Gyeongju-si, Korea Rep.
A full day. Clemence, a French girl who will forever now be known as Ray, was also in town. I’d met her in Busan, and she’s only here for three weeks so has more of a plan. I got to Gyeongju yesterday and bumped into her and hostel buddy Steve, so there were two of us to follow the schedule of someone more organised than us.
Yesterday I picked up a map and found out where was recommended. Gyeongju used to be the capital of Silla, a province which unified the three kingdoms of Korea. As a result this area is filled with tombs from ancient kings and nobility – over 100 mounds – along with pagodas, temples and the like. I was on the walk up to the tomb of general Kim Yusin when meeting Steve and Ray, and finished following signs to Ongyeobong peak. I’d started at four, so by now time was getting on, but meeting a couple of British runners I followed their advice to turn left when really I should have just gone back the way I came. That took me down safely in the light, but I was a way from town, not getting back till after 7, then heading out for a 7 mile run, 5 at tempo pace – not at the progressive pace I’d wanted, but 30:34 for the five is decent. Luckily there’s a running track, more or less – not quite as bouncy, but fundamentally that’s what it is – by the river here, so it’s a great place to belt out some miles.
Tuesday, then, we were to head for the Yangdong folk village, a preserved ‘original’ Korean village around 9, so I was up before 7 to fit in 10 miles first. I coincided with the same bus Ray and Steve were on, and we hit the village just before 10. It’s a UNESCO world heritage site, “an excuse to take more money from us” says Steve, and it’s unusual to have an entry fee for a village, certainly, but 4,000 won is £2.32, so it won’t hurt. The village sits on a hillside, in the shade of a mountain, with the nobility’s houses further up (better views) with tiled rooves, poorer folk lived in the thatched houses. It’s a beautiful place, even when filled with children running around and practicing their “hello”, or even “hello, hahahahahaha”. The Japanese children were big on hello, not so much the laughter, though one girl did follow me right on my tail for a laugh at Miyajima.
The houses at Yangdong are not that large – even the master of the house wasn’t in vast areas of space – but quaint, wooden with a courtyard. Pretty much all like that. We wandered happily around, then stopped for lunch, noodle soup, all round.
In the afternoon the plan called for the ‘main’ sights, Bulguska temple and Seokguram grotto. They’re the main ones because they’re the most accessible, I think, perhaps with Anapji pond included, though that looks so different (better different) at night that it’s recommended you save it till then. Steve wasn’t up for more temples, but Ray and I hopped on a bus and walked up a hill from the stop to the temple. It’s grand. Mostly reconstructed – the problem, again, with the originals being made mostly of wood – but with some grand stone staircases. Outside one of the smaller buildings were a lot of cairns, stone-smaller stone-smaller-pebble etc, and we entertained ourselves building one each. I won because I’d put mine in a spot with sun shining through the leaves, then we built a joint one on a bamboo leaf. Because we could. Seokguram has the same entry fee, but is just a tiny grotto which is now being reconstructed, so you can’t wander round the inside at the moment as you used to be able to. If you pay the 1,600 won for the bus up there (short trip, and more expensive than a town bus to anywhere) you would probably wonder why. It is a 2.2 km walk, though, and a beautiful one, if mostly up. And, oddly, mostly down on the way back. It’s another 400m or more from the ticket office, too, which feels like a distance after the walk up. So, to see the inside you’d get as much from the reproductions in the Gyeongju national museum and a few photos, perhaps, but go for the walk up and down if you can.
Read: Moonwalking with Einstein: the art and science of remembering everything, Joshua Foer.