Wandering the Waterland to the Big Cheese

Edam cheese is one of the world’s most famous; famous enough to be an iconic symbol of the Netherlands. Big wheels of the stuff, coated in red or orange wax, can be found on tourist literature from Amsterdam to Timbuktu. So it was a pleasant surprise to discover that Edam itself is an unpretentious traditional Dutch town of a few thousand people. Tourism hasn’t left it untouched, but it’s pretty low key. It’s a world away from the grotesque brashness of nearby Volendam, which is only worth visiting if you’re a social scientist studying what happens ‘when tourism goes bad’.

The ships that once sailed from Edam and other Zuiderzee ports carried Edam cheese with them around the world. It’s claimed that by the 18th Century it was the most popular cheese in the world; it’s safe to say that it helped put the ‘golden’ into the Dutch Golden Age. Preserved inside its waxy coat, it served as both food for a ship’s crew and something to barter with when ships reached the fabled spice islands of Indonesia. Quite what 17th Century Indonesians made of the rubbery yellow stuff (the cheese not the wax) has gone unrecorded.

Edam, Netherlands

Edam, Netherlands

One of the cheese makers, Edam, Netherlands

One of the cheese makers, Edam, Netherlands

Cheese or munitions? Edam, Netherlands

Cheese or munitions? Edam, Netherlands

I read somewhere that the round, hard balls of Edam could, in an emergency, double as cannon balls. It must have been a bit of a surprise, not to mention confusing, if you were an English or French sailor and mid-battle Dutch ships started bombarding you with lunch. Although I’m not sure Edam is considered to be food in France. The round wooden cheese moulds that Edam was made in also had a martial role, during riots they doubled as helmets. This, not unfairly, earned the Dutch the nickname of ‘cheese heads’.

I’d arrived by train in the eminently forgettable town of Purmerend, the nearest station to Edam, and cycled out into the surrounding polders. On a warm sunny day, the landscape was was alive with colourful flowers and it was a pleasure to explore more of the Waterland region.

IMG_7176

Cycling through Waterland to Edam, Netherlands

Cycling through Waterland to Edam, Netherlands

Cycling through Waterland to Edam, Netherlands

Cycling through Waterland to Edam, Netherlands

Cycling through Waterland to Edam, Netherlands

Cycling through Waterland to Edam, Netherlands

Cycling through Waterland to Edam, Netherlands

Cycling through Waterland to Edam, Netherlands

A large canal, the Purmerringvaart, connects the two towns and cycling its raised banks offered wonderful views over the countryside. I was enjoying myself so much the dozen or so kilometres whizzed past and I was suddenly in Edam. I knew I was in Edam because there was a life-size wooden cut out of a woman in traditional dress and clogs holding a large Edam cheese. Nothing says you’ve arrived in a Dutch cheese town more than that.

Edam, Netherlands

Edam, Netherlands

Edam, Netherlands

Edam, Netherlands

Edam, Netherlands

Edam, Netherlands

Edam’s centre is small and compact, perfect for strolling. I stopped at an outdoor cafe next to a canal for some breakfast (resisting the urge to order cheese) and had a reviving coffee, before heading off on foot to unearth more cheesy delights. Come here on a Wednesday in July or August and you’ll be treated to a traditional cheese market with people dressed in costumes, a cheesy tourist spectacle no doubt! I was here on a Saturday and decided the next best thing was to make my way to the kaaswaag, or cheese weighing house.

Edam, Netherlands

Edam, Netherlands

Edam, Netherlands

Edam, Netherlands

Edam, Netherlands

Edam, Netherlands

Edam, Netherlands

Edam, Netherlands

Edam, Netherlands

Edam, Netherlands

The area outside the kaaswaag is where Edam’s cheese market has been held since the 16th Century. It was closed down in 1922 before being revived by volunteers as a tourist attraction. On a non-market day the kaaswaag is open as a cheese shop, with mounds of Edam on display and cheese tasting if you venture inside. The rest of the town takes little time to visit, I spent an hour or so wandering around, up and down canals and exploring narrow side streets.

Edam, Netherlands

Edam, Netherlands

Edam, Netherlands

Edam, Netherlands

Edam, Netherlands

Edam, Netherlands

Cycling along the IJsselmeer, Waterland to Volendam, Netherlands

Cycling along the IJsselmeer, Waterland to Volendam, Netherlands

Leaving peaceful Edam behind, I rejoined my bike and set off towards the former Zuiderzee, now the IJsselmeer lake, from where I followed the shoreline to Volendam. I didn’t know much about Volendam, but the ranks of tour buses that greeted me as I arrived in the town were an indication that all was not well. The town’s once picturesque waterfront was mobbed by day-trippers; the smell of frites and kibberling accompanied me as I pushed my bike through the crowds along the front.

