Posts Tagged ‘gyeongju’

Historic Gyeongju

The first king to rule the whole Korean peninsula, Munmu, took power in 668 C.E., and the dynasty ruled until 918. Like the contemporaneous Tang dynasty in China, the kingdom developed a flourishing culture and luxurious lifestyle.  The royal and elite dead were buried in the Korean version of pyramids: large rounded hillocks, covered with grass.  Originally they held coffins, protected first by wooden and later by stone chambers, which were covered with rocks and then earth. Over 670 of these tombs still remain in and around Gyeongju, the tallest 25 meters high, although some of the contents have been removed to the city’s museum. However, after a while all the hillocks started to look alike – I certainly didn’t need to see all 670 of them!

Tombs in Gyeongju

Silla gold and jade in Gyeongju's museum

About the time I decided I had seen enough tombs for one morning, I acquired a companion – a man staying at the same guest house. I’m not quite sure why he decided to join me, as I was limping quite slowly, but we did seem to have a similar agenda. My first priority was to locate the intercity bus terminal and try to buy a ticket for Jeonju. Once again, I found out how hospitable the Koreans could be. A young couple who were visiting the town put us in their just-parked car and drove us around to find the bus station. People on Twitter had suggested I might have trouble traveling in Korea outside Seoul, as few people would speak English, but I found those who did going well out of their way to be helpful.

After lunch we took a bus to the museum, where we found several large

More gold

school groups who seemed delighted to see westerners, happily shouting “hello” to us. I have two museum speeds: dead slow, where I read all the labels and/or listen to everything on the audio guide, and super-fast, where I stand in the middle of each room and do a 360 to see if anything catches my attention. This museum rated dead slow, especially the rooms holding the gold artifacts from the Silla tombs.

The last stop of the day was a different kind of dead slow. The guide books said that the Bomun Lake area, a few kilometers out of the center, had been developed as a resort area, and it sounded like a good place to get coffee. Not on an October afternoon, evidently. We finally had the front desk staff at one of the big hotels track down someone to make coffee for us. The next week the finance deputies for the upcoming G20 meeting were supposed to be staying at Bomun Lake, maybe it would be livelier then. Or maybe there’d just be a bunch of security. (I was glad to leaving the country before the G20 meeting proper got underway.)

The approach to Bulguk-sa

Solo again the next day (really my preferred way to travel), I took the circular bus out to Bulguk-sa. And I do mean out. None of the maps I saw of Gyeongju were to scale, and the distances were much further than they looked. The first temple on the site went up in the 500s, but it has been rebuilt, destroyed and rebuilt several times. The last restoration was completed in 1972, and the result is impressive. And despite the crowds, I got a real sense of peace from the building housing a statue of Gwaneum (the Goddess of Mercy).


Fish-shaped gongs are popular in Korean temples

Unfortunately I was less happy with the Seokguram grotto, on the mountain above Bulguk-sa. While I understand the reason for the glass that blocks access to the main part of the grotto, it also blocks the view of all but a few of the carvings lyrically described in the guidebooks. Since getting there involved a bus ride plus a 1.2 kilometer round-trip hike, I felt cheated.


Some meals really work better with a group, and I was pleased when one of the couples staying at the guest house agreed to try the BBQ at Pyeongyang with me. It proved to be one of Lonely Planet’s better recommendations, and we enjoyed the minced beef and usual side dishes, and admired the flexible metal snake above the table that turned out to be an extractor fan. On the way we also got to see an outdoor concert of traditional music, but while we admired the costumes none of us cared for the music. Back at the guest house the owners had started a fire in a metal drum, as the night was on the cool side, and a group of us sat around it sharing travel stories. The heated floor was more welcome that night!

Dabo-tap, the "femine" pagoda at Bulguk-sa

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Getting to Gyeongju

The day I arrived in Danyang I devoted some time to figuring out how to leave. The information desk in the bus station was empty when I arrived, but after lunch a helpful woman got an English-speaking man on the phone and we had a three-way conversation. After I finally made it clear that I didn’t want to leave that very day, the consensus was that I should take the afternoon train directly to Gyeongju. I had wanted to stop either in Andong (folk museum) or Daegu (herbal medicine market), and Daegu was a major transport hub for the south.  The two locals insisted that Andong was impossible, and that the only bus from Danyang to Daegu was the 13:25, but that it would be better to take the even later train.

The herbal medicine market in Daegu

While I wasn’t sorry to have visited Danyang, I didn’t want to spend the best part of another day there. Careful perusal of the bus timetable turned up a morning bus that appeared to go both to Daegu and to Busan. When I boarded the bus, with a ticket for Daegu, the driver kept saying “changing, changing” with a very worried expression. I took this to mean that I would have to change buses at some point. I did, but it couldn’t have been easier – all the Daegu passengers were shepherded off one bus and on to another, with no opportunity to stray, and the driver even moved my pack for me. Piece of cake.

Ginseng for sale in the market

Unfortunately, getting from the North Daegu bus station, where the bus terminated, to any of the other bus terminals, or to the train station, proved not a piece of cake at all. The driver of my bus told me to take a taxi, but not only were there no taxis in evidence, I though it was a bit far for a taxi ride. A very helpful local lady carefully read all the bus timetables, and agreed with the driver that there was no bus connection. Finally I took a bus headed for an area with a subway stop – only to be told by the driver when we got near that the subway wasn’t working! When I failed to find the stop for the bus he told me to take instead, I gave in and took a taxi to the train station – now much nearer – but I had to waylay a passing pedestrian to translate my destination.

The only items not pre-packaged in plastic

Lonely Planet had been enthusiastic about the traditional herbal medicine market. Possibly it has changed since the book was researched. Or possibly the author had been over-using some of the merchandise. Either way, I found the nearby food market more worthwhile – how often do you see a life-size octopus made out of candy? The medicine market had been cleaned up, with everything packaged in plastic and neatly stored indoors, and no hands-on activities on offer in the cultural center.

Octopus for dessert, anyone?

Since I had to go back to the train station to collect my main pack, I took the train instead of a bus onto Gyeongju. Probably the same train I would have taken if I’d spent the day in Danyang. Comfortable enough, but with an extremely annoying and persistent squeak.

I took another taxi (fortunately they’re pretty cheap in Korea) to the Sarangchae Guest House. At first I thought I had made a mistake – the place looked a bit worn and tired – but it turned out to be a great travelers’ hangout. Not something I want at every stop, but a nice break every now and then. It was a bit far from the nearest bus stop, but the tumuli (or royal tombs) for which the town is famous were right next door – looming atmospherically over the containing wall at night.

I was sleeping on the floor again, but this time, in accordance with Korean custom, the floor was heated! In fact, it was heated so efficiently that several guests, including me, asked for the heat to be turned down after the first night. Once again, I had no problem sleeping, but I did miss having somewhere to put things.

The view just outside Sarangchae in daylight

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