Saturday, 5 November 2005

First Trip to Korea - A Journal (Part 12 - End)

This was my last full day in Korea and I had no plans for sightseeing except that Hwa-joo would take me for a walk in the afternoon along Hangang (Han River) and Itaewon, the area where most foreigners in Seoul get together. For most of the morning I was reading until I saw the re-run of Dae Jang-geum on MBC. Interestingly, it was the first two episodes that I have missed in its premiere in Hong Kong, and I could not help being distracted from my book to the television set. Although I could not fully understand the lines in Korean, the plot seems so familiar that language is no longer a problem. Now that I have seen Park Myeong-i, Jang-geum's mother, Choe Seong-geum and Han Baek-yeong in their "nae in" costumes, I just think that Kim Hye-seon who played the role of Myeong-i was the most attractive before Rina's appearance. For some reason she just looked so charming in a humble make-up. I have also seen her appearing in one of the latest dramas on television here in Korea, but she looked so different in heavy make-up and the charm was just gone.

At about 1 pm I left the hostel and walked along the main streets to Myeongdong through Jongro, Euljiro and Chungmuro. I forgot to bring along the map but I am now so familiar with this area that there was no difficulty in telling the directions. I was trying to look for some nice restaurants along the way, before I met Hwa-joo at Dongjak station, but to no avail. It was almost two o'clock when I arrived at Myeongdong and decided to have a quick lunch in a pork cutlet fast food shop. It was cheap but the food was quite good.

After joining Hwa-joo at the subway station, we walked along the riverside path to the east. Unlike previous days, the weather was quite hazy and cool. Then we came to a bike-hiring shop and rented two bicycles to have a ride to the west to reach the tallest building of Seoul. It was a very good exercise, although some ups and downs along the cycling way were somewhat challenging for me, having not cycled for years. We took a break in a food kiosk next to the building before we returned along the same path.

Then Hwa-joo took me to Itaewon but it was a bit disappointing - just like the rugged streets of Tsim Sha Tsui around Chungking Mansion 20 years ago. But that was easily compensated with a delicious dinner of "samgapsol" (three-layered barbeque pork), "bibimbap" (rice with mixed vegetables in a pot) and "naengmyeon", cold noodles.

Afterwards Hwa-joo took me to a nice, cosy coffee shop for a mouth-watering dessert of waffle with ice creams, where we had a long chat of two hours until about 11:30 pm. She told me about her concerns at work and I shared my experience in managing stress, among other subjects. It was a bit long-winded but definitely rewarding and relaxing. It was a pity that Sun-mi was unable to join us for a friend's wedding.

I will fly back home tomorrow evening but Hwa-joo was very kind to invite me to lunch again before I leave her country. This concludes my wonderful and first trip to Korea and I am definitely going to miss my friends and the nice food and scenery there.

Friday, 4 November 2005

First Trip to Korea - A Journal (Part 11)

After 12 months of preparation, the National Museum of Korea was opened at the new site in Ichon on 28 October afternoon. Unfortunately I missed it because I went on the morning and the official opening ceremony had yet to launch. After my return from Gyeongju, it remained the last must-see destination.

Arriving at the breath-taking museum before 11 am, I began a tiring but informative visit that took about six hours, excluding lunch and a tea break. What was even more encouraging was that as part of the celebration, admission is free until the end of this year, which is the 60th anniversary of the museum. There are three storeys in the museum, each divided into two main exhibition halls with distinctive themes. Exhibition halls on the ground floor specialise in Korean history from pre-historic to modern times. Those on the second and third floors are dedicated to all forms of art artefacts, collections from Korean and Japanese donors and an introduction to other Asian cultures.

What interested me most was the choice of Asian cultures presented on the third floor. Chinese and Japanese cultures apparently cannot afford to be neglected, but the others are Southeast and Central Asian cultures. Interestingly enough, India was not included in the list of Southeast Asian countries although it is common knowledge that India was the home of Buddhism, which also enjoys remarkable popularity in Korea. Really I could not help wondering if the museum has any problem liaising with their Indian counterparts on leasing or borrowing artefacts for display.

In terms of design and user-friendliness, the new museum probably provides visitors with one of the best experience around the world. The exhibition halls are spacious and pleasant to stroll along. Signs and directions are adequate and easy to read. Visitors are guided to walk through all the exhibition halls in one direction but they can easily drop out at certain points. There are also plenty of benches and lounges for a break. Food courts, washrooms and drinking water kiosks are ready to refresh the exhausted visitors. Three souvenir shops on the first and third floors also offer slightly different types of books and gifts that visitors find it difficult to hold back their wallets.

More importantly, information about the artefacts and exhibitions are eloquently explained in extraordinarily high quality of English and Chinese - and actually this has been one of the most impressive observations during my first visit to Korea.

