Monday, 31 October 2005

First Trip to Korea - A Journal (Part 7)

The sky was a bit gloomy when I left the hostel at about 8:15 am to catch a bus to Andong, a strategic military stronghold since the Three Kingdoms period. When I got on the bus right before 9 am, however, the refreshing sunshine was creeping out from layers of thick gray clouds that were covering the sky like a suffocating blanket.

The journey to Andong, which was more than 100 kilometres to the northwest of Gyeongju, took about three hours including a handful of stopovers in small towns like Uiseong. The bus terminal operator and the bus driver were very curious about a foreign woman travelling alone - yes, and that's me. The bus driver was so kind that he offered me a drink of coffee when taking a break at Uiseong.

It was noon when I arrived at downtown Andong. I obtained a map from the tourist information centre and bought a return train ticket to Gyeongju, which would leave Andong two minutes before 5 pm. Then I decided to have a quick lunch at Lavender, a nicely decorated Western restaurant that serves excellent set meals of pasta, before I took a No. 67 bus to Dosan Seowon, a Confucian private academy that barely escaped the devastation of Mongolian and Japanese invasions.

Actually I was struggling in my mind whether I should go to the Andong Folk Museum first or to Dosan Seowan first, given the tight schedule. And it later proved that my decision based on time was a wise one.

The bus ride to Dosan Seowan, which was 40 km to the north of Andong downtown, took about 45 minutes. It was built by Yi Toegye, a renowned Confucian scholar during the reign of Jungjong of Joseon Dynasty, who enjoyed a reputation of being the "Zhuzi (Zhu Xi) of East Sea". I didn't recall this until I met another information officer, Ms Kwon Hyeon-mi, who again spoke perfect Mandarin. She told me that she majored Chinese Literature at university and I was more than happy to have her showing me around the intact and yet aesthetically constructed private college.

We had a good exchange about the history of Korea from the Three Kingdoms period to the last dynasty of Joseon, although Ms Kwon was unable to tell me more about Jeongjo's mother, Hyegyeonggung Madame Hong. Sun-mi told me on Saturday that Madame Hong was involved in the political struggle of factions at that time, one of which was led by her father Hong Bong-han. Her book Hanjungrok, or literally The Records in Anguish, was meant to be a defence of what she and her father had done in betrayal of Crown Prince Sado, who was committed to wipe out political factions among the senior officials. That is why I am now even more eager to read this book, but the chance seems slim, if any at all, to obtain a copy in its original form in Korea.

Ms Kwon also told me that she was very happy to have received me, someone from Hong Kong, given her poor experience with Mainland Chinese tourists, who are seen as arrogant, ill-mannered and ignorant. Sadly, Dosan Seowan is hardly an attraction for Hong Kong tourists. I only found out about this private college upon arrival at Andong, and more precisely, having read the map taken from the tourist information centre.

Interestingly, Ms Kwon asked me about what a short paragraph handwritten by Jeongjo, which was on display in an exhibition hall to the west of the college, means. It was written in classical Chinese text and I tried my best to explain to her. She seemed very happy and I was glad that I could be of any help.

Having spent only about an hour at the college, I had to catch the bus at 3:20 pm for downtown to catch the train by 5 pm. Ms Kwon was so kind that she accompanied me to the bus stop and saw me off before she returned to her office. I was tempted to write her a letter when I am home.

Just 15 minutes before returning to Gyeongju, Patricia called me on the mobile, telling me how much she enjoyed Beijing over the last week, so much so that she wanted to extend her stay there and change the flight back to Hong Kong. Fortunately she didn't, otherwise I would have missed her when I'm back home. I must meet her on Monday, 7 November, to give her everything I have bought for her before I set off for a business trip to Manila.

Sunday, 30 October 2005

First Trip to Korea - A Journal (Part 6)

After an exhausting day on Bukhansan with Sun-mi and a refreshing call from Seong-a to confirm our meeting next Wednesday instead of Thursday, I dragged myself into a taxi in the chilly morning to catch the third KTX train to Daegu East, where I transferred to another small train to Gyeongju.

Gyeongju does not look like Kyoto, although I have never been to the latter. Gyeongju feels like Luoyang, both ancient capitals of splendid kingdoms with a long history of a millennium and yet have now lost their grandeur to the fast-growing modern cities like Seoul and Beijing in the north. Strolling on the quiet streets, however, enables visitors to give a second thought to the past glamour of these cities that is still lingering in the air.

