Sailing to Gyeongju

Carrying the bride in her palanquin at a traditional wedding in Gyeongju, with ecstatic ajummas providing musical accompaniment.

As we rode the bus into the country I realized that two years had passed since I had left the city in the summertime. The bare bleak mountains had long since draped themselves in mantles of green trees everywhere you looked, and their lush verdancy was even encroaching on the highway, spreading its vines out over the tar that formerly dominated the landscape. Winter in Korea is probably not so different from living in a post-apocalyptic world pummeled by mushrooming ICBMs, but on the cusp of spring this country resembles nothing less than a divine garden. Winter was over, and I felt as if I had never seen such a summer before.

And the fields! the fields! Those cigarette-colored expanses were seeded with rice and soaked down in water. You could see the titanic monsoon clouds reflected in them, towers of white vapor muscled over with rain, threatening to burst at any moment, with the setting sun shooting rays of blazing amber light out over the cerulean sky! the azure vault! the sapphire dome! like a strobing crystal ball in a discotheque. The rainclouds rose into heaven and, in the mirrors of the agrarian lakes, descended into earth. It was unrecognizable, with the stark purgatory of Busan’s unending cement swallowed up by the mountains behind us.

Such things, I had told myself long ago during a failed foreign adventure to Bali, such things you only see in Asia. On that island (shaped like a fighting cock because its inhabitants love cockfights, see here) every sunset is a slow fireworks show, and for an entire languid hour the sun’s violet flames drench the whole sky in the most luscious paint, as if readying it to present it to some duke from Renaissance Italy as a fresco: such sights were impossible in Busan thanks to the smog and the imprisonment behind bars made of fifty story apartment buildings, but in the nearby city of Gyeongju, the ancient capital of Korea and the soul of the south—the buildings are not so tall, and the inexplicable Korean compulsion to render every little town and every massive city a deformed Quasimodo-like clone of Las Vegas is resisted by the ancient ruins that cover this place, the vast fields of tomb mounds where medieval kings still sleep, the pagodas and thousand-year old Buddhas chiseled into the cliffs, the sprawling temples in the mountains, the river, the forests. The antique rusticity of it all keeps Lasvegasization at bay.

Really, it’s not so bad in Gyeongju, and I’m really looking forward to moving here in a few months.

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