There is not a place I have been to that I can honestly claim triumphs over the charm that seeps through the streets of the city of Gyeongju. Situated in the North Gyeongsang Province and sandwiched in between Ulsan and Pohang, Gyeongju is a quick hour’s bus ride from Busan, and a two hour KTX ride from Seoul. Once the capital of the Silla Kingdom, the city is a beautifully decorated old treasure box, filled to the brim with delights ranging from mountain ranges to lunch next to a hundred-year old pond; from backpacker’s bunk beds to colossal burial mounds; from traditional markets to mural fishing villages. I spent twenty-four hours in this Korean gem in the beginnings of my first Fall in Korea, deciding on a fanciful whim one Saturday morning that an out-of-city adventure was in order. I found myself on a bus en route to Gyeongju an hour later, library book tucked neatly into the seat in front of me, and at the Gyeongju Bus Terminal another hour later.
Because life is strange sometimes, it happened that I needed to be back in Busan by the next morning, and so had just about twenty-three and a quarter precious hours in which to see all that seemed to be important to my worldly education in this city of which I had not known existed until the day before. Armed with a bicycle, a map, and a small brown backpack, I spent those hours as best I could, yet did not see nearly enough, departing the following morning with a definite piece of my heart tucked in between burial mounds and foliage-laden sidewalks.
The important thing, I think, when travelling to a place quite famous for quite many things, is to sit yourself down before you set out and decide what is truly important to your traveler’s education. If I had rabidly gone after big tourist site to big tourist site in my few precious hours there, I would have cheated myself out of the things I discovered that weren’t on any of the big maps, but were just lying, itching to be discovered. The famous sites have their merits, of course, and I do not encourage you to completely ignore them; I only make a case for your own interests, which often get trampled on by the shiny allure of tourist traps. Though our curiosities might not be exactly similar – yours and mine -, here is a little guide to my almost-twenty four hours in Gyeongju, should you find yourself there, overwhelmed with the hordes of things to see and taste and do.
First Order of Business: A Bicycle, a Place to Sleep, and a Map
Bicycles are the wheels of choice in Gyeongju, and I would be lying if I did not disclose that my desire to cycle through orange-and-red streets with a basket and a bell and two large wheels were not the very reason I decided to make that impromptu trip. Bicycles of all sorts are available for rent almost every few steps in the main street and all for quite cheaply. I personally rented mine from the hostel I had hastily found on Booking.com that morning – Coolzaam Guest House, for 3000W. Also known as: almost no money at all. Though thoroughly thrilled with the thriftiness of my transport, I was quite disappointed to be presented with a sporty-looking black contraption – all thick wheels and places to put your water bottle, when I had hoped for a large, even rusty, big wheeled thing, perhaps yellow. These can be found nearly everywhere else in town, though probably for a few thousand won more. On my next visit there I will certainly make of point of renting one of those – though I am grateful to the lovely owner of Coolzaam for my charmless black bicycle, which got me all over the town safely.
Along with my perfectly adequate bicycle-for-the-day, the lovely hostel owner also armed me with a large map – heavy with scribbled notes in her fantastic English; tips on where to go with the amount of time at my disposal and so on. Coolzaam’s dormitory rooms have lovely bunk beds that are sectioned off with curtains, breakfast in the cozy kitchen come morning, and a big old comfortable living room in which to compose your thoughts after a beautiful day. It’s smack bang in the middle of downtown, a few minutes’ walk from a big traditional market, the train station, as well as the local bus stops. Check out their website for more information: https://coolzaam.wordpress.com/
After a quick coffee – sipped over my open map – I set off toward the first gem that piqued my interest: Tumuli Park, which houses the Daereungwon Tomb Complex . As with most of the official tourist sites in Gyeongju, there is an entrance fee, but 2000 Won feels inconsequential in the face of deep, mossy ponds and wide little paved roads winding around ancient Silla dynasty burial mounds. The park is fraught with them, these mounds, protruding from the Earth every few steps like the belly of an expectant mother. I am loathe to compare them to the Pyramids for exactly this reason – they feel like parts of the Earth, and have no air of construction about them.
The superstar of this Tomb Complex is the open Cheonmachong tomb. Cheonmachong means “heavenly horse”, which refers to a painting of a “heavenly” horse found within the tomb. Because this particular tomb is structured so that the actual burial chamber is above ground – yet still enshrouded by the massive mound – the burial treasures have remained largely intact for our curious twenty-first century eyes. Within the ominously thrilling tumulus, or burial mound, you may feast your eyes on a variety of Silla Dynasty jewels, weaponry and art, as well as a representation of how the tomb’s occupant would have been found “resting”.
Despite the tourists, the park was a delicious first stop, and I definitely recommend it as such because of its crash-course effect – I did not know much about Gyeongju’s rich history before travelling there, and my forty-five minute stroll through the park and reading of plaques in especially the Cheonmachong Tomb equipped me with a basic knowledge from which to work as I moved on.
