Bulguksa, celestial land of the Buddha

In the whole of Korea the government has recognised just 317 National Treasures, cultural assets of the highest artistic and historic importance. It’s no surprise that the ancient Silla dynasty capital of Gyeongju is home to a significant number of them; more surprising is that seven National Treasures can be found in one place, the 8th Century Buddhist temple of Bulguksa, itself one of the most important temples in Korea. For good measure, Bulguksa is on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

16km southeast of Gyeongju, Bulguksa Temple sits on the lower slopes of Mount Toham, a 750m high mountain that, during the Silla era, was one of the country’s guardian mountains. Site of important religious ceremonies, it’s no surprise that it’s home to a 1300 year-old temple. Time was short so I took a taxi, which dropped me off in a car park at the entrance. I paid the 4000 won (€3.20) entry fee and quickly found myself walking up a tree-lined avenue towards the Temple complex.

The complex comprises numerous exquisitely carved and painted wooden buildings, built on stone terraces set around interconnected courtyards. Arriving at the traditional entrance is a little like arriving outside the walls of a fort, the temple complex rising up in front of you. The tourist entrance is around the side of the courtyard housing the Daeungjeon (Hall of Great Enlightenment); but the traditional entrance was up one of two flights of stairs, the Blue Cloud Bridge and the White Cloud Bridge. Both have 33 steps representing the 33 stages of enlightenment.

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Inside the courtyard is the Hall of Great Enlightenment and two stone pagodas – Seokgatap (Pagoda of Sakyamuni) and Dabotap (Pagoda of Bountiful Treasures) – both listed as National Treasures. Sadly, only Dabotap was visible while Seokgatap undergoes restoration following damage caused by an earthquake. This isn’t the first time Seokgatap has needed repairs. In 1966 some would-be thieves, believing the pagoda to contain treasures, attempted to blow it up using explosives.

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

They were right, the interior of the pagoda contained anient Buddhist relics and what some claim to be the oldest known documents printed using a wooden block. Chased off by the monks before they could steal anything, the contents of the pagoda were declared a National Treasure in 1967.

There were plenty of other visitors, but wander away from the main sights and you can find little pockets of solitude, although these get regularly interrupted as tour groups make their way through the complex. After I’d finished strolling amongst the temple buildings, I made my way back towards the bus stop. Walking along the paths through the picturesque landscaped grounds, I reflected upon what it must be like here without all the noise from tourism. Beautiful and serene, I’d bet.

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

The glories of ancient Gyeongju

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.

Silla Tombs, Tumuli Park, Gyeongju, Korea

Silla Tombs, Tumuli Park, Gyeongju, Korea

Silla Tombs, Tumuli Park, Gyeongju, Korea

Silla Tombs, Tumuli Park, Gyeongju, Korea

Silla Tombs, Tumuli Park, Gyeongju, Korea

Silla Tombs, Tumuli Park, Gyeongju, Korea

Silla Tombs, Tumuli Park, Gyeongju, Korea

Silla Tombs, Tumuli Park, Gyeongju, Korea

Interior of Cheonmachong Tomb, Tumuli Park, Gyeongju, Korea

Interior of Cheonmachong Tomb, Tumuli Park, Gyeongju, Korea

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.

Gyeongju, Korea

Gyeongju, Korea

Silla Tombs, Gyeongju, Korea

Silla Tombs, Gyeongju, Korea

Traditional bridge, Gyeongju, Korea

Traditional bridge, Gyeongju, Korea

Gyeongju, Korea

Gyeongju, Korea

Cheomseongdae, Gyeongju, Korea

Cheomseongdae, Gyeongju, Korea

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.

Bunhwangsa temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bunhwangsa temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bunhwangsa temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bunhwangsa temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bunhwangsa temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bunhwangsa temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bunhwangsa temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bunhwangsa temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bunhwangsa temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bunhwangsa temple, Gyeongju, Korea

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.

Anapji Pond, Gyeongju, Korea

Anapji Pond, Gyeongju, Korea

Anapji Pond, Gyeongju, Korea

Anapji Pond, Gyeongju, Korea

Anapji Pond, Gyeongju, Korea

Anapji Pond, Gyeongju, Korea

Anapji Pond, Gyeongju, Korea

Anapji Pond, Gyeongju, Korea

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.

Washed up in Gyeongju

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.

Street art, Gyeongju, Korea

Street art, Gyeongju, Korea

Street art, Gyeongju, Korea

Street art, Gyeongju, Korea

Street art, Gyeongju, Korea

Street art, Gyeongju, Korea

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.

Sa Rang Chae Guesthouse, Gyeongju, Korea

Sa Rang Chae Guesthouse, Gyeongju, Korea

Sa Rang Chae Guesthouse, Gyeongju, Korea

Sa Rang Chae Guesthouse, Gyeongju, Korea

Sa Rang Chae Guesthouse, Gyeongju, Korea

Sa Rang Chae Guesthouse, Gyeongju, Korea

Sa Rang Chae Guesthouse, Gyeongju, Korea

Sa Rang Chae Guesthouse, Gyeongju, Korea

Check-in consisted of agreeing the price and getting past two enormous and friendly dogs. Safely inside my 2m x 2m room I reassessed 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.

Lunch, Gyeongju, Korea

Lunch, Gyeongju, Korea

Lunch, Gyeongju, Korea

Lunch, Gyeongju, Korea

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.

Traditional Korean homes, Gyeongju, Korea

Traditional Korean homes, Gyeongju, Korea

Traditional Korean homes, Gyeongju, Korea

Traditional Korean homes, Gyeongju, Korea

Traditional Korean homes, Gyeongju, Korea

Traditional Korean homes, Gyeongju, Korea

Traditional Korean homes, Gyeongju, Korea

Traditional Korean homes, Gyeongju, Korea

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.

Cheomseongdae, 7th Century astronomical tower, Gyeongju, Korea

Cheomseongdae, 7th Century astronomical tower, Gyeongju, Korea

A happy pig, Gyeongju, Korea

A happy pig, Gyeongju, Korea

Snack shopping, Gyeongju, Korea

Snack shopping, Gyeongju, Korea

Street art, Gyeongju, Korea

Street art, Gyeongju, Korea

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…

A Korean adventure

Other than a passing understanding of the Korean War, a little knowledge of Korean food, and a biased Western media view of Kim Jong Un (who I’m sure is charming when he’s not eating burgers while watching peasants starve to death), I didn’t really know very much about Korea, north or south. Two weeks of working and travelling in South Korea taught me a lot, but also led me to the conclusion that it may be impossible to truly understand Korea.

This feeling began at Seoul airport, where I spent an unpleasant 4 hour transfer watching what I can only describe as a K-pop choir perform. I went to find food only to discover the extensive food court was hidden in the bowels of the airport. There wasn’t a single window. Assuming these were quirks of Seoul airport I boarded my connecting flight for Daegu…I had a lot to learn.

Gyeongju, South Korea

Gyeongju, South Korea

Spring tree, Daegu, South Korea

Spring tree, Daegu, South Korea

Haein-sa, South Korea

Haein-sa, South Korea

Despite the fact that English is used in all sorts of advertising and on road signs, it seems to be  spoken only rarely. This makes eating, travel and using the toilet an adventure. I like adventure, but sometimes predictable can also be good. Call me old fashioned, but a toilet shouldn’t have its own power supply, come with a control panel with more options than a TV remote, or have a sticker warning you not to get water on the electrics. Nor should a visit to the ‘smallest room’ finish with your rear end receiving a shampoo (no pun intended) and blow-dry. I’m surprised there aren’t more fatalities.

There are, at least, toilets. In Europe if you want a public toilet you look for the nearest McDonalds. In Korea, there are toilets everywhere. The last time I came across a place with this many public toilets was China…Korean public toilets are superior on every level.

