Michael Batson

Travel Writer





Gyeongju - Ancient Korea - 21 April 2016

Looking at the urban industrialised landscape of present-day Korea, it’s hard to see any traces of history.  South Korea has modernized at an astonishing rate, perhaps faster than any other nation in the last half-century. In that time they've gone from exporting wigs to the world's eighth-largest economy. Korea’s answer to development has been concrete and lots of it, ripping away any history least it get in the way of "progress". Why have a temple when you can have motorways, why the need for reminders of cultural past when there tower blocks to be built. But this country goes back centuries and it’s still possible to find vestiges of a rich past.


Gyeongju is about 300kms south-east of Seoul.  A day trip can be had from Daegu, Korea’s fourth-largest city.  Bus tickets cost 3700 won or about US$4.  Buses leave every half-hour, are clean and on time. 

The Korean countryside is crowded.  With 50 million packed into half of a fairly small peninsula, such farm land that exists is squeezed between highways and factories.  Wide open spaces barely exist.  In winter Korea is bone-dry, rain is scarce.  The land is straw-coloured and parched.  The Hyeongsangang River resembled a stone wasteland with puddles.  Despite this the day I came to town it rained – all day.

Near Gyeongju there were more traditional houses – even the motorway services have the sloped roofs with curved beams.  The town is famed for its traditional architecture, the type no longer seen in most cities.  Despite its history and tourist appeal, Geongju hasn’t escaped the characteristic of urban planning found in other South Korean cities – the tower block clusters of which can be seen around the city. 

Gyeongju was the capital of the United Kingdom of Silla.  Under the ancient name Seorabeol, Gyeongju was home to the Silla Dynasty which lasted almost 1,000 years with 56 monarchs from 2073 BPE until 935 AD.  Following several name changes the city reverted back to its current name in 1012. 

Korea’s turbulent history is little known.  According to the Koreans, the first of their kin was born in 4349 BPE.  Under constant pressure from China, tribes banded together to found a kingdom 1900 years ago.  By 700 AD the Silla Kingdom of Korea was hitting its cultural stride, populating the peninsulawith palaces, pagodas and pleasure gardens and influencing the development of Japan’s culture.

Korea has endured in chronological order; the Mongols, Japanese followed by Chinese rule and more latterly, brutal Japanese colonial occupation. Seven hundred years ago the Mongols arrived.  In 1238, Ugudei, one of Genghis Khan’s four sons and successors, now elected the Great Khan, invaded and looted Goryeo, as Gyeongju was then known, destroying the splendid Silla pagoda of Hwangnyongsa Temple. 

He was followed by Kublai Khan, Genghis Khan’s grandson whose Mongol fleet was wrecked by a typhoon or “divine wind” the “kamikaze”.  When the Mongol Empire collapsed, the Choson Dynasty took over and a Korean script was developed.  In 1592 Japan invaded, followed by China – the Koreans were routed and the Chinese Manchu Dynasty took over.

Gyeongju is now an open-air museum masquerading as a provincial centre littered with ancient rubble.  Those keen on Silla culture or archaeology will be in their element, investigating the remains of temples, tombs, shrines, palaces, pleasure gardens and castles, but more ordinary folk will probably find Gyeongju only has a day’s worth of entertainment.  As the weather was too cold to hire a bike and I settled for the city tour by bus. 

The tour costs 12,000 won, entrance fees excluded, which added another 11,800 won and lasted from 9am until 3:30pm.  Lunch was also extra.  My companions turned out to be six people from the Indian Subcontinent, where I’m not sure and a young couple, he possibly English and she American.  As they spent so much time whispering in each other’s ear, it was difficult to say from where they came.  He was as much above average height as she was below it.

The tour bus largely empty headed for Bulguksa Temple, the crowning glory of Silla temple architecture, about 16kms from the town.  On the way we passed Bomun Lake Resort with its luxury hotels.  Nearby is Bomun Mulebang, the biggest water mill in Korea weighing 8o tons and measuring 13m in diameter it generates a 12m high waterfall.

One advantage of sightseeing in winter is others don’t venture out.  Bulguksa, usually crawling with tourists was largely deserted.  Nogroups of giggling schoolgirls or throngs of camera snapping tourists - or even queues. Brilliant. “Bulguk” means Land of Buddha and “sa” means temple.  The temple is set in grounds situated on the southwest side of Mt. Tohamsan.  According to Samgukyusa, the oldest historic book existing in Korea, it was built by Prime Minister Kim Daeseong in 751, the tenth year of King Gyeondeok’s reign.

The approach from the car park is through impressive gateways, ornately painted in the traditional style, paved paths and over the Cheongungyo and Baekungyo Bridge.  The main temple structure is reached up 33 steps symbolizing the 33 difficult stages of Buddhist practise to reach Buddha’s land.  The whole complex is built on a series of terraces, some reached via precarious stone steps, dangerous in the wet. 

The eaves and internal painting of this resplendent temple are one of the artistic highlights of Asia.  The main colours of the roof timbers are blue, orange but mainly turquoise.  We had one hour to look around, not long enough.  The courtyard is dominated by pagodas; Seokgatap and Dabotap.  The first is three-storied, the most common form of Silla pagodas with proportions of 4:2:2 from the bottom and stands 8.2m tall from the base.  The second pagoda is larger and more ornate.  Dabotap is an instance of hetero-typed pagodas breaking the typical Silla pattern and stands 10.4m high.  Both are fitted with monitoring systems; an inclinometer, auto-weathering and deformation which help justify the entrance fee to this UNESCO site of 4000 won.

