An Evening and a Day in Gyeongju
It’s been a year since I moved to Korea—and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the place has changed me and my understanding of the world.
While the country has much to offer, 20th century’s occupations and its wars, as well as a rapid post-war growth haven’t been kind to preservation of its historical heritage. Most of Korea’s landmarks have been either leveled, burnt down, or built over—and the country’s current physical manifestations of its past have been invariably reconstructed with an eye towards Disney-esque national myth-building rather than historical accuracy.
I’m not sure when, or how it happened—it was gradual and initially went unnoticed—but this lack of physical historicity has steadily re-trained my eye to extract a sense of place from visual cues bordering on the banal and, at the same time, the less pretentious.
As much as Gyeongju might be a relative exception to that lack of historicity thanks to its unique archeological sites, it nevertheless remains a Korean provincial town with everything that comes along with it.
Ever since I first visited Egypt in 2008, mannequins have become an unexpected portal to the bizarre worlds of far-away places. There is something discomforting about them: while they attempt to be attractive, they more often than not come off as alien-like and detached. And more often than not, they give you a peak at their owner’s tastes / personal history.
The Royal Tombs of Silla
Gyeongju is famous fo its historical significance on the Korean peninsula. It was the capital of Unified Silla, a Buddhist kingdom famed for it culture and arts. As usual, not much remains of the old—most buildings from any era in this part of the world were built of wood. But, compared to the rest of the country, there is more of a… connection to the past be found here. And yes, I’m aware how new age-y it sounds.
Day, Bulguksa Temple
Visiting traditional Korean buidlings—be it Buddhist temples, Confucian schools, or royal palaces of Seoul—is often an exercise in confusion and often frustration to a person genuinely trying to figure out what they’re looking at.
Most guides tell you that this or that edifice was built many many centuries ago. In reality though, most were rebuilt from scratch (and sometimes from memory) in the 1960s and later.
Bulguksa, an admittedly beautiful Buddhist temple, dates its origins back to 8th century. However, the only truly original parts remaining from that period are the stone structures—the stairs, bridges, and the pagodas.
Everything else was re-built in the 1970s—and I’m afraid, improved. In contrast to the royal palaces of Seoul however, as is the theme of this post, the temple is a relative exception to that feeling of physical a-historicity in Korea.
Air, Fall, Seokguram Buddha
There was a point last fall, just a few months after I’ve arrived to Korea, where Seoul was blanketed in an asphyxiating smog that lasted for weeks. Koreans usually like to blame China for this problem—and while partially true that the prevailing winds blow a lot of pollution to the peninsula—to boot, the problem is a home-made phenomenon. This year is not different.
That’s why getting out of Seoul for a weekend has the added benefit of… being reminded of what air smells like. And it smelled like frosty pine forrest in fall colors.