South Korea

"38 Degrees of Separation"

May 2016

An adventure encompassing South Korea was never initially particularly high up on my must see list, but this trip proved that sometimes destinations that are enlightened upon through serendipity can elicit the most fulfilling of travel experiences. Like many, my scant knowledge of the country was limited to its sad history of brutal proxy wars and the long standing schism with its belligerent isolationist neighbour to the north. Surrounded by powerful neighbours namely Russia, China and Japan, Korea’s history has been dominated by their neighbours bellicose ambitions. In essence Korea was a pawn on North-East Asia’s chess board. Ultimately modern-day South Korea is far more than just a hostage to its history, today it is a shining beacon of modernity, a regional economic powerhouse and a world leader in the high technology industry.

A Brief History

Korea’s history has been one of constant struggle between the competing forces of unification and division, a situation that was constant until the fractious division of Korea in the 1940’s, which remains the status quo we see today. Thus the early history laid out here prior to this time is a general overview of the Korean peninsula as an entire entity.

Archaeological finds of stone tools indicate that the Korean peninsula was initially settled around 30,000 years ago by peoples originating from Central and North Asia. By 4000 BC there was evidence of Stone Age farmers inhabiting the peninsula. Korea’s first recorded ruling dynasty the Gojoseon, was founded around 300 BC, it remained in power until the region was invaded in 108 BC by the powerful Chinese Han Dynasty. A variety of minor dynasties flourished and subsequently disappeared until the Silla Dynasty assumed power in 676 AD. The Silla Dynasty was superseded by the Goryeo Dynasty that appropriated power in 918, ruling for just over three hundred years until the Mongol invasion overran the country in 1231. In 1392 a military leader named Yi Seonggye seized power establishing the Joseon Dynasty, which was fated to be Korea’s last, retaining power until 1910. During this period Korea faced a series of truculent incursions and occupations by their powerful regional neighbours China and Japan.

 

Following a period of isolationist policies, towards the end of the 19th century Korea opened its doors to western countries signing trade deals with the USA, Britain, France, Germany and Russia. The years 1895-1910 saw increasing Japanese influence over Korean affairs, culminating in Japan eventually annexing Korea in 1910.

 

In `1945 at the culmination of the Second World War Korea was divided in two along an imaginary line, the 38th parallel. Russian troops entered the north and American troops arrived in the south. With the onset of the machinations of the Cold War - the division between the north with a Communist government, and the south with a Democratic government – a military confrontation seemed inevitable. On 25th June 1950 the North Korean army invaded the south initially controlling vast areas of the country.

Aided by American, British and United Nations troops the South Korean army pushed the norths troops back over the 38th parallel, eventually controlling two thirds of North Korea’s territory. At the end of November of that year, reinforced by Chinese troops, North Korea was able to push the allied troops back up to and beyond the 38th parallel. Following two more years of offensives and counter offensives, the war ended in a stalemate, and on 27th July 1953 a ceasefire was signed and the 38th parallel once more became the schism that divides the two countries to this day.

 

Between the mid 1960’s and the 1990’s South Korea transformed itself from a relatively under developed country into the regions’ economic miracle nation. In 1988 South Korea hosted the Olympic Games, and in 2002 held the FIFA World Cup tournament jointly with Japan. South Korea’s vibrant economy encompasses global brands including Kia, Hyundai and Samsung. The many decades of stand-off between the south and its belligerent northern neighbour continue to starkly divide the two Korea’s into rich and poor, democratic and dictatorial, free and oppressed.

The Journey

After a ten and a half hour overnight flight my Korean Air A380-800 finally touches down in the South Korean capital Seoul. South Korea has a population of 50 million people with around 10 million living in Seoul, the country attracts around 14 million tourists per year. As is the norm on these trips the first day commences with a city orientation tour. Seoul is a splendid modern city with a forest of brand new skyscrapers punctuating the skyline. Very few older buildings survived the ravages of the Korean War, many of the temples and palaces having partially survived the devastation, have in recent years undergone sympathetic reconstruction programs in order to restore them to their former glory. Seoul is a heady mixture of chic shopping districts, traditional markets, historic palaces, temples, towering modern office blocks, bustling streets and pulsating nightlife.

