After a tiring five-hour bus ride from Seoul to the south-eastern Korean city of Gyeongju I arrive in darkness and go straight to bed. So my first views of my new surroundings makes for a gentle welcome, with misty Bomunho Lake seen against faint green hills, akin to a delicate watercolour painting. After breakfast, I walk a lakeside track lined with cherry trees, which are seen at their most magnificent when in full blossom during April.
Gyeongju is a beguiling blend of old and new. Gyeongsnagbuk-do (Gyeongsan Province) is the location of the ancient Silla Kingdom, under which the three kingdoms of the Korean peninsula were unified during the 7th Century AD. Exquisite temples, royal burial grounds and ancient palace gardens are a legacy from that era.
On the other hand, Bomunho Lake east of the city is not one jot historic. It’s been the focus of modern tourist development, albeit fashioned in traditional architectural style. There are hotels, a hot springs spa, conference centre, golf course, artificial waterfall and funfair with ferris wheel.
But I’m not here for this. I seek ancient wonders. I want a good dose of history so I start by visiting one of Gyeongju’s most significant sites – which just happens to be smack bang in the middle of town.
Tumuli Park is a green expanse of gentle grassy mounds, each one of them a royal Silla tomb dating from pre-unification times. There are about 23 tomb mounds – about 10 per cent of the tomb mounds found in the Gyeongju area. The Tumuli tombs are presumed to be those of kings and court officials. One is officially designated as that of King Mich’u, the 13th king of the Silla Dynasty. Relics excavated from burial mounds and now in the Gyeongju National Museum include a gold crown, silver ornaments, ceramics and weapons.
The Hwangnyongsa historic site was once Korea’s biggest temple but was gutted by Mongol invaders in 1238 and never rebuilt. All there is now to see are some foundation stones. In contrast, Bunhwangsa Temple has an impressive standing gold Buddha, delightful bas relief carvings and an ancient pagoda that was once nine storeys tall, but whittled over the ages to just three. Bunhwangsa dates from the era of Queen Seon-Deok who ruled from 632-647AD.
Anapji Pond has been restored to a semblance of its original splendour. The name means “pond of geese and ducks” and it was once part a vast palace garden with artificial lakes and graceful pavilions.
Between Anapji and Tumuli Park is the fascinating 7th Century Cheomseong Observatory, built using 365 granite blocks in the shape of a bottle.
The blocks relate to the number of days in the year and the number of open levels to the 12 months of the year, as well as the Zodiac. The monument’s filled with earth up to level 12 where a window gives access to its interior.
Bulguksa Temple and Seokguram Grