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Further Afield in Gyeongju

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We’d spent the first of our two day trip to Gyeongju within the city confines, and dedicated the second day to sights further afield. After a breakfast of questionable nutritious value at Dunkin’ Donuts, we hopped on the bus that would take us to the sea.

Underwater-Tomb-of-King-Munmu

The Underwater Tomb of King Munmu had such an evocative ring to it, that we put it on our itinerary without bothering to do any research. How could something called The Underwater Tomb of King Munmu be anything other than fascinating? The bus ride to the coast took well over an hour, and deposited us on Bonggil Beach. There were a couple restaurants, some watermelons left on the sand, a group of large stones protruding out of the ocean, and a few people camping nearby.

We asked the campers where we could find the tomb, and they pointed at the rocks in the water. The King had apparently asked for his ashes to be scattered there, so that he might one day arise as a dragon to protect Korea. Quite a disappointment. I suppose I had been expecting something more like the Mumm-Ra’s Tomb:


Mumm-Ra vs. Munmu – the names are where the similarities stop (Image Source: toyarchive.com)

After waiting nearly an hour for the bus to return, we made our way to Bulguksa Temple, which is possibly the most important Buddhist temple in the entire country and definitely among the most beautiful. Seven of Korea’s official National Treasures are found here, including a pair of stone pagodas which date from the temple’s original construction in the 8th century. It’s a large complex with a perfect setting in the forested hills east of Gyeongju, and extremely popular with Korean tourists.

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We spent a long time exploring the grounds at Bulguksa and, on finishing, found ourselves presented with a dilemma. Should we do the two-hour round-trip hike to the Seokguram Grotto, or return to Gyeongju and visit the National Museum. There was only enough time for one, so we wussed out and chose the museum. This has enraged the Korean friends we’ve told, as most rank Seokguram “unmissable”, but Jürgen’s ankle was still healing. And we were tired from the trip. And… and… and… excuses are easy to find when you’re trying to avoid physical activity.

Face-Gyeongju

And anyway, we were happy with our choice. The Gyeongju National Museum was fascinating. Dedicated to the Silla Kingdom, whose ruins we’d just spent two days exploring, this was a fitting final chapter for our trip to the former capital. Split up into five different halls concentrating on ancient architecture, art, and recovered artifacts, you could easily spend a couple hours here.

Locations on our Map: Tomb of King Munmu | Bulguksa Temple | Gyeongju National Museum

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July 14, 2012 at 1:00 am Comments (2)

The Olympic Park and Busan’s Seoul Complex

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A collection of sculptures found near BEXCO and the Museum of Art, Busan’s Olympic Sculpture Park pays homage to the city’s involvement in the 1988 Summer Olympics and provides a place to check out some bizarre modern artwork. We paid a short visit to the park after a day of shopping at Shinsegae.

Shape of Beauty

The massively successful 1988 Olympics were held in Seoul, but Busan’s Yachting Center hosted the sailing events. The Olympic Park commemorates the Games with an array of weird sculptures sporting names like “Organic Shelter” and “Life of Excrement” (seriously). It’s an interesting place and we enjoyed our walk through it, but what any of these works have to do with the Olympics is beyond me.

While trying to admire/understand the sculptures, I kept thinking of the inferiority complex that Busan suffers from. The second-biggest city in South Korea is constantly measuring itself against its big brother up north, and that’s a battle it’s always going to lose. I’m not sure why I was thinking about it here — maybe it was the environment; Shinsegae (the World’s Biggest Department Store, Guinness Certified!) and the Busan Cinema Center (the World’s Biggest Roof, Guinness Certified!) are right across the street from the Olympic Park, which itself is full of artwork that seems to be trying too hard.

I’ve lost track of how many bewildered Koreans have asked us why on Earth we would choose to stay in Busan for 91 days, as opposed to Seoul. “It makes no sense”. “This city is dull”. “91 days here?! You’ll be bored in a week.” And these are the people from Busan, some of whom have lived here their whole life. Never have we visited a place with such little pride. There’s a real sense among the people, and even somehow exuded by the city itself, that Busan isn’t good enough, because it’s not Seoul.

I feel like we have to keep cheering Busan up. “Come on, buddy, you’re a great city on your own! Look at all the incredible things we’ve done here! Do you think Münich wrings its hands because it’s not Berlin? No, Münich certainly does not! Does Chicago look wistfully at New York and think, ‘gosh, I’m no good’? Ha!”

“Now look at the mirror, and keep telling yourself that you’re beautiful until you believe it. Soon, you’ll see the amazing Busan that we’re witness to every single day.”

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July 5, 2012 at 2:09 am Comments (0)

Suyeong Park

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Before visiting Suyeong Park, we had no idea what to expect. Despite its central location, with Bexco and Shinsegae visible just over the Suyeong River, this ramshackle neighborhood is definitely not on the normal tourist itinerary. But we had a great time in the park, which was filled with historical monuments, sacred trees and people playing chess, exercising and just relaxing.

Double-Gate-Korea

Suyeong Park occupies the former site of the Joseon Empire’s naval base, which was used mostly for operations in the East Sea against Japan (the body of water which separates Japan from the continent is referred to by most of the world as the “Sea of Japan”, but this designation has been aggressively contested by Korea for years, who believe “East Sea” should be the name of record. We’re on Korea’s side by default, at least for this 91 days, so “East Sea” it is!)

There are a number of historical remnants in the park, such as the South Gate of the former citadel: two arched gates which lead into the park, guarded by a pair of stone dogs who watch for Japanese pirates. And there’s the Euiyonjeinbi monument which commemorates the deaths of 25 patriots during the Imjin War with gravestones set in front of a large shrine. But my favorite object in the park wasn’t man-made; it was the 500-year old Pujo tree, which stands out with its sheer size and distinctive shape. According to a sign, locals believe the spirit of an old grandmother resides in the tree, bringing luck to those who remember her.

The park also houses the Suyeong Folk Art Center, with a large circular arena where we read that cultural performances “regularly” take place. I asked the girl working there, and it turns out that “regularly” means twice a year, with the next performance sometime in the fall. That’s an incomprehensible waste; this could be a great outdoor theater for the summer.

The best part of Suyeong Park was the number of people who were there enjoying it. Along with the usual array of gym machines, there was an area for Korean Chess where a bunch of matches were being hotly contested. It’s a game I’d like to learn, and I watched one particularly fast-moving game for awhile. But I had no clue what was going on; it looked to me like they were just randomly shuffling the pieces around in between swigs of soju… which, even if that’s the extent of it, would still be a fun game.

Our day ended with a walk through the surrounding neighborhood. Despite being smack in the middle of the city and so close to ultra-modern structures like Shinsegae, there’s an appealing old-world vibe in Suyeong. No skyscrapers or giant apartment buildings, no Starbucks or western-style shops. Everything looks just a little run-down; the shops are old and cluttered, and the restaurants are cheap, humble neighborhood joints. It’s definitely an interesting corner of Busan.

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June 18, 2012 at 9:30 am Comments (0)
Further Afield in Gyeongju We'd spent the first of our two day trip to Gyeongju within the city confines, and dedicated the second day to sights further afield. After a breakfast of questionable nutritious value at Dunkin' Donuts, we hopped on the bus that would take us to the sea.
For 91 Days