Meg Noble Peterson

Author of Madam, Have You Ever Really Been Happy? An Intimate Journey through Africa and Asia

Category: South Korea

FAREWELL TO SOUTH KOREA

December 28-29, 2018

We arose early on our final day in Gyeongju, eager to visit the famous Bulguksa Temple. A World Heritage site, it is located out of town on the slopes of Mt. Toham, and is the head temple of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism. Off we went on a modern bus, which wound through country roads, past numerous resort hotels, hills reminiscent of the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and a large lake. What a beautiful place for a vacation…in the summer!

Like most of the places we’ve visited, the temple grounds were reached by a bank of steep stone steps. Once we had climbed up, we walked, leisurely, through a massive park adorned with artistic walls and beautifully sculpted trees. The temple seemed to me a bit sparse in contrast to the lush countryside, but it dated from around 751 AD, a sturdy structure from a simpler time. Walks and lattice work showed where the monks had lived. There are very few monks still in South Korea these days, according to Shawo. He said that atheism is on the rise, except for several Christian groups, mainly the Roman Catholics, known to be aggressive in their proselytizing.

Click on photos for slide show.

You will notice in these next three photos that numerous small lanterns hang on many of the ceilings of the temple. Written on the little cards attached to the lanterns are the names of donors (benefactors) who support the temple. It’s quite colorful and decorative.

I am always entranced by the meticulous carvings throughout Buddhist temples, especially on the roofs and around the windows. Here are a few samples.

And now it was time to retrace our steps and head for the bus for our return to town.

At eight the next morning we boarded the bullet train for Seoul-Incheon airport. Once again, I was blown away by the cleanliness and artistic design of the buildings, especially the airport. I took too many pictures, a sign of gratitude for the beauty and freshness of a country that has moved to First World status in a relatively short time. American subways and buses could take a lesson from South Korea. There is no litter and people are constantly cleaning, whether sidewalks or rolling walkways in airports. The contrast between the dust and dirt of Nepal and India is striking. After my recent mishap on a speed bump in Boudha, I sure loved the even streets and orderly infrastructure.

Don’t ask me how many escalators we negotiated on our pilgrimage through the airport. Cary and Shawo did the heavy lifting, so I was free to video various cultural events and folk dances seen along the way. Here is a sample of our farewell meanderings. And you will be glad to know that I finally got my ice cream cone…at Baskin-Robbins, no less. It was Shawo’s treat.

And now, the long walk to our gate.

I wrote down some interesting statistics about our trip back to Seattle. We traveled 8 hours and 35 minutes at 780 mph. Korea is 17 hours behind us, but with a tail wind, we arrived shortly after 8 AM Seattle time…before we had even left…according to the calendar. Boggles the mind!

We were full of mixed feelings as the plane ascended and we prepared for the long night ahead. Our minds were swirling with images of happy people, holiday celebrations, unique restaurants, temples and monuments, long meandering walks through pristine parks, and, most of all, the renewed connection with our dear friend, Shawo. There was sadness at leaving, but also excitement at the promise of future trips to whatever Asian country his career led him. The connection would not be broken.

TOMBS, TEMPLES, GROTTOS & PAGODAS…

December 27, 2018

For the next two whirlwind days we hit as many historical sites as our energy—and the cold—allowed.

We were eager to visit the famous burial mounds of Gyeongju and explore the extensive tomb complex that included the Royal Tomb of King Naemul, the 17th ruler of the Silla Kingdom, from 356-402, and King Michu (262-284), the first king of the Kim clan and the 13th king in the Silla period. There is fabulous jewelry in the Cheonmachong Tomb, including a spectacular gold crown. The grounds were lovely as were the small ponds that graced the them.

Click on photo to see slide show.

Many of the national treasures we visited were built during the reign of Silla Queen Seondeok, 632-647 AD. Next on our excursion through the bitter wintry weather was the Gyeongju National Museum. On our long walk there we passed the Cheomseongdae Observatory.

The Gyeongju National Museum is a marvel! There are three main buildings, each one with its own character. It would be impossible to show you all the photos I took of statues and artifacts, but here are a few to whet your appetite.

Pagodas, often found in famous grottoes like the Seokguram Grotto, fascinated me. Among several I saw was the stunning Dabotap Pagoda, which stood in a vast courtyard of the museum.

The Dabotap Pagoda

Click on photo to see slide show.

Doing all this we really worked up an appetite! Gyeongju has many intriguing restaurants with, for us, unusual forms of service. One of our favorites was a type of buffet where you could pick anything and cook it yourself. However, there was a rule that if you took the food and didn’t eat it there would be a charge.

