The surprisingly low number of travellers who choose to escape Seoul usually make a beeline to the Gyeongsang provinces (경상도) of Gyeongbuk (경북; “North Gyeongsang”) and Gyeongnam (경남; “South Gyeongsang”), in the southeast of the country, and with good reason – a land of mountains and majesty, folklore and heroes, this area is home to some of the most wonderful sights that Korea has to offer. This was the base of the Silla kingdom that ruled for nearly a thousand years; though this came to an end a similar time-span ago, a horde of jewellery, regal tombs and wonderful temples provide present-day evidence of past wonders.
Though the Korean capital was transferred to Seoul following the collapse of the Silla dynasty, Gyeongsang has continued to exert influence on the running of the country. Since independence and the end of Japanese occupation, the majority of Korea’s leaders have been Gyeongsang-born, with the resulting distribution of wealth and power making the area the country’s most populated, and industrial, outside Greater Seoul. Despite this, Gyeongsang is well known for its beautiful countryside; national parks line the provincial borders, and the southern coast is surrounded by hundreds of stunning islands. Its richly traditional hinterland provides the biggest contrast to the rest of the country – here you may be lucky enough to see ancestral rites being performed, or beasts ploughing the fields, and villages of thatch-roofed houses.
Covering one-fifth of the country, the largely rural province of Gyeongbuk is South Korea’s largest, and one of the most popular with visitors. Here, age-old tradition lingers on to a degree unmatched anywhere else in Korea, with sights strewn around the area providing a chronological view into more than two thousand years of history. Wonderful Gyeongju was capital of the Silla empire from 57 BC to 935 AD, and is now a repository to the resulting treasures. The main sights here are the regal tombs, small hillocks that held the city’s kings, queens and nobles; Bulguksa, one of the country’s most revered temples; and Namsan, a holy mountain crisscrossed with paths, and studded with relics of Silla times. Traces of the Joseon dynasty, which ruled the peninsula from 1392 until its annexation by the Japanese in 1910, are also evident in a number of Confucian academies and traditional villages; both of which can be found around Andong, a small, peaceful city that’s becoming ever more popular with foreigners. The years immediately preceding Korea’s mass industrialization in the 1980s can be savoured on the scenic island of Ulleungdo, where fishing and farming traditions exist unadulterated by factory smoke or sky-high apartment blocks. Meanwhile, the saccharine delights of present-day Korea can be savoured in Daegu, the largest city in the region, and a fun place to hole up for a couple of days.
Korea’s southeasternmost province, Gyeongnam, is as closely connected to the sea as its northern neighbour, Gyeongbuk, is to the land. The southern coast splinters off into an assortment of cliffs, peninsulas and islands, many of the latter preserved as the Hallyeo Haesang National Park. Here you can head by ferry to minute specks of land where life goes on as it has for decades, free of the smoke, noise and neon often hard to escape on the mainland. This greenery is not just confined to the province’s shoreline – Jirisan, to the west, is the largest national park in the country. It’s a real favourite among hikers, and not just for its size, or its beauty – a chain of shelters runs across the park’s central spine, making multiday hikes a possibility. Despite these earthy features, Gyeongnam is no natural paradise. Nearly eight million people live in the area, making it the most densely populated part of the country outside Greater Seoul. Here lies Korea’s second city, Busan, a fantastic place with good beaches, excellent nightlife, and a friendly, earthy nature.Read More
The Silla dynasty
The Silla dynasty
In 69 BC a young Herod was learning how to talk, Julius Caesar was busying himself in Gaul and Spartacus was leading slave revolts against Rome. Legend has it that at this time, a strange light shone down from the East Asian sky onto a horse of pure white. The beast was sheltering an egg, from which hatched Hyeokgeose, who went on to be appointed king by local chiefs at the tender age of 13. He inaugurated the Silla dynasty (sometimes spelt “Shilla”, and pronounced that way), which was to go through no fewer than 56 monarchs before collapsing in 935, leaving behind a rich legacy still visible today in the form of jewellery, pottery and temples. Many of the regal burial mounds can still be seen in and around Gyeongju, the Silla seat of power.
Though it was initially no more than a powerful city-state, successive leaders gradually expanded the Silla boundaries, consuming the smaller Gaya kingdom to the south and becoming a fully-fledged member of the Three Kingdoms that jostled for power on the Korean peninsula – Goguryeo in the north, Baekje to the west, and Silla in the east. Silla’s art and craft flourished, Buddhism was adopted as the state religion, and as early as the sixth century a detailed social system was put into use – the golpuljedo, or “bone-rank system” – with lineage and status dictating what clothes people wore, who they could marry and where they could live, and placing strict limits on what they could achieve.
Perversely, given their geographical positions on the “wrong” sides of the peninsula, Baekje was allied to the Japanese and Silla to the Chinese Tang dynasty, and it was Chinese help that enabled Silla’s King Muyeol to subjugate Baekje in 660. Muyeol died the year after, but his son, King Munmu, and promptly went one better, defeating Goguryeo in 668 to bring about a first-ever unified rule of the Korean peninsula. The resulting increase in power drove the state forward, though abuse of this new wealth was inevitable; pressure from the people, and an increase in the power of the nobility, gradually started to undermine the power of the kings from the late eighth century. Gyeongju was sacked in 927, and eight years later King Gyeongsun – by that time little more than a figurehead – finally handed over the reigns of power to King Taejo, bringing almost a millennium of Silla rule to a close, and kicking off the Goryeo dynasty.