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 theSilla 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 andislands, 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.
Surrounded by picturesque countryside and magical sights, ANDONG (안동) is deservedly one of the most popular draws in the region for foreign travellers. Whatever the Korean tourist booklets say about its history, don’t go expecting a mini-Gyeongju – such a comparison is unfair and misguided, as there’s little in the city itself. However, the wonderful sights on Andong’s periphery mean that it has enough to be respected on its own terms. The centre is small, pleasant and unhurried, with the main sights located well out of town – Dosan Seowon to the north is a stunning Confucian academy dating from Joseon times, while to the west is Hahoe Folk Village, a rustic approximation of traditional Korean life. A similar village can be found nearer the centre, next to a rather absorbing folklore museum.
Dosan Seowon (도산 서원) is a Confucian academy, surrounded by some of the most gorgeous countryside that the area can offer. The academy was established in 1574, in honour of Yi Hwang, a well-respected Confucian scholar also known as Toegye. It no longer functions as a place of study, but a refurbishment in the 1970s gave back the tranquillity of its original raison d’être: this was a highly important study place during the Joseon era, and the only one outside Seoul, for those who wished to pass the notoriously hard tests necessary for governmental officials. Opposite the main entrance, you may notice a little man-made hill topped by a traditional-style shelter; the stele underneath once marked an important spot for the government exams, with the original location somewhere towards the bottom of the lake that you pass on the bus in. As you enter the complex, beyond the flower gardens and up the steps are two libraries whose nameplates are said to have been carved by Toegye himself; the buildings were built on stilts to keep humidity to a minimum. Further on are structures that were used as living quarters, the main lecture hall, and a shrine to Toegye, though this last one is usually closed off. Passing back down under a cloak of maple – which flames roaring red in late autumn – you’ll find an exhibition hall detailing the great man’s life and times, as well as an astrolabe for measuring the movements of celestial bodies.
Poet, scholar, all-round good guy and bearded star of the thousand-won note, Toegye (퇴계; 1501–70) is one of Korea’s most revered historical characters. Born Yi Hwang, but better known by his pen name (pronounced Twegg-yeah), he exerted a major influence on the politics and social structure of his time. The country was then ruled by the Joseon dynasty, one of the most staunchly Confucian societies the world has ever known – each person was born with a predefined limit as to what they could aspire to in life, forever restricted by their genetics. The aristocracy oversaw a caste-like system that dictated what clothes people could wear, who they could marry, and what position they could hold, among other things.
Toegye was lucky enough to be born into privileged society. He excelled in his studies from a young age, and eventually passed the notoriously difficult governmental exams necessary for advancement to the higher official posts. Once there, he refused to rest on his laurels – he hunted down those he thought to be corrupt, and as a reward for his integrity was exiled, several times, from the capital. However, his intelligence made him a force to be reckoned with, and he set about introducing neo-Confucian thought, much of it borrowed from the Song dynasty in China; he advocated, for example, advancement based on achievement rather than heredity. After his death, the Confucian academy Dosan Seowon was built in his honour; it retains the contemplative spirit of the time, and of Toegye himself.
Korea has made many efforts to keep alive its pastoral traditions in the face of rapid economic growth; one particularly interesting example is its preserved folk villages. While some exist purely for show, others are functioning communities where life dawdles on at an intentionally slow pace, the residents surviving on a curious mix of home-grown vegetables, government subsidy and tourist-generated income. Hahoe Folk Village (하회 마을) is one of the best and most popular in the country, a charming mesh of over a hundred traditional countryside houses nestling in the gentle embrace of an idle river. This charming mix of mud walls, thatched roofs and dusty trails is no mere tourist construct, but a village with a history stretching back centuries, and you’ll be able to eat up at least a couple of hours exploring the paths, inspecting the buildings and relaxing by the river. The village’s past is told on information boards outside the most important structures – seek out the Yangjin residence, for example, the oldest in the village, and built in a blend of Goryeo- and Joseon-era styles. The village can sometimes get a little busy with visitors, but it’s easy to escape and find space – try the riverside at the far end of the village, past the church.