I’d planned to have lunch in Volendam, but everywhere was overcrowded. I decided I wasn’t in the mood for mass tourism and continued out the other side of town towards Monnickendam.

Preserving the traditions of the herring fleet

Fish and fishing have been central to the history and culture of the communities that for centuries have lived and worked along the shores of the Zuiderzee. In the 17th Century, Zuiderzee towns got rich from the trade in spice, gold and silk that flowed to these waters all the way to India, Japan, China and Indonesia. The wealth it generated was so enormous it launched the Dutch Golden Age. The towns of Hoorn and Enkhuizen were founding members of the Dutch East India Company, and trade with the East saw them flourish for a century or more.

It was fish and fishing that was the mainstay for most communities in this region though. North Sea herring, supplemented by whaling, formed the backbone of their economies until the 18th Century, by which time many harbours had silted up and ocean-going boats couldn’t reach the open sea. The Zuiderzee continued to provide a living for many communities, and eel became an important catch. It is the history of these communities that is preserved at the open air Zuiderzee Museum in Enkhuizen.

Drying fish, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Drying fish, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Smoking fish, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Smoking fish, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Known as the Southern Sea in English, the Zuiderzee was really a large bay of the North Sea. It was created in the 13th Century by rising sea levels that flooded the land, and a series of ferocious storms which destroyed the dunes and marshlands that formed a natural barrier to the sea. Although it extended 100km inland, had a coastline of around 300km and covered a vast 3,200 square kilometres, the water was rarely more than 4 metres deep. This gave rise to the iconic flat-bottomed boats with keels attached to their sides that remain a feature of the former Zuiderzee.

Over the centuries North Sea storms, similar to those that helped form the Zuiderzee, regularly brought death and destruction to this region. The St. Elizabeth’s Day Flood of 1421 was one of the worst; it caused massive damage and left up to 10,000 people dead across the country. There were dozens of smaller floods over the centuries, but also some much bigger natural disasters, including the Great Storm of 1703, one of the the worst ever recorded in northern Europe.

Villagers in costume, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Villagers in costume, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Villagers in costume, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Villagers in costume, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The idea of damming the Zuiderzee to prevent these disasters had first been mooted in the 17th Century, but it was the vicious floods of 1916 that finally pushed the Dutch government into action. It took nearly two decades more, but eventually the Afsluitdijk, a 32km dyke sealing the Zuiderzee off from the North Sea, was completed and the Zuiderzee became the IJsselmeer, Western Europe’s largest lake.

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

School room, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

School room, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Gapers, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Gapers, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Gapers, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Gapers, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

This was little short of a disaster for the communities of the Zuiderzee, the fishing fleet became redundant as the salt water of the Zuiderzee turned into the fresh water of the IJsselmeer. Villages and towns lost the mainstay of their livelihoods and most communities went into a spiral of decline. Centuries old traditions began to be lost and an entire part of Dutch history appeared to be on the verge of extinction.

Until, that is, the idea of the Zuiderzee Museum took shape. Recreating a traditional fishing village, original historic buildings from across the region were brought to Enkhuizen and turned into a late 19th, early 20th Century Zuiderzee fishing village. There are 130 buildings in the museum-cum-village, many of them are inhabited by people who dress in traditional clothing and continue traditional trades, such as smoking fish, to recreate the lives of typical villagers. It is a brilliant and atmospheric place to visit, and offers a unique insight into a way of life that has all but vanished.

Smoking fish, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Smoking fish, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Villagers in costume, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Villagers in costume, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Villagers in costume, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Villagers in costume, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Hand washing, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Hand washing, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Smoking fish, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Smoking fish, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

As a footnote, the construction of the Afsluitdijk wasn’t just about preventing natural disasters; it was part of a larger plan to reclaim more land from the water. By 1968 three large areas of over 1,300 square kilometres of ‘new’ land had been created. Villages like Elburg which had once been on the coast found themselves inland, and new towns like Lelystad and Almere were constructed on the new land.

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Villagers in costume, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Villagers in costume, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Toilet door, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Toilet door, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

A new dam linking Enkhuizen with Lelystad was constructed in 1976 as a prelude to a fourth reclamation project, but rising environmental concerns put an end to this and any further projects to reduce the former Zuiderzee in size.