Having arrived at the hostel in Gyeongju around noon, at the recommendation of the hostel owner I had a quick lunch of "galbitang", which means a set meal of beef soup, steamed rice and side dishes, and caught a No. 10 bus to Bulguksa. The journey took about 45 minutes and the colourful slopes decorated with maple leaves were already packed with visitors.

Bulguksa was first built after Silla kingdom in the southeast unified the Korean Peninsula for the first time in history. However, it was destroyed during Mongolian invasions and was not completely restored until 1973, when former dictator Park Chung-hee was in power. I was told that Gyeongju has been largely restored during Mr Park's reign, who was said to have risen to power from Gyeongju or somewhere nearby in Gyeongsangbuk-do. Whatever the case may be, and despite his dictatorship that might have caused many people to suffer, Mr Park deserves a credit in the restoration of historical sites in this ancient capital of Silla kingdom for more than 1,000 years. As I told Sun-mi yesterday during our walk on the Yonsei University campus, it was unforgivable for someone to destroy his/her own country's heritage out of ignorance and political complications.

After visiting all the halls in Bulguksa within an hour, I jumped onto another No. 10 bus to return to Gyeongju Station, where I bought a return ticket to Seoul on Wednesday. Then I walked along the main road and visited a number of Silla royal tombs before returning to the hostel. It took about 30 minutes to walk from the east, where Gyeongju Station is located, and to the west, where my hostel is. And this is about the size of downtown Gyeongju. Most shops were closed, perhaps because it was Sunday. In the outskirts, for example, on the way to Bulguksa, there were large paddy fields glittering under the golden sunshine, awaiting to be harvested. In addition to a strong sense of relaxation and quietness, Gyeongju just reminded me of what Luoyang looked like in the frosty winter more than 10 years ago.

Saturday, 29 October 2005

First Trip to Korea - A Journal (Part 5)

After a gloomy day on Friday, it was such a bright cool day that I couldn't help giggling to myself seeing the blue sky outside the window. As scheduled, I took the subway to Suyu to meet Sun-mi before we set off for Bukhansan.

Sun-mi sent me a message saying that she would be late, but it just didn't matter. Suyu was in the northern part of the city where the buildings are apparently not as tall as those in the downtown. So the chilly winds of early winter were sweeping through. Fortunately I have put on an extra T-shirt inside my wind-breaker. I waited for Sun-mi in a Starbucks nearby with a nice hot mocha and a cheese cake, along with a copy of the International Herald Tribune. At about 10:30 am, Sun-mi arrived but she didn't have enough time for breakfast. She had a quick coffee when I told her about my futile efforts to find books about the history of Korea. Then we headed off to Bukhansan on a taxi. It was a pity that Hwa-joo was unable to join us as she had to work overtime on an important business pitch presentation that is due on Monday. Most probably she will have to work tomorrow too. Poor girl!

This track to the peak of Bukhansan, Baekundae, was much more difficult than I have thought. Although I have never been to Mountain Hua in Shaanxi province myself, it was the first thing I could think that was comparable. The marble rocks were so rugged that hikers really have to be careful and watch their steps. And Sun-mi was right, we were actually not hiking, we were climbing or even conquering the mountain with both hands and feet!

We took a few short breaks before we almost reached the peak, after all the strenuous climbing over the cliffs and rocks among the colourful foliage of maple trees. Honestly, I was so impressed and surprised to see that Korean people of all ages, mostly middle-aged and elderly as a matter of fact, climbed with incredible speed along the way to the peak. And - believe it or not - there was a long queue of at least 100 people lining up to the peak along the narrow strip of steps on the rocky cliffs to the top point!

It took us about two hours to get to the peak, which was 1.6 kilometres from the ticketing office, but we spent only half an hour to return along the same route. While I enjoyed the climbing and the beautiful scenery and landscape, I couldn't help thinking of poor Rina when she fell from a cliff of 30 to 40 metres in the summer eight years ago. Now that I was on the mountain, I could better understand how scared and helpless she felt at that time. I have no idea where exactly the terrible accident happened, but it could have claimed her life so easily, given the rough landscape and rugged rocks all over the place. A sharp end of the rocks could have torn her apart. Again, my best wishes always go with her and her fiance in the years to come.

After the challenging climb Sun-mi took me to Sinchon where Yonsei University, the alma matar of Hwa-joo, and Ewha Women's University, Sun-mi's alma matar, are located. We had a good break of beer and fried chicken during which we chatted about a couple of things, including my poems for Rina and Miri, before we strolled along the busy streets to Yonsei University. Then we had another beer at a quiet bar on the ninth floor, with a good view of the neighbourhood, before we went home by subway.

