Sunday, August 14, 2011

Summer Vacation Part 1: Buyeo

Hello, folks - It's been a week since I've posted as I've been out of town on the aforementioned "5 night, 6 days" journey through South Korea with my rabbit. All-in-all, a wonder-filled time. We packed a lot into our days and our trip was largely colored by three factors: 1) We have no car, so our journey was one planned entirely on buses and trains, 2) At this time of year, most vacationing Korean families are hitting the coast for some beach action, so the areas on our itinerary were mercifully devoid of large crowds, and 3) there was a fair amount of rain continuing throughout the peninsula so temperatures were not unbearable for two folks lugging their backpacks about.

Anyway, we saw and did a lot, and I would like to tell you about some of it...

Rather than be a turd burglar and turn to Wikipedia to tell you a bunch of historical facts, I'll just relate what I can recall from memory. It's sometimes overwhelming to recognize how much documented human history exists in such a tiny place as Korea. I'm from Canada where our old stuff simply gets knocked-down for high rises. Here, they build around it.

Buyeo was the latest capital of the Baekjae Kingdom which ruled over the various parts of the peninsula and greatly influenced parts of China and (most notably) Japan before getting run-over buy the neighbouring Silla Kingdom which allied itself with the Tang dynasty from China. Just for the sake of numbers, the Baekje Kingdom was in existence roughly from 18 BC until 660 AD when it fell to the Silla/Tang invasion. Buyeo (then known as Sabi) was the last capital of the Kingdom, and therefore the site of many found relics which have since become national treasures of the entire South Korean Nation. According to all credible sources, The Baekje Kingdom was pretty much the bee's knees when it came to advances in metal works, stone masonry, pottery, and architecture. They brought Buddhism to the peninsula from China, exported it to Japan, and taught the Japanese how to build a bad-ass pagoda. And that is today's history lesson with Teacher Dave.

But back to Buyeo...

As a visitor to the smallish town (under 100,000), there are not a ton of activities to engage in that don't involve immersing oneself in history. I am completely okay with that. Most of Korea still feels new and undiscovered to me, and I find must of this stuff fascinating, so I didn't at all mind museum-hopping and staring at old pagodas in the rain. Buyeo is the perfect place to witness a small town building itself entirely upon a relatively newly uncovered history. Some of it is inspiring, a little bit of it was frustrating, and all of it was fascinating.

A few highlights:

The Jeongrimsaji Temple - (probably built in the middle of the 6th century isn't really a temple at all anymore, though there are (I think unfortunately) plans afoot to rebuild the majority of the original temple structure. What does remain on the site, which is situated roughly in the middle of town) is a 5-story stone pagoda (National Treasure #9) and a simple (and relatively newly-built) lecture hall which houses what is surely the world's cutest stone Buddha statue. I saw pictures of the statue standing without its current wooden protection back in the early 1930s and it makes you just want to go give it a hug.

A small lotus pond rimmed with stone also remains, and there are obvious markers that define the original placement of the rest of the temple structure, but for the most part, Jeongrimsaji is pretty much a stone pagoda and and odd Buddha statue in the middle of a field. I really like it that way. To me it was more awe-inspiring to imagine what was once there as opposed to having today's artisans rebuild what once was. Anyway, should I visit Buyeo in the not too distant future, I believe there will be a newly constructed temple around Mr. pagoda and Mr. Buddha then.

For those that are curious, a ticket to a quality museum dedicated mainly to the temple and the Buddhist history of the Kingdom can be yours as part of the 1,500 won admission price to the temple site. There was a great deal uncovered at this temple site in recent years that has given the people of this area a much better perspective of the cultural contributions made by the Baekje people. Jeongrimsaji was my first Buyeo point of interest and I must say that I have a fondness for those two works of stone. This is a great starting point for your Buyeo itinerary as it gives you a decent perspective of what was once here.

