Last Monday, on Korean Memorial Day, we toured Gyeongju (경주), the ancient capital of the Silla (신라) Dynasty. We first planned to visit the Gyeongju National Museum, home to one of the country’s largest collections of Korean antiquities, but it closes on Monday. The weather was beautiful, so it wasn’t too disappointing to us that we couldn’t see the splendor of the Silla Dynasty. We started the morning at nearby Panwolseong (반월성), the crescent-mooned site of the former castle of the Silla kings. Not much remains there now, although for over 900 years it remained the preeminent seat of power in Korea. The only remaining structure from the period is the Seogbinggo (서빙고), an ancient ice house. It looks a bit like a tomb. Horseback riding for the kiddies and an archery range are available at the site, but we didn’t partake. Many Korean families came to picnic at the site. Next, we drove a couple of blocks over to Hwangryong-sa (황령사), site of a former Buddhist temple. Only the foundation footings remain. In the distance, we saw five tombs of the Silla kings, five grassy hills that resemble a greener, gentler version of the Pyramids at Giza. Like the pyramids, these tombs are arranged linearly and vary in height. We also visited Cheomseongdae Observatory (첨성데), the oldest observatory in Asia. Built in 634, it resembles a large chimney and is well preserved.
After stopping for some snacks at the strip mall near Hwangryong-sa, we visited Daeryeongwon (데영완), a park just north of Hwangryong-sa. Daeryeongwon contains the most spectacular collection of Silla king tombs. We visited the tomb of King Michu, one of the most famous kings from the Silla period, and the Cheonmachong (천마총), or “Flying Horse Tomb.” The Cheonmachong is the only Silla tomb open for public viewing. While it is obviously restored and modernized, it was nonetheless intriguing to see the interior of a Silla tomb. The visit reminded me of when I went into the Red Pyramid in Dashur, Egypt, an absolutely amazing structure. While the pyramids are far older and bigger than the tombs of the Silla kings, I still felt the call of history as I walked amidst these man-made hills. The tombs also reflect the character of the Korean people, featuring a graceful blending of culture with nature.
In early afternoon, we drove back towards the Bomun Lake resort area to our hotel. Our son was growing tired and needed a nap. We stopped along the highway for lunch at a busy Korean restaurant. The galbitang (갈비탕), or pork rib soup, and cold noodle soup were not as delicious as I’d hoped. However, our son really enjoyed the playing on the restaurant’s jungle gym and interacting with some Korean children. Afterwards, we went back to our hotel. My wife and son stayed in the hotel room and took a nap, and I ventured out on my own. I drove east to the Korean coast, stopping along the way at Girimsa (기림사), a Buddhist temple. Although its architecture is not as spectacular as that of Bulguksa (불국사), Girimsa is rarely visited by tourists and feels much more like a functional Buddhist holy site. I was struck by the sight of a Taster’s Choice coffee vending machines standing next to a temple building. I wondered whether monks during the Silla Dynasty would have enjoyed coffee if given a chance to taste it.
I drove on from Girimsa to the Eastern Coast. The coastline is rocky, and the Eastern Range spills into the sea. The highway wraps itself along the ridgeline, threading its way through mountains and valleys along the coast. I stopped at a pavilion overlooking the Underwater Tomb of King Munmu. It’s a site I’d heard about years ago, and at long last I saw it with my own eyes. I was intrigued by the world’s only watery tomb dedicated to a king. After King Munmu died in 681 A.D., his son honored his wishes and placed his ashes in a pool surrounded by a small rocky island off the Korean coast. It’s difficult to see the tomb from the water’s edge, but you can hire a boat to take you there. I enjoyed taking in the view overlooking the ocean and imagined what life must have been like for Korean nobility who looked upon his tomb. Many of King Munmu’s ancestors visited the same site where I looked upon his tomb. I ended my small excursion by driving about 10 kilometers up the Korean coast to the town of Gampo (감포), where I turned west and headed inland to our hotel. Along the way, I stopped to take a photo. I noticed rusty barbed wire and an unmanned guard post, remnants of days past when South Korean soldiers diligently watched for signs of North Korean amphibious operations. I walked over to an abandoned military position and surveyed the sea. I imagined dozens of Korean soldiers scanning the sea for many years following the Korean War, on guard for possible incursions. Although tensions on the Korean Peninsula are now in a heightened state with the impasse over North Korea’s nuclear program, this place felt like a relic from the distant past. The Korean coastal towns feel much different than those situated inland. They feel as if time has passed them by, worn down by decades of wind and waves. I was surprised by how dated the place felt in contrast to the city of Gyeongju located just 15 miles away.
We spent Monday evening exploring the Lake Bomun resort area. The boardwalk is very nice and features numerous restaurants and rental shops. My son enjoyed looking at all the bicycles and vehicles parked on the boardwalk, waiting to be rented. I rented a small four-wheeler and tried to pursuade my son to ride with me, but he was too scared to join me. I still had a bit of fun riding it, even though it was a pint-size four-wheeler. We ate pizza for dinner at one of the few Western restaurants we could find (I did not see a single American fast food restaurant in the Gyeongju area). A bit heavy on the cheese, we still savored our brief break from Korean food. Thus ended our wonderful trip to Gyeongju.