Hunting World Heritage Sites on our first trip to East Asia
  • Day38

    Westwards to Suncheon

    October 4, 2019 in South Korea ⋅ ☀️ 27 °C

    Not too early today, we even managed to have the included breakfast at our hotel - DIY fried eggs and toast! At least it saves us the cost of an extra meal. Back to the bus station where we caught our three hour bus westwards to the city of Suncheon. This was an older and non-premium bus so it was a bit more cramped. Still fine, but not the proper business class experience we were getting used to!

    Arrived in Suncheon, jammed our bags into a bus station locker and then caught a local bus heading out to our destination - some tidal mudflats! Sat on the bus for about 15 minutes before we realised it was going the wrong way! Shandos had written down we could catch bus 66 or 67 there from a stand outside the main station, and the Google directions I was following had us taking 66 at stand A. When bus 67 arrived first, we hopped on that instead, not realising that bus 67 from that stand goes the other direction! Whoops. Got off the bus, re-routed our directions and finally got to the mud flats about an hour later than planned.

    This isn't a WHS - yet - it's a Tentative site. The Tentative list is actually many times larger than the proper list, so we don't tend to pay attention to it, unless sites are scheduled for consideration in the next few years. The mud flats will likely be up for a vote in 2021 so we figured we should visit it now, as Korea has a good track record of getting their sites through.

    We'd figured that a bunch of tidal mud flats would be completely deserted, but it was jam-packed with people! I think it's a holiday weekend here, but even so it was a lot of people. Koreans just love hiking (and they dress very seriously for it which is endlessly funny), so there were people all over the boardwalks here. I personally didn't find it super interesting, as I find a lot of the "important ecosystem" sites leave me a bit cold. Spectacular landscapes, sure. But the "important home for migratory birds and endangered lichen" sites don't especially interest me. That said, we had a nice walk and saw plenty of crabs, birds and insects, so it wasn't a total write-off.

    Bus back to Suncheon, where we carefully took the right bus this time! Did some work in the evening and had dinner at a nearby restaurant. I had another bulgogi, Shandos had another bibimbap.
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  • Day37

    Highlights of Gyeongju

    October 3, 2019 in South Korea ⋅ ⛅ 23 °C

    Another early start, as we got up and anxiously checked outside. There had been heavy rain, but it was now only sprinkling, and there wasn't much wind to speak of. So we'd gotten fairly lucky I think. Undeterred, we pressed on.

    Stop number one for today was Bulguksa Temple, a Silla-era Buddhist temple outside town. Another bus ride and we were here fairly early, though it's a common tourist stop and it was busy already. Despite being constructed in the Silla kingdom, most of the buildings here are much later rebuilds, some of them in Joseon styles. And there's a couple of old relics too, like stone stupas that dated back to the 8th century when the temple was originally constructed, so that was cool. Plus the rain had stopped!

    Another short bus ride to the other part of the World Heritage site, Seokguram Grotto. Located in a man-made cave, the highlight of the grotto is a large and beautiful stone Buddha statue at the back of the cave. It's surrounded by wall carvings and reliefs of other Buddhist iconography. The whole complex dates back to the 8th century and is apparently mostly original which is quite cool. Though it's protected behind glass, and about 10 metres away so you couldn't see it that well. And no photos either, which is going to make for a not-very-interesting video!

    Back on the bus down the hills and into Gyeongju, where the weather had almost completely cleared. There's a separate WHS here covering the rest of the remains of the Silla kingdom, including a palace, tombs, and an observatory. We started with the palace - not much to see except foundations and some modern replica buildings.

    The observatory was cool, about 9 metres tall and still in original condition. It's just a stone tower really, but was used for astronomical observations and looked quite photogenic sitting in a park surrounded by flowers. Last stop was the tombs. There are actually hundreds of these dotted around town - mounds containing a small burial chamber. Some of the mounds are enormous - 20 metres high, while others are quite modest. These are where the golden crowns we'd seen yesterday were found.