Jumping off the tour bus, camera in hand, looming far larger than life is the gigantic statue of King Sejong. Ruling the country from 1418-50, he was responsible for inventing the Korean alphabet – which remains virtually unchanged until today - replacing the Chinese script then in use. Close by is the location of Gyeongbokgung Palace, which translates as the Palace of Shinning Happiness. Constructed in 1405 as a residence for the ruling Joseon Dynasty it is a repository of magnificent buildings; destroyed by the Japanese at the end of the 16th century, it was rebuilt in 1610 and served as a royal residence for nearly 300 years. The numerous exquisite buildings within the palace grounds include a throne hall, a council hall and separate residential halls for the king and queen.

Jogyesa Temple, founded in 1910, is the headquarters of the official sect of Buddhism in South Korea. The temple was thronged with visitors, and as it was close to the Buddha’s birthday was profusely decorated with a panoply of colourful paper lanterns, the many supplicants lighting candles and offering prayers, the heady fragrant smell of incense permeating the air.

Unhyeongung Palace, construction commenced in 1864, is another magnificent Joseon Dynasty palace complex. The numerous buildings are predominately constructed from wood, beautifully carved and elaborately decorated, the traditional slopping roofs covered in heavy tiles. In the Bukchan district of the city the small winding streets are lined with traditional old wooden houses - a portal into Seoul’s architectural past - a stark contrast with the unrelenting high rise modernity that punctuates much of the city skyline. The attractions listed above are just a few examples of the wonderful sights that Seoul has to offer visitors. There are of course many more temples and palaces to visit and photograph, along with various museums, street markets and eateries all well worth frequenting.

At the numerous palaces and temples visited a copious number of the local people dress up in highly colourful traditional Korean costumes, this consists of a short jacket and voluminous skirt for women, and a jacket with loose trousers tied at the ankles for men. Clothing in this style was worn as long ago as 500 AD, and still finds a niche place in South Korea’s modern fashionable society.

An hours drive north west of Seoul is one of the most fascinating and surreal visitor experiences on the planet, the site of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the heavily fortified border with North Korea. Despite a ceasefire agreement having been signed in 1953, the two countries still remain technically at war. This fascinating tour begins in the village of Panmunjom, known as the Truce Camp, it is the official point of contact between North Korea and the free world, this area is heavily mined and patrolled by well-armed soldiers. Once inside the DMZ there is a fascinating talk by a North Korean defector on life inside that country, and the journey undertaken to reach the freedom of South Korea. Next there is a briefing on the highly regimented and regulated protocols of the tour, followed by a visit to the Third Tunnel of Aggression. This was one of several tunnels the North Koreans constructed under the DMZ in anticipation of secreting troops into the south, it was said to have been capable of funnelling innumerable vehicles, and troops to the tune of 30,000 an hour.

The Joint Security Area (JSA) is situated right on the physical demarcation line that marks the border, and here are located three blue huts. Inside the middle hut a soldier stands in front of a table, to the left of the table you are in South Korea and to the right you are in North Korea. One by one you can stand to the right and have your picture taken “officially” in the north. The two Koreas also engage in the most comical and absurd of propaganda wars concerning who flies the bigger flag, at one stage the flags were so big that they flopped listlessly against their giant flag poles in anything less than a force eight hurricane.

Located just south of the DMZ is Dorasan Station, built in 2002 at a cost of $40 million, it was to be part of the Trans Eurasian Railway Network that was to run from South Korea, through North Korea all the way to western Europe. Today the station remains pristine and unused, an anachronism locked in a time warp, a ghostly tourist attraction. Its unused equipment and infrastructure remain as a vacuous potent reminder of the ongoing troubled situation in this region.

