Go on a walkabout in Gyeongju
I went on a two day walkabout in Gyeongju. Yes, its possible as all the major sites are within close proximity to one another.
On day one, you can do the Cheongmachong Tomb- Tumuli Park - Cheomseongdae Observatory- Gyerim Forest-Anapji Pond-Seogbinggo (Ice Storage)-Gyeongju National Museum-Bunhwang-sa circuit and finish off with a delicious ssambap dinner.
On day two, you can take the day to visit Bulguksa Temple, have a delicious picnic in the lovely park beside it and later explore the amazing rock temple (Seokguram Grotto ) up in the mountains.
I will detail my discoveries in the following pages so that you can print it out and do a walkabout yourself. If you feel that walking is not your style, you can also cycle ( City Route ) . Just make sure you don't bump into the back of a tourist bus.
To see the full walkabout trail, click b'packers Gyeongju Page
Visit Gyeongju in Spring
I can't think of lovelier time to visit Gyeongju than spring. Come March, this ancient capital blossoms as you'll see lots of pink cherry blossoms and yellow rapeseed flowers everywhere!
The flowers give a fresh breath of life to the ancient sites in Gyeongju and everywhere you go, you'll be showered by soft pink petals and happy smiles from Gyeongju's citizens.
Yup, the Koreans were in a far better mood in spring than in winter!
To see more happy pictures click b'packers Gyeongju Page
Ancient treasures and Anapji Pond
As mentioned earlier, Korea had a glorious past and was once a united kingdom. The person responsible for this period was none other than jolly King Munmu (the king responsible for unifying the Shilla, Koguryo, and Paekche kingdoms) .
Yes, this jolly king built Anapji Pond in 674AD as a 'pleasure' garden. Why else would he designed the pond in such a way that one cannot view the entire pond at once? On top of that, he built 3 wee islands and filled it with beautiful flowers, plants and rare animals.
Today, only a small portion of the original structure remains.
It might be interesting to note that when the pond was drained for repairs in 1975, workers found a wealth of sunken treasures.
They include a well-preserved barge, jade hairpins, an ancient iron and other stuff that a Korean Lady might accidentally drop into a pond and later exclaim, "Drats, Munmu, there goes another iron! You'll have to wear a crumpled shirt today.."
The relics have since been restored and many are on display at the Gyeongju National Musuem, a short walk away...
When you see Gyeongju for the first time, the first things that you'll see are the giant burial mounds. Shaped like hills, they dot the landscape, making it look as though a giant mole had a field day here. Well, far from containing moles, these mounds contain exciting treasures and clues of a glorious past.
Yes, those happy golden days where Korea was one and ruled by Shilla kings. Many important inventions were made at that time and cultural exchanges between them and Japan were not unusual.
Clues of the past are left in these mounds and the most famous of these graves is the "tomb of the heavenly horse" or Cheongmachong.
While you might think that the Korean Indiana Jones discovered the remnants of a horse, he didn't. Cheonmachong was discovered with a painting of mounted horse in the 1970's and this artwork is the only piece recovered from the Silla Era!
You can view this rare artwork inside of....gasp! ...the burial mound.
Well, in case you're scared, let me assure you that there is nothing spooky inside of the mound.
All you'll see is the artwork, replica of a skeletal king and his elaborate, lavish crown, necklace, cap and other golden accessories.
Don't forget to gaze at the wooden ceiling while you're at it . The tomb's wooden structure originally had stones and other dangerous stuff piled on top so that it would collapse on would-be robbers trying to dig in from the side! Pity the Korean Indiana Jones.
In any case, here's the odd ticket pricing system for your convenience:
Adult (19-64 years old) : 1,500 won
Teens (13-19 years old) : 700 won
Children (7-12 years old): 600 won
After this, troop down to Tumuli Park
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This is the most beautiful temple I've seen in Korea and it was only a stone's throw from the hotel I was staying in ( Kolon Hotel ).
I spent an entire day exploring this beautiful temple and was very, very fortunate to get a local guide to explain the fine subtleties of the architecture to us in English!
