Welcome ladies and gentlemen to the birthplace of Korea as we know it today: Gyeongju. This is the home of the ancient capital, the roots from which Korea has grown into the blossoming flower which it is today. Though today its much fallen to obscurity. Not often will you hear about it on a typical travellers itinerary and is surprisingly small considering its past glory. However, the city and its surroundings hold strong repeated reminders of a once mighty empire.
A quick hour or so an a bus from Daegu I arrived in a very aesthetically pleasing little city. Its easy to forget how Gyeongju was once the beating heart of a mighty Korean empire. The first day was all about hitting those spots just outside the city limits. As is the nature of an empire, its remains are spread vastly across the surrounding area. Its expanses covered ground from all the over the monstrous mountain ranges all the way up to the coast. This day would be one long bus hop after another to relics of the Silla Empire
The first stop was one of the many UNESCO sites found in the area; Bulguksa Temple. Such classification is warranted as it is the central and most significant temple in Korean Buddhism. Not only is it considered a national treasure, but in the Korean Historic and Scenic sites numbering system, it sits at number 1.
This would undoubtedly be the most popular destination in Gyeongju. The best-preserved evidence of how mighty the empire once was. Located at the base of Mount Toham, Yet another spectacular temple before the backdrop of incredible rolling mountain ranges.
My second site of the day was a fuck-up, after getting on the bus in the wrong direction. But as my father always said “I’m not lost, I’m on an adventure”. Sure enough I found something worth seeing. Turned to out to be possibly the most astonishing looking building I have EVER seen, and likely to ever see. Forget the Empire state building, fuck Big Ben, Gyeongju Tower is cool as almighty fuck.
I’m not an enormous fan of architecture, I don’t really get an erection for a building of exceptional architectural design. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate immaculate design as much as anyone else, but I’d much prefer an awe-inspiring temple or an example of natural beauty. This however was a complete exception. Completely impractical as far as a building, likely not very useful for anything other than aesthetic appeal. But what a fucking site. Absolutely incredible.
It was back on the bus, and this time I decided not to play around and headed straight for the coast before it got too late in the day. After a glorious journey along the winding roads through the rolling Korean hills, I was dropped off unceremonially on the side of the high-way for a walk to Gameunsaji.
These were further relics of the Silla empire. Admittedly, there wasn’t as much to see other than matching pagoda’s and the remains of where structures once stood. The view they provided of the landscape was yet again beyond staggering. Each view seemed to be better than the last. The site also provide some backstory to what would be my next site, one I’d have to walk along the highway to get to.
I was headed to the beach, a 20 minute or so walk away, for yet another relic of the former kingdom. This one however had much more significance than all the rest. About a 100 meters or so off the coast there was an unassuming rock formation which a gaggle of seagulls had claimed as their spot. It would be so easy to completely ignore the random pile of rocks as crowds of Korean families gathered against the shore playfully skipping rocks. Even more so when there is no sign indicating its significance. You’d be making a big mistake.
This happened to be the final resting place of a once mighty Emperor of Korea, the Tomb of Emperor Munmu. His son decided this is where his father would be laid to rest, as he believed that he would return one day as a sea dragon, to protect Korea from the ever so invasive Japanese. He even arranged that beneath one of his palaces would be an enormous hall big enough to house a dragon comfortably for when he returned.
Little would you have known this unassuming pile of rocks held one of the worlds mighty Emperors. This is where such a significant individual in Korean history would lay for all eternity as families innocently frolicked a few yards away. It ended up raising so many questions. How did they get him there? Did they have to carve the tomb into the stone? Is his body still there? Can I be buried in a similar way when I die?
The second day was all about seeing the sites within the city itself, and there was plenty provided by the Silla empire. My first target was a site a little outside the centre. A brief peaceful stroll through a much quieter part of town eventually drifted into farmland before the miraculous backdrop of the misty hills behind. I slowly wandered along the roads watching lonely farmers tending to their fields.
I was aiming for was marked on map.me as the Hwangnyongsa World-Cultural- Heritage site. With such a title I was expected to be greeted by some form of relic, perhaps a former temple or possibly a palace. To my surprise there was nothing of the sort, apart from an empty unkempt field. Upon further inspection this indeed was the site of a once mighty palace. However it had since been burned down by those pesky Mongolians during their own mighty reign. All that remained were a few stones here and there indicating the presence of a former structure. The nearby museum was all that really indicated the significance of the site, which housed replicas and examples of what it might once have looked.
As I pressed on through the field, I saw what appeared to be a temple, one that seemed to be much more intact. Bunhwangsa Temple held the remnants of a once significant temple, connected to the palace that once stood next door. The most import relic was a stone pagoda which stood in the middle of the temple with the stone doors agape. The contents of which was said to be remains.
As I made my way around a very friendly guide approached me to see if I had any questions. Not wanting to miss an opportunity as well as being completely ignorant, I started to question her, which she seemed genuinely grateful. She very happily gave me each and every detail about the temple and the nearby former palace. She spent a good 30 minutes with me discussing every detail, talking about the breadth of the Silla empire and its connections to the Tang dynasty of China.
Following this, predictably I headed to yet another remnant of the Silla empire; Dongguang Palace and Wolji Pond. The fact that a pond has to be mentioned in the name must go some way to show its magnitude. Upon seeing the pond its self-explanatory. Its precisely the type of place you’d expect an emperor to spend his lazy summer days basking in the sun, gazing into the once wildlife filled surroundings and the koi filled ponds of the palace. So much so, the reconstructed structures pale in comparison to the beauty of the pond itself.
Continuing the Silla dynasty theme, I continued onward to the oldest surviving observatory in all of East Asia, possibly the world; the Cheomseongdae observatory. Translated as “star-gazing tower”, constructed as far as far back as the 7th century it was the influence to construct similar observatories in both China and Japan.
This was followed by one final Silla empire site, and quite a fitting final attraction it was. It was the site of the Silla Kingdom tombs. An area of great mounds of earth where the former emperors of the once mighty empire was laid to rest. One of which had been excavated and open for public viewing, which was Cheonmachong.
Gyeongju has been well and truly ticked off the list. Before beginning this journey I already held Korea close to my heart from my previous visits. The people, the landscape, the food, its all beyond extraordinary. I left Gyeongju saddened knowing I had hit my peak of my Korean adventure. Without doubt this would be the very best Korean destination I have visited, a place that has now made the list of places to potentially live someday.
Next stop, back to where my love for Korea really all began; Busan.