Thursday, December 30: In my inbox this afternoon is an email saying I have a message on Badoo. Badoo is some kind of social/dating website, but honestly, I don’t even know how I got on there. Possibly someone invited me at one time; I don’t know. When I open the email, I find it’s from a French wine professor in Seoul. His message is: It looks like you and I have the same color of hair. It’s not black! I laugh. True, there is his picture and yes, he has white hair as I do. I write him back and a chat ensues where he asks me what I’m doing this weekend. I say I’m either doing a temple stay or going to explore the Baekje dynasty in Buyeo and Gongju, near Daejeon. He says, “I hope you won’t be shocked, but I’d love to get out of Seoul this weekend. Would you like to meet somewhere?” I say, “Well, if I meet you we’ll have to get separate rooms since I don’t even know you.” He says, “That’s fine.” I say, “Let me think about it and let you know tomorrow.”
Pierre is a 59-year-old wine professor in a university in Seoul. An OENOLOGIST, he says. I can’t even believe they have such a thing here in Korea, as Koreans don’t have a climate or topography conducive to cultivating grapes for wine. It’s difficult to find wine in Korea at all. Most common beverages here are makeoli, a milky-colored Korean rice wine, beer, and soju. But, he assures me he is a professor, that his English is not good, and that he is adventurous enough to come on an outing with me. Complete strangers we are. Yet. I’ve been traveling alone in Korea for so long the thought of having some company is appealing. On Friday morning, I text him, tell him I’m going to Buyeo and if he’d like to come along, he’s welcome to come.
Saturday, January 1:
We meet at the bus terminal in Daejeon. I suggest we stay the night in Daejeon; it’s Korea’s 5th largest city so there will be something to do in the evening. We can venture to either Buyeo or Gongju on Saturday, return to Daejeon in the evening, then go to the alternate city on Sunday. He’s agreeable to all my ideas, so we meet, drop our bags at the Star Motel (in separate rooms, which the motel proprietors find highly amusing), and then head back to the bus terminal to catch a bus to Buyeo. It turns out there are two bus terminals in Daejeon and we happen to be at the Dongbu Intercity Bus Terminal, which only has buses to Gongju. For some reason I can’t remember, we decide to go to the unkempt Seobu terminal to take the bus to Buyeo. It takes an hour and a half to get there, despite the fact Tourist Information told me it would be a 40-50 minute ride. Apparently the bus makes numerous stops and sidetrips so it takes much longer.
When we arrive in Buyeo, we take a taxi right away to Gungnamji, a circular pond ringed by bare-branched weeping willow trees. It was built in 634 as a pleasure garden for the Baekje royal family. It has an arched bridge to a little island topped with a pavilion. There is snow everywhere and the trees are bare, so it has a stark and clean beauty to it. It conjures up images in my mind of what Japan might be like.
We call back the taxi driver who dropped us off, and he takes us next to Busosanseong, a hill where once stood the central Baekje fortification and royal palace. We see the shrine Samchungsa, which showcases portraits of three loyalists to the last Baekje king. We stroll up snow-covered paths to the top of the hill to point overlooking a bend in the river. A hexagonal pavilion is perched at the top of this rock, Nakhwa-am, or “Falling Flowers Rock.” Legend has it that 3,000 Baekje court ladies flung themselves off of this rock rather than chance being “deflowered” by invading armies.
This hike takes us quite a while and when we get back to the bottom, it’s getting dark. We decide to take the bus back to Daejeon and have some dinner. I find a highly recommended Italian fusion place called the Flying Pan in my Moon Handbook, but when we get there, the management is at the door denying entrance to anyone. When we ask why, they say they are “all sold out!” All sold out of EVERYTHING? We ask if we can just come in and drink some wine, but they refuse to allow us to even do that. We find a lesser quality Italian restaurant, Sorrento, down a pedestrian street, where the only kind of wine on the wine list is a Chianti. It’s mediocre at best. Oh well, so much for sharing a good wine in the company of a wine professor. 😦
Pierre tells me he has two daughters, age 14 and 18, has been divorced 5 years, and has been in Korea over 3 years now. He still has a house in Bordeaux. He thinks he will be ready to leave Korea in another year. We agree on many things about Korea: the cities are all alike and ugly, filled with grey block buildings; the country’s efforts to learn English are failing; it’s a very inward-looking and nationalistic culture; Koreans think everything in their country is unique. We both agree it’s claustrophobic here.
It’s great for me to have company on this trip; Pierre is easy-going and adventurous. He goes along enthusiastically with my every suggestion. He’s fun to talk to, smart and knowledgeable. The thing lacking is chemistry, of which there is none on either part. It’s fine, because he is leaving for France on January 9 and won’t return until a day after I leave Korea for good. There would have been no future in it, even if there had been any chemistry! However, he is fun and enjoyable, and I think we can be friends.
We go our separate ways after dinner. Luckily there are computers in the rooms, so I’m able to check emails (and Facebook, of course!).
Sunday, January 2: In the morning, we go to the Dongbu bus terminal and head to Gongju, where we visit the Gongju National Museum; its collection includes Baekje artifacts, including gilt-bronze shoes (which look humongous ~ too large for any human feet!), gold earrings and ornaments, comma-shaped jades, a gilt-bronze standing Avalokitesvara, bronze and stone daggers and a stone seated Buddha. There are also artifacts excavated from King Muryeong’s tomb in 1971, including a cool stone animal guardian.
A 5 minute taxi ride from the museum is Gongju’s “principal point of interest,” Songsan-ni Gobungun, a group of Baekje-period royal tombs. These just look like a cluster of grassy knolls. I’m never excited about seeing Korean tombs, but these are right in our trajectory so we might as well see them. Apparently four of these tombs were discovered in 1927 and robbed of their treasures. The fifth and sixth were looted 5 years later. Only in 1971 was the 7th tomb accidentally discovered, the tomb of King Muryeong and his queen. As it had been sealed in A.D. 529, it lay undisturbed for nearly 1,500 years. The treasures in this tomb were preserved and serve as historical evidence of the Baekje dynasty.
We are told that Gongsanseong Fortress is a 10 minute walk from the tombs, but it seems longer as it’s freezing cold and the path along the highway is crunchy with ice. We finally arrive at the fortress which sits on a grand hill punctuated with yellow flags. The fortress is built on a ridge-line overlooking the Geumgang River, so it’s an imposing sight.
We take pictures on our short walk up, but instead of exploring the entire fortress as we did in Buyeo, we opt to head for lunch in Gongju. We search for something suitable, but end up eating bibimbap with what I think are a bunch of roasted peppers, but turns out to be raw beef strips. Surprisingly, as the beef is lean, I eat it and find it not so unpleasant.
After lunch, we make a trek to Nonsan to see “an ordinary temple with an extraordinary statue.” Gwanchok-sa temple has Korea’s largest free-standing stone Buddha image, Unjin Mireuk Buddha. The Buddha dominates the temple compound and looks out serenely at us. The statue is from the early Goryeo Dynasty and supposedly took 38 years to complete.
Nonsan is quite off the beaten path so it takes us quite some time to get back to Daejeon, where we end up back at the Seobu bus terminal! We take a taxi back to the Dongbu station, retrieve my bag from the hotel, and then go to Daejeon Station, where I take a quick KTX ride home.
I’ve explored a lot of Korea now, and my time here is about to end. This place is one of the last on my list. A year here is much too long. I’m ready to go home.