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Published: August 13th 2018
Greetings from a small city in the south of South Korea, called Gyeongju. It may be small today, but is actually a very important historical site in the whole of Korea, as it was once the capital of the ancient Shilla kingdom. I had originally planned to write my next entry from my next destination after this one, Andong, as I currently have three places to visit in quick succession, spending two nights in each rather than three. However, I have a bit of free time now, and feel I would like to write a blog entry about my time here in Gyeongju.
I last wrote about to leave Busan, and on Sunday morning, made my last long metro journey northwards, to the end of the number 1 metro line, to the Express Bus Terminal. Within five minutes of arriving, I had bought a ticket, gone to the loo, and hopped on the next bus leaving to make the hour-long journey northwards to Gyeongju. As mentioned, Gyeongju is an important historical site for the whole of Korea, both North and South, and my time here has given me a bit more of an insight into the Korean
past, and actually similarities between those days and today. The modern day is not the only time when the Korean peninsula was deeply divided. Around 2000 years ago, three kingdoms emerged here: Goguyreo, occupying much of the land covered by modern-day North Korea; Baekje, in the central parts of the peninsula around modern-day Seoul; and Shilla, in the southern part of the peninsula. The three kingdoms were constantly competing and battling for centuries, until Shilla emerged victorious over the whole of the peninsula in 668 AD. During Shilla’s time of prosperity, Goguryeo developed into a successor state known as Balhae, and to repel Balhae’s continued threats to Shilla prosperity, the latter built a wall running from Pyongyang all the way to the eastern coast, in 721 – hmm, that sounds familiar...! Such hostility between north and south seems to continue to the present day, and whilst the South hails its history from the Shilla kingdom, the North looks to the Goguryeo kingdom for its heroic past. Rather like squabbling siblings, it seems North and South Korea have been at odds with each for centuries, and I didn’t realise this until I came here. Indeed, to understand the present, one must
Wolseong-gongwon Park, Gyeongju
South Korean kite-flag, caught in the trees
also know the past.
Whilst being here, I have also come to realise that what we in the western world see as oligarchy and nepotism in North Korea, with its leadership being hereditary and passed on from father to son, is actually merely a replication of what the emperors of old used to do in the past, in Korea as well as neighbouring Japan and China. I guess it’s not much different to what has been done for centuries in these lands, as well as in European countries until a few centuries ago, but to modern, western democratic eyes, such succession in leadership is seen as bad. In North Korea, it appears merely a continuation of historical tradition. I’m not writing as an apologetic for North Korean politics, but as a means at least to understanding some of it. Indeed, this blog entry is not intended to go into depth on North Korean politics, but I have found looking at the history of Korea in these parts has helped me to understand the present situation the peninsula finds itself in today.
Back to South Korea, the Shilla kingdom located its capital here in Gyeongju, and became renowned as
Seokguram Grotto, Gyeongju
Me, ringing the entrance bell!
the “city of gold”, with its wealth and grandeur. It is not surprising that the city today and its surrounds are awash with places to see, and quite a significant amount of tourism in fact.
Just an hour after boarding the bus in Busan, I alighted in Gyeongju, and walked ten minutes or so to my guesthouse for two nights here, the aptly named “Trip to Gyeongju”. I can quite rightly say that on my trip to Gyeongju, I am staying at “Trip to Gyeongju”. An unusual name, with a larger than life owner called William, this is a modern building but designed with traditional Korean architecture in mind. The building has the beautiful, typical Korean-style curved roof, which is actually quite a common feature of houses in this town, and also has the traditional Korean style of underfloor heating system, called “ondol”. In the winter, ondol floors allow the heat generated from a central fire to be spread under the floors throughout the house, keeping the whole place toasty and warm. It is really nice to stay in such a traditional-style Korean building, complete with sliding doors as in Japan, although for some reason the ondol floor-heating system
was actually on full blast last night, despite it being the middle of summer. This meant that I had to wear the slippers given to guests to walk on the floor at night, and also that the air-conditioning system seemed to be battling all night with the floor-heating system, making it not quite so cool as I would have liked. I explained this to the owner this morning, who seemed to do something to switch the ondol-system off, much to my relief. Despite it not really being the climate for it, I was glad to have at least experienced this ingenious Korean method of house-heating.
After having a lie-down and rest, I was ready to explore the main sights of Gyeongju yesterday. First off, I followed the crowds on the street outside, who all seemed to be heading south-east. This place was indeed very crowded yesterday, not so much today – perhaps as it was a Sunday yesterday, and many out-of-town tourists were here for the day. They were flocking towards the nearby Wolseong-gongwan Park and its very famous Cheomseongdae Observatory, about a mile to the south-east of here, stopping off at various cafes and souvenir shops on the
"Trip to Gyeongju" Guesthouse
My room, traditional Korean-style. Sliding doors, and "ondol" heated floors (even in the middle of the baking summer!). Thank goodness there is air-conditioning!
way. Once there, many locals seemed to be hiring three-seater, three-wheeled motorbike-type contraptions to make it around – not a bad idea considering the heat and how spread out the sights are here. I opted for the traditional “one foot in front of the other” method to explore. My first stop was the afore-mentioned Cheomseongdae Observatory, which although looked very simple and basic, is actually quite complex and was very much ahead of its time when it was built in the 7th
century AD. It was actually the Far East’s oldest astrological observatory, and its twelve base stones represent the twelve months; its 30 levels of bricks represent the days of the month; and its 366 bricks in total represent the number of days in the year. Quite accurate for a structure built 1400 years ago!
From here, I used the GPS-navigation on my mobile phone (which I only just discovered for this journey, a complete boon for the traveller looking beyond the guidebooks’ limited amount of maps) to head towards my next destination, the Gyeongje National Museum. The path took me through a forest, leaving the tourists and their motor-trikes behind, which actually turned out to be a
wrong move. The forest was full of awful, buzzing flies, which buzzed around my ears and increased in number the further I went. It was becoming rather unbearable, but I thought it better to carry on than go back, as I’d gone past the halfway point already. The path finally led down a steep hill, with the buzzing of flies at its peak. Unfortunately due to my haste to get out, and my constant waving of my hands around my head to detract them from my ears, I slipped and fell on my backside. I wasn’t hurt, but I was very glad to make it to the bottom of the slope and back to a main road again where the buzzing gradually subsided. What an evil place! If I lived in ancient times, I would have believed that the spirits of that particular forest were malign and wanted me out of their domain, in modern times I have simply named the place myself “The Evil Forest”. Not a nice experience.
But at least a short walk from there brought me back to civilisation again, and to the air-conditioned glories of the Gyeongju National Museum. Despite the place being like
a circus with the amount of tourists, and their loud children running around and screaming (parents here are not quite so in control of their children as back in Japan…), it was a pleasant place to wander around for an hour or so. I didn’t really understand much about the background of the pieces or their importance, but what stood out for me was a beautiful and quite large golden crown (my guidebook compares it to something you would see in “Game of Thrones” - it was quite grand), clay pots fashioned in the shape of ducks, and a statue of a monkey-soldier standing guard. There were also signs all around telling visitors to be careful of snakes and bees, and I tried not to think what else there could have been back in “The Evil Forest”.
From here, it was another ten-minute walk, this time along a main road with other tourists, so no malign forces to contend with, to the nearby and quite beautiful Anapji Pond. This was originally a pleasure garden created to commemorate the unification of the Korean peninsula under Shilla. It sadly burned down in 935, but has since been restored, and made for
a really relaxing and beautiful evening stroll towards the end of my first day here in Gyeongju. I also made memorable acquaintance with a delightful brother and sister travelling duo from Michigan, both living in Japan teaching English, though in opposite ends of the country. I have very rarely met siblings travelling together, but these two were just so nice they were actually cute. When they told me their names, Mac and Molly, I couldn’t help thinking of characters from a Ladybird book, entitled something like “Mac and Molly go to the Beach”. I tried to explain Ladybird books to them, but I don’t think they have them in the States, and thus the amicably-intentioned humour went a bit amiss. They were still delightful though.
After this, I booked my onward travel to Andong by train at the train station, walked around the central area of town for a bit, had some dinner, and then called it a night.
Today was my full day of sightseeing in Gyeongju, and I actually spent it away from the city, towards two nationally famous, and both also UNESCO World Cultural Heritage-listed, nearby sights: the Bulguk-sa Buddhist Temple, and the Seokguram Grotto.