Behind the central hall with a large, golden Buddha is the Moo-sol-jon (literally the “no word hall”) which, rather curiously, is used for lecturing on sutras.  All the grounds are immaculately kept and clean.  The sand surface of the courtyards swept.  Squirrels ran in the leafless trees their colour equally matched between damp bark and grey skies.

Stand on the highest level of the temple and you look down over a rolling sea of tiles.  High above the temple, a seated Buddha gazes over Gyeongju from Seokguran Grotto.  Restored finally between 1969 and 1973, Bulguksa Temple and Seokguran Grotto were listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1995 and are well worth a visit.

Nearby, the Silla History and Science Hall provides useful background on the work undertaken at the observatory.  There is also a mock-up of Seokguram Grotto and a large picture of ancient Gyeongju, with seemingly every building detailed.  Miniatures can be purchased on a series of postcards.

It continued to rain.  It was getting to the stage where getting off the bus was to leave behind warmth and comfort and force myself to be cold and wet.  The Bunhwangsa Temple was built in 634, the third year of the 27th Queen Seondeok of Silla.  Wonhyo and Jalang, the greatest Buddhist monks stayed at this temple and many miracles are said to have occurred here. 

Originally, the structure stood nine levels high.  During colonization the temple was destroyed by the Japanese – bitterness from the Koreans towards their former occupiers runs deep.  Reconstruction replaced the first three levels only, its stonework a grey andesite of thinly-layered brick.  Nearby is the Bunhwangsa Well.  Its shape is octagonal outside and circular inside.  The octagon symbolizes the Eight Righteous Paths taught by Buddha and the circle stands for the truth of Buddha.

The Gyeongju National Museum started life as an historic preservation society in 1913.  In 1945 it was renamed as a branch of the national museum before being formally opened under its present title in 1975.  It has several sections classified by relics most notably: the Archeology Hall; the Art Hall; the Anapji Hall and another for special exhibitions.  The museum contains over 3000 relics permanently on display.  Through the main entrance way to the right is the Divine Bell of King Seongdeok, the largest in Korea. In both sound and appearance are recognized as the most outstanding bronze bell in the world.

Then came Cheomsongdae Observatory, a kiln-like structure several metres tall, claimed to be the oldest astronomical observatory in East Asia.  The observatory is located in park land near many of the burial mounds that litter the city.  Round and almost perfectly symmetrical, some mounds are 12m to 16m high they resemble boils on the landscape and are the last resting place of Silla’s rulers. 

Lunch costs extra and was in a small restaurant, a walk away in the rain across a road and car park.  Inside a Korean family was having lunch.  Mum and Dad noisily ate noodles with chopsticks while the two children played on their mobile phones.  Our bus driver sat at the next table and appeared to be talking to the children’s father who paid no attention.  A gap between and under the restaurant’s glass doors meant a steady draft flooded the place.  The only heat came from a portable gas heater which the driver and our tour guide refused to share. The visitors from the sub continent were asked if they liked Korean food “not really” was the reply.  During lunch they asked for salt for the vegetables and the women poured ground chilies on their rice.

A few hundred metres away from Cheomsongdae in the centre of town and across the car park from the restaurant, is a huge walled area with 23 royal tombs, one opened in cross section.  Hwangnamri Gobugun Tomb Park, also known as Tumuli Park, is the biggest in size of all the tomb parks in the area and is well signposted with walkways and trees. 

Cheonmachong, the tomb of King Michu who ruled Silla for 23 years, is the only tomb open to the public.  Inside the heating seemed to be on full blast.  During summertime the queues extend out the door into the surrounding park. Today it was largely deserted. Cheonmachong literally means “heavenly horse tomb”, and received its name from the picture of a “Flying White Horse” painted on the saddle flap which was excavated from the tomb in 1973.

The tomb is presumed to have been built in the early days of the Silla Dynasty, between the 4th and 6th centuries AD.  Displayed in glass covered cases set into the walls are luxurious gold craft relics such as; a gold crown, gold belt with many gold pendants, and gold ornaments together with equine accessories all excavated from the tomb.  The actual burial chamber measures 2m high by 4m wide by 6m long.  The body was laid in the middle surrounded on each side by timbers flat into the surface, resembling railway sleepers.  The ground is laid with stones, much like gravel, probably taken from the local river.

The last stop on the tour was General Kim Yusin’s tomb, a short drive into the foothills.  Thirty metres in diameter, the rim of the tomb is girded with slab stones like television screens engraved with 12 animal guardians bearing arms in ordinary civilian dress.  General Kim Yusin, a martial arts exponent and 12th descendant of King Kim Suro of the Geumgwan Kingdom, played a key role in the unification of the Three Kingdoms of ancient Korea.  Unfortunately, there is little to catch the eye for the uninitiated tourist and with the rain still falling, I headed quickly back to the shelter of the bus.

Across the river in the south of the city you’ll find the Onung Tombs, the most ancient tomb mounds in the area, and the elegant Posokjong Bower Gardens.  Nearby are various historical forests and ponds including Anapji, created under the reign of King Munmu, the 30th king of Silla, to raise birds and animals.  Geongju is littered with such sites.  Winter is not the best time to visit, unless you’re short of time or wish to avoid the crowds.  Autumn or spring would be best, the most visual seasons, when the trees would be changing colour.  In spring, the cherry blossoms dominate the landscape, resulting in a national festival. Compared with the concrete of modern urban Korea, you can see why.

After visiting General Kim Yusin’s tomb the tour finished rather abruptly and ahead of time back outside the tourist office.  For the return bus trip to Daegu the television showed a Korean league basketball game where large Americans towered over Korean players.  The motorway met other motorways scything through the stacks of tower blocks and bisecting rows of green houses covered in acres of white plastic.  Gyeongyu seemed already a rural memory.

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