The past is present in GyeongjuFor a revitalizing getaway in the country this fall, think about heading south to the historic city of Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang province. The autumn months are a particularly ripe time to discover this rural city, where yellow rice spills through mountain valleys and orange persimmons weigh heavy on bare branches.
It is also a superb location for viewing the autumnal danpung, or colorful foliage. The mountainous terrain and sharp differences in daily temperatures during fall in Korea make the leaves bright and intensely colorful. Maple leaves in North Gyeongsang province were estimated to begin turning on Oct. 20, and should peak on Oct. 29.
Wandering around Gyeongju, you might understand why locals affectionately refer to it as “a museum without walls,” but you’d probably never guess that its ubiquitous tombs, pagodas and ancient rubble have earned it the Unesco designation of being one of the 10 most historical sites in the world. In Gyeongju, tradition and modernity co-exist in a palpable but understated manner, as if the city and its residents never completely grew out of their dynastic roots. You’ll see elderly men on their bicycles dressed in hanbok, white herons bathing in the river and farmers with permanently crooked spines wading through fields that have been planted inches from massive royal tombs.
Gyeongju, or Seorabeol as it was known in its heyday, was the capital city of the ancient Shilla Dynasty during the “three kingdoms” period from 57 BC to 676 AD, and continued to thrive as the country’s spiritual and cultural center after the three were united into one Shilla Dynasty in 678 AD. Nearly one thousand years of Shilla prominence fizzled in 935 AD, but the intrigue and charm of this advanced society remain a fixture of modern-day Gyeongju. Try one of the suggested itineraries below and make the most out of your visit.
Bicycles are truly the best way to see and navigate Gyeongju. Rent one for about 10,000 won ($8.50) per day at any of the shops near the express and inter-city bus terminals. Note that many of the cultural sites have small entrance fees, around 300-1,500 won.
From the bus station, follow the bridge across the river, and immediately turn right onto a tree-lined street that leads up to the tomb of General Kim Yu-shin. This pleasant ride is regionally famous, especially during danpung and cherry blossom seasons, when traffic turns to gridlock. Behind the tomb, you will find a trail that leads into the bush and continues up the mountain. A 10-minute hike will yield a lovely view of Gyeongju’s downtown area.
Returning to your bike, ride back down the hill and take your first sharp left turn onto a road that runs alongside the river. Ride through the village until you come to the footbridge, and cross the river again. Take another right turn at the main road and pedal back toward the bus station, turning left at a traffic light before you reach the station onto Wonhyoro street. You will soon see the Noseo-dong tombs on your right in a small park, housing the largest extant Shilla tomb at a whopping 22 meters (72 feet) tall. This graceful burial style exists nowhere else in the world, except for Siberia.
Continue east on Wonhyoro, cross over Joongangro street and make a right at the next intersection, heading toward Tumuli Park. After several blocks, you will see the traditional tiled stone wall surrounding the park across the street. Take this opportunity to duck into the Hwangnam pang shop on your left, kitty-corner to the northeast corner of the park. Plenty of foreigners have discovered Gyeongju’s sweet bread treat by mistaking the dark red bean paste filling inside for chocolate! Buy one or buy a box, though you might want to save yours for after lunch.
Cross the street here and rest your legs at the Suk-yeong Shik-dang restaurant, the first of many restaurants along the eastern wall of the park. Don’t be surprised if you think you’ve accidentally stepped into the kitchen; it will give way to a charming open-air courtyard. Try their delicious boribap, or barley rice with vegetables (5,000 won), and if you are really hungry, order their fantastic pajeon, or green onion pancake (9,000 won). If all the ancient Shilla kings and queens went to heaven, you can be sure they are up there eating this very pajeon!
After lunch, continue along the park wall, another stretch popular for its foliage and spring blossoms, until you reach the parking lot and the Tumuli Park entrance. An attraction (besides the trees) is Cheonmachong, or “the flying horse tomb,” which has been excavated and re-assembled to show visitors a cross-section that includes reproductions of the actual contents found by archeologists. The famous image of a cloud-like flying horse, from which the tomb derives its name, is painted on an ancient saddle flap.
