Portrait of a Semi-Rural Town

En route to Gyeongju, I gaze out the bus window at the languid fields stretching to the mountains. On a clear day those peaks probably appear blue in the distance. Today, they shimmer featureless and grey. Haze hangs over the bare woods like a cataract.

Greenhouses draped in transparent plastic run like welts across the valley floor.

When we arrive in Gyeongju, there is a rough simplicity to the town and our guesthouse, down a narrowing side-street, is a homely traditional hanok with papered walls and under-floor heating. At night, we pull closed a sliding glass door, a pair of papered doors, another sliding wooden door, a furling blind and thick curtains. Still, in the quietness of the night, I can almost hear the breathing of the sleeping couple in the adjacent room and the outermost door shivers in the cool breeze.

In the daytime, we wander amongst the huge grassy mounds that enclose the corpses of kings and queens of the Silla dynasty, their skeletons surrounded by the finest gold ornaments. Yellowed grass crackles underfoot. It seems like it has never rained here.

On our last day in town, we walk kilometres alongside a busy highway in search of a renowned Korean vegetarian restaurant. We pass more plastic-shrouded greenhouses. Inside, I spy flourishing green strawberry bushes, heavy with fleshy berries. The clouded plastic shields this flash of raw colour and life from the yellow fields sprawling in every direction.

The vegetarian feast is the best meal I’ve eaten all trip.

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