A chance to tour ancient royal palaces

1st October 1999 at 01:00
Many say autumn is the best time to visit Korea. Last year's winner of The TES Korea Essay competition will be savouring her winning trip to Korea this month.

Samana Zukijar Fazel, 15, from Beauchamp College in Oadby, Leicestershire, will arrive to cloudless skies, cool breezes and to mountains where the leaves of trees will have changed colour, creating a tapestry of reds and browns. To start taking in the atmosphere, she should first tour Seoul's royal palaces. They sit in a row, nestled beneath a mountain shaped like a dragon to the north-west and another like a phoenix to the north-east.

Kyongbokkung was the central palace for many centuries, a complex of parks, lakes and grand buildings where royalty lived, and where the government sat. It sits at the north end of a grand avenue named after the venerated King Sejong (1418-1450). Down the avenue, lines of energy are said to run all the way to the Han River. East of Kyongbokkung are two other palaces. One of them, Changdokkung, was where the consort of the last Korean emperor lived until her death in the Eighties. From each, royalty could walk to Piwon, the Secret Garden. To prevent them being seen, no neighbourhood building was allowed to be higher than the walls.

Samana's prize-winning essay compared a Korean boy growing up in the early 20th century and a second contemporary boy, hoping for the unification of the divided Korean peninsula. Two tours from Seoul will bring the stories of both alive. Less than 30 miles to the north, the demilitarised zone - the world's most heavily fortified border - separates North and South Korea.

Samana will visit Panmunjom, once an insignificant village, but now the place where negotiators regularly meet. Eerie in the extreme, huts straddle the border, microphone wires on the central table of each signifying the actual border. Outside, menacing troops face each other.

Seen from Panmunjom, an empty mock-up concrete village sits in the North, where all the lights come on together. Nearby, Samana will be shown tunnels discovered in the Seventies, running southwards in preparation for invasion.

Thirty miles south of Seoul, near Suwon, the old Korea is preserved in the Folk Village, where houses and other buildings from every province of the country have been rebuilt. The dedicated staff bring old ways back to life, presenting wedding ceremonies and village rituals in addition to showing how to thresh barley and plough fields.

If you were able to spend several weeks rowing upstream from Seoul along the Han River, you would eventually reach the range of mountains that includes Mount Sorak, the most beautiful in South Korea. There are cable cars to take you to the spectaular waterfalls, to the "rocking rock" and to several ancient Buddhist sites.

The most famous Buddhist temple is further south. This is Pulguksa, first built in the 6th century. Sitting part-way up a mountain amid manicured pines, plum, peach, pear, cherry and cryptomeria trees, it is probably the most photographed of all places in Korea.

The sensible tourist should do two things. First, they should try to get an invitation to a meal with the monks. They will be given four wooden bowls wrapped in a cloth (monks must make no sound when eating). Water is poured into the first bowl and then swilled into the others. At the end of the strictly vegetarian meal, this same water is used to clean all bowls, and is then drunk. They finish by re-wrapping the bowls in the cloth, ready for the next meal.

Second, get up early and hike to the nearby Sokkuram Grotto. At dawn, as the sun rises, it shines into the cave and its perfectly-formed white granite Buddha image. On a good day, you can see the East Sea from here; the Buddha has sat for 1,300 years, looking out towards Japan and protecting Korea from her untrusted neighbours.

Pulguksa is near the ancient capital of the Shilla kingdom, Kyongju. Now a gigantic outdoor museum, the city is a UNESCO world heritage site.

Unmissable are the tomb mounds of kings (only one, the Flying Horse Tomb, is open to visitors), Chomsongdae (a tower said to be the oldest observatory in the world), the excavated Anapchi Pond (shaped to resemble Korea) and a veritable treasure-house of a museum, where the Emille Bell, cast in AD770 and weighing 20 tons, can still be heard. The bell, I guess, will signal the end of the week; time to return to Kimpo Airport, from where Samana will fly back to Britain.

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