Monday, March 9, 2015

Gyeongju and Busan

Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju

On the second Friday of my brother's visit we had no classes for the day. Instead, the teachers met in the morning for a meeting and a short workshop and were finished by lunchtime. This allowed Alexander and I to get a bit of an early start on our weekend trip. After I got home from work we packed a few things for the trip and went out for lunch.

After the usual vacillation, we decided to stop in a restaurant near my academy to try their dolsotbap, a mix of rice, vegetables, and chili paste. We ordered it and enjoyed the banjan (side dishes) while we waited, discussing the upcoming trip. We hadn't made any concrete plans, other than that we wanted to go to Gyeongju. We weren't even sure where we would end up that night. Since it wasn't a holiday weekend, I figured we wouldn't have much trouble finding accommodations on the fly. Finally, the server brought out our two hot bowls of...samgyetang. That's basically a chicken stuffed with rice and ginseng and boiled in a soup. Apparently my pronunciation still needed quite a bit of work. Actually, it still does. The soup was delicious anyway.


Lunch took longer than we expected, so we hurried to get back to the apartment to grab our things for the weekend trip, then went quickly on to the bus terminal. Our main target was Gyeongju, which was a capital of one of Korea's kingdoms, the Silla kingdom. Several other teachers had visited before, including Lily, who recommended seeing it.

As we suspected would be the case, there were no more direct buses to Gyeongju by the time we reached the bus station in the late afternoon. Luckily, we had a backup plan in place and bought tickets for the next train to Daegu, one of Korea's largest cities and just a short train or bus ride from Gyeongju. I have to admit I was a bit nervous during the 3-hour trip to Daegu, since I hadn't done much research about what was around the bus station there and wasn't sure where we'd sleep that night.

Still, we figured there'd be plenty of lodging options somewhere nearby, and we turned out to be right. While walking around the bus station area for about an hour after arriving, we passed dozens of motels and hotels. Finally, as it started to rain lightly we decided we'd better stop in one and get rested up for an early start to the next day.

Luckily we stopped in a spot very near the train station, and we caught the Saemaeul for the short ride to Gyeongju the next morning. We got off a stop earlier than we were supposed to, and wandered around a bit on the far side of Gyeongju from where we wanted to end up. But it was a nice day, and we got to walk along the river. Finally, we decided just to hail a cab, figuring that would be the easiest way to end up near the usual tourist spots that we hoped to explore.

We turned out to be even further from that part of town than we thought, and after about a fifteen minute ride the taxi dropped us off at the tourist gateway to Gyeongju's historical sites. There turned out to be a just-opened tourist hotel near the bus terminal with reasonable rates. We checked in and dropped off our bags, then went over to the visitor information kiosk. The woman working the desk spoke excellent English and told us exactly which bus to take to go out to Bulguksa Temple. We decided to start there, since it was the furthest out of the attractions we hoped to visit, and work our way back.

While waiting for the bus to the temple, we met another American tourist who had come down for the weekend from Seoul, where she had been attending a conference. She teamed up with us for the remainder of the afternoon. The bus ride to Bulguksa took nearly half an hour, so it turned out to be nice to have a larger group when we ended up taking a cab part of the way back later.

There were many, many people visiting Bulguksa that day. It is a popular site, and understandably so. It is one of many Gyeongju attractions that have been named UNESCO World Heritage sites. The temple is nestled on the side of a mountain, affording some gorgeous views of the peaks. Even more impressive to me, however, was Seokguram Grotto, linked to the temple by a several-kilometer long trail around the mountainside.

Trail to Seokguram Grotto
It was a hot day, so we enjoyed drinking from a mountain spring along the side of the trail as we made our way toward the grotto. The path was mostly smooth, but with some incline. However, upon reaching the grotto we realized it was well worth the trek.

paper lanterns below Seokguram Grotto
Hundreds of colorful paper lanterns were strung up at the base of the slope leading to the grotto itself. We bought some much-needed drinks from the vending machines and stood in the shade under the lanterns to cool off. It was pretty steamy that day, as you can probably tell from the mist in these pictures. Once refreshed, we walked up the short path leading to the grotto and waited in line to enter.

The temple was constructed of granite, and is basically an artificial cave. Inside are several stone statues. These are protected by glass, and visitors are only permitted to walk through the main hall area. Photographs were not permitted inside, but they wouldn't do it justice anyway.

In Korea, when people ask me where I've traveled here, I always mention Gyeongju. If the conversation continues and I get to make suggestions for them to travel, I recommend seeing Seokguram Grotto. Koreans consider it one of their great historical treasures. Having an idea of the aura around it, the experience of hiking from Bulguksa and entering the grotto is sure to be a memorable one. It was like glimpsing a hidden treasure and leaving it hidden.

