Gyeongju: Two Days in the Museum without Walls

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There are two or three blocks of forgettable shops south of the station, then a sudden lake of yellow rapeseed.

Narrow paths have been cut into the rape field and happy young couples stroll through the flowers, stopping to smile and make peace signs for cameras at the ends of poles they hold at arm’s length. The field is floodlit at night and more couples stream in and flashtubes pop across the field like a diorama of a battle.

Beyond the rape field, behind trees, older couples march along paths through the forest to a stream with their ski poles and sunhats and leisure wear as vivid as the yellow of the rapeseed and the blue of the sky. There are hazy mountains in the middle distance and the keenest start early and hike to them.

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Gyeongju was the capital of the ancient Silla kingdom which ruled Korea for a thousand years from the first century BCE. The walking trails criss-cross the site of Banwolseong Fortress and there are fragments of the old walls in the undergrowth. The hourglass-shaped Cheomseongdae Observatory is still intact after fourteen centuries and sits, surreally, in the middle of a park.

The kings and their treasures are buried in two dozen grassy hillocks, like a much-simplified form of the Egyptian pyramids. One has been opened up so that visitors can look inside and the whole complex has been modelled into a park with quiet paths between trees and azalea bushes and traditional music piped in through hidden speakers, which gives it a dreamlike quality.

The same music plays, to the same effect, in the grounds of the royal palace. The pavilions and ornamental lake have been rebuilt and the gardens restored and you could stroll there happily for hours, at least if you were not being followed around by a school party repeatedly saying “hello” and “how are you?” because they wanted to practice their English and those seemed to be the only words they knew. It is wonderfully ethereal at night, when the pavilions are lit up and reflect in the lake.

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Gyeongju is known, with justification, as ‘the museum without walls’. I filled a day looking at temples and tombs, pagodas and wooden hanok houses and walking along trails through the forest. I planned to hike Mount Namsan, as well, but it turned out to be a lot further away than it looked and I gave up on the idea before I got there.

I set out early next morning on a bike which I borrowed from the guest house. It was a cheap, Chinese-made thing with brakes to trap fingers, sharp edges to scratch and protruding parts to bruise. It was a vicious cycle.

The shifter for the back hub refused to shift. The other had four positions for three gears. The first just made it click annoyingly, the second took me back to where I started, the third made the crank spin like a propeller, and the fourth made the chain come off.

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What I had taken, from the map, to be a quiet country road was actually a busy highway; it ran alongside the railway and sloped forever uphill. But there were cherry blossoms, white herons and mountains as well as the concrete, cars and trains.

I guessed that it would take around half an hour, an hour at the most, to ride to Bulguksa Temple, but it apparently takes longer than that in the car. The incline seemed slight but never let up until the turn off for Bulguksa, when it became a long, steep hill. Each sign implied that Bulguksa was round the next corner, or the one after that, and it began to feel like chasing a rainbow.

I got there in the end, though, and it is a splendid temple with pagodas, bridges, statues and intricately carved, gloriously painted roofs set in a forest you could lose yourself in for a day; but it was Saturday and brimming with day-trippers – of course, I was one of them – and instead of the serenity you expect at a Buddhist temple, there was the stress of a big city at rush hour.

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It would have been too easy to freewheel down the hill and follow my tyre tracks back to Gyeongju, and instead I took the long way round, up yet another hill, and hoped that it would lead into town. Eventually it did.

© Richard Senior 2015

24 Hours in Sokcho

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The bus from Gangneung pulled into Sokcho at 10.30. I spotted the guest house as we rounded the last corner and walked up there, dropped off my bags, picked up a map, and took a local bus out to Seoraksan National Park.

It was too late to think about doing the ten-hour round trip to the top of Daecheongong Peak and back; so I headed, instead, for Ulsanbawi which tops out at a more manageable 876m –  still 50 metres higher than the world’s tallest building. I was as well-prepared as ever with a vague tourist map, no water and ordinary street clothes.