    You could go inside one of them, but it felt suspiciously modern so I wasn't super sure about what we were seeing. It was nice to walk around the park surrounded by these mounds, but the signs everywhere warning of a 20 million won fine for climbing them was a bit of a bummer.

    Feeling tired, we just had another 7-11 dinner before heading to the hotel.
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  • Day36

    Sansa & South to Gyeong-ju

    October 2, 2019 in South Korea ⋅ 🌧 19 °C

    Up early again for another busy day. We had one more site to see around Andong, so we grabbed another bus at the bus station and headed off into the mountains, though in a different direction. This stop was a Sansa - nothing to do with the Queen in the North from Game of Thrones (it's actually pronounced Shansha anyway), but a Buddhist monastery. Since the Joseon dynasty ruled Korea as Confucians for over 600 years, adherents to other religions like Buddhism had to hide themselves away in isolated areas like this.

    So the WHS is a collection of Sansa (literally: mountain temple) monasteries located around Korea. Again, there's about 20 of them included on the list but we were contenting ourselves with just one, though it's usually considered the most important. Off the bus, we left our luggage with a friendly parking lot attendant and walked the 20 minutes up the hill to the monastery. It was quite beautiful, again located in the forested mountains and surrounded by cascading streams and brooks.

    It had the typical Buddhist layout of a central courtyard, with a prayer hall in the rear, two dormitories on the flanks, and a pavilion for lectures/studying/meditating at the front above the entrance gate. Behind this little complex was another treasure - what's considered to be the oldest extant wooden building in Korea, dating from the 14th century. Nobody actually knows when it was built, but a temple record mentions roof repairs in 1369, so obviously it was earlier than that! Pretty cool. We had a nice wander around, did our filming, and before 90 minutes was up we were completely done. And that was even after sitting in the main hall and listening to a solitary monk chanting for a while.

    Wandered back down, collected our luggage, and got back on the bus. While waiting we helped out a French lady named Arlette who reminded me a lot of Marie. She was trying to contact her sister back in Andong that she'd meet her at the markets for lunch at midday. But she was relying on wifi and of course a 14th century Buddhist monastery doesn't have wifi. So I sent a few Whatsapp messages to her sister for her, they had a brief conversation and I think all was good.

    We hopped off at the bus terminal (Arlette stayed on for downtown), had another lunch at Lotteria while we waited for our bus south to Gyeongju. A few hours on another comfy bus (it's remarkable how efficient the system is) and we arrived in Gyeongju. Wandered to our nearby hotel and dropped bags, as the overcast conditions turned into steady light drizzle.

    Undeterred, we caught a local bus to the nearby museum for our first sightseeing stop. This was the Gyeongju museum, where the most important local artifacts were stored. Gyeongju was the centre of the ancient Silla kingdom, which ruled south-east Korea for about 1000 years, roughly 50 BC - 1000 AD. Along with Baekje in central Korea and Gogoryueo in the north it was one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, and in around 600 AD they (with some help from China) conquered the other two and were the first to unify Korea. They were also Buddhist, which makes them unusual in Korea.

    Since it's a lot older than other historic stuff we've seen in Korea, most of the physical legacy is stuff recovered from graves etc which is now in the museum, hence our visit. The highlight was a collection of 6 delicate golden crowns recovered from tombs in the city, assumed to be kings and queens of Silla from about 650 AD. Very impressive.

    Since we'd started late in the day we hurried through the museum and finished just as it closed, emerging into the darkness to find an absolutely torrential downpour. This was biblical stuff, getting-wet-underneath-your-umbrella situations. Thankfully I'd put on thongs (not my shoes with a now-enormous hole), as we ran across the carpark to the bus stop and hopped on the bus. Dripping wet, we rode back into town to our hotel, where we picked up dinner from the 7-11 next door since we couldn't be bothered going further.

