Sunday, May 13, 2007

Korea's Museum without Walls

Gyeongju is known as the "Museum without walls", or as I would put it, the Korean Kyoto. As LP puts it, Gyeongju holds more tombs, temples, rock carvings, pagodas, buddhist statuary, and the ruins of palaces, pleasure gardens and castles than any other place in South Korea. The most conspicuous and potentially interesting sight are the tumuli dotted around the centre of town, large burial mounds covered with grass, that look like small hillocks.

I stayed in Hotel Bellus, haggling the price down but still not very nice for the price, I wouldn't stay there again. Having dropped my bags, I head up to Jina's Uncle's restaurant, as I know I won't get turned away for being on my own for once! What I should have realised of course was that I would be immediately leapt upon and looked after Korean-style. I didn't have a gift, tut tut, but immediately was sat down, lots of food appeared, some sort of spicy meat on the bone, and very spicy soup, tasty, beer, and Uncle and his friend who could speak a little English joined me (for the beers at least), and of course to watch me struggle with chopsticks. No chance of paying. Various questions - How did you meet Jina, are you married etc, then they decided to take me to Anapji, a beautiful pleasure-garden surrounding a large pond that was built in 674 by King Munhu to commemorate the unification of the Korean peninsular under the Shilla Empire.

After we pull up at Danseongmyeongga, a large shop will which sells nothing but a particular type of traditional red-bean cake, or "bread" (bang in Korean) as they describe it. He picks up a box, but I recognise what is happening now and immediately buy another box for him. Rapid rebuttal gifts, it's the only way in Korea. He drops me at my hotel, but it's still early, so I potter down to the brewpub under the hotel (cough, I didn't select the hotel based on knowing that was there, cough). Over the door it describes the place as a microbrewery and euroo band which sounds somewhat dubious, but it's okay inside, a big space, though only three beers, two of which I try. The euro-band bit refers to loud euro-pop which places without break.


Next day is devoted to exploring Gyeongju. This city was the capital of the Korean Shilla empire for nearly 1,000 years. Important people were buried in a similar way to Egyptian pharoes, i.e. with lots of expensive relics for them to take to the afterlife, in huge (the largest, Bonghwadae is 22m high and 250m in circumference) earthen mounds which are now covered in grass. These mounds, at Noseo-Dong, are right in the centre of town, and near my hotel.

Right in the middle of town

I walk between them. LP says don't picnic or climb on them - they are tombs after all, but there are a few well-trodden paths heading up some of them, and a chap is dozing in the shade on one.

All different sizes

Past these "open" ones and into Tumuli Park, which has many more, including one, Cheonmachong, (Heavenly Horse Tomb) which has been opened up, though photography isn't allowed inside, where they display a replica of the actual coffin, along with a sign saying we should be respectful to the replica.. eh?

It's a pretty park, with trees and ponds, and the weather is good. I emerge on the other side, and head along to the astronomical observatory, Cheongseongdae, a stone tower which was the Far East's earliest, constructed between 632 and 646. It appears to be a simple tower, but is apparently sophisticated in design - the twelve stones of its base symbolise months of the year, 30 layers top to bottom, one for each day of the month, and there are 366 stones used in total, corresponding to the days of the year.

Along the road is the Gyeongju National Museum, allegedly the best history museum in Korea. They are lovely big buildings, at least. Also in the grounds hangs the Emille Bell, one of the largest and most beautifully resonant bells in Asia. It is said that its ringing can be heard over a 3km radius when just struck lightly by the fist. You're not allowed to get close enough to test this claim though. Pah!

Next on the 11 bus for a very fast and exciting ride to Bulguka. The bus passes the Namsan mountain, which looks nice, but I don't really have time to head up any of its many trails.

Bulguka Temple, one of Korea's most famous, and a must see as it's in the EJ Tourist Guide (!) is about 16km out of Gyeongju is supposed to be the crowning glory of Shilla temple architecture.

It's UNESCO protected, and particularly noteworthy for the skill of carpentry, the intricate paintwork that covers almost every surface, and the thick pine forests and iris gardens that surround it.

Photo fun

There are two national treasure bridges here too, but they're both under renovation I think, or perhaps I just don't notice them! It's a nice place, but busy.

Spiritual messages

I leave the temple and hop on the next bus to the Bomunho Lakeside Resort, the upmarket area with big hotel chains. The bus is heaving and baking hot, just the way I like it. Off next to the Hilton, I head down to the Sonje Art Gallery, as recommended by Eunjeong. It's a contemporary art gallery, but now has a special exhibition on: Teddy and Friends Around the World.

It's a weekend. Can you begin to imagine the number of families? It was heaving! It was well done though, with a check-in area, flight board, and then various world scenes filled with teddies.

South American Ted

Cantonese Ted

Lilliput Ted

Kimono Ted

Mahatma Ted

Korean Antarctic Ted

Buckingham Ted

Big Ben Ted

Maigret Ted

Van Ted

Dancing Ted

Lord of the Ted

Ted does Oktoberfest!

Back to town, I'm hungry but no restaurants will take me!

Should have stuck to what I know

When the third place says no to me because I'm on my own, I think b*gger it, head back to the hotel, and down to the Europop microbrewery again for meat skewers and a jug of beer!

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