(Yes, you can get a guide for yourself too, it you bother to enquire at the entrance of the temple)
Originally built in 528, Bulguksa temple is an excellent example of architecture from the Shilla Dynasty and a UNESCO recognised property. Click here to see more pictures of it in my travelogue.
Seokguram Grotto (Mt. Tohamsan)
After visiting Bulguksa Temple, you should make it a point to visit this ancient grotto , some 745m above the temple. Of course, if you're a fitness fanatic, you make the long trek uphill, if not, take a bus like me. The bus is at the big car park at Bulguksa Temple. Seokguram is amazing place, it's actually a big statue of Buddha hewn out of solid rock from a mountain and it sits there, gazing towards the tomb of King Munmu in the far distance. An artificial stone temple made of granite covers this amazing statue, as does an annoying glass panel. Since all tourist are forbidden to take pictures of Buddha, I took a picture of a smaller temple beside a sprig of spring blossoms instead.
Cheomseongdae Observatory in Tumuli Park
Just as I was walking around Tumuli Park, I saw this ancient star gazing tower. At first gaze, it didn't look extraordinary and I certainly didn't want to pay 300won just to look at it.
So I just stood around the border fence and took this picture. It was only much later did I found out that this tower was built during the reign of Queen Seonduk in 634 and that it is the oldest existing astral observatory in Asia.
362 stones were used to build the tower and each rock represented the number of days in a lunar year.
Gyeongju National Museum
After a trip to Anapji Pond, you'll be mighty curious to see the sunken barge I was talking about, so troop down to Gyeongju National Museum.
This is one of Korea's better musuems as it has over 80,000 relics from the Shilla period.
Upon entering, you'll see a gigantic bronze bell. Also called the Emile Bell, it has a morbid little history behind it which I will detail in my off the beaten track page.
Other than that, you'll see various relics recovered from excavations around the country spaced around the museum grounds. Many of them are ornaments, bridges, stupas, and other monuments.
It's sad to note that many of these stupas are 'beheaded', victims of art collectors and their Japanese colonial masters.
The objects receovered from Anapji Pond lies in a seperate exhibition house from the main building.
The main building houses other stuff like cave drawings ( that look like a replica of the English Patient's..) and other interesting artefacts.
After this, troop down to Bunhwangsa Temple
Here's the opening hours for your convenience:
March : 09:00am-6:00pm (Tue-Fri) , 09:00am-7:00pm (weekends)
April - June :09:00am-6:00pm (Tue,Wed), 9:00am-9:00pm (Thu,Fri), 9:00am-7:00pm(weekends)
July - February: 09:00am-5:00pm (Tue-Sun)
Closed: Mondays, Jan 1st
*Age under 24: 200 won *Age over 25: 400 won (Age under 18,over 65: free)
After Gyeongju musuem, my hubby and I were lucky enough to meet a kindly gentleman who gave us a lift on his car even though he didn't understand a word we said!
I suppose it was the lost look we had on our faces or simply my dragging fat feet, whatever it was, this kind soul stopped along our route and gestured for us to sit at the back. When we mentioned Bunhwangsa, he nodded vigourously and took us there.
Well, we thanked this chap profusely at our destination and got out to see a 3 storey stone pagoda .
This ancient structure was built in 634 during the reign of Queen Seondok (r.632-647) and considering the total number of brick-shaped stones that have been recovered, scholars believe this pagoda must have originally been a seven- or nine-story pagoda!
The present pagoda that we saw was constructed in 1915 and the remaining stones were piled beside it.
Other than this, we saw other things, I'll just continue in my travelogue so you'll get to see the pictures...
Horse ride around Tumuli Park
After Cheongmachong, you'll see an extention of the park. Well, this area is called Tumuli Park (known as Daereungwon in Korean) and it has more than 20 large and small tombs from the Shilla period.
It's quite an amazing sight and if you're still amazed but tired, take a horsy ride around this place in an ancient horse carriage.
Many retirees were keen on this ride the day I was there. Not only did they giggle while they were on the carriages, they waved merrily to a tired old me as they went gaily past.
