The Silla Kingdom - around Gyeongju

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November 25th 2012
Published: November 28th 2012
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We were told that the intercity buses were on strike by two people and that we'd have to take the express bus tp Gyeongju. So off we went to the express bus terminal and bought a ticket to Daegu, where we would need to change. Not only change buses but also bus stations! Luckily only across the road though, where we got a bus to Gyeongju with 5 minutes to spare.

In Gyeongju, the intercity and express terminals are next to each other, and the intercity one was very busy for a strike. Nevermind, we got there in plenty of time to meet our couch surfing host.

Gyeongju was described as a green jewel in Korea's tourist crown. I'm not sure where the green came from, its not that its a concrete jungle, far from it, its more like that the grass is a dead brown colour. And there was plenty of dead brown grass most places we went over the couple of days we were there.

Gyeongju was the capital of the Silla kingdom for nearly 1000 years. After relinquishing its mantle of power, it lived on as a regional capital for a while before entering a period of steep decline. The mongols rampaged through in the 14th century, the Japanese invasions a couple of hundred years later stripped more from the city, and the population fell from over a million to next to nothing. Centuries after carrying the spoils of war across the sea back to Japan, it was the Japanese who reopened Gyeongju's treasure trove during their occupation in the early 20th century. Hundreds of thousands of relics were removed, but still new excavations are revealing treaures every year.

The Silla (pronounced Shilla) kingdom began in 69BC. Legend has it that a strange light shone down from the East Asian sky onto a horse of pure white. This horse was sheltering an egg, from which hatched Hyeokgeose, who went on to be appointed king by local chiefs at the age of 13. He was the first in a line of 56 monarchs before the dynasty collapsed in 935AD. It left behind a rich legacy in the form of jewellery, pottery and temples. Many of the royal burial mounds are still visible in and around Gyeongju, though many are believed not be of kings, but also of other royalty and high ranking people. There are over 150 mounds, far more than there were kings. Gyeongju was sacked in 927, and eightyears later King Gyeongsun - by that time only a figurehead - finally handed over the reigns of power to King Taejo bringing almost 1000 years of Silla power to a close and kicking off the Goryeo dynasty.

The main sights of Gyeongju are all central and easy to walk around. We started at Noseo-ri and Nodong-ri, two parks split by a road, in the city centre a short walk from the bus stations. While waiting for our CS host, we had a wander round the tumuli there. The highest is about 22m with a circumference of 250m. Some were excavated by the Swedish in 1926. Interesting, though grassy mounds arent really exciting! It was a great chance for Samara to have a run around after being cooped up on the buses. She had great fun running away from us and blowing the seeds from dead dandilion flowers!

We are staying with a kiwi teacher and his dog (called kiwi!) in a traditional style house. The rooms are round a courtyard and you go outside to get between them. There is a tiny door between our room and the one next door, and a low door between the lounge and kitchen, but we go outside between our bedroom and the lounge and outside to the bathroom. The lounge has underfloor heating (ondol on Korean) but our room only has an ineffective heater - and a few blankets! We swapped this for two bottles of Watties tomato sauce!

The following morning we loaded the girls on our backs and headed off to explore the remains of the Silla kingdom. We cut through the side streets from Craigs house to Tumuli Park. Imaginatively named, it contains over 20 tombs in grassy mounds. It is also known as Daereungwon Royal Tombs, from "King Michu died in his 23rd year of reign and was entombed in Daereung".

In the 1970's the authoritarian President Park Chung-Hee, a good old fashioned dictator, managed to ensure that Koreas most raditional city stayed that way while the rest of the country got caught up in the rapid expansion of economic progress. He introduced height restrictions on anything built near historical remains and passed a bill requiring almost everthing static to have a traditional Korean style roof. This meant that many buildings around the tumuli were removed and the area beautified. The park is surrounded by low buildings, and is full of paths and trees around the grassy mounds.

The main tombs here include Cheongmachong, "Heavenly Horse Tomb", the only one we could go inside. Its not known who was buried here, but its is thought to be a 6th or 7th century king (or high ranking royal) whose many horse related and decorated objects gave rise to the name. The main one being a decorated birchwood saddle flap, painted with a heavenly horse. It was excavated in 1973 and yielded a huge haul of over 12,000 artifacts including a gold crown and gold belt. A few are inside the tomb, along with a slightly tackily done full size mock up of how the tomb was found. The tomb consisted of a wooden coffin and another wooden box full of burial objects. These were covered with a timber framework which was covered with stones, and this was covered with large amounts of dirt to make the mound. At some point, the timber framework collapsed, and the stones crushed the tombs contents.

Another important tomb is that of King Michu, who reigned from 262 to 284 and fought many battles to protect his empire from the nearby Baekje dynasty. Another is the double humped tomb of a king and queen. Once the tomb is made (after death unlike the Egyptian tombs), it can not be opened again so a husband and wife can not be buried in the same tomb unless they die at the same time. Instead, the side of the mound is cut away and a new tomb created. This results in a double humped tumuli. Surprisingly few tombs were plundered for their riches,

Staying with someone meant that we took longer to get up and going in the morning than when we were in a guest house or hotel. We sit around and talk, socialise, rather than just rush around and leave. So our timing was slightly off for meeting tour groups at these sites. One large school group was leaving Tumuli Park as we were arriving, and we passed a couple of adult tour groups while

astronomical viewing tower
walking around.

Across the road from Tumuli Park is another park full of tumuli and other historic sights, Wolseong Park. There is a lot to see here, if nothing to actually do apart from walk round. Which was fine, Samara got to stretch her legs and we didnt have to carry her. Its not the most exciting for her as she has no idea what we are looking at!

There is Cheomseondae, an ancient observatory dating from the 7th century. It looks plain, a bit like a rook from a chess set, but is really significantly designed. The 12 stones that make up the base represent either the months of the year or the Chinese zodiac, the 27 circular layers relate to Queen Seondeok who was reigning at the time, the 27th ruler of the Silla dynasty. Two square levels added on top plus the base equals 30, the number of days in a lunar month, while the total number of blocks equal the number of days in a year. Also various gaps and points on the tower are meant to correspond to the movements of some celestial bodies. Of course, all this could be coincidence and the assumptions of latter day scholars! Anyway, we didnt go in the enclosure to get close to the astronomical viewing tower as we could see it clear enough from outside. But we did go in the little video info booth next door as it was lovely and warm! In the sun outside it was ncie but there was a cold wind picking up.

After that it was a case of walking round looking at where things used to be. OK, so a bunch of tumuli are there and another royal tomb, but the main "sights" were has beens.

In Gyerim Forest (small, hardly what we'd call a forest, more like a stand of trees). Supposedly it is the birth place of Kim Al-ji, the founder of the Kim clan in Gyeongju. (sorry, dont know who he or they are). Legend has it that folk heard a rooster crowing in the woods and when checking it out found a golden box hanging in a tree and discovered him in it. The tomb is of King Naemul. The best part of the "forest" was all the fallen leaves that were no longer in nice piles when we had finished taking Samara through.

The main "was here" sight is the Wolseong Fortress (aka Banwolseong, Sinwolseong or Jaeseong). All that is left are some stones, the traces of an earthen wall and an ice storehouse. There was a neat photo up on a board showing the results of a geophys survey of the area, and you could clearly see where buildings etc had been.

Across the road is Anapji Pond, a palace and pleasure gardens built by King Munmu in about 674, a place for celebrations and joyous national occasions (according to the map). A tranquil tree filled area was created round the lotus pond, and a sprawling palace built. A couple of the buildings have been recreated, along with a model of the whole palace. Anapji comes from "an", the phonetic transcription of the Chinese character for wild goose, and "ap" meaning duck. There were no ducks or geese, or any other birds, there when we walked round. Despite being built for these joyous occasions, the palace was where the empire came to an end. Here King Gyeongsun handed over power to King Taejo and the Goreo dynasty began.

