Before I start, since our last post we have now surpassed the 100 day mark in Korea, a small milestone on a road which will have many more…
The latest learning curve we have experienced on our Korean cultural awakening is that when it comes to national holidays, even if it is only a single day, the whole country is on the move! This lesson was sharply followed by the next…never, under any circumstances trust the local weather reports!
At the end of May, the official day of Buddha’s Birthday is decreed a national holiday in Korea. As this fell on a Friday, we thought it wise to use the long weekend to our advantage and explore parts of Korea a little further afield. After deciding on the ‘outdoor museum’ that is Gyeonju (more on that soon) we were pleased to see weather reports indicating a glorious weekend ahead. And so, we packed our bags and headed to stay the night in Seoul, the plan being to get up early in the morning to catch the bus bound for Gyeongju. We stayed the night in Yongsan, at the Dragon Hill Spa. This ‘jimjilbang,’ the term used for a Korean
Temuli at the Royal Tomb of King Muyeol
Not quite the Pyramids but impressive in its own right
bath house (and a must for anyone visiting Korea to get a little further insight into their culture) is a large building adjacent to the subway station and a place where one can parade around naked (in gender specific areas of course) and experience different spa treatments, including everything from the tried and trusted sauna to jade pyramids and ice rooms! Following a few hours of relaxation, we slept rather uncomfortably on a wooden floor in the common area for males and females (now clothed of course) and woke early the next morning to the sight of 100 Koreans crashed out on the floor of a huge common room, which presented a scene reminiscent of the morning after a house party gone array, with people sleeping on steps, benches, cobbled paths and even on the changing room floor! Apparently it’s just what you do!
After an amusing start to the morning, the mood was soured once we got to the bus station. Now I will admit with hindsight it was a little silly to not purchase tickets prior to the day, but given the time was 6am and it was only one day we thought we would be able
The true beginning of rainy season
We were told rainy season began in June...experience taught us otherwise
to get a seat on the bus. Failing that, buses leave the terminal every 20 minutes so surely our wait would not have been a long one? Try five hours of sitting in a sweaty bus terminal. Oh well, you live and you learn. And I have learned that travel in Korea on a national holiday is not to be taken for granted! Unlike England, this is not a country where people spend their days off work sitting at home in the garden…indeed, as it is mostly apartment blocks, most people actually are not afforded that option. And so, after a five hour wait followed by a seven hour bus journey that should have taken four, we finally arrived in Gyeongju.
As a seemingly small and innocuous town in the Southern Region of Korea, it would be easy to overlook it on the map, given its relative proximity to Busan. However, Gyeongju was once the capital of the ancient Silla Kingdom, which ruled most of the Korean peninsula between the 7th and 9th centuries. A vast number of archaeological sites and cultural properties from this period remain in the city, with 35 Royal tombs and over 150 Temuli in
central Gyeongju alone. Owing to this, Gyeongju is often referred to as the ‘museum without walls.’
Given the time of day and the exhaustion of not much sleep at the jimjilbang and the early morning start, we decided on an early start the following day to attempt to make up for lost time in exploring such an exciting prospect.
And on to lesson number two…the weather report. Opening the curtains to sheets of rain actually made me laugh because following the previous day I had half expected it. But we were determined to not allow this to ruin the weekend.
We walked into town and grabbed some breakfast and got our first real glimpse of Gyeongju during the day. Unlike almost all other areas of Korea, where cities and towns are constructed from semi-modern concrete slabs, Gyeongju somewhat beautifully retains its cultural roots and ‘away from the city’ feel. It is a small town surrounded by rice fields and mountains, where the town centre structures are made from traditional oriental tiled roofs, with no buildings taller than 4 floors. The area really is surrounded by countless historical sites, temples, shrines and tumuli’s (dome-shaped grassy hills containing remains
of bygone Kings and officials).
Our first day in town, we took a bus ride a few miles out of town to see the much heralded Bulguksa Temple. For anyone, thinking of visiting, don’t come here expecting an ‘out of the way’ temple and a peace and quiet atmosphere, as you will be disappointed. It is very touristy, packed with people with no significant patch of serenity to take it all in. Despite this, it is still a magnificent temple and its sheer size and area covered allows you to spend a decent amount of time here to see different things. Amongst activities, we were able to purchase a beautiful painting here that has been hand painted by Monks (we are hoping to pickup something from each country we visit in the hopes of displaying these things in a future house!!)
Following Bulguksa, we took a shuttle bus to the top of the mountain towering over the temple to see Seokguram Grotto, an impressive grotto carved high into the mountainside. This was the only disappointment of the day really, as non of the guide’s indicate the fact you must queue for a little while to see the grotto,
you can’t actually go in as it is protected by a glass screen, which you get around 5 seconds to observe before being herded back down the mountain! All in all, I would say give that one a miss!
The following day we rose to find the weather had actually worsened! We had actually planned to do some hiking around Mt. Namsan, but owing to terrible weather, had to change our plans. Again, not to be perturbed, we rented bicycles and ponchos and headed out of town through meandering rice fields towards the foot of the Namsan area to take in a few sights, stopping by the Royal Tomb of King Muyeol and the tiny farming village of Seoak-ri. Along the way, we were observed by the always friendly locals farming their rice fields. Whilst their wave might have said ‘Hello’, the bemused smile definitely screamed ‘crazy foreigner!…we have to be out in this but you are choosing to be?’ Well, the rain was torrential, but why waste your time!?
All in all, the trip was definitely worthwhile, and even the weather couldn’t stop us from enjoying the local culture. However, we could not help lament the sunshine
wasn’t around for us to see more of a town which offers so much!
Coming soon…a holiday to Jeju!
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