Gyeongju-si, Korea Rep.
Knackered! Was it the day of walking round a village and temple, with a climb? Was it the day of walking up and down Namsan mountain? Or the running?
All of them, obviously. I even skipped a run on Thursday, so as to meet the others slightly fresher. Ray reckoned they’d be at the museum between 9 and 9.30, I was eating breakfast at 8.40 but somehow didn’t leave till 9.15, and got to the museum after a yomp at 9.45. They must have gone. I sat still for a bit then figured I was daft waiting and anyway, I might catch them. Lonely Planet suggests a route, and it looks as though there’s a natural start point over the road from the museum, then up and round a 3, 5 or 8 hour route. To start with, there is more than one road to cross, and I had two abortive attempts to find a way in, first just to get to the obviously forested area – I crossed one road then my only route was a paddy field or busy road – and then past a village and into the park. Backtracking again, I found an ancient house site that had been marked on the map (the map that is more of a guide than any sort of exact map), so that was a start, but there still wasn’t any walking route. I was hungry, another reason I’d pushed on on my own, not really sure I was up for the 5 hour hike, and had a sit down.
Sod it, I’m not giving up just yet, I’ll walk up the hill and see what I find, I figured. Tombs, was the answer, and small almost-paths that suggested something had come this way. I still wasn’t really in the mood, but hitting a hiking trail, an hour and a half after I’d left the hostel, cheered me up so much I resolved to follow it. There are regular signs, so I knew it was under 4km to the peak, and could just follow whichever path took me that way. Much of this route was uphill, and hard work, but I was travelling light, just my ipod for company. I’d picked Radio 4’s ‘how you pay for the city’, and tales of the charges for ordinary financial products (for instance, there are 16 stages in a managed fund, as money goes from broker to commodity bank to other body etc, most of these are hidden charges) meant I could get pleasantly irritated by the financial (lack of) services industry on the way up. MoneyBox had a great piece on pensions the other week, and I now realised why Paul Lewis was pressing the spokesman for a pensions provider so hard. Said spokesman hid behind the FCA, using their ‘it may not be in people’s interest’ as a reason why they shouldn’t provide details of all their charges – the former statement fairly obviously is a recognition that it’s a complicated picture rather than an instruction, but the finance firms can treat it as an instruction when it suits then. Plus, of course, it’s really difficult to know what the charges are when you have separate companies buying and selling shares, others borrowing them in the evenings, and so on. It’s an inconvenient truth that the same companies provide services in the Netherlands, where they have to detail all the charges. That said, it is almost certainly the case that the industries are so different that they genuinely don’t know all the charges – as it said in the documentary, it’s not a middle-man but a whole rugby team in the middle. As a result, all other things being equal, a Dutchman saving in to a pension will receive 50% more than a Brit. Well done everyone.
Of course, travelling light I also had no food, and that wasn’t going to help my mood. I eschewed any optional signs, 650m to the Hermitage etc, but chose to head off for an extra 100m to a viewing point within a few hundred m of the top. Listening to the podcasts, I enjoyed the views, which were fabulously. Suddenly, a few minutes in to a good rest, girding myself for a last push upward and then a quick descent to food, I felt a tap on my shoulder. The Korean behind me was insistent I join him. He had no English, or none that he wanted to use, but I was deemed ‘most deserving’, and he poured me a drink, handed me a sushi roll and opened a bag of cut melon. He definitely didn’t want to chat, but had brought twice the food he needed, and with the first bite of sushi (home made, I’m fairly sure) I could feel my spirits soar. This wouldn’t have happened in a group, whether I’d have held my mood together with others I don’t know, but now it was irrelevant. He shared out his chocolate treats and settled in to play a game on his phone. I enjoyed the view, feeling I should stay, but also acknowledging that if it were me, I’d be happy to give and enjoy a silence. I figure I’m less sociable than many, and so try to adjust to what might be expected of me – like trying to make conversation, or sticking around in case he wanted to, but a good non chat is good. I figured he was now killing time to allow me to move on, and did.
