I am writing this as a warning as I wrap up this post. This post is quite long so make sure you have some time to read this. I am not to be held responsible for people arriving late to work, missing classes, not spending time with loved ones, etc.
Last week being New Year, our school was given off from the 31st until the Monday the 5th. My English friend Alick, who had a similar vacay schedule to mine, and I decided to get out of Ulsan and see some of Korea. Wagons north, towards Gyeongju.
So we met at 4:00 on New Years Day, which is just an indication of how hard we partied on NYE, and got a cab to the train station in Ulsan. Within 20 minutes we've boarded a train and get to Gyeongju in another 50 minutes or so.
After searching, for what seeemed like hours, for a suitable place to spend the night, we came across a hostel recommended by Lonely Planet. The first night in Gyeongju was pretty mild as we had both been out late the night before.
Before I get into the meat of our journey, please let me give a little info about Gyeongju. Gyeongju is a city of about 270,000 people or so, well according to Lonely Planet it is, but it is a pretty significant city. Back during the Silla Dynasty, which was from around 57 B.C. to 945 A.D., Gyeongju was the capital of Korea. Gyeongju itself probably has more monuments, temples and so forth than any other part of Korea. Once the Silla dynasty fell apart, Gyeonju became lesse relevant.
So day one, Friday the 2nd, we stroll around downtown Gyeongju to what I call "Tumuli Park" which is this park with all these Tumulis, or mounds. The Tumuli mounds are where they buried the kings during this period, much like the Egyptians and the Pharoahs. We were able to go into one which has since been turned into a museum with relics of the period.
We strolled around some more in the park, saw some observatory made of stone, got lots of stares from children and adult koreans alike, all in all a typical day. Next stop was the Anapji pond, which used to have some cool bridges and buildings but they were burned down so all that's left are some relics and some models of the bridges/buildings. I think it was the Japanese that burned it down somewhere in the 16th century, so I'm blaming you, Summer Masuda, for robbing me of this experience.
We then caught a bus from downtown Gyeongju to the outskirts to see the Bulguksa Temple. Bulguksa, much like the other temples, is kind of like a square with a couple of different halls that will have a golden buddha statue inside and lots of candles, incense or both. Also, part of the buddhist experience is buying a corndog on the way up the mountain to the temple.
While in the area we decided to stop on over to Seokguram Grotto which is some buddha shrine in this mountain. It's supposedly a UNESCO site, as is Bulguksa, but is underwhelming, well at least at 4,000 won (3 dollars or so) to enter. I guess carrying a heavy stone buddha statue up a mountain in the 7th century was some kind of feat or something.
After visiting Seokguram, we decided to head back into Central Gyeongju for the evening. The second evening, we stayed in what is called a yeoinsuk, which are these little dingy whole-in-the-wall places right off of the main street in Gyeongu (well yeoinsuks are all over Korea I guess). We tried asking the lady for 2 beds, one room, I actually learned bed and was able to ask that and also ask how much, so my Korean is improving, but we soon realized that it was not possible. To describe it, the room was a closet with a single bed, a stand with a t.v., 3 foot narrow path to get from door to t.v., and then a bathroom about 5 foot wide-5 food long-8 foot tall, with a toilet, sink, shower spray hose and bucket (your guess is as good as mine). If you do ever come to Korea and want to do it on the cheap, yeoinsuks are the way to go. Also, the bed had an electric heating pad on top of the mattress, brilliant.
The following day, the 3rd of January, we head out to the area close to Bulguksa, only a little bit further away from everything, and go to Golgulsa Temple. Alick and I had both heard about a thing called a Temple stay, where one stays in a Buddhist temple for the night and Golgulsa provides such programs so we decided to give it a shot.
We arrived just after lunch time on Saturday but just in time for archery, 2:00. At precisely 2:16 I realized I still suck at archery. After walking around the temple, which has an impressive stone carving of Buddha in the mountain, we had dinner then got ready for the evening chants. We did the chants, which was more or less standing, bowing, crouching down and doing it all over again. We were never explained what was going on so we had no clue the whole half hour. I imagine it would be like dropping a Korean person into a Roman Catholic Mass given in English or so.
After the evening chant we did Sunmudo, which is a martial art done by the Korean Buddhist Monks. Golgulsa is apparently the capital of Sunmudo and never hesitates to mention it. Our training was more or less split up into 40 minutes of breathing/stretching exercises, 30 minutes of martial arts moves that we could not do, and then about 20 minutes of meditation/demonstration. End of sunmudo, return to rooms and go to bed, lights out at 10.
The following morning, it's rise and shine at 4:00 and be at the morning chant at 4:30 in the morning or else it's 3000 bows. After the chants we did some more meditation and walking meditation.
