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Published: October 22nd 2012
A burial mound at Gyeongju
Most are bare, but I liked the tree growing out of this one.
The slow train to Gyeongju was comfortable and there was some lovely scenery to admire on the way (interspersed with massive apartment blocks that didn't look so pretty). The autumn leaves are out now, so there are various shades of red, yellow and orange alongside the tracks. Gyeongju is described in Lonely Planet as an open-air museum because of all the temples, burial mounds and other historical artefacts to be found around the town, so you can imagine how excited Dean and Eleanor are about staying here. I thought I did the right thing by booking a hotel with a spa, sauna, golf course etc (and it's next to the major temple in the area), however it was built in 1978 and has a touch of 'The Shining' about it. Located in the Barooga part of town (it's over a river, in the resort section) surrounded by a golf course, it's huge but probably hasn't been refurbished since it was built.
We caught a bus into town for dinner and a bit of a look around. The market had too many fishy smells and octopus for my liking, so we turned left into the clothes section. Not much happening there
either, although women stallholders were having fun playing cards. Out of the market, we walked past a hospital where patients sat outside having a smoke in their pyjamas. The shopping centre had more outdoor adventure stores than anything else. We could kit ourselves out in some funky Korean leisure wear and fit in quite nicely. Although we would have to take up smoking, spitting and littering to be truly at home here. A nice American gentleman must have seen us wandering about without a sense of purpose and guided us to a restaurant he had just eaten in (from Lonely Planet). We had a feast of Korean food, which was delicious. The bus ride back was a little hair-raising, but we arrived at the hotel alive, so I can't complain. The night ended with the three of us in our very large room watching action movies. I think Eleanor fell asleep before Bruce Willis killed everybody in the KGB.
With sunlight filtering through the curtains, we woke to a gorgeous day. First on the agenda was the Bulguksa temple. We walked there as it was only 600 metres from the hotel, and arrived with about 10,000 other people (most
of whom were in cars or tourist buses). A large complex comprising a few shrines and temples devoted to Buddha, we wandered around aimlessly until we saw the Tourist Information booth. Not that it was much help, most tourist paraphernalia was either in Korean or Japanese, but they managed to find an old brochure from when the 4077th was stationed here. We spent about half an hour there and then thought we'd catch the bus up to the Grotto.
A winding road up the mountain takes you to the other major tourist attraction - the Seokguram Grotto. Again, only about 10,000 other tourists were with us making the pilgramage up the hill. The Grotto is carved into the mountain and we were expecting to see a massive Buddha, yet it was actually quite small. Once you've seen it, you walk back down the hill to the bus stop car park. We waited for a while, watching a family eat their picnic lunch. Tupperware containers full of kimchi, garlic cloves, onions, chicken (?), Korean alcohol and various other vegetables were consumed with gusto. The bus arrived late (Dean noted it wouldn't happen in Japan) and took us back down the
mountain (passing hundreds of cars waiting to go up the mountain) and dropped us off outside the temple. Elderly ladies from nearby restaurants greet you as you leave the bus and try to persuade you to eat at their restaurant. We waved one lady off in the middle of the road (I thought she was trying to get us into her car!) and another old lady grabbed us and took us to her 'restaurant'. Another feast ensued. When we went to pay, we walked into what we thought was another dining room, but was her house, I think. The cash register was an oven and there were various stoves dotted around the room cooking lots of unknown ingredients. We waddled off down the road, waving away other ancient ladies, back to the hotel for a rest.
After a couple of hours, we headed back into town to check out the Daereungwon Tombs park. Lots of burial mounds (aka 'boobies' in Dean's world) and autumn foliage. We looked inside an excavated tomb and then strolled around the gardens as the sun set. Walking back into town through an historical area, we found ourselves in the hospital district again. Maybe they
are advertising for patients by having them sit outside in their pyjamas. I think there is a big market here judging by the poor driving skills and a couple of accidents we've seen. We had a small dinner in a cafe because our lunch was so huge. Serving a variety of Korean delicacies, we decided on dumplings, mudgu and what Dean and Eleanor called Korean Fried Chicken (it tasted more floury than secret herbs and spicy). We waited at a bus stop for what seemed like 10 hours and then tried to jump on the number 11 as it approached. The driver said we had to get off and catch the 11 on the other side of the road. Oh Joy. Back past the hospitals again. Fell asleep watching another bad action movie. Despite there being 170 channels, many are devoted to golf, crazy game shows, talent shows, cartoons and action.
We woke up late and after checking the bank balance, felt we could afford the hotel's buffet breakfast. This turned out to be a bad decision. I ordered the 'Continental' and received three pieces of yellow bread, which apparently had been toasted. Dean and Eleanor ordered the 'American'
and received eggs, one mushroom, one piece of broccoli, three small rashers of bacon, two pieces of bread (also apparently toasted) and potato gems. Three drinks (coffee, juice and water) and only one was any good - the water. It was a sad excuse for a buffet; Eleanor was anticipating an all you can eat festival of food.
The morning's disappointments continued. Dean had worked out there was a courtesy bus to the KTX Train Station. Sadly, the information he received yesterday was not relevant to today. No bus. No courtesy. But, they did call a taxi. Putting my suitcase in the boot, the taxi driver broke his tail light. Ooops. Could the day get worse? 35,000 Won later, we arrived at the rail station. The KTX arrived and we sped towards Seoul at an average of 270km/hr. The only thing great about the train was it had wi-fi. Otherwise, it was hot and people shut the blinds and curtains on the windows so you were virtually in darkness. I miss Japan's rail system.
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