From the parking lot, cross the street and take the pedestrian road into Wolsong Park. Following the road to the left, you will see Cheomseongdae, believed to be the oldest astronomical observatory of its kind in East Asia. There is little more than speculation regarding the function of this startling monument, although scholars find significance in the calendar-related numerology of the structure, which includes 366 stones in total, 30 layers and 12 stones at the base. Follow signs to Gyerim Forest, the legendary birthplace of the founder of the Kim clan, Kim Al-ji. Set among traditional homes behind this walled-off section is an actual working winery, run by an 86-year old woman whose talent for making rice wine has made her a cultural asset.
Backtrack to the T-intersection in the pedestrian road, and continue down the third branch toward the National Museum. The pedestrian road feeds onto a sidewalk along the main road to the museum, which is housed in three separate buildings. Set your dates straight in the main building, which gives a good history of human habitation on the peninsula. Another building is dedicated entirely to artifacts from the Anapji Pond site, where Shilla royals used to entertain. Among the tools and objects of daily use on display is an ancient wooden phallus. The third building is filled with Buddhist artwork, and contains stone Buddhas that were beheaded during the Japanese occupation. Also worthwhile is the scale model of what the area looked like when Shilla culture and architecture were alive and well.
Even if you breeze through these galleries, make sure not to miss the enormous, bronze Emille Bell, which hangs outside the main building. This bell is the standard of perfection for Korean Buddhist bells, and among the most treasured of historical artifacts worldwide. Legend has it that during casting, a human baby was thrown into the molten metal to help achieve the perfect sound. The exquisitely pure, low tone of the bell can allegedly travel up to 3 kilometers, but because of a developing crack it is only struck once every four years, amid much ceremony.
If time and daylight permit, you can continue across the main road to the actual Anapji Pond site. The man-made pond is small, but shaped irregularly, so that from no vantage point can one see the entire body of water, giving the illusion of an infinite water source.
For the Shilla people, Namsan (literally, “South Mountain”) was regarded as sacred, and today there are still remnants of more than 100 temples, pagodas and Buddhist carvings. As you hike you are likely to see offerings of fruit and candles among the remains, and you might even hear a traditional flutist’s rendition of “Amazing Grace,” no doubt inspired by the mist-hewn pines and crisp, babbling streams.
From the inter-city bus terminal, you can catch several buses (try 11, 501, 503 or 505) that pass by Namsan. Ask the driver to let you off at Samneug, or “three tombs.” Pick up some bottled water from one of the convenience shops, if you forgot it, or buy fresh fruit from the ajummas to make your own offering.
Next to the tombs, the well-trodden ground under the pine-tree canopy resembles a four-lane highway, but it quickly narrows ― and gets steeper. All paths lead to the top, so take your pick and keep your eyes peeled for the less obvious relics. Adjacent to the small hermitage near the top is a magnificent relief of the Buddha, in an inspired location for conferring with heaven. Follow the (thankfully) flat ridge walk to the actual summit, an unfortunate bald patch where thousands of hikers have triumphantly stood, then take a different path down from the summit marker and carefully make your way back to Samneug. You’ll probably feel ready for a good meal and a shower; luckily, both are just down the road.
Eating galguksu is de rigueur after hiking in Namsan. From the tombs, turn left onto the road and walk to the crosswalk with the flashing yellow light. On your right you will see a parking lot and a chimney that says “mokyoktang,” or bath house. The restaurant adjacent to the parking lot is reputed to serve the tastiest galguksu for only 4,000 won a bowl. After you’ve eaten, continue down the driveway a bit further to the bath house, where you can soak your bones and scrub your skin for only 3,000 won. There are separate facilities for men and women. If you’ve brought a change of clothes with you, you won’t even have to go back to the hotel!