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The path, only gently sloping to start with, meandered past a kneeling Buddha and stone lanterns and alongside a river which had dried to a trickle and was lined with blossoming cherry trees, and over an ornamental bridge, past a temple complex with kingfisher blue roof tiles and exquisitely painted eaves, and on and into the depths of the forest of deep green firs and brighter green deciduous trees from which – in the distance – the jagged peaks protruded.

I followed the path into the trees and over boulders and across more bridges and up and up, as the terrain became more difficult, and out onto a plateau where an ancient hermitage had been cut into the mountainside and up again to a spit of rock which I scrambled up and looked back across the expanse of the park into the floor of the valley way below. The peak, though, still brooded over me, hundreds of feet above. Its upper slopes looked more or less vertical.

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They were. There was an iron walkway up to the top with – depending on whom you ask – 800, 808, 888 or over 900 steps, which in any case is like walking halfway up the Empire State Building. I had aimed to get to the top without stopping but lost my resolve halfway up the walkway and stopped to rest, but only for a moment, because a sprightly old lady in luminous hiking gear surged past me and shamed me into pressing on.

The reward, though, for reaching the peak was a breathtaking view across the park, across the countryside, back to Sokcho and on to the coast and out over the Pacific.

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It was mid-afternoon by the time I got down, too late for lunch, too early for dinner, but I stopped anyway at an outdoor restaurant and ordered the local dish known as squid sundae, which sounds a bit Heston Blumenthal, but has nothing to do with the Western dessert of the same name. It is a squid body stuffed with diced pork, tofu, tentacles and shitake mushrooms, steamed and sliced into rings.

There was a shorter, easier trek through the woods, over rocks and bridges to the Yukdam Pokpo and Biryong Pokpo falls, and that passed an hour so before I got the bus back to Sokcho and poked around the fishing harbour and market and took the hand ferry across to the North Korean expat village (Sokcho was the wrong side of the border before the war and is an hour from the DMZ now).

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Koreans are said to go Sokcho just for the mudeumhoe (raw fish platter) in which the fish is sliced carpaccio-style and served on bean thread noodles with the tableful of side dishes you always get in Korea. There was enough, this time, for a small group: a fried fish, sashimi, oysters, whelks, squid sundae, squash, soup, salad, kimchee (fermented cabbage) and goodness knows what else. Thankfully you are not expected to eat it all.

Then I was back on the intercity bus in the morning, heading for Chuncheon, the last stop en route to Seoul.

© Richard Senior 2015

Gangneung: Sun, Sea and Spy Submarines

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It was a magnificent coastline. The rocks extended out into the sea, an abstract beauty above the surface, a dark shadow beneath. The water was turquoise near the shore, fading to deep blue further out. There were stripes of white sand at the foot of the cliffs.

Yet no one sat on the beach. No one paddled in the sea. No one clambered over the rocks. They might have been shot if they had. A sturdy fence surmounted by razor wire stretched along the coast. The waves broke onto tank traps. There were watchtowers every few hundred yards, manned by camouflaged soldiers with heavy machine guns and rifles.

I missed the stop for Unification Park and got off at the next one and set off walking down the coast road, along the security fence. There was nothing to stop me, but it felt like I ought not to be there. It was as if I were walking through a war zone. There was no one else on foot.

It was a hot morning and pleasant to walk and silent except for the droning of insects and the occasional car on the road, and there was a glorious view through the fence. But I could not help but be anxious.  I wondered how I would explain myself to an excitable soldier with whom I had no words in common. I had laboriously copied 통일공원 – Unification Park – on a sheet of paper to show to the bus driver (he had nodded, then shot past the stop); but I saw the scope for a terrible misunderstanding if I reached for my pocket when challenged by men with guns, so I took out my sheet of paper and clutched it as I walked down the road. I wished that I had not brought my daypack.

I tensed whenever I walked towards and past a watchtower, and deliberately did not look up at the soldiers, but there was never a shout, or – worse – the click of a safety catch. A troop carrier seemed to slow as it passed me and I thought that it was going to stop, but it was just that the driver was struggling with the hill. Then a company of fully-armed combat troops with rifles, packs and steel helmets marched up the road towards me. I held my breath as they came close but they marched past, an inch away, as if I were not there at all. It was a routine patrol.

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There is good reason for the strongarmed security. One night in 1996, North Korean commandos landed on the shore nearby. When the submarine came to collect them after their spying mission, it snarled up on rocks and stuck fast. The captain burned his papers and tried to destroy sensitive equipment, although it would probably have been of more interest to museums than military intelligence. He and ten others were later found shot dead, presumed, by some, to have been executed for negligence. The other fifteen tried to sneak back to the North on foot. They stole food, stabbed three civilians, strangled a soldier and stopped at a ski resort to play video games; but after a frantic seven-week manhunt, all but one had been killed or captured. No one knows where the other one went.

The submarine is on walk-through display at Unification Park. It is claustrophobic enough when you squeeze through it alone with all the hatches open: unthinkable to spend days at a time locked inside it with twenty-five others struggling for space between the engines and bulkhead, the pipes, the gauges, the valves, and the periscope tube. It has had a fresh coat of paint on the outside, but there are still the scorch marks and melted radios in the cabin, and a smell of oil and diesel.

Nearby, there is an old American destroyer which went into service a few weeks too late for the War in the Pacific but got its chance to fire at North Vietnam twenty years later, before it was sold to South Korea. It is claimed as the only warship displayed on land anywhere in the world. I doubt that, somehow; but I cannot immediately think of another, and the point is too trivial to research.

© Richard Senior 2015

Reunification Delayed: Korea Rail Would Like to Apologise to Passengers

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There is an impressive modern station in the city of Paju in the far north of South Korea. The walls are plate glass, the roof is swooping brushed steel; its supporting rods are fashionably exposed. There are seats for a trainload in the waiting area and a long line of toilets and sinks. The station was built to be busy. A map on the wall shows connections through Korea, across Asia to every city in Europe; and a sign directs passengers to the trains for Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. There are carousels, baggage scanners, customs desks and all the paraphernalia of international transport hubs. Across the road, there are goods warehouses and yards big enough for articulated trucks to manoeuvre.

But the warehouses are empty, the carousels stand idle, and no trains go to Pyongyang. The border is sealed with high fences, razor wire, tank traps, and watchtowers manned by soldiers with machine guns trained, and regular patrols by squads in combat gear.

The only trains which run into the station – three or four a day – are specials bringing tourists to see what is ironically known as the Demilitarized Zone and to peer through telescopes into the North at what they claim is a farming village, although the only people you see are the armed guards in the watchtowers. But it has the World’s Third Largest Flagpole. In the South it is known as the Propaganda Village.

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The station, too, looks like nothing more than an elaborate, expensive, political gesture. But things seemed different when it opened in 2002. The Korean Cold War had briefly thawed. North and South had been talking since the end of the nineties. They committed to working towards peaceful reunification. They agreed that the railway lines across the border should reopen, that families separated by the war half a century ago should be able to meet; that Southern companies should build factories on the other side of the border and Northern workers should staff them. Optimists thought that reunification was bound to happen soon.

The mood did not last. Relations grew frostier when the South’s most powerful ally included the North in the ‘Axis of Evil’ together with Iran and Iraq. They chilled further towards the end of the Noughties when a new government in Seoul resolved to take a hard line with Pyongyang and strengthen relations with Washington. The North, in its turn, froze off any prospect of further cooperation with a series of gross provocations. It sank a ship, bombarded an island, kidnapped soldiers and tested nuclear weapons. By then, the idea of taking a train through Korea, across Asia to cities in Europe seemed entirely fanciful.

Just this week, it was reported around the world that the North had test-fired ballistic missiles from a submarine and might double its stockpile of nuclear warheads by the end of next year. It is hard, now, to imagine peaceful reunification happening any time soon.

Then again, that might have been said about Germany a year before the wall came down.

© Richard Senior 2015