Saturday, December 26, 2009

A Korean Kristmas

Considering that I never do anything for Christmas except watch the TBS movie marathon (what I've done for Christmas in the years since TBS became Peach Tree is a mystery), this Christmas was great. It was certainly better than last year's Christmas. Even though last year's Christmas Day was 40 hours long, it also involved four countries, a Northwest Airlines plane (if you flew Northwest from Tokyo to Minneapolis like I did, you'd feel the same way as this guy) and an eight-hour nap in the Minneapolis airport.

This year I went to the city of Gyeongju with two friends and the friend of one of those friends. For the millennium before this one and the last one (ie 0-1000 AD), Gyeongju was the capital of one of the states in Korea and then all of Korea. As a result, it has a vast cultural and historical heritage that you've never heard of, but every Korean knows intimately. What made yesterday so interesting wasn't really the old pottery or the photos with a carboard cutout of a character in a popular drama, or even the food, but the way in which the scene shifted dramatically and comically every few hours.

The day began with breakfast and then a trip to a bakery famous for selling handmade bread stuffed with red bean (it tastes more or less like a miniature cinnamon roll). An army of bakers dressed in hand works by hand behind you, and you're able to choose from such varied options as a case of 20, 40 or 60. A trip to Hwangnam Bread in Gyeongju is therefore highly recommended. You can even send a box to your co-workers, mother-in-law or to others to whom you owe filial piety.

From there we went to a few tombs and then a museum dedicated to the history of Gyeongju which, like every other ancient culture, apparently consisted of broken pottery and poorly-constructed weapons that would wither against a modern army, or even a Los Angeles street gang. It's not surprising, then, that the Silla dynasty that ruled in Gyeongju was conquered by the Goryeo dynasty about a thousand years ago.

So far the trip was as mundane as could be, but then we took a long detour to find a beef restaurant, since the area apparently specializes in beef. We went back on the highway, past a yellow van parked on the side of the road that was not-so-discreetly selling adult novelties (we tend to sell berries in Canada), and ended up in a parking lot where a man with white gloves opened the door for me. The meal of both grilled and raw beef that was cut into delicious marbly cubes cost $40, even though they didn't even have to cook it. There was no shortage of competition either, we were in a vast complex of restaurants that sold nothing but Korean beef.

After this, we were up in the chilly mountains to look at one of Korea's most revered Buddhist temples and then a massive statue of Buddha that's encased behind glass. In one of those quirks of Korean society, everyone at both places made it a point to drink water from a spring in communal plastic pans. While you try to count how many lips had touched that handful of pans on a busy day for tourists, you should also consider that most people consider Korean tap water to be filthy. I was also able to add Iran and Iraq to the list of places to where my ethnicity has been traced. Here is a map showing those places.

I fell asleep promptly after leaving the temple, and when I woke up, it was dark. Really dark. It was so dark that I knew we had to be by the ocean, the only place in Korea where there are no lights, at least relatively speaking. It was very, very cold by this point. We had driven about 50 km in the opposite direction in search of a meal of raw fish. We found a dazzlingly lit street of hwae restaurants where fisherwomen argued for our business. The winner was a lovely woman wearing no jacket but about a half-dozen sweaters, and her Mark Wahlberg-lookalike of a husband, brother or co-worker (granted, it's possible to be 2 or even 3 of those). After some haggling, we paid $120 for 2 kg of raw fish with some strange creatures from the depths of the ocean thrown in. We ate in a tiny, overheated restaurant the size of a large SUV.

On the drive home, I fell asleep again. When I woke up, we were at a vast, empty highway rest stop. It was 11 now and there was thick, wet snow falling. I thought at first that it was some grape market, but that was just a grape-themed batting cage. There were three high school girls who chose this time to practice their swing. We went inside for some coffee and I was asked to consider breaking into the apartment of a friend who is out of town, since I live on the far side of Seoul. I said no, and made it home close to 2 am.


Shan said...


Adeel said...

The redesign?

Haloscan is becoming a pay service within a week. I couldn't get Blogger comments to work on the old template, so I thought I'd give up and finally join the 21st century.

Shan said...

Ok. That makes sense.

André said...

Weird. So are all the Haloscan comments gone forever?

sasha said...

what did i tell you about paid services?

Adeel said...

Andre, they're around for another week or so. If there's anything you'd like me to save, let me know.

Not André said...

Rats. Nothing specific. I'm more concerned with the legacy. Though maybe it's better for all of us if some of those comments are no longer public record.

Oh god, Homeland Security is going to find this comment, aren't they?