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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.
Sitting comfortably under the tree-lined wings of the surrounding mountains, Bulguksa (불국사) was built in 528 during the reign of King Beop-heung, under whose leadership Buddhism was adopted as the Silla state religion. It was almost destroyed by the Japanese invasions in 1593 and, though it’s hard to believe now, was left to rot until the 1970s, when dictatorial president Park Chung-hee ordered its reconstruction. It has subsequently been added to the UNESCO World Heritage list. As one of the most visited temples in the country, it can be thronged with people, many of whom combine their visit with a picnic on and around the path leading from the bus stop to the ticket office. Once through the gates, you’ll walk a pretty path past a pond and over a bridge, before being confronted by the temple. Here two staircases lead to the upper level; these are officially “four bridges” rather than two flights of steps, leading followers from the worldly realm to that of the Buddha. Both are listed as national treasures, so you’re not actually allowed to ascend them. Having entered the main courtyard, you’ll be confronted by yet more treasures, this time two three-level stone pagodas from the Unified Silla period; one plain and one ornately decorated, representing Yin and Yang.
From the courtyard, it’s best to stroll aimlessly and appreciate the views. The whole complex has been elaborately painted, but the artistry is particularly impressive in Daeungjeon, the main hall behind the pagodas, whose eaves are decorated both inside and out with striking patterns. At the top of the complex, another hall – Gwaneumjeon – looks down over Bulguksa’s pleasing array of roof tiles; the steep staircase down causes problems for Korean girls in high heels, but there are other ways back. Making your way across the rear of the complex you’ll come to Nahanjeon, a hall surrounded by bamboo and a cloak of maple leaves. Behind this lie small towers of stacked stones; you’re welcome – expected – to add your own. The tearoom beneath the nearby trinket shop provides a useful rest stop.
Throughout the year the city puts on many shows and events to please its guests. In warmer months, regular performances of traditional song and dance take place on Bomun Lake and around Anapji Pond at 8pm on Saturdays from April to October, but the biggest event by far is the three-day Silla Cultural Festival, in October, one of the best and most colourful in the land. On the menu are wrestling, archery, singing and dancing, and a parade in which a mock Silla king and queen are carried down the streets. Other events include the Cherry Blossom Marathon, held on the first Saturday of April, and a Traditional Drink and Rice-Cake Festival in late March, while on December 31 the New Year’s crowd heads to King Munmu’s seaside tomb to ring in the change of digits and enjoy the first sunrise of the year.
Central Gyeongju’s ragtag assortment of buildings fades to the south, turning from urban to rural. Mercifully, development of this area is unlikely, as the city is hemmed in on its southern flank by Namsan Park, a small mountain area packed with trails and sights. New discoveries of ancient relics are made regularly, but even if you don’t find yourself unearthing a piece of Silla jewellery, this is another of the city’s must-sees. Roads run along the park’s perimeter, giving access to a wealth of sights on both sides, while the interior is strewn with carved Buddhas and offers some fantastic hikes. Namsan is best tackled either by bicycle around its pleasantly traffic-free perimeter, or with a pair of hiking boots through its interior.
Gyeongju is often described by the Korean tourist board as an open-air museum, thanks to its large number of grassy regal, burial mounds. The tombs in question are known as Tumuli, which are prolific and impossible to miss. Right in the centre of town, the walled-off Tumuli Park (대릉원) contains over two dozen tombs. It’s hard to imagine that this was until quite recently a functioning – though quiet – part of town, but in the 1970s the buildings were removed and the area beautified, creating a path- and tree-filled park that’s wonderful for a stroll. Entrances are located at the east and north of the complex, but its most famous hump sits to the far west. Here lies Cheonmachong (천마총), the only tomb in Korea that you can actually enter. Its former inhabitant is not known for sure, but is believed to be a sixth- or seventh-century king whose many horse-related implements gave rise to the name – Cheonmachong means “Heavenly Horse Tomb”. Excavated in 1973, it yielded over twelve thousand artefacts, which was the largest single haul in the country, and although many went to Gyeongju Museum, a few decorate the inner walls of the tomb. There’s also a full-scale mock-up of how the inhabitant was buried. Elsewhere in the complex is the large tomb of King Michu, who reigned from 262 to 284 and fought many battles to protect his empire from the neighbouring Baekje dynasty. According to legend, he even dispatched a ghost army from beyond the grave when his successor was losing one particular bout of fisticuffs; these phantoms disappeared during the resulting celebrations, leaving behind only the bamboo leaves that had infested the cavities of the enemy dead. For this reason, the tomb is often referred to as the “Tomb of the Bamboo Chief”. One other tomb of note is the double-humped Hwangnam Daechong, which was almost certainly the resting place of a king and queen.
Every culture has its own solutions for what to do with the deceased. Tibetan corpses are often left on a mountainside for vultures to carry away, certain Filipino societies place the departed in a coffin and pack it into a cliff, while the Yanomami of the Amazon rainforest choose to cremate their dead then eat the ashes with banana paste. Koreans have long preferred burial – a slightly more prosaic journey to the afterlife, for sure – and those who have travelled around the country a while will doubtless have seen the little green bumps that dot hills and mountains in the country’s rural areas. Larger versions used to be a matter of course for Korean royalty.
Literally hundreds of tombs from the Silla dynasty can be found all over Gyeongju and its surrounding area. However, the identities of few of the tombs’ occupants are known for sure – there were only 56 Silla kings, so it’s clear that many were created for lesser royals, military leaders and other prominent members of society. Equally mysterious are the interiors, as the super-simple green parabolas give almost no hints as to their construction; however, a look inside Cheonmacheong in Tumuli Park should provide a few hints. Layers of gravel and stone make up the base of the tomb, with a wooden chamber placed in the centre to house the deceased – unlike a Pharaoh, he or she would not have supervised the construction, but as in Egypt they would have been buried with some of their favourite belongings. The chamber was then covered with large, rounded stones (these would eventually crush the chamber, after sufficient putrefaction of the wood), which in turn was covered with clay and dirt, and sown with grass.
Given the riches inside, surprisingly few of the tombs were plundered for their treasures – while such an endeavour would be long and rather conspicuous, that didn’t stop thievery elsewhere in the country. Over the past century, many tombs have been carefully excavated, yielding thousands of artefacts, many of which are now on display in Gyeongju’s National Museum.