Again, I'm most grateful to Sun-mi for her hospitality. She made the hike to Bukhansan much more enjoyable than it would have been should I be hiking alone. I hope I could buy her and Hwa-joo something from Gyeongju.

Friday, 28 October 2005

First Trip to Korea - A Journal (Part 4)

The temperature dropped significantly today with cold winds from all directions following a heavy rain early in the morning. I put on a sweater and wind-breaker before setting off for the National Museum of Korea scheduled to be opened today.

A 45-minute ride on the subway and train took me to Inchon station, where the National Museum is located. However, the museum was not opened until the official ceremony at 2 pm. Having briefly looked around I decided to go elsewhere instead of wandering around in the neighbourhood, which looked nothing more than a well developed residential area.

Another 45-minute ride on the subway took me to Seolleung, where the royal tombs of Seongjong and his son Jungjong, the king portrayed by Im Ho in Dae Jang-geum, are located. Most tour guides do not feature these royal tombs but, fortunately, my Lonely Planet does. And having spent about an hour strolling along the paths in the quiet and colourful graveyard, it was certainly worth a visit for Dae Jang-geum fans or those who are interested in the history of Korea.

The tombs were built on massive load of soil covered with grass, which roughly measure 10 metres in height. They just looked like a green hill sitting quietly by the side of a busy road. Visitors have to climb up the hill before the actual tombs where the kings were buried become visible. The tombs were extremely simple in design, again in the shape of a hemisphere, guarded by a pair of stone-crafted generals, civil servants and some animals. Surprisingly, even the tombs of senior officials in China looked more grandeur than the Joseon kings.

After visiting the royal tombs I walked along the busy road and turned east into Bongeunsaro towards to COEX Mall, a huge underground shopping centre with the largest bookstore I have ever seen. Sadly, I still couldn't find any original text of Goryeo history and could only find a copy of the collection of all references to Korea in Chinese official histories compiled during the imperial times. I then tried the leading bookstores on Euljiro and Jonggak and still to no avail - let alone books about the imperial wives and concubines as well as ancient costumes. Perhaps I should try my luck at Seoul Selection near Gyeongbokgung later.

Before I set off this morning, Seong-a called me on the mobile, saying that our meeting has to be postponed. She suggested next Monday and Tuesday but unfortunately I won't be back from Gyeongju until Wednesday evening. Tentatively we have confirmed our meeting on Thursday but she would ring me again nearer the time. I do hope we can meet as scheduled next Thursday.

Poor Hwa-joo has to work overtime tomorrow and I'm still not sure if she could join me and Sun-mi for hiking to Bukhansan. Perhaps we should take an easy course and return to the downtown earlier so that Hwa-joo can join us for afternoon tea or dinner.

The real challenges are yet to emerge - Make sure I can catch the 8:15 am train to Daegu East where I have to transfer to Gyeongju on Sunday. Again, Andong seems to be farther away from Gyeongju as I have imagined and it could be equally challenging to make it a day trip. Let's see what happens...

Thursday, 27 October 2005

First Trip to Korea - A Journal (Part 3)

My exploration of the history of Korea continued today with a visit to Deoksugung, Changdeokgung, Changgyeonggung and Jongmyo. It was exhausting but informative and insightful. While it is no surprise to see the Koreans are even more Confucian than we are in China, it is still surprising to see how strictly they follow the rules of authority and filial piety as vividly demonstrated in the setup and construction of Jongmyo, literally meaning the ancestral shrine of the royal family. It was certainly an eye-opener because I have never seen any imperial ancestral shrine in China, although I have read so many times about it.

In the palaces, it was equally informative to know that what had happened in the individual halls, such as the birth and death of kings and queens, the coronation of kings, the meetings with foreign envoys and the hosting of civil service examinations. Although it might seem no different from what we have in China, the feeling that you're seeing something similar in a yet so unfamiliar domain of culture is awesome.

On my way back to the hostel, I came across Ms Park Yeon-ok at the entrance of Jongmyo where I tried to obtain a copy of the information leaflet about the UNESCO World Heritage site - I visited Changgyeonggung first and went to Jongmyo by a footbridge, which meant no tourist information was available except a map guide at the end of the footbridge.

Having learned Chinese in Tianjin, Ms Park spoke perfect Mandarin and, surprisingly, she seemed very interested in me, knowing that I have learnt about the history of Korea before I came to visit her country to the extent that I could tell who the good and bad kings were. We had a good chat of 15 minutes about history of Korea, about her Chinese learning in Tianjin and the development of China before we bid farewell. Actually I came across another information officer at Changgyeonggung who took an initiative to brief me on the route to visit the surviving halls of the palace. But in terms of eloquency of Mandarin, she was no match of Ms Park.

