The City of Gyeongju was not what I was expecting at all. Described as a “museum without walls,” I expected the whole city to be ancient architecture and charming and beautiful. It wasn’t, which isn’t necessarily bad, but not what I expected. It certainly did have its charming parts, and was a nice break from Seoul.
On my first night, I took the bus from the Hilton into the “downtown,” which had a lot of small, very traditional Korean restaurants and markets. I then suddenly found myself in a bustling shopping district, bright with tons of clothing stores open at 7:30 on a Sunday night. I ended up at a well-rated but disappointing and expensive Indian restaurant, before exploring the center a bit more.
Gyeongju is a city that shines at night, and I’d read that one of the must-sees was the Anapji Pond, former royal garden, complex at night. As I made way towards the Pond, I passed several of the city’s well-known burial mounds – which really look more like large hills.
I also encountered a weird light village, which I think was part of the Silk Road Festival, which had tons of beautiful, intricate light displays – pretty crowded with families and children. It was right next to the Cheomseongdae, the oldest surviving astronomical observatory in the world – dating back to the seventh century!
I finally reached Anapji and it was all it was promised to be – well worth the $2 cost of entry – beautifully maintained and quite pleasant.
From there it was a taxi back home and early night in bed. On day 2, the plan was to head to Bulguksa Temple, an Eighth century, Buddhist temple ground and World Heritage Site – in the other direction from the Hilton as downtown. There’s a bus outside the Hilton that runs every 20 minutes, and takes about 20 minutes to get to the Bulguksa site. From there you walk up a hill to the ticket booth and entrance to the temple grounds themselves.
Bulguksa actually totally underwhelmed me in terms of visual brilliance. There isn’t much English signage so much of the significance of particular buildings probably was lost on me, but I guess it was cool to be at the site of some things that are that old?
About 4 km from the main Bulguksa site is the Seokguram Grotto. There’s an hourly bus that runs between Bulguksa and the Grotto, as well as a walking trail. It was only about 3km so I figured I’d walk, but it was actually a pretty steep 3km, with not much to see on the way. I think in a few weeks it would be gorgeous due to leaves changing, or during the wetter season as there were a number of streams and falls that were pretty dried up. It still was nice to have a break with nature.
I think I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the Grotto – though I was thinking fountains and water everywhere. It’s about 500 m from the entrance and ticket booth to the site itself, so there was a lot of walking, and then the buildings are pretty much vertical. Apparently the actual heart of the Grotto is blocked off by glass, so again this was a bit of a disappointing site, in that there wasn’t much to see, and I had no idea what anything was.
The view from the Grotto are spectacular though, and apparently sunset is even better than when I was there. It was a bit of a grey day so not captured great, but you get the idea.
I had hoped to catch the bus back down to Bulguksa , but with a 20 minute wait I decided to hike back, and made it down to the bus stop back to town. After a nice nap and workout, I headed back into town and had a traditional Korean BBQ meal, seated on the floor, with a fellow traveling Australian I met.
Overall, Gyeongju was a nice relaxing 2 days, though I’m not sure I’d do it again on a short Korean trip.
The KTX train back was uneventful. A taxi from the Hilton got me to the station in around 30 minutes, and I made an earlier train than intended – leaving 8 minutes after I left the ticket counter – which was good, since there really wasn’t much to do in the Singyeongju train station (though it is a visually stunning steel and glass structure in the middle of mountains). The Tuesday 10:20am train was emptier than the Sunday afternoon train had been, thought it filled up a bit in Daegu. The ratio of Koreans to Westerners also was quite different – no rowdy soldiers this time. One thing I really noticed was how much construction of high-rises and towers was going on in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere. My window seat allowed me some great views, and I had a relaxed trip back into Seoul for my last day in Korea, before an early morning departure to Taipei.