|JOURNAL TRAVEL / NOVEMBER 7-12, 2007|
Clad in a rainbow of colors, Korean dancers entertain.
A Land Of Beauty, Palaces, Culture
South Korea Gracefully Blends
Modern With Tradition
By ROBERTA SOTONOFF
Special to the Journal
His rust and gray robes flutter in the breeze. This Buddhist monk is so absorbed in his cell phone conversation, he doesn't notice us. The monk could be a poster child for South Korea ‹ part of the modern world, but steeped in tradition.
"You will know that Korea is small and beautiful, but with culture", says our guide, Mr. James Kim.
This once war-torn, Indiana-sized peninsula is indeed beautiful. Seventy percent of it is covered with mountains. Palaces, ancient villages and sprawling, modern cities speckle its undulating landscape.
Before you embark on a South Korean visit, here are a few pointers. Rice is life here. Expect to get it at every meal, along with kimchee ‹ the spicy, pickled cabbage that certainly is not love at first bite. A typical Korean meal is usually soup and numerous side dishes of vegetable and fish. Do try bimbimbop ‹ a hodgepodge of veggies, rice and meat, topped off with a raw egg ‹ and bul gogi ‹ Korean barbeque. Both are yummy. And if you tipple, say "gombay" before slugging down that booze. Many South Koreans will be happy to join you. This country holds the dubious distinction of being number two in the world for alcohol consumption.
Ladies, listen up! Be sure and check the picture on the toilet door lest you open it and find no potty ‹ just a "squatter." If you see toilet paper on the outside, grab it. There will be none inside the stall.
And the best thing‹Koreans love Americans. People are friendly everywhere you go. Even teenagers will politely approach you and say, "Hello, How are you? I am fine. Where are you from? I am from Korea". They will be delighted if you take their picture. Armed with these bits of wisdom, you are good to go. Likely you will begin in Seoul. Bustling with nightmarish traffic, many of its buildings are towers of glass with huge plasma TVs on their faces ‹ a very catchy advertising ploy.
If this is your first trip to Korea, you will want to do a typical tourist thing. I would suggest Korea House which offers a menu of Joseon Dynasty royal court foods including umpteen appetizers, soups, delicacies like barbequed eel andlots of kimchee. The after dinner performance dazzles with sounds from odd looking musical instruments and folk dances. Performers make beautiful formations with colorful fans, while others do a dizzying dance spinning long ribbons attached to their heads.
Find tradition at the National Folk Museum and in the markets, pagodas and the city gates, which were originally erected in the late 14th century. Gyeongbok Palace, completed in 1392, was the seat of government for the Kingdom of Joseon. A path of uneven stones weaves through its five gates. Monks, monkeys, pigs and dragon's heads sit on its roof edges guarding the palace. Inside, the red and gold throne sits elevated above several steps. Behind it, a painted mountain scene makes the area look like a stage.
Adjacent to the palace are private dwellings. A large rock, which represents Mt. Everest, sits outside as does a lotus pool with an arched bridge and lily ponds. It could be a painting. Koreans believe that you get chi from nature.
A stark contrast from this serene scene is the DMZ (demilitarized zone). It is a short ride from Seoul. As the bus nears it, barbed wire dominates the scene. Land mines as big as cars loom at various checkpoints.
Ten million mines cover the mostly barren, 4-kilometer wide (about 2 miles) DMZ. In 1953 when the Korean War ended in stalemate, the DMZ became the demarcation zone between the north and the south. On each side are 5kms (about 3 miles) of buffer zones. North Korea is visible via telescope at the Tora Observation Area.
The DMZ is not accessible unless you don a hard hat, descend 300 feet in a small open car and amble though a small part of the Third Tunnel. It runs four miles under the river. South Korea learned of it from a North Korean defector in 1978. These days, it is the closest you can get to North Korea.
Back in the sunlight, make your way to the Mangbaetan Monument. Scenes of North Korea decorate the screens behind its giant incense burner. Most poignant is the Freedom Bridge. Notes, prayers, flags and even a picture of Jesus hangs against the wall where the bridge dead ends.
As is evidenced by the ultra-modern Dora Train Station and Highway, South Koreans never lose hope for reunification. These arteries were to connect to North Korea. Both stand like ghosts, eerily empty.
Buzzing with commuters, Seoul's main railroad station is the departure point for the KTX ‹ the bullet train. Traveling at 300 kms per hour, it makes a quick trip to Daegu (Day goo). Though quite modern, many of Degau's three million people adhere to tradition and use centuries-old herbal medicines. Around the Yangnyeongs' Exhibition Hall, there are scads of herbal doctors and shops filled with potions like medicinal teas, herb pouches and even ground antelope horns. You might glimpse a ginseng cutter, chopping away with his big, perilous-looking dagger.
One of Degau's most colorful areas is Rice Cake Street. Korean rice cakes are pastier than our crunchy ones. Shop windows are chockablock with shapes, colors and sizes. Some resemble shrimp, octopi and eggs.
