Two Weeks in South Korea: Day 7 – Day Trip to Gyeonju

It was a bit of a bleary-eyed start today as we needed to get up early for our train to Gyeonju. This is the first of a few day trips out of the base city that we have planned for this holiday and it helped us to break in our new 3-day Korail Pass. The fact that this period of time coincides perfectly with a strike by the workers of Korail may end up having further ramifications (more on that later).

For now though, we ate out breakfast from Paris Baguette and rode the Korean bullet train from Busan up to Singyeonju station. Man these trains give you a nice amount of leg room. Didn’t have too much time to appreciate this as, after a 45 minute ride, we were at our destination and boarding a bus to head into Gyeonju itself. We realised later that this is one of those areas where we probably could have used a few days to see everything we wanted. That’s why we’re pencilling in a return Korea visit for 2030, I guess.

So, why go to Gyeonju? You wouldn’t know it by looking at it now, but this was the capital of Silla – the precursor kingdom to what Korea is now. On this trip, you end up learning so much about the history of Silla through sheer osmosis. How it expanded and took over the other main kingdoms on the Korean Peninsula and then how it fell not too long after uniting the kingdoms. It’s really made me want to read up more on the history as it shows how true the adage “you don’t know what you don’t know” is.

For our trip to Gyeonju we found a map online with some recommended walking routes and combined some things, which meant that we took a smallish area and fully explored it whilst walking over 17km in the process. This walk began life in a pretty abandoned park where we would see the first, of ultimately many, burial mounds containing the early royalty of Silla that called Gyeonju home. It’s weird looking back on my first time seeing these and thinking ‘oh is that it’, because by the end of it I actually found a lot of joy in them.

Opposite the park is another massive area of burial mounds – the Daereungwon Ancient Tombs complex. This area has been laid out like a beautiful park with persimmon trees, a decorated pond, bamboo forests and more burial mounds than you could shake a stick at.

This area is the only place that we were able to actually go inside one, called the Cheonmachong tomb, where you can see how they found some of the treasures and some well made replicas to demonstrate the array of things that this royal was buried with. This included a whole lot of gold and a number of horse-related items which would go on to give the tomb its name.

We saw more burial mounds and a shrine before reaching one of the big treasures of the area. This tower is actually an ancient observatory by the name of Cheomseongdae Observatory. It’s the oldest observatory in East Asia and is remarkably photogenic. It has been beautifully surrounded by fields of wild flowers that make for a lovely walk on the way to Donggung Palace and Wolji Pond.

This was probably my favourite stop during the day, and we didn’t even get to see it at night when they light everything up so that it looks golden. Everything you see here is either reconstructed to give you an idea of what it used to look like, or has been properly buried in order to preserve the foundations. This area used to be a very large palace complex with a lot of buildings, a beautifully landscaped pond and an impressive menagerie of beasts and birds. For the most part, you can imagine how much grander things would have been back then – but it sure would have been a sight to see all these grand palatial buildings and then the odd deer darting between the trees.

The sun was properly high in the sky and beaming down on us as we left and walked through the old hanok village, this is one of those things where we were told that this was something to see… but I don’t think either of us got it. Sure, the buildings are lovely and it’s fun to see girls running around in traditional Korean dress, but the whole thing is just a mass of cafes so it doesn’t feel quite right. We didn’t stay too long because nothing could answer the daily question: what’s for lunch.

Well, that was answered on the way to the next tomb complex where we came across a traditional Korean restaurant which seemed to specialise in lotus foods. We allowed ourselves be talked into the set menu (as that’s what we wanted anyway) and got this amazingly varied spread of dishes including japchae with lotus root, rice wrapped in a lotus leaf, beans in sesame and a whole host of other things. It was a truly beautiful experience and we even got second helpings of the beans and broccoli when we asked.

Happily full, we made our way to the Five Royal Tombs of Gyeonju. Here four of the first five kings of Silla are buried, as well as one of the queens. It really is difficult to take a picture of these mountains without thoughts of the Teletubbies popping into my head. This area also contains Alyeongjeong Well, which is said to be the location where the first queen of Silla was born… out of the side of a dragon. To be fair, the first king was supposedly hatched by an egg that was found next to a white horse kneeling reverently, so what I’m saying is that the story tracks.

We backtracked a bit from here so that I would have some camera time with the very impressive Woljeonggyo Bridge. It’s another one of those things that is a restoration, this one only fully completed in 2017. The best views of it can be found by walking along a stepping stone bridge just in front so you can look up slightly and get the vast construct into focus. With its mass of red wooden columns, it was like crossing water through an accordion made of Shinto tori gates.

A long walk along some fields got us to our final destination of Gyeonju National Museum. It is here that you can see the real bell, which I saw earlier in the day, and a fair number of treasures found in the surrounding Gyeonju area. I still can’t believe that it’s free and just how well preserved some of these treasures are.

We only had 90 minutes here, but it was time enough to whip round and see all the salient objects, including a lot of Buddhist art and some of the impressive amounts of gold that have so far been found in the few tombs that they’ve excavated. I think at this point we were starting to wobble as I don’t think either of us took in as much as we could, but there are things here (like the crowns and the metal Buddha) that I am so pleased to have snapped picture of.

At least I managed a beautiful photo of the sunsetting over the hills as we ran out of the museum in order to catch a bus.

That was it for Gyeonju, the plan being that we get into Busan with plenty of time to see the light show that we missed because of our flight delay from Jeju. Unfortunately this is when we found out about the train strike, which delayed our return by over an hour. So, I guess I won’t get a chance to see that now… so my husband suggested we at least gave the Bupyeing Kkangtong Market a go so we could say goodbye to Nampo.

We weren’t too hungry thanks to the large lunch, but we did have two very good items, firstly there was vegetables wrapped in pork belly and topped in cheese, yum. Then there was rice cake, wrapped in cheese, inside a meatball that was fried, filled with lightly pickled onions and topped in sauce. Delicious and it made me sad to be full.

So tomorrow is our transfer day from Busan to Seoul. We have time in the morning to fit in a final thing to see, then it’s a train trip up to our final hotel of the holiday. It’s insane that I’m seven days in already, but at least there are seven more to go.

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