A Trip Back in Time

I can only wish I could go back in time .... then I think about the smells and how to earn money, and I decide that I rather like my modern life.

Still, as a writer of historical fiction and someone who enjoys reading historical fiction, I find myself drawn to places where I can learn more about local history. For my current residency in Gwangju, South Korea, the biggest unknown was the Baekje Kingdom. To learn more about it, I traveled two hours north to the sleepy cities of Gongju and Buyeo.

The yellow arrow points to Gwangju and the blocked in area is where I went. Seoul is just off the map.

The ancient kingdom of Baekje existed from 18 BC until the Seventh Century AD. At one point, it controlled most of Korea's western coastline and had its capital in Seoul. Towards the last two hundred years of its existence, the capitals of Baekje were first in Gongju then later in Buyeo. The Sabi period is during its time in Buyeo.

Few artifacts remain from the time period, so most of what to be seen are smaller items. Buildings, by and far, are non-existent, but you can visit two ancient fortresses of the time period. To say you can see original items is not likely, but you can get an idea of what the landscape was like.

Buyeo

The third and final capital of this kingdom, Buyeo has the feeling of a country city - more focused on farming and family than history. It isn't entirely the case. Buyeo, like the larger Gongju, is very proud of its Baekje heritage. The National Museum located in Buyeo houses an impressive selection of items found in the various tombs. It also has a beautiful park which was the palace/fortress. For about $2 USD, you can wander the park from nine until six.

The place where they leapt
The rock from the river
The thing that it's best known for is the rock where nearly 3000 women leapt to their deaths after the kingdom fell to the neighboring Silla Kingdom in the 600s. You can climb to the ledge and look down into the river below, wondering at the desperation the women must have felt. The only way to see the cliff, however, is to take the ferry.

When you see the location, you can understand better the panic the women must have felt, knowing that their kingdom was lost.

To the people around here, their deaths are considered heroic. I wonder how terrible the women thought their lives would be without their kingdom to run off the cliff into the water below. I can imagine their fear and panic. I wonder if there were any who didn't want to die.

A trip to the local museum is a must. It's a good central location as well as provides an excellent overview of the history of the Baekje kingdom. The walk from the fortress to the National Museum goes past a temple museum which is also worth a stop to wander around ($1.50 entrance). Inside its grounds, you can find a five-tier pagoda original to the area.

Five tier pagoda
Inside, the temple museum steps through the creation of the original temple as well as the rise of Buddhism in the region. While Joseon Korea is known as the epitome of neo-Confucianism, Baekje followed Buddhism.

In point of fact, there is a style of Buddhas known to have an unusual smile. The smile is known as the Baekje smile.

One of the better parts of the Buyeo (in one way) is the Baekje Cultural Land. This is an entire replica of what buildings would have looked like during various times of the Baekje kingdom. Primarily, it focuses on the beginning and the end.

Some don't like visiting places like this, but I feel, due to the dearth of actual locations one can visit, the replicas provide an interesting insight to what places may have looked like. Besides, for about $4, it isn't the biggest waste of time or money.




Gongju


Perimeter wall in Gongju
The larger nearby city is bustling with life and energy, but like Buyeo, Gongju doesn't forget its past. Here, you can climb the perimeter of a Baekje-era fortress as well as visit the tombs of their kings. By the way, you can do the same in Buyeo, the tombs are a short car ride away from downtown.

The fortress, despite the capital being moved, remained a strategic location along the riverside. Up into the 1600s, it was still being used. During a peasant rebellion, the King of Korea escaped to Gongju and hid at the fortress.

Like Buyeo, Gongju also has a National Museum dedicated to Baekje history. Here, you can see more items found in the area. I must admit to feeling a little bit like I caught a lot of reruns in that some of the items were replicas of items I saw in another location. This also indicates the dearth of items that have been found from the Baekje Kingdom.
The tombs of dead kings

The ten minute walk from the fortress to the National Museum passes by a few other locations, various shops and restaurants. It's faster to take a bus, taxi or car. Going by bike or foot provides ample time to observe the scenery. A traveler's hint though - visit the tombs first. A short path takes you from the tombs to the National Museum saving you another ten minutes of walking.

My experience was well-worth the time and energy. I enjoyed my little jaunt back in time. While it wasn't traveling to Williamsburg or wandering around Stonehenge, the ability to see things, however distantly connected now, did offer a glimpse into the world. Standing on the ledge of the of the cliff, wondering what the women must have thought, I could sense their fear.

Wandering around Baekje Cultural Land, I could imagine what a princess or noblewoman must have thought as she walked through the halls. It gives you a glimpse of a time period and a people fairly alien to my Western world.





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