After almost a week in Seoul we headed south and spent two nights in Gyeongju, the last capital of the Silla Kingdom. The city is often referred to as ‘the largest outdoor museum in the world‘ and its history dates back thousands of years to the start of the Silla Kingdom in 57 BC. A vast number of ruins and archaeological sites from the almost 1000 years of Silla heritage remain in the city. The Gyeongju Historic Areas were designated as a World Heritage Site in 2000 and encompass the ruins of temples and palaces, outdoor pagodas and statuary, and other cultural artifacts left by the Silla Kingdom. The historical treasures the city holds play a large roll in drawing over 6 million tourists a year to the city, including 750,000 foreigners per year.
Gyeongju turned out to be the first place (of many in Korea and Japan) where we slept on the floor. Our room was extremely simple: just a thin mattress/blanket on the floor, too small pillows and a small table. This type of room is referred to as ondol, a Korean style room with underfloor heating. The underfloor heating was amazing given the freezing temperatures outside and the bed was a lot comfier than I expected upon first glance!
One of the first historical sites we saw, we didn’t immediately identify as having any significance until reading the signs. We were crossing what we thought was a field on the way to dinner when we noticed small hills all around us. Turns out these are ‘tumuli‘ – tombs shaped like domes or mounds of earth. Tombs of the rulers of Silla are located throughout Gyeongju although not all of the Silla-era tombs are royal. The identity of the ruler is known in many cases; however, many of the older tombs found cannot be conclusively tied to any ruler. Excavated tombs reveal wooden coffins covered with gravel and rich grave goods of gold, glass, and quality ceramics.
For dinner we found a place specializing in dumplings (did I mention how much I loved dumplings?) and tried their mixed plate!
Dan read that the best way to get around Gyeongju and see as much as possible in a single day was to rent a bike (the distances are quite long to walk). We noticed tons of bike rental companies when we arrived and decided to bundle up and go for it. Turns out we missed the memo that bike rentals are popular in summer and we turned out to be the only bike on the roads! We even had to make a pit-stop to pick up Dan some gloves and I brought an extra sweater to layer under the jacket I had bought in Seoul. Let’s just say it was colder than we were prepared for in Korea…
Only bike parked in the designated bike parking: ours.
All the rest were parked at the rental shops awaiting the warm weather and subsequent influx of tourists.
We visited the Oreung Tombs, Sungdeokjeon Shrine, and the Aryeongjeong Well, among other places. Unfortunately, the information available at the sites as well as what I can find online, is extremely limited and I don’t have a whole lot to say about them other than we enjoyed wandering the grounds.
We only got in a few sites before the rain came but luckily Starbucks wasn’t far away and we were able to hide. I loved the traditional style roof on this Starbucks building.
Despite the freezing cold temperatures, the first signs of spring were visible and I was getting excited to see the cherry blossoms in full bloom the following week in Japan!
On the way back we quickly stopped at the Gyeongju Cheomseongdae (astronomical tower) in a brief period of no rain. Cheomseongdae which means “star-gazing” in Korean is an astronomical observatory – possibly the oldest surviving observatory in the world. The tower dates back to the 7th century during the Silla Kingdom’s rule. The tower is much shorter than I expected at only stood 9.4 metres tall!
If you’re in Korea and plan on travelling from Seoul to Gyeongju, the cheapest way we found was by bus. It’s a little tricky as the bus websites have no “English” option and don’t accept foreign credit cards so you have to book in person at the terminal. We ended up having no issues and the ride was comfortable and relatively short.