Bizarre Travel: King of the DMZ! Stately trivia! Getting Galileo’s digits!

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(SFX: Korean Buddhist chants)

One of Asia’s least-visited wonders is a wildlife reserve with forests and wetlands that are home to a range of biodiversity, from leopards and gorals to golden eagles and the rare Asiatic black bear. Scientists believe that more than 100 endangered species, including possibly the Siberian tiger, inhabit this narrow ribbon of land.

At least until they blow up.

Anywhere else, the region might be a national park, but for now it’s better known as the DMZ, the 2.5-mile buffer that stretches across the Korean Peninsula to keep North and South apart. And yes, there are still between 1 and 2 million landmines in the Demilitarized Zone, the Associated Press reported in 2018, and every so often an animal will set one off. It’s usually a goat — most of the birds and smaller critters aren’t heavy enough, according to soldiers who monitor the zone.

There are a few odd things about the DMZ. Heck, folks can’t even agree on its size. Most media accounts and references seem to concur the zone is 2.5 miles wide, although National Geographic and Wikipedia report that it’s 160 miles long, while the Washington Post and NASA say 148 miles.

Seriously, how do you lose 30 square miles, an area bigger than Manhattan, of the most heavily monitored real estate on the planet? Further confusing the issue, CNN and the BBC have reported that it’s 155 miles, so there’s that.

And if the amount of undisturbed wildlife in the DMZ and lack of fact-checking about its size aren’t  odd enough, there’s also the castle of King Gung Ye. The fortress city and tomb of one of Korea’s most important (and most colorful) rulers sits in the middle of the world’s most dangerous eco-park. 

Gung Ye, a despotic one-eyed former Buddhist monk, ruled the entire middle of the Korean Peninsula in the early 10th century, an area that likely included the modern-day capitals of North and South Korea. He was born into royalty, the son of King Gyeongmun of the Kingdom of Silla, but as with all great rise-to-power stories, fortune-tellers told Gyeongmun to kill the baby because the child might someday bring down the kingdom. Gung Ye’s mother, like any quick-thinking mom, tossed the baby out a second-story window. Fortunately, a waiting nurse caught the infant, but accidentally jabbed him in the eye, which never recovered sight.

Turns out the fortune-tellers were right. Eventually, Gung Ye defeated most of his rivals, declared himself king and in 905 AD built a citadel at Cheorwon, a sprawling fortress with a 7 ½-mile long outer wall and an inner wall 4 ½ miles long. He made the castle and the surrounding area the capital city of the Kingdom of Taebong. 

Gung Ye was deposed in the year 918 by his own generals, but not before turning paranoid, trying to unite the people with Buddhism (claiming to be Buddha himself), and killing off one his wives and two of his sons for opposing him, which frankly, doesn’t sound too Buddhist. After his death, Taebong became the Kingdom of Goryeo, which ruled a unified Korea for the next 400 years. 

While the millions of tourists who visit the South Korean side of the DMZ can look in the general direction of Gung Ye’s castle, and possibly walk under some portion of it in one of the “invasion tunnels,” built by North Korea, it likely will be years before visitors can explore the ruins. It took until July 2020 for archaeologists and the United Nations Command to get permission to briefly survey what’s left of the castle, so tourism is a long way off. 

Until then, the stones of the castle and the tomb of Gung Ye himself will continue to be reclaimed by the forests, the grasslands and the earth. And, presumably, by exploding goats.


(SFX: Ticking and bell)

Time for a little trivia: There’s only one state in the U.S. that is partly farther north than the southernmost point in Canada AND partly farther south than the northernmost point of Mexico. 

The southernmost point of Canada is Middle Island in Lake Erie at 41.68 degrees north, and part or all of 27 U.S. states are north of it, including, surprisingly, Ohio, Utah, Nebraska and Wyoming. (New Jersey missed the cut by about 20 miles.) 13 of those 27 states are entirely north of Middle Island. (Here’s a freebie: Alaska is one of them.)

The northernmost point of Mexico is the border town of Los Algodones, just east of Yuma, Arizona, at 32.71 degrees north, and part or all of 10 U.S. states are south of that point. Only one is entirely south of it — Florida — although that number goes up if you include territories, such as Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam.

If you compare the two lists of states, only one is on both. So while we consider Mexico is south of the border and Canada is north of the border, only California gets to be a bit of both. 


(SFX: Cathedral organ)

Relics are a big deal in many faiths. And just so we’re clear, when we say “relics,” we’re talking about actual pieces of dead people. The Holy Right Hand of King Stephen is enshrined in Budapesht; Sienna, Italy, is home to St. Catherine’s entire head, tho a shoulder blade is in Rome and a rib is in Florenece; some of the Buddha’s teeth reside in Sri Lanka; in Padua, Italy, there’s the Tongue, Jaw and vocal chords of St Anthony; and it seems like you can’t throw a rock without hitting some place that has a piece of Saint Patrick, although to be fair, some historians believe there were two St. Patrick’s so, obviously, more relics.

Typically, venerated relics are associated with Saints, religion and faith, not with science and reason. Which is why it might seem odd that a science-focused museum in Florence, Italy, reverently displays an ancient bony finger that once belonged to Galileo. 

Yeah, THAT Galileo. 

He’s the  Italian astronomer and physicist whose observations and theories changed what we know about planets, the sun and motion in general. The same guy who ticked off the Vatican for pushing “Copernican heliocentrism,” which is just a fancy way of saying the earth rotates daily and revolves around the sun, and who spent the last 10 years of his life under house arrest for “suspected heresy.” He died in 1642 at the age of 77.

In 1737, while his remains were being moved to a tomb in Florence, some of his fans decided to collect three fingers, a tooth and a vertebra, according to The Guardian newspaper. The artifacts were kept in a reliquary that bounced around and then went missing for about a hundred years, until 2009 when the finger and a thumb were put up for auction. Eventually, the finger was put on display at what was then the History of Science Museum in Florence.

But why is there a saint-like relic in a science museum? Apparently, saints come in all sizes and shapes, according to historians. In a scholarly seminar at the University of Pavia in 2015, creatively titled “Savant Relics: Brains and Remains of Scientists,” experts concluded that, essentially, why should religious folks have all the fun? Or something like that. 

They use the Galileo reliquary and relics as proof that there had been a culture of ‘lay’ relics, similar to the culture of religious relics, where “the remains of the scientists were revered as physical symbols of a new ritual mostly aimed at celebrating the immortality of scientific genius.”

In 2010, the museum was renamed the Galileo Museum and the finger is on display with a couple of telescopes and a lens that the astronomer used to view some of Jupiter’s moons, appropriately called the Galilean moons.

It also turns out that the relic from the hand of Galileo is, well, his middle finger. And if the curators at the museum have a sense of justice, we’re pretty sure it’s facing toward Rome.


(Writing, recording and engineering: Spud Hilton. Photos and illustrations: Spud Hilton. Site and its contents are property of the Inappropriate Traveler Podcast Network and Spud Hilton.)