 

Seoraksan National Park is located a three hour drive east of Seoul, verdant forest blankets the hillside, picturesque streams meander through the vista with jagged mountains jutting ever skywards. The park is crisscrossed with numerous nature trails and is a magnet for walkers and ramblers, dotted around the park are numerous elaborate temples and shrines. The Zen Sinheung-sa Temple built in 1648 contains a large golden Buddha image; intricately carved ceilings and highly colourful painted floral motifs make this temple a visual delight. Located 3km further along a path running beside a picture postcard singing streambed is Gyejoam Hermitage, a Buddhist cave temple hewn directly out of the granite rock. Although the Hermitage is a pilgrimage destination for devout Buddhists, in recent times a nearby geological curiosity has become a major tourist attraction. The Rocking Rock is a massive granite boulder that rocks back and forth in its secure place when given a solid nudge; being photographed in front of this tipsy boulder has become a tourist must.

 

Among the many fascinating experiences encountered on this journey, an overnight stay at the Buddhist Samwhasa Temple in Donghae stands out as a unique opportunity to indulge in and appreciate monastic life. On arrival we are divested of our western clothes and given a simple tunic and trousers for the duration of our stay. After participating in a Buddhist prayer ceremony we then have a simple vegetarian dinner. After dinner we are invited by the head monk to a tea ceremony, an elaborate and ritualised event involving the accompaniment of drumming and bell ringing. Participating in early morning prayers at 4am was something I was content miss out on. After breakfast we say our farewells and are on our way imbued with an inner calm and tranquillity. The entire experience, although ephemeral and bland was a rather abstruse concept to quantify, worth doing but the one day was more than adequate.

 

Buseoksa Temple or the Floating Rock Temple in Yeongju dates back to the late 7th century, it is one of South Koreas most beautiful temple complexes. The numerous classical wooden buildings here are highly decorated in the traditional florid style, many with fearsome looking larger than life carved deity guardians stationed at their entrances. The temples are situated in immaculately manicured gardens which enhances the beauty and tranquillity of the overall setting.

 

Situated at Jebiwon in the shadow of the Sobaek Mountains is the awesome sight of the Amitaba Buddha. Carved onto a massive granite boulder in the 11th century, this colossal 12.4 meter high Buddha is a monumental piece of religious artwork; a wonderful photogenic diversion from the days temple overload.

After a long and exhausting day visiting magnificent temples and enjoying the surrounding mountain scenery we arrive at our homestay accommodation. Suaendang House in Andong is a Korean hanok house that is constructed in the traditional architectural style of the Joseon Dynasty. Built in 1939, it consists of three large structures built from pine with gently sloping tiled roofs and surrounded by a walled enclosure. The buildings combine the gentility of a traditional house and the aesthetic touch of modernity. We are treated to a Korean tea ceremony, a typical Korean dinner, and in the morning were surprised with a full English breakfast to send us on our way.

Hahoe Folk Village is a traditional Joseon Dynasty style village that transports the visitor back into 16th century Korea. Comprising over 140 buildings there are earthen thatched huts, and larger structures constructed of wood and roofed with tiles. Although on the tourist trail, Hahoe Folk Village is a living community where the residents go about their daily lives, more or less as it has been lived for centuries, oblivious to the odd camera-toting tourist. Appreciated for its rustic charm and traditional aesthetics by inquisitive visitors, the village residents have unashamedly availed themselves of a few of life’s modernity’s, even the oldest house – probably around 550 years old – is equipped with a refrigerator and television antenna.

Located a two hour train journey south of Andong is Gyeongju, South Korea’s second largest city. Once the capital of the ancient kingdom of Silla, Gyeongju ruled over most of the Korean peninsula between the 7th and 9th centuries. Today this modern city is home to several UNESCO World Heritage Sites in addition to many other wonderful visitor attractions. A pleasant hike through woods terminates at Seokgram Grotto, as classical a Buddhist temple as can be found anywhere in the Far East. Enshrined within a large circular chamber, and enclosed with a graceful carved domed ceiling is a grandiose white granite Buddha image sitting serenely in repose on a lotus dais. In close proximity is the sprawling temple complex of Bulguksa, one of the oldest surviving and most impressive Buddhist temples in Korea. The imposing Silla-era structures contained therein are blessed with such wonderful names as, The Great Enlightenment Hall, No Word Hall and The Supreme Bliss Hall. Situated on a spectacular hillside setting amongst beautiful manicured gardens, there are wonderful stone crafted pagodas and magnificent wooden buildings decorated in flamboyant vivid colours typical of the era. Like most of the attractions in Gyeongju, these temples were heavily crowded with families on a day out and groups of school children; photography was thus generally quite challenging.