Wolsung Forest and Cheomseong Observatory
From the Tomb Complex, I cycled blindly on, arriving at the Cheomseong Observatory, Wolsung Forest beckoning lusciously in the background. The observatory itself is unimpressive as far as stone structures go, but becomes fantastically interesting once one gets to know it. The oldest surviving astronomical observatory in Asia, it was constructed during the reign of Queen Seon-Deok to observe the stars with the very practical purpose of forecasting the weather, and the grey pagoda-type structure transforms itself in front of your very eyes as you learn of its interesting original purposes.
After this fascinating little star-gazing structure, and craving some time away from my fellow tourists, I cycled slowly between the rice paddies toward Wolsung forest, which beckoned with thick rows of trees that carved out little nooks for what seemed like every person craving it. Here, away from the crowds, I could breathe and process the richness of this fascinating place for the first time that day, cross legged on a bench in this dense, forgiving forest. Were you to travel to Gyeongju and only spend an afternoon in repose amongst those trees, you will have gotten to the essence of Gyeongju, and will leave with a sense of accomplishment.
Lunch, and an Ancient PondQuite famished by paying such intense attention to the beauty that Gyeongju had offered so far, I cycled through Wolsung forest to arrive, as luck would have it, at a cluster of little food stalls a few hundred meters away from Anapji Pond, which had been highly recommended by my host. Off to the pond I went, after buying a lunch of steamed corn and egg pastry, to find a bench on which to eat and – I hoped – people watch. Anapji Pond seemed to have come straight out of my imagination; much larger than the word “pond” indicates, and surrounded by maze-like little gardens dotted with benches, it was the ideal setting for a solitary reading lunch. Anapji has an entrance fee of 2500W, but again, you’ll kind of want to offer to pay more once you’ve stepped inside the gates. Built by King Munmu in 674, who had envisioned a sprawling pleasure garden, the entire pond and its surroundings are bathed in an air of luxury – not in a draped-in-jewels way but in a way that makes you feel as though you could soon forget all of your worldly responsibilities, and that somehow that would be perfectly alright, as long as you could lazily saunter around this wise old pond for the whole afternoon.
A trip within a trip: Eupcheon Mural VillageAs the day wound down, and I had cycled around town with no particular place in mind, deliriously enchanted, I decided to go back to the hostel to refresh before setting out in search of dinner in the covered market I had spied as I had arrived that morning. Once there, however, my host gave me the gift of a secret place, for which I will be forever grateful. She told me, with sparkling eyes, of a fishing village called Eupcheon, quite a while away from downtown by bus, with walls that were painted with scenes of all kinds by its interesting residents. Though the sun was setting quickly, the skies were clear and the air balmy, and something about the way in which she spoke of this faraway little village made me understand that this was the jewel of Gyeongju I would not find on any map. And so I made my way back to the bus stop, and waited for bus 150-1. The last stop would be Eupcheon, I was told, and I would have precisely forty-five minutes there before the last bus back to town would pass through.
After a bus ride of over an hour in the golden dusk of Gyeongju, I arrived in Eupcheon just as the sun dipped beneath the horizon. Here I should be very clear with you: if you are the sort of traveler that requires entertainment in the crudest sense – if you travel for the buzz of performances and bars and restaurants, you should not make the voyage towards Eupcheon. If you are, like me, content with strolling through a quiet village that smells distinctly of freshly-caught seafood, decorated humbly but inventively with scenes of all kinds on walls of all kinds, then I implore you not to miss it. Skip the tourist sites if you must, because this is where you will receive your true traveller’s education. With only a handful of seafood hole-in-the-walls, a lovely coffee shop, and a small convenience store, you will find yourself, as I did, with nothing to distract you from the Moonrise Kingdom-esque little beach; nothing to take away from the solitary walkways and quietly breaking waves, and be left with only a deep sense of satisfaction of having discovered what has been seemingly overlooked by the hordes.Things that don’t fit under any headline (but the best things never do)
The most thrilling parts of those beautiful twenty four hours in Gyeongju; the parts that has solidified that city in my mind as the pinnacle of laid-back charm, were the ones that don’t have any specific name nor coordinates I could possibly give you. These included a small hike up an unnamed hill en route to Anapji Pond; a glass of red wine at a bistro overlooking several unnamed burial mounds that night, making friends with and receiving free food to taste from the overwhelmingly kind vendors at Seongdong Market, and a Sunday morning run through ancient burial sites, skimming the foot of a mountain and the walls of a large, solemn temple. These things are the ones that won’t be found on the internet or any map, but are the ones that will matter most as you reminisce about your trip, and so I implore you to take any sort of guide (even mine) with a pinch of salt, and dare to veer off of the tours and the plans in order to discover the things lying dormant, waiting for you to find them.