Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Gyeongju in Winter: A little history...

Monday was 설날 (Seollal, or Lunar New Year), one of two major Korean holidays (the other being 추석/Chuseok). I thought it might be fun to head out to Gyeongju, the ancient 신라/Silla capital for a daytrip and some sightseeing.

I have been to Gyeongju twice before, once for the World Expo held every three years, and another time with Se Jin and her brother. And you could count the MT to the coastal region of Gampo, but that's almost like a whole other city. Although Seollal is the one day a year in Korea where a lot of businesses are closed, we figured a historical town like Gyeongju, which refers to itself as the "museum without walls" should have some stuff happening to keep the foreigners entertained. We were not disappointed.

Sarah and I met at the bus station and bought our tickets (less than 4,000 won) in the morning. All the other folks who wanted to come were sick or hung over, so we set out to explore the downtown historical sites around Gyeongju on foot, armed only with a map, cameras, and fifteen layers of clothing to fight off the winter chill. These historic areas are a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site as of 2000 (Korea boasts eight sites; I have visited half of them at this time).

The first stop was 대릉원 or Tumuli Park, a park with many large excavated burial mounds, including Cheonmachong, a mound that had been hollowed out and set up like a museum so that we could see what was actually inside these large grass hills. It reminded me a little of Bullo-Dong Tomb, but with much bigger mounds. I guess these guys were more important.

Wow. That's a big mound. (And notice my "new" winter coat, which I hadn't bothered to photograph for this blog until now.)

The park itself was lovely, even with the brown-dead winter grass.

I learned that the double-mounds (the ones that look like boobies) are for a king and queen buried together. Also, they are not simply grassy hills. Inside, at the center, is a wooden coffin with the laid-out body and certain ornamental gifts, such as weapons, jewlery, and pottery, for burial (many of these were on display at the National Museum). Around the coffin are laid a thick layer of stones, piled in the mound-shape. Then there is a clay layer put over the stones to hold the shape. Then finally, the dirt covers the clay and grass grows over it, producing the exterior "grass hill" effect. Very interesting.

We then moved on to some other nearby sites of interest:

Cheomseongdae: The oldest observatory in East Asia. With no entrance but the one lone window.

Gyerim Forest, or the place of weird, creepy, twisty trees. Some famous legend is supposed to have been born here.

Seokbinggo, an ancient Ice Storehouse located along the Northern wall of the remains of Banwolseong Fortress

At this point, one of our friends who couldn't be roused for morning travels, had made his way to the city of Gyeongju. Sarah and I were hungry, so we figured we'd walk back to the bus station to pick him up and find somewhere to eat in the more modern downtown area.

One small problem with this plan: On the biggest family holiday of the year, restaurants are not open! Not even "24 hour" kimbap shops! We walked around for about 30 minutes in the cold, looking for somewhere to eat. We were starving. Finally we got the brilliant idea to flag down a cab and ask him to take us to a Lotteria (a Korean fast food place resembling McDonalds), as we assumed one would exist in Gyeongju. We were wrong and finally I just told the confused cabbie to take us back to the historic areas where we had seen some touristy restaurants that looked open. About a block and half later, we passed a McDonalds--our savior! I HATE McDonalds, but I have never in all my life been more happy to see one. And the best part is that McD's in Korea serves a shrimp burger, so I could actually eat more than french fries and ice cream.

I'm not proud of this moment: I was so hungry, I ate two shrimp burger "set"s (how Koreans refer to combo meals).

Re-energized by the craptacular food, we headed out to Bulguksa, a temple that in combination with the Seokguram Grotto is also a designated UNESCO site. I had already seen the temple, so I was more interested in the grotto, but my companions hadn't seen the temple and we would have had to hike a mountain to get to the grotto, so instead we meandered around the large temple grounds.

One of the famous pagodas in the temple interior. The other was undergoing restoration, but they let you climb up on the scaffolding to look at how the restoration process was coming along, so that turned out to be kind of interesting.

Finally, Rick was too tired to continue, so he headed back to Daegu as Sarah and I caught a bus to the free National Museum (I'd been there before, but museums are always re-visitable). They were hosting some of the traditional Seollal games for children on the lawn of the museum, which was cute. Although they allowed pictures (no flash) in the museum, I was too tired to take any. So you'll just have to go there yourself to see all the cool stuff from the Silla dynasty.

After we exited the museum, it was dark outside. But we decided to take in one final site that was well lit up. Imhaejeonji (sometimes the lake is called Anapji) was the grounds of an ancient palace. Some of the structures have been restored, but there are models of the original structure inside these few pavilions. It would be quite impressive if fully restored.

The lighting and ambient traditional music made for a very romantic mood on the large lake with lit-up islands and a pretty walking path.

Exhausted, we headed back to the bus terminal and then to Daegu for Mexican food, wine, and girltalk.

Be sure to check out the complete album:

Downtown Gyeongju / 불국사

I can't wait to go back to Gyeongju in the spring to check out the flowers and other sites I didn't get to experience!


  1. Excellent write-up! I went out to Daegu to visit a friend for 설날 last year and we stopped by Bulguksa the following day. There were a ton of people out, but at least that meant that we were able to find a restaurant to eat at. (My friend told me that Gyeongju has some good jajangmyeong restaurants if you're ever in the mood for that dish.)

    I was considering a post on Cheomseongdae at some point in the future if I can find enough resource material. Not sure if you're interested, but I also have a little more info about Bulguksa here and some about Anapji and the Gyeongju National Museum here. For those occasions when you're feeling bored and need something to put you to sleep. hehe.

  2. Actually, I really like the look of the tumuli with winter foliage. There are so many images of Gyeongju with vibrant greens that the browns you captured make the image that much more unique and photo-worthy!

    p.s. I hope my earlier comment didn't come across as self-indulgent blog promotion. The stories weren't ones that I saw while at Bulguksa, so I thought they might be of interest.

  3. Thanks! I like playing around with interesting photography, although I am not yet great at it.

    Actually, the stories about the pagoda construction and the angst it caused the designer's wife her subsequent suicide were fascinating. I appreciate your research.



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