07 December 2014

Cheongju and around, Korea

So the reason I was in Korea was to visit some good colleagues of mine at Chungbuk National University in the city of Cheongju and the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute (KASI) in Daejeon, both of which are just a few hours south of Seoul by bus.  I spent the majority of the week based in Cheongju, working at the University and only one day at KASI, where I gave a talk.  I had no idea what to expect in Cheongju, as it was only mentioned very, very briefly in my guide book.  I was surprised by what I found for several reasons, and thanks to some colleagues that I now count as friends,  I ended up having a great time there.

One of the first things that shocked me were the large buildings scattered somewhat randomly around town.  Cheongju was a lot bigger than I had expected.  The building above was a bizarre hodgepodge of styles, making it look like it was 4 or 5 different buildings from completely different places that had been glued together to form a single, larger construction.  It's almost as if the architect's name was Dr. Frankenstein, and he used signs and billboards as stitches. 

This statue represents the one reason why Cheongju was mentioned in my guidebook, the Jikji.  The Jikji is a book, a guide to Zen Buddhism actually, but it is a very special book: it is the first book ever produced using movable metal type.  This religious guide actually predated the Gutenberg Bible by 78 years.  Unfortunately, the only remaining copy is currently held in the National Library of France.  How it ended up there is a long story, but it is pretty obvious that the Koreans would really like it back home. 

I was surprised by how many churches there were between Seoul and Cheongju... they were one of the most prominent structures in almost every town we passed, and there were clearly multiple in the larger towns.  There were crosses everywhere, many of which appeared in neon sign form, funny enough, reminding me of so many mission crosses in inner cities here in the States... all those glowing purple, pink, red or green beacons of hope calling out to wayward souls.

Arriving at the inter-city bus terminal in Cheongju, these are some of the first buildings you see.  Did I mention the architecture was a little weird here?  These are quite likely (I never went in to check) love motels, cheap accommodation for couples to get a romantic night away, cheating spouses to get some time in with their lovers, and lonely individuals to get down to business with an escort.  These are infinitely better than the closest thing to an American equivalent: the sleazy, filthy, rotting pits called motels... you know, the ones that rent by the hour.  These Korean ones seem more like sex Disneyland or something.  I can only imagine what the room themes must be like if they devoted that much attention to the exterior!

One thing most Westerners will notice in Korea are all the signs that prominently portray the acronyms DVD and PC.  They are everywhere, which might lead one to naively think that there are movie and computer stores all over the place.  As tech savvy as the Koreans are, these are no ordinary electronics shops.  These are bang (방 in Hangeul, which you'll also see all over the place once you know what to look for).  Bang is the Korean word for "room", and the DVD and PC bangs are exactly that: rooms where people go to watch movies (DVD방) or play on computers (PC방).  Oh, and don't you worry singing enthusiasts, there are also noreibang all over the place, which is the Korean form of karaoke.  The cool thing about noreibang is that it is a small room, so you only need to make a fool of yourself in front of you and whatever small group of friends you decide to invite along.  The same goes for the DVD-bang, these are small rooms where a couple or group of friends can go rent to watch movies in an intimate, personal setting.  As you can probably guess, these are pretty popular with teenage couples looking to get some alone time.

Cheongju is a university town, so needless to say, it has a solid nightlife.  We ended up going out several nights in the area just north of the center of campus.  It had some great food options and plenty of awesome bars.

So much neon and light.  Is this what the future city will look like?  If you trust some science fiction movies, then yes... however, I think that parts of some cities will (and obviously already do) and yet most places people live will not.  As far as I can tell, there will always be (a majority of?) people that like a good dark night with a beautiful starry sky.  But that's just not possible with this level of light pollution... not possible for 10s of miles or more around such cities sadly 

Thanks to some new friends from the university that were willing to take me, I was able to take a day hiking in Songnisan National Park, very near the center of South Korea.   This was an amazing experience.  Songnisan is a mountain park, but there is also a great, distinctly rustic culture in the town around the entrance.  I don't know how much of this is played up for the tourists from the cities, but there is no denying the authenticity of all the local ingredients used in the restaurants and available in small roadside markets like this one.   Most of the things available were dried roots, herbs, and mushrooms.  Local ingredients like these were used in all the restaurants around town too, featured in their special "mountain" options.

At the entrance, the place was more like a big garden or city park, but as you walk further and further along the trail, things return more and more to natural wilderness.  The most popular hike in the park summits one of the high peaks in the area.

Further along, you hit this huge, ornate gate.  There are still monks living up in a monastery in the park too.  It's beautiful to know that such places actually do exist.

Korean Buddhism is unique from other forms of the religion.  One of its fundamental beliefs is that natural systems are not a system of independent smaller parts but one entire whole, with every part, big to small, being important to the full thing.  It's an amazing philosophy, and it helps to explain why hiking and natural places are so important in Korea. 

Just a little way past the gate was a beautiful cemetery... it didn't seem very old.  I wonder how they decide who's bodies end up in the place... I'm sure it goes for a premium.

Hiking is very popular in Korea.  There is an entire section of my guide book devoted to Korean's obsession with walking in nature.  I'm glad I got to get out and partake in this national obsession, because I was not disappointed.   Being Autumn, the air was cool and crisp, and there was even snow in places.   The woods were more brown than green, but each season has its own beauty to it, and the fall weather in this Songnisan was no exception.

The hike kept bringing us to more signs of human habitation, something that I'm not at all used to in North American national parks.  First we came upon the arch, then the cemetery, next this bridge and what I think was a monastery. Further up the mountain, we came to the small building with the food and home made maekgeolli that I described in the last post.

There were a few Buddhist shrines along the way too, including this masterpiece of carving.

Finally, there was this place.  A temple, named Beopjusa, a few kilometers into the hike, and...

A giant bronze Buddha.  I was not expecting to come across this in the park at all.

The setting around the temple complex is beautiful.  We were treated to a brief few minutes of sunshine and blue skies too.  As with many such places, the original temple was burned to the ground by Japanese invaders.  The main pagoda and many of the other buildings were reconstructed in the 1600s however.

I enjoyed this place a lot more than the palaces in Seoul... the natural setting had a lot to do with that.  There was also a large pool with spring water and little cups on sticks that hikers were using to take drinks with.  I tasted the water, and it was incredibly crisp and clean and wonderfully refreshing.

This place was so atmospheric.  The old buildings being all on their own in the middle of this specactular mountain valley scenery makes it all feel quite timeless.  You realize that you could just as easily be in the year 1600 as 2014.

Like the palaces in Seoul, bright colors were used to decorate the structures.

With the sun shining, the place really came to life and had a completely different aura about it... it felt so much warmer than it had under the clouds just a few minutes before.

This dragon was really a giant and very ornate hammer for the huge bell seen at the bottom left in the previous picture.  I can strongly recommend that you get out hiking if you ever have the great experience of traveling in Korea... there are many reasons why hiking is so popular there, and you can easily get out and experience them for yourself.


aishwarya said...

I am planning to do my post grad in CBNU next Spring. The amount of churches in the area scare me. I hear there are a lot of evangelists who think there's a magic bullet to convert people into Christianity. Sounds bothersome. Have you had any such experiences in SK?

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