Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Weekend in Gyeongju

This is part 2 of my Gyeongju weekend (again, sorry for the delay. Rearranged scheduling and my own brush with sickness left me inattentive to my writing). This takes place after the EPIK conference Thursday and Friday. My boyfriend Scott also wrote about the weekend on http://www.fourteenhoursaway.blogspot.com/, so check him out for additional perspective and photos.

Gyeongju is best known for having been the capital of the Silla dynasty, and because of this, it might be one of the most interesting places to tour in the country. It is absolutely full of history and interesting things to see at every turn, starting with the burial mounds.

On Friday after the conference, Scott, Katie, and I decided that the best place to start would be to walk around and see these mounds. They are quite literally everywhere. Gyeongju is like a giant graveyard. They spread out over the whole city, hundreds of them, sometimes in their own designated parks, other times sitting alone on a city block. Some of them are double mounds, for a king and queen pair. They are similar to the Egyptian pyramids, the rising markers for the tombs of kings- only in earth and grass.

Being that there are so many of them, we started to wonder how they managed to find all of the dirt to pile up. My theory is that Gyeongju really used to be several feet higher.

After a long day of walking, we returned to our motel to see another ancient site: a well stocked VHS library and our very own VHS player!

Saturday morning, we rented bikes to get around. One of the wonderful things about Gyeongju is that most of the historical sites are within a reasonable travel distance. This is different from Andong, where everything is spread out. Biking is therefore highly accommodated, with additional bike lanes or wider sidewalks. The river that runs through Gyeongju has the best of these, so we could bike along the whole river without having run ins with walkers or in line skaters (who also had their own designated roads).

Biking around the city was beautiful, and with all of the traffic congested with tour buses and cars, it was really the least stressful and best way to absorb all of the scenery.

Many of the most beautiful roads weren't even accessible by car.

Early on Saturday morning, Scott, Katie and I took off early on our newly acquired bikes to see more tombs and National treasure #31, Cheomseongdae, the oldest astronomical observatory in East Asia. Remarkably, still intact from its first construction (around 632-647).

Soon after, we were joined by our dearest most wonderful best friend Andrew (Do you feel satisfied now Andrew?), and formed a kind of cycling posse:

We were definitely the coolest on the streets, though the competition was fierce:

Our first stop was the Gyeongju National Museum.

It is home to the divine bell of King Seondeok, which is the oldest known bell in Korea and has a sound that promises to "stir the deepest emotions." Alas, we didn't get to hear it ring.

Being the capital of the Silla dynasty meant a good look at the treasures of ancient royalty, which prominently featured comma-shaped stones and accents of very thinly pressed and etched gold.

Near the museum was the Imhaejeon lake and gardens, which was originally erected as a site to raise rare plants and animals for the palace, as well as hold banquets for foreign dignitaries. The whole place was very circular- with an island in the lake, and a round pathway around the lake.

Our biking journey carried us south and east of the city into the countryside, where we found the Bunhwansa stone pagoda next to a small temple. It's the largest I've seen in width, and apparently it used to be about 7 or 9 stories high. But, like everything in this country, it too was destroyed by the Japanese and had to be reformed.

While I love all of the pagodas and temples, I was most fascinated by this bell ringer. Bells here are rung by fixing a log on two chains, pulling it back, and letting it fly forward to hit the bell. This one appeared to be retired. His face does look like its flown into a giant iron wall one too many times.

Saturday was wrapped up with an intense battle of pool. The pool hall even provided bright pink or black spandex gloves, for the truly serious players. We were.

Sunday was reserved for the biggest draw to Gyeongju- the UNESCO designated world heritage site, Bulguksa temple. It was the center of Buddhism during the Silla dynasty, but was burnt down by the Japanese and had to be restored.

Its entrance is now very well guarded.

The restoration was remarkable though, and it is one of the biggest and most beautiful temples in the country.

Unfortunately, this meant it was crawling with tourists. Not that I can blame them- after all, we were there too. Though the copious amount of vendors selling corn dogs and plastic dung-on-a-stick toys on the surrounding temple lawns did damper the serenity a bit. It was amazing to be in such a heavily populated place after the relative calm of cultural sites in Andong. Though inside all of the temple buildings, a natural reverence was maintained- especially in one large central structure referred to as the "Hall of Whispers." Shoes off, no cameras, and total silence. Even in a place crawling with noisy people, there were ways to find a soothing sense of harmony.

("Keep off")

Up the mountain from the temple was Seokguram Grotto, the home to a giant stone Buddha carved from granite and housed in an enormous chamber, surrounded by the carvings of eight guardian gods. Photos weren't allowed- but Scott found a good one from the Internet on his blog.

The view from the top of the grotto was extraordinary.

We ended our weekend with Gyeongju's signature food- sam bap, which literally means rice wrapped in lettuce. It was more like an enormous number of side dishes from whole fish, to soup, to various vegetables and mildly spicy pork; the most I've seen on one table since I came to Korea. It was delicious, once I found a place to start.


  1. I am constantly impressed by the way you weave the ancient with the modern. The description of ancient culture seen side by side with pool, motorcycles and rubber dung on a stick is perfect for educating readers. I cannot wait to see this beautiful area. I can get rubber anything in the states, so I'll pass on that.

  2. Definitely worth the wait :)

    Hope you're feeling better.

  3. Fantastic post! You did, however, forget to mention that those motorcyclists were blasting Cyndi Lauper like it was their job.

  4. plastic dung-on-a-stick

    what the hell?

    And I love your posts, Sara. It's like going there without experiencing the jetlag.

  5. The vendors in the temple area remind me of when Jesus cleared them out because they were interfering with worship. I can see how that can be distracting - but at least these vendors weren't unethical and exploiting the patrons... I mean plastic poo on a stick isn't necessary for worship, so they probably weren't extorting the price :-)...

    Great post, and loved the part about the log dragon. I think I'm approaching having hit the wall one too many times too!!

    Look forward to hearing about the DMZ!


    PS: I agree with Helen, more eye candy in your photos please :-)