감사합니다 = thank you) and leapt off as the doors slammed shut on my backpack, careening into a bush and very glad to be alive.

My first stop was a monument to the dead:

But not just any dead. This is the Royal Tomb of King Suro, and it was just His Majesty and myself this chilly morning. Suro founded, in 42AD, the Garak kingdom, which thrived in the Gimhae area. The almost ubiquitous Korean name Kim began with Suro.

Legend says Suro was born in an egg in 42 AD and lived to the age of 158, but there are at least two things about this account which strike me as dubious. Nevertheless, his tomb, which has been alternately robbed and refurbished over the centuries, is nowadays a calm, quiet sanctuary in the backstreets — or at least it was this early on a cold Winter Saturday.

Two rows of beautiful stone animals guard the tomb, which you’ll recognise as a grander version of the common citizens’ grave mounds that I’ve described seeing in their many hundreds in the hills:

My whole day’s itinerary came together as I studied the tourist map I’d been given. If you look closely at the top of the distant hill in the picture below, you’ll see one of my other targets:

I walked in that direction, stopping first at the equally quiet, deserted tomb of Suro’s wife, who apparently came from India:

Gujibong is the little wooded hill nearby, on which six eggs appeared from heaven containing the future rulers of the six Gaya kingdoms, including Suro. I can’t verify this tale but it says so on my map and nearby plaques.

There were some weird critters in the woods that morning that looked like they may have emerged from space eggs:

I came down these steps, sat down and ate some lunch, consulting my map, which, being a Korean map, was already disintegrating in my hands:

I like my walks to have a theme; today’s was Ancient Gimhae History. Its sub-theme was Winding Inner-City Alleys. Like a diligent rat, I scurried through the maze…

..dodging some vicious local fauna…

..and at last gaining some serious elevation.

More ancient tombs overlook the town. On the distant right, the curving walls of Bunsanseong: Mt Bun Fortress, beyond the equally sombre forms of the Lotte Castle apartment complex:

I was now aiming at the shining silver domes of an observatory adorning the middle of the ridge. A real hiking trail wove its way up a dusty spur, past this less ostentatious but still imposing common-person’s grave:

At the observatory, hikers were exerting themselves in one of the exercise-equipment areas that Koreans seem to enjoy. Seeing people exercise makes me nervous, however, and I quickly raced along the ridge towards the fortress.

These beautiful, sinuously curving walls are the restored remains of Bunsan Fortress, originally built in 1377 to guard against the Japanese. As at many historic sites in Korea, there are no guard rails, so it’s scarily authentic:

The Japanese did end up invading — twice — in 1592 and from 1910-1945, wiping out or suppressing much of Korean culture, both tangible (I’ve been in many temples which had been burned down by the Japanese and rebuilt) and less tangible (language, alphabet, religion etc). There is still a strong anti-Japanese sentiment here — understandably.

The wall was indeed razed during the first invasion but was rebuilt in 1871. Again, I had it mostly to myself.

Sorry about the hat:

Bamboo thickets, inscriptions and ancient graffiti in Chinese script, and a few more hikers were at the top end:

Busan is on the distant right beyond the furthest river:

This structure was used for smoke signals:

Now I headed down the back of the ridge…

..to this wonderful but slightly decrepit small temple, Haeun-sa:

A plaque says:

Monk soldiers stayed here during the [first] Japanese invasion.

There’s something very…arresting about this temple art:

We’ve all had mornings like this:

Descending Bun-San, I met a 67-year-old man, Mr Ha, who’d worked overseas and had excellent English. He’d lived in Libya for three years, during the Gadaffi era. I asked him what it was like. He laughed. “It was really terrible!”

We’ve agreed to meet sometime for a hike or a coffee. Bun-san is his backyard:

It had been a terrific day’s walking, and I was a little glum at finding myself back within the urban clamour:

But I cheered considerably when I remembered the approaching bus ride home…

More on buses coming soon!

~ And that’s all the Goat wrote


  1. That’s pretty funny stuff about the buses, but I’m a little disappointed to only see one passenger with a death grip on one of the interior poles. Mr Ha sounds like he has some good stories to tell?! More fascinating temples and I like the hat. You’ve coordinated it with your top!

    • Thank you for noticing! I’m trying to bring some style and individuality to the garishly appointed hills in these parts, but sometimes I think I’m perhaps a little TOO suave. There were at least TWO passengers with death grips on that bus — I had to take that picture one-handed!

  2. Sub-sub-theme The Fashionable Walker?

    Looking forward to more white-knuckle bus rides!

    ‘… very glad to be alive.

    My first stop was a monument to the dead.’ Ha!

    • One goal is sneaking some on-board photos, SW. My camera does have built-in anti-shake, fortunately! Another goal, of course, is to bring some flair to the by-the-books mountain fashion scene in this backwater. AND TO END THE DOMINATION OF BLOODY NORTH FACE!

  3. Given the amount of pictures it’s clear you are becoming more familiar with your camera …..

    The photo with the stone animals looks as if the cow is mounting the ram.

    I love the stone walls – you can never have enough stone walls.

    • Yes, little Nina, my lovely NEX, is a constant companion, Frank. I suspect you were the only reader to notice any irregularities with those animals — something to bring up with your analyst, I suspect! I do share your stone-wall predilections, however. Love them, and so does Nina.

  4. I’ve always been a big fan of public bus services, but it now looks like my views could soon change. I look forward to your further thoughts (I think).

    • Don’t get me wrong, Nick. I couldn’t survive here without the buses, and once my initial intimidation was suppressed, I actually came to love riding them. But it’s not for the faint-hearted!

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