Notes from the Land of the Morning Calm – Gyeongju

Gyeongju, South Korea, Oct ’06

To get to Gyeongju, which is in the southeastern part of the Korean Peninsula, we got up early one morning, headed over to Seoul Station, and took a train from Seoul through the Korean countryside to Gyeongju.

Of course, we were a little nervous about getting all of us, plus luggage for five people to the train station in time. So, to make sure nothing went wrong we left plenty of time to get to the station that morning. As normally happens, the transfer from hotel to train station turned out to be uneventful, and we ended up in Seoul station well before our scheduled departure time.

We hadn’t had much in the way of breakfast before we left, and there was a handy McDonald’s inside the train station. I try to avoid eating at the “3 American Embassies” (McDonalds, KFC, and Taco Bell) if I at all can when travelling, but it was early, and this seemed to be the only place nearby that was open, so we figured we’d grab coffee and a good old Egg McMuffin while we waited. Of course, they didn’t have “Egg McMuffin” listed on the menu, but they did have “Egg Burger.” We figured that was the local translation, and ordered away. Well, it was an Egg McMuffin, sort of. It was actually, more like what the menu said it was – an “Egg burger,” complete with ketchup, mustard, and pickle. Can’t say they didn’t warn us.

The trip to Gyeongju took the better part of a day, rolling through the Korean countryside, which consisted for the most part of green, rolling mountains with rice fields stuck in virtually every piece of flat land available. The train would occasionally stop at this or the other small town along the way. One thing I noticed was that even relatively small cities would have high-rise apartment buildings in them, and would be relatively compact – compared to US cities, where a town the same size wouldn’t have a building over a few stories, but would be surrounded by ‘burbs that stretched on for miles and miles.

Downtown Gyeongju

The train station was located in downtown Gyeongju proper – we weren’t staying downtown, however. Rather, we were staying at a lakeside resort area (the Bomun Lake District) a few miles away and up the hillside from Gyeongju. Luckily for us, there was a shuttle bus available so we got to the hotel without incident. Our rooms had a view out over the lake and a nearby amusement park – apparently this is a popular area for Korean and Japanese tourists to vacation.

Having spent the better part of the day getting to the train, traveling to Gyeongju, and then finding our way to the hotel, we weren’t in much of a mood to do any serious sightseeing, so we contented ourselves with wandering around the area near the hotel a bit, watching all the ATV’s drive around the sides of a local causeway (4 wheel drive ATV rental seemed to be one of the more popular activities here), and finding dinner.

Bomun Lake District

The next day, my father-in-law arranged a local cab driver to take us around Gyeongju for the day – so 5 of us piled into a sedan-cab (1 in front and 4 in back – it was cozy), and took off for wherever, with the driver pretty much setting the itinerary. The first place he took us was the Folk Art Village, which aside from the usual touristy stores selling knick-knacks and souvenirs has a small museum which explained the significance and construction details of Seokguram – a Buddhist shrine we would later visit – so it was well worth the visit.

While at the Folk Art Village, we also stopped in on the local potter, where the potter demonstrated spinning pots on a wheel. I’ve seen folks spin pottery before, but what surprised me this time was the speed with which he worked.. the pot literally “grew” under his hands, and in the space of a few minutes he had a completed pot – and all under human power. His potter’s wheel had no motor – it was simply a large, heavy circular stone which he kicked with his foot to keep moving.

Folk Art Village

After the folk art village it was off to Bulguk-sa, one of the more famous Buddhist Temples in the country. Built on the side of Toham-san, the highest mountain in the region around Gyeoungju, the temple was originally built close to 1,500 years ago when the King of Silla, the ancient kingdom that ruled most of the Korean Peninsula, as well as part of China at the time, adopted Buddhism as the state religion. Since that time it has burned down and been rebuilt a number of times. It was rebuilt most recently in 1972 to repair damage incurred during the Korean War. At its height Bulguk-sa has close to 80 buildings – today, only about 8 remain. Widely considered to represent the zenith of Silla Dynasty architecture, today it is one of the most popular spots for tourists in the Gyeongju area. Today was certainly no exception – there were crowds of people everywhere. It was hard for me to reconcile the serene, contemplative atmosphere one associates with Buddhism with the carnival going on around the temple – I could only wonder what monks past and present who have lived and worshiped at the temple must be thinking.

Despite the crowds the temple and grounds were impressive, and the grounds were expansive enough that it was possible to lose yourself in a quiet corner away from the crush, especially if you climbed up a few of the (very steep, by modern western standards) stone staircases.

