The In-Transit Report

South Korea Part One: Busan, Gyeongju and Suwon

I’ve traveled so much of Asia, but have always had it in the back of my mind that I was missing a piece. Finally, on this trip, I was able to go to South Korea! This was actually a big part of my itinerary, and I was able to spend a month traveling around. It’s not a big country, which made it easy to get around. The slow train from Busan, in the southeast, to Seoul, the capital in the northwest, only takes around 6 hours. Most trains and busses I got on only took 1-3 hours and were very cheap, so I was able to zigzag around the country without worrying about what order I did things in.

After a comfortable ferry ride across from Japan, I arrived in Busan, which is the second largest city in Korea. Adjusting to Korea after a week in Japan was challenging, particularly since I’d just gotten used to speaking Japanese again! I had to hold my tongue a lot. I made a friend and we spent a few days together seeing some of Busan’s highlights, and eating. A lot of eating. Luckily for me, eating a new cuisine is a lot easier when you have a Korean friend who can tell you what everything is, and what part goes in your rice bowl. 

The two most wonderful things about Korea are the people and the food. In hostels, most of which are pretty much apartments converted into guesthouses with bunk beds, the owners are present and engaged, and at night you’ll usually wind up around a table drinking Soju (a spirit, similar to vodka or filtered sake) or Makgeolli (unfiltered, milky rice wine). If you’re not in a hostel, you’ll probably wind up outside a convenience store, sitting on plastic chairs with or without a table, drinking… Soju or Makgeolli. Maybe you’ll also have some instant noodles, since the convenience stores sell a million varieties and has a hot water spigot for your use.

My next stop was Gyeongju, which is home to a few UNESCO World Heritage Sites, specifically from the Silla Dynasty, which ruled Korea for almost 1,000 years. With Gyeongju as the capital, there is a lot to see in the area. The town is home to scores of tombs for various kings and queens, which are stone chambers covered by a large mound of soil. At at least one of the tomb parks, you can enter the tomb. Interestingly, I’ve seen a number of tombs at random places all over the countryside while looking out of train windows.

Gyeongju  Tombs 3

Gyeongju is also home to a number of temples, old palace buildings, and other structures. I was only there for 2-3 days, but I could have spent a lot longer. It was really a neat experience to walk around town and stumble across site after site, without even trying. Gyeongju is really not a city, more of an oversized town with heavy tourist traffic. Luckily, it didn’t feel as touristy as it probably was.

Gyeongju  Anapji 31

After that I went to Daegu, which is another big city, but with a notable site or two nearby. Haeinsa is a temple outside of the city which is known for housing the Tripitaka Koreana, which is a collection of thousands of wood printing blocks used to print Buddhist texts. The temple itself was something special, and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I met a Dutch guy at the hostel I was staying at, and together we trekked the hour or more to get there, in the pouring rain. After a stop at a coffee shop to stay out of the torrential downpour, we ventured into an almost empty temple complex. Unlike most of the other temples I’d been to, Haeinsa had a much older, more authentic feel to it, although most of the buildings had to be reconstructed after a fire in 1818. A large number of the halls were unpainted. Haeinsa’s most important buildings, of course being the ones that hold the Tripitaka Koreana, are the ones that survived that fire unscathed. These buildings were also constructed with ingenious techniques that have perfectly preserved the wood printing blocks for hundreds of years. In fact, when an attempt was made to build a new facility to house them, it proved inadequate, so the blocks remain at Haeinsa. In the photo below, you can see the blocks stacked on the shelves to the right.

Heinsa Temple 49

From Wikipedia: “The historical value of the Tripitaka Koreana comes from the fact that it is the most complete and accurate extant collection of Buddhist treatises, laws, and scriptures.[4] … Each block is made of birch wood from the southern islands of Korea and was treated to prevent the decay of the wood. They were soaked in sea water for three years, then cut, then boiled in salt water. Then, the blocks were placed in the shade and exposed to the wind for three years at which point they were finally be ready to be carved. After each block was carved, it was covered in a poisonous lacquer to keep insects away and was framed with metal to prevent warping.”

My companion and I weren’t allowed into the building with the woodblock prints, but the rest of the temple was still amazing, another interesting feature being the array of paintings on the sides of the various halls, depicting parts of the Buddha’s life, amongst others. Despite the rain, it was a very worthwhile visit, and Haeinsa is still one of my favorite Korean temples.

Heinsa Temple 40

I randomly decided to go to Suwon next, which is a city just outside of Seoul that has Hwaseong Fortress, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. The fortress is basically a wall and watchtowers that surround a section of the city. What made this particular place really fun was the two Chinese girls I wound up hanging out with. One spoke a little bit of English, the other spoke Korean and Japanese, so we mostly communicated in Japanese. This made the day very interesting, entertaining, and a bit challenging! I wound up tagging along to Korean church (quite by accident), lunch with the girl’s professor from the University nearby, and then walking around the fortress the rest of the day. By dinner, my brain was on fire, but I was thrilled to have managed the whole day in Japanese, with a little English thrown in, and even some Chinese and Korean.

Hwaseong Fortress 96

Comments are closed.