An almost overwhelming number of sights litter the countryside around Gyeongju – those listed here make up just a fraction of the possibilities, so be sure to scour local maps and pamphlets for things that might be of particular interest to you. Transport to sights is not always regular – you may need to spend some time waiting for buses, so if possible, try to get the latest timetable from one of Gyeongju’s tourist offices. While hitchhiking is never totally safe and can’t be wholeheartedly recommended, you’ll rarely get a better chance than on the run east to the Underwater Tomb of King Munmu, where the road is lightly trafficked and everyone is heading to or from Gyeongju. To the north of Gyeongju are Oksan Seowon, one of the country’s best examples of a Joseon-era Confucian academy, and Yangdong Folk Village, a collection of traditional housing. To the west of the city and within cycling range are yet more regal tombs.
On the way to see King Munmu and his watery grave, and easily combined as part of a day-trip, you’ll pass a rural spur road leading to two out-of-the-way temples that inhabit a wonderfully unspoilt valley east of Gyeongju. Golgulsa (골굴사) is the nearer of the two, and famed as a centre of seonmudo, a Zen-based martial art. From the bus stop near the village of Andong-ni (#150, the same bus that heads to Munmu), it’s just under 1km to the temple turn-off on the left. It’s all uphill from here, with the track heading past a teahouse before rising into the small complex, from where it becomes even steeper. Backing the complex is a sixth-century Buddha, carved into a cliff navigable on some short but precipitous paths. Though now protected by a monstrous modern structure, a clamber up to the Buddha is essential for the picture-perfect view alone; there are barriers to stop you from going over the edge. Those of an even steelier disposition may like to stay at the temple for some martial arts practice; visit www.golgulsa.com for more information.
Five kilometres further down the spur road is Girimsa (기림사), a temple that receives few visitors on account of its location. There are sometimes direct buses from Gyeongju – ask at the tourist office – but it’s quite possible to make the long walk here from Golgulsa: allow at least an hour each way. The road sees little traffic, and the journey is its own reward, with farmland-backed views and the occasional man walking his pet bird of prey while the surrounding rice paddies reverberate to the sound of thousands of frogs. After such majestic countryside, the slightly drab grounds of the temple itself may come as something of a letdown, but it’s a quiet place rarely overrun with visitors. Notable are a couple of statues of the Goddess of Mercy, and a centuries-old Bodhi tree.
Just off the coast east of Gyeongju is the Underwater Tomb of King Munmu (문무대왕 수중릉). Though the name befits a good novel, and it’s popular with Korean tourists, the actual signature of rocky crags may come as an anticlimax; it’s worth the trip, however, not only to see the beauty of the surrounding countryside but also to feast on delicious fresh seafood.
The king’s final resting place lies literally a stone’s throw from the coast. In his lifetime, Munmu achieved the first unification of the Korean peninsula, reasoning that the power of his united forces would better repel any invasion from the Japanese. On his deathbed, and still clearly concerned by the Nipponese threat, he asked to have his ashes scattered on the offshore rocks, believing that he would then become a sea dragon, offering eternal protection to the country’s coast. Just 1km inland you’ll be able to make out two giant stone pagodas, 13m high, which mark the former site of Gameunsa (감은사), a temple built on the orders of Munmu’s son, Sinmun, in order to provide his sea-dragon father an inland retreat along the now-dry canal.
You may be lucky enough to witness one of the banana-heavy shamanist ceremonies that occasionally take place on the beach, honouring spirits of the local seas.
DAEGU (대구) is Korea’s fourth largest city by population, and a major centre of business. The core of town is effectively one large shopping mall, the department stores supplemented by a lattice of streets devoted to particular products. Herbal Medicine Street is the best known, as the city has for centuries been a centre of herbal medicine, but you could also head to Steamed Rib Meat Street or Rice Cake Street if you’re hungry, Shoe Street or Sock Street if your feet need clothing, or Washing Machine Appliance Street if, well, your washing machine needs maintenance.