Fish stall, Seomun Market, Daegu, South Korea

Fish stall, Seomun Market, Daegu, South Korea

Korean food in Daegu, South Korea

Korean food in Daegu, South Korea

Korean food in Daegu, South Korea

Korean food in Daegu, South Korea

Food is one of the great joys of travel, although I find this works better if you have a basic understanding of what you’re eating. In the absence of a common language, or pictorial menu, I was forced to wander restaurants checking out other people’s food before ordering. Dumb luck had it that I didn’t have many bad food experiences, but that pre-supposes that you’re a fan of kimchi. If you’re not, Korea may not be for you.

No one can hear you scream in space, but after a week of eating Kimchi I’ll bet they can smell you in the furthest corners of the cosmos. Eating here also requires you to know your way around a pair of chopsticks, not the ordinary sturdy wooden chopsticks that I’m used to, but a devilishly tricky Korean version: needle thin metal chopsticks designed to make the novice look like an idiot. In one bar they took no chances, my spring rolls came with a pair of scissors and some ice tongs. Let’s just say I provided a lot of people with entertainment.

Korean food in Daegu, South Korea

Korean food in Daegu, South Korea

Korean food in Daegu, South Korea

Korean food in Daegu, South Korea

Of course, to eat it’s necessary to have the means to pay. This is not as easy as it may seem. Not many places take cards, certainly not outside the city. This leaves you firmly in a cash economy. Sadly, the Korean banking system has yet to join the 21st Century; in a highly developed economy ATMs don’t often accept foreign cards. This is not to say that Korean ATMs aren’t sophisticated. They regularly double as entertainment centres – playing music videos and showing TV clips – less regularly they dispense cash.

One day, after trying a dozen or more ATMs, I thought I was going to have to throw myself on the mercy of the British embassy. I’ve met British diplomats, mercy is not in their nature. I finally found an ATM that worked, to celebrate I took a taxi to the bus station for a trip into the countryside.

Daegu, South Korea

Daegu, South Korea

Haein-sa, South Korea

Haein-sa, South Korea

Daegu, South Korea

Daegu, South Korea

Taxis are a litmus test of a nation’s psyche. Taxi drivers in Korea universally wear driving gloves, in my experience this is rarely a good sign. Some are ‘professional’ leather gloves; others are clearly home made, possibly knitted by their moms. 97% of all taxi drivers approach their job as if they’re not just competing in NASCA, but have a shot at the title. None of them understand the English for, “Please, I’m begging, slow down before we all die. Look out for the school children. Arrrgghh!” Coincidentally, 97% is also the the number of Koreans who own and operate a selfie stick.

I did reach the countryside, unfortunately it was the weekend so I was joined there by several million other outdoor enthusiasts. The people of Korea take the countryside seriously. Most dress as if they are attempting an ascent of K2 – from the Chinese side. I have never seen so much technical walking gear, deployed for a short stroll on well maintained tracks guiding you around a temple complex. I’m not even going to mention the disproportionate number of couples who wear matching shoes.

Gyeongju, South Korea

Gyeongju, South Korea

Haein-sa, South Korea

Haein-sa, South Korea

Yangdong Village, South Korea

Yangdong Village, South Korea

One final piece of insider advice – every tourist map I was given was woefully inaccurate. Why bother drawing a map to scale, where physical features accurately relate to other physical features, when you can draw a map with nice pictures of trees, flowers and mountains? Even if there isn’t a mountain within 100km? Maps are far less helpful, but much prettier this way. I spent my first few days thinking I’d been given a map for a different city.

Bulguk-sa, Gyeongju, South Korea

Bulguk-sa, Gyeongju, South Korea

Yangdong Village, South Korea

Yangdong Village, South Korea

This is what I’ve learned about Korea. Not everything, just the important stuff. If doing battle with toilets and taxi drivers, navigating by maps that may not be for where you happen to be, or taking your chances with food, doesn’t discourage you from visiting, I’d say just go. You’ll have a lot of fun, or others will have a lot of fun at your expense. Either way someone is having fun and that’s the important thing.