Some places grow on you after more than one visit. Others, you fall in love with at first sight. In the case of Gyeongju, where the remnants of a long-lost empire lie upon the ground so thickly that the very act of taking a step feels like turning a page in a history book, I was hopelessly smitten from the day I arrived.
Friday, 16 February 2018.
After a long journey from Seoul – more about that in this rail report – I stepped off the train and found myself in the historic city of Gyeongju (경주).
This quiet corner of Gyeongsangbuk-do was formerly known as Seorabeol, the rich and cosmopolitan capital of Silla: one of the so-called Three Kingdoms and a major power on the Korean peninsula during the first millennium AD. Its days of splendour came to an end in AD 935, when the last King of Silla yielded to the rival state of Goryeo, marking the final absorption of the peninsula’s various warring entities into what is regarded as the first completely unified Korean kingdom. At that point, the city entered a long decline from which it would never fully recover, with its magnificent palaces and vast temple complexes succumbing to war and neglect.
Gyeongju began to experience a revival of sorts from the first part of the 20th century, when archaeological surveys started to uncover some of the long-lost remnants of its ancient glory. In 2000, UNESCO added the former Silla capital to the World Heritage List under the heading Gyeongju Historic Areas, comprised of five distinct clusters of historical remains and artefacts.
After checking into my guesthouse, I set off for the nearest of these five areas – the so-called Wolseong Belt.
The weather was absolutely fantastic. Sunny, with a touch of cloud cover to cut the worst of the late-morning glare, and the mercury reading a few notches higher than the bone-chilling temperatures I’d left behind in Seoul. (It was still cold, mind you, but not as cold as it had been up north.) Today was the second day of the long Seollal weekend and visitors from other parts of the country were starting to trickle in, some of them pausing in the open fields to enjoy a bit of kite flying.
As I walked towards one of the area’s key landmarks, I passed the charming little temple compound of Munhosa, nestled within a tile-crowned stone wall.
Just a short walk away, I came face to face with one of Gyeongju’s most iconic Silla-era relics: Cheomseongdae (첨성대). Constructed as an astronomical observatory on the orders of Queen Seondeok (reigned AD 632-647), this approximately 9-metre-tall stone tower is said to be the oldest of its kind in the region.
I began heading south, past the excavated foundations of large wooden structures. One could see in the distance some of the grass-covered mounds built over the tombs of the ruling class – amongst them, the tumulus of King Naemul, the 17th monarch of Silla (reigned AD 356–402).
In due course, I reached a small patch of woodland named Gyerim (계림). Although quite small in size, this forest isn’t short of historical (or perhaps mythical) significance. Legend has it that Gim (or Kim) Al-ji – the progenitor of the Gyeongju Kim clan and ancestor of one of the ruling houses of Silla – was born here in AD 65.
In 1803, during the reign of King Sunjo of Joseon, a stele was set up within Gyerim to commemorate the legend of Gim Al-ji’s birth.
Not far away was a rather oddly-shaped stump, with a fragmentary trunk growing up from one side.
Unfortunately, the sign next to the stump didn’t shed much light on its historic or scientific significance – at least, not for those who weren’t fluent in Korean.
“A kind of locust tree”. Riiiiiight. I’d appreciate a bit more information than that, mate.
Anyway, let’s move on.
I continued south, towards the weathered remains of massive earthworks that once formed part of Wolseong (월성). This large, roughly crescent-shaped fortress was built in the first century AD to protect the Silla royal family’s central palace. The buildings themselves are long gone, but the eroded circuit of earthen ramparts surrounding the site is still readily discernible, appearing like a range of tree-covered hills.
Excavations were underway in the shadow of the fortress. Note the frozen water in the trenches. Gyeongju might have been snow-free at the time, but it was still quite cold out there!
By this point, noon was fast approaching and a lunch break was in order. I doubled back towards the Cheomseongdae area to find a place to eat, passing the open field where I’d seen people flying kites earlier that morning.
There were a few more families out and about … and a few more kites caught in the branches of the large tree at the centre of the field.
I hereby dub this tree the Kite Killer. ㅋㅋㅋ
After lunch, I returned to the Cheomseongdae site, but turned east instead of south at the intersection in front of the observatory. Near the end of the walk, I popped into a small building next to the footpath where a short CGI-based film was being played (free of charge). The video featured some impressive recreations of Gyeongju/Seorabeol as it may have looked during the heyday of the Kingdom of Silla, more than a thousand years ago.
Incidentally, there was also a computer-generated landscape shot of Silla-era Gyeongju plastered on the side of the building.
After walking a little further on, I reached a place that (along with Cheomseongdae) is a serious contender for the title of best-known attraction in central Gyeongju: the site of the Donggung Palace and Wolji Pond (동궁과 월지), also known as the Anapji Pond (안압지).
Constructed during the rule of King Munmu (reigned AD 661–681), Wolji was the centrepiece of a landscape garden adjoining Donggung (the Eastern Palace), the Crown Prince’s residence and a venue for state events. After Silla lost its independence, the palace and its grounds fell into decay. Over time, even the name “Wolji” itself was forgotten, and by the 16th century the pond was being referred to as “Anapji”.
From the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, a major archaeological survey culminated in the restoration of the pond and the reconstruction of three of the pavilions that once stood along its edge. It was also during the excavation work that pottery fragments bearing the pond’s original name were discovered, which explains why the landmark is now called Wolji on official maps and markers.
Donggung itself consisted of a large complex of buildings, the now-empty foundations of which are marked with raised grass-covered beds. Circular stone slabs set into the ground mark the spots where wooden columns once stood.
Inside the second of the three restored buildings, there’s a large scale model of the entire palace compound as it once looked during the Silla period.
Of course, the star attraction here is the pond itself, along with the beautifully reconstructed pavilions overlooking the water. It’s all best appreciated by going on a long stroll around the former palace grounds, north past the buildings on the western side and back down south through the restored garden area on the eastern shore.
If you’d like a better idea of how the entire palace and garden might once have appeared during the glory days of Silla, check out the detailed CGI reconstruction in this video (from about four and a half minutes in).
I say, that was quite the haul of historic landmarks – and I wasn’t anywhere close to being done at that point. But since this post has gone on long enough, let’s trail off for the moment and save the rest for another time.
Till then, cheerio.