The Ancients

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August 20, 2012 by travelinggrits


(Retrospectively written about the weekend of August 19, 2012.)

I had been repeating one of my biggest personal goals for my time in Korea—visiting the 10 UNESCO World Heritage sites—like a broken record. Sometimes I’d receive head nods of understanding, other times I got blank stares when I tried to explain this goal. I was starting to think I had fantasized a wild goose chase for the seven wonders of the ancient world. But this weekend’s sojourn in Seoul, a special treat for our last weekend of orientation, finally made it reality.

We had some business on Monday: our graduation ceremony for our language program, held at Korea University, which also featured skits written and performed by each class. (My class created a short musical about Batman helping random citizens while vacationing in Korea, which ended with a “Gotham Style” remix of Psy’s hit song.) But Saturday and Sunday were free for exploring the capital city, home to nearly one-fourth of the population, at our leisure.

Each district of Seoul has its own personality: the foreigner district of Itaewon, the high-class society of Gangnam, the college scene in Hongdae. But, like aged pages torn from a history book, pieces of the past lie scattered throughout the city. Skycrapers have grown up like weeds around them, but once inside the grounds of these ancient landmarks, the noise of traffic dies away and trees hide the urban landscape.

Our first stop was Changdeokgung Palace. There are actually three palaces in Seoul, and Changdeokgung is not the largest. What qualified it for UNESCO status over its neighbors was its “feng sui” layout. The palace was planned to blend well with the low hills in the environment with curving pathways rather than stubbornly imposing the typical boxy structure of other royal residences.

The palace also features a secret garden, a swath of green with 168 types of trees, some over 300 years old, carved out of the mountain. (Yes, Seoul encompasses a mountain.) This garden seemed like a place of respite fit for an Asian adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic: an enchanting place dotted with ponds, simple reading quarters for the prince and a gate said to bestow longevity upon all that passed through.

I was grateful that my sightseeing companion, while not stimulated by the UNESCO checklist I had in mind, was still interested in staying for the English language tour rather than simply breezing through the palace and taking pictures to say, “been there, done that.” The guide drew our attention to details that would have been easily missed, from gargoyle-like figures on the rooftops (signifying the importance of the building, depending on the number present) to stones for ranking officials in the ceremonial plaza.

It was this exposure to Korea’s history that was my motivation for completing the list in the first place. History leaves an indelible mark on the future, and it us important to be able to interpret these symbols that survive the winds of time. For example, the presidential residence in Korea is called the “Blue House” (as opposed to the American White House) for its blue tiled roof. In ancient times, blue color made from cobalt was expensive and reserved for the king (like the association of purple with European royalty). Perhaps the tiles are a mark of reverence still lingering today.

Even for many countries ruled by democratic systems, royalty still have a symbolic presence. But Korea has the distinction of having lost all direct heirs of the royal family. Several members of the family were taken as political hostages during the Japanese occupation, and the last crown prince was born in Tokyo. He studied at MIT, married an American woman, never had any children and died in 2005. Because he was never truly raised in Korean society, the guide told us, he was never able to assimilate into his own country’s culture.

Since no living members remain, our second UNESCO stop of the weekend, Jongmyo Shine, was dedicated to honoring the spirits of the kings and queens of old. The Japanese tried to wipe out this piece of ancestry too; the original shrine, built in 1392, was destroyed by the Japanese in the 1500s.

The shrine had two sections, one with 19 chambers and one with 16. Both sections had simple gabled roofs and little decoration to match their solemnity. To be honest, I did not expect to be impressed. But when I entered the sweeping paved pavilion of the largest shrine, I felt vaguely like I was walking into one of the majestic temples of Greece.

Meandering through the shrine is a stone pathway with three sections. During a burial ritual, the king walked on the right, the prince on the left and the deceased spirit in the middle. Black signs prevented visitors from treading on this hallowed ground, and walking beside it made the hairs on my neck lift a little.

The spirit chambers are only opened once a year: the first Sunday in May, when hundreds
reenact the memorial ceremony for the deceased. Dancing, singing, food offered to the spirits. The oldest Confucian shrine in Korea comes alive.

After my time in Korea is over, there will be many faces and names and memories that I will forget. Pictures and journal entries and this blog will help me hold onto them as long as possible, but try as I might some of them will inevitably fade. But I know there will be days when I tread the spirit pathway of déjà vu, and they will dance again.

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