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.
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.