As the "national central museum" of Korea, as its name in Korean actually depicts, it focuses on presenting visitors an informative overview of the history of Korea. While there are several extraordinary national treasures of more than 1,000 years but are extremely well preserved, the displayed collection of Silla seems a bit less attractive than that of Gyeongju. However, this is perfectly understandable because Gyeongju was the capital of Silla for a millennium.

It was already 5:30 pm when I left the museum. Then I took the subway to Dongdaemun (East Great Gate) market for a short visit. It looked very similar to the area around Tung Choi Street in Mong Kok, where food stalls and kiosks of hawkers scatter around. Prices of food and clothing seemed quite cheap at Dongdaemun, but it was so crowded that I decided to return to Jongro area where I can spend some time at the mega bookstores before dinner.

Again, I was lucky enough to have found a book about customs in Joseon palaces by Kim Yeong-suk, called A Study of Palace Customs of Joseon Dynasty. It was written in Korean but with a large number of references in Chinese characters. By that time I was trying to find the official Chinese name of "sura", which specifically means "the king's meal"; and "suragan", the royal kitchen that prepared the Joseon kings' dishes. Having seen the wood tablet at the National Palace Museum, I was really confused because the Chinese words on the tablet could never suggest a pronunciation similar to "sura". Flipping through books at different bookstores I have come across two versions of the Chinese characters. Unfortunately Kim Yeong-suk's book did not provide any Chinese translation but only Hangeul. Perhaps I should refer to the official records of Joseon kings when in Hong Kong.

Hwa-joo called me at about six o'clock today that we will meet at the southern bank of Han River tomorrow. I'd better start packing to make sure that the latest additions to my library can arrive safely at home.

To conclude the day and to celebrate the latest additions to my home library, I had another excellent meal of "galbitang" (beef ribs in soup) in a traditional Korean restaurant on Samilro near my hostel. Their "galbitang" and pickled side dishes are among the best I have ever had in Seoul.

Thursday, 3 November 2005

First Trip to Korea - A Journal (Part 10)

Now that I have visited most of the destinations on my priority list - the Joseon palaces and historical sites - in Seoul, it is time to wander around and enjoy the city.

When I was having breakfast at the hostel this morning, I met a Japanese student who is here to participate in an international English debate competition at Yonsei University. He seemed quite concerned about going around in Seoul without any knowledge of Korean. I shared with him some of my experience and taught him how to say "Thank you" in Korean. How ironic it was! I never thought that my Korean is good enough to teach someone else. In return, he left me his email address so that he could offer me some help when I visit Japan later.

I was running late for a meeting with Seong-a in Apgujeong, so I decided to jump on a taxi - yes, it was expensive but possibly the quickest way to get to the destination. Seong-a's workplace was a bit difficult to find, as it is located on the fifth floor of a small commercial building in one of the alleys in Apgujeong, away from the main road.

With a few conversations between Seong-a and the taxi driver, I finally managed to get there. She was so kind to treat me a coffee and showed me around the small but hi-tech, nicely decorated beauty salon where she is working. I was happy seeing her, but she seemed even more excited instead, which was really heart-warming.

Apparently I have chosen the wrong clothing - it was getting so warm that I began sweating again. After meeting with Seong-a, I decided to go back to the hostel and get changed instead of going straight to the National Museum in Ichon. On my way back, I took a brief visit to Unhyeonggung, just five minutes away from my hostel on the main road, which was the residence of Gojong's father, Heungseon Daewongeun. It was a small but cosy residence to the north of downtown.

It was almost one o'clock when I left the hostel again and given the size of the newly opened National Museum, I decided to go tomorrow morning and just strolled along Yulgokro to the west and visited Seoul Selection Bookstore on Samcheongro and the National Palace Museum next to Gyeongbokgung. I missed it during my last visit to Gyeongbokgung simply because I was exhausted and overwhelmed with information.

Seoul Selection Bookstore was recommended as one of the best bookstores in Seoul with a good collection of English books on Korea. But I was so disappointed at the fact that they have only two titles on the shelf. Fortunately I managed to find a book giving details of royal life in Joseon Dynasty and bought an extra copy for Chang Te in Taiwan.

Tourists interested in the history of Joseon Dynasty, especially those who have watched Dae Jang-geum or Road to Kingship, can never afford to miss the National Palace Museum located just at the southwestern corner of Gyeongbokgung. The current exhibition contains a eye-opening, extraordinarily well-preserved collection of documents, clothing, utensils and furniture of the Joseon imperial court. Presented in a neat and orderly way, this collection represents an excellent introduction to the imperial life of Joseon Dynasty. And it was a wise decision for me to skip lunch to buy a splendid book that contains great photos of the museum's collection, which are loads more than those in the exhibition halls. It was expensive, but it was definitely good value for money.

