South Korea: Nothing can beat Gyeongju

25- 26 June 2012

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Cute Gyeongju mascots

Bless Korean coaches- fast, efficient, reasonably priced and a great way to see the country.  Gyeongju is my dream city and no doubt THE real Korea since things here are more cultural, traditional and historical. The people are also unbelievably chilled and friendly. In fact, I’ve had many people who reminded me that my shoelaces were undone. A simple but sweet gesture.  

Gyeongju (literally means “Congratulatory district” ) was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Silla (57 BC – 935 AD). It ruled about 2/3 of the Korean Peninsula (yes including present day North Korea). In 668 AD, Gyeongju became the center of Korean political and cultural life. Many archaeological sites and cultural properties were excavated in the city. Well-protected and not overtaken by the modern world, Gyeongju is often referred to as “a museum without walls.” Many of the historical sites are UNESCO WHS. 

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Nice lotus pond in the middle of the town

Gyeongju nowadays has a population of around 300,000 people and despite tourism remaining a major pillar for the economy, manufacturing is also well developed due to its  proximity to major industrial centres such as Ulsan and Pohang. Under the Joseon (1392–1910) dynasties, Gyeongju was no longer of national importance. When the Japanese invaded Korea, Gyeongju became a fierce battlefield. 

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The train passes some great scenery- Gyeongju is well connected

Amazingly many sites were left untouched and as a result, the city is home to 31 National Treasuresover 15,000 artefacts, 35 royal tombs and 155 tumuli. Due to the influence of Buddhism, the city is also an important centre of the religion, clearly reflected in the country’s largest Buddhist temples (Bulguksa) and Buddhist shrine (Seokguram). 

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Seokguram grotto was first constructed in 751 and inside the rectangular antechamber and a round main hall lies a Buddha statue carved out of granite. This is called Bonjonbul. There are various other figures around it. Unfortunately, photography is strictly prohibited.

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Bulguksa

Nearby Bulguksa built in 751 and completed in 774 served as a centre of Silla Buddhism. The entire temples was burned by the Japanese invaders in 1593 and it was not until 1969-1973 that it was completely restored.

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Two iconic pagodas within the temple complex

Since it is quite a huge place, divide a day roaming around the suburbs of Gyeongju, one day cycling around Mt Namsan and one day visiting sites such as the Gyerim Forest area in downtown Gyeongju.

A short walk from the bus station are the tumuli (Royal Tombs) along with the Anapji and much more. After the fall of Silla, Anapji fell into despair for many centuries. It was rebuilt in 1974 and almost 33,000 pieces of historic relics were excavated from the site.

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Anapji

Opposite of that is the area that I’ll just call Gyerim/ Wolseong Forest area which contains the oldest observatory tower, walking paths and royal tombs. Cheomseongdae is the oldest surviving observatory in the world dating back to the 7th century.  Behind the Wolseong Forest is the National Museum of Gyeongju. It houses 3000 relics and offers a great insight into the world of the Sillas.SONY DSCThe map of the Kingdom of Korea stayed with me for a long time since back then, there was no divide, no North and South, just one country. Nowadays, some 3 to 4 royal tombs are located in North Korea and separated from the South. The thought of a third party (USA) who intervened in a domestic affair which led to the breakup of one country is upsetting. Images of Korean relatives separated by the war and meeting for one last time always saddens me.

Mt Namsan is a must. You can easily spend a day cycling around the various sites on Mt Namsan. There are different cycling and hiking routes to choose from. Just be prepared since it’s not a short route.

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View from Namsan

I’m not sure why but I hardly bumped into any tourists during this June trip. It doesn’t seem to me that Mt Namsan is popular with foreign tourists especially those noisy tour groups.

Still lingering around the Gyeongju area, you might as well pay a visit to the Bunhwatgsa Temple since it is Korea’s National Treasure and a great Buddhist Temple of Silla. You’ll pass the Hwanngnyongsa Temple site on your way there and when you do, cross the Bukcheon stream to check out the other side of Gyeongju city.

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Hwangnyongsa Temple
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Bunhwangsa Temple (tiny and overpriced)

Overall, Gyeongju is a great laid back city not yet engulfed by modern Korea. Public transportation is convenient and takes you to the more far off places. Attractions are walkable and bike-able- this is the REAL Korea.