Taming nature at the Zuiderzee Museum

Being at the mercy of violent, catastrophic storms has been one of the defining features of Dutch life over the last thousand years; and for all that time the people of the Netherlands have responded by trying to tame nature. The struggle to contain water is ingrained in society and etched into a landscape of polders. I’m not sure if those ‘rumours’ about webbed feet are true, but given the history there’s a reasonable evolutionary chance…

In 1932 the Dutch government took a momentous decision: they built a dyke. Dyke building being something of a national pastime this shouldn’t raise an eyebrow, but the Afsluitdijk was no ordinary dyke. Stretching for 32km it was designed to seal off the Zuiderzee from the North Sea, bringing to an end centuries of frequent, vicious floods. The decision to build the Afsluitdijk came after a hugely destructive storm in 1916 that smashed dykes, flooded vast tracts of land and left many dead.

Traditional Dutch costume, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Traditional Dutch costume, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Fishing nets, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Fishing nets, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Smoking fish, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Smoking fish, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Afsluitdijk was built to prevent this from ever happening again, but taming nature came at a heavy price for the fishing villages and towns that relied upon the Zuiderzee for their livelihoods. Constructing the Afsluitdijk destroyed a way of life that had existed around the shores of the Zuiderzee for centuries. The communities and traditions that had been built on fishing and seafaring began to wither and die.

The fishing fleets that once sailed from the towns of the Zuiderzee caught herring, a cash crop that made the region wealthy. The Afsluitdijk prevented the fish from coming in, and the boats from going out, a calamity for dozens of communities. The Dutch relationship with herring continues unabated though – seeing someone eat pickled herring early in the morning still sends a shiver down my spine. One of my Dutch friends considers it a hangover cure; I consider pickled herring an incentive to never be hungover.

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen is known as Haringstad, or Herring Town. Its relationship with the oily fish is emphasised on its coat of arms, which incorporates three herring, each wearing a crown of gold, on a shield being held by a woman. It is fitting then that here in 1948 the Dutch government took steps to preserve the traditions and way of life of the Zuiderzee fishing communities. A plan was concocted for an open air museum constructed as an archetypal fishing village on the shores of the former Zuiderzee.

The museum is split in two, an indoor and an outdoor museum, the latter recreating a traditional fishing village. They didn’t just build replicas of buildings, they brought the original buildings from across the region to Enkhuizen. There is a fascinating black and white short film in one of Enkhuizen’s restored houses, including the surreal sight of huge buildings being transported along roads and canals. It took 35 years for the outdoor museum to be opened to the public, but it was worth the wait.

Traditional Dutch costume, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Traditional Dutch costume, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

There are 130 buildings in the museum-cum-village and many of them are inhabited which, when you think about it, is a bit weird. A museum that is a reconstructed 19th Century fishing village is inhabited by 21st Century humans; not only that, the inhabitants wear traditional clothes, shops are actually shops selling things, workshops continue long lost crafts, and herring is smoked in the traditional manner to be bought and eaten by visitors.

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Fishing nets, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Fishing nets, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The residents role play being late 19th or early 20th Century villagers, going about their business largely ignoring the throngs of tourists snapping photos of them. Traditional clothes, and particularly traditional hats, from across the region are worn and there are plenty of clogs on display. The general rule in the village is, if a door to a building is open you can look inside. It’s a fascinating and illuminating experience, but it must be a truly odd existence for the handful of inhabitants.

Enkhuizen, a Dutch Golden Age gem

The glories of the Dutch seafaring past are nowhere better illustrated than in Enkhuizen. Long the home of a fishing fleet, in 1602 Enkhuizen became one of the founding ports of the Dutch East India Company. Trade in precious metals and silks, and even more precious spices, from Japan, China, Indonesia and India flowed through the town, making it one of the wealthiest in the Netherlands during the Dutch Golden Age. The town flourished on the vast profits from trade, leaving behind an almost perfectly preserved town centre much of which dates from the 17th Century.

To say that Enkhuizen is an attractive place is something of an understatement. The town may have the trappings of the 21st Century, but it is remarkable how much of it has survived down the centuries. History seems to seep out of every building and it doesn’t take much to imagine yourself back in the 17th Century. The town is compact, but its narrow lattice of ancient streets and canals makes for rewarding strolling.

Drommedaris, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Drommedaris, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Drommedaris, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Drommedaris, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The train journey from Amsterdam took us through the Waterland region and the equally historic town of Hoorn, another founding member of the Dutch East India Company. Enkhuizen is the end of the line for the train, the town’s station stops just short of the harbour and overlooks the IJsselmeer, the large body of water that used to be the Zuiderzee which once gave Enkhuizen’s ships direct access to the North Sea.

