If you don't live in a country that is 23% Buddhist, then you might not know that Friday was Buddha's birthday. It made a 3-day weekend, good timing for this American girl who is used to Memorial Day at the end of May. Unfortunately, all my Gunsan friends were busy, sick, or going to Seoul, and I wanted to go somewhere quieter. I have heard a lot about the city of Gyeongju, which was the old capital of the Shilla dynasty and full of history. So I headed out alone!
Sorry this map is so small, but I think you can make out the green placemarker where I live and the yellow one directly across the country where Gyeongju is.
Any holiday weekend in any country is not the easiest time to travel. The bus was packed, the traffic was heavy, the sun was blazing, and I finally stumbled off the bus 6 hours later in Gyeongju. But I was immediately glad I made the trip. Everywhere I had called to book a room was full, yet when I showed up at the hostel, the owner slid me into my own room at one of their hotel satellite locations. I walked to a nearby park of grassy hills, which are actually burial mounds of Shilla royalty.
There is only one tomb that is excavated and open to the public. I waited in line to see it, eating ice cream in the pleasant evening heat. I ended up talking to the Korean family in front of me- a couple and their 8-year-old son- and we walked through the tomb together. They seemed concerned that I was traveling alone, and asked me if I wanted to hang out. So we headed to the oldest observatory in east Asia, then to a pond that was a royal Shilla recreational area. We were hoping to catch a traditional musical performance there but it wasn't until the next night.
They were a really sweet family, and shared some of their Gyeongju bread with me. Gyeongju bread is a regional, traditional bread made with barley flour and filled with red bean paste. We said goodbye, and I walked toward the hotel to find something for dinner. I ran into a group of foreigners on the street that I had seen earlier, and joined them in their hunt for a dinner spot as well. They were a friendly bunch of teachers working near Daejeon (not too far from me in the center of the country) from Canada, New Zealand, and England.
There was rain forecasted for Saturday evening, but heavy rains had already commenced by morning. Undeterred, I put on my jacket and bought an umbrella and took a city bus to Bulguksa Temple. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and called the crowing glory of Shilla temple architecture. It features a couple 8th century stone pagodas, miraculously not destroyed by the Japanese.
Lo and behold I ran into my foreign friends from dinner at the temple, and joined them for the day. We headed up the mountain behind Bulgoksa to the Seokguram Grotto, a royal pilgrimage spot with a huge stone Buddha. We definitely felt the discomforts of wet holiday travel- long bus waits, traffic, long lines, wet feet, cold hands, relentless wind, hungry stomachs- but still it was really enjoyable and the jolly bunch remained equanimous through it all. Back in town, we found a great mushroom restaurant and ordered a mushroom and beef Shabu-shabu with extra mandu- the perfect hot and healthy meal for our chilly day.
On Sunday it was- surprise!- still raining. I had been hoping to make it to the east coast and see the Sea of Japan, but given the weather and the short time, an hour to the beach was out of the question. Instead I went hiking on Namsan Mountain, just outside of the city. It is a huge swath of land littered with Shilla relics in the myriad of trails. Gyeongju is called the "museum without walls" and Namsan exemplified this. You are just hiking and stumble upon tombs, carvings, sculptures, altars. Some of the bigger ones have signs, but some don't. The main trail winded and crossed over a river a couple times, and I had to search to find the best (driest) way to cross. I was able to cross hopping on rocks, but on the way back I would have had to jump too far, and ended up just walking through the river. You can see the trail here.
This Buddha was probably my favorite, totally unexpected above me when I came out of the trees, sitting there gracefully since the 7th century. By the time I got back to the bus stop, I was pretty wet. I met a nice Korean college geography student, and she gave me a banana and helped me get off on the right stop for the National History Museum. It was free admission and I warmed up with some coffee before taking on the wealth of exhibits. Just as I was leaving the museum to catch the bus home, I happened to run into my Daejeon teacher friends and we said goodbye. I took my soaking wet shoes and socks off on the bus ride back, and felt bad for the guy sitting next to me, because Who wants to be stuck next to soggy-feet-girl? But he gave me beef jerky, so apparently he didn't hate me too much. Despite the rain, it really was a lovely and serendipitous weekend.
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