Next we had a ceremonial breakfast which was by far the most complicated eating experience but very rewarding as well. The whole meal was consumed in silence and we were given 4 bowls, all sitting together, and had to take them out one by one with out making a noise. Then the monks would walk by and dole out your portions and you would rotate the bowl to let them knwo you have enough food. You also did not want a lot of food as buddhists don't waste so you have to eat everything. In the smallest bowl, you put your vegetables and kimchi. 2nd smallest was clean water, then the soup bowl and the biggest was rice. You had to take one piece of kimchi and put it in the soup to take off the red pepper and then put it in the rice bowl to save for later as you would use this piece of cabbage to clean your bowl. Then, eat everything in your bowls, bit by bit. Then they would give you some water, take the water and kimchi (holding it with chopsticks) and clean your rice bowl, move the water to soup bowl, then vegetable bowl, then drink it. Then take the clean water and do the same process, thus cleaning your bowls 2 times. The bowls should be pretty clean the 1st time so that by the second time you rinse your bowls they are clean. The idea is buddhism is all about mindful practices, so you should be mindful when eating, cleaning etc. Then when finished, the monks would pick up your clean water and it had to be clean because they give you clean water and then you give them back clean water. Whatever amount of water wasn't clean you had to drink. Confusing right? Just remember to be thankful you have brillo pads and not shreds of cabbage for cleaning!
The temple then had some trips to some local sites, which included the ruins of a great hall from the Silla Dynasty, King Munmu's underwater tomb and Girimsa Temple site. About King Munmu, he was so big on protecting the nation that he told his people that when he died he wanted to be buried in the East Sea (Sea between Korea and Japan) in the hopes that he would turn into a Dragon and protect Korea. So that's what his son did, or so they say. It's never been proven either way but there are a bunch of rocks some 200 meters off the shore which are cool to look at.
Next is Girimsa site, which to paraphrase LP (Lonely Planet from now on will be LP), is about the size of Bulguksa Temple, as far as number of buildings, but is less visited because of it's location. I actually enjoyed Girimsa a lot but I had already taken a bunch of photos so I was kind of sick being a tourist at that point.
Alick and I then got back to the temple and decided we were sick of being buddhists and decided to skip lunch at the temple and head back to Ulsan.
Some things that Alick and I learned that weekend. Number 1, being a buddhist is incredibly painful. We spent a lot of time sitting on the floor "indian style", which stopped being comfortable somewhere around age 10 or so. Also, the whole bowing, kneeling and sitting on the tops of your feet was incredibly painful after 5 minutes, but doing it for a half hour, geesh.
Number 2, it's hard to clear the mind at times. We both said that when meditating how hard it was for us to keep our mind off of our "to do list", women, football, etc. Buddhism is much easier when you live in a temple in a mountain that is pretty far from most of civilization. It's also a lot easier when you do it frequently, I guess the same can be said of the bowing, kneeling etc.
Number 3, the temple stay was kind of disappointing. I thought it was going to be really traditionally but instead I saw the head monk look at his cell phone as we were going to do the Sunmudo. Also, it was hard for me to get anything out of the chants as I had no clue what was going on. For me, the best part was the ceremonial breakfast, I think mostly because that's what I expected the experience to be. Not talking, cleaning everything with cleaned kimchi, etc.
Lastly, Gyeongju is really a pretty cool place. It doesn't have much of a night life, maybe in the university are but not much going down in Central Gyeongju, trust me, Alick and I tried and failed miserably, but there is a lot to see. I think we saw a lot but barely scratched the surface of the city. Apparently there are some hiking trails, waterfalls, some big pagodas, etc. all on the outskirts of the city. The parks are also supposed to be nice when the cherry blossoms come in during the spring. I definitely could see myself doing a one day/one night trip there sometime.
Wrapping it up, if you're still reading this post, #1 hats off to you. #2 some small housekeeping items. Happy New Year to everyone. I'm not big into New Years but I hope you all had a great one and hope this is a good one for you all. And finally, after much failure, I've decided to stop putting up pictures on the blog. I've come to this conclusion for mostly 2 reasons. First of all, I put them all on facebook which is easier to use, and it takes a lot of time to put pics up on both facebook and the blog. Secondly, whenever I try putting the pics up on the blog, it always seems to end up messing up the format and leaving me dissatisfied. I even do a check before I publish and it will look good, and then it sucks after publishing.
If you don't have a facebook account, get one (L\looking at you Marianne Herricht). This is the 21st century, you know. But if you must be stubborn, then send me an e-mail or leave a request on the blog and I will e-mail them to you but I make no guarantee of when you will get them as I am notorious for being slow to respond. If you have a facebook account and you're not one of my friends, what are you waiting for, add me today for the low, low price of 19.99. No seriously, just look up my name and add me, there is no fee.
That is all. I hope you enjoyed this segment of Chris in Korea: The T.V. Miniseries.
Random Thoughts. Cox' blog to Cleveland sports with a hint of music and current events thrown in there.
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