Sunday, February 10, 2008

Morning calm and mountain air in Gyeongju

With three days leave for the lunar new year (Seollal), I took my colleagues' advice and travelled to Gyeongju, one of the most popular tourist destinations in Korea. The city is a few hours' bus ride from Changwon, and famed for its wealth of ancient artefacts - perfect for an introduction to Korean history.

The valley that Gyeongju sits in was the centre of power for the Silla Kingdom, a major player in the Three Kingdoms era (57 BC - AD 668). Silla became increasingly powerful throughout this period, eventually defeating the opposing kingdoms (Baekje and Goguryeo), repelling a Chinese invasion and uniting the Korean peninsula for the first time. The kingdom also became increasingly opulent, leaving a stunning legacy of Buddhist temples, pagodas and shrines throughout the valley.

The city itself is a ramshackle mixture of gaudy motels, sketchy-looking hostels and narrow shopping streets, which has seemingly grown up quite organically around the ancient burial mounds that are scattered throughout the area. These mounds (neung) are the tombs of Silla royalty, and though they are often quite large, they seem designed to be relatively humble, understated reminders of the rich and powerful. The simple, rounded shapes of the mounds chime with the country's landscape, and walking in the neatly manicured Tombs Park near the city centre feels a little like stepping through a miniaturised version of Korea.

It may seem a little morbid to have such visible symbols of death in a modern city, but instead there's something strangely compelling and uplifting about the burial mounds. Made of heaped stones and earth over timber frames, and covered in grass and occasionally trees, they provide a very tangible link to Buddhist traditions of harmony between man and the 'natural' world.

A short bus ride past the rice fields surrounding Gyeongju and a modern lakeside resort leads to the entrance to Bulguk-sa, the 'Temple of the Buddha-land'. The temple is Gyeongju's biggest tourist draw, originally built in the 6th century, extended throughout the Silla period and now a beautifully preserved working monastery.

Surrounded by pine-covered slopes and immaculate, serene grounds (and rather large construction site, but we'll ignore that in a zen kinda way), Bulguk-sa is the epitome of peaceful, elegant retreat, without being austere or stifling. Airy courtyards contain prayer halls with gently curving roofs and delicate columns, giving them a sense of lightness and upwards momentum. Colourful decorative splashes and playful architectural details add to the feeling of celebration and openness, encouraging contemplation in a gentle, affable manner, even on a bitingly cold winter day.

The mountains around the valley are littered with other temples, pagodas and shrines from the Silla period, as well as more burial mounds. An afternoon spent scrambling around the slopes of Namsan (South Mountain) gave me a few bruises and a childish (and completely false) sense of discovering lost relics. With few other hikers in sight, it was easy to indulge in a little archaeological wish-fulfilment, although the abundance of scattered tangerine peel and carefully placed rope handrails did undermine the illusion a little.

Other highlights around Gyeongju include the shrine of Seokguram, which sits at the top of a surprisingly arduous trail from Bulguk-sa. At the path's end are some stunning views, and small grotto housing a wonderfully preserved stone Buddha - well worth the trek, even though the Buddha image itself is understandably protected by a sheet of glass.

Another must is the beautifully presented Gyeongju National Museum, which gives a great overview of the area. The galleries feature some very accessible insights into the distinctive architecture of the Silla period, and a nicely balanced selection of bronze age and Silla relics - intricately crafted Buddha statuettes, bells and other treasures, as well as everyday objects. My favourite of the latter was a twelve-sided dice used for ancient drinking games, featuring instructions such as 'never abandon your unpleasant partner', 'let them strike you on the nose', 'dance silently' as well as the more generic 'drink and sing'.

The villages and mountains around Gyeongju are saturated with many more enticing relics and hiking trails, as well as a 'special vegetarian village', which sounds particularly appealing to me. Hopefully I'll be able to sample some of these on return visits to the area, but my short trip was a great taster for Korea's historical riches, and an inspiring way to start the year of the rat.

Photo albums:
Bulguk-sa and Seokguram

1 comment:

Susannah said...

Cowboy, your blog is one of the things I most look forward to reading. Your writing is exquisite and illuminating about your new life in SK. However unless you show yourself in one of your photos very soon, I am going to believe you're sitting in a bedsit in Burton-on-Trent nicking photos from

(I also want to see if you've succumbed to Gap Year mentality, and are wearing wooden beads...)