From Seoul To Gyeoje: Trotting Across ‘The Land of Morning Calm’
In 2015 I packed my bags and flew over to S. Korea for a 10 day excursion courtesy of the National Institute of International Education (NIIED) of the Republic of Korea. The program was run by Dongguk University, Gyeongju. It was a dream come true. I had long been itching to visit Seoul, catch the subway, visit the pristine temples and eat ‘Kimchi.’ The close I had been to S. Korea was through the K-Dramas. Real life in this country had been a mystery and so I was eager and excited to explore. As an undergraduate student from Kenya, caught between busts of joy and giddy sensations, I was set to join fellow students from 28 other nationalities for this obscure odyssey.
Touching down Incheon airport was a wee bit surprising. What met the eyes was more appalling than what the mind had previously conjured. The airport was chic with a jarring architectural finesse. Weaving through the customs and going through the check-in counters was eerily fast and way efficient than I had imagined. The smooth travelators were magical. A plethora of well curated duty free shops, currency exchange bureaus and scintillating coffee shops lined up the airport floor. It made the pushing of my luggage cart a joy and occasional throwing of bewildered glances a thrilling pastime. Coming from a developing country, you would have to forgive me for this peculiar form of flummox. Anyway, I looked up my suitcase on the moving conveyor belt, picked it up and then headed for the arrivals. I met my hosts and together we walked towards a bus where a number of fellow program participants were waiting. One of them walked up to me and said hello. She was full of gab and beauty, and so we hit it off, chatting and gabbing away like old friends as the bus ate tarmac. Her name was Cara Lim from Sao Paulo, Brazil.
The excursion started the following day in the capital.
Our bus drove into Korea’s National assembly grounds. Nothing was going on in Parliament and so we easily got the pass. A member of staff ran us through the Parliament’s history. We then left for the parliament museum and took a look at the interesting wall pictography of key political figures, artefacts, and more museum wares; then stopped to buy souvenirs at a nearby shop. The next stop was Insadong, a quaint market with all manner of commercial activity; shoppers exchanging notes with goods, scores of vendors cajoling the passers-by and stores spilled out onto the pavement. The place was filling up with fellow tourists seeking Korean fare. There was so much binge-worthy street food. A summer style ice-cream, known to locals as binsu was bought in plenty. We took time to check out the pottery on display and the stretching line of porcelain products. To a different end, the area exuded traditional charm with culturally defined commercial products peacefully sitting on stands. Of these, antiques were quite common. Traditional handicrafts, bookstores and art galleries stood too. Hawkers raised their voices to draw customers. The buskers joined in. We combed through the streets and entered a coffee shop to take in caffeine hit as we soaked up some rockabilly vibes. We then hopped into our buses and drove to Dongdaemun market for shopping, bypassing the Cheongyecheon stream.
The following day we headed south to Gyeongju, a city with the laid back sort of vibe and a set of must-see sites and home to one of Korea’s great ancient dynasties, Shilla. The journey took us six hours. We walked around humongous tombs of ancient Shilla royalties, and extended our stroll towards a tall aged structure, Cheomseongdae, regarded as Asia’s oldest observatory, built in 16th century. The area had beautiful gardens, with pavilion and lotus pond set beneath, and ginkgo and pine trees lining up, perfect for quiet contemplation. Our lunch menu ran a gamut of personal favorites; chicken, dumpling and Japcha (stir-fried glass noodles and vegetables). This went down at the Dongguk University cafeteria. Dinner was taken in a gritty local restaurant where we dug into seafood, soft tofu stew and a variety of side dishes.
We toured the city of Pohang, beginning with POSCO, the world’s biggest steel manufacturing company. POSTECH, a thriving local university hosted us later, and then we left to go explore the region’s endeared folk village,Yangdong. It was jutting with ancient huts that had stood for 200 to 500 years, meandering valleys and inviting peace. The quiet village life, gurgling rivers and the whistling winds felt therapeutic. We were also taught how to make Korean rice candy by locals.
At one time, we were housed in a typical traditional Korean house, the hanok in a quiet rural area. Here, we participated in moon light walking, made Korean food and fans, and drew Korean calligraphy. The highlight came when we donned traditional apparel. I picked the King’s costume as Sopheak Votey, my friend from Cambodia went with the Queen’s.
From village life we then headed to Gyeongju world cultural Expo Park, a venue for the region’s famous cultural festivals. We started with watching horse racing and down to a musical. The ‘Basilla’ musical had been a hit and we were kind of privileged to watch. The musical was based on an epic Persian poem called ‘Kush–nameh’ that regarded a Prince named Abtin and his son Faridun in an era when the Sassanid empire had just collapsed. I will assert that it was and still remains the best musical I have ever watched. The evening was spent watching sea waves and the sun set, before we tucked ourselves between revelers to watch an Indic band concert. We also walked the streets and watched tittering lovers bundled in twos, strangers watching into space and musicians playing guitars on the sideways.
