A green jewel in Korea’s tourist crown, GYEONGJU (경주) is a city that deserves a little more fame. Here you can walk among kings from a dynasty long expired and view the treasures accumulated during a millennium of imperial rule, while strolling around a city with infinitely more traditional sights than any other in the country. Strangely, much of Gyeongju’s present charm is all down to a bit of good old-fashioned dictatorship: in the 1970s and 1980s, authoritarian President Park Chung-hee managed to ensure that Korea’s most traditional city stayed that way at a time when rapid economic progress was turning the country upside-down. He introduced height restrictions on structures built anywhere near historical remains – in other words, pretty much all of the centre – and passed a bill requiring almost everything static to have a traditional Korean-style roof. The rules have, sadly, not always been followed – spend as little time as possible in the mucky city centre – but the contrast with regular urban Korea remains quite palpable.
Chief among Gyeongju’s sights are the dead kings’ tombs, rounded grassy hills that you’ll see all over town; it’s even possible to enter one for a peek at the ornate way in which royalty were once buried. To the east of the centre there’s Anapji Pond, a delightful place for an evening stroll under the stars, and a museum filled with assorted trinkets and fascinating gold paraphernalia from Silla times. Further east is Bulguksa, one of Korea’s most famous temples; splendidly decorated, it’s on the UNESCO World Heritage list, as is Seokguram, a grotto hovering above it on a mountain ridge. A less-visited mountain area is Namsan to the south of the centre, a wonderful park filled with trails and carved Buddha images.
The most interesting period of Gyeongju’s lengthy history was during its near-millennium as capital of the Silla kingdom. After so long as Korea’s glamourpuss, the degree to which Gyeongju faded into the background is quite surprising – having relinquished its mantle of power, the city lived on for a while as a regional capital, but then fell into a steep decline. The Mongols rampaged through the city in the fourteenth century, the Japanese invasions a couple of hundred years later stripped away another few layers of beauty, and from a peak of over a million, Gyeongju’s population fell to next to nothing.
Ironically, centuries after carrying countless spoils of war across the sea after their successful invasion, it was the Japanese who reopened Gyeongju’s treasure-chest of history, during their occupation of the country in the early twentieth century. In went the diggers, and out came hundreds of thousands of relics, so that, even today, much visible evidence of the dynasty still remains around the city. Not all of this is above ground – excavations continue, and new discoveries are made every year.