2 Days in Gyeongju, South Korea
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If you like history, you will LOVE Gyeongju! Settled in 57 B.C. by the Shilla clan, the fertile region was a hotbed of tribal conflict for centuries until Shilla leaders, aided by China's Tang Dynasty, were able to establish reign around the 7th century. A period of peace followed, Buddhism spread from China, and culture flourished. This itinerary is about two days, with time spent in Gyeongju City (perhaps on foot or by bicycle) and then excursions to sites beyond the city. You have a couple of options for an overnight visit. There is a modern resort area on Lake Bomun, with your choice of recognizable hotels, pension houses, and camping. Another option is to soak in the history and culture at a hanok homestay (민박).
Day 1: Gyeongju City
To fuel up for the day ahead, we taxied over to Hwangnam Bang (황남빵) bakery for a box of red-bean filled pastries, a Gyeongju "must eat". They are spectacular! With pastries in hand, we strolled along a path of 23 ancient royal tombs in Great Emperor Park (대릉원). The largest of these mounds is a double "couple's tomb", named Hwangnamdaechong (황남대총), housing the remains of a king and his beloved queen. A small pond with blooming lilies and swaying willows makes this a beautiful photo spot. Curious to see the inside of one of these tombs, we paid a small fee to enter Cheonmachong (천마총), or Heavenly Horse, tomb. Inside, the museum showcases the remains of the king, as well as many of the 11,000 relics found inside tomb.
Then we spent the next three hours touring Gyeongju National Museum, which has five separate buildings with a variety of themes, such as archaeology, buddhism, Shilla art, and architecture.
Heading back out into the late afternoon sunshine, we went to Bunhwang Temple, another of Queen Seondeok's commissions. This is a tiny, but revered temple, as it was the home of Korea's most famous monk, Wonhyo Daesa. It's a very peaceful place, right next to a gorgeous poppy field. Our walking tour continued to Kim YuShin's tomb, Korea's most famous Shilla-era General who died in 673 A.D.
My favorite Wonhyo story: The monk spent the night in a cave. In the middle of the night, he was thirsty. Groping in the dark, he grasped a gourd and used it to drink water. Satisfied that his thirst had been quenched, he happily fell asleep. In the morning, he discovered the "gourd" was a skull filled with dirt and maggots, which prompted him to puke. He attained enlightened upon realizing that his emotions were controlled by the discernments of his mind. Do not judge "good" or "bad".
Finally, with the sun beginning to set, we meandered along the paths of Anapji, a palace built by King Munmu in 671 A.D. The beautiful pond and ancient trees set a tranquil, calming mood. Stomachs stirring, we headed to Byul Chae Ban (별채반) restaurant for an amazing dinner of lettuce wraps (삼겹살, "sam-gyop-sal"), grilled beef (불고기, "bul-gogi"), and a soju nightcap.
Day 2: Seokkuram, Bulkuksa, and King Munmu's Underwater Tomb
The sun was barely rising as we made our way along the dusty, broom-whisked path. We headed to Seokkuram Grotto near the summit of Toham Mountain (토함산). Built during the Shilla Kingdom era in 751 A.D. by Prime Minister Kim Dae-Song, this small temple was intended as a private meditation area for royalty. Within the dimly lit man-made cave, a serene Buddha sits on his lotus throne, flanked by relief carvings of 40 divinities and bodhisattvas. The cave is an engineering marvel, with hundreds of small granite slabs held together by stone rivets, rather than mortar.
The sound of a monk rhythmically beating a wooden drum wafted into the quiet, peaceful rotunda. We lit a candle and sat in silence for a few reflective minutes. The tranquility followed us we exited, enveloping our thoughts as we stood in appreciation of the East Sea in the distance.
We purchased a roof tile and inscribed our family dedication, to be read by some future visitor from a far off land. As tourists began to arrive, we walked back to the entrance and surveyed the bird's-eye view of Gyeongju. From here, you can hike down to Bulkuksa (a little less than 3 miles) or drive.
Note: The Shilla Arts and Sciences Museum has an informative exhibit to help you appreciate the construction of Seokkuram. It's free!
Bulkuksa is also believed to have been built under the master supervision of Kim Dae-Song. This sprawling temple complex is at the base of Toham Mountain. With multiple courtyards, gardens, ponds, pagodas and wooden shrines, it was clearly designed for mass public worship.
Take your time at Bulkuksa. It is easy to be hurried by the crowds. But if you pay attention and explore, you will discover fascinating national treasures and secluded retreats. Walk the paths less traveled and imagine yourself as the creators intended: gliding through the blissful land of the Buddha, released from life's suffering.
Another site on most people's list when they travel to Gyeongju is King Munmu's Underwater Tomb. It's on the coast in a small village outside of Gyeongju, so you have to drive to this site or take a taxi. I offer this caution: most visitors are disappointed. The "tomb" is a legend about an outcropping of rocks beneath the sea. There is nothing more to see except the rocks. That being said, it's a lovely place to sit on the beach! My recommendation is to go there, contemplate the legend, snap a few selfies, and then enjoy a sashimi lunch and some sunshine. The blog Gyeongju Love has a great write-up and photos on King Munmu's tomb. Enjoy!