The pond has been dredged several times, first only a few relics turned up, then those became hundreds then thousands, including a whole barge. What we can learn here is that if you want your belongings to be found where you left them hundreds of years later, leave them in a stone filled dirt mound or at the bottom of a pond.

We also visted Bunhwangsa Temple, one of the "seven greatest Buddhist Temples of Silla", built in 634, the 3rd year of Queen Seondeoks reign. It is still an active temple, although very small, and contains the remains of what was once a 9 storey pagoda (3 remain). There was also a largish bell hanging in the yard which all the kids seemed to enjoy ringing. Bells here are rung, not with a clapper, but by swinging a long rod at the side.

In the field next to the temple, along with a really cold wind, were some stones left from Hwangnyongsa Temple. Another of those legends said that they were building a palace but a yellow dragon appeared so they built a temple instead. It took nearly 100 years to build and must have been pretty big. We didnt hang around long - too cold. Boy that wind was cutting through everything we had on. And besides, we were hungry.

So off to the museum we went. We were aiming to catch the free English language tour, and did. First we stopped at the poor cafe for a hot drink so that I could feed Katrina. She didnt get to eat a lot as people kept coming over to gawp at both kids. We were expecting this, the staring, the wanting to touch their hair etc., but some people take it to extremes. We have had to fend off a couple of really pushy parents who dragged their screaming kids over to force them to stand with Samara for a photo, and when they wouldnt come over, try to drag Samara over to them. I think not. Its bad enough taking a photo of her without asking us, but to force her to stand with their child when neither child wants to is just not on. We have been trying to maintain good diplomatic NZ - Korea relationships, but sometimes its just not happening. Samara has had enough, she just doesnt understand. Katrina is lucky she is tucked away in a carrier inside my jacket, those that notice a lump on my front have a look but dont alway touch. Though saying that, enough people have pulled my jacket aside or pushed down the carrier to get a look at her. Anyway, the staff in this cafe where not everything on the menu is available, and what is isnt all that great, surrounded us and put Katrina off eating totally. She is at that age where she is easily distracted and also smiles at every one.

We took Samara into the childrens section of the museum and she had a go at some printing and 'brass' rubbing with crayons. Some fun before dragging her round the museum tour. The lovely tour guide (who wasnt interested in touching the kids hair) took us round the highlights and filled in more than the labels told us. We were initially the only ones on the tour then a Canadian guy joined in. There was also a trainee guide following us round, though apparently it was the last tour till March when it gets busier and warmer again. The museum was pretty good, and without kids we would have spent longer looking round. There were tons of Silla dynasty treasures, some real and some copies as the originals were either on tour or too fragile for display. We saw the barge from the bottom of Anapji pond, golden masks, crowns, jewellery, pottery, traded glass, tools etc etc etc. It wasnt all Silla dynasty stuff, there were exhibits from the bronze age onwards.

That was about all we had time for in Gyeongju. It got colder and colder as we were there, and as we are heading north next, we are not looking forward to it getting even colder.

We try wherever we are travelling to experience as much of the local culture as possible, but what exactly is the local culture? Do we visit the sights/sites and museums and find out about older cultures and traditions? What about the current culture? Is that to be found in the markets? But what about those that shop in the supermarkets? Are they not part of the local culture? Is the local culture those living in traditional style houses, a bit like the guy we surfed with? Or is it those living in apartments? How can we say we have experienced a place if we cant decide what the things we need to experience are? We've been to the main sights here in Gyeongju town. We wandered through the market and also went to the supermarket. We stayed in an old style house, but on a modern 'western' bed. We've had noodles and rice, black beans and cabbage, but also bread and jam. Is Korea the old men sitting around playing board games? Or the youth hanging out in coffee shops and PC bang (internet cafes), texting each other on their smart phones? Its all of that, and more.

There is so much more to see and do around here, but with limited time we had to pick the highlights. We could have spent the whole two weeks we have here in Gyeongju and the surrounding countryside, but would we have experienced Korea?

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