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Archive for the ‘From Korea with love’ Category

The charmer

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Doesn’t matter where he is, where he goes, what he’s doing…

He can always get a smile from the ladies.

My dad.

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If I traipsed past a fourteenth century castle on my way to the grocery store would I still gaze in awe? Would the changing of the palace guard cease to thrill and instead become dull and mundane? Would the interminable bus loads of goggling tourists and the incessant chatter of schoolchildren drive me a bit mad? I suppose it’s easy to take for granted even the most spectacular of urban nuclei, tho this mid-city castle is hard to ignore.

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Gyeongbokgung Palace, deep in the heart of Seoul, soared to its zenith in the mid-1400s, largely due to the vision of the monarch at the time, King Jeongjo. No idle ruler, he created a writing system for the Korean language (called Hangeul) which allowed his citizens to build words in the same way as our alphabet, abandoning the need to commit to memory thousands of Chinese characters.

I didn’t get the chance to research (yet) but I wonder if historical literacy rates are consequently higher in Korea than in China.

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The main palace compound served as both residence for king and family and as the meeting place for palace and foreign business discussions. Walking through the compound was a bit like the opening credits of the Get Smart tv show: Door upon door in a never ending sequence, tho here it was archways and inner layers of courtyards and more buildings.

The layers of inner and outer courtyards are quite symmetrical and the courtyard walls form perfect squares aligned with the points of a compass. Quite amazing.

I read that the buildings were sited according to Confucian values of propriety and virtue.

Obviously something was successful as the whole place has a feeling of being stately rather than overbearing.

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Late in the 1500s the original palace was destroyed by the Japanese and the site remained vacant for 273 years! (Gives me hope for some of the demolished-buildings-turned-empty-lots in Winnipeg…) During the reign of another king, Gojong, the compound was rebuilt and expanded.

As Korea lost so many of its significant structures to one battle or another, the various modern-day presidents seem committed to restoring to their original state a large number of palaces, temples, stupas and pagodas.

And the emphasis is on restoration — excavating to the original foundation and endeavoring to replicate the originals as closely as possible. Korea records and numbers these ‘national treasures’ — some research on my return will tell me how many there are.

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When we first walked through the palace gates I told my two free-range children that living in a compound such as this often meant rarely leaving for one’s entire life, especially if one were female. As we wandered though the many buildings it became clearer to us all that this was more like an enclosed village — more than 3,000 royal family members and their servants lived inside the palace walls at one time — and with a few more acres, not so different from living on an island in the Pacific Ocean!

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And while Seoul traffic bustles its way around the outer confines of the palace, the serenity inside the walls of the palace is not too hard to imagine.

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King Jeongjo is quoted as saying, “I read books in my spare time, away from the 10,000 things I must do.”

And so he built, among other secluded spots, this pavilion, where he and his family would retreat from their official obligations.

We were pleased to see the aura of calm remains still!

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Village in the city

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Tucked into the heart of Seoul, near the Gyeongbokgung Palace is the little village of Bukchon.

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A few winding streets, on a small hill above trendy coffee shops and art galleries, are home to about 900 hanok, traditional Korean homes.

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The hanok are built from wood, stone and plaster and have tiled roofs (thatched if they were peasant-class). Behind the surrounding them is a courtyard providing ventilation and light to the surrounding rooms.

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Increasingly, hanok are disappearing as the predominant view among Koreans is that such traditional houses are an anachronism in their modern country, unworthy of preserving.

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The area we discovered in Seoul is increasingly a tourist destination but it’s worth the wander to get a sense of the twisting streets and admire the ancient details contrasted with the modern city panorama.

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National Pride

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The Korean flag is called taegeuki (tah-eh-ge-oo-kee).

The entire design symbolizes the forces of yin and yang — balance and harmony.

The centre circle is divided into two equal parts — the red represents the proactive cosmic forces of the yang and the blue represents the responsive cosmic forces of the yin.

The two forces are always moving and achieve balance and harmony throughout infinity.

The black lines in each corner represent the four universal elements. I’ll try to imitate with colons representing the broken lines.

Heaven – III
Earth – :::
Fire – l:l
Water – :l:

Balance and harmony with the forces of nature.

Sounds like a temple experience all wrapped up in a flag!

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In the previous post about the areas of Gyeongju, I mentioned that this area holds a lot of historic Korean relics — palaces, padogas and sustaining examples of architecture from the Shilla period of just about a millennium ago.

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Right in the central part of the city of Gyeongju, about the size of any city’s central park — Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Park, Vancouver’s Stanley Park or Toronto’s High Park, for example — is a massive massive green space that looks like something from the introductory scenes of Teletubbies (if anyone else remembers back that far) — great grassy hills of green.

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These ictures won’t do them justice but if you can imagine an enormous green pasture, bubbled up in spots, you’ll get the general idea.

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The domes are similar in purpose to the Egytian pyramids — giant place markers for deceased nobility.

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One of the tombs, Cheonmachong, is called Heavenly Horse Tomb. It’s open to visitors and a cross-section display shows its construction.

After the death of the worthy nobleman or -woman, the person was placed in a wooden coffin inside a wooden box, along with crowns, jade jewelry, pottery, weaponry and other items that might be needed in the afterlife. In this particular tomb was found a saddle with a horse painted on its wooden back — hence its name, Heavenly Horse Tomb.

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The park has a serene peaceful quality; a nice place to spend eternity!

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English lesson

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Pronunciation guide included.

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Gyeongju, a region about an hour’s train ride from where we’re staying, is referred to as “the museum without walls,” and indeed, in just a couple of metro bus rides, we saw a condensed collection of tombs, temples, pagodas — sadly missing the palace ruins, Buddhist statuary and rock carvings — in a single day.

This dragon’s head greets visitors immediately upon entering the main temple grounds. I thought it had the feel of Thai design and later was surprised to see a Thai-influenced statue of the Buddha. I don’t know if the coincidence is accidental but no doubt there would have been common influences.

The wooden fish, I learned after my weekend in Haein-sa, is rattled with a stick from the inside, to call people to prayer.

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To put the timeline into perspective, about 57 BC, when Julius Caesar was subduing Gaul, this area of Gyeongu was the capital of the Shilla dynasty, and remained the capital for about 1,000 years until it eventually fell victim to fighting from within and invasion from without.

This pagoda is considered such a shining example of Shilla architecture that a replica sits outside the government buildings in Seoul.

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Bulguk-sa temple represents well the architecture of the Shilla period as some of it was spared from Japanese bombing (a sensitive topic throughout Korea).

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The approach to the temple includes crossing a bridge that has 33 steps — representing the 33 stages to enlightenment…

It’s very kind that we have so many opportunities to practice our routes to enlightenment and Nirvana — I suspect I need more time!

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I’m so glad to traveling with my faithful companion!

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