    Turns out it was the leading edge of a typhoon that was predicted to pass by overnight!
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  • Day35

    Seowon and a Historic Village in Andong

    October 1, 2019 in South Korea ⋅ ☁️ 26 °C

    Time to finally leave Seoul, after 8 nights in South Korea! Checked out early and headed to the station, grabbing a subway to the bus terminal. We had tickets for a long-distance bus to Andong, about 3 hours to the south-east and roughly in the centre of the country. Another Premium style bus with seats three abreast, so it was quite comfortable.

    Arrived at midday where we hoped to drop bags at our nearby hotel and catch a local bus that was coming in 40 minutes. We quickly walked over to the hotel, but there was nobody there! It had a phone to call for someone, but they only spoke Korean so we headed back to the bus station. Just as we got back to the main road a guy pulled up yelling at us, and we realised he was the person we'd spoken to. Although it was well before check-in time, we were allowed to drop our bags in the room and scurry back to the bus station.

    Made it in time for the bus out of town, which took about an hour or so. The site for today was a Seowon, a Confucian academy. This WHS has a series of them scattered in remote locations all over Korea, but we'd decided to limit our visits to just one since they're all generally the same. This was quite a nice one, set in forested mountains with running streams nearby. Perfect for learning your Confucian ethics and morals, and preparing yourself for a life in the government bureaucracy. It was interesting, though not especially large, and we were done within an hour.

    Finishing up with this site, we headed for our next site: the nearby historic village of Hahoe. It was a 2 hour wait for the bus back, or a 4km walk so naturally we opted for the latter. Arrived at the village just in time for a free performance of traditional mask dancing. Obviously, the performers wear masks and dance around on a stage in front of musicians, while a narrator (and surtitles) explain what's going on. It was quite interesting, though the dancing wasn't especially vigorous - the story is more the point. I quite liked how the various masks really sold different characters like an old haggard woman, a young fisherman, a nobleman, a maiden etc. They were mostly played by middle-aged men, but the masks made you believe otherwise!

    After the performance we headed into the historic village. It felt a bit like the ancient village we visited in China, though most of the buildings here were wooden, rather than stone, and not especially old either. Though it was cool to see the clear distinction between peasant houses with thatched roofs and noble houses with tiled roofs. But on the whole the village felt a bit touristy with lots of residents selling souvenirs from their front yards, and of course their accoutrements of modern life like cars, satellite dishes and wifi routers were scattered around.

    Hurried out and managed to jump on a bus back into town, though we realised later that since we'd walked into the back way from the Seowon path, we'd missed the ticket booth (which is for some reason a kilometre from the entrance). So we didn't pay. Whoops!

    Back to Andong where we grabbed a quick bite for dinner at the bus station: Lotteria, the Korean burger chain.
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  • Day34

    Hwaseong Fortress

    September 30, 2019 in South Korea ⋅ ☀️ 25 °C

    Another day, another fortress! Thankfully this is the last fortress we'll see in Korea. Hooray.

    Subway ride to the south-east of Seoul this time, and then another bus out to the mini-city of Suwon where our site is located. Again, this is a semi-modern emergency palace and fortress, constructed to save the government if and or when things got bad. This is actually in pretty great condition and is largely original, so we were interested to see it.

    First stop was an enormous old gatehouse that these days literally sits in the middle of a roundabout in the middle of town. It looked quite odd, but also very impressive. Took a couple of photos then headed off on our customary circuit of the walls. These were only about 6km, so much more hikeable in a few hours! The first part was quite tough, heading up a tall hill to see watch towers and a command post, but we were rewarded with good views. We could even see the wall miles off on the other side of the fortress.

    Strolled downhill, grabbed a snack and kept walking. Every couple of hundred metres there was a new thing to see, whether it was a bastion, a redoubt, a gatehouse, a secret entrance, a watergate, or even an observation post. It was all quite interesting, in good condition, and as I mentioned largely original which helped things quite a bit.

