Sunday 12 September 2010

Summer Vacation Day 7-8: Gyeongju

We arrived in Gyeongju after a long coach journey from Samcheok, changing at Pohang. We had planned to get a coach direct to Gyeongju which would have taken us about 6 hrs minimum but luckily the woman in Samcheok's intercity bus terminal told us that going via Pohang would be faster. This shaved at least an hour and a half off our journey. It was a lovely route along the coast and the weather was glorious which made the sea sparkle in a beautiful way but also seriously antagonised our sunburn which was still really hurting at this point. On a more surreal note, we passed through a city filled with giant plastic crabs stuck on the side of it's buildings. Not sure what it was called but I think it might have close links to the sea or something...

After leaving the crab coast behind, we arrived in 'Powerful' Pohang, an appropriate name as it is an industrial power house rather than a picturesque city. We switched to another bus in Pohang and it was a short ride to Gyeongju where we arrived in baking heat. For once, we found a good motel quickly and it was the cheapest yet at only 40,000 won per night. It was called the Oaksan Motel and the woman who ran it was very helpful. We immediately set out for tourist info to get a map and some advice on where we should start as Gyeongju is bursting at the seams with historical sights. Our first stop was the Bulguksa Temple, one of the most visited temples in Korea.

The Bulguksa Temple is a beautiful Buddhist complex, set on the edge of a mountain just east of Gyeongju proper.

One of the three tiered, stone pagodas in the temple complex.

Within the temple complex was this area filled with little towers of stacked stones. We saw these little towers all over the place on our wanderings, presumably it's a Buddhist thing.

Wooden fish carving in one of the temple pavilions.

There was a pretty pond full of koi carp in the temple grounds.

Cool turtle supported drum.

After a wander around the temple we we moved onto the Seokguram Grotto, a cave temple with a stone carved Buddha said to be one of the best stone sculptures in Korea. Seokguram, meaning 'Stone Cave Hermitage', is located high above Bulguksa on the eastern slope of the same mountain. There is a (steep) hiking trail between the two sites but given the heat and the fact that it was getting pretty late a taxi seemed like a better idea. It cost 10,000won but the mountain views from the winding road up to the grotto were stunning and the taxi driver didn't drive too insanely for once.

The stone Buddha at Seokguram Grotto.

Great Bell at the grotto that is apparently used to pray for the unification of the Korean nation.

View of the mountains from the Great Bell Pavilion.

View from of the countryside surrounding Gyeongju from Seokguram Grotto.

We caught the last bus back to Gyeongju town centre just after 6pm and went to the Anapji Ponds. Unfortunately we screwed up and missed our stop on the bus so by the time we made it to the ponds it was getting dark which was a shame as Anapji is a beautiful pleasure garden filled with lotus ponds and it would have been nice to see more of it by daylight. It was still very pretty though and I managed to get a couple of reasonable pictures.

Lotus plants at the Anapji Ponds.

Lotus close up at Anapji Ponds.

We finished the day off with some dinner at a Ssambap restaurant. It was a really traditional place with separate little wooden dining rooms raised up off the ground and low tables with floor mats that you sat on while eating. We had the bulgogi ssambap and got nearly 30 dishes, some tasty, some weird and almost all very salty!

Some of the many dishes at the ssambap restaurant.

We checked out of motel early the next day, dumped our bags in a locker in the intercity bus terminal (1500 won). and hired a tandem bicycle to aid us in our endeavour to see as much of Gyeongju as we could in a day. The tandem was a novel experience. It was extremely wobbly and very hard to steer so that it felt that we were constantly on the verge of falling over. It did however look pretty funny and got us around Gyeongju much more quickly than we could have managed on foot. And we didn't even crash once! We wobbled off to the Tumuli Park for a look round the royal tombs. The tombs are probably the most famous sight in Gyeongju. They are burial mounds (called tumuli) that look like round, grassy hills. We thought they looked a little like the hills from Super Mario Land! Next, we made our way to Wolseong Park, a pretty bit of greenery with fields full of yellow flowers and tunnels of climbing gourd plants. The park was alos home to Cheomseongdae, a 7th century astronomical observatory that was in surprisingly good condition for something so old. It was partially obscured by a film crew while we were there. so it was tough getting a decent photo of it.

Us with our 'trusty' tandem in Wolseong Park

Some of the royal tombs, called tumuli, in Tumuli Park.

The ajumma army advances across the grounds of the Royal Tombs Park!

Gourd plant tunnel in Wolseong Park

Cheomseongdae, the 7th century astronomical tower with a 21st century film crew climbing on it.

By this point it was getting extremely hot so we decided to go to Gyeongju National Museum which we hoped would have air-con. We got a bit post but made it there eventually and rewarded ourselves for all that cycling with a trip to the museum café where we cooled off with slush puppies, patbingsu (an iced traditional Korean dessert) and naenmyeon (ice noodles). The museum was pretty interesting and we got in for free for some unknown reason.

Patbingsu - a Korean dessert made with ice shavings, the ubiquitous red bean paste, fruit and sweets. Tasty!

This is Gyeongju Bread - a speciality of the area apparently, but as with many Korean bakery products it was hiding a dark secret - red bean paste! It was more like a lump of red bean paste with a thin coating of bread on it.

After a look round, we cycled back to the bike rental shop and handed over our trusty steed(!). We picked up our stuff from the locker and set off on the next leg of our journey, catching a bus to Busan, Korea's 2nd city. Our plan was to catch a fast train (KTX) from Busan to Mokpo but as we stood on the Busan subway heading towards the train station Rowan realised that I had made a mistake in my planning: There isn't actually a direct train to Mokpo from Busan! D'oh! Luckily we hadn't gone too far along Busan's massive subway system so we went back to the coach station. We ended up catching a bus from Busan to Gwangju, no not our litte the Gwangju, the other one, the big, historical one in Jeollanam Province in the South west corner of Korea. The bus had it's own in-seat entertainment system that consisted of 4 music channels - one was playing pop music and the other 3 channels were playing exactly the same music but at slightly quieter volumes. Very bizarre. We arrived in Gwangju at 10.20pm and didn't spend much time there but we did enjoy the nice new bus terminal that had toilets that actually had soap in them! Very unusual. We grabbed some KFC (oh, the shame) and got another bus onto Mokpo, a port city in the south western corner of Korea and the gateway to Jeju island.

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