My current peregrinations, made possible by a kind donation from one of my community members of massive frequent flyer miles, entailed a generally unwanted day and a half transit in Seoul. This stop, however, turned into a pleasure on so many levels. Not least of these was the delight in meeting a long-time blog reader in the flesh – Christian and his lovely wife Hyun Hee, who cleared their schedule for me and were marvelous hosts.
Prior to my arrival Thursday night, Christian’s instructions were to “look for the other bald guy.” I did, and there was no mistake. Like looking in a slightly distorted mirror, him having Castillian features and all.
From Incheon Airport on in, most everything in Seoul is immaculate and neat and well-organized. Comforting, but a little gray, a little dull, even in its sometimes flashy hypermodernity. For some time, though, I’ve been very attracted to Korea’s traditional culture, who knows why. I was hoping to check out a little of that, a little of the local Buddhist scene, and a little birdlife. In just 24 hours, we managed to accomplish all of that.
I knew I was in the right place when Christian greeted me with strong espresso upon awakening and we got off to a leisurely start. As we were heading out, Christian and Hyun Hee scrutinized the sheer volume of Mooj and Nita fur that clung tenaciously to my polarfleece jacket. Deciding, as my mother would say, that I was “unpresentable,” I was marched back up to the 19th floor to be liberally rolled with reversed packing tape until I looked a little less like I was in deep molt, and no longer a public embarrassment to my order.
First stop was the elegant Gyeongbokgung palace museum. Originally completed in 1395, this immense complex served as the centerpiece of Korea’s Joseon Dynasty. Ever the models of imperial restraint, the Japanese demolished most of the buildings twice in the intervening centuries. This time the restoration work, begun in 1990, is being lovingly done in the interest of cultural preservation. Korea’s administrative duties are now carried on elsewhere, of course.
Tramping around through a welcome drizzle (I hadn’t seen rain since maybe July), I confess my attention perked up significantly as we entered the refined arboreal gardens toward the rear of the spread. Why? Because there were birds in the trees, of course. Korean ones. That maybe I hadn’t seen before. But had Konchog thought to bring along the binoculars he’d hauled from Mongolia? Of course not. And could any details of the birds encountered be made out against a pewter sky by the naked eye? Of course not. I had to content myself with this charming crane rendered on a wall of the royal library:
My birding luck improved among the outdoor displays of the National Folk Museum as Rufous Turtle-doves placidly pecked among the tilled rows of traditional crops. They provided a second delight. The first were these wonderful totems. I thought, “It would be awfully hard not to like a people that fashioned images like these.”
We passed these on the way out, having just enjoyed a special exhibit on “Sounds of Korea” (one wall featured old photographs of traditional Korean activities mounted in such a way that if you tapped on one, the sound of that activity played from the top of the wall somewhere. I had to squint closely at one photo to make sure I was seeing what I was seeing, but yes, it was of a man lying face down on a wooden bench, relieved of his britches, and about to be paddled for some public offense by an implement that looked like it could remove several pizzas from an oven at once. Did I tap it? Are you kidding me? Who could resist the temptation to fill a staid museum with the sounds of successive thwacks and yowls? Certainly not me, though after I did, I glared sternly at Christian in the hopes of shifting the blame.) The permanent collections of that excellent museum will have to wait for another day as our energy had flagged and lunch beckoned.
Off in a subway, then, to the district of Seoul known as a Mandatory Stop for any visitor, the chi-chi palisades of Insa-dong. Now. If you’re like me, your pleasure upon entering this district was heightened by the thought that its name – Insa-dong – would also be perfect for the Korean version of Viagra. If you’re not like me, with an endless stream of thoughts like these, consider yourself blessed.
Koreans are geniuses at making soup, perfect for a rainy winter afternoon. We happily gorged on mandu-kuk (pork dumplings and rice paste niblets in a delicious broth) and proceeded to a little tea shop permeated by such an exquisite aroma from whatever was boiling behind the counter that I said, “Whatever I’m smelling, I’ll have.” Turned out to be a satisfying, thick tea made from jujube and additionally flavored with several toasted pine nuts. I was coming to conclude that Korea was a deeply civilized place.
Poking around the stalls and galleries, I stopped in my tracks and burst out in delighted laughter at this poster advertising an exhibit by Chinese artist Ye Yongking entitled “A Hurtful Bird.”
We soaked in his enormous, quirky bird sketches and proceeded to the city’s central Buddhist temple in an elevated mood, pausing briefly to snap this shot of a nearby boutique just for the grey clothing Korean monks and nuns wear:
Just renovated last year, the temple, called Jogye-sa, proved an extraordinarily peaceful refuge, accommodating a steady stream of the faithful who made prostrations and offerings, sat and read sutras, meditated, the works. The mainstream Korean Buddhist practice blends Soen – Zen as it’s evolved in Korean culture – and devotional worship of Amitabha Buddha. I spent a lovely time meditating there. Interested to see an American seunim (monk) the temple attendants presented me, and Christian, with food offerings on the way out. Here’s Christian so you can put a face to his erudite comments here, as well as get a sense of the enormous scale of the Buddha statues. I dubbed this photograph “Christian and the Buddhas”:
Now, you all know I have peculiar taste in music. Well, once long ago I rented a room from a composer friend of mine who had lived for a time with her husband in Korea. She had a passel of records bought in Seoul, including box sets of their astounding traditional opera. Now this isn't opera as we know it. It's one woman or man who sings all the parts, with one drummer to provide accents. That's it, for maybe five hours plus. I absolutely loved it.
But I'd never seen it. That night, Christian popped in a DVD that interwove footage of a performed version and dramatization of a classic Korean tale of class tension, political intrigue, and fidelity against all odds called The Tale of Chun Hyang. It clocked in at just under three hours, with subtitles. I was riveted.
As the next day dawned clear of rain clouds, and I had spied a wooded hill not far away from the apartment, I lugged Christian along for some morning birding before I had to hasten to the airport. I happily showed him goodies like a female Ring-necked Pheasant and soaring Upland Buzzard. With a bit more bashfulness I revealed my obsessive doggedness and unrestrained glee that manifest when I am stalking birds I have never seen before. The morning produced three: the common but highly localized Brown-eared Bulbul, a whopping beauty called a Grey-headed Woodpecker (making me feel slightly better for having whiffed on it in Mongolia), and the adorable Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker.
Now ensconced a touch further to the east, I am recalling this short time in Korea with great fondness and, if Christian and Hyun Hee will have me, looking forward to stops there on the way home to Mongolia and to and from Australia later this winter.