Bulguk-sa Buddhist Temple

Not too far from Bulguk-sa is the Seokguram Grotto, whose seated Buddha is widely regarded as one of the finest pieces of Buddhist art in Korea, if not in Asia as a whole. The “grotto” is actually a man-made cave built by enclosing a niche in the mountainside with stone and dirt. Seokgurum is situated high on the hillside overlooking the ocean off in the distance. It was a 15 minute walk up gentle trail to the bottom of the Seokguram complex, then a climb up a few sets of steep stone steps to get to the grotto building itself.

It is a beautiful Buddha, and a beautiful statue, surrounded by many other very accomplished pieces of statuary and bas relief representing lesser figures in the Buddhist faith. Unfortunately, the whole experience is lessened a bit by the very popularity of the site.. there’s always a crowd waiting to view the Buddha, and to protect it, not only from incautious fingers and hands but apparently even from the moisture and CO2 of too many people breathing, the Buddha as well as all of the surrounding works are closed off with a plexiglass panel – so the experience is much like viewing the Mona Lisa in the Louvre – interesting on one level, to be able say “you’ve been there,” but you can truly gain a better appreciation for the particular piece of art viewing the many photographs available on the internet.

Sad, but true.

Photos weren’t allowed inside the grotto – there were too many people to make it practical, anyway. So to see what the Buddha looks like and to see more about the grotto itself, I recommend the Wikipedia article found here.

Seokguram

After Bulguk-sa and Seokguram, we were all feeling a bit weary, but our driver/tour guide had one more temple to show us. Being a Buddhist himself, I think he was proud of the temples in the area and wanted to show them off to visitors. So, we squeezed into the back of the cab once again and took off for Girim-sa, another Buddhist Temple in the area.

And I’m glad we did. Girim-sa was almost deserted save for a few tourists wandering around and a number of people (students? acolytes? monks?) wandering around in orange robes. For the most part quiet and serene (save for some restoration work ongoing on one of the buildings), it felt much more like what I imagined a Buddhit temple should feel like. Perhaps that’s just playing into my uninformed prejudices, but at least I enjoyed the piece and quiet. The main courtyard was spartan, almost austere, with a single large tree growing in it. As we were there most of the residents were gathering in the main hall for what I assume was a ceremony of some kind, leaving the main courtyard almost deserted.

Girim-sa

The next day dawned bright and early, and after breakfast at the hotel we met our driver/tour guide, piled in the back of the car, and headed off for… another Buddhist Temple. As I said, our guide was Buddhist. Truth be told, Gyeongju was the center of the ancient Kingdom of Silla, which as instrumental in spreading Buddhism throughout Korea, so the history of Korea, Buddhism, and Silla are all told in the many temples in the area surrounding Gyeongu.

Actually, not a lot remains of the former temple of Bunwhang-sa. Across from the remaining buildings and temple walls are the remains of the temple in a grander time – two large flagpole supports and a few low brick walls are all that remains of those buildings. The standing buildings include a pagoda that was built in 631 that is said to be the oldest definitively dated pagoda in Korea. Originally 9 stories high, only 3 stories remain today.

Bunhwang-sa

After Bunhwang-sa we decided to stick closer to town, and headed into Gyeongju proper to take in the Gyeonju National Museum and Tumuli Park – where great mounds of earth covered by grass mark the underground burial tombs of Silla-era Kings and royalty. One of the tombs has been excavated and partially dug out so you can see what’s inside – the remains of an ancient king complete with gold jewelry and other gifts that were meant to accompany him on his final journey. Interesting, but a trifle eerie, nonetheless – I’m sure the old King didn’t realize he’d one day become a tourist attraction.

Gyeongju National Museum

Tumuli Park (Silla Burial Tombs)

A final stop on our too-brief tour of the Gyeongju area was Yangdong Village – a village kept much in the Joseon Dynasty style of the 1800’s. Since most of the rest of the sights in the Gyeongju area date back to the 700’s and 800’s of the Silla Dynasty, this is like stepping forward 1000 years, although still “old” to us. The village itself has several well-preserved homes and buildings, including a “traditional square house” which might be occupied by a well-to do, but still common family, and a “manor house” which was built for the governor of the province.

We were guided around the buildings by a Korean speaking gentleman, reputed to be an expert on the buildings of that era, accompanied by a another man who translated for him. The guide was certainly a character in his own right, who peppered his observations about life and architecture in the Joseon Dynasty with his own unique observations on what was wrong with culture today – that cell phones have given rise to much more marital strife, for instance, because they don’t allow husband and wife “space” to get over disagreements before getting on the phone and resuming the argument.

Yangdong Village

Gwangga-jeong (traditional house)

Hyang-dang (manor house)

[Seoul][Korea][Jeju-do]