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Gyeongju’s Ancient Downtown Attractions

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Hotels in Gyeongju

Present-day Gyeongju might be a busy city home to 300,000 Koreans going about their stressful, modern lives, but the ancient past is never far away. Just within the downtown area, there’s a number of historic attractions, dating from the days when this was the most important city on the peninsula.

Most people rent bikes during a tour of downtown Gyeongju, but we looked at the map and decided to hoof it. This was a mistake. Although the city center feels small, the various sites are quite spread out, and taxis can be hard to find. We could have seen a lot more had we been on two wheels.

After spending the morning in Yangdong Village and later visiting the Daeneungwon Royal Tombs, the next stop on our itinerary was the Cheomseongdae Observatory — built in the 7th century during the reign of Queen Seondeok, this is the oldest astronomical observatory in East Asia. In fact, it’s one of the oldest scientific structures still standing on the entire planet. Cheomseongdae literally means “star-gazing tower” and was constructed with 362 stone slabs which represent the days of the lunar year.

Cheomseongdae-Observatory

The ancient woods of the Gyerim Forest spread out to the south of the observatory. According to legend, in the year 65 AD, townspeople heard a rooster crowing in the middle of Gyerim and, upon investigating, discovered a golden box hanging from a pine tree. Inside was Kim Alji: the original progenitor of the Kim Clan, who would go on to found Silla. Today, 1.7 million Koreans believe that their lineage traces directly back to Kim Alji, and the Gyerim Forest is considered the birthplace of these “Gyeongju Kims”.

Gyerim-Forest-Gyeongju

We walked through a couple of beautiful pastures, including one with the questionable name of Rape Flower Field, to arrive at the ruins of the Hwangnyongsa Temple. Before it was destroyed during 13th century Mongol invasions, the “Golden Dragon” temple was the most important in Korea. All that remains today are some slabs and foundation blocks which provide a rough indication of how large it once was.

Hwangnyongsa-Temple

More impressive is the nearby Bunhwangsa Temple, which was originally built in 634 and translates to “Fragrant Emperor”. The temple has been renovated and rebuilt throughout its lifespan, so doesn’t look anywhere near its age. Except, that is, for the ancient stone pagoda which stands in the courtyard. It’s thought to have originally stood nine stories tall, though only three levels remain today. Bunhwangsa is also worth a visit for its huge bell which you can pay ₩1000 ($0.90) to ring. I did so and, wanting to get my money’s worth, slammed the wooden trunk into the bell so hard I thought it might crack. And yes, it was worth the money.

Bunhwangsa-Temple

Locations on our Map: Cheomseongdae Observatory | Gyerim Forest | Hwangnyongsa Temple | Bunhwangsa Temple
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July 12, 2012 at 11:33 am Comment (1)

A Trip to Gyeongju

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Budget Accommadations in Gyeongju

Gyeongju is a small city 50 miles north of Busan, known as the “Museum Without Walls” due to its incredible wealth of historic treasures. This was the capital of the powerful Silla Kingdom which ruled most of the Korean peninsula for nearly 1000 years (57 BC – 935 AD) and is without a doubt the most rewarding excursion you can make from Busan.

Gyeongju-South-Korea

We took the KTX bullet train from Busan Station and arrived in Gyeongju in 28 minutes. Less than a half-hour. That’s significantly less time than it even took for us to reach the train station from our apartment. I’ve taken showers that last longer. The train cost ₩10,000 ($9) per person, and was unbelievably smooth and fast. It was mostly through tunnels, though, so you couldn’t see the countryside whipping past.

The Silla Kingdom is among the most long-lived and powerful dynasties in Asian history. They started in the Gyeongju/Busan area, and were the first to successfully unite most of the peninsula. It was a strict monarchy, with a hereditary royalty and aristocracy, and no chance of social advancement for the great majority of people. Sillans spoke Korean, wrote in Chinese characters, practiced both Confucianism and Buddhism, and battled with the Korean-speaking Goguryeo Dynasty for control of the North.

Although Gyeongju’s period of prominence lies over a thousand years in the past, the sense of history is still present in the modern-day city. The most conspicuous remnants of its rich heritage are the amazing royal tombs where kings and nobility were buried. These large, perfectly rounded hills covered in bright green grass pop up all over Gyeongju, like miniature replicas of the mountains that are always visible in the distance. There are 35 royal tombs and over 150 smaller mounds in the city itself, with many more found in the surrounding environs.

In the Daeneungwon Park, tourists have the chance to peek inside Cheonmachong, the Heavenly Horse Tomb, which is one of the most important of the burial sites. When it was excavated in 1973, over 10,000 artifacts were found inside, including a golden crown and a saddle engraved with a winged horse, which gave the tomb its name.

We had two days in Gyeongju, and had just enough time to hit most of the major highlights. Over the next couple posts, we’ll focus on this historic and gorgeous mountain city.

Location on our Korea Map

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July 10, 2012 at 11:59 pm Comment (1)
Gyeongju's Ancient Downtown Attractions Present-day Gyeongju might be a busy city home to 300,000 Koreans going about their stressful, modern lives, but the ancient past is never far away. Just within the downtown area, there's a number of historic attractions, dating from the days when this was the most important city on the peninsula.
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