Silla Kings and Korean Barbeque

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Yangdong Traditional Village

We’re home now, but I wanted to keep blogging about our trip. At dinner on Wednesday evening with Megan’s host family, her father asked me what kinds of things I wanted to see in Korea. I remain fascinated how a country that is smaller than Iowa could feed a population sixteen times bigger. I told him I thought it would be fun to see the countryside, just to see how it compared to the Iowa countryside. He asked if I would like to see history, and I said yes. He nodded and said, “History, yes.”

The next day Megan told us that her host family wanted to take us on a drive Saturday. I was amazed at their generosity, and we were up and at the subway by 8:00 am. We had to leave Erin at the apartment, because her body clock is is set to only be conscious at night, even on the other side of the world. It was too bad, but I do think Erin got a little bit of enjoyment out of the trip, even if she didn’t participate much.

The Go family, Yu Seok, Yung Bae, and Minji, picked us up at the subway station near their apartment in a black SUV, don’t ask me what the make and model was. We drove about an hour north to a place called Yangdong Folk Village. Yangdong is a traditional clan village from the Joseon Dynasty. I won’t take time to describe it when you can read about it online, only to say it was founded in the fifteenth century and clan members still live there.

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Minji and Megan found a little platform leading out into the lotus pond. Little did I know at the time that Asians eat almost every part of the lotus — it’s a miracle plant. The flowers, seeds, stems, young leaves, and “roots” (rhizomes) are all edible. Petals are sometimes used for garnish, while the large leaves are used as a wrap for food, not frequently eaten. In Korea, the leaves and petals are used as a tisane.

IMG_2910After an hour of walking, they asked if we were hungry. There were a couple small restaurants in the village, and we followed Yu Seok around while she tried to find one that served lotus rice. We finally walked into one of the houses, where they had turned the courtyard into a “greenhouse,” selling water plants and other flowers and bushes. We climbed a steep step, took off our shoes, and stepped into a room of the house set aside as a restaurant. If it was possible, it was even more amazing than the dinner Yu Seok made for us at her house. We had bulgogi, green onion “pancakes,” and a lot of the traditional side dishes: kimchee, fried baby anchovies, pickled daikon radish, noodle dishes, and more.

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They brought the lotus rice, two servings that we shared among the six of us. It consisted of the sticky rice with beans, steamed inside a lotus leaf wrapper. It was delicious and totally amazing, something we would never have even known about had it not been for our wonderful host family. Yu Seok even tried to give me a lesson in the proper way to hold chopsticks, but sadly, I was unteachable.

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The rest of the day was packed full of activity too. After Yangdong, we drove back to Gyeong Ju and visited the Bulguksa Temple. Gyeong Ju was the capital of the thousand-year Silla dynasty from 57 BC–935 AD, and the Bulguksa Temple is one of only a few remaining examples of Silla architecture. Like Yangdong Village, the temple is built into the mountainside, so we did a lot of walking to see it. If we took off our shoes, by now a familiar ritual for me here in Korea, we were allowed into the main hall to see some of the temple’s treasures, while local Buddhists (including Yu Seok) paid their respects to the Buddha inside.

It was getting late in the afternoon, but Yung Bae still had things for us to see. Not too far from the temple was the Gyeongju National Museum, mostly devoted to the relics of the Silla Dynasty — Gyeong Ju was its capital. Silla in its later years was known as the Golden Kingdom, and to see the golden relics and crowns, you have to visit the website since we couldn’t take pictures.

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Yung Bae had one more stop for us, and it was getting close to dinnertime. We stopped at an Angel-in-us coffeeshop, like a Starbucks in a Korean strip mall, and had drinks. Yu Seok disappeared to a bakery and brought back some Gyeong Ju bread, pastries filled with red bean paste, which she said were a specialty you could only get in Gyeong Ju. Minji made a face and said she didn’t like them.

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Yung Bae took our picture in Tumuli Park

We walked from the coffeeshop to the Tumuli Park, where many of the later Silla kings are buried. The only Korean tomb you can enter, the Heavenly Horse Tomb, is here, and it was carefully curated and made into a small museum to show how the mounds were constructed and the way the Silla kings were entombed.

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It was getting dark, and we got back into the car. I hoped we were headed back to Busan, an hour drive, but Yung Bae had other plans. We drove into town, through streets that got smaller and smaller as we went, until we ended up in a dead end alley at a wonderful Korean barbeque restaurant. It was late, and the restaurant was busy, and the food was absolutely delicious. A waiter brought a hot pot with glowing coals to set in the grill area of our table, with a copper smoke vent positioned above it. The waitress brought a platter of several kinds of raw meat and Yung Bae grilled them at our table. Even though I just wanted to get home, I am totally glad we stopped here to eat.

After an hour drive back to Busan (where Yung Bae made me wonder if there were speed limits in Korea), I was ready to sleep in with Erin the next day. On the drive we did see the Korean countryside, mostly pancake-flat rice fields between highways and tree-covered mountains. I got to see more of Korea than just the city between subway stops, thanks to our amazing and generous host family.

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