I picked up the pace and hit the top. More spectacular views over the valley and the edges of the city – the main bit was mostly blocked. I had a brief chat on the way – yomping past a Korean and his friend, he called out ‘you are strong man!’, let me know it was a national holiday (thought it was busy) and asked if I was fitness man. Why yes, I run. Oops, business man, not related to the strong man comment. Oh no, not a business man, though I’d happily sanction a lot of them these days, as they talk as if involved in free market economics and actually give crony capitalism a bad name. Conversation over, they peeled off for a look over the valley and I cracked on. Further down I was stopped by a couple of American girls anxious to know if there was a bus stop waiting for them at the end. I could only guess, as they already had, that there would be on the main road, not the one we would hit first. They looked fine, but I guess they’d carried as little as me and hadn’t managed to liberate food from the locals. I’d picked the longest route down for the extra kilometreage and it was tough on the leg muscles. It turned out that shorter routes were tougher – precipitous descents and roped off drops. Or so I heard from Steve and Ray, later. I made it happily to the bottom and walked back to town, via a couple of tombs, a forestry research centre with great walks, a bit of mildly hairy roadside and the national museum, where the day had begun.
I was shattered, but it seemed only fair to meet the others at their guesthouse, 20m walk away, seeing as I’d missed our rendezvous earlier. Gyeongju is a nice mixture of old and new – despite the economic miracle, and the similarities to Japan in parts, it’s obvious that parts of South Korea are still poor, and that some areas have been improved while others haven’t. Here, you can see it building by building, in some places, and you walk from a new, well appointed rail station past old (it seemed to be uniformly pensioners) people selling apples, chilli, onions and the like on the street, next to brand new glass-fronted pharmacies. Walking to their hostel I came through a much more glitzy shopping area; I didn’t spot the big luxury brands, but there were more swanky, glassy shops for Head, Lacoste, Adidas et al. Dinner was a complete contrast, as we popped into one of the small restaurants, mom and pop seems the best description, a handful of tables, order taken and cooked by the same person; a woman both times I have been. Good food, a cup of green tea afterwards, which isn’t such an odd thing for me now, and a walk home that showed just how chilly it had become. It was quite nice to feel almost cold, that’s really the first time in a couple of months.
Today I did very little. Admittedly ‘little’ involved a 10 mile run with some intervals, but I didn’t start till after 10, allowing my roommates to get up early and head off to whatever they were doing. I was slightly confused that I’d not found the lake at Bomun lake, where the posh hotels are, so resolved to keep going till I found it. Rather than head West to the river, as I have before, ending up then heading East and coming (I now know) within 500m of the hostel, I went straight North, then East, and this time looped round the lake. They have a triathlon there, and there’s a grandstand right on the lake for everyone to watch from, must be quite a spectacle. There’s a marathon here, too, which starts in the same area, if I understood my informant correctly. It’s definitely a good place to run, I got overexcited spotting some golden statues and ran towards them on a rep, ending up looping round their dead end, paying very quick respects to, um Confucius and his two friends. Having run that far to get to the lake, and only running 6 lots of 1k, I ended up with a 5 mile ‘cool down’ run back, seeing the local amusement park (edge of the lake) and a road that was driving distance only from the city proper, and seemed to consist purely of restaurants.
In the afternoon I went to the Gyeongju national museum, which has a good selection of local artifacts and exhibits from the golden days when the city was the capital of Silla. Back then it had a population of 1million people, and was grand – right up until Genghis Khan invaded in the 12th century and levelled much of it. Between the museum and the ‘screening for palaces’ (which turns out to be a 15 minute video, made of computer reconstructions of the main palace, rather than a scan to check what percentage palace you are) I got some sense of the historic meaning of the place. Anapji pond was part of the palace, a man-made pond; a pond in the day time, a glorious view at night, with trees and the pagodas lit up for effect. All around were parked cars, and a queue for entry; it may be like that most nights, though today being Friday may have helped the cars. It’s a wonderful spot, and a good way to end my Gyeongju experience – Daegu tomorrow, on the way to Jeonju.
Reading: The Glassblower of Murano.
Run: http://connect.garmin.com/activity/3853 57867.