Gyeongju

A few weekends ago I suffered from a terrible fever that would have made any hypochondriac be in fear of their life. Not only inconvenient and on a weekend but it also happened on a weekend that was followed by a public holiday. I had planned to go on an adventure to 소매물도 (somaemuldo) a small island off the coast of Geoje where it seemed every expat heads in spring time. Instead I laboured in bed and was fed disgusting Korean medicine by my girlfriend. With feelings of anger and disappointment and also out of gratefulness to my girlfriend I planned a trip to Gyeongju (Well, I said we were going to Gyeongju-if that is a plan?!) on Korean memorial day, June 6th.

Gyeongju is the ancient capital of the Silla Kingdom. The Silla Kingdom covered around two-thirds of the Korean peninsula between the 7th and 9th centuries and was in existence from 53BC to 935AD in some form. Gyeongju is often referred to as “the museum without walls”. Throughout the city and surrounding areas there are numerous historic sites. Due to Gyeongju’s historical pedigree it is a major tourist attraction in South Korea for both schools, Koreans and international visitors.

We set off after work on Tuesday and took the KTX up to Gyeongju. Fortunately, Gyeongju is in close proximity to Busan and the rapid KTX means we arrived after only 30 minutes. We took the express bus into the city and walked towards our first destination leaving the tasks of dinner and motel finding until later. Gyeongju’s attractions are dispersed throughout the city and it common to see both modern next to ancient. It is also fair to say Gyeongju is a small city and to compare it as a city in the same breath as the monsters of Seoul and Busan is to do it a huge injustice. After my navigational instinct was confirmed by some locals we headed towards Cheomseongdae observatory. Cheomseongdae observatory sits in the middle of a sizeable grassy park. Despite being the main feature of the destination large grass mounded tombs linger in the background and add to the historic feeling that Gyeongju exudes. Cheomseongdae (star-gazing tower) dates back to the 7th century and whilst some say it has little astronomical use as an observatory it is quite unique and one of the first observatories to be built anywhere in the world. Nowadays, the observatory sits as a testament to history and also to a time when you could see the stars at night in Korea and there was no pollution hazing the night sky….

After taking mandatory tourist photos we headed to Anapji. Anapji is a man-made pond built-in 693AD on order of King Munmu near what was once Banwolseong palace.  Anapji fell into disrepair after the Silla kingdom fell. Gyeonju decided to renovate many sites in 1975 and Anapji was one of those sites. The pond was dredged and rebuilt and some of the palace pavilions were rebuilt in the traditional style. The area was used for entertaining and partying and this is one of the main reasons for the fall of the Silla as the populace grew angry with their aristocratic ways. We walked around the ponds perimeter and observed the rise of an incredibly large and red moon above the treeline that surrounds the pond. The tourist paparazzi were out in force but one old lady sat with her family and song an old Korean traditional song which made the trip feel a little authentic.

We headed back to central Gyeongju, ate some budae jiggae to fill our starved stomachs and booked into the swankiest motel I have yet to encounter in Korea; huge flat screen TV, a walk in shower the size of some apartments, a big jacuzzi pool, everything on one remote control, a computer and all furnished in an interior designers wet dream and all for the price of $60.

Morning arrived but was blissfully kept out by the black blinds (something I need to invest in for my apartment) and only several alarms would stir us. We walked out to be blinded by the beginnings of a beautiful late spring morning. We walked towards our destination for the morning, Daereungwon. Daereungwon is a complex of 23 royal tombs from the Silla Dynasty. The Egyptians had stone pyramids and the Silla had large grass-covered mounds. The two most famous tombs are Cheonmachong and Hwangnamdaechong. The later is a double tomb and is the largest of all the tombs. This tomb has two rounded peaks as it is the resting place of a king and queen. Cheonmachong is an open tomb and has been excavated so the public can see the relics of the era inside. The tombs contained many crowns and other lavish metal works that indicate to the aristocratic nature of the Silla. Daereungwon is a bizarre place, those familiar with the teletubbies will liken it to their landscape. I can imagine Dipsy getting mad with the other teletubbies when they all want to climb on top of the tombs. I wonder what the aristocratic kings and queens would think of that…?

Gyeongju is famous for two foods, Ssambap and Gyeongju bbang. Ssambap was for lunch and the restaurants that serve it are located around Daereungwon. We went to what is allegedly the most famous of these fine establishments for our lunch. Ssambap is a veritable feast of mini dishes. The main premise is that you wrap rice with various different leaves and add your choice of side dish to the parcel. The side dishes range from sticky, spicy red sauces with unidentifiable fish and vegetables, flavoured meat and fish. Of the twenty or so plates on the table probably only eight were edible and I skipped on the weirder and more seafood based ‘delicacies’! As we were leaving from our early lunch, bus loads of Koreans licking their lips were being ushered inside and from the look of the plates stacked in the kitchen they were in for a busy day. Gyeongju bbang is sweet bread baked with red bean paste inside. It’s expensive and disappointing. Whenever I eat something in Korea and it has those goddamn red beans inside I have a little mental hissy fit. Another perfectly good dish, ruined!

The afternoon was dedicated to visiting Gyeongju’s famous temples. Bulguksa and higher up the mountain slopes of Tohamsan mountain, Seokguram Temple and Grotto. Bulguksa has the eminent title of “Historic and Scenic Site No.1′ bestowed upon it by the South Korean government and along with Seokguram it is part of the UNESCO world heritage list. Bulguksa hosts 7 national treasures and the Dabotap pagoda even graces the back of the 10 won coin. Bulguksa is an extremely important temple as it is the head temple of the 11th district of the Jogye order of Buddhism. Bulguksa is large and considered a masterpiece of the of the golden age of Buddhist art in the Silla Kingdom. When we visited it was beginning to crawl with tourists and some of the spiritual tranquility of the temple is easily lost. Personally, of the temples I have visited, Bulguksa seems to be quite cold. It has all the pagodas and pavilions and the gold statues but there is little charm to the temple. Seokbulsa in Busan still reigns supreme. Remote, quiet and awe-inspiring. After walking the grounds of Bulguksa and grabbing some water we began the four kilometre hike to Seokguram…

The hike up to Seokguram was hot and intermittently interrupted by the sighting of a Siberian chipmunk. Every 50 metres one of the brave/tame little buggers popped out of a rock or chased its lady friend across the path. I’ve never seen one in before in Korea, but quite frankly they owned Tohamsan mountain. After an arduous and tourist paced hour-long trek we arrived at Seokguram. Seokguram is essentially part of the Bulguksa complex and is regarded as a mountain hermitage. The grounds were vibrantly coloured with paper lanterns and soured by the inevitable tourists who had cleverly (or lazily depending on your perspective) parked in the car park  600m from the temple. Seokguram’s most famous feature is the seated stone Buddha that resides in a large grotto. Fearful of the multitudes of acid handed tourists the Buddha is sealed off by a glass partition and people stand three deep to look at it. Korean Buddhist security means you can’t even take a photo, so here is a link to a picture. The view out to the sea is good and I hear it is a great place to watch the sunrise but I imagine there are better in Korea and ones that have less tourists annoying you. In fact I have come to the decision that the most annoying thing about being a tourist is other tourists. All tourists seem to feel they have some divine right to a photo opportunity or to enjoy a destination or moment without the sandals and socks and booming voice of some North American traipsing around in their shadow. It’s a vicious circle of false smiles and death stares when they and their crying child has turned their backs on you.

Despite my tourist crowd protestations I genuinely enjoyed Gyeongju. It is a unique city with some beautiful sights and a sample of genuine Korean culture. I’d just advise going on a quieter day of the year.

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