Over the past couple of years, a city in Gyeongsangbuk-do has quietly risen to the top ranks of my favourite destinations in Korea. Rich in historic sites and archaeological discoveries – particularly in relation to the long-lost kingdom of Silla – this place has never failed to reveal something new, something incredible, something downright amazing every time I took a walk within its boundaries.
Welcome to Gyeongju.
After an early morning Mass at one of Busan’s Catholic churches – not difficult to find, given Korea’s large Christian population – I tucked into a simple breakfast at my hotel before setting off for the main railway station.
My target for the day: Gyeongju (경주), a city about 1 to 1.5 hours away from Busan by train and bus. (Click here to read more about transportation between the two points.)
Although a seemingly nondescript mid-size city in our own day and age, Gyeongju – formerly known as Seorabeol – was once the capital of Silla (57 B.C.?–A.D. 935): a powerful realm that governed much of the Korean peninsula during the Three Kingdoms period. Though its glory days are long over, Silla’s rich cultural legacy survives in the ruins of its grand palaces and temples, as well as the glittering treasures buried in the tombs of its ruling elite. Those tombs are amongst the city’s most distinguishing features: grass-covered mounds scattered across the historic centre, most notably in one particular cluster…
…which we’ll have a look at shortly.
Incidentally, this wasn’t my first visit to Gyeongju. I was here a day earlier, poking about the famed Bulguksa temple compound. And almost exactly a year before, I spent a couple of days exploring the historic sights in the city centre. Here’s a brief summary of what I saw on that initial visit (with links to the relevant blog posts):
Day 1 (16 Feb 2018): Cheomseongdae observatory, Gyerim forest, Wolseong fortress, Donggung Palace and Wolji Pond (Anapji). / Seokbinggo icehouse, Daereungwon burial mounds. / Evening light-ups of the Wolji Pond (Anapji) and Cheomseongdae observatory.
Day 2 (17 Feb 2018): Gyeongju National Museum. / Hwangnyongsa, Bunhwangsa.
I’d covered a lot of ground back then, but there were still gaps to be filled. Bulguksa, for one, which I addressed with my visit the day before. There was also unfinished business to take care of in the city centre, a good chunk of which I managed to sweep across during the visit I’ll describe in the present post.
Right, back to our journey.
The weather was quite foul in Busan when I set off, although conditions had improved somewhat by the time I reached Gyeongju. Under lead-grey skies and the occasional splash of rain, I walked a few blocks from a bus stop near the main terminal towards my first stop of the day: a collection of Silla-era tomb mounds known as Daereungwon (대릉원). This royal graveyard was a highlight of my 2018 Gyeongju trip, but the most famous tomb of all was closed for renovations at the time, so it ranked high on my list of priorities for a return visit.
I’d used the main southern entrance on my previous visit a year earlier. This time, I was closer to the northern gate.
2,000 won at the ticket booth gets you in (as of this writing).
Cloudy skies or not, the tomb mounds were still a sight to behold. That said, I’d suggest coming in the late afternoon on a sunny day, as I did the last time I was here; much better for photography.
Finally, the tomb I couldn’t enter on my previous visit: the fabled Cheonmachong (천마총), constructed in the 5th or early 6th century A.D.
The mound’s hollowed-out interior replicates the layers of rock and earth that once covered its wooden burial chamber. Within the box-like inner sanctum are reproductions of the magnificent grave goods found in the tomb, carefully arranged in their original positions.
A small gallery in the rear serves as an interpretive centre, with both static and interactive displays offering detailed information on the artefacts excavated from Cheonmachong. Most of the originals are (to my knowledge) housed in the Gyeongju National Museum, but there are some finely crafted replicas on exhibit here…
…including copies of the priceless regalia worn by the tomb’s royal occupant.
His identity is lost to history, but the fabulous treasures interred with him strongly suggest that he was a Maripgan: the Silla equivalent of “king”, endowed with supreme authority over the realm.
Another replica shows the original appearance of a birch-bark saddle flap found within the tomb, bearing the painted image of a mythical flying horse – the “Cheon-ma” (천마/天馬) in “Cheon-ma-chong” (천마총/天馬塚), with the last hanja character meaning “tomb” or “burial mound”.
I left the Daereungwon compound via its main gate and continued walking towards Namcheon, the stream that runs along the southern edge of Gyeongju’s historic centre. En route, I passed another group of tomb mounds south-west of the famed Cheomseongdae stone observatory (more about that in one of last year’s field reports).
In due course, I came upon what appeared to be an old-fashioned brick or tile kiln…
…the presence of which seemed wonderfully appropriate, given the building material employed for the roofs of the structures nearby.
Like this one, for example.
I was standing at the north-western corner of the Gyeongju Gyochon Traditional Village (경주교촌마을, Gyeongju Gyochon Maeul), a small district filled with beautiful examples of classic Korean architecture. Some are preserved or reconstructed buildings from long ago whilst others are of newer vintage, but all employ traditional building techniques and materials (albeit to varying degrees). Here the dominant cultural influence isn’t ancient Silla, but the more recent Joseon: the kingdom that held sway over Korea from 1392 to 1897.
The buildings host a varied collection of establishments, from restaurants and chic cafés to shops and cultural experience centres. It’s an incredibly scenic area, perfect for casual strolling (and of course a bit of travel photography).
One of the key attractions in this area is the former mansion of the Gyeongju Choe clan, built in the late 18th century.
Although the influence of Joseon runs strongly in this neighbourhood, Silla still makes its presence felt through one rather important – and quite enormous – landmark.
In the 8th century A.D., King Gyeongdeok of Silla ordered the construction of a tile-roofed wooden bridge across Namcheon. Painstakingly rebuilt in phases from 2009 and completed in 2017, the modern replica of Woljeonggyo (월정교) that we see today is perhaps the largest Silla-era relic of central Gyeongju that has been resurrected to date.
Enough with the boring facts and figures. Let’s walk across the bridge and allow the structure to speak for itself.
Magnificent. I hope I’ll live to see more of ancient Silla’s grand public buildings rebuilt in the years to come – although, and it’s important to stress this, only if sufficient archaeological and historical evidence can be recovered to make accurate reconstructions possible.
Having reached the other bank, I set off eastwards on a pedestrian path running alongside Namcheon, with my target visible in the distance (the large roofed buildings just left of centre in the next picture). A long but pleasant stroll, with relaxing views of the stream to my left running through swathes of vegetation in winter shades of brown and gold.
Across the water, I spied the weathered remnants of the Wolseong (월성) fortress. Its lofty earthen ramparts – long reduced to low tree-covered embankments by centuries of erosion and neglect – once protected a complex of palaces used by the royal family of Silla. (Read more about Wolseong in my field reports from last year.)
At last, after about 20 minutes of walking, I reached my final stop of the day: the sprawling Gyeongju National Museum (국립경주박물관, Gungnip Gyeongju Bangmulgwan).
The museum’s vast inventory of Silla artefacts – perhaps the best collection of its kind in all of Korea – is housed in several exhibition halls (as well as a brand-new storage facility south of the main compound). The pictures in this previous field report will help give a taste of what’s on display.
…time for a long-overdue lunch!
I was pretty much done before three o’clock, with enough daylight remaining for one or two additional stops in central Gyeongju if I were so inclined. That said, between last year’s visit and this present holiday, I’d already covered many of the key attractions, so an early retreat to the comfort of my Busan hotel seemed the better choice.
Farewell to my beloved Gyeongju … well, farewell for the moment anyway. Needless to say, I hope to return real soon.