All aboard for history!

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All aboard for history!

GYEONGJU - Koreans take pride in being the world's most homogeneous nation and for having a history that dates back at least five millennia. Koreans like to point out that in centuries past the peninsula was richer in culture, tradition and sciences like astronomy than the West. The Silla Dynasty (57 B.C. - A.D. 935), centered in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang province, represents the peak of ancient Korean culture. Accordingly, Gyeongju is a favorite destination for tourists of all stripes, as well as the de rigeur high school field trip.

Feeling nostalgic about my country, I took a package tour to Gyeongju, arranged by the Korean National Railroad, over the weekend and enjoyed visiting the numerous historical sites there. At Seoul Station I boarded Saturday morning's 9:30 first-class Saemaeul train to North Gyeongsang province, settling into a comfy seat and noticing the monitors on the ceiling, which would soon be showing Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Total Recall." Some Saemaeul trains have four fancy LCD monitors hanging from ceilings in each car - like the screens you see on airplanes - and you can watch movies, British television shows and local TV dramas.

A girl of about 7, traveling with her parents, was sitting next to me. Prim and proper in a tartan skirt, the girl, whose name was Mi-young, told me she would be starting elementary school next month. While I was looking forward to the trip, she looked bored. No wonder - her father kept saying, "You need to learn how great our country is; aren't you grateful for your dad and mom?" The young lady sighed and put on the earphones provided for the Arnold thrill-fest. After a few hours into the journey, I went to the dining car and was served a hamburger steak for lunch.

About an hour and a half after lunch, some huge tomb mounds came into sight, indicating that we were in the ancient capital. With the family, I alighted the train and got on a shuttle bus that would take us to our hotel, the Kolon.

The first day of the tour included no historic sites, just a trip to a hot springs and dinner with a traditional Korean musical performance. Gyeongju's two can't-miss attractions are the Seokguram cave temple and Bulguksa Temple. Bulguksa is part of the second day's program, but Seokguram is conspicuously absent from the tour.

After unpacking, I used the hours before the 6:30 hot springs trip to go to the Seokguram grotto. A shuttle for the site leaves Bulguksa's parking lot, a short walk from the hotel, about every hour from 8:40 a.m. to 4:20 p.m. On foot, I headed to the temple and soon enough a bus came. The driver was an affable sort. He heartily welcomed aboard a couple of American tourists, and swiftly and confidently tried out his English, which was flavored with a thick Gyeongsang accent. Then some Japanese tourists came along, fumbling with their coins, and he gabbed to them in Japanese.

After the ride up Toham mountain, which encases Seokguram, you encounter a modest mound covered with yellowed grass. The entrance is small, and betokens nothing extraordinary. But once inside you see why the Seokguram statue has been designated a national treasure and a UNESCO-protected cultural site. The 3.26-meter-high granite Buddha statue is surrounded by images of disciples carved in relief. A Silla-era politician, Kim Dae Sung, is said to have built Seokguram for his previous-life parents and Bulguksa temple for his present-life parents.

At the statue, I bumped into Mi-young again. Her father stood beside her, armed with a history book in one hand and a video camera in the other. Though the young lady finally looked happy, her father was frustrated by the picture-taking ban in the cave. He told a security guard that as a father he wanted to make an educational videotape for his daughter - but in vain. I took the last bus, at 5:20, down to the parking lot and got back on the tour program, visiting the hot springs then Gyerim restaurant where I had some fine marinated beef.

The next morning I woke at 7 and had a better-than-expected Western buffet - scrambled eggs, sausage, croissant, oatmeal, fruits and juices - at the Kolon. After checking out at 9:30 I took a bus that would cover 10 historic sites in a sightseeing whirlwind. Mi-young and her parents were on the bus, too. They were all strangely quiet. Unlike the easygoing first day, this one promised to be hectic. The first stop was the famous temple Bulguksa. Though some tourists say Korea's temples are all the same, Bulguksa is a Neptune among minnows. Though much of the temple burned down in the 1592 Japanese invasion, the complex is still grand. If you need a wish granted, you can give the temple officials 10,000 won ($7.50) and write your name and wish in white on a black roof tile. I saw many tiles penned by folk from all over the world, like Ireland, Canada and Hong Kong.

Bulguksa has many impressive structures, with plenty of Buddhist statues interspersed, all of it surrounded by bamboo woods. There are also two granite pagodas, Dabotap and Seokgatap. Seokgatap, also called Muyeongtap, has a sad legend attached, involving the mason who built it. Government officials kept the mason from seeing his wife while he was working. His wife missed him so much that she came to Gyeongju and waited for the time he said he would finish. She thought that when he was done she would see the new pagoda's shadow on a pond to which she had access. But the completion date came and went without any shadow on the pond. Felled by sorrow, she drowned herself into the pond. Oddly, though, the mason had done his work. Nevertheless, the pagoda had not cast a shadow. Muyeongtap means a pagoda without a shadow.

On Sunday morning, though, we could see the pagoda's shadow. By now, Mi-young was acting less proper. In fact, she loudly criticized her father who she said had given her misinformation about the pagoda. Obviously embarrassed, the girl's father had no response. Mi-young's mother led her out of the temple for the next destination, the Gyeongju Folk Arts and Crafts Museum. The young lady perked up again; she was dazzled by amethyst necklaces and wooden cases inlaid with mother-of-pearl. After pressuring her dad to buy her an 18,000 won necklace, she seemed ultimately satisfied with the trip. The bus then took us to the Gyeongju National Museum. The museum features various relics like magnificent golden crowns ornamented with the Silla Dynasty's jade icons. An hour later we were shuttled to Anapji, a royal garden with a pond used to entertain guests. The site was renowned for its extravagance and the sybaritic lifestyles of those who used it, but it was burned down by Goryeo Dynasty leaders. Afterward, near noon, the tour offered a lunch of cooked rice wrapped in vegetables with soy sauce. I thought it better to skip the lunch and go straight to the next place, Cheomseongdae, an ancient astronomical observatory over nine meters tall, and the oldest tower of its kind in Asia. Nearby was another group of tomb mounds, some of Gyeongju's 160 huge tombs. According to the tour guide, most of the tombs lack epitaphs, so only 23 indicate who was buried inside. Visitors can walk around inside one excavated tomb, Cheonmachong, named after the horse-related relics found inside.

About 4 p.m. the bus took us to Gyeongju Station. On the train, Mi-young's father began to quiz his daughter about the trip. "What did you like best?" he demanded. Wearily and with little enthusiasm, Mi-young said, "Everything was really good." As the train pulled out of the station, Mi-young went straight to sleep. Her parents - and I - hreathed audible sighs of relief.

The Gyeongju tour costs 165,000 won per adult. For info, call the Korean National Railroad at 1544-7788.

by Chun Su-jin

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