Monday, May 18, 2009

Jongmyo ghosts

A warm mid-may afternoon in Jongmyo. Just a few visitors, but nowhere to be seen in this deserted Jeongjeon (the main ceremonial hall).

A slight breeze, the intense smell of snowbell tree flowers, and only natural sounds : birds (magpies, sparrows, and today even a blue jay), wind in the old and tall trees that mask the city beyond. From here, the corner of your eye can only notice the brown tip of Boryung building emerging timidly from the biomass, now fully active.

Much smaller and less "urban" than its Northern neighbor Changdeokgung, devoted to the dead (Joseon royal shrine, a UNESCO World Heritage), Jongmyo provides a perfect spot for meditation.
There's even a quiet library with 20 seats (square mats on the floor), in a small hanok. Like most traditional houses in this part of the World, this one offers a broadband connection to the web. No one there today, except the clerk. From a hole torn through the paper window, I can see three adjumas sitting on the lawn, picking up the bad weeds.

I expected to meet a few elderlies, but as usual they are all outside in Jongmyo Citizens' Park, chatting or playing Xiangqi (Chinese chess) under phantom cigarette clouds. Their mass looks compact from a distance, and many lips are moving, but you can't hear those ghosts as you walk through the crowd. Just chess pieces clacking on boards.

You can follow Jongmyo's Western wall up to a recently created small triangular garden, Yulgokno, and Donhwamun... but beware : Seosulla-gil (서순라 길) is haunted.

"West Patrol Way" owes its name to the policemen who walked along it. All houses used to turn their backs on this cemetery wall, and residents would only leave their garbage there. Nearby Myo-dong owes its name to the same Myo (묘) you find in Jongmyo (종묘) : it means "grave", and by metonymy "cemetery". But the only two dongs covering Seosulla-gil are Bongik-dong (South) and Gwonnong-dong (North).

Bongik-dong remains a messy pack of cheap old restaurants feeding (upon ?) Jongmyo's chess playing ghosts.

Gwonnong-dong keeps proceeding on the way to gentrification, workshops giving way to brand new, two-story- private houses, galleries or shops opening themselves to Seosulla-gil, betting on the Donhwamun-ro extension of Insadong all the way to this charming winding road with its trees, its wall, and its phantoms.

Right now, gentrification doesn't seem that obvious : trash keep piling up against the wall, the path doesn't smell of snowbell tree flowers, and more often than not, you will come across one or two hirsute winos.

Keep your distance : to spare your nostrils, but also to show some respect for Jongmyo's third millenium ghosts.

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