Gyeongju is, according to Lonely Planet “stuffed to the hills with history”. A fair assessment.
Despite having a population of 280,000, the centre feels more like a town built around a huge country park thanks to the UNESCO listed Gyeongju Historical Areas, a huge concentration of historical sites surrounded by inter-connected parklands in the heart of town.
The Silla Dynasty ruled parts of what is now Korea for almost 1,000 years from 57 BCE to 935 CE, and for two thirds of that time, Gyeongju was its capital. During the 4th and 5th centuries, many royals and wealthy nobles were buried here. Each was interred in a tumuli (literally, a ‘mound’), an elaborately constructed rock-filled structure with a chamber in the centre containing the deceased’s coffin and funerary objects. The whole thing was then sealed up with more rocks and several outer layers of different types of clay.
By the 1800s they’d long been forgotten and residential settlements covered the area. But the discovery of a tomb with potentially valuable artifacts led to the identification and excavation of several tombs in the 1920s to 1940s. Housing was cleared and over time dozens of tumuli mounds were uncovered in various sites around the city.
The largest concentration is at Daerungwon Tomb Complex with 23 tombs of kings, queens and members of the ruling class. There are literally hundreds in total, scattered over 600,000 square metres of connected parks. These giant grass-covered hillocks pop up from an otherwise flat land.
Some have trees growing out of them.
There are no barriers and the parks are free to visit, hence the city’s nickname as ‘the museum without walls’. The mounds are deemed worthy of serious respect. The penalty for climbing them up to two years jail.
Here is an aerial shot we found on the city’s tourism website which gives some idea of the size of them.
On first sight, John asserted that a tailings dump at a mine site would be more interesting. But that is terribly unfair. The excavated Cheonmachong Tomb is open to visitors and contains a re-creation and videos showing the construction method and rituals of burial.
There are also replicas of gold crowns, jewellery and weapons found in the tombs. The originals are on display at the Gyeongju Museum.
The park is popular for strolling and for photo ops.
In another part of the park area is Cheomseongdae, the oldest surviving astrological observatory in Asia. Built between 632 and 646 CE, it has 12 stones at the base representing the months of the year, topped with 30 layers in descending size for the days of the month, a total of 366 for the number of days in the year plus one for the then Queen. Its appearance has remained unchanged for almost 1,400 years, although these days it tilts a little due to ground subsidence.
Nearby is a field of pink muhly, a strangely textured feathery grass which turns pinky purple from September to November. It’s native to North America, but can be found in various locations here. Koreans love it so much there are magazine articles and travel advisories when it turns coloured and an internet search will throw up dozens of blog posts with captions such as ‘15 Surreal Spots to See Pink Muhly in Korea’.
Just like in the tourism website aerial photo, it’s autumn now and the trees are magnificent.
This next photo is Gyerim Forest, said to be the birthplace of the founder of the Kim clan which ruled the Silla Dynasty for several hundred years. Gyerim means ‘Forest of the Rooster’. According to legend, the previous king sent his servant to investigate a sound in the forest. The servant returned to report a golden crate hanging in a tree with a white rooster crowing beneath it. The crate was fetched and found to contain a baby boy. The king, heir-less at the time, exclaimed “the heavens have bestowed on me a son” and raised him as his own. Does every culture have a ‘Moses in the bulrushes’ story?
If you don’t want to walk around the parks there are shuttle buses which are much more zany that those little trains which blight so many places in Europe.
On the other side of Gyerim Forest is Woljeonggyo. As built in 760CE, it was the longest wooden bridge in Korea. Some sources say it was 60km long! The original burned down several hundred years later. After extensive historical research to ensure authenticity, it was rebuilt in the 2010s to its original specifications.
Scenes from a popular Korean TV drama were filmed among the pillars supporting the roof of the bridge so it’s a favoured spot with domestic tourists.
Gyochon Hanok Village grew up around a Confuscian Academy established near the bridge in 682 CE. It’s been prettied up as a tourist attraction these days but worth a look if you’re in the area.
At the interestingly named House of Rich Man Choi, a play was being staged in the courtyard for anyone who cared to wander in.
Considered a masterpiece of the golden era of the Silla Dynasty, Bulguksa Temple with nearby Seokguram Grotto was the first place in Korea to receive UNESCO World Heritage listing.
They are located in a forest outside the city and are always written up as serene, meditative places. But except for food, the three things Koreans seem to love most are sleeping late (nothing happens early), weekend hiking and temples. We hit the trifecta by heading there late on a Sunday morning. It was packed!
We took a bus to Seokguram, planning to hike from the Grotto down to Bulguksa but the trail was closed due to recent rock slides so all we could do was visit the Grotto and then get another bus down to Bulguksa.
Seokguram is a constructed cave temple. Built in 751CE, the engineering is remarkable. The Buddha was carved and then a cave built around it to protect it from weathering. It was constructed over a stream and used hundreds of stones held together with stone rivets such that moist air concentrated at the bottom with a dome above regulating humidity to conditions perfect for preservation of the Buddha.
Sadly, the cave was badly damaged during the Japanese occupation. The Japanese dismantled much of the cave structure intending to take the Buddha to Japan. When they realised they wouldn’t be able to get the Buddha out, they were unable or unwilling to reconstruct it so they just concreted what they’d hacked away at, destroying the cave’s moisture regulating qualities. Even today, no one’s worked out how to restore it correctly, so unfortunately they have had to close off the cave with glass and install dehumidifiers.
Visitors can only look through the glass at the very elegant carving. Photos aren’t permitted, but here’s one we found on the internet.
Down the hill, Bulguksa is the head temple of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism. It has the distinction of being classified Historic and Scenic Site No 1 by the South Korean government.
Like lots of temples in Korea, it’s a mix of old and new. The stone pagodas, staircases and stupa are original, dating to about 752CE.
But the temple itself was burned down by the Japanese in 1593 because it was being used as a base for a volunteer militia opposing their invasion. Parts were rebuilt in the 1700s but the majority of the temple is a reconstruction dating to last century. Which begs the question why it got a UNESCO listing, but it’s certainly elegant even though it is mobbed by people.
The autumn is a beautiful time to see it.
And last but not least, proof of John’s infinite patience. A visit to the Gyeongju Bunny Bear Museum.
Originally the Gyeongju Teddy Bear Museum, it’s been re-branded and expanded to include rabbits. But we came for the teddies.
Visitors are greeted at the entrance by larger than human size teddy bears in traditional Korean dress.
And there’s some modern ones too, like this Charlie Chaplin bear.
But the cute thing is the way the main exhibition is presented. Dioramas follow the adventures of Professor Grant, a scientist who looks a lot like Doc from Back to the Future.
And his wife Julie, an archeologist.
The professor has invented a time machine and the couple together with their children travel to significant eras in Korean dynastic history.
Fighting wars, building pagodas, worshipping a water dragon, consulting a famous Confuscian scholar. Information boards next to each explain the historical event to which they refer.
We thought it was a really cute and innovative way of engaging children in their cultural heritage. At least Julie did. John was still looking for a tailings dump to investigate.