Later I walked along Sejongro to the south, passing by the Sejong Cultural Centre, the statue of the invincible General Yi Sun-sin, and the former sites of "uijeongbu" and "uigeumbu", the royal cabinet and imperial police of Joseon Dynasty frequently mentioned in Dae Jang-geum. For some reason I missed the large bookstore Bandi & Luni's near Jonggak subway station, which is on the northeast corner of the intersection of Ujeonggungro and Jongro. There I found the "dream book" that I have been looking for so long - a translated copy of Hyegyeonggung Madame Hong's Hanjungrok, or The Records in Anguish in English! I could hardly believe my eyes when I read the title, so much so that I wanted to shout in joy in front of the bookshelf. The book was published nine years ago and the English romanisation of Korean followed the old system, but it was no problem at all as long as I could find a legible version. I thought I was extremely lucky to have found this book, which was, surprisingly, written in Hangeul but not Chinese in its original form. This means that it is highly unlikely that I can find a copy of this book in the university library in Hong Kong.

In the late afternoon, I walked back north into Insadong again, relaxing in a teahouse with my books and MP3 player. I spent almost two hours there, enjoying the green tea although the rice cakes were not as good as those sold at the food stalls on the streets.

In the evening, Sun-mi and Hwa-joo took me to a mouth-watering dinner of "kimchi bokkeumbap", fried rice with kimchi, and a minced beef platter with sliced rice cakes, "tteok", in Samcheongdong, northeast of Gyeongbokgung. There are lots of small but delicate restaurants and artistic shops along the densely-planted street, similar to Nanshan Road in Hangzhou. The fried rice was absolutely gorgeous and likely to be the best fried rice I have ever had. I was tempted to go there again tomorrow simply for the fried rice. YUMMY!

Wednesday, 2 November 2005

First Trip to Korea - A Journal (Part 9)

Just returned from a disco at Hilton Hotel at Namsan (the Southern Mountain) of Seoul, after returning from a four-day trip to Gyeongju. Sun-mi called me shortly before 9 pm, saying that Bill has arrived in Seoul and they were hosting a dinner and some entertainment for him. She also invited me to join. Why not?

I didn't know that Sun-mi has told all her colleagues about my research on Korea, which made me a bit embarrassed when they praised my courage and knowledge. It was good though to have met the colleagues in Seoul, and I was astonished at how good their singing is! None of the incumbent Canto pop singers can be their match.

The morning was mostly spent in walking to the historical sites in west Gyeongju, the tombs of General Kim Yu-sin and King Muyeol of Silla, both honoured as heroes contributing to Silla's successful unification of the Korean peninsula in the seventh century AD. General Kim was granted the most senior title of "Taedaegukgan" and after his death, "King Heungmu". He seemed to be a legendary figure who had led many victorious battles against Baekje and Goguryeo but little has been written about him in my Chinese history book of Korea.

The tomb of King Muyeol was about 2.8 kilometres to the south of General Kim's, and it took less than 45 minutes to walk along the straight road from north to south. Fortunately I didn't come across hundreds of school children like I did at General Kim's tomb. On appearance, King Muyeol's tomb was no different from those scattering around downtown Gyeongju, but some sharp ends of the foundation stones creeping outside the green grass revealed that at least the foundation was built by stones but not covered by soil like the famous Cheonmachong. His second son, Kim In-mun, who had spent most of his early and last years in Tang China, was buried to the east of his father's tomb across the road. Some other unknown close relatives were buried to the west of the king who laid the foundation of Silla's unprecedented unification.

It was a pity that I didn't have time to visit Namsan in Gyeongju, where most Silla historical sites, notably Buddhist sculptures and temples, are located. Neither did I have the opportunity to visit the underwater tomb of King Munmu of Silla, who not only formally unified the Korean peninsula and drove off the Tang forces afterwards, but also willed that he should be cremated and buried under the sea to guard his country against invaders from the east. While it is said that this underwater tomb is the only of its kind in the world, I am very much interested to find out how King Munmu's will could be carried out given the dangerous tides that have been separating the isles, where the tomb is supposed to be located, from the shores that are more than 100 metres away.

After returning to downtown Gyeongju I had a magnificent lunch of "kagulsu" (hand-made noodles like linguine but slightly thicker) and fried pork ribs with vegetables and eight side dishes. Back in Seoul, I had fried "udong" for dinner. Actually Sun-mi was right - the food in Gyeongju was not as good as other places in Korea, and notably Seoul. I hope I will have the chance to try the food in Jeolla provinces in southwest, where Baekje was based. Sun-mi said it is generally recognised as the best in Korea.

