We were looking for something new to do a few weekends ago, which can be a bit complicated and frustrating when you have to rely on public transport, but then we realized that the birthplace of the Silla Kingdom (Korea’s longest-reigning dynasty) is just a short 25 minute train ride away from Ulsan!
Gyeongju was the capital of the Silla Kingdom from 57 BC to AD 935, so it’s filled with super old stuff!
The most striking thing we noticed about Gyeongju’s landscape is the vast amount of perfectly rounded green hills:
These are actually Silla Dynasty tombs, and the amount of them covering Gyeongju is unreal! We were super excited the first time we saw a couple, and went running over to investigate, thinking we’d found something really rare, until we started spotting them from the window of every bus we were on!
They’re pretty big…so perfect for rolling down. Trust me, it was super hard to resist… We probably could’ve gotten away with it, as there were hardly any people around these particular ones, but y’know, respect for the dead and all!
We spotted a few of these massive tortoises placed in pagodas surrounding the tombs; a sign near this one said it used to be on top of one of the king’s tombs, with a large pagoda on its back.
Most of the tombs were surrounded by walls with a ticket booth; the entrance fees varied from 500-2,000 won (roughly 50 cents – $2); this was the one thing that kind of irked us about Gyeongju, EVERYWHERE we went had an entrance fee. Obviously this money goes towards the upkeep of the parks and historical sites, but it got pretty annoying when we kept having to pay into parks which weren’t more than a two minute walk from each other.
Spooky little orb! The Silla Kingdom kings are still alive and kicking, I guess!
Gyeongju has two main ‘attractions’: Bulguksa Temple and Seokguram Grotto, both of which are considered the Buddhist masterpieces of the Silla Kingdom.
The entrance to Bulguksa Temple. If you’re wondering, no, I’m not sick of visiting temples yet!
Pagoda housing Bulguksa’s temple guardians.
We’d loved the huge temple guardians we’d seen in Tokyo so much, so we were super excited to find guardians in Korea; these were the first ones we’d seen here.
I think I’m giving evil eyes to the kid who decided to walk straight into our photo! These guardians were so cool, but not very well looked-after. They were covered in layers of dirt and dust, which detracted from how brightly colored they’re meant to be.
Bulguksa is one of the few (if not the only) Buddhist temple in Korea which is built on layers of stones; this is meant to elevate it from the mortal world. You can’t enter it from the front, but have to go up around a tree-lined path to a side-entrance.
I don’t know how Eoin managed to get this photo with hardly any people in it, because this place was PACKED! I can’t imagine going here on a holiday; we went on a random weekend and it was brimming with tour groups, tourists, and loads of Korean families.
Bulguksa was built to reflect the ideal world of the Buddha, and the amount of color and detail everywhere was insane! I was basically spinning around in circles staring upwards the whole time we were here, there was just so much to look at.
It’s kind of contradictory that Bulguksa, like all temples in Korea, is a functioning place of worship and study as well as being a tourist attraction; there were these beautiful, massive red doors leading to the outer regions of the temple, but most of the wood had been defaced by people scrawling messages, names, and phone numbers. It was kind of depressing.
The pagoda containing the main altar and gold Buddha.
Once we’d finished looking around Bulguksa, we decided to head over to the Seokguram Grotto; we thought this would be easy enough, because I’d read online that the two were pretty close to each other, but it turned out that they’re only ‘close’ if you can drive. We figured we’d get a bus over, but found out that there’s only one bus to Seokguram Grotto, and it runs once an hour. So, for anyone who intends on visiting Bulguksa and Seokguram, make sure to check the bus times to Seokguram before heading up to Bulguksa, so you can time your trip accordingly, and not end up having to get an over-priced taxi like we did…
It’s a pretty long walk to the Grotto, winding along a tree-lined pedestrian road cut into the side of a mountain. The Grotto itself is in a pagoda on top of a hill. I’m not going to say trekking here isn’t worth it, but it turned out to be a bit of an anti-climax for us, anyway. Seokguram is thee masterpiece of the 8th century Silla Kingdom; it’s a huge seated Buddha carved from granite, surrounded by intricate carvings, and constructed in alignment with the rising and setting of the sun. It was definitely impressive to see, but in order to preserve it, the entire grotto is closed off behind a glass wall, so you can only view it from a narrow, dark passageway, and no photos are allowed. Because it’s such a popular tourist site, it was pretty busy, so we couldn’t even view the Buddha for more than a minute due to the queue of people behind us. So, yeah, a bit of a let-down, but I wouldn’t openly discourage anyone from visiting it.
After a long day’s hiking and temple-viewing, we got a taxi to Seoak-dong, a tiny village just outside the center of Gyeongju, for some vegan temple food at a restaurant called Baru.
We’ve eaten at enough temple restaurants now to be able to say that the fare is all pretty much the same food served in the same order. There are variations here and there, and obviously some places are way tastier than others, but it’s the same basic pattern everywhere. Baru was nice and quiet, and the food was served pretty quickly; we opted for the set lunch menu which consisted of about five or six courses, including tempura veggies, bibimbap, japchae, vegan sundubu jjigae, and watermelon slices for dessert. Our favorite part of the meal at Baru was a plate of tiny leek pancakes served with an assortment of pickled toppings. We had huge leek pancakes at a vegan restaurant here in Ulsan, which were AMAZING; I definitely need to learn how to make them myself.
A funky door-painting we passed outside a temple on our walk back into Gyeongju’s city center.
More travels to come soon!