Buyeo National Museum - like Seoul's National Museum of Korea, only about a 10th the size. This new location opened in 1993 and is an impressive space with outdoor and indoor displays in the tradition and style of its larger Seoul cousin. Again, cost is minimal and one can rent a helpful MP3 player in English which is motion activated by the displays (a handy little feature) for only 3,000 won. This is a museum focused solely on artifacts of the Baekje age, as opposed to those museums with dioramas and interactive doo-dads for the kiddies. It was a rainy day, and this was really the perfect place to spend a few dry hours once we located the lockers and put our goodies away.

Aside from the expected stone knives and pottery shards that are a fixture of such places, the Buyeo National Museum had two items which seem to stand-out as favourites among visitors:

1) The Baekje Guilt-Bronze Incense Burner (National Treasure #287) which was unearthed in 1993 and has since become the De facto symbol of the Bakje Kingdom and the city of Buyeo, itself (There is a large statue of the burner in the middle of the round-about when you enter Bueyo from the East). It's an impressive and widely celebrated piece of work that would be instantly recognizable to anyone who's lived in Korea for a decent length of time. Of course, there is an ongoing and unsurprising pissing contest regarding the burner and its historical significance in relation to similar burners found in China. I'll leave the pissing to those with their dick in their hand and simply say that as a museum piece, it's impressive, and as a cultural relic, it's telling. It's the museum's centre-piece and worth a visit.

2) Hoja (Tiger-shaped Chamber Pot) - as the guidebook will tell you: "Although hoja means "a tiger-shaped vessel", this particular object seems to have served as a male chamber pot. The humourous facial expression above the hole draws our attention." I have to admit, at first I saw this as a cute little juice jug. Oh, well. I now see it as the perfect illustration of a certain portion of the Korean male psyche - both in the wishful thinking that went into the size of the hole, and in the fact that using the thing means to symbolically piss in a tiger's mouth. South Korea still imports tiger bone from Indonesia and sells it to gullible folk who believe it will cure their arthritis. It also imports tiger penis to sell to idiot folk who make a soup out of it and believe it will "put a tiger in their tank" when it comes time for a little love-making. So, I wonder why these tiger chamber pots aren't for sale in the neighbourhood Home Plus.

Gungnamji Pond
- A very simple little pavilion in the middle of an ancient man-made lake was a relaxing retreat for Baekje Royalty and is now surrounded by lotus leaf ponds and remains a relaxing spot for tourists. This was our last stop on our first full day and all of this is within easy walking distance from the centre of town. I don't have too much to say about this place except that it was beautiful and simple and that I've never seen that many lotus flowers together in one place. I could have spent an afternoon watching the giant leaves collect roaming beads of water before sending them splashing back into the pond or onto a leaf below.

It was also cool to see the pond highlighted in the evening's MBC K-Drama on TV back at our hotel. Gae-baek is the celebrated Baekje General who did his best to defend his kingdom at often seemingly insurmountable odds. He even went so far as to kill his own wife and children by his own sword so as to not have to worry about them being taken by invading armies and to not have anything to take away his concentration on war. So, there's that. But it was kind of fun to have visited the unadorned set of a TV show the same day that it airs. It was also fun to note that all Baekje warriors from the drama had flowing K-pop style black (and sometimes brown) locks which shimmered in the moonlight.

Baekje Cultural Land
- This was our first morning visit on our second full day in Buyeo, and it happened to be right across the street from our hotel. Admittedly, this place needs a new name, but I was impressed by the sheer scope and contributions of all levels of government to get the thing built. Basically, this is a massive (and still-growing) themed cultural centre which is essentially a rebuild of the ancient Baekje capital and an example of a surrounding village. Just referring to the pamphlet I have in front of me, I can tell you that the park has cost a total of 690.4 billion won (approximately 636 million US dollars) and looks to be completed in 2013 or so after having broken ground in 1994. That, my friends, is a hell of a cultural investment.

