May 29, 2013 by travelinggrits
I’m still in disbelief that I have less than two months remaining in my grant year. Perhaps the first realization that my time is coming to a close was the completion of one of my largest goals for my grant year: visiting the 10 UNESCO World Heritage sites of Korea.
Forty tombs for monarchs from the Joseon dynasty (the late 14th through early 20th centuries) are scattered across 18 locations within a small radius of Seoul as well as two sites in North Korea. The last dynasty of the Korean peninsula was largely influenced by Confucian culture and marked the development of the Korean language and many traditions held today.
I chose to visit Donggeureng, the largest sampling of these royal grave sites. The site was easily accessible by city bus, but I had never been this far on the outskirts of Seoul. The skyscrapers and bustling roads gave way to modest apartment buildings and calmer streets that signaled the start of Korean suburbia.
The tombs were spread in a park-like layout, with patches of forest surrounding the grassy fields and gentle hills that marked each grave site. Each tomb was built with a large red gateway and side-by-side walkways for the living and spirits alike. Ceremonies were held in the jeongjagak, a small shrine at the foot of the hill, and the tombs themselves were topped with statues and three walls.
I was surprised to find that the site was crawling with visitors, from school groups playing duck, duck, goose to families picnicking and even some teenagers painting the scenery. At first it felt out of character to watch children frolicking in the grass beneath the grave mounds, but eventually it won my approval as symbolic of the connection between past and present.
Upon arrival, my party of four stumbled across a reenactment of the ancient burial rites, complete with royal garb and processional props. I found this performance appropriate to mark my final destination in search of UNESCO’s greatest in Korea.
I never took a course in Asian studies, nor did I know very much about Korea’s long history prior to coming here. But my historical scavenger hunt has provided insight that will be much more memorable than anything I could have gathered from a textbook. I’ve seen palaces and fortresses, shrines and burial mounds. I’ve wandered places influenced by Buddhism and Confucianism, places for funeral rites and meditation. I’ve marveled at beauty created by man’s hand and the grandeur of nature. I hope to continue crossing paths with UNESCO’s honorable crest, although I already admit defeat in trying to visit all 962 points worldwide.
With the completion of this major task, I am met with simultaneous feelings of accomplishment and sadness. Walking through the exit brought the realization that I will continue to walk out and away many more times as the end of my grant year approaches: shutting my office door, riding the train from Daegu, leaving my favorite restaurant or donning my shoes at the doorway of my homestay one last time. As I mark off the milestones, I fear arriving at the end of the road. Thankfully, I know there’s more around the bend, I just can’t see it yet.