I was staying in the heart of ancient Gyeongju, right next to Tumuli Park, home to a large group of Silla dynasty tombs, and only a short walk from lots of things my guidebook recommended I make the effort to see. After being cooped up by rain for a day and a half, I was eager to walk around and get a sense of the place. Even then, there is only so much walking you can do. The sights of Gyeongju are spread out, and now the sun was shining it was ferociously hot. You can hire bikes, but a cab seemed a better option for the more distant sites.
I started my investigations amongst the ancient tombs of lovely Tumuli Park. Some of these giant mounds of earth date back over 1700 years, and the park is home to Cheonmachong, the country’s only excavated tomb that is open to the public. Cheonmachong translates as “Heavenly Horse Tomb”, from the horse-related artefacts found during the excavations. Over twelve thousand artefacts were discovered in the tomb, some on display, making the occupant a person of significance.
Most of the tombs are Silla royalty, but some are military commanders and other notables; double-humped tombs are likely the resting place of a king and a queen. There is a fee to get into Tumuli Park, and the landscaped grounds are worth a visit, but you can get up close and personal with other Silla tombs that are dotted around the centre of Gyeongju without paying.
Nearby stands another incredible Silla dynasty monument, the Cheomseongdae, or “star gazing platform”. This 9 metre high stone observatory has stood on this ground since the mid-7th Century and is the oldest surviving observatory in East Asia. The surrounding landscape is dotted with more Silla tombs and a walk through the landscaped Wolseong Park, once home to a mighty fortress, brought me to a small village of traditional houses close to the river.
After a late lunch, I found a cab and drove out to Bunhwangsa, literally and wonderfully meaning “Fragrant Emperor Temple”. Built in the 7th Century during the reign of Queen Seondeok, the 27th ruler of the Silla dynasty, it sits on the edge of a field planted with bright yellow rapeseed on the outskirts of the modern town.
The temple was surrounded by hundreds of colourful lanterns. It was a dramatic sight and made what would otherwise have been a fairly disappointing visit a lot more interesting. The size of the car park implies plenty of tour buses make the journey here, but I was lucky enough to have the temple to myself. This, it turned out, was a double-edged sword. The temple is a little isolated and, now late afternoon, there wasn’t a taxi to be found anywhere. I had to walk back to town.
After an exhausting day, I planned to go back to the guesthouse and rest, but a local student, keen to try his English, persuaded me that Anapji Pond was too beautiful to miss. It took another 30 minutes to walk there but he was right, it was beautiful, as befits a former royal pleasure garden. It was also packed with large groups of overexcited schoolchildren, and I barely escaped being trampled by a group of marauding seven year-olds. What, I asked myself, were they doing here at this time of night? On my school trips we were all safely locked away for the night, while the teachers were in the nearest pub.