2015 – What a Year

We’re already almost two weeks into 2016 now but I’m only just getting round to really processing everything that happened last year. It was one hell of a year, and I’m left wondering if there will ever be a year to top it, but life goes on and I’ll certainly do my best.

Last January I left my job as a (technical) translator at a research institute and in February I went hiking in Nepal for a month.

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Then in March I started studying at Ewha Womans University with a fellowship from the International Communication Foundation. My first semester went by in a blur, but looking back I think that I did learn a lot, and my Korean writing skills have definitely improved.

In May I took my first ever trip to the United States to take part in the 3rd International Conference of NextGen Korean Studies Scholars (NEKST) at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.It was a brilliant event to be part of as a graduate student because there was a friendly and supportive atmosphere and there were just the right number of participants to make it feel cosy while still being an active forum for debate. I gave a presentation entitled ‘Castle or Chicken Coop? Apartments as Experienced by Housewives in Korean Fiction.’ To my horror I managed to make a spelling mistake and so some people may have been disappointed that my paper didn’t talk about a military coup by chickens, but rather the way in which apartment spaces are represented in literature by female Korean writers.

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As this was my first visit to America I actually felt an odd sense of culture shock, as a British person and coming from Korea. First of all everything seemed huge, from houses and cars to coffee cups and breakfast plates. I also felt that the academic atmosphere was very different – there is little chance that as a masters student I would ever be allowed to present a work in progress at such an event in Korea. I was really fortunate to be able to share my work and get feedback on my paper, as it is now slowly evolving into my MA thesis. It was also great to see what other scholars were studying and how they were going about it, and I was really inspired by some of the people that I met.

In July I traveled to the UK to spend time with friends and family and also ended up doing my first ever interpreting job. I don’t really think I was any good at it, but given the circumstances the clients were grateful that I made it to their meeting and enabled them all to communicate.
Then at the end of the month I was able to take part in the International Literary Translation and Creative Writing Summer School run by the British Centre for Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia. It was quite a week! Thanks to the LTI Korea, for the first time the summer school included a Korean language section and so along with four other budding translators of Korean into English and Professor Kim Chung-hee, I got to spend five days with star literary translator, and now also publisher, Deborah Smith, and Han Kang, one of the most  highly regarded writers in contemporary Korea. Together we translated a few sentences from the short story Europa (which you can read here). Han Kang wrote an article about our activities which pretty much sums it all up: we translated as slowly as possible, mulling over every word, every combination and every comma until the translated words became a kind of hypnotic chant.
Another great thing about the summer school was that I got to meet translators working with other languages, and hear about their experiences with publishing translations in the UK. It was also wonderful to see how captivated people in the UK were by Han Kang and her work in translation and this gave me great hope about the future of Korean literature in English translation.

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When September came around it was time to get back to studying and begin my second semester at Ewha. The three courses I took spanned from Korean mythology as told by shamans during rituals, to drama theory, and Korean literary criticism of the 1960s. I ended up looking closely at the Princess Bari myth, interpretation in the process of ‘modernizing’ theater productions of Shakespeare plays (namely Othello), and the scholarly reception of Lee Ho Chul’s 1966 novel Seoul is Heaving.

November ended up being a pretty crazy month. On November 1st I found out that I had been awarded the Korea Times Translation Award for poetry, and then a week later I was off the America again, this time to give a presentation at the Korean Literature Association Conference held at Duke University. This time around I presented on a rather odd paper that I wrote for one of my classes in my first semester at Ewha and has found a special place in my heart. Entitled ‘British-Korean Encounters: Late-Chosŏn Diplomacy and 1930’s Medievalism’ the paper brought together Yi Jong-ung, who traveled to Britain in 1902 and wrote an epic poem about his travels, and Joan Grigsby who lived in Seoul from 1929 to 1930 and wrote poetry while she was here. Although it isn’t the most coherent structure for an academic paper, I love the idea of bringing these two travelers together and I was lucky to get some helpful feedback at the conference as to how to proceed with this work.