For all this, it has to be said that Daegu as a city is not particularly attractive. However, in a country obsessed with appearance, it’s hard to talk to a Korean about Daegu without being told how beautiful its women are; the city is based in a geological bowl, which makes for very hot summers, very cold winters and very delicious apples – this fruit that pops out of the surrounding countryside is said to keep the skin pimple-free, as well as providing the blanching effect that Korean girls crave. There are few notable sights in central Daegu, but it’s a pleasant place to shop, or to catch up on your partying if you’ve been trawling the Gyeongsang countryside. Outside the city boundaries Palgongsan is a wonderful park to the north of town, while Haeinsa is one of Korea’s best-known temples, and just a bus ride to the west.
On February 18, 2003, a calamitous event took place under Daegu’s downtown streets, one that was to have a heavy impact on the Korean psyche, and a terrible comedown after the spectacular success of the previous year’s World Cup. The simple facts – around two hundred killed in a subway fire – do not even begin to tell the story, with failings before, during and after the event bringing about a national sense of shame, and a level of introspection previously unseen in a country accustomed to looking abroad for excuses.
A few months before the fire, a man named Kim Dae-han had suffered a stroke that left him partially paralysed. Ostracized by his family and friends, and losing his sanity, he decided to take his frustrations out on society. During a Tuesday morning rush-hour, he wandered into a subway train armed with gasoline-filled containers, which caught fire as the train pulled into Jungangno station. The fire spread rapidly through the carriages, owing to the lack of any fire-extinguishing apparatus on board; both the seats and the flooring produced toxic smoke as they burned. Kim managed to escape, along with many passengers from his train, but the poor safety procedures on the line meant that the driver arriving in the opposite direction was not informed of the problem, and pulled in to a plume of thick, toxic smoke. At this point the fire detection system kicked in and shut off power on the line, leaving both trains stranded. The driver of the second train told passengers to remain seated while he attempted to contact the station manager, and when finally put through was told to leave the train immediately. He duly scurried upstairs, but in his haste had removed the train’s key, shutting off power to the doors, and effectively sealing the remaining passengers inside – death on a large scale was inevitable. The total count has never been fully established, as some bodies were burnt beyond all recognition.
The families of the victims, and the country as a whole, needed someone to blame. The arsonist was sentenced to life in prison, avoiding the death penalty on the grounds of mental instability; he died in jail soon afterwards. The incident raised some serious questions, primarily about safety being compromised by a thirst for profit, and the treatment of the disabled in Korean society – a baptism of fire for incoming president Roh Moo-hyun. Safety on Daegu’s subway has since been significantly improved, and facilities for the disabled have improved across Korea. At least some good may be coming out of one of Korea’s biggest modern-day disasters.
One of the most famous sights in the land, the eighty-thousand-plus wooden blocks of Buddhist doctrine known as the Tripitaka Koreana were first carved out in the eleventh century, over a 76-year period, in an attempt to curry the favour of the Buddha in a time of perpetual war. Though the originals were destroyed by rampaging Mongol hordes in the thirteenth century, the present set were carved shortly after that, and once again every possible measure was taken to please the Buddha. The best wood in the area was tracked down then soaked for three years in seawater before being cut to shape and boiled. The slabs then spent another three years being sheltered from sun and rain but exposed to wind, until they were finally ready for carving. Incredibly, not a single mistake has yet been found in over fifty million Chinese characters, a fact that led other countries to base their own Tripitaka on the Korean version. A superb feat of craft, patience and devotion, the outer spines of these blocks are still visible today at Haeinsa temple, and the set has been added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
A small city typical of Korea’s southern coast, but rather more akin to laid-back Jeolla than busy Gyeongsang in feel, JINJU (진주) is worth dropping into on account of its superb fortress alone – this was the scene of one of the most famous suicides in Korean history, an event commemorated by an annual weekend festival at the end of May.
