King Kevin Keeps a 2,000 Year Old Fortress in his Kitchen

Or rather, King Muryeongwang kept his capital in Gongju, in about 500AD.

This weekend is Chuseok weekend. I have two days off and it’s been spectacular so far. Stephanie came down from Yongin to visit, and we’ve been doing plenty of things. On Friday we discovered that there is an enormous market across the street from my subway station… it sells mostly food, so I don’t know how often I will actually shop there, but it reminds me of markets at home, especially the Somali and Hmong markets. It is a huge covered building, with little market huts inside. When we wandered about, on the evening before Chuseok, there certainly wasn’t much happening, but we did see a lot of fruit and vegetables. I really feel at a loss without ANY Korean. I mean, when someone is shouting at me, I want to know if they are saying “My wares are the best!” or “You just stepped on something!” or “You dropped something!” haha. Though I suppose I should give body language SOME credit, after all.

There are a few simple pagodas just sitting around in my neighborhood. You take your shoes off and you can just sit there. I can’t imagine how fantastic that would be for a little kid with a good imagination. That’s like an invitation to a playhouse right there. They are painted pagodas, too. Korean pagoda painting is very distinct. It’s really interesting, and very beautiful. I enjoy it a lot.

On Saturday, we embarked for a day trip. It was my first time out of Daejeon! I was super excited. We went to the nearby city of Gongju, which is much smaller than Daejeon, and has a lot of great charm. On one side of the river, everything seemed fairly new. It looked just like Daejeon, with tall, uniform apartment buildings, hotels here and there complete with neon, and wide roads with heavy traffic. However, on the other side of the river there was a huge fortress–and it is not like you would imagine a European fortress. This was a fortress not because of tall walls, but because of the landscape. It was surrounded by a steep hill that ancient people had fortified with stairs and a small wall. Yellow flags stood along it, and in the wind they all moved together. It was something positively Asian–like I stepped out of a movie or something.

We explored the fortress–or, rather, we explored some of the fortress before we realized that we couldn’t climb a single step more. The main enterance was quite impressive, but it was not the original building. This site has been here for 2,000 years, but it has been built and built again by the various kings who held their capitals here. The first site, I’m sure, has been leveled. But it’s the place that remembers, I think. Anyway, the main gate was constructed as a replica sometime after 1933, when the site was basically leveled to create a road. No road stands there now, so I don’t know what happened.

It is an extremely steep incline. Everything in this town had an extremely steep incline, haha, but it probably comes in handy. Not only is it ritually symbolic to make people climb to meet you–and I mean excessively climb to meet you–but it is also militarily important. It’s pretty hard to fight like this.

This is the pagoda on top of the main enterance gate. Below this there is a gate wide enough for three or four people, and the height is not too high. The doors are heavy and decorated, and the ceiling above it is painted just like the pagoda here is painted. The Japanese and Chinese, I believe, carve their pagodas. The Koreans paint them, usually in these magnificent green and blue and yellow patterns. These are colors that are unique to Korean architecture. The view from the top of this was great. We could see the city and village intermixing behind another ancient gate that sat at the bottom of the hill.

The path away from the pagoda runs along the fortification. Some of it is repaired with cement. Other parts are simply stone. I don’t know how old it is. All I know is that the men who must have guarded this location had REALLY powerful legs–because they climbed this constantly. This was only the beginning… one part of the complex. The walls went up and down like a rollercoaster.

The other side of the same hill… this is something we just walked down. On our way back we cut through the forest on the interior of the fort… not much easier, but at least it wasn’t steps!

In a nook between the high hills, there was a river-watching pagoda, a well, and a small temple. The temple was still lived in, and had been lived in for thousands of years. Thousands of years. It astounds me. Monks going about their daily business, seeking enlightenment, for thousands of years. I wonder if enlightenment has changed in thousands of years. People evolve over that time–mentally, physically, do we also evolve spiritually?

These buildings all seemed rectangular. Their proportions were simple but all similar. The painting on the ceilings changed, however, and varied in intensity and complexity. I don’t know when the painting was done, since it looked bright and fresh, and some things suggested that the buildings had all been rebuilt after destruction.

After our third or fourth hill, however, Stephanie and I couldn’t handle trying another one–plus we hadn’t really eaten, and that’s never a good thing. So we slowly made our way out of the park. Encountered a taxi curving along the cobble-stone paved roads in the center of the park. Surprised me. 2,000 year old site and now it has taxi drivers quibbling along the roads.

Korean food is probably the most generous food I’ve eaten so far. And by that, I mean that when you order “Kalbi”, which is basically just “meat”, you do not receive JUST meat. Nothing just JUST anything. There are three, four, five, six side dishes for every meal possible. Each restaurant has different ones–except for Kimchi–which is everyone’s side dish. Everything is so good, and it’s like an appetizer plate every time you go out. You never know what you’re going to get, and you never know you’re going to like it. I like just about everything so far–except for cold soup, haha. Stephanie and I went to a restaurant on Friday that gave us cold noodles, which was weird. But oh well–I mean what do you expect when you walk into a restaurant, can’t speak the language to order, and then just nod at the first thing someone suggests? I mean, that is a food adventure right there.

Anyway, in Gongju we ate a fantastic meal, and spent the next few hours exploring the old part of town. Gongju is small enough that the high rises have not overpowered everything yet. Instead they sit in the middle of a conglomeration of other things, and instead of looking dead, they look alive.

Of course, I do think everything looks cooler on a mountain. These buildings are stuffed together around a church. Behind us the buildings are short and stocky, with small windows. I loved the buildings here, in their “I don’t care” way. They’re all made out of concrete, stuffed together with little windows and short roofs. Since they are all on an incline, they climb each other. You can’t figure out where one house ends and another begins–unless the roof colors are different. Some roofs are bright blue–others bright orange. Can’t figure that one out. The older ones have the slate tile style. The streets up the hills are tiny and wind around the homes–mostly because they homes were there before the roads were.

At the bottom of the hill, there was a small creek or stream. The main market complex sat next to it. It was enormous, but completely empty. I was sad about that–but who wants to work in the market on Chuseok? Nobody. An old woman motioned to us to sit down with her, but we blatantly ignored it… I felt so bad, but really, what could we have said to her? Nothing. We can’t converse. It makes me so sad.

As we wandered along the walking trail on the creek, we came to the market sector. It seemed like a poor part of town–or at least the oldest part of town. The houses were little boxes, and they hung out over the dug out part of the creek. Little pipes came down from their bathrooms–the part of the house that hung over. Trees grew up in weird, crooked places between them. They had tiny windows, and I could hear people inside yelling and talking. Even though the windows were smaller than probably the height of my hand, they were covered with bright little curtains. These houses seemed to perch over this creek accidentally, placing a few poles and pipes there as if they could pick up and move when they wanted to. I loved it.

Overall the trip was great–and we were even home by sunset. The drive through the mountains was magnificent with the setting sun.

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