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In December while I was finishing up my second semester I began two new things, writing columns for Korea.net and occasionally featuring in TheBookend, a radio show in Seoul TBS eFm. I have written three articles for Korea.net so far, one about 3rd Line Butterfly – my favorite Korean band, one about Han Kang in translation and one about the Korean word oppa. The ‘oppa’ article is perhaps a bit brash and maybe controversial, indeed I’m not sure I agree with it anymore, but it certainly got people talking, and hopefully thinking too.
As for TheBookend, I was lucky enough to be invited to participate in two ’roundtable’ discussions with Anton Hur and Jamie Park, one where I got to talk about my translations of Jin Eun-young and one where we explored the Princess Bari myth and subsequent uses of the story in contemporary culture.

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Another really important part of 2015 for me was taking the LTI Korea Translation Atelier Course. From March to December with a long break in the summer we met every fortnight for what was basically like a creative writing workshop. With four students and the acclaimed translator Sora Kim Russell (Bae Suah – Nowhere to be Found; Hwang Sok Yong – Princess Bari +++) as our teacher, guide and moderator, each session two of us presented our translation work to the group and got comments, corrections and feedback. Having such a small group meant that our class was really cosy and we were free to discuss and go through each work thoroughly. Literary translation can be a pretty lonely activity, but thanks to the translation atelier I’ve made some real translation buddies and we’ve already begun to collaborate on certain works. Also it’s been so valuable to get advice and be able to ask questions of someone who has already been through the process of translating a novel and having it published multiple times. One of the most memorable moments for me was when I was told something like: now is the time to use the F-word, that what it says in the Korean, just use it. It was a very exciting moment as you will imagine 😉

 

If 2015 was a year of action, I feel like 2016 is going to be a year of eating garlic in a cave. Like the bear in the Dangun myth who goes into a cave and doesn’t see the sunlight for a month in order to become human, there are things I need to chip away at and get done from the confinement of my desk and the school library in order to progress on to new things. This year I will be writing my MA dissertation, going back to the different papers that I began last year and trying to bring them to fruition, and of course translating. Translating and translating and hoping that someone will want to read the results.

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Poetry Translation

K2015113000136.jpg(Photo from the prize giving ceremony – courtesy of The Korea Times)

On the 3rd of November I found out that I had been awarded the grand prize for poetry in the 2015 Korea Times Translation Awards. This was the 46th year of the awards and it was amazing to be recognized for translating poetry because I feel like it’s one of the most creative forms of translation.

You can read more about the award and the prize giving ceremony here: http://koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/culture/2015/11/135_192118.html

The poetry prize was awarded for the Korean to English translation of 10 poems by one poet. I chose the ten very carefully from among Jin Eun-young’s poems, selecting those with such such strong images and atmosphere that I knew they would still be powerful in English.

I have to say that when I was translating the poems I felt like I was writing a love letter. Writing a love letter to Jin Eun-young who’s poems I adore, to my fellow students in the Korean Literature department at Ewha who adore her poems too, and somehow to the Korean language itself – the sounds of syllables and pauses. And when it came to editing the English it became an exercise in wonder at the malleability of language.

When the translations appeared on my computer screen they were like a gift. A gift to myself of poems I love forged into my mother tongue with all the extra unnecessary, bitty words weeded out~ smooth shots of distilled English. I know the translations are not perfect, and I hope to correct some of the errors that I made in due course, but I am immensely proud of them and honored that they were recognized as worthy of an award.
Translating poetry is said to be difficult because it’s hard to get it right, and poems are not just about content but sounds, rhythm, echo. It is difficult, yes, but it’s amazingly rewarding, because with a poem each and every line has the potential to alter how you see the world and yourself, to ring true with an experience, a feeling, a windy afternoon, the smell of soju.
I would encourage anyone who knows two languages to have a go at translating a poem they love. Even if you are never satisfied with your translation, you will certainly find yourself loving the poem, and the poet, even more than you did before.
Here are five of the poems. I’ll save my favorite for a future post. The whole lot are available on the Korea Times website, but I find the pop-up ads invasive.
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All of This (이 모든 것) 

It’s as if a soap bubble will expand boundlessly with transparent joy.
As if I’ll be able to take you away to a city with a rose-hued palace.
In the space between winter and evening,
it seems I’ll never be able to forget that dizzying kiss fringed in chestnut-brown. Like I’ll be able to conceal everything with the vast velvet of love.
As though all of this is just a lie.
While a hungry seagull sucks violently on the dry teat of the sky,
it’s as if a white bite mark is soaring above the water.