I finally found what I thought was going to be ice cream, only to discover that it was snow with two scoops of green tea ice cream, a little chocolate sauce dribbled on it, and a couple of chunks of chocolate at the bottom. Cary and Shawo loved it, but it tasted to me like a chunk of new-fallen snow! You can see that Cary and Shawo made quick work of it.

The last meal of our stay was at an Italian-Korean restaurant where we delighted in a veggie meal of arugula and mushroom salad, a cheese and cashew pizza, and another pizza, this time with more arugula. We were so hungry for veggies after our meat-filled cuisine.

Our days were filled with discussions about international politics, social structure, and the Korean society as Shawo was experiencing it. I hesitate to make generalizations after such a short time, but here are some observations, nonetheless.

Of course, the Korean family is front and center of a rather structured social system. There are what we call lots of “shoulds” and “oughts” in the society. Expectations are high and pressure on the children to succeed and make the family proud is also very high. It all sounds oppressive to me. So much has to do with status. In fact, many families will fund their children after college until they get the “right” job with the right amount of prestige and income.

As I mentioned, previously, the extent to which the younger women pay attention to their appearance and fashion is quite evident. They use many whitening products for their skin and their make-up is exquisite. It’s almost as if they are walking manikins. It must take hours of preparation each day! I was also told that plastic surgery is prevalent throughout the country.

Observing all this, I realized what a happy go-lucky life I had had growing up, although, like so many people, the pressure we put on ourselves can be just as bad as that forced on us from without. So in the long run, it’s best not to judge.

In the evenings after dinner, we enjoyed wandering through the brightly-lit streets before going to our comfy room with the warm floors. How we savored these last two nights in this interesting country!

A SOJOURN TO DONGGUK UNIVERSITY FOLLOWED BY SHAWO’S DELICIOUS TIBETAN MOMOS!

December 26, 2018

We headed for Dongguk University, through beautiful parks and burial mounds, and a bustling Christmas Market. And, of course, we had to grab at least one cappuccino for the road! The sun was shining, but I still thought I would freeze. I bet we clocked six miles for the day.

Click on photo to start slideshow.

The university was as impressive as it was extensive. It was rather quiet with all students and professors gone for the winter holiday. Dongguk University was founded in 1906 by Buddhist leaders based on the idea of saving the country through education. The Gyeongju campus was established in 1978 with the “purpose of creating a strong national culture through combining the spiritual with the scientific, cultivating people who are leading Korea unification, supporting the community, and bolstering academic development.” Each year there is a competitive process to select a Tibetan student to be awarded a full scholarship to study at Dongguk. How wonderful that Shawo received the scholarship and has had a chance to learn, grow, and develop in ways not possible at an Indian university.

You’ll note that there is a design garden in front of one of the buildings with what might look to a Westerner likes a swastika. Actually, this is an Aryan symbol, which I first saw in northern India—an ancient religious icon—a sign of peace and divinity, eternity and spirituality. It is geometrical, and when it was preempted by the Nazis as their symbol of world domination, it was written backwards.

That evening was really special for us. Shawo picked up a myriad of ingredients and took us to his apartment for the treat of the week…homemade momos! This is a specialty of Tibet, which has gained popularity in all of Asia. To us they are dumplings.

The evening was spent in lively conversation as Shawo expertly fashioned the small treats, after which he made our favorite veggie noodle soup, thenthuk (pronounced ten-tuk). What was so much fun for all of us was Shawo’s eagerness to learn American slang and all kinds of colorful colloquialisms that you’d never learn in an English class. He made a long list in his notebook and seemed positively gleeful at each new expression. And what was so great was that he used them readily. My language is rather colorful, and Cary admonished me that teaching Shawo “cold as a witches tit” might not be socially acceptable. “Crazy as a loon” was another favorite.

After Shawo’s delicious dinner we grabbed one of those fancy cabs and went through the brightly-lit streets to our guesthouse. As a point of interest I feel compelled to mention that the traffic lights in South Korea are the longest lights on the face of the earth. I surely thought I’d fall asleep before we made it through the fifth one. It was worse than waiting for Verizon to go through the prompts and connect me to an actual human being. This trip has convinced me that I need to work on my patience!

SOUTH KOREA…WHAT A WONDERFUL WAY TO END A TRIP!

December 24 – 25, 2018

Just for fun I’m starting at the end of our five-week journey to Nepal and Korea in November and December. The luxury of South Korea provided a perfect transition from our more rugged stay in Nepal and the reality of a cold, rain-soaked welcome on Whidbey Island.

