Gyeongju: A Trip Back to the Silla Era

AFTER AN HOUR’S WORTH OF BUS RIDE FROM BUSAN, I arrive in Gyeongju. It’s hard for me to see the historical heft of this city when the first things that catch my attention are the neon lights from the numerous love hotels in the city center at the dead of the night. And the technicolored landscape aside, the evening feels really quiet. I see only a handful of people walking in the streets and even fewer cars passing through the roads. Overall, my first impression of Gyeongju is far different from what I anticipated. This feels more like an abandoned Las Vegas than a UNESCO-listed place.

I didn’t expect to make it here after the slight booboo with Justin’s ATM card in Busan. But I was determined to see one more city before I head back to Seoul, so I sacrificed half a day in the capital and decided to detour here. The plan is to explore Gyeongju the next morning, catch the earliest bus in the afternoon, and arrive in Seoul in the evening. I haven’t booked an accommodation in advance, but I saw a cheap guesthouse online that is centrally located; with fingers crossed, I head on hoping there’s a bed available, especially since it’s toursit off-season. I walk past the love hotels with my backpack in tow despite them being so inviting amidst the freezing temperature.

Just a few minutes later and I reach the guesthouse. A lady, probably in her late 60s or early 70s, greets me as soon as I enter. She’s talking to a mother and daughter, who I assume are from Taiwan based on the few words I can make out from their conversation. The lady seems surprised by the unexpected arrival of a guest in a winter evening. The three talk for a few minutes while I browse some travel brochures on a nearby magazine rack.

After the mother and daughter leave the guesthouse, the lady checks me in a room. She doesn’t speak much English, and I don’t speak Korean. But she’s all smiles and tries to make me comfortable despite the language barrier. I find that I’m sharing the room with a young Korean guy, who looks to be in high school. There are only two of us in the room. In fact, it seems there are only two of us in the entire guesthouse. We exchange greetings, I fix my things and prepare to sleep for a packed itinerary the next day.

Gyeongju’s city center is dotted with what appears to be little hills. These are actually tombs of rulers from the Silla Kingdom, which lasted for nearly a thousand years from 57 BCE.
Built in 634 CE, the Cheomseongdae is the oldest existing observatory in the Far East.
The Gyeongju National Museum contains numerous artifacts from the Silla Kingdom.

GYEONGJU WAS THE CAPITAL OF THE ANCIENT SILLA KINGDOM, which ruled most of what is now the Gyeongsangbuk and Gyeongsangnam provinces. The Silla Dynasty then expanded its control to virtually the entire peninsula by the 7th century, establishing friendly ties with the Tang Dynasty in China.

The Silla kings were luxurious rulers, pouring funds into decorating Gyeongju with numerous structures. During this time, Mahayana Buddhism entered Korea and was adopted as the kingdom’s religion. Many structures in the city began to show elements of Buddhism as a result.

The Silla reign ended in 918 with the establishment of the Goryeo Kingdom, and for a long time, Gyeongju faded into insignificance, especially during the Japanese invasions in the 16th century and occupation in the early 20th century. It was in the 1970s, during the authoritarian regime of Park Chung-hee that the city regained its relevance, as Park issued a number of orders that sought to maintain Gyeongju’s traditional features, including tiled roofs for the houses and restrictions in buildings near historical sites.

The Wolseong Yangdong Village provides a glimpse of traditional Korean life.
Strolling along Gyeongju’s numerous parks can easily fill a day.
The Bulguksa Temple outside the city center is considered a masterpiece of Buddhist architecture, and is regarded as one of the best temples in Korea.

I WAKE UP AT 7 THE NEXT MORNING, and it’s still pretty dark outside. The woman isn’t on the reception desk, but in her place is a man about her age, who I assume must be her husband. He doesn’t speak English as well, and we’re really having a hard time communicating. So I use my phone’s Google Translate app to ask him if I can leave my backpack while I spend the morning exploring Gyeongju.

“Okay, okay,” he laughs.

Walking around the city centerI finally feel the history of the place enveloping around me. Just east of the guesthouse are huge mounds of earth clumped together, like the Chocolate Hills in Bohol, only smaller, and smack in the middle of the city. A number of them are clumped in groups across the city center. These mounds are actually tombs of Silla kings. There’s just an interestingly morbid sense in knowing that the city is some sort of a royal cemetery.

After having my fill of the city center, I take a bus east to the Bulguksa Temple. The large temple is considered the emblem of Silla architecture, having been built in 528 CE during the height of the kingdom. The temple underwent several renovations throughout the centuries, as well as a major reconstruction after it was destroyed by the Japanese invasions in the 16th century. The temple today is a working site, and monks continue to use the place while the faithful regularly make pilgrimage here. The temple also offers homestay programs to visitors, allowing them to experience life here.

Near the Bulguksa is the Seokguram Grotto, which is considered by many one of Gyeongju’s unmissable sights along with Bulguksa. But with just an hour left before noon, I catch a bus back to the city center.

I don’t get down at the center itself. Instead, I stop by at the National Museum first, taking in as much as I can of the Silla Kingdom’s history. Then, I walk out of the museum and along a highway on the northern side, enjoying the scenery despite the freezing temperature. I’m trying to squeeze as much experience as I can from the little time I have left in this city. After a few minutes, I arrive at what seems to be a bridge being renovated. The bridge eventually leads to Wolseong Yangdong Village, where rows of traditional Korean houses stand. Walking through its street brings an intense sense of nostalgia.

At around noon, I’m back at the hostel. As much as I want to stay, I can’t. So I get my bag, thank the old man, and walk to the bus station, where I’ll get a ride to Seoul.

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