This city is like a child writing out the same sentence over and over eternally.
A shack falls out like a first tooth and is tossed above the red moon.
A liquor bottle blotched with blood and soot rolls this way down a white slope.
It seems I’ll have to put the one abiding line of my first anthology into my last as well.
My youth? Well… it seems to have upped and left already.
It’s as though a soft yellow wing, with thousands of grey bells hung from it
is slowly ascending.

As though gold is sticking its hand down the throat of a poor child and making them throw up everything.
Stars roll in the watery green-tinged vomit,
God seems like a car crash victim feigning injury.
It seems that he hasn’t taken the medicine prescribed him by the angels even once.
It’s as if the green capsules have split and the grains within are spilling out.
Annyeong, annyeong, snow falls above the shattered grey of a slate roof.
It seems that everything I ever saw must have been a lie.
As if shreds of the torn wings of silver bats hanging from the moon are cascading.

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Beautiful (아름답다)

If today you are beautiful
it is like the glittering hairpin in the still-growing tresses of a dead girl,
like a picture that captivates the gaze of someone who cannot see,
like the children in muslin pyjamas
wandering past in the mist intoxicated by the scent of cherries,
like the salty taste of the long necked giraffe living in the rainy season savannah,

melting in increments seeping across red cloth
to desiccated white grains
scattered over sandy gills.
Today

if you are beautiful
it’s like the empty chimney of seaweed stench rising up
from the green fog draped above a landfill site.

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The Love of a Poet(시인의 사랑) 

If by some chance you were my lover
how lucky you would be.

If you were my lover
I would write you poetry.

You would arrive home
and wash your feet, and then
when you’d fall asleep with head and toes touching the cold parallel walls,
when you’d fall asleep covered with a damp blanket,
I would send a vast fortress ablaze with love into your dreams.

I’d give you the tender breeze that sways the armpits of branches in the May apple-blossom orchard,
the soft hammer of chocolate and peppermint, post boxes and trains
and a country road you’ve never seen before.
A freshly opened wine bottle and fluttering white wings
and the eternal picnic of a body,
I’d write you a line of poetry filled with all those moments, all those things.

I would give you a poem that makes the flow of life feel just like drinking a cup of tea.

If you were my lover, ah!
How lucky you would be.
Because of her, that your heart became the biggest empty house in the world,
nights when black candlewax drips onto your tongue,
poems like night-time dandelion seeds flying off to unknowable places,
there would be no need for you to write like that.

 

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Useless Stories (쓸모없는 이야기)

Paper
pen
questions
useless divinity
useless shame
green cherries
the white sail of a big ship in a framed picture
when the wind blows
feelings for you
sunshine warming the windows of an empty house
benevolent machines
the thorns in a tunnel of insanely fragrant roses
by a grave that no one comes to visit
a parchment book
that no one ever opens
newspaper articles on the factory girls’ strike
night and day
two different nights
kisses when you’re fast asleep
green cherries
Das Kapital
rain falling on a forest of dead juniper trees
your ears

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Aeroplane Bound for the Moon (달로 가는 비행기)
What kind of propeller will I have to fix to this song?
Am I twenty years old, or ten?

The moon is calling,
baby, baby my baby.

What kind of propeller will I have to fix to my aeroplane?
The plane flying up to the moon
that shines like the glint in mother’s eyes
I want big, sturdy wings
I want a propeller so noisy it could burst your eardrums.

The clamorous aeroplane I drew
flies up towards the shining moon I drew.

The world in the picture is beautiful
I peek inside.
The moon in the picture is like a jaundiced man’s pupils.

Fixed to the plane in the picture are white petals just like a propeller.
At my deep sigh the wind blows inside the picture.
The propeller headed to the moon flies away one petal at a time.
I raise my head having been crying, that aeroplane bound for the moon,
the moon with its long shadow hand
pats it lightly.

Draw again tomorrow

Princess Bari

Since reading Princess Bari a couple of weeks ago there are a number of thoughts which have been bubbling around in my head, and I wonder, if I leave some of them here, whether other readers might have thoughts to add.

