Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Gyeongju - Korea's Cultural Capital


Leaving Seoul for the first time, I sit back in the huge comfortable bus seats and listen to my MP3 player. I take shots out the window on the 4 hour ride through the rolling Korean countryside. I am the only foreigner on the $26 express bus, Seoul - Gyeounju. Traveling south, it takes almost an hour to leave Seoul and one-third of Korea's population behind.

Once in the countryside, I marvel at the hills and villages....

Welcome to Gyeongju - population 160,000 plus me. In 668 AD, the Three Kingdoms of the Korean Peninsula were unified under (conquered by) the Silla Kingdom, which brought 250 years of peace and prosperity. Gyeoungju was the capital of Silla, a creative, wealthy, and vibrant city with a population of one million.

By the 920's, Silla was dying. In the 1590s, the city was ravaged by the Japanese and its treasures plundered. Everything was razed except for the tombs of the Silla kings - large mounds of earth which held the body of the king and artifacts he will need in the afterlife.

In 1979, Gyeoungju was named a protected UNESCO cultural heritage site - one of the world's 10 most important ancient cultural cities. What is left from the Silla period are burial mounds, stone pagodas, and royal palaces. Join me on a short jaunt through this ancient city.

This is the symbol of the city: Cheomseongdae or the Star Observation Tower. This unique bottle-shaped stone tower is one of the oldest structures in Korea. Historians believe it also to be the oldest astronomical observatory in East Asia. 12 large stones surround its square base (one for each month) and it is 30 stone levels high (one for each day in a lunar month).

This stone pagoda marks the edge of the Gyeongju National Museum, one of the best collections of ancient Korean artifacts (especially from the Silla Dynasty.) One of the most impressive artifact is the Emille Bell, Korea's largest and most beloved bell.

Made in 771 AD, this huge bell weighs over 23,000 kg and can be heard 40 km away when it is struck with a log. Legend has it that, to appease the fire spirit dragon, a young girl had to be thrown into the molten metal when the bell was cast. When the bell was rung for the first time, apparently it rang with the sound of a child crying for her mother - "emi" in Silla. This is why it is called the Emille Bell...

The Symbol of the Fire Spirit Dragon on the Bell

Stone Carvings

View from Outside...

...View from Inside.

Cast Metal Buddha

Stone Carving

Stone Corner of a Temple Roof

Close-up of a Dragon Handle on a Bell

Gold Crown with Admirer

Walking back to town from the National Museum, I stumble upon the Anapji Pond and Pleasure Garden. A relaxing spot fit for a king - King Munmu in fact, built the garden in 674 to commemorate the unification of the peninsula under Silla.

I managed to explore the garden before the rain exploded, and the overcast clouds gave an eerie lighting to my photos.

Birds Nests and Babboo


Water Cascades through Channels
down Waterfalls into the Pond

After visiting the exploring the city, visiting the museum and relaxing in the pleasure garden, I came to a realization. Gyeongju feels dead. Beautiful and interesting, but still dead. An ancient dead culture leaves behind artifacts, stone buildings and legends, and not much more.

I was heading back to the bus station, ponding this though, when I heard cries behind me and the sound of hoofs coming closer. What was going on?

For a split second, dead Gyeongju came alive. I imagined Silla soldiers on horseback riding through the palaces and tombs of ancient Korea. I imagined the glint off the soldier's armor, the hot breath of the horses and the brilliant red cloth billowing around them...

I then turned around and saw just that.

Gyeongju had come to life.

And as the horses trotted off through the tombs, I know that this city is not dead. It is a living breathing museum, a monument to the past and the future of Korea. On the express bus home, I close my eyes and travel back to the future...

It's no wonder every single Korean child has gone on school field trips to this city. If you want to join them in tasting Korea's past, follow me and visit Gyeongju, the cultural capital of Korea.


the writer said...

nice post Peter... love that shot with the reflections in the water.

Rainbow Snafu said...

Hi peter! this post was really informative and interesting. I'm going to be teaching in an esl position in gyeongju. I'm just wondering if it is mostly country living?.. that's going to be a change for tis city girl!

Peter Bond said...

Thanks a lot for the kudos on the water picture, Robin. It's one of my new favorites too!

Hello Andrea (Rainbow)! Thank you for the good words about Gyeoungju. I'm gonna check out your blog and answer your questions there...but no, the city isn't country living, I just didn't photograph the city parts (they weren't interesting!)

cheayee said...

Hello... thanks for the links, Peter.

I was thinking of taking the train to Gyeongju. Any reasons for taking the bus instead?

bathmate said...

nice posting. Thanks.