    The walk took quite a while though we both really enjoyed it, one of the better sites we've seen so far in Korea I think. Couldn't see many options for lunch so we ended up with microwaved meals from 7-11, though they're better than you might think! It's quite common to eat those here. I had a burger (surprisingly palatable) while Shandos had some bulgogi.

    Finished by mid-afternoon, we headed back to Seoul again and home where we spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing. Although it's great that there's so many sites near the city and we can tick them off fairly quickly, it's kind of annoying that they're all spaced quite far apart. Aside from the ones right in the city, it'd be hard to do multiples in a day.
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  • Day33

    Ganghwa Dolmens

    September 29, 2019 in South Korea ⋅ ☀️ 26 °C

    Dolmens. Neolithic burial sites. Our favourite type of sites!

    Another long day trip today as we bundled onto the metro basically to the end of the line, north-west of Seoul. Then onto another bus for about 45 minutes as we headed well into the countryside, fairly close again to the North Korean border. Our destination today was the Ganghwa Dolmens, a neolithic burial site.

    Dolmens are usually very simple affairs: four large stone walls, and a capstone roof. These were no different! There was a collection of about 20 of them scattered over a modest area, though only the first one was really actually interesting. Viewed from one angle it had a really distinct pi-shape, though from the others it just looked like rocks.

    We had a good look, then followed a forest trail for an hour or so look at other dolmens that were essentially just rocks in the ground, fairly indistinct from other rocks nearby. It reminded us both of a bronze-age burial ground we'd been to Finland, though those were piles of small rocks where these were monolith style rocks.

    Got back to the large main dolmen where we decided to splurge the $2 to visit the museum. It was mostly focused on the history of the local area, and only briefly touched on the dolmens themselves. Skipped on the nearby natural history museum and got the bus back to town, a quick lunch and then the long subway ride back into Seoul.

    Had some minor excitement on the way back when our phones screamed with an **EMERGENCY ALERT** entirely in Korean. It was a nervous couple of minutes while we translated, hoping that Chairman Kim hadn't launched the missles! No big deal, it was just telling us that African Swine Flu had been discovered nearby. At least it explained why all the cars and buses on the highway were getting hosed down!

    Back at our hotel we found a restaurant nearby that had quite reasonably priced meals which we hadn't noticed before, so headed there for dinner and really enjoyed the food. I had a beef bulgogi while Shandos had chicken teriyaki bibimbap.
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  • Day32

    Namhansamseong Fortress

    September 28, 2019 in South Korea ⋅ ⛅ 24 °C

    Another day, another fortress. Today's site was an "emergency palace", constructed during the 17th century. A fortress just outside of Seoul where the royal family and the government could retreat during times of war and unrest so that things could continue in safety.

    Much easier to access this time, as it was basically on the subway! 40 minutes on the subway to the edge of town, then a short 15 minute bus ride up into the hills nearby to the actual fortress. Quite busy today as it's a Saturday, and the area is super popular with the locals for hiking. Koreans really like hiking, as it turns out, even the old folks, and they all get super kitted out in their North Face and Kathmandu gear.

    This site doesn't have a great rep among our community as it's basically just a not-that-interesting fortress and isn't that old, so it doesn't have a lot going for it. We'd also seen ancient walls on the previous two day and weren't feeling super enthused. But we hopped off the bus in the tourist town and started wandering.

    The walls themselves run for about 12 kilometres and we picked the south gate to start with, figuring we'd walk a segment to the west gate, then head back to the centre. We essentially stuck to that plan and it was quite nice, though again the warm humid weather made the going tough.

    The wall was in great condition though as I mentioned it's not that old, and it's hard to know what sort of upkeep has been done to it. It was reasonably interesting, but certainly not a highlight I guess! The gates were cool though.