Here you can walk for hours along pretty paths, gaze over the river from traditional pavilions and pop into the odd temple. The beauty of Jinju is that all you need is within easy walking distance – the fortress is close to the intercity bus terminal, and surrounded by places to stay and eat. Unlike most towns in the region, the city is famed for its food, and a clutch of excellent eel restaurants can be found outside the fortress entrance. Jinju even has its own take on bibimbap – a popular dish across the nation, but prepared here with consummate attention – and a few restaurants still serving ostrich meat. The city also makes a good base for nearby national park of Jirisan, one of the most popular in the country.
Jinju’s fortress received its first serious test in October of 1592, during the first attacks of what was to be a prolonged Japanese invasion. Like Admiral Yi along the coast in Yeosu, General Kim Si-min held the fort despite being heavily outnumbered, with records claiming that 30,000 Japanese soldiers were seen off by just 3800 local troops. The following June, the Japanese returned in greater numbers, with up to 100,000 soldiers eager to obliterate the shame of their previous defeat, and it is estimated that 70,000 Koreans were killed during a week-long siege. Every tragedy needs a hero – or, in this case, a heroine – and this time a local girl named Nongae, one of several girls selected to “entertain” the Japanese top-dogs after their victory, stepped into the breach. After using her charms to lure Japanese general Keyamura to what should have been a suspiciously lofty position on the riverside cliff, she jumped to her death, bringing the general down with her. A festival commemorating Nongae’s patriotic valour takes place in the fortress each May, while General Kim’s memory lives on in statue form at the centre of the fortress.
Korea’s largest national park, JIRISAN (지리산 국립 공원), pulls in hikers from all over the country, attracted by the dozen peaks measuring over 1000m in height, which includes Cheonwangbong, the South Korean mainland’s highest. It has also found fame for its resident bear population; a park camera spotted an Asiatic Black Bear wandering around in 2002, almost two decades after the last confirmed Korean sighting. The bear group was located and placed under protection, and continue to breed successfully. Although you’re extremely unlikely to see them, it lends the park’s various twists and turns an extra dash of excitement – nowhere else in Korea will you be fretting over the sound of a broken twig. Jirisan is one of the only national parks in the country with an organized system of overnight shelters – there are few more atmospheric places to fall asleep in this corner of Korea. This makes multiday hikes an exciting possibility; one popular route heads across the main spine of the park from east to west, and takes three days to walk. There are large peaks all the way along this central ridge, from which numerous picturesque valleys drop down to the fields and foothills below. It’s impossible to detail all of the possible hikes and sights in the park, better instead to arm yourself with the park map (available at park entrances and nearby tourist offices for W1000) and find your own lofty piece of paradise.
The park actually sprawls across three provinces, with its most popular access point – the temple of Hwa-eomsa – on the west of the park, and actually located across the provincial border in Jeonnam. The eastern side of Jirisan, in Gyeongnam province, lacks such a focal point – there are dozens of entrances, but though none are particularly popular or easy to get to, this usually makes for a quieter visit than you’d get at other national parks. One of the most popular trails is up from Ssanggyesa (쌍계사), a beautifully located temple at the south of the park. There’s little of historical note here, bar a stone tablet apparently dating from 887, but the surroundings are delightful, particularly in the early morning before the sun has risen beyond Jirisan’s muscular peaks; it may also be Korea’s noisiest temple in terms of birdlife. Daewonsa (대원사) is another pretty temple, this one on the park’s eastern fringe, and also has trails leading up to the peaks.
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.
Gyeongnam’s south coast is surrounded by squadrons of islands. One of these, Geojedo, is the second largest in the country; despite a heavy amount of industrialization, it retains some worthwhile sights, particulary rocky Haegeumgang, a coastal formation best viewed by boat. Dozens of other islands have been placed under the protective banner of Hallyeo Haesang, one of only three national marine parks in the country; these are best accessed from Tongyeong, a coastal city whose square harbour must rank as one of Korea’s most scenic.