Gyeongju: The Museum Without Walls

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On Saturday, Andy and I traveled to Gyeongju, about an hour away.  Gyeongju (경주) is the former capital of the ancient Silla Kingdom, which reigned from 57 BC – 935 AD.  Korea was ruled by three kingdoms throughout history, and at one point, Silla held 2/3 of the peninsula (including modern day North Korea).  Being the capital city, Gyeongju contains all sorts of architectural and historical treasures.  For this reason, Gyeongju is also known as “the museum without walls” – you don’t have to walk far to find something amazing.

Gyeongju is on the right, in North Gyeongsong province

May 5 also happens to be Children’s Day in South Korea.  Usually there is no school, but this year it happened to fall on a Saturday.  Parents frequently buy their children gifts, and take them out to fairs, zoos, or other kid-friendly locales.  Gyeongju was very crowded with families and little ones.

From Dongdaegu Station, we took the Mugunghwa (slow train) to Bulguksa Station.  Then we took the 10 or 11 bus (I forget which, but they’re the same route) to the temple grounds.  From there you must walk up a vendor-lined lane through a park.  The park was full of picnickers, street food, and souvenirs.

Chestnuts, beondegi, and other snacks for sale

Bulguksa (불국사) is a beautiful Buddhist temple located on the slopes of Tohamsan (Toham Mountain).  Not only is it a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it contains 7 national treasures of Korea and enjoys tourists from every corner of the globe.  Originally built in the 7th and 8th centuries, many buildings were burned by the Japanese in the 1500s and later reconstructed, although the stone structures are original.  It costs 4000 won to enter.  If you’re looking for a peaceful and calm environment, I highly suggest skipping Bulguksa on a holiday… Bulguksa on Children’s Day was such a tremendous contrast to sleepy Donghwasa.  But it was enjoyable nonetheless.

Foreground: Three-storied Pagoda, Background: Dabotap Pagoda (on the 10w coin)
A bronze-gilt seated Buddha statue
Andy and his rock pile – each one represents a wish!
Sarira Pagoda, stolen by the Japanese and later reclaimed
Bridge over a koi pond

From the base of Bulguksa, you can take the #12 bus to Seokguram Grotto, our next stop.  Admission is also 4000 won.  Seokguram Grotto (석굴암) is another UNESCO World Heritage Site, and definitely worth a visit.  It is also possible to hike, but the 80 degree heat and steep slopes dissuaded us.

Seokguram Grotto is about 2,500 feet (750m) above sea level, and on a clear day it is possible to see all the way to the Sea of Japan.  It was too hazy for us, but you are still rewarded with a great view of inland Korea and Gyeongju.  Construction of the grotto began in 742 (or 751), and the structure is original.  No mortar was used to build the grotto, including the domed roof – instead it is made of a series of interlocking bricks.  The actual (seated) Buddha inside is about 12 feet tall.  Since it is so ancient, the grotto is blocked by a panel of glass to protect it from visitors.  Once a year, on Buddha’s birthday, the glass is removed.  Photos are prohibited, but I will include one from the internet so you can see what it looks like inside.  In my opinion, you should visit this grotto on a less-crowded day to really appreciate the detail and tranquil nature.  I felt like I was at the gorilla exhibit at the zoo.

Andy ringing a giant bell!
Inland Korea… past the mountains is the sea
The grotto is inside that building, the mound is the domed roof
Seated Buddha at point of Enlightenment, 1300 years old
You can buy a tile and write a message, to be used later for building repairs
Gyeongju

We then caught the 12 bus back to Bulguksa and the 10 or 11 to Gyeongju Station.  Walked through the Seongdong Market for a spell, ate in a traditional restaurant (I tried daseulgi tang, or black snail soup – it was actually pretty good!), bought some Gyeongju bread (filled with red bean), and headed home.  There were other things I had hoped to see in Gyeongju, but there simply weren’t enough hours in the day.  Luckily it’s not too far away!

A pig’s face brings new business owners good luck – at Seongdong Market
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