I hadn’t packed for rain. This proved embarrassing when I arrived in Gyeongju, a place that the Korean Tourism Board calls a ‘museum without walls’. It doesn’t have a roof either, and it was pouring with rain. I’d never given this much thought, but to fully appreciate an ‘open air museum’ you need dry weather. I needed a Plan B. Unfortunately, Gyeongju was my Plan B. I’d left the hill village of Haeinsa hoping to escape the rain. I travelled to Daegu and then further east to Gyeongju. The rain accompanied me the whole way.
To make matters worse, I arrived in Gyeongju not only without rain gear but without having booked a hotel. Is there a more miserable, and avoidable, travelling experience than having to walk the streets adjacent to a bus station looking for a hotel in the pouring rain? I decided there wasn’t and took a taxi to the only hotel listed in my guidebook that sounded like it was worth staying in.
On this rainy day I finally got lucky. The Sa Rang Chae Guesthouse is not really a hotel, it is far, far better: a traditional Korean guesthouse of wooden buildings set around a courtyard. The owners speak English, and are friendly and helpful; so much so that I don’t hold it against them that they made me stay in a room the size of a prison cell, with a share bathroom and only a thin mattress between me and the heated floor. This, it turns out, is a traditional Korean bedroom and I was fortunate to get the last one. I slept miraculously well inside it.
Check-in consisted of agreeing the price and getting past two enormous and friendly dogs. Safely inside my 2m x 2m room I assessed my situation: it hadn’t yet stopped raining, nor did it look like doing so, but I was dry and had somewhere to sleep. All-in-all I figured I was winning the battle of wills against the weather. Sooner or later it would have to stop raining, and if the weather wanted to play the long game, then I had a good book.
It rained consistently for the next 20 hours. I borrowed an umbrella from the owners of the Sa Rang Chae and made a dash into town to have some food and stock up on a few essentials. OK, beer and snacks. A good book, beer, snacks and a 2m x 2m room. I was invincible. The weather was surely going to throw in its hand any time now.
When it finally stopped raining over 24 hours after I first arrived, I had cabin fever. I’d never understood what that phrase meant until now, to compensate I hit the streets like a man possessed. I needed exercise, fresh air and to see something, anything, of one of the most famous and historic cities in the whole of Korea.
Gyeongju, the ancient capital of the Silla dynasty, dates to around 57BC. Some 700 years later the Silla eventually conquered the whole of the Korean peninsular and Gyeongju became the capital of a new nation. The city peaked at a population of more than a million people, and was the political, cultural and religious nerve centre of the country. It went into rapid decline following the collapse of the Silla dynasty, and was largely ignored until the 1970s when it reclaimed its premier place in Korea’s cultural life.
This history has bequeathed the city a wealth of treasures, including several listed by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites, that no other Korean city can match. I had two days before my flight from Daegu, the weather was forecast to be dry and sunny, it was time to explore…