Gyeongju is one of my favourite places in Korea. As a European, the lack of old stuff in Seoul can sometimes feel a bit jarring. Although there are plenty of palaces and temples around Seoul city centre, they all have a somewhat polished feeling, and that’s because many of them have needed to have extended renovation and rebuilding works done to them throughout the course of Seoul’s turbulent history as the capital of modern Korea.
Gyeongju then is a bit like Korea’s Kyoto, although a smaller city and somehow more humble feeling, as the old capital of the Silla dynasty (57BC – 935AD) Gyeongji is steeped in a very special kind of history.
The state religion of the Silla dynasty was buddhism and as such special attention was paid to a construction and design that represents and exists in harmony with nature. On a visit to Gyeongju you can see how ideas of shape and balance and what beauty actually is came into physical form in Silla construction.
I have visited Gyeongju four times now. On my very first trip to Korea as an intrepid nineteen year old I ventured down to Gyeongjiu from Seoul on my own and spent three days there. It was springtime and the cherry blossoms were all in full bloom with their petals softly falling like snow all around.
Last year when my parents made their first visit to Korea Gyeongju was the first place I took them to. As it was late September I imagined we would find all the trees in their beautiful autumn colours and walk around under the clear, high skies of Korean autumns. Sadly it rained the entire time we were there, but somehow it didn’t seem to put a damper on things, and in fact meant that all the places we visited were very quiet, and created a pretty amazing atmosphere.
This spring too I headed down to Gyeongju with a friend and her parents. I couldn’t wait for spring to travel north the Seoul, so vowed to go down to meet it in the south of the country. Coming from a cold Seoul, being greeted by blossoms all around in Gyeongju was pretty magical, and though we couldn’t spend much time there on this occasion the wonder of Gyeongju still managed to make a big impression, again.
In the city centre you will find the huge tombs of the Silla royalty. When I first walked among them I was sure that I had been transported to teletubby land but as the reality of what they were sunk in they became more and more beautiful and kind of hypnotising.
One of the bigger tombs has been opened up and you can walk inside and see an exhibition of the things that were discovered inside. I’ve never been to see the pyramids, and of course these tombs can’t compete on scale, but it’s quite touching to see the ornaments and rituals that surrounded the death and burial of the young king the tomb belongs to.
These tombs are serious structures, but I really love how they seem to be so in harmony with nature, and the world that carries on after death, at least from the outside.
Another sight to see in the city is Wolji (or Anapji depending on the age of your guide book). Wolji is a pond with a large pavilion in the centre and smaller pavilions dotted around here and there. The trees and plants here are really lovely so it’s nice to see it in the day time in the spring or summer, but it is really famous for its nighttime scenery, where the pavilions are lit up by floodlights creating a really romantic setting.
The last thing you really should see in the city centre is the National Museum. It’s pretty huge with lots of different halls, and whenever you go there it’s likely to be filled with groups of slightly bored looking middle and high school students (Gyeongju is where pretty much every Korean comes on a school field trip at least once in their lives). However, there is some cool stuff to see and as the entrance fee is really cheap you can easily buzz round and not have to worry about getting your money’s worth. I suppose what’s important about the museum is it gives you a background to the Silla dynasty and shows you some of the amazing things that were produced at the time while reminding you every step of the way that this all happened well over 1000 years ago.
The most famous exhibit in the museum is the gigantic brass bell which hangs in a pavilion outside, near the entrance to the museum compound. It’s very very old and very very heavy and when it goes ‘dong’ you’ll know about it!
The two things that Gyeongju is most famous for though are outside of the city. If there are a number of you a taxi from the city centre to Bulguksa won’t feel like too much of a blow to your wallet, but there are also special bus services that run to Bulguksa and less frequently to Seokguram.
Bulguksa is one of the most highly prized temples in all of Korea, and it should be quite easy to see why. Surrounded by beautiful trees the temple is very very old, but also somehow humble in it’s age. Although invariably filled with people, you can always find a quiet spot somewhere near the back of the compound, and there it lots to see as you go around.
Two of the most notable things at Bulguksa are the stone pagodas which stand in front of one of the main halls of the temple. One of them is currently being renovated, but as a pair they stand in perfect contrast, achieving a kind of balance that makes you appreciate the value of things which may seem opposed to each other.
