Earlier in the day, I’d seen how the ruling class of Silla once lived in settings of unparalleled luxury over a thousand years ago, as epitomised by the remains of their gardens and palaces. As I walked amongst the silent mounds of earth marking their graves, it became clear to me that they died surrounded with no less splendour.
After exploring the site of the Donggung Palace and Wolji Pond – more about that in my previous post – I set off on the long homeward trek to my guesthouse, passing the weathered remains of the Wolseong fortress (and one of its moats) as I headed west.
I only had a quick peek at one part of Wolseong earlier that day, so I decided to explore it a bit more thoroughly this time. Entering the half-moon-shaped enclosure by its northeastern gate, I emerged into the clearing where a royal palace once stood. Excavations are now underway to gather more evidence about the layout and features of the compound that, for several centuries, served as the main residence for the King of Silla.
If you’re curious about how the Wolseong palace-fortress may have looked during the height of Silla’s glory, there’s a detailed CGI reconstruction of the entire compound in the first two minutes or so of this video.
Right next to the excavation area stands the Seokbinggo (석빙고), a stone icehouse built within Wolseong during the reign of King Yeongjo of Joseon (1694-1776). Unlike the nearby Silla royal palace – of which almost nothing remains – this Joseon-era structure is quite well preserved, from the inscriptions above its entrance to the little stone vents built into its earth-covered roof.
I continued west and then north, passing by the open field near Cheomseongdae where I’d seen people flying kites earlier that day. The skies were more heavily overcast than in the morning, but the good weather still held, and there were now even more kites fluttering in the breeze.
I also observed that the Kite Killer – my nickname for the large tree in the middle of the field – had claimed a few more victims since I saw it last.
Back to my guesthouse now for some rest and refreshment. Afterwards, with the sun low on the horizon but still very much in service, I donned my winter gear and headed back out for one last bit of daylight sightseeing. My target: a cluster of Silla-period tumuli located just a few blocks west of where I was staying.
Part of the so-called Tumuli Park Belt – one of five zones making up the Gyeongju Historic Areas property on the UNESCO World Heritage List – Daereungwon (대릉원) is a cluster of burial mounds dating from the early Silla period. The site’s centrepiece is Cheonmachong (천마총), a tumulus raised in the 5th or 6th century AD to house the treasure-filled tomb of an as-yet unknown Silla monarch…
…and which, as luck would have it, was closed for renovations at the time of my visit.
Well, can’t be helped. And on the bright side, I now have yet another reason to return to Gyeongju as soon as I can manage. Besides, there’s plenty to see here apart from Cheonmachong.
UPDATE: Yes, I did finally go back for Cheonmachong (almost exactly a year after this initial visit). Read more about it in this field report.
From the entrance, I followed a long brick-paved road through a patch of woodland…
…which was soon transformed into a seemingly endless succession of tomb mounds.
As announced on the large banner posted near the entrance, the Cheonmachong tomb was closed to the public, its entrance hidden away behind a white fence plastered with information boards.
No matter – this simply meant that I had more time to explore the rest of the burial ground, which gradually acquired a peaceful, almost otherworldly aura as the sun continued its descent towards the horizon. It’s something I find rather difficult to put into words…
…so I shall let the pictures speak for themselves.
As I followed the long, looping path back down to the gate at the compound’s southern end, I paused for a few moments to admire the tomb of King Michu, the 13th ruler of Silla (reigned AD 262–284) and the first of the prominent Gyeongju Kim clan to sit upon the throne.
An impressive landmark to cap the day’s sightseeing with – except that I wasn’t quite done yet. After dark, I ventured out one last time to admire some of Gyeongju’s famous night views…
…but that’s something we’ll talk about in another post.