Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Gyeongju City Tour

At long last, here are some photos from Unni's and my trip to Gyeongju several weeks ago. We took the standard city bus tour, which cost about 15,000 won, plus another 10,000 or so for admission fees. We made our reservations the night before and were lucky to get the last available seats, this being the peak cherry-blossom season. The bus took off from Gyeongju station at 10am, which meant we had to be on the KTX from Seoul station at 7 AM.

The large tour bus was full to capacity.  Our tourguide, an energetic ajumma and Gyeongju native, took charge from the front of the bus. After collecting our cash, she made a long speech introducing the city's history, then showed a video in English which repeated the salient points of her speech for those in the audience who could not understand Korean. There were three of these: two Filipinos and one Filipino-American.
Our fearless leader
Gyeongju is marketed as "Korea's answer to Kyoto," because it was the capital of the Shilla dynasty (57 BC - 935 AD) and today has more intact historical structures than any other city in South Korea. When I tell my friends in Seoul that I miss living in Kyoto, they often suggest Gyeongju as a way to get a similar experience. However after taking this day tour I have to conclude that the two cities are quite different in terms of atmosphere and personality. Kyoto is far more populous, narrowly laid-out and walkable; Gyeongju has a very wide-open feel, with broad streets, vast empty fields, and long distances between sites. While both cities exude a certain aura of "faded glory" as ex-capitals, today Kyoto is still considered an important hub for business and academia, whereas Gyeongju feels like its existence is mainly defined by its tourism and historical significance.

A large chunk of central Gyeongju has been redeveloped with modern accomodation and recreation facilities for the Gyeongju World Culture Expo, which will open this fall. The redeveloped area includes an enormous man-made lake, a giant hotspring resort, an amusement park, and assorted fancy hotels. We didn't go there on our tour but we drove past it several times, and our guide proudly pointed out the pièce de résistance, a distinctive looking building with the shape of a pagoda cut out of its center:

This photo is borrowed from the official Gyeongju City tourism website
Gyeongju was also apparently gearing up to host some sort of major event for the World Taekwondo Federation. Several times our bus passed huge banners welcoming visitors to the "WTF Championships." I deeply regret that I was unable to get a photo of one of these signs.

After passing by and acknowledging the newly redeveloped area, our tourbus climbed up into the foothills of the eastern part of the city to Bulguksa Temple, where we made our first stop. This temple seems to be the must-see site for any Gyeonju tour, due to its age and historic value; the original temple site dates back to 751 BC, although as our tour guide explained the buildings have been destroyed and rebuilt many times, and the oldest part of the present structure is the elaborate stone base (I was paying close attention at this point, because it was still early in the day and I felt responsible for translating for the Filipino tourists).

Unni & me standing in front of Bulguksa Temple. This is the obligatory photo that every visitor to Gyeongju must take.
Next we toured the Silla Arts and Science Museum, which focused on the advances in astronomical knowledge made during the Shilla period and the ancient construction techniques employed in constructing Gyeongju's architectural wonders. Roughly 80% of this museum was dedicated to explaining the construction of the Seokguram Grotto, a domed structure of giant stone slabs, built in the 8th century AD. Our tour did not actually include Seokguram, which is quite far from central Gyeongju, so it seems this museum stop was included as a consolation prize.

The next stop was Bunhwangsa, a somewhat dilapidated temple featuring a 3-storey stone pagoda and a pile of stone tiles nearby. According to our guide, the stone tiles were discarded by Japanese raiders during Hideyoshi's invasion, allegedly out of spite because they didn't have anything like it in Japan and couldn't stand the idea of Koreans having greater architectural achievements. Based on the size of the pile Korean historians have assessed that the original pagoda was probably 7 storeys high. The pagoda was undergoing renovation when we visited, so it wasn't much to look at.

Next it was time for lunch. Our bus dropped us off at a cluster of different restaurants, giving us less than an hour to eat. Unni and I unwisely chose the Korean barbecue restaurant, but the service was so slow that after sitting and fuming for 30 minutes with no sign of our food, we gave up and ran over to the buffet-style restaurant next door to scarf down an unremarkable meal in about 15 minutes. We were nearly the last ones back on our bus.

After lunch we spent an hour at the Gyeongju National Museum complex. Memorable exhibits included an intact thousand-year-old egg, a giant bronze bell, and numerous ancient artifacts dredged from the bottom of Anapji Pond. The exhibit explained that this pond turned out to be the richest source of such artifacts, because the 16th century Japanese invaders took away nearly everything they could find that was on dry land.

