A legend born in a forest fed by a father’s tears
A week before my trip to Gyeongju, I had pictured myself in the snack car on an early morning Saemaeul train, enjoying a leisurely breakfast as I watched the passing mountains. But as my departure approached, I began juggling the cost of momentary pleasures versus the economy of time. After all, I was only staying in Gyeongju for 24 hours.
By the morning of my trip I had decided to sacrifice aesthetics and bought a ticket for the KTX bullet train, which has substituted the snack car with a vending machine offering bland fruit drinks and chocolate bars.
Still, it is two hours faster than the Saemaeul train, even including a brief transfer at Daegu.
After slurping down some noodles at Seoul Station, I hopped on a train. Three hours later, I was in Gyeongju, browsing through a city map.
Think of Gyeongju as Korea’s Rome. The city, the old capital of the Silla Kingdom (B.C. 57 to A.D. 935), takes up many pages of most Korean travel guides and the writers are usually transfixed by the statues, royal gardens and temples.
The city’s reality almost lives up to the purple prose of the travel writers.
Korean students attending summer camps are usually assigned to the city as their first destination. Near Bulguk Temple, the city’s major relic, designated as a world cultural asset by Unesco, there are pleasant clusters of youth hostels and grungy motels near a street full of cheap soju joints with banners across their doors welcoming the students.
Despite this, Gyeongju is one of the few remaining cities in the nation where history is treasured as something sacred. While modern development caused the demolition of many old houses in other rural towns across the country, to be replaced with Western-style villas, Gyeongju has managed to preserve its past.
The locals take great pride in that history. In certain areas of the town like Bobul-ro, on the way to Bulguk Temple, local architectural laws require all building owners to use traditional giwa roofs. And that includes gas stations, a drainage pump center and a fire station.
My first destination is Gyeongju World Culture Expo, a giant cultural exposition, on which the city has invested nearly 44 billion won.
Gyeongju had undergone some major changes over the years, as the local government realized that the city could no longer rely on cultural resources to compete with other tourist cities. One of their first initiatives was to launch the expo.
The festival, which began earlier this month, features dance, art, souvenirs and food from different countries on a giant chunk of land near the Bomun Complex, a tourist ghetto created by President Park Chung Hee during the ’70s. One of the expo’s most ambitious projects is the 82-meter glass tower, the size of a 30-story apartment building, which was designed to be the city’s landmark.
To be frank, there is something gruesome about the size and design of this monument, which has a tunnel across the building in the shape of a giant pagoda. Maybe that’s because I am an Orientalist at heart. The tower somehow feels too intrusive, but the city’s residents show an understandable pride when they boast that it is Korea’s fourth- tallest building.
The pagoda in the tower was inspired by a famous nine-story wooden pagoda that was in Hwangryong Temple before it was demolished during the Mongol invasion of 1238. Today, only three stories remain, along with a legend that the temple was a symbol of a guardian dragon that protected Silla from evil. The festival offers other monuments and endless performances from Russian ice ballet to a B-boy competition and an outdoor laser show every night.
One of the intriguing parts of the town’s history is its rich religious tradition. It’s really worth visiting all the city’s temples and fortresses if you’ve got time. If not, head directly to Gyeongju National Museum, which houses over 80,000 Buddhist relics from around the country, including temple ornaments. Some of the most fascinating relics in the museum’s collection are the headless Buddhas in the front garden. They were found in the pond of a nearby temple in 1965. Their heads were supposedly chopped off by Confucian scholars who were trying to suppress the country’s Buddhist beliefs. Experts regret the damage, saying the statues, which depict Buddha sitting in meditation, could have turned out to be the best example of Buddhist sculpture from reunified Silla, but the what remains is more telling. The decapitated sculptures poignantly reflect the fact that Korea has had its share of religious persecution.
A short walk from the museum is the royal Anapji Pond. But before that, it’s time for dinner. Food in Gyeongju is not noted for any particular style.
There are no regional delicacies either. Unless you drive to Gampo, a port town about an hour away from downtown Gyeongju, for seafood many restaurants in the city offer basic hanjeongsik, a Korean meal that comes with rice, stew and endless side dishes.
There are several restaurants recommended by taxi drivers and a few other locals. One of them was Yoseokgung, formally a shelter for independence activists then a restaurant featuring gisaeng, and now an upscale restaurant without the female entertainment. There is also the Bulgogi Village specializing in grilled marinated Korean beef.