I trudged on and managed to catch a glimpse of the star gazing tower
Indulging in Gyeong-ju's Ssam-bap
For a hedonistic person like me, no trip is ever complete without a good meal. Particularly if the meal is part of the area's specialty! The ssam-bap at Gyeongju is no exception. So what the hell is it? Well, it's an instant buffet with more than 30 dishes in one sitting! Pity each little plate is so small but they contain delightful things like grilled fish, sweet brown rice gruel, omelette with cruchy little things, fried beancurd, you get the idea...
All of these are actually condiments for sheaves of salad leaves that is presented by the basketful. All you need to do, is to grab a little bit of this and a little bit of that and roll it up in a salad leaf like a cigarette. The only difference is that this will go down a lot better in your gullet than a stink butt! There's an excellent row of ssambap restaurants located in the Daereungwon Royal Burial Grounds region. Go for the restaurant that is crammed with locals. Cost per person should be about 13,000 won.
For other must dos, click b'packer's Gyeongju Page
Bulguksa Temple is one of the most famous temples in Korea. The original temple was razed by the Japanese centuries ago, but in the 1970s, the Korean government commissioned for the rebuilding of the temple. It was completed in about two years. The temple now stands as one of the finest examples of Korean carpentry and detail work.
The temple itself is quite impressive. Its location is stunning, and the construction is really beautiful. We visited in the fall, so it was cool, there were few tourists, and we got to experience the gorgeous fall colors.
Around the temple, there are several short walks to be had to nearby gardens and other structures. Some very stunning sites to take in.
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Above Bulguksa Temple is a mountain that houses one of Korea's most cherished cultural relics. The Seokguram Grotto houses one of the finest examples of Korean carving, and Korean Buddhas. The Grotto is believed to be several centuries old, but when the Japanese razed Gyongju, the location of the Grotto was forgotten. In 1911, during another Japanese occupation, the Japanese (ironically) found the Buddha once more, and were determined to take it back to Japan. The only thing that prevented this was the lack of cooperation by local Korean government. UNESCO designated the Grotto a World Heritage site in the 1970s (I think).
I really enjoyed visiting the Grotto. The statue is stunning, as are the guardians that are carved into the Grotto. My only complaint was the blatant disregard of the Korean tourists there. Although this is a cultural phenomenon, I just can't get over how Koreans don't follow their own rules. There were No Photos signs posted all over the Grotto, but while we were visiting, there were two families snapping away with their cameras, and one fellow taking a video! The lady who was supposed to be observing that the rules were followed didn't even flinch.
I would recommend that you visit this place during the low season. Late fall or early spring would be best, as there are far fewer tourists in general.
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Korean Folkart Village
Outside of Gyongju, there is a really neat little village that is home to many Korean artisans. The village is supposed to emulate what an old Korean village would have looked like (although I don't know enough Korean history to say how accurate it is). Inside each building is an artisan hard at work making traditional Korean crafts. The village houses potters of various sorts, metal and wood workers, jewellers, and so on.
Many of the artisans work during the day, and you can go in and watch them ply their craft. We had the opportunity to watch several potters over the course of the day, and view an inactive kiln.
Of course, when there are handicrafts being made, you can bet that they are also available for sale. There are quite a few pottery shops, as well as an amethyst shop, and a few galleries selling woodwork, metal work, embroidery, and so on. The prices are higher here than in a market, but all the work is done right in the village, so you can be more comfortable that what you are getting is quality, and probably fairly authentic.
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Tomb of King Taejong Muyeol
King Taejong Muyeol was one of the greatest kings in Korean history. Although he only reigned from 654 to 661AD, he started the unification of Korea by unifying the Silla and Baekje kingdoms, a process which was completed by his son, King Murimu, who finally unified the entire Korean peninsula.
The tomb is in a beautiful location, on a hillside just north-west of Gyeongju, and is best visited just before sunset, when the colours are truly beautiful. Just inside the entrance to the tomb is the 3.33-metre-long, tortoise-shaped tombstone.
To the north of King Muyeol's tomb is a group of four other tombs, believed to be those of royal courtiers.
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