Tuesday, 1 November 2005

First Trip to Korea - A Journal (Part 8)

My last full day in Gyeongju was marked by a sharp contrast between the hundreds of primary school students who packed the National Museum of Gyeongju and the loneliness in history at the site of the former Hwangyongsa, which was meant to be a palace of Silla kingdom in the first place.

About 9:30 am I arrived at the National Museum of Gyeongju after a 10-minute ride on a No. 600 bus. Surprised to see a dozen of jumbo tourist buses at the car park, I didn't realise they were carriers of hundreds of primary school students for official visits led by teachers. The children just yelled and laughed and chased after each other in almost every single corner in the vast courtyard of the National Museum, and even inside the exhibition halls. They really drove me mad and I couldn't help taking a break in the video room with the hope that some of the long queues could be gone soon.

When I went into the first exhibition hall about the magnificent Silla kingdom, I met the Swiss couple who were also staying in my hostel. All of us were very pissed off at the "little monsters" who made the National Museum no less than a wet market where hawkers were yelling at the top of their voices. From another perspective, however, it would be good to see so many youngsters were visiting museums as part of their school programmes. Although Hong Kong has also introduced similar requirements over the last couple of years, it has never been so enthusiastically received as it should have been.

After browsing through the exhibition galleries, I had a quick lunch at the canteen before setting off for the site of Hwangyongsa and Bunhwangsa. Before that I had a quick walk in the Anapji, which was a resort of Silla kings and part of the residence of the crown prince. It was also recorded in Samguk Sagi that the founder of Goryeo Dynasty had been invited to a feast at Anapji, then known as Wolji, by the last king of unified Silla. The buildings were destroyed long ago and only three have been restored so far. The site looked a bit empty but still deserved a visit for history buffs.

Following the instructions of my Lonely Planet, it took about 30 minutes from Anapji to the site of Hwangyongsa, which is just to the opposite of Bunhwangsa. Now surrounded by a couple of paddy and vegetable fields, the site of the former palace-turned-temple was incredibly huge. Only foundations and pillar stones of some of the main buildings were left after the devastation by the Mongolian invaders during the reign of Gojong of Goryeo Dynasty. Despite the blinding sunshine in the south, chilly winds were blowing hard from the northwest. Standing in the middle of a path and looking around in all directions, I couldn't help giving a sigh of regret to what could have been one of the most magnificent structures in the world. Remoteness in time and proximity in geography again stirred up some sort of interesting retrospective inside me.

I was told that Bunhwangsa has been closed for renovation at ticket purchase, but on my way back to the road that divides the site of Hwangyongsa and Bunhwangsa, the free English guide came to me and initiated to take me tour around inside Bunhwangsa. Regrettably her English was incomparable to those in Andong, Suwon and Seoul and I could barely understand her. In any case, it was also good to see the three-storey pagoda built during the reign of Queen Seondeok of Silla shortly after the unification of the Korean peninsula. The square-based pagoda was guarded by two lions facing the east and two seals facing the west, reportedly guarding against the invaders from China and Japan. While it is understandable to have lions as guardians, it was the first time I have come across seals as seen in the Ocean Park as guardians that were comparable to ferocious animals such as lions and tigers. My speculation runs that there might be some sort of implications in terms of Silla's perception towards China and Japan...

The English guide invited me for a cup of tea in her small kiosk before I took a taxi to go back to Banwolseong, literally "the half moon city". It was the site of Silla palaces, and was re-built as a fortress during Joseon Dynasty. A stone ice storage was built during the reign of Yeongjo at the southern tip of Banwolseong. A 15-minute walk along the densely vegetated fortress brings visitors to the entrance of the park, near where Gyerim, the legendary birthplace of the founder of the Kim clan of Silla kings; as well as Cheomseongdae, the oldest surviving observatory in East Asia built during the reign of Queen Seondeok of Silla. Admissions are required to these two historical sites despite its small size and one can always have a view from outside the fences.

To the northwest of Banwolseong across the road is the so-called Tumuli Park, now renamed Daereungwon. This is where more than 30 imperial tombs of Silla kings, including a dual tomb of a king and a queen, as easily noticeable by the dual peaks covered with grass. Another one excavated and opened for public visits is Cheonmachong, located near the north exit of the park. The unique shape of a gold crown, characterised by strips of gold that looked like the Chinese character "shan" (hills or mountains) or deer horns at the front and both sides, was one of the most astonishing artefacts unearthed at the site.

After visiting the landmark historical sites, I strolled along the quiet streets and alleys to the north with the hope to find Silla Department Store, but unfortunately to no avail. It seems that Gyeongju has lost its grandeur to the cities in the north that the residential areas are disappointingly rugged. Shops are closed and abandoned. Houses are worn and torn. I wonder if the municipal government has some sort of redevelopment plan in place to revitalise the past glory of its magnificent capital of the best times in Korea's history.