Monday, May 15, 2006

Gyeongju in 60 Seconds

This is the main street outside the bus terminal in Gyeongju, the cultural and historical capital of Korea, home to relics, shrines temples and palaces dating from the Shilla Dynasty and before... an ancient city, very different from Seoul and its environs (where buildings are constructed with an average lifespan of about 5 years)... this was our destination last weekend (also a long weekend), and our first real excursion out of the landscape of concrete highrises since our arrival here in November.

We arrived at the Seoul Express bus terminal armed with our baggage and what we soon discovered was a hopelessly outdated Lonely Planet guidebook (2001 edition). The guidebook wisely proclaimed that buses left every half hour, but we soon discovered we'd be anticipating an unprecedented wait for nearly two hours (like everything else in this crazy country, you never get what you expect - that's half the fun, if you can find the humour to see it that way). That's all fine and well and all if you're mature enough to be toilet-trained, but for those of us who aren't, it can seem like a mighty long time... not to mention the 4.5 hour bus ride that lay ahead.

The bus ride itself was an adventure. As we rolled through the rice paddies and mist-covered mountains, Joe made friends with the other passengers, and, to his delight, discovered he could gain even more attention and admiration (and candy) from them by proclaiming "ajuma" or "ajoshi" (which I later found out, upon asking my students, means something like "hey you, woman/man" - not really disrespectful, but not entirely polite, either).

Finally, we arrived around 8pm in the ancient capital. As we drove into the city, we marveled at the size and construction of the houses - that's right, houses -not massive apartment blocks. They were so wonderfully small, with curved tile roofs, pressed up tight together, creating narrow winding alleyways lit with brightly-coloured paper lanterns (it was Buddha's birthday, after all).

We found a motel with a traditional-style Korean bed (an ondol - essentially a mattress on a heated floor), and, oh wonder of wonders, a BATHTUB! (It's been a long 6 months). Happily exhausted, we fell asleep looking forward to the adventures of the morrow: hiking through Namsan Park (littered with temples, monasteries, pagodas and wood carvings) and checking out Seokguram (a massive and mysterious stone Buddha hidden on a mountain), before heading to Bulguksa, a famous temple, where each roof tile has been painstakingly carved individually, and every inch of available space is covered in ornate and intricate paintings.

Instead, we awoke the next day to the unrelenting sound of pouring rain. Disaster! All the things to see were outside, and all involved a certain amount of walking. After some deliberation, we made the decision to pack up and return home again, vowing that we would come back some other time to Gyeongju.

One difference I have noticed between Koreans and Candians seems to be our temperature preference. Canadians like the cold (I mean, Jesus, we've been running our air-con here since mid-March!) while Koreans prefer the stifling heat. The department stores seem to me always overzealously heated, as did the bus on the way home. The rain made everything seem even more humid, and the many people breathing inside added to the stuffy atmosphere.

Joe had a little trouble adjusting to the climate of the bus, but quickly achieved a fine balance a short 30 minutes into the (remember?) 4.5 hour trip, when he leaned over me and deposited a voluminous amount of vomit directly in my lap. Thank Almighty G-d for moist towelettes!!! (At least the bus driver turned on the air-con after that!)

Ah, Seoul... how happy I was to greet your concrete and steel, your chaotic, traffic-jammed streets and teeming sidewalks, your towering officetels and smog-filled skies, your neon, flashing signs, screaming indecipherably at me in a language I am blissfully unable to comprehend. Home at last....

I took a shower, put Joe to bed, ordered in pizza and curled up on the couch with Matt. Ahhh, life is good.