Seokguram Grotto from below
Our temporary companion was running a bit short on time to get back to the bus terminal to get back to Seoul, so we took a taxi from a parking lot near the grotto back toward the city. Yes, there is a parking lot near the grotto, so you can take a bus or taxi there and skip the hike from Bulguksa. But if you have the time and ability I strongly suggest starting from Bulguksa and hiking the trail.


Alex and I had the taxi drop us off near another historical area while our companion continued to the terminal. Evening was approaching, and we wanted to explore Daereungwon Tomb Complex.

This is just a small portion of Daereungwon Tomb Complex
While visiting Seokguram Grotto certainly made a great impression on me, it was our walking around the Tomb Complex that has really made Gyeongju stand out as probably my favorite destination in Korea. These burial mounds are massive, and even more vibrant green than they appear in these pictures. And there are so many of them.

Dusk came on quickly, and in the diminishing sunlight the tombs gave the landscape an otherworldly import. Not that there aren't countless other reminders of Gyeongju's ancient history, but the tombs made it impossible not to be mindful of how timeless this city is. It was a capital of the Silla Dynasty, which over the course of it's nearly millennium-long reign expanded to include nearly half the Korean peninsula.

When it was dark, we returned briefly to the hotel to change and pick a direction to search for dinner. We ended up having a dish which I believe was some kind of skate or ray in a very spicy sauce over rice. After that, we sought out a Cafe Droptop for some bingsu. It turned out to be different from what we had at the Droptop near my apartment in Gwangju, but still good nonetheless. It's hard to go too wrong with bingsu (Cafe Bene's New York Cheesecake bingsu with smashed-up saltine crackers from 2014 is a notable exception.) It was getting near bedtime by then, so we picked up some snacks from a convenience store for the morning and went back to the hotel. The path home led through a park surrounding another burial mound, this one with trees growing on its slopes, a dark, jagged crown of life.

The next morning we walked to the train station and booked tickets for the next Saemaeul to Busan. While waiting we had some ice noodles at a little restaurant down the block. We'd seen a program on one of Korea's English-language channels about different ice-noodle dishes at the hotel in Daegu and were eager to try them out. It's since become one of my favorite Korean foods, which is saying a lot, because I like most Korean foods.

The train took us down the lower east coast, past Ulsan and into Busan, Korea's second-largest city. We exited at the Haeundae station and walked a few blocks to the famous stretch of beach. It was a bit cooler that day, with some light rain falling. There were still plenty of people on the beach, but not nearly the crowds I'd seen in photos covering every inch of sand.

Our time in the city was limited, since I needed to be back in Gwangju that night for work the next day. We didn't stay on the beach long before we took the subway out to the UN Memorial Cemetery.

Busan was a major staging area of the UN forces during the Korean War. In the early weeks of the war, North Korean forces had pushed ROK troops down to the southeast corner of the peninsula. By securing the "Pusan Perimeter", the ROK and UN forces bought enough time for supplies and reinforcements to arrive before the tide was turned with the UN landing at Incheon.

Of course, there was a lot of tragedy yet to come. In fact, no peace treaty was ever signed. A cease-fire brought an end to major hostilities, but as most of you surely know tensions still often run high and violence occasionally breaks out near the DMZ. I wanted to visit the cemetery to pay respects to the UN troops who gave their lives here and to reflect on the continuing impact of the Korean War.

We arrived at the cemetery just in time to witness the flag-lowering ceremony, which was carried out with dignity and great care by the soldiers there. We only had about eight hours to spend in Busan, and we spent nearly two of them in the cemetery, reading the names of fallen soldiers and inscriptions on the various memorials to them. It is a beautiful and well-maintained space that is conducive to reflecting on the sacrifices made.

UN Memorial Cemetery
We exited the cemetery as it was closing for the evening and took a taxi toward the train station. We had a bit of time left to explore the fish and seafood market and grab some dinner. We had our picture taken behind the market just before dark.

After this we walked back to the station and caught the train. We'd considered taking a bus, but many of them were sold out. We realized overall it would be faster to take the KTX, even though we'd have to take it up to Daejeon and transfer to a train down to Gwangju. We enjoy the train enough that we didn't mind the extra expense. A few hours later, after finding our way to the other Daejeon station and catching our other train, we arrived at Gwangju Songjeong Station and took a taxi back to the apartment. We'd filled the weekend with about as much activity as we could, and I was ready to rest up for a full week of teaching.

I'm finally finishing this blog post now, nearly two years after that weekend with Alex in Daegu, Gyeongju, and Busan (but mostly Gyeongju), and it honestly does still stand out as one of my favorite travel experiences in Korea. If anyone is looking for a place to visit in Korea, especially English teachers spending a year here, I implore you to get out to Gyeongju for at least a day if you can. If you have any interest in Korean history and culture, it can be a highly rewarding experience.

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