Between my visits to the palaces, I had a great lunch in traditional Korean style with Hwa-joo, who just returned from a business trip to Manchester. She looked more mature than we first met in late March 2004, when she was wearing short hair. I was pleased to know that she was engaged and will be getting married next April. She told me about something in the morning that drove her to the brink of tears. But I managed to tell her a joke and try to distract her attention from what has upset her so badly. And it was interesting to know that she is a fan of Jeon Gwang-yeol! How funny!

In the evening, I went to Insadong again for a delicious dinner of "soigogi sundubu", a hotpot of beef and bean curd with steamed rice in a stone pot, plus many side dishes. It was a little bit spicy, but it tasted really good.

Wednesday, 26 October 2005

First Trip to Korea - A Journal (Part 2)

To my surprise, the weather of Seoul was extremely well, with sunshine and occasionally a cool light breeze. My day was started with an informative and interesting visit to the Gyeongbokgung, the Forbidden City of Joseon Dynasty in a moderate scale.

Although Sun-mi told me that the size of Gyeongbokgung is no match to the Forbidden City in Beijing, I was still very impressed with the way it was planned and constructed. Undoubtedly the floor plan was a miniature of Joseon's Chinese protector, but the architecture was distinctively Korean. While the existing Gyeongbokgung is nothing but a restored and rebuilt version that still hardly matches its original form at its apex hundreds of years ago, I was amazed at how much effort and dedication has been devoted to this project that represents the independence and dignity of Koreans.

Now that construction works are in progress to restore the northern chambers built during the reign of Joseon's second last king, Gojong, it was a pity that I was unable to visit the site where Gojong's queen, the well known Queen Myeongseong, was murdered by a Japanese assassin a few years before the collapse of Joseon Dynasty. Having explored all the opening halls in almost two hours, I turned to northeast corner of Gyeongbokgung to the National Folk Museum. With an English audio guide rented at only 1,000 Won, I spent more than two hours wandering around the halls and examining in close details the exhibits that provided an excellent introduction to the lives of Korean people from cradle to grave.

On my way back to downtown, thinking what I should have for lunch, I came across the fully costumed guard changing ceremony right in front of Gwanghwamun, the front gate of Gyeongbokgung. It took no more than 15 minutes but the colourful costumes, unique music and solemn atmosphere made the ceremony an enjoyable one.

For lunch, I had another set meal of "mandu", the equivalent of Chinese dumplings, in Insadong. Afterwards I took the subway to Seoul Station to buy a train ticket to Gyeongju on Sunday morning. While a transit at Dongdaegu (Daegu East) is required, the arrival time will be earlier than expected. Again, the ticket officer didn't speak much English, but she was very helpful and I finally had my questions all answered.

Then I tried to look for Chinese or English books on the ancient history of Korea, be it the Three Kingdoms, Goryeo or Joseon. At the huge Libro Books at Euljiro, I finally got the last copy of the original text of Samguk Yusa, literally meaning "Legacy of the Three Kingdoms", that was written in classical Chinese text.

Before I went to the cashier, Hwa-joo who has just returned from a business trip to the United Kingdom called me on the mobile, and asked me if I could join her for lunch tomorrow. Of course I am more than happy to do so. She asked me to take a taxi or walk to the City Hall of Seoul, but as an all-time fan of subway, I'd rather take the subway anyway.

What was quite disappointing was that I could not find any new titles of Korean TV dramas starring Rina and some other actresses. I couldn't help wondering if the TV stations still believe in the fallacy that only young and good looking idols are able to attract a meaningful pool of fans that justify the astronomical amount of resources being invested.

Leaving Euljiro I took the subway to Myeongdong to buy another T-shirt and some thick socks. Then I had a wonderful dinner of "seolleongtang", beef ribs soup with rice, at only 7,000 Won. Looking at the milky soup with slices of beef, I couldn't help thinking of the first dish for which Geum-yeong took over Jang-geum in the competition of the royal cuisine.

Tuesday, 25 October 2005

First Trip to Korea - A Journal (Part 1)

This was my first full day in Korea. I spent most of the day in Suwon, the provincial capital of Gyeonggi, which literally means "the capital area". During the rush hour, I joined thousands of "Seoulers" on the underground system to travel to Suwon, which took about an hour.