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Drommedaris, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Drommedaris, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Most people who visit Enkhuizen, and it’s popular with tourists, come here because it’s home to one the best museums in the country. More of the brilliant Zuiderzee Museum  later, but the town is something a star attraction in its own right. We walked along the new harbour to the entrance into the old harbour. It’s a picturesque sight, ships masts in the background and towering over the whole scene is the Drommedaris, a 17th Century tower that was once part of the city defences.

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Our explorations didn’t get very far. The sun was shining and the opportunity to sit outside in the sun was too enticing to pass up; it was time for lunch so we pulled up a chair at a table overlooking the old harbour and soaked up the atmosphere. Quite some time later we finally set off to explore the town before heading to the Zuiderzee Museum. Not for the first time since I’ve been here I marvelled at how the Netherlands has managed to physically preserve so much of its history. I can only lament the situation in the UK.

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

IJsselmeer, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

IJsselmeer, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, like so many other Dutch towns, is so historic, so old Europe, so traditionally Dutch, so picture-postcard-perfect that it verges on the twee. That’s one of the most fabulous things about the Netherlands, but I’m beginning to worry I might be approaching historic town burnout. I’m pretty sure that’s a medical condition.

Culture preserved, Yangdong Village

Yangdong is a fabulous traditional Korean village, set amidst a wooded landscape of rolling hills that make it picture-postcard-perfect. Yangdong is a beautiful, peaceful and historic place, yet I can’t shake the feeling that something isn’t quite right. It doesn’t seem real, too quiet, a little too sanitised. It isn’t particularly touristy, the opposite in fact, but this doesn’t prevent it feeling more like an open air theme park than a working village.

People do live in the majority of the houses in the village – some are open to the public and inhabitant free – but as a designated cultural preservation area it has essentially been preserved in aspic for the edification of visitors. Having seen modern rural Korea from a bus window this is no bad thing, but it does make for a strange experience.

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

The village was founded in the 14th Century and is one of the two most historic ‘clan villages’ in Korea. My guidebook claimed it was difficult to reach, and with limited time I nearly didn’t go. Not for the first time in my life, I’m glad I ignored my guidebook. I got a bus near Gueongju train station which took me straight to the village entrance in 40 minutes. Nothing could have been easier. Did the Lonely Planet bother to visit?

I got a map with my entrance ticket, this turned out to be like all other Korean tourist maps: the woeful lack of scale not nearly compensated for by pretty pictures. It did have place names in Latin script, which I was grateful for; unfortunately all the village signposts were in Korean script. Like two competing technologies, map and signposts were totally incompatible. This left me to do my favourite thing, wander aimlessly, up muddy trails and into woods, without any idea where I was or where I was going.

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

This information seemed worth putting in a guidebook, mine just kept going on about a restaurant where you could get duck stew. Fine if you can find it, but that didn’t seem likely under the circumstances. I decided to let the Gods of Korean Tourist Maps take me wherever they saw fit. I ended up walking miles, but eventually landed in the heart of the ancient village. I never did get to try duck stew though.

There are 160 houses in the village, many over 200 years old, built to a traditional pattern across the hillsides. Houses come in two categories: those with stone walls and thatched roofs were where common folk lived; large houses with wooden frames and slate roofs belonged to aristocrats. One of the largest aristocratic buildings contains a gigantic jar that was once used for storing grain. It’s so huge that it doesn’t fit through the doors, the building it sits in was constructed around it. That’s one way of making sure no one steals your jar.

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

The entire village is designed to fit into a rigid Confucian social system that dominated Korea for centuries; houses are situated to distinguish status and wealth, house size was strictly controlled to further establish a family’s position in society. All village life would have been governed by Confucian rules, which covered everything from the political, to the social, to the economic and the religious.

I don’t know much about Confucianism. Once, at a conference, a Korean academic said it was a major contributing factor to a preference for boys over girls. It’s not well known, but in the 1990s a massive distortion in birth rates between girls and boys existed in Korea. This situation is common in other countries, China and India especially, but thanks to government action the problem in Korea was addressed and reversed. I can now add Confucian village planning to my limited knowledge of this ancient belief system.

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

The tranquility and mountainous location make it a remarkably lovely place to stroll, although I started to get a little concerned by the fact that I hardly saw another human being. Where were all the people? Perhaps they were indoors cooking duck stew for tourists with the Lonely Planet guide? I’d seen photos of people wearing traditional clothing on market day, but the village seemed deserted the day I was there. I saw only two old people gardening, a collection of dogs and a small group of Korean tourists. Spooky.

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

Yangdong, traditional Korean village, Korea

I headed out of the village towards the bus stop wondering what everyone who lived in the village did for a living. There were very few tourist-related retail opportunities, and apart from some low level agriculture there seemed to be very little economic activity, or activity of any kind. It seemed fitting that my last day in Korea ended with this mystery.