Hop on any bus back to town and complete your unwinding with a quiet cup of tea at Mahayeon, a traditional Korean tearoom located along Joongangro near the Tumuli Park end of the lamp-lined street. The tearoom itself is not immediately visible from the street, so look for a freestanding sign with “mahayeon” written on it. Turn into the alley and climb the stairs to the second floor. This quiet, beautifully decorated tearoom feels more like a private home than a cafe, and a variety of Chinese and Korean teas are served with sweet rice cakes for 3,500-5,000 won per cup.
Bulguksa Temple’s name literally means “heaven on earth.” This is especially true in autumn, when the vivid foliage is ignited against the colorful pagodas. A shining example of highly aesthetic, symbolic Shilla architecture, Bulguksa cannot be missed on a visit to Gyeongju. Like most historical sites in Korea, Bulguksa was destroyed by Japanese invaders, but was restored in 1973. Pick up bus No. 10 or 11 across from the inter-city bus terminal to get there.
Located high above the temple is Seokguram Grotto, another Unesco world heritage site. A small, manmade cave overlooking the East Sea is home to one of the most sublime pieces of Buddhist artwork ever made. Were the name of the master carver who completed the stone image of the Sakyamuni Buddha known to us today, he would be the Leonardo Da Vinci of the Far East. Gyeongju citizens claim that foggy weather can actually enhance a visit to Seokguram, when the site takes on a mystical aura.
If you are not prone to motion sickness, you can take one of the frequent buses that wind up the mountain to the grotto. They wait for about an hour before returning to the parking lot just below Bulguksa. If you are feeling particularly sprightly, you can also hike for about 45 minutes up a well-marked trail from the temple to the grotto, or if the bus ride left you feeling dizzy, take this scenic route back down.
Top off your tour of high-class architecture with a banquet fit for a king. Take bus No. 11 back toward Gyeongju, and ask the driver to let you off across from the Suseok Jung restaurant. Housed in a traditional-style Korean building and tastefully decorated with stunning landscape photography by the restaurant’s owner, Suseok Garden is a leisurely place to sample a variety of gourmet Korean dishes, including raw shredded beef and deep-fried ginseng root for the more adventurous. Suseok hanjungshik, or the full spread, costs 30,000 won per person.
A train ride frees you from traffic concerns and offers fantastic scenery. Tickets are as low as 14,000 won for standing room only on a red-eye Mungwha (express) train on a weekday; a first-class seat on a Saemaeul (super-express) train on the weekend will cost 42,500 won. Tickets sell out ― especially on the weekend ― so be sure to get your round-trip ticket early. Trains leave from Seoul Station, a stop on subway line No. 4, and take 4-1/2 hours. See www.korail.go.kr for schedule and fare details.
Coach buses are a bit cheaper and run much more frequently. Departures are approximately every 40 minutes from the Seoul Express Bus Terminal, a stop on subway line No. 3, from 6:30 a.m., and cost 15,700 to 25,700 won, depending on the day you travel and what class bus you take. Generally, it is safe to buy a ticket on the day of travel. Buses take from 4 to 5 hours, depending on traffic, but movement virtually ceases on popular travel dates.
Where to stay:
If you are a serious penny pincher and believe you can fall asleep just about anywhere, try staying a night at the Germanium Jimjilbang next to Big Sale market in Seongun-dong. A mere 5,000 won buys you access to sauna and spa facilities and warm sleeping rooms for as long as you want ― even overnight. All you get is bare space on a communal floor and a wooden pillow, but you’ll be toasty all night.
For your garden-variety yeogwan, go to the bus terminals and throw a rock in the air. You will inevitably hit one. Prices run around 30,000 won for a double room.
High-rollers might enjoy staying at one of the international luxury hotels in the Bomun Lake resort area, about 20 minutes outside of Gyeongju. The Hilton Hotel offers an excellent buffet brunch for 20,000 won per person, and the Chosun Spa Hotel, with its ginseng baths and Finnish saunas for only 6,000 won, is a weekend indulgence for many Gyeongju residents.
Most of these hotels charge at least 200,000 won for a double room. Buses No. 10 and 11 will take you to the Bomun Lake area.
by Kirsten Jerch