It was a bright sunny day - much warmer than I expected and I was sweating in my long-sleeve T-shirt. I bought a ticket to the Korean Folk Village - sadly, the coupon printed out from was not accepted - from the Suwon Tourist Information Centre and jumped on to the free shuttle bus in the carpark next to the office.

The ride took about 30 minutes and I was brought to the entrance of the Folk Village a few minutes past 11 am. Then I spent less than three hours wandering around the Folk Village, as if I was brought back to the countryside of Joseon Dynasty. It was interesting and informative.

Just a few minutes after I started the walk, Sun-mi called me on the mobile to see if I'm doing fine. I'm most grateful to Sun-mi for her help and hospitality. On the first day of my arrival in Seoul, she treated me to a delicious dinner of "bulgogi", which means beef hotpot with vegetables, in Insadong, and showed me around downtown to Cheonggyecheon, the newly restored river in the middle of downtown, and Myeongdong, the shopping hub like Causeway Bay. We had a good chat about work, about culture, about films and stars, before we went home at about 10 pm on Monday.

Although Sun-mi was very impressed about how much I know about Hangeul and the Korean pronunciation of names of places, as well as history of Korea, she couldn't help worrying that someone who doesn't speak Korean would do well. I told her so far I was doing good. Speaking English does not seem to be a problem, although a bit patience is needed if you come across someone who doesn't understand English and he/she would ask friends and colleagues for help. Other than that it was perfectly fine.

Obviously it was a good day for school picnics and there were hundreds of primary students, led by teachers, scattering around screaming and laughing in the Folk Village. To my own surprise, I was by no means annoyed or upset seeing them, which normally happens in Hong Kong. Again, I found myself much more tolerant and considerate when away from home, perhaps due to a conscious perception of distance.

After visiting the Folk Village, I caught a No. 37 bus back to Suwon Station. I didn't bother to wait for the free shuttle bus, which wouldn't operate until 2 pm. Then I went to the Tourist Information Centre again for transport information to Hwaseong Haenggung. There I met Mr Kim Si-uk, who speaks good English and a bit Cantonese and Mandarin. He showed me in great detail not only how to get to Hwaseong Haenggung but also Hwaseong Fortress, which has been enlisted as an UNESCO World Heritage. He also gave me a book on Hwaseong as a gift, and taught me a Korean phrase, "Cheon neun Hong Kong saram imnida", which literally means "I am a Hong Konger". He said I look no different from any other Korean on the streets and would most likely come across someone who would like me to show him/her the direction. And he was right. On my way uphill to Hwaseong Fortress, I came across a middle-age woman who asked me something that I didn't understand. I replied, "Mianhamnida, Hong Kong saram imnida," and she showed understanding. Actually another woman on my way from the Folk Village to Suwon also asked me something, but I didn't know the phrase to reply.

A 15-minute bus ride took me to Hwaseong Haenggung, first built by King Jeongjo of Joseon but only lately restored. He was born to Hyegyeonggung Madame Hong, the poor lady whose husband Crown Prince Sado was starved to death at the age of 28, leaving behind him a beautiful and kind-hearted wife and at least five children. I couldn't help getting a bit excited knowing this when I recalled that Rina has played the role of Madame Hong in Road to Kingship in 1998.

During my 40-minute visit to Hwaseong Haenggung, it came to my knowledge that this was also one of the major sets of Dae Jang-geum! How surprising! After that I walked up the hill behind Hwaseong Haenggung and started the two-hour walk along Hwaseong Fortress. I finished only half of the 5.7-kilometre fortress wall in slightly less than two hours but have covered the most important part of it. Surprisingly, I was not hungry at all and missed lunch. Before I set off I only took a chocolate bar that enabled me to carry on with the strenuous walk.

When I came down from the Hwaseong Fortress at Hwahongmun, it was already 6 pm. Then I walked 20 minutes to reach Paldalmun before I caught a No. 11 bus to go back to Suwon Station. I managed to buy a copy of Dae Jang-geum Highlights and Mapado, the hilarious comedy starred by "Madame Jang" Yeo Un-ge and four other old ladies. I had a great dinner of pasta at a fusion restaurant before taking the subway back to Seoul. It was a pity that I have missed "galbi", roast beef ribs that was the landmark dish of Suwon, but I simply couldn't find a decent restaurant selling "galbi" near Suwon Station. It was kind of weird...

It was such a rewarding and yet tiring day that I decided not to drive myself too hard tomorrow. Sun-mi showed me some decent tea houses and coffee shops in Insadong and I should try to relax myself with a cup of tea or coffee and a book some time.