Bulguksa, celestial land of the Buddha

In the whole of Korea the government has recognised just 317 National Treasures, cultural assets of the highest artistic and historic importance. It’s no surprise that the ancient Silla dynasty capital of Gyeongju is home to a significant number of them; more surprising is that seven National Treasures can be found in one place, the 8th Century Buddhist temple of Bulguksa, itself one of the most important temples in Korea. For good measure, Bulguksa is on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

16km southeast of Gyeongju, Bulguksa Temple sits on the lower slopes of Mount Toham, a 750m high mountain that, during the Silla era, was one of the country’s guardian mountains. Site of important religious ceremonies, it’s no surprise that it’s home to a 1300 year-old temple. Time was short so I took a taxi, which dropped me off in a car park at the entrance. I paid the 4000 won (€3.20) entry fee and quickly found myself walking up a tree-lined avenue towards the Temple complex.

The complex comprises numerous exquisitely carved and painted wooden buildings, built on stone terraces set around interconnected courtyards. Arriving at the traditional entrance is a little like arriving outside the walls of a fort, the temple complex rising up in front of you. The tourist entrance is around the side of the courtyard housing the Daeungjeon (Hall of Great Enlightenment); but the traditional entrance was up one of two flights of stairs, the Blue Cloud Bridge and the White Cloud Bridge. Both have 33 steps representing the 33 stages of enlightenment.

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Inside the courtyard is the Hall of Great Enlightenment and two stone pagodas – Seokgatap (Pagoda of Sakyamuni) and Dabotap (Pagoda of Bountiful Treasures) – both listed as National Treasures. Sadly, only Dabotap was visible while Seokgatap undergoes restoration following damage caused by an earthquake. This isn’t the first time Seokgatap has needed repairs. In 1966 some would-be thieves, believing the pagoda to contain treasures, attempted to blow it up using explosives.

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

They were right, the interior of the pagoda contained anient Buddhist relics and what some claim to be the oldest known documents printed using a wooden block. Chased off by the monks before they could steal anything, the contents of the pagoda were declared a National Treasure in 1967.

There were plenty of other visitors, but wander away from the main sights and you can find little pockets of solitude, although these get regularly interrupted as tour groups make their way through the complex. After I’d finished strolling amongst the temple buildings, I made my way back towards the bus stop. Walking along the paths through the picturesque landscaped grounds, I reflected upon what it must be like here without all the noise from tourism. Beautiful and serene, I’d bet.

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

The glories of ancient Gyeongju

I was staying in the heart of ancient Gyeongju, right next to Tumuli Park, home to a large group of Silla dynasty tombs, and only a short walk from lots of things my guidebook recommended I make the effort to see. After being cooped up by rain for a day and a half, I was eager to walk around and get a sense of the place. Even then, there is only so much walking you can do. The sights of Gyeongju are spread out, and now the sun was shining it was ferociously hot. You can hire bikes, but a cab seemed a better option for the more distant sites.

I started my investigations amongst the ancient tombs of lovely Tumuli Park. Some of these giant mounds of earth date back over 1700 years, and the park is home to Cheonmachong, the country’s only excavated tomb that is open to the public. Cheonmachong translates as “Heavenly Horse Tomb”, from the horse-related artefacts found during the excavations. Over twelve thousand artefacts were discovered in the tomb, some on display, making the occupant a person of significance.

Silla Tombs, Tumuli Park, Gyeongju, Korea

Silla Tombs, Tumuli Park, Gyeongju, Korea

Silla Tombs, Tumuli Park, Gyeongju, Korea

Silla Tombs, Tumuli Park, Gyeongju, Korea

Silla Tombs, Tumuli Park, Gyeongju, Korea

Silla Tombs, Tumuli Park, Gyeongju, Korea

Silla Tombs, Tumuli Park, Gyeongju, Korea

Silla Tombs, Tumuli Park, Gyeongju, Korea

Interior of Cheonmachong Tomb, Tumuli Park, Gyeongju, Korea

Interior of Cheonmachong Tomb, Tumuli Park, Gyeongju, Korea

Most of the tombs are Silla royalty, but some are military commanders and other notables; double-humped tombs are likely the resting place of a king and a queen. There is a fee to get into Tumuli Park, and the landscaped grounds are worth a visit, but you can get up close and personal with other Silla tombs that are dotted around the centre of Gyeongju without paying.