Gyeongju’s premier visitor attraction is Tumuli Park, this is the site of some 20 huge earthen grass covered burial mounds containing the tombs of Korea’s ancient kings. The most accessible of these is the Tomb of the Flying Horse, excavated in 1973 it stands 50 meters in diameter and 13 metres high. Inside the mound is a syncretic explanation of the methods used in the construction of the tomb, and a display of the numerous treasures that were discovered during the excavation.

The Gyeongju National Museum is a repository for the preservation of the historical artefacts and relics from the era of the Silla Dynasty, one of the longest ruling dynasties in Asian history. Opened in 1945 the museum contains more than 80,000 exhibits. It also incorporates a museum school conducting a variety of educational programs designed to enable children to appreciate Korea’s cultural heritage. Several hours perusing the museum provides a welcome break from the vagaries of temple overload.

Back on the temple trail, several hours south of Gyeongju is the location of Tongdosa Temple. With a total of 65 buildings, Tongdosa is South Korea’s largest temple complex. Guarded by a quartet of vividly painted formidable deities, the numerous structures exhibit the classic architectural style of Korean Buddhist temples. Although many of the buildings are gloriously painted in florid colours, some are left unpainted and faded to the subdued brown hue of weathered pine. The name Tongdosa translates sublimely to “salvation of the world through mastery of truth”.

Located in the south-eastern corner of the Korean peninsula is the port city of Busan. With a population of 3.6 million the city is a bustling mesmeric mixture of boats, loading cranes, high rise buildings and elevated highways. Busan’s downtown area is the location of its famous Jagalchi Fish Market; all sorts of weird and wonderful creatures can be observed swimming around in large glass tanks awaiting their fate to end up on some ones dinner table. After an all too brief tour of Busan it is off to the airport to catch a short flight to the island of Jeju.

Jeju is South Korea’s largest island and its premier holiday destination. Formed from the lava of a now dormant volcano, the island developed in isolation from the mainland, having its own distinct culture and speaking a different dialect of Korean. Farming, fishing and tourism are the island’s main industries; some 8 million tourists visit Jeju each year, the majority being Chinese as Shanghai is a convenient short 2 hour flight away.

The Manjanggul lava tube is a large rather damp and cold underground tunnel formed around 200,000 years ago when volcanic lava flowed towards the sea, the top hardened as it was exposed to the air thus forming a tunnel. The lava tube is a mindboggling 13.5km in length and up to a maximum of 20 metres in diameter. The tube is home to a variety of exotic wildlife including bats, centipedes and spiders; a lamplight tour is not for the faint hearted.

 

Jeju’s Haenyeo Museum is a repository dedicated to the traditional island practice whereby local women dive to harvest seafood, they dive to great depths without the aid of any form of breathing equipment. The women, many between 50 and 80 years of age can hold their breath underwater for up to 3 minutes. This is an incredibly tough occupation where many of the women suffer ill effects such as headaches and loss of hearing due to the depths of their dives. This centuries old tradition is still practiced today by several thousand women on the island, drawing in tourists to watch the somewhat contrived spectacle. Staged especially to entertain, the Haenyeo women are the favourite target of every camera-toting tourist who visits Jeju.

 

A wonderful walk along the coast terminates at Jeongbang Falls, the only waterfall in Asia that plunges directly into the sea. The waterfall is a magnet for tourists and locals alike to pose and have their picture taken in front of the spectacular watery backdrop. Like so many other places in South Korea the locals here were wonderfully enthusiastic and amenable to pose for my camera, enabling me to create some truly memorable portraits that provide lingering memories of a wonderful journey around this fascinating country.

An Overview

This journey of discovery around South Korea was an exhilarating and eye-opening traverse of a country that does not have a particularly high tourist profile. As such at the majority of sites visited it is mainly local Koreans that are encountered rather than hordes of foreign tourists. From a visitor experience perspective this situation is a real positive, from a photographic point of view it is ideal. The highlights of this trip were the visits to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and the homestay in Andong, both visitations will endure long in the memory as standout events of a memorable holiday.

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