    Back to the centre of the fortress where we also had a look at the emergency palace. This was the centre of government when the king retreated here. Built in the 1660s, it was used within 10 years during a Japanese invasion (the Koreans lost). It suffered heavy damage in wars over the years and these days what you can see is mostly reconstructed from photos and archaeology. Not my favourite type of site!

    Took the bus down from the mountains to the city, grabbed a late lunch at Paris Baguette (again), then caught the subway back home. Stayed in for the rest of the day working on various things!
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  • Day31

    Baekje Historic Areas

    September 27, 2019 in South Korea ⋅ ☁️ 25 °C

    Today's site relates to the Baekje kingdom, which ruled parts of Korea from around 800-1100 AD. It was located in central Korea and was a long-distance bus away, so off we went. Subway to the bus station then a long-distance bus out to the city of Gwangju. Very comfortable, as the bus was a "Comfort" class which essentially meant armchairs and three abreast rather than four. Nice!

    Arrived in Gwangju at around 10am and grabbed some lunch supplies from the Paris Baguette chain nearby, then walked across the river to the site. The main area here is a large fortress, though aside from the walls most of it has been destroyed. We checked out a couple of gates and guard towers, then walked around sections of the walls. There was a large flattened section that was apparently where the palace was originally located, though later on we came across more recent excavations down near the river where they now believe the palace was probably located.

    We spent a few hours walking up and down around the walls in the hot sun, pausing only for 20 minutes to eat our lunch. It was pretty warm going and we were both drenched in sweat.

    Of course, every visit to a former royal palace and fortress usually requires a visit to the royal tombs, and this was no exception. We caught a local bus about 10 minutes up the road to where the kings from this dynasty were buried under a series of large mounds. There was a large and interesting museum attached too, showing off what they'd found in some of the tombs, and even full-scale replicas of a few chambers. Obviously you can't visit the originals.

    There was one quite significant tomb that had been opened in 1974, mainly because it was completely undisturbed with all the relics and treasures intact. But most importantly, one of the relics was a tablet inscribed with all of the king's great accomplishments - a fantastic historical resource.

    We had a look around the mounds outside, and bumped into a Korean man from Waitara on holidays with his family! Small world. But there was a lot of screaming schoolkids around too, so we beat a hasty retreat to the bus station before grabbing a long-distance bus back to Seoul.

    Not much to report in the evening, we decided to have Korean fried chicken and beer since that's a hugely popular thing here. Communal eating (particularly after work with colleagues) is a massive thing, and people love to go to chicken restaurants, eat fried chicken and drink beers. We had initially been shocked at the prices, but eventually worked out that it was for the whole chicken and would be enough for both of us. After ordering we realised that the chicken was just that - the whole chicken. Breast, leg, wing, thigh ... neck. We left the neck, we've fed too many to Schnitzel.
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  • Day30

    Royal Tombs & City Walls

    September 26, 2019 in South Korea ⋅ ⛅ 26 °C

    Day trip out of the city to visit a World Heritage site, a pattern that's going to be repeated a bunch of times for the next few days! Up early and headed to the metro, following our directions east to the town of Guri. One really annoying thing about the metro here is that some of the lines split, but it never mentions which direction the train is going. Sort of like in Sydney how the south coast line trains are all on the blue line, but half of them go to Cronulla and the others go to Wollongong.

    Seoul has the same thing except yeah, it doesn't tell you which are Cronulla and which are Wollongong trains. You can probably see where this is going. Our app said to change to line 2 at a particular station, so we did and just hopped on the next train. It was a bit different since it wasn't a metro train, it was all seated, but it headed the right direction before veering away north and picking up speed. Eventually with the help of a local guy we figured out it was a train, not the subway, and that we'd need to get off at the next stop.

    At least it wasn't too far away, so we hopped off, switched platforms and waited 15 minutes for the next train back. That was all fine, if a bit annoying, until the ticket inspector turned up. As it turns out, this was an express train and our metro tap-on tickets didn't cover it. The inspector was an old guy and didn't know much English beyond "ticket" and "penalty". I google translated a few messages explaining the situation and that we didn't even know where to buy tickets (I think he was trying to sell them but they were quite expensive), and eventually he threatened to call the police on his radio.