Nearby stands another incredible Silla dynasty monument, the Cheomseongdae, or “star gazing platform”. This 9 metre high stone observatory has stood on this ground since the mid-7th Century and is the oldest surviving observatory in East Asia. The surrounding landscape is dotted with more Silla tombs and a walk through the landscaped Wolseong Park, once home to a mighty fortress, brought me to a small village of traditional houses close to the river.

Gyeongju, Korea

Gyeongju, Korea

Silla Tombs, Gyeongju, Korea

Silla Tombs, Gyeongju, Korea

Traditional bridge, Gyeongju, Korea

Traditional bridge, Gyeongju, Korea

Gyeongju, Korea

Gyeongju, Korea

Cheomseongdae, Gyeongju, Korea

Cheomseongdae, Gyeongju, Korea

After a late lunch, I found a cab and drove out to Bunhwangsa, literally and wonderfully meaning “Fragrant Emperor Temple”. Built in the 7th Century during the reign of Queen Seondeok, the 27th ruler of the Silla dynasty, it sits on the edge of a field planted with bright yellow rapeseed on the outskirts of the modern town.

Bunhwangsa temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bunhwangsa temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bunhwangsa temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bunhwangsa temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bunhwangsa temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bunhwangsa temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bunhwangsa temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bunhwangsa temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bunhwangsa temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bunhwangsa temple, Gyeongju, Korea

The temple was surrounded by hundreds of colourful lanterns. It was a dramatic sight and made what would otherwise have been a fairly disappointing visit a lot more interesting. The size of the car park implies plenty of tour buses make the journey here, but I was lucky enough to have the temple to myself. This, it turned out, was a double-edged sword. The temple is a little isolated and, now late afternoon, there wasn’t a taxi to be found anywhere. I had to walk back to town.

Anapji Pond, Gyeongju, Korea

Anapji Pond, Gyeongju, Korea

Anapji Pond, Gyeongju, Korea

Anapji Pond, Gyeongju, Korea

Anapji Pond, Gyeongju, Korea

Anapji Pond, Gyeongju, Korea

Anapji Pond, Gyeongju, Korea

Anapji Pond, Gyeongju, Korea

After an exhausting day, I planned to go back to the guesthouse and rest, but a local student, keen to try his English, persuaded me that Anapji Pond was too beautiful to miss. It took another 30 minutes to walk there but he was right, it was beautiful, as befits a former royal pleasure garden. It was also packed with large groups of overexcited schoolchildren, and I barely escaped being trampled by a group of marauding seven year-olds. What, I asked myself, were they doing here at this time of night? On my school trips we were all safely locked away for the night, while the teachers were in the nearest pub.

Washed up in Gyeongju

I hadn’t packed for rain. This proved embarrassing when I arrived in Gyeongju, a place that the Korean Tourism Board calls a ‘museum without walls’. It doesn’t have a roof either, and it was pouring with rain. I’d never given this much thought, but to fully appreciate an ‘open air museum’ you need dry weather. I needed a Plan B. Unfortunately, Gyeongju was my Plan B. I’d left the hill village of Haeinsa hoping to escape the rain. I travelled to Daegu and then further east to Gyeongju. The rain accompanied me the whole way.

To make matters worse, I arrived in Gyeongju not only without rain gear but without having booked a hotel. Is there a more miserable, and avoidable, travelling experience than having to walk the streets adjacent to a bus station looking for a hotel in the pouring rain? I decided there wasn’t and took a taxi to the only hotel listed in my guidebook that sounded like it was worth staying in.

Street art, Gyeongju, Korea

Street art, Gyeongju, Korea

Street art, Gyeongju, Korea

Street art, Gyeongju, Korea

Street art, Gyeongju, Korea

Street art, Gyeongju, Korea

On this rainy day I finally got lucky. The Sa Rang Chae Guesthouse is not really a hotel, it is far, far better: a traditional Korean guesthouse of wooden buildings set around a courtyard. The owners speak English, and are friendly and helpful; so much so that I don’t hold it against them that they made me stay in a room the size of a prison cell, with a share bathroom and only a thin mattress between me and the heated floor. This, it turns out, is a traditional Korean bedroom and I was fortunate to get the last one. I slept miraculously well inside it.

Sa Rang Chae Guesthouse, Gyeongju, Korea

Sa Rang Chae Guesthouse, Gyeongju, Korea

Sa Rang Chae Guesthouse, Gyeongju, Korea

Sa Rang Chae Guesthouse, Gyeongju, Korea

Sa Rang Chae Guesthouse, Gyeongju, Korea

Sa Rang Chae Guesthouse, Gyeongju, Korea

Sa Rang Chae Guesthouse, Gyeongju, Korea

Sa Rang Chae Guesthouse, Gyeongju, Korea

Check-in consisted of agreeing the price and getting past two enormous and friendly dogs. Safely inside my 2m x 2m room I reassessed my situation: it hadn’t yet stopped raining, nor did it look like doing so, but I was dry and had somewhere to sleep. All-in-all I figured I was winning the battle of wills against the weather. Sooner or later it would have to stop raining, and if the weather wanted to play the long game, then I had a good book.

