Gyeongju holds a special place in my heart. When I first came to Korea way back in the summer of 2009, I managed to get in a week of travel before I started working. Knowing nothing of the country except what I could gather from history books and the Lonely Planet, I ended up in Gyeongju only five days after I landed in Seoul. I think it was a picture of the huge grassy hills that served as royal tombs in the past that led me there, but regardless of the reason, I still have fond memories of that first trip. It was my first solo international adventure and one of my best, introducing me to the joys of risk-taking in my travels and leaving me with a few new friends who I still keep in touch with.
Though that first adventure in Gyeongju was without Casey, we headed there again last fall in order to cross it off the list of national parks we’ve visited. While I suppose you could say that Gyeongju Historical National Park was my first visit to Korea’s amazing park system, for Casey and I it was our sixth.
Situated near the coast of the East Sea in southeastern Korea, Gyeongju is unique as it is the nation’s sole historical national park. Though you can get some hikes in within the park’s borders, the main attractions are the many historical sites scattered throughout and beyond the city. In the past, Gyeongju served as the ancient capital of the Silla, one of Korea’s three famed kingdoms and one of the longest running unbroken dynasties in world history. Today Gyeongju is a sleepy town of around 250,000 people, (you might think sleepy is the wrong adjective for a city that size but in Korea it’s a relatively small town and solidly rural) which is largely reliant on tourism. The big draws are the city’s four UNESCO World Heritage Sites and a National History Museum that houses a large collection of Silla relics.
Casey and I made a day trip to Gyeongju in early September, tacking it onto the back end of a baseball trip to Daegu. Arriving early in the morning, we immediately hopped on a local bus out to Bulguksa Temple, one of the city’s four heritage sites. I remembered the temple, supposedly one of the country’s finer examples of Buddhist architecture, being fairly memorable, but Casey and I agreed that it wasn’t very different from the dozens of others we’ve encountered in our travels in Korea. Although every temple in Korea is beautiful in its own right, seeing a lot of them somewhat dampens your enthusiasm at encountering a new one. Another depressing feature is that nearly every temple in the country has been burned down by the Japanese at some point within the last 500 years, meaning every temple you see is likely to be a relatively modern reconstruction. Bulguksa is no different. It’s a beautiful representative of Korean Buddhism, but it’s hard to stand out when all the others are so similar. However, if you have time for only one Korean temple, Bulguksa would be a pretty good choice. Be prepared for hordes of middle school kids, though, as Bulguksa is a school trip destination for virtually every student in Korea.
The one somewhat memorable moment at the temple for me was seeing Dabotap, a small stone pagoda within Bulguksa’s courtyard. I had recently watched a Korean movie called “YMCA Baseball Team,” a feel good flick about Korea’s first rag-tag baseball team. In the movie, one character was flabbergasted at hearing that there was a tower in Paris that was over 300 meters tall as he refused to believe anything could be taller than Dabotap.
Dabotap is 10.4 meters tall. I laughed.
Behind Bulguksa is a paved trail that takes you up the mountain to Seokguram, a stone grotto that houses a large sitting Buddha and another of Gyeongju’s World Heritage Sites. The trail is relatively easy if you’re prepared for a walk. I did it on my first visit to the city and remember being pretty impressed with the statue and the remoteness of its location. Serious dedication went into its construction way back in 770’s. However, Casey and I had no desire to hike after a late evening the night before so we opted to grab a lunch of seafood pancake and makgeolli, a delicious alcoholic beverage that is a local favorite.
Returning by bus to the city proper, we strolled around Tumuli Park, an impeccably cared for park that contains dozens of grassy hills that served as ancient royal tombs. One of the tombs has been excavated and is open to visitors. Gold and glass jewelry, along with a number of impressive ceramics are on display. The hills/tombs alone are fairly interesting and worth the small entrance fee.
Though Casey and I didn’t have time this go around, I was able to visit Anapji Pond on my first visit to the city. Once part of the Silla palace complex in Gyeongju, today Anapji Pond is a pretty tourist spot. Though it’s a relatively recent reconstruction, just like the temples, it’s worth a visit. It’s relaxing and peaceful, and one of the only historical places I’ve been in Korea where I could actually imagine ancient people living and breathing and going about their daily lives. Though the palace in Seoul is impressively huge, it’s hard to imagine it as a genuine historical place with the skyscrapers and consulates just beyond its walls.
And that is perhaps what makes Gyeongju special. It’s quiet and isolated, distant from the hustle and bustle that pervades so much of the peninsula. Walking around the city and its surrounding areas is the closest you can get to an older Korea. Though it won’t crack our top ten for Korean national parks, Gyeongju is well worth a visit for anyone with a free weekend and a desire to escape the city.
Because Gyeongju is such a popular destination, getting there is really easy. Direct buses leave from all the major cities regularly, and trains are also readily available. Taking a slow train will drop you off in the city center while the KTX arrives at Singyeongju Station, located about a 15-minute bus ride outside of downtown. Daegu is a convenient transfer point for buses or trains if necessary. Once there, travel will be fairly easy as the tourist trade is booming in Gyeongju, just grab a map from any information booth. Tumuli Park and Anapji Pond are located within the city proper and a reasonable walk from the Express Bus Terminal. To get to Bulguksa and Seokguram, hop on bus 10, 11, or 700 across the street from the bus terminal. The ride will take at least 30 minutes.