Just out of town is the ancient Hahoe Village. At the entrance is a garden of chungscung ‹ whimsical looking figures and animals carved from tree trunks. They are supposed to ward off evil spirits but their bushy eyebrows and buck teeth make me chuckle. About 500 people live here in homes surrounded by high walls. Likely, their courtyards have covered jars of fermenting kimchee. Many villagers are craftsman who hand-carve the famous, frowning and laughing wooden masks. Haloe's other claim to fame is a 600-year-old samsinding tree, probably planted around the time the village was founded. Its enormous trunk is surrounded by a kind of fence where people hang strips of fabric containing prayers for well being.
On the way back to Daegu, have a look at the Battle of Dabudong Memorial. A huge statue, planes and tanks commemorate the victory of that crucial conflict (June 5, 1950).
A Buddhist temple visit is a given. The temples give you a sense of the country's deep seeded tradition. Roughly one-third of Koreans practice Zen Buddhism.
Red and turquoise temple complexes sit alongside streams on emerald, wooded slopes. Many are scattered near Daegu in Gyeongju. Two temples you don't want to miss: The 1,300 year-old Haeinsa Temple was spared bombing during the Korean War because it is usually cloud-covered. Its library of 81,200 cherry wood blocks is in tact. Each block contains a sutra (teachings of Buddha).
The other temple, Seokguram Grotto, on the eastern slope of Tham-san, is said to be a reproduction of Buddha's cave. Huge and colorful Parvivara (guardians) stand at the entrance built in 751. Their clenched fists and "don't mess with me" grimacing faces protect the cavern from evil spirits. From behind a glass partition, we observe the faithful praying to the huge Buddha which faces east. One of his hands is pointing downward‹pushing down evil; the other points up toward enlightenment.
It is possible to spend the night at a Buddhist monastery. As we discover during our Beomeosa Temple stay, it is an unforgettable event. For those who are not familiar with Buddhism, it is humbling. Be forewarned, it is not a five-star accommodation experience. No, to seek enlightenment, even if it is for one night, be prepared to forsake your worldly possessions and don a gray MIT (monk in training) one-size-fits all uniform.
Meditation? Yes, but that comes after a lot of bowing, prostrating during prayer, hiking up and down the mountain and rising at 3 a.m. Every time you go in and out, it is shoes on/shoes off.
Adherence to ritual rules here. Take eating, for example. The correct placement of bowls, napkins, chopsticks and spoon is paramount. There is an order to each water, rice, watery soup and vegetable container. Bowls are held up to your face so no one can see you eating. Take only 70% of what you want and finish every morsel in respect for those who are hungry. Think how we Americans waste.
Other disciplines include marshal arts. I trip all over myself just trying to do a simple kick. Most difficult for me are the lectures. Though, I conclude that enlightenment is so beyond my ken and shall forever dwell in darkness, I come away feeling a bit more introspective.
What a contrast to the bustle of Busan (sometimes called Pusan). From the 394-foot high Busan Tower, you can see neighborhoods crawl up hills that seem to erupt from the sea in Korea's largest port and second biggest city. A mixture of old and new, it is a landscape of narrow alleyways and wide streets, modern stores and traditional outdoor markets, Buddhists temples and modern high-rise buildings.
A trip to Busan is not complete without a visit to the pushcarts, stalls and tubs of sea creatures at the indoor/outdoor Jagalchi Fish Market. They sell, grill and dry every kind of undersea denizen ‹ even those you can't begin to imagine. Another "must see" is the United Nations Memorial Cemetery in Korea (UNMCK), Twenty-two different, fluttering flags symbolize the united effort made to defend South Korea.
Now, maybe you have had enough of hustle. Well, it is just a short flight to the unique landscape, waterfalls and relaxing atmosphere of Jeju Island. Orange and pineapple stands line the entrance at the Jusanggeolli Rock Formation. Black volcanic cliffs erupt from the sea. It is not unusual to see Koreans picnicking amid the jagged crags or quirky looking gods and goddesses carved out of black lava. These comical looking creatures are part of the shamanism that has been practiced here for centuries.
Want to see a "wow" sunrise? Seongsan Sunrise Park is your place. Just rise at the crack of dawn and walk to the crater peak. On the way you can see a tunnel dug and used by the Japanese during World War II. And you really don't have to be an early riser. From the crater rim there is an abrupt drop into the sea, so the view at any time of day is pretty awesome.
So is Hallim Park. Its beautiful landscape, aromatic plants and chirping birds, is a joy to the senses. Plus, it has interesting lava tube caves to explore.
If Hallim doesn't chill you out, the Spirited Garden Bonjaw Art Pia Bonzai Garden will. The complex of bonsai, bridges, waterfalls, and koi-filled ponds is so serene, people speak in whispers lest they break some kind of spell.
The traditional, the modern and natural beauty. Korea may be small in area, but it looms large with attractions.
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