Wooden pavilion overlooking Anapji Pond
 Our next stop was Anapji Pond itself; this marked the beginning of the walking-intensive section of the tour. We passed by several historic monuments and a large park full of people flying kites, part of some sort of annual festival. Near the kite-flyers was the chimney-like ancient stone tower, Cheomseongdae.
Unni and me in front of Cheomseongdae, believed to be the oldest astronomical observatory in the East.
Early on the tour we each started one of those stamp rally cards, a ubiquitous feature of tourist areas in Korea and Japan where there are many important sites spread out over an area. These are designed to keep kids interested as their parents or teachers drag them from site to site through the city. By the end of our tour, we had acquired a respectable number of stamps.

The problem was that we didn't start our stamp cards until the second site on the tour, so we never got stamps for Bulguksa. As the day wore on Unni became more and more obsessed with this undeserved blank spot on her card. By the time we reached Cheomseongdae, she made up her mind to just put the Cheomseongdae stamp over the spot for Bulguksa as well, rationalizing that she deserved a stamp there even if it wasn't the right one. A little boy waiting to get his stamp noticed her stamping the wrong spot and asked her what she was doing. "Oh, we went to Bulguksa but we never got a stamp, so I'm using this one instead." Unni told him distractedly. "Well, I went to Bulguksa too," said the boy, and copied Unni's lead. I chided Unni about setting a bad example for Korea's youth.
I couldn't think of any particular reason to include yet another picture of Cheomseongdae, except that it's a particularly flattering shot of me, and it's my blog so I can do what I want.
At the end of the walk we passed through a pleasant park dotted with large ancient burial mounds. The guide explained how the ancient treasures that once filled these mounds were looted by the Japanese. The story goes that Hideyoshi's troops nearly overlooked one of the most significant of the tombs on their march through the peninsula. Unfortunately a soldier noticed some children playing with some very valuable relics, and asked where they had come from. The guileless child responded, "There's tons of stuff like this in my backyard." Well, the Japanese got the kid to show him where the stuff was, figured out there was a tomb there, and that was the end of that.

At the end of the park we came to a pleasant rest area beside a stone pond, and we all sat down to rest our feet as our guide launched into a rather extensive monologue. By this point I had reached my daily limit of Korean listening comprehension, so I kind of zoned her out. Instead I sat back and admired the symmetrical shapes of the burial mounds, and wondered aloud to Unni if it would be okay to climb to the top of one of them. Nobody else was doing so, but I hadn't noticed any fences or signs expressly forbidding it. "Go ahead, try it," Unni said. "Nobody's stopping you." Not wanting to be the ugly American, I declined.

But a few minutes later, some of the bored kids in our group apparently decided to give it a try.

We watched with amusement as the kids trekked halfway up the side and slid back down. They repeated this process several times before our tourguide noticed them and interupted her oration to exclaim, "Oh, dear; they shouldn't be up there. There's a 500,000 won fine if they catch you up there." I nudged Unni and gave her a look that said "Look what you almost got me in to!" But the children continued their adventure, and whoever their parents were made no move to intervene; probably too embarrassed to identify themselves.

Our tourguide midway through a lengthy speech; bored kids kicking dirt into the pond.
The final stop of the tour was General Kim Yushin's tomb, a relatively modest mound of earth bounded by stone slabs featuring carvings of the 12 zodiac signs. The key activity at this site seemed to be getting one's photo taken in front of one's zodiac sign, so Unni and I promptly took care of this.

Unni standing in front of her zodiac sign
The tour bus dropped us off  back at the Gyeongju KTX Station at about 5 pm. In front of the station they had set up a miniature replica of a burial mound that kids could climb over and into. "Here's your chance!" Unni said, and even though the mound was swarming with kids she talked me into climbing up it for a picture. Most of the kids scrammed as I approached.

King of the mountain!


  1. Dear Changmi,
    I came across your post on Gyeongju City Tour and can i checked with you how long do you spend for this stamping tour? Would you know where is the stating point as i saw there are 15 spots. Does all the sites are located near to each other? Can we walk from 1 site to another site to collect stamps?

    Warm regards,

  2. Hi Kaling,
    If you're going, I highly recommend signing up for a bus tour. The sites are spread quite far apart mostly and it would be impossible to see them all on foot. Even with a day-long bus tour we only got to about 7 of them.