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|
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|
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.|
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|
|Unni and me in front of Cheomseongdae, believed to be the oldest astronomical observatory in the East.|
|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 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.|
|Unni standing in front of her zodiac sign|
|King of the mountain!|