Lunch, Gyeongju, Korea

Lunch, Gyeongju, Korea

Lunch, Gyeongju, Korea

Lunch, Gyeongju, Korea

It rained consistently for the next 20 hours. I borrowed an umbrella from the owners of the Sa Rang Chae and made a dash into town to have some food and stock up on a few essentials. OK, beer and snacks. A good book, beer, snacks and a 2m x 2m room. I was invincible. The weather was surely going to throw in its hand any time now.

Traditional Korean homes, Gyeongju, Korea

Traditional Korean homes, Gyeongju, Korea

Traditional Korean homes, Gyeongju, Korea

Traditional Korean homes, Gyeongju, Korea

Traditional Korean homes, Gyeongju, Korea

Traditional Korean homes, Gyeongju, Korea

Traditional Korean homes, Gyeongju, Korea

Traditional Korean homes, Gyeongju, Korea

When it finally stopped raining over 24 hours after I first arrived, I had cabin fever. I’d never understood what that phrase meant until now, to compensate I hit the streets like a man possessed. I needed exercise, fresh air and to see something, anything, of one of the most famous and historic cities in the whole of Korea.

Gyeongju, the ancient capital of the Silla dynasty, dates to around 57BC. Some 700 years later the Silla eventually conquered the whole of the Korean peninsular and Gyeongju became the capital of a new nation. The city peaked at a population of more than a million people, and was the political, cultural and religious nerve centre of the country. It went into rapid decline following the collapse of the Silla dynasty, and was largely ignored until the 1970s when it reclaimed its premier place in Korea’s cultural life.

Cheomseongdae, 7th Century astronomical tower, Gyeongju, Korea

Cheomseongdae, 7th Century astronomical tower, Gyeongju, Korea

A happy pig, Gyeongju, Korea

A happy pig, Gyeongju, Korea

Snack shopping, Gyeongju, Korea

Snack shopping, Gyeongju, Korea

Street art, Gyeongju, Korea

Street art, Gyeongju, Korea

This history has bequeathed the city a wealth of treasures, including several listed by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites, that no other Korean city can match. I had two days before my flight from Daegu, the weather was forecast to be dry and sunny, it was time to explore…

Glorious Haeinsa

The highlight of a visit to the temple complex of Haeinsa is undoubtedly the Tripitaka Koreana, the 80,000 plus archive of Buddhist scripts engraved on wooden blocks dating from the 13th Century. To reach it you progress upwards, ascending several terraces as if to enlightenment itself. The thing is, the Tripitaka is hardly ever open to the public; to catch a glimpse of this extraordinary library you have to peer through slatted windows from several feet away. I’ve seen photos and it’s amazing, but the experience of not really seeing the Tripitaka Koreana was a bit underwhelming.

Luckily the temple complex itself, set on a wooded hillside overlooking the valley below, is wonderful for wandering. The Temple was first constructed in 802 AD, just after Buddhism arrived in Korea from China. It has been renovated or rebuilt following fire damage at various points in time, but the setting feels ancient and timeless, even with a few modern additions poking out from behind buildings. The idea of a continuous line of monks walking these grounds for well over a thousand years is quite staggering.

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Walking to the temple you pass along an avenue and through several gates before clambering up some stairs into the first courtyard. Here was a sight I’d never seen before, a sort of prayer maze of brightly coloured lanterns. People enter the maze and walk through four quarters of different colours undertaking their devotions before exiting again. I’ve been to numerous Buddhist temples but haven’t seen anything similar.

Up more stairs you enter a higher, inner courtyard surrounded by wooden buildings, none of which were open to the public. Yet more stairs – enlightenment comes only with firm leg muscles it would seem – led to a big temple on a terrace above. It was a short walk up, you guessed, more stairs to where the Tripitaka Koreana is located. This is the highest building in the complex, offering beautiful views over the temples and valley below. You can imagine how tranquil it must be for the monks once all the day tripping visitors have left.

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

If you want to experience that tranquility firsthand, you can stay overnight in the temple and participate in the activities of the monks. I gave this some thought, but when I discovered I’d be sleeping on a floor and the morning wake up call was 3am, I demurred. I had plans to go walking the next day and getting some sleep seemed like a good idea. After all, 3am is essentially still night.

