Gyeongju: capital of ancient Korea

Jordan and I had a lively Memorial Day weekend! We took a day trip to Gyeongju, a town in southwestern Korea. Home to the ancient Silla kingdom (57-ish BC to 935 AD), Gyeongju today is one of Korea’s most popular tourist destinations.

It’s an hour and ten minutes from Daegu by bus, so it was very easy for us to travel to. We took the bus from Changnyeong to Daegu, arriving at the Seobu bus terminal. We boarded another bus only a few minutes later from the same terminal to Gyeongju (5,900 won one-way per person).

Once we arrived, we realized that going on a three-day weekend probably wasn’t the best idea we’d ever had. It was crowded!

Gyeongju has many, many attractions: a butterfly garden, water park, amusement park, Korean advertising museum, Hanok folk village, burial mounds, a national park, resorts on lakes, and ancient fortresses hidden on mountaintops. It would be very easy to make a full three-day weekend out of the whole trip.

Because we only had a day, we decided to see four things: Bulguksa temple, the Seokguram grotto, Gyeongju’s national museum, and Cheomseongdae Observatory. Most of these are close together, near the center of town. The temple and grotto, however, are about a 15 kilometer trip away from the city. We took a bus (Bus #10, just across the street from the main terminal) and hurried out to see the temple nestled at the foot of a mountain in the Gyeongju National Park.

On a good day it should take 25, maybe 30 minutes. It took us one hour and fifteen. Traffic was horrible and everything was backed up. The small, rural roads just aren’t made for this many converging tourists. Neither are the temple parking lots.

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Bulguksa temple is a functioning Buddhist temple, one of the head temples of the Jogye order of Korean Buddhism. People have worshiped here for hundreds of years, though the grand temple structure wasn’t built until 774 by the Silla court. It was filled with beautiful artwork of the Silla period, but unfortunately the temple was mostly destroyed during the Imjin War (1592-1598) by the Japanese forces. Reconstruction began almost immediately (thanks to one of the kings of the Joseon dynasty), but the temple suffered through the years, even becoming the target of bandits in the early 1800s. The temple was restored to its former glory in 1973, and it really is a sight to behold.

_MG_9043We strolled around, enjoying the architecture and trying to avoid bumping into everyone else. Once finished, we went back to the parking lot to find the bus for the famous grotto.

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Seokguram grotto is about a 20 minute bus ride up the mountain, courtesy of the Bulgaksa tourist program. It’s a hermitage for the monks of Bulgaksa, but open to the public because of the historical significance of the Silla kingdom and the artwork they left behind. Established the same time as the rest of the temple complex, Seokguram has some beautiful Buddha and bodhisattvas statues in the granite temple. Unfortunately, they don’t allow photos. It looked very Southeast-Asian, even South Asian to me.

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We took the #10 bus back to town and stopped off at the Gyeongju National Museum. It’s an impressive campus, with multiple buildings and free entrance.

The national museum is a history museum, dedicated to the Silla kingdom, both during the period of Three Kingdoms of the Korean peninsula and then later, as the United Silla Dynasty. It has English tours, though that isn’t necessary. Most of the plaques are also written in English, happily. We had to rush through, because we arrived just an hour before the museum closed (traffic, ugh). The Silla Kingdom was incredibly powerful during it’s golden age, taking up most of the Korean peninsula.

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Silla began as a confederation of tribes and clans, but over several hundred years it became a formidable power on the peninsula. Eventually it overtook its two nearest rivals: Baekje and Goguryeo, resulting in the Unified Silla kingdom. Their golden age was literal: beautiful crowns and items of gold can be found throughout the museum. The Chinese, their best trade partners, bought gold from them. Eventually, however, their Tang Chinese trading partners invaded, seeking to control modern Korea for themselves. Although the Silla fought them off, civil war and unrest littered the rest of the kingdom. Eventually, military aristocracy took control of the monarchy, then fought directly with one another. The kingdom fragmented along the lines of the Three Kingdoms (Silla, Baekje, and Goguryeo) in 935.

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We walked out of the museum and along the park toward the city center. It’s a lovely walking area, and we got to admire the burial mounds as we went. In Tumuli Park were more burial grounds, outdoor museum exhibits, bike trails, and the observatory.

Cheomseongdae Observatory (literally “star-gazing tower”) was built during Queen Seondeok‘s reign, probably in the 630s (she was the first ruling queen of the Silla, coming to power when she was 26. She never had children, and passed the throne to her female cousin). It is the oldest surviving astronomical observatory in Asia. It’s not very high, probably around 27 feet, but is a beauty to look at. The Silla used 362 stones in the observatory to symbolize the 362 days in a lunar year. The foundation is formed to be able to see the sun during the equinoxes and solstices. Today it’s in a central city park, surrounded by flowers and families flying their kites.

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By this point we were exhausted. It had taken all day to see these four things, thanks to the bad traffic. We walked to the bus station and went home (Gyeongju to Daegu west, to Changnyeong). I’m so glad we went to Gyeongju! Korea doesn’t have a lot of obvious tourist attractions to it, and what little is built up is for Korean tourists, not waygooks like us. This was fun to get out of the apartment and experience a new part of Korea.

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Morgan S Hazelwood

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