Korea turned out to be a shorter diversion than we’d expected. Even just a couple weeks ago, when we started planning this, we figured Mark’s knee would be in good shape to hike by this point and there is supposed to be great hiking on Jeju-do, South Korea’s southernmost major island. Alas, that recovery is still lagging so instead of pushing things we headed back to Seoul to do a little more urban sight seeing (really to see if we’d missed something explaining why it’s supposedly such a design destination).First, though, we did a three-day stop in Gyeongju, a little north of Busan and described as a “museum without walls.” Back in 57 B.C., when Julius Ceasar was making his name in Gaul, Gyeongju became the capital of the Shilla dynasty and remained the capital for nearly a thousand years as the dynasty was the first to conquer the entire Korean peninsula.
Today the city is far smaller than the million people who lived there at its peak, but it has tons of historic attractions. The most distinctive of these are the mounds, round grassy tombs called tumuli, all over the city and outlying areas. They’re all tombs of monarchs, their families, and other important people. Most (all?) of them have been excavated and relieved of their riches, but the mounds still remain.
The biggest attraction in the area, several miles outside of town, is the Buddhist temple called Bulguk-sa, a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site called “the crowning glory of Shilla architecture.” No question about it, it’s a beautiful retreat with gorgeous buildings. Mark & I were curious, though, about just how old the buildings we saw were. I mean, how long can wood buildings and especially the paint on them last? Turns out most of the buildings are restorations of the long-since destroyed originals.
After this little stopover it was back on a bullet train to Seoul. After our second stop in the city I’m still struggling to figure out what to make of it. I’d expected great design and architecture and, with a couple exceptions, didn’t find it. In fact, we went out of or way to go to the Dongdaemun Design Plaza and Park, completed in 2013 as a showcase to Korean design. Wow, was I not impressed. It struck me as a bad hangover from 1970s and 1980s ugly urban renewal, something that will have to be torn down in 10 years to save the neighborhood.Still, there is something fascinating and alive – intense – in the city. With 10.5 million people living there, it’s bigger than Michigan. Yeah, imagine taking everyone in Michigan and putting them in less than 250 square miles and you’re going to get something interesting going on. I spent one of our days on a huge walk across part of the city (something over 15 miles) and back up Namsan Park for a clear-day view of the megapolis and was just so urban, so big. I have a feeling that if I had a few weeks to spend in Seoul I’d come to love it, but I’ll admit I’m not there yet.
The big excursion for this return visit was to go up to the Demilitarized Zone and Joint Security Area. Calling it a demilitarized zone is something of a misnomer: it’s incredibly militarized as North and South Korea continue their decades-long face-off across the 38th parallel (or the post-1953 equivalent). It’s been called the scariest place on earth, but speaking with experience now I can say that’s an overstatement. Lots of military and land mines and electric fences and all that, but they wouldn’t take tourists there if it were really that dangerous. The only way to see these two areas is on an organized tour so, notwithstanding our general aversion to such things, we signed up. (Not surprisingly we loved the experience and hated the tour; the guides just blathered on, seemingly thinking silence was the ultimate sin.)
The DMZ portion of the tour was interesting enough; you got to tour one of the tunnels the North built to try to infiltrate its troops into the South and an observatory area where you can look through powerful binoculars into the North. And we went to a train station built a few years ago in an era of optimism to handle high-speed trains between Seoul and Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. Everything is set to go for better relations, if not unification, except for the absence of train tracks and permission from the North to start building. Except for that, though, the train station is ready to go.
The real excitement though was the trip to the Joint Security Area, an area built in Panmunjeom for the peace talks after the 1953 armistice. There are guards there at full alert just a couple yards from the formal border. Across the way you can see North Korean troops standing on alert lest the South Koreans get too frisky or something. The totally cool part of the tour is that you’re allowed into building that straddles the border, apparently set up for meetings. And then you can walk a couple yards into North Korean territory. How cool is that? Mark & I both just kept grinning: We’re in North Korea! Absent a more serious opportunity, though, we won’t count it as one of the countries we’ve actually been to.
So now it’s off to Koh Samui, Thailand for some serious beach time and a little celebration for Mark’s 50th birthday.