I went to a place called Dosolmaeul, (054) 748-9232, a slightly more humble place that many locals love.
The restaurant, set in a hut, has a 10,000 won dinner set. To this you can add other side dishes like assorted pancakes and marinated meat. But really you could indulge yourself with the basic set alone.
It starts with a standard Korean dinner like assorted mountain vegetables ― steamed and marinated in different sauces ― savory pancakes, a soybean stew, marinated mackerel, spicy chicken and fresh homegrown vegetables. And they have more exotic options, like a bowl of warm jelly made of crushed acorn dumped in a soup with a bed of sesame seeds and sprinkles of dried seaweed, or cabbage rolls stuffed with tofu and diced vegetables.
If you are an adventurous eater, you could pretend to be a local and spoon your leftover rice into a brass bowl, mixing it with pumpkin leaves, lettuce and a thick soy bean paste they serve as a dip. It was bliss.
One of the best things about Gyeongju is its night tourism, which the city has smartly packaged as the “Moonlight Travelogue of Silla History,” available from the city’s major hotels. It features the nation’s oldest observatory, Cheomseongdae.
For people who’ve only seen the tower in photographs, it’s a bit of shock to realize how small it actually is. Built in 632, the tower is only 9.4 meters high and used 27 layers of stone. It’s the oldest observatory in Asia, used largely by farmers to determine the cycles of the moon.
Formally, though, it’s a graceful monument with a mysterious square hole in the middle. It’s one of the nation’s earliest scientific remains and it uses curious methods involving the tower’s 361 stones, which double the number of days in a lunar calendar. From the observatory, a walk past the royal tombs of Gyerim is pleasant. They are surrounded by a forest lit with tranquil illumination.
The Anapji Pond, which is part of the palace complex, is also open late at night. This is a hidden treasure with its trees creating an atmospheric reflection on the water. During an excavation of Anapji in the 70s over 30,000 artifacts were found. The items were mostly from the royal household and seemed to have been dropped into the water during banquets held in the pavilions that once surrounded the pond.
The next morning, I headed to Yangdong, a village that embodies Korean Confucianism, evident in the local emphasis on scholarship and social class in the village’s architecture and lifestyle.
Yangdong is far less of a tourist trap compared to other folk villages in the country, as it is strictly governed by descendants of the major clans who ruled the area. The residents here take great pride in their scholarly tradition. When the village was originally built, a fortuneteller predicted that three scholars born in the village would rule the country. So far there have been two, Lee Won-gyeong and Lee Eon-jeok.
With regard to Lee Eon-jeok, there is a Confucian legend. His mother, close to delivery, supposedly came home to give birth at her parent’s house in Yangdong. But she was sent away to her husband’s family several miles away because her father was worried that his daughter’s baby would turn out to be one the three scholars the fortuneteller had predicted.
If the star-to-be was going to be born in his family, he much preferred to see it come from his son, because a daughter’s children were under the control of her in-laws.
Lee’s mother was returning to her husband in a palanquin, but her water broke before she got out of the village, and she gave birth to her son in the forest.
There is a family of farmers in the village that makes a famous traditional yeo, toffee produced from rice that they harvest, called Yangdong traditional rice taffy. They also sell syrup and delicious rice snacks. I bought a small bag, for my dad. The taffy farmers can be contacted at (054) 762-7567.
There are countless other treasures in Gyeongju, including the Seokguram Grotto, which has statues that are considered to be among the pinnacles of Buddhist art. The statues are inside glass cases. To look at their structure in more detail, visit the Silla Art and Science Museum, which has complete miniatures of the statues in the grotto.
On my way back to Seoul, the Saemaeul train only had standing room available. As a veteran train traveler, I ran to the snack car as I got on, snatched a corner table and hummed along to my Glenn Gould CD all the way back to Seoul while munching on red-bean cakes sandwiched between barley bread.
There are several places to stay in Gyeongju. The Hotel Hyundai (054) 748-2233 offers comfortable lodging, but their service can get a little rough during breakfast, with a 10 minute line for the breakfast buffet. The Hilton (054) 745-7788) is a safe bet. If you are willing to pay little more, try La Gung (054) 778-2100, an upscale hanok hotel, with rooms that start at 330,000 won for two including breakfast and dinner. There are Saemaul trains from Seoul to Gyeongju and the journey takes five hours. Express buses and the KTX also run from Seoul with a transfer at Daegu. The KTX takes three hours. For more information call (054) 772-3843.
By Park Soo-mee Staff Writer [email@example.com]