We left Kathmandu on Christmas Eve and arrived in Seoul-Incheon airport at 2:30 AM Christmas morning (5:30 AM Korean time). There was Shawo waiting for us. We have known him since he first came across the border from Tibet to India as a teenager, and became a student at the Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV) School in Suja. In 2015, Shawo graduated top of the class, a huge accomplishment. He is now in his third year at Dongguk University in Gyeongju, South Korea, on a full scholarship. He is majoring in Global Economics and Korean Literature. Even more impressive, in one year of intensive study he learned Korean well enough to take university level courses!

Together we navigated the pristine modern airport, making our way through a labyrinth of escalators and subways before reaching the bullet train that would take us to Gyeongju.

Our eyes were popping as we entered this First World country and sped on the bullet train for two hours through scenic lands dotted with modern cities surrounded by mountains and farmlands. After arriving at the Singyeongju train station we grabbed a taxi – a fancy Korean sedan.

The driver, an elegant older man, put our address into his GPS, and with no bargaining—our well-honed habit in Nepal—we cruised through clean, paved streets to our guest house. Upon arrival, we nodded farewell to the driver, being told by Shawo that tipping was NOT DONE. For the next four days we discovered that these brand new cabs were easily located on every street and taken with no fuss or aggravation.

Hurray! Heat in our room…and under the floor! A hot shower, bright lights, automatic electric door locks, modern sink and toilet. We had died and gone to heaven! The entrance and hallways were plain cement, but the room made up for it. It’s amazing how comforts that we take for granted are such fun when you’ve been without them for a month. There was a large kitchen near the downstairs entrance, where each person made his or her own breakfast, something I had never seen in my travels. It was a jolly affair with everyone seated at long tables. A variety of food, coffee, stove tops, and sinks were readily available.

One discovery we made when climbing the stairs rather than taking the elevator. There was no fourth floor. It was like the thirteenth floor in many U. S. hotels. It was thought to be unlucky. But we WERE on the fourth floor, even though it was called the fifth. Go figure….

The weather was bitter cold, so we curtailed our walking for the day and grabbed a quick afternoon meal at an excellent Japanese Restaurant. We were slated for a Christmas celebration in the evening at a traditional Korean restaurant, generously hosted by one of Shawo’s friends, Professor Hye Soon Kim, Chair of the Department of Early Childhood Education at Dongguk University. She was a gracious woman and genuinely delighted to welcome Shawo’s friends from the West. Three Tibetan students and one Mongolian student completed the party. Tenzin, getting her Ph,D in Business, celebrated her 29th birthday with a cake and the usual Happy Birthday song. This was the second time I had heard it on our trip. Once on the trek in Nepal and, again, in Korea. I love the way every country sings the same lyrics rather than a translation. What a universal song that is! In her thank you remarks, Tenzin paid Cary a much-deserved and eloquent tribute for her work with TCV students and her support of the program over the years.

Professor Kim, our hostess, is on the far left. Tenzin, whose birthday it was, is third from left.

The meal was typically Korean with a plethora of small dishes coming thick and fast. There are no courses. As I’ve written earlier, eating is almost a spiritual experience for many people in Korea. Soup, unlike in many other cultures, is part of the main course rather than at the beginning or end of the meal. I wish I had felt comfortable enough to take pictures of the spread (we were sitting on pads at a low, rectangular table) and the charming women who served us, dressed in what looked to me like Puritan attire from 1620 Plymouth, MA. Except the bonnets and skirts, which were of a red motif, not black and white. But this was a time to experience, not record. Luckily one of the servers took our photo! A beautiful setting and lively conversation.

For the next three days we took in the sights and sounds of the bustling city and the historic temples and burial mounds. We started at the bank, where we given a ticket and sat on leather sofas waiting our turn, after which we roamed up and down the streets, popping into quaint stationery stores and others that seemed like miniature art galleries. It seemed to me that every establishment had a special artistic quality. Even the coffee shops were designed with a theme, like a swanky cafe or a living room with easy chairs. There seemed to be no rush. Elegance and tranquility was the order of the day.

Gyeongju is a World Heritage Site famous for the tombs of the rulers of the Silla era. These enormous burial mounds can be seen throughout the city, as well as visited. The amazing intricate jewelry and artifacts are part of the proud historical heritage of South Korea. One of the most interesting sights during our walk around town was the massive bronze Silla bell, called the Bell of King Seongdeok, the largest extant bell in South Korea. It was cast in 771 A.D.

Now it’s off to Shawo’s college, as we continue to explore sunny, frosty South Korea.

© 2019 Meg Noble Peterson & Site by Matt McDowell