The one that can be seen at the moment is the more romantic of the pair. With roundedand decorative shapes at the top and once flanked by four stone lions (only one of which remains). The other stone pagoda, which is covered by a giant box, is all simplicity and straight lines, but somehow almost harsh in comparison with its counterpart.
At the other side of the temples is a small statue of a pig, which is supposed to be very lucky. It’s very cute, and popular with children and adults alike. The pig statue however is kind of a distraction from the main event that you have to be in the know to be able to spot. Above the entranceway to the hall directly behind the statue hangs a wooden panel. If you climb up to the veranda of the hall and look behind the wooden panel you can spot the pig that all the fuss is about.
From Bulguksa then the natural next destination is Seokguram. The best way to get there is by hiking up the mountain trail that leaves from beside the main entrance to Bulguksa, but if you are less fit or less mobile, the bus leaves from the main road outside the temple.
Somehow hiking up to Seoukguram makes the discovery of the huge white stone buddha that sits inside the cave grotto at the top of the mountain all the more exhilarating. Even if you take the bus or a taxi you have to walk up for about ten minutes from the car park, but it’s not really the same.
Near the ticket office for Seokguram is a large bell tower. These days you can have a go at ringing the bell for 1000won a strike. Hitting the bell with the huge wooden hammer that hangs beside it is supposed to bring you good luck!
The walk up from the car park along a dirt road is not particularly strenuous, and it’s quite nice to put some distance between the hustle and bustle of the car park and the sight that you are about to see.
On some days the area around the grotto is so bustling that it’s hard to connect with the calm of the place and the statue that is so famous. But, if you’ve come this far it would be sad not to take this little pilgrimage seriously. Bus loads of exchange students walk into the grotto and out the door on the other side without even an expression of anything, ‘oh great a buddha’ or whatever. It’s really sad to hear comments like this, because even if you have not affiliation to buddhism if you appreciate the statue of the buddha and the structure it sits within as an art work it is something far more extraordinary than anything you will find in a gallery anywhere. Taking time to look and contemplate the scene before you when you visit Seokguram really can make you understand something about existence, and as we all have to exist for the time being, it’s a subject of direct interest to us all.
The outside of the grotto looks pretty simple, but don’t be fooled. Before walking up your last climb of the day its nice to take a drink of water from the mountain spring just below the grotto. In Korean the sign reads “Kamnosu” which means ‘sweet water’ or nectar. The taste of the water belongs in the mouth of the drinker right? I can’t say that it was sweet, but it’s certainly refreshing.
The view from the platform that the grotto was dug into is really amazing. On a clear day you can just about see the sea beyond the mountains, and on a rainy day you’ll be lucky if you can see the person stood next to you, but both views have their charms.
What you will see when you enter inside of what looks like a small temple hall, is a manmade cave that goes right back into the rock. The structure of this cave has changed over the years after it was dismantled by Japanese archeologists who thought they were unearthing it for all to see, but rather ended up ruining the balance of temperature and humidity that have been achieved inside the structure that was preserving the statue in its original state. Because of this, unfortunately, you can only look at the inside of the cave from behind a thick sheet of glass because the conditions in the area inside are being regulated electronically. This is all the more reason to hang around and make an effort to get a good look at it.
Coming out through the other side of the small building you will find yourself back in a world of colour and daylight wondering whether what you just saw really was there inside what looks like a tiny little temple building.
The last thing you have to do before you leave Gyeongju is pick up some Gyeongju bread. Personally I’m not a fan of the traditional Gyeongju bread, which is basically a dense lump of red bean paste inside a thin layer of almost savoury wheat pastry, but, the little pancakes made of glutinous barley (찰보리빵) that are inevitably sold in most of the shops that sell Gyeongju bread are really tasty! They’re moist and chewy and stuck together with just enough red bean paste that they are sweet without having the texture that puts some people off red bean products. You will see every visitor leaving Gyeongju carrying at least one box of one of these delicacies with them.
How you reach Gyeongju will depend on where you are travelling from but the main train station is in the heart of the city, and the intercity bus terminal has regular services to all the big cities around Korea. The newly opened ‘New Gyeongju’, or ‘Shin Gyeongju’ KTX station is a way out of town, but buses run frequently and the journey doesn’t take that long.
While it’s not exactly cheap, by KTX it’s just a couple of hours from one end of South Korea to the other and it’s a pretty cool experience for travellers that are new to Korea too.
(Note the two bags of Gyeongju barley bread!)