The park is centered around a full-scale recreation of the ancient Baekje fortress at Sabi (now Buyeo) at a location North of the river, where the original had been in the center of town south of the mountain and south of the river bend. The place is huge, and we were lucky enough to be practically the only ones there for the first 30 minutes or so of our visit. We used the freedom to take some decent pictures and the be cheese balls dressing up in the costumes a wardrobe assistant had on hand. The place is also the main filming area for MBC's Gaebaek drama, though they weren't filming that day.

Perhaps the most noteworthy feature of the park is the 5-story (38 meter) stone pagoda at the recreated Neungsa Temple. This is the place where the incense burner was discovered and this newly located recreation serves as an architecturally accurate depiction of the original temple which was (again) located south of the river in its time. The pagoda now exists as the only large-scale wooden pagoda in Korea. I remember being saddened during my visit to the Gyeong-ju National Museum when I saw a scale model of the 9 story pagoda that once existed in Geyongju at Hwangnyong-sa Temple before it was sacked by a Mongol army in the 13th century. With all of the originally architectural beauty that still exists untouched in Japan (specifically Kyoto) and was largely exported by Baekje architects, it's a tragedy that no original wooden pagoda structures exist in Korea. Apparently there is now talk of rebuilding the structure as they have done in Buyeo.

The amount of work by skilled artisans and historians that went into the construction of this place is simply astounding and a lot of it can be better appreciated with a walk through the Baekje Historical Museum which is also located within the grounds and offers a very impressive collection of hands-on displays and examples of how the original palaces and temples were built and how they have been recreated using a combination of ancient and modern techniques. I thought we might have been museumed-out after our first day, but this really helped to give a proper perspective of the scale of this venture.

Despite the initial potential cheese factor, I left Baekje Cultural Land with an overwhelming feeling of awe for the level of pride and care this region's people have for their history. It may have taken the addition of the Lotte Company building a hotel/condo/golf course across the street to get the thing properly financed, but it seems to me that the compromise was worth it. Lotte now owns the only legitimate resort hotel and condominium in Buyeo, and that should go a long way towards keeping the money flowing - in addition to the throngs of school tours that will keep the turnstiles spinning throughout the year. The park is well-worth the 9,000 won admission. If you go to Buyeo, hop a bus or taxi north of the river and check it out.

Busosanseong Fortress - This now exists as a hillside park (I'm reluctant to call Busosan a mountain) with a few very interesting historical sites - the most memorable for most being Nakwa-am ("Falling Flower Rock"). I admittedly first read about this place in my school's summer reading novel, where the main character participates in a pivotal plot moment at a cliff over-looking the Baekma River.

During the last moment of the Baekje Kingdom, after the king had moved his court up to the hillside fortress to escape the invading Silla and Tang armies, the legend goes that 3000 court maidens threw themselves off of the rocky precipice and killed themselves on the rocks, sand, and water below, rather than fall into enemy hands. The falling billowing dresses appeared as flowers falling from the sky. The souls of the women are mourned in water-side ceremonies each year and the legend grows. There are sign markers and a wooden pavilion at the top of the cliff to commemorate the women.

A little further down the path toward a boat launch you can find Goran-sa, a small river-side temple which includes this partially hidden painting on its outside back wall depicting the maidens going through with their hopeless task.

The cynic in me wants to point out that the number is greatly exaggerated, and that the reigning king at the time was a bit of an ass, so it's likely that the women were at least "encouraged" to end their lives - perhaps even at the King's own request. Regardless, it's a powerful place that's certainly worthy of a visit. We made our way back to the park entrance via river boat from where we could see a largely green-covered cliff face that is reportedly red in the fall. You can come-up with your own reasons as to why this would be.

And so that was our trip to Buyeo - we did a lot. I could write about the places we stayed, but for now I'll sign-off by saying that the rabbit treated us to one night in the Lotte Resort Condominium on our second night in Buyeo and it was, as expected, very high-end. Our jimjil-bang (Korean sauna) on the first night was not - but I'll save my jimjil-bang comments for another post.

Shortly after our boat ride, it was off to Jeonju, which I'll get to blogging about tomorrow...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

High marks on the jumping pic Davey :)