Then we came to a Buddhist temple known as Golgulsa, founded by a Buddhist monk from India. Hidden between the trees and bushes and perfectly located to skip noise and chaos, it was perfect for meditative rituals and those in search of peace. We began with archery practices. We learnt positioning, bow grasp, the pull and release of the arrow and the focus required. We used the traditional Korean bow, which is a highly reflexed version of the classic Eurasian composite bow. The core is bamboo, backed with sinew to prevent the bow from breaking and add strength to the pulling of limbs.
Inside, we learnt a new meditation model called ‘Sunmudo’’ – one that is accompanied with martial arts. We later took tea and lunch in the company of monks, a very jarring experience I must say. A better part of this day was spent in enriching conversations with 3 ladies from Sri-Lanka; Pamudi, Vimar & Erandi; talking about our families,our cultures and countries.
The day that followed we travelled to Ulsan city and visited Hyundai group of companies (Hyundai Motors, the world’s fourth largest vehicle manufacturer and Hyundai Heavy Industries , the world’s largest shipbuilding company). We started at the offices to the assembly points and then the shipping zones. I was moved by the sight of more than 200 vehicles being heaped onto a huge ship ready for export. The same went for the fleet of ships that were being assembled.
On the second last day of our tour we hit the road to Busan. We got to Busan around 12. Compared to Gyeongju, there was more life here. Being Summer, we soaked up the sun while traversing the streets and later went to grab a bite at McDonald’s. And then to Haeundae Beach. Swimming was fun and so was sand bathing! The laid back neighborhood was a beach bum’s haven.
Gukje market was one of our stops and so was ‘China town’. Just like Insadong, vendors and artisans around the city came here to sell their goods: from fish stew, souvenirs, crepes, jewelry, and art. Live bands were quite a thing.
The last day was punctuated by visits to an island, a war camp and a national park in the city of Gyeoje. The camp- the Park of Geojedo, was built to hold prisoners during Korean war, and was closed upon the signing of the 1953 armistice. It was quite interesting to learn first hand about the Korean war. We wandered about viewing the war remains; from tanks, trucks and more other relics. Later we were ushered into a movie theater and watched a 30 minutes 3D movie on the war. It was so heartbreaking to say the least leaving majority in tears.
We hopped into a speedboat and headed to Gyeoje island for the national park. Halleyo Maritime National Park, as we were told was designated as a National Park in 1968. The park offers hikes, birdlife and a beautiful floral kingdom. This was the most beautiful place I have been to. I duly marked it as my honey-moon destination (future wife, please brace yourself!). After winding up the tour we then headed back to Seoul to prepare for our flights home.
Perhaps it will be a huge disservice to sideline the heart of this tour; the people. I was privileged to move around with fellow students from more than 28 countries. Of these, I forged deep friendships. We would sail into talks about our countries, learning two or three things about our cultures. Paul, from the Republic of Congo, was my amiable roommate in the first few days. We delved in Lingala, me asking questions trying to learn their Music and what has made it so popular across the African continent. Wagner Dos Santos (Brazil), Alehandro (Chile), Erandi (Sri Lanka), and Yoon-ho(S.Korea) were great company. Rean (S.Africa) and Fosu (Ghana) were great conversationalists and we would wander into windy banter from politics, football and cultures. Enter Pensee Badr, a humble and mild mannered lady from Egypt. She filled me up with stories of Cairo, Pyramids Muslim, and her love for Korean dramas. Sussana Gruyal, a book fanatic from Philippines was great to talk to. Especially on evenings when we were wandering the streets of Dongdaemun. The mentioned Cara Lim(Carol) was quiet special. She asked a lot of interesting questions about Africa and Kenya, soaking in nuances and being mightily impressionable. She mentioned Samba, the Brazillian football and the country’s economic impasse. And Sopheak Votey (Cambodia)! Great energetic lady and kind to boot. She remains imprinted in my heart.
A couple of others were cool folks to hung out with. Karrar (Iraq), Mouy Ly (Cambodia) Fatimah (Iraq), Vimar (Sri Lanka), Ainur (Kazakhstan), Samikshya (Nepal), Wei Ciao (China) & Irene (S. Korea) and many others.
To Sam, Prof Young Chan Lee, NIIED and the organizers at Dongguk University, Gyeongju. Thank you!
Memories are made of these.
Story by: Socrates Luseka
Image Credits: Karrar Al Shamary (Iraq), Sopheak Votey (Cambodia)