And to my relief, there were fewer tourists around today than yesterday, it must indeed have been because it was Sunday yesterday. I took the number 10 bus, which first headed to nearby Lake Bomun, where most of the younger Korean passengers got off. Lake Bomun is an artificial lake, and as well as home to most of the top-end hotels and tourist facilities around here, also houses the amazing-looking Gyeongju World, one of South Korea’s top white knuckle ride theme parks. It was tempting to hop off the bus and join them, but the crowds looked big, and I reminded myself I was here for the cultural experience not the thrills. I wasn’t too disappointed when the bus continued its journey.
About 40 minutes out of Gyeongju, we arrived at the stunning Bulguk-sa Temple, perhaps the country’s most important and celebrated Buddhist temple. And similar to the Beomeo-sa Temple back in Busan, it is located on the slopes of a beautiful, forested mountain, which just adds to the serene and picturesque setting. Apparently quite a number of Korea’s Buddhist temples are located in and around mountainous areas due to the antipathy of Korea’s longest-reigning monarchs, the Joseon dynasty,
Wolseong-gongwon Park, Gyeongju
Locals in traditional Korean dress
towards Buddhism. The “new” Joseon dynasty was founded in 1392 and lasted all the way until 1910. In fact, North Korea today calls itself “Choson” based on the legendary beginnings of the Korean nation around the 3rd
millennium BC, as the “old” Joseon people. The first emperor of the new Joseon dynasty, King Taejo, uprooted Buddhist economic and political influences, seeing them as reminiscent of the previous dynasty, and exiled Buddhist monks to many of their mountainous temples which still exist today. I was surprised to find out that the new Joseon dynasty founded its principles and nationhood on Confucianism, reforming it to become what is referred to as Neo-Confucianism, as it combined the ancient philosophy of Confucianism with traditional Korean ancestor worship. They say that Korea is actually more Confucianist now than China itself. This makes sense as I look at a South Korean flag today, whose circle of two halves at the centre is actually reminiscent of the yin-yang symbol of Confucianism.
So Bulguksa Temple was indeed very beautiful, and its surrounding landscape of mountains and forests added to its beauty.
From Bulguksa, I took another bus which took tourists further up the hill, along a
very windy road through luscious Korean forest, to my final visit for the day, the Seokguram grotto. Here sits a very large and impressive granite statue of the Buddha, which if it weren’t housed in its current protective building, would look out directly over the side of the mountain and towards the sea beyond. It is regarded as a protective force for the country, and many Koreans seemed quite excited to be there. Here, I found the tourists particularly friendly, many of them saying “hello” or “good morning” to me, which was really very nice! Unfortunately, photos were not allowed inside the grotto area, so I don't have any pictures of the stunning Buddha statue itself. However, the visit did involve me ringing a giant bell on the entrance to the pathway to the grotto, for 1000 won (about 70 pence) donation to the place (it was worth it!), and a very brief glimpse of a cute little chipmunk in the woods nearby. More memorable still, and after a particularly hot and sunny morning, the heavens opened with a heavy thunderstorm passing right overhead. Myself and a fair number of other tourists were left huddling under the bus shelter, in
the middle of the car park, waiting for the bus to take us back down to Bulguk-sa, amidst lightning bolts striking pretty much all around us. I am sure I wasn’t the only one to note that our little, crowded bus shelter was one of the highest structures in that rather exposed expanse of land which made up the car park to the site. Fortunately the bus arrived with no direct hits, and we all arrived safely back again at the bottom of the hill. From here, a final bus journey, through more rain and thunder, took me back to Gyeongju, in time for a late lunch, and hitting my room and air-conditioning once more to write this blog entry on my time here in this very historical of Korean cities.
I have enjoyed my short time in this cultural and historical spot of South Korea very much. Tomorrow I take my first intercity train in this country, two hours north of here, towards another small city called Andong. I plan to make Andong my base for two nights, mainly to visit a nearby attraction called the Hahoe Folk Village, which I believe I mentioned in my last blog
is home to actual modern-day residents living continued traditional Korean lifestyles in a village which you can actually visit. I imagine I will be able to learn more about Korean culture, and perhaps some more history too, whilst there.
I plan to write my next entry either from there, Andong, or my destination after, Pyeongchang, depending on how much time I’ll have on this short-stay destination leg of my journey.
Until then, thank you for reading, and all the best for now.
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