The first work of Korean fiction I read was The Guest by Hwang Sok-yong, I then read some of his other earlier works in translation, and while I didn’t enjoy them so much, having sensed a kind of leap occur between The Old Garden and The Guest I became very curious about his trajectory, where he was going as a writer following on from The Guest.

This was around 2009/2010, and naturally the book that caught my eye was Princess Bari, but it hadn’t been translated yet. At that time I hadn’t even begun to dream of reading a novel in Korean let alone translating, so I eagerly awaited news that it would be coming out in English.

Last month, after five years of anticipation, I got my hands on a copy! Translated by Sora Kim-Russell and published in the UK by Periscope Books, I was finally able to meet Bari and experience her voyage across the world and beyond.

At times it felt very strange for such a story to have been woven by a Korean man in his 60s (when I met him it was very difficult to believe he’s now 72!). In other novels I have found Hwang’s female characters unconvincing, with decidedly male-sounding voices coming from female protagonists, but this was not the case with Bari. Her strength is unmistakable, and the matter-of-factness of her voice speaks to all the she has endured to tell her tale.

There are some very harrowing moments in the story, and while I found some of them difficult to read I appreciated the way there were described, sometimes indirectly, sometimes in unexpected ways.

Reading through the novel you sometimes want to cry out in exasperation, how can even more difficulties befall Bari, especially at such a young age, but this is the crux of the old Korean legend of Princess Bari.

When the part of the story that takes place in London is unfolding I was often reminded of Xiaolu Guo’s A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, but Bari is a very different character, and though it may take place in the same city her odyssey is much more plugged in to the global currents flowing all around her.

One thing in the book which I found quite surprising and potentially problematic is the way hijab is referred to on numerous occasions, and the way in which women can be criticized from different angles both for wearing, or not wearing it. As far as I can remember around the time that Hwang Sok-yong was writing Princess Bari there was a lot of debate going in in Europe about citizenship and women’s right to cover up, so it seems like he has tapped into this, but I am really curious as to what women who have personal experience of this tension might make of the way it is portrayed.

This is a really very ambitious book, touching on so many of the troubles facing our world today, including those which often go on under the radar. At times I felt myself thinking, ‘is he really going to bring in this massive issue too??’, but honestly as a Korean writer, such a wide scope, awareness and concern seems truly heroic and I feel encouraged to know that young Koreans can discover all these global themes in a well-written novel in their own language. For the international reader, well, I’d love to know what other people make of it, being so plugged in to South Korea and Korean culture it’s hard to be objective, but I’m certainly glad I got to meet the 21st century Bari and I’m sure I will be reading the book again in the near future.

Princess Bari is available with free worldwide delivery from the Book Depository 

Princess Bari (UK edition), translated by Kim Sora-Russell, published by Periscope

Princess Bari (UK edition), translated by Sora Kim-Russell, published by Periscope

Where did the time go?!

In a couple of weeks my first semester at Ewha Womans University will be ending. In a way it feels kind of frivolous to be studying a second MA, but with the amount I am learning and the daily struggle it has been, I definitely feel like I made the right decision. My Korean reading and writing ability is improving, obviously I am way behind my Korean peers, but you know, they all had a 20-year head start so I’m not going to get upset about that!

This semester I have taken three classes. In ‘Modern Literary Criticism’ we read through a bunch of literary theory and philosophy, interestingly all by French men. Lucky for me all of the key texts had been translated into English so I was able to grapple with the difficult translated sentences on a similar footing to everyone else. One thing that I did find was that the English and Korean versions of many of the translations were very different in tone and style and sometimes in meaning. But honestly for that kind of work one sentence can be understood in different ways, and so a translation can try to keep that ambiguity, if that is possible, or run with one of the meanings…I suppose the Korean tended to be more explanatory.

The second class was ‘Modern Korean Poetry’ and this semester the course was focused on theories of rhythm. As someone becoming bilingual bit by bit who has translated poetry, but also being a foreigner in a big city and slightly out of tune even with my homeland now, it has been so interesting to think about rhythm. The rhythms of different people, different dialects and languages, different styles of speech, different cities and cultures . . . the way that rhythm stems from the innermost beats and repetitions. I now have the task of directing the big wide-angle concept of rhythm that my teacher has developed in me back to looking at Korean poetry and a (no doubt slightly odd) term paper has to become the end product of this.

The third and final class was Korean Siga which I guess can be called ‘lyrical poetry’ but really refers to the kind of verse which makes up much of pre-modern Korean literature. As part of my course I have to take two classes in the pre-modern literature section and I thought I should ‘get them over and done with as quickly as possible’, but in fact it has been a really interesting class. The topic this term was the period of transition from ‘middle-ages’ to ‘modernity’, a long period to study, yes, but also a whole world of possibilities. This class is the smallest of the three and as there are less students studying pre-modern literature they tend to be very good at looking out for each other, which thankfully has included looking out for me! I’ve been looking at Lee Jong-ung’s Seosarok, a kind of official report on this journey to England in 1902 for the coronation of King Edward, and the version which he wrote in verse based on the less official aspects of Seosarok which is entitled Syeoyugyeonmunrok. Maybe one day I can translate the hangeul translations of these works, or maybe some kind translator will translate them before I get the chance.

As well as my three classes at Ewha I have been taking the ‘Translation Atelier’ at the Literary Translation Institute of Korea (LTI). With just six classes per term the Atelier meets less frequently than the ‘Special’ course, but because there are only four students every other class we each get to have our work critiqued for an hour by our teacher and fellow students. I’ve been presenting excerpts of translation from a short story called ‘Spring Nirvana’ by Jon Kyongnin which is included in The Goat Herding Woman. The comments and advice I’ve received in the class have been absolutely invaluable, and the recurring themes  are helping me to identify my sloppy habits and weed them out.

All things considered it’s no wonder the last three months have flown past in a flash. It’s been tough but I’m growing to love my school and my teachers and I’m actually really looking forward to the next three semesters and what lies ahead – almost as much as I’m looking forward to the summer holidays 😉

The ECC at Ewha around sunset

The ECC at Ewha around sunset

2014: a Year of Translation

I began to study literature translation in 2012, but it wasn’t until spring 2014 that it invaded my life completely. Most of my achievements in the past year have been to do with the translation of Korean into English, and most of these have been translations of poetry and prose.

I hope it won’t seem like bragging, but I want to make a list of these accomplishments, as I am ever forgetful and whether this is the start of something, or my most fruitful year, I think each part deserves to be remembered a few years down the line.

In the springtime I began work on translating poems for the anthology Let me Linger as a Flower in Your Heart, I finished translating in the summer and edited and proofread until mid-September with the book coming out around October time.

This anthology also became the focus of a Chosun Ilbo interview which came out on Christmas Day and caused quite a stir among my acquaintances. Unfortunately it was only released in Korean, but in another way it might be fortunate as some things I had said in the interview were a little…exaggerated or simplified when they came out in print.

In the summer time I decided to submit a co-translation of a short story I had translated with Sollee Bae in 2012 while studying at the LTI Korea for publication in the journal Acta Koreana. After rigorous editing by the amazing Kevin O’Rourke, and back-and-forth emails with the author on how to spell his name in English, our translation of ‘Arpan’ was published in the winter issue which came out in December.

In September I met with the English Editor in Chief and Head of Design at Koreana magazine and was tasked with translating a short story for the winter edition of the magazine. In one way it was very easy to translate – short sentences and simple language – but in another this simplicity made it more difficult to carry over the feelings behind words in English. Anyway, the strength of the story, and the way it penetrated to the heart of what it means to be human and how we interact with our bodies meant that, in my humble opinion, ‘Your Metamorphosis’(p82~99) shined through even in translation.

Another cool thing that happened in 2014 was that, if only briefly, I got to be a writer for a change. In the Winter 2014 edition of _list magazine, the publication on books from Korea produced by the LTI Korea, there were two articles written by me. One about my time at the Translation Academy, and one about the ‘Forest of Wisdom’ in Paju Book City. Earlier in the year I also wrote a small article about a day tour of Seoul for visiting translations, which (fingers crossed) should come out online sooner or later.

Oddly enough, the biggest things that happened to me in 2014 all happened on the same day, and all relate more to the year ahead than the year in which the ‘day of reckoning’ took place. On the 28th of November I found out that I had been accepted to study Korean Literature at Ewha Womans University, that I had been chosen as a recipient of the ICF scholarship for budding translators, and that I had been awarded a translation grant by the LTI Korea to translate ‘The Goat Herding Woman’ (tentative). Needless to say, though I was extremely grateful and excited about all these things, the fact that all the news came at once was completely overwhelming and I spent a few days wandering around in shock.

2015 will no doubt be a very busy year. I hope I am ready, and I hope I can stay healthy to meet the challenges of studying for an MA in a foreign language, juggling university work with my first translation of an entire book and having some semblance of a private life and hobbies at the same time. I will do my best anyway.

Happy New Year everyone ^^

Let Me Linger as a Flower in Your Heart

This evening two big heavy boxes were delivered to the flat. Inside them were copies of the first ever book with my name on the cover (!!!) – as translator of course.

Let Me Linger as a Flower in Your Heart

Let Me Linger as a Flower in Your Heart is a collection of 53 poems by 53 poets. All the poets featured are members of the Korea Disabled Artist Association, some mention their disabilities in their poems, which give many insights, but just as many don’t, and they are all wonderful poems in their own right.

Its a bilingual book, so everything is printed in both Korean and English, and people who know both can pick at my translations…if they have nothing better to do. Translating all the poems was a real struggle. I only had about three months and I was working full time in an office too. Thanks to endless explanations from Kwon, corrections by Eonhee and editing by Brother Anthony I was able to submit them all, on time. And I think they’re pretty good as poetry translations go – luckily I had great poems to work with!

The book should come on sale in Korea shortly, its 15,000won, which is around £8 (or about 16p a poem) – I have some copies so if you know anyone that would write a review of the book or something please let me know. It probably won’t be available outside of Korea although I am trying to encourage the publisher to make the English bits into an e-book – we’ll have to wait and see about that.

One of my favourite poems in the collection is titled ‘Suffering and Beauty Live Up on Hilltops’, and its by Kim Yul-do. Funnily enough, today was also the day when Kim Yul-do was presented with the ‘Ku Sang Sosdae Literature Prize’, and so I was lucky enough to meet him at the award ceremony.

Sophie Bowman and Kim Yul-do

Before receiving his prize there was a poetry reading, where he read the poem on stage accompanied by a sign interpreter. It’s always amazing to hear the author of a poem you know and love read it out loud, and the amazing performance of the sign language interpreter made it even better.

Poetry Reading Sign Language

I got special permission from the poet to post the poem here in full. I hope you will read it and enjoy it. Anyone who knows me will be aware that I love hills and mountains, I guess that makes this poem echo even longer for me.

Comments are welcome. Hopefully more poems to follow.

Suffering and Beauty Live Up on Hilltops

                                                                                       Kim Yul-do

That’s how it is.
Suffering and beauty mostly live up on hilltops.
The citizens’ apartments on the hillside in Changshin-dong
gazing straight at Namsan Tower,
those apartment blocks imposing as a medieval fortress,
ended up being demolished by human hands
and now I too have nowhere to lay my head.
Even now
Seonghui’s dad with the watch stall, Geonju’s dad off working in the Middle East…
in that hilltop beehive, unable to leave though all longed to,
Mum works, slashing her fingers, tidying up hair for a few won a time,
while the whole family breaks their fingernails
for a few hundred won shelling pine nuts on the side.
From time to time the wind shook the house,
the light of a few stars flickered,
then when darkness came every day one hill would soar up,
another hill would crumble,
and from each floor, smelling of urine, out flows:
‘Ah, herons are crying mournfully, is it autumn already?’
Perpetually drunk, the man in number 401
would sing of nothing but herons
while I, a native of Changshin-dong, swim on lyrically
wearing clothes stained with salt for being drenched in sweat,
“From the the old fortress on Naksan hillside”
leaving behind those playing yut and spinning empty cans at the crossroads,
passing winter nights with that bitter wind as if in prayer,
yes, suffering and beauty mostly live on hilltops.

Note: “From the the old fortress…” is from the school song of Myeongshin Primary School on the Changshin-dong hillside.

Wonderful Gyeongju

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Gyeongju is one of my favourite places in Korea. As a European, the lack of old stuff in Seoul can sometimes feel a bit jarring. Although there are plenty of palaces and temples around Seoul city centre, they all have a somewhat polished feeling, and that’s because many of them have needed to have extended renovation and rebuilding works done to them throughout the course of Seoul’s turbulent history as the capital of modern Korea.

Gyeongju then is a bit like Korea’s Kyoto, although a smaller city and somehow more humble feeling, as the old capital of the Silla dynasty (57BC – 935AD) Gyeongji is steeped in a very special kind of history.

The state religion of the Silla dynasty was buddhism and as such special attention was paid to a construction and design that represents and exists in harmony with nature. On a visit to Gyeongju you can see how ideas of shape and balance and what beauty actually is came into physical form in Silla construction.

I have visited Gyeongju four times now. On my very first trip to Korea as an intrepid nineteen year old I ventured down to Gyeongjiu from Seoul on my own and spent three days there. It was springtime and the cherry blossoms were all in full bloom with their petals softly falling like snow all around.

Last year when my parents made their first visit to Korea Gyeongju was the first place I took them to. As it was late September I imagined we would find all the trees in their beautiful autumn colours and walk around under the clear, high skies of Korean autumns. Sadly it rained the entire time we were there, but somehow it didn’t seem to put a damper on things, and in fact meant that all the places we visited were very quiet, and created a pretty amazing atmosphere.

This spring too I headed down to Gyeongju with a friend and her parents. I couldn’t wait for  spring to travel north the Seoul, so vowed to go down to meet it in the south of the country. Coming from a cold Seoul, being greeted by blossoms all around in Gyeongju was pretty magical, and though we couldn’t spend much time there on this occasion the wonder of Gyeongju still managed to make a big impression, again.

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In the city centre you will find the huge tombs of the Silla royalty. When I first walked among them I was sure that I had been transported to teletubby land but as the reality of what they were sunk in they became more and more beautiful and kind of hypnotising.

One of the bigger tombs has been opened up and you can walk inside and see an exhibition of the things that were discovered inside. I’ve never been to see the pyramids, and of course these tombs can’t compete on scale, but it’s quite touching to see the ornaments and rituals that surrounded the death and burial of the young king the tomb belongs to.

These tombs are serious structures, but I really love how they seem to be so in harmony with nature, and the world that carries on after death, at least from the outside.

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Another sight to see in the city is Wolji (or Anapji depending on the age of your guide book). Wolji is a pond with a large pavilion in the centre and smaller pavilions dotted around here and there. The trees and plants here are really lovely so it’s nice to see it in the day time in the spring or summer, but it is really famous for its nighttime scenery, where the pavilions are lit up by floodlights creating a really romantic setting.
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The last thing you really should see in the city centre is the National Museum. It’s pretty huge with lots of different halls, and whenever you go there it’s likely to be filled with groups of slightly bored looking middle and high school students (Gyeongju is where pretty much every Korean comes on a school field trip at least once in their lives). However, there is some cool stuff to see and as the entrance fee is really cheap you can easily buzz round and not have to worry about getting your money’s worth. I suppose what’s important about the museum is it gives you a background to the Silla dynasty and shows you some of the amazing things that were produced at the time while reminding you every step of the way that this all happened well over 1000 years ago.

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The most famous exhibit in the museum is the gigantic brass bell which hangs in a pavilion outside, near the entrance to the museum compound. It’s very very old and very very heavy and when it goes ‘dong’ you’ll know about it!

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The two things that Gyeongju is most famous for though are outside of the city. If there are a number of you a taxi from the city centre to Bulguksa won’t feel like too much of a blow to your wallet, but there are also special bus services that run to Bulguksa and less frequently to Seokguram.

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Bulguksa is one of the most highly prized temples in all of Korea, and it should be quite easy to see why. Surrounded by beautiful trees the temple is very very old, but also somehow humble in it’s age. Although invariably filled with people, you can always find a quiet spot somewhere near the back of the compound, and there it lots to see as you go around.

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Two of the most notable things at Bulguksa are the stone pagodas which stand in front of one of the main halls of the temple. One of them is currently being renovated, but as a pair they stand in perfect contrast, achieving a kind of balance that makes you appreciate the value of things which may seem opposed to each other.

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The one that can be seen at the moment is the more romantic of the pair. With roundedand decorative shapes at the top and once flanked by four stone lions (only one of which remains). The other stone pagoda, which is covered by a giant box, is all simplicity and straight lines, but somehow almost harsh in comparison with its counterpart.

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At the other side of the temples is a small statue of a pig, which is supposed to be very lucky. It’s very cute, and popular with children and adults alike. The pig statue however is kind of a distraction from the main event that you have to be in the know to be able to spot. Above the entranceway to the hall directly behind the statue hangs a wooden panel. If you climb up to the veranda of the hall and look behind the wooden panel you can spot the pig that all the fuss is about.

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From Bulguksa then the natural next destination is Seokguram. The best way to get there is by hiking up the mountain trail that leaves from beside the main entrance to Bulguksa, but if you are less fit or less mobile, the bus leaves from the main road outside the temple.

Somehow hiking up to Seoukguram makes the discovery of the huge white stone buddha that sits inside the cave grotto at the top of the mountain all the more exhilarating. Even if you take the bus or a taxi you have to walk up for about ten minutes from the car park, but it’s not really the same.

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Near the ticket office for Seokguram is a large bell tower. These days you can have a go at ringing the bell for 1000won a strike. Hitting the bell with the huge wooden hammer that hangs beside it is supposed to bring you good luck!

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The walk up from the car park along a dirt road is not particularly strenuous, and it’s quite nice to put some distance between the hustle and bustle of the car park and the sight that you are about to see.

On some days the area around the grotto is so bustling that it’s hard to connect with the calm of the place and the statue that is so famous. But, if you’ve come this far it would be sad not to take this little pilgrimage seriously. Bus loads of exchange students walk into the grotto and out the door on the other side without even an expression of anything, ‘oh great a buddha’ or whatever. It’s really sad to hear comments like this, because even if you have not affiliation to buddhism if you appreciate the statue of the buddha and the structure it sits within as an art work it is something far more extraordinary than anything you will find in a gallery anywhere. Taking time to look and contemplate the scene before you when you visit Seokguram really can make you understand something about existence, and as we all have to exist for the time being, it’s a subject of direct interest to us all.

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The outside of the grotto looks pretty simple, but don’t be fooled. Before walking up your last climb of the day its nice to take a drink of water from the mountain spring just below the grotto. In Korean the sign reads “Kamnosu” which means ‘sweet water’ or nectar. The taste of the water belongs in the mouth of the drinker right? I can’t say that it was sweet, but it’s certainly refreshing.

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The view from the platform that the grotto was dug into is really amazing. On a clear day you can just about see the sea beyond the mountains, and on a rainy day you’ll be lucky if you can see the person stood next to you, but both views have their charms.

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What you will see when you enter inside of what looks like a small temple hall, is a manmade cave that goes right back into the rock. The structure of this cave has changed over the years after it was dismantled by Japanese archeologists who thought they were unearthing it for all to see, but rather ended up ruining the balance of temperature and humidity that have been achieved inside the structure that was preserving the statue in its original state. Because of this, unfortunately, you can only look at the inside of the cave from behind a thick sheet of glass because the conditions in the area inside are being regulated electronically. This is all the more reason to hang around and make an effort to get a good look at it.

Coming out through the other side of the small building you will find yourself back in a world of colour and daylight wondering whether what you just saw really was there inside what looks like a tiny little temple building.

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The last thing you have to do before you leave Gyeongju is pick up some Gyeongju bread. Personally I’m not a fan of the traditional Gyeongju bread, which is basically a dense lump of red bean paste inside a thin layer of almost savoury wheat pastry, but, the little pancakes made of glutinous barley (찰보리빵) that are inevitably sold in most of the shops that sell Gyeongju bread are really tasty! They’re moist and chewy and stuck together with just enough red bean paste that they are sweet without having the texture that puts some people off red bean products. You will see every visitor leaving Gyeongju carrying at least one box of one of these delicacies with them.

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How you reach Gyeongju will depend on where you are travelling from but the main train station is in the heart of the city, and the intercity bus terminal has regular services to all the big cities around Korea. The newly opened ‘New Gyeongju’, or ‘Shin Gyeongju’ KTX station is a way out of town, but buses run frequently and the journey doesn’t take that long.
While it’s not exactly cheap, by KTX it’s just a couple of hours from one end of South Korea to the other and it’s a pretty cool experience for travellers that are new to Korea too.

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(Note the two bags of Gyeongju barley bread!)