I spent several hours wandering around the monastery and nearby trails, before heading back into the village to find food. It’s clear the village survives on tourism, which meant that in a tiny place there were lots of places to eat. Fortified, I headed back to my hotel room and it’s absurdly hot heated floor (I never worked out how to turn the heating down), to get a good night’s sleep.

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

I woke early the following morning in full expectation of spending the morning walking through the surrounding woodland before heading back to Daegu. Throwing back the curtains I discovered that the cloud was so low I could no longer see the woodland, and it was raining. It was raining a lot. Giving up the walking idea, and hoping for better weather out of the hills, I made my way to the bus station and to Daegu, not realising that the rain was here to stay for the next 48 hours.

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Split Buddha, Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Split Buddha, Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

Buddhist Temple, Haein-sa, Korea

A mountain idyll in Haeinsa

My guidebook said that Haeinsa was a popular day trip from Daegu. This counts as perhaps the greatest understatement ever committed to paper and published as literature, fact or fiction. I arrived by bus at 9am, a journey that took me through a rural landscape of agricultural fields and concrete houses. By the time I’d checked into a hotel and found my way back to the main street there were 17 tour buses in the car park. Every one of them carrying troops of day-trippers clad in outdoor gear.

I should have planned better, it was the weekend and Haeinsa is one of Korea’s most famous temples, containing one of Buddhism’s most treasured items. It was bound to be popular. Sitting majestically on the wooded slopes of Mount Gaya, so called because it’s shaped like a cow’s head, the temple is home to the Tripitaka Koreana, one of the most complete collections of Buddhist texts in the world. There are more than 80,000 of them, all carved into wooden blocks in the first half of the 13th Century.

Haein-sa Temple, Korea

Haein-sa Temple, Korea

Haein-sa Temple, Korea

Haein-sa Temple, Korea

Haein-sa Temple, Korea

Haein-sa Temple, Korea

Fire is an ever present threat, and the authorities don’t often let tourists close to the Tripitaka Koreana, but the blocks can be glimpsed through slatted (for ventilation) windows. If the traditional wooden building that they’re housed in seems a little low tech for such a treasure, that’s because 700 year-old preservation techniques proved to be superior to modern methods. A new storage facility was built in the 1970s, but tests showed that the wood blocks became mildewed, so back they went.

Tripitaka Koreana building, Haein-sa, Korea

Tripitaka Koreana building, Haein-sa, Korea

Tripitaka Koreana building, Haein-sa, Korea

Tripitaka Koreana building, Haein-sa, Korea

Haein-sa Temple, Korea

Haein-sa Temple, Korea

Graves, Haein-sa, Korea

Graves, Haein-sa, Korea

Still, it is something of a miracle that the Tripitaka has survived this long, the main building was burned during the Japanese invasion of 1592, and again in 1817. All the blocks survived, only to narrowly avoid being bombed by Allied planes during the Korean War. They escaped this fate because, even though North Korean troops were in the area, the pilot was Korean and refused to do it.

This bit of information made me look again at my map. Haeinsa is a long way south, only about about 50km from the coast. I had no idea that North Korea came so close to taking control of the whole country, but in September 1950 they controlled 90 percent of the peninsula before being driven back by Allied troops.

Haein-sa Temple, Korea

Haein-sa Temple, Korea

Haein-sa Temple, Korea

Haein-sa Temple, Korea

Graves, Haein-sa, Korea

Graves, Haein-sa, Korea

En route to Haein-sa, Korea

En route to Haein-sa, Korea

En route to Haein-sa, Korea

En route to Haein-sa, Korea

The Tripitaka Koreana is now on the UNESCO World Heritage list, and while I’m sure it’s impressive, the great joy of Haeinsa is to wander around its old buildings while observing Korean families at worship and play. The whole temple site is quite small, but despite the number of people it attracts you can still find corners of calm and tranquility.

En route to Haein-sa, Korea

En route to Haein-sa, Korea

En route to Haein-sa, Korea

En route to Haein-sa, Korea

En route to Haein-sa, Korea

En route to Haein-sa, Korea

En route to Haein-sa, Korea

En route to Haein-sa, Korea

The monastery is in the middle of the beautiful Gayasan National Park, and a lot of people had come equipped (perhaps over-equipped) for hiking – Korean’s seem to take the outdoors very seriously. I followed a group of people up the track towards the temple feeling decidedly underdressed, and wondering if I was going to have to hire some crampons and ropes to complete the journey. Despite the harsh gradient it turned out that it was possible to make the trip wearing jeans, even if the majority of people on the route were dressed for an ascent of Mt. Everest.