    Which he did, and then escorted us to the rear carriage and his compartment. I had a feeling something was up, since he hadn't pushed the talk button on his radio when calling, and nobody had answered him. When we got to his compartment his demeanour changed massively, the train arrived at the next station, and we got off with no issues. It was a confusing situation but I think he just wanted to save face in front of the locals who could see him confronting us about not having tickets.

    Not wanting to take another chance, we left the station and took a bus the rest of the way. We'd wasted an hour, but at least nothing worse had happened! As it was, the site wasn't super interesting. It was a collection of royal tombs from the Joseon dynasty, which ruled Korea from the 14th-20th centuries. The tombs are scattered all around the peninsula but this is the largest collection in one area.

    It's a nice environment with a forest and a series of buildings in front of a large mound where the king and/or queen is actually buried. Interestingly, none of the tombs have ever been opened, so aside from the buildings there wasn't much to actually see. We wandered around, but were done within about 90 minutes.

    Caught a bus back to the station where we carefully caught the right train back into the city. The rest of the afternoon was spent walking around sections of the city walls. They were progressively built over hundreds of years, but are still running through large sections of the city. It was interesting to see via the stonework which parts had been built when! They're on the tentative world heritage list, and since SK is pretty organised it will probably get added in the next couple of years.
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  • Day29

    Changdeokgung Palace & Jongmyo Shrine

    September 25, 2019 in South Korea ⋅ ☁️ 25 °C

    So after a little sight-seeing, it was time to begin our WHS journey across Korea in earnest. First up today was Changdeokgung Palace, located in the centre of Seoul. This was a medium-sized palace built by the Joseon dynasty, who ruled Korea from 1392 - 1910. They actually had two palaces right in the middle of the city, this and another with a huge name; that one was more formalised in style while this was a bit off-kilter, buildings flowing with the terrain and so on.

    So we grabbed a quick breakfast and headed over since it was just a short five minute walk from the hostel. The last Wednesday of every month is Culture Day in Korea, and all attractions are free - lucky us! Though we didn't save much money, the entrance fee was only 1000 won each which is about $1.20.

    Spent about 90 minutes wandering around taking photos and videos of the buildings which were quite impressive. Although the palace was originally built by one of the first Joseon rulers, it was destroyed at least once and then burned down accidentally in I think the 19th century, so a lot of what we were looking at wasn't that old.

    At 10:30 we headed out into the highlight of the palace, the Secret Garden. This was the 100% off limits area during royal times, where there were pavilions, buildings and shrines scattered amongst beautiful gardens. Very Chinese in style, though with Korean twists here as well. This area is only accessible via guided tour, so we stuck with the microphone lady - at least she was speaking English! It was quite interesting though, and we really enjoyed it.

    We emerged from the palace complex around 12:30pm, grabbed lunch at Paris Baguette (again!), and then walked over to Jongmyo Shrine, the second of today's World Heritage sites.

    The Joseon rulers were Confucians, so a central tenet of their faith is the worship of ancestors rather than gods. And since every Joseon was descended from the previous kings, there was a lot of worshipping to do. Here a large shrine complex was set up, just near the palaces, where the current kings could worship their ancestors on the appropriate day.

    It's not where they were buried - those were in various tombs around Korea, but every Joseon king (and queen) has a spirit shrine in the complex, containing tablets (similar to headstones I think?), and various other spiritual offerings. They weren't doing any offerings today which was a shame, as it looked like quite an interesting and elaborate ritual. The site was interesting enough, but it wasn't that big so by 3pm we were basically done.

    We headed back to the hotel and got stuck into some work and planning. Later in the evening we went out for Korean BBQ, where you buy raw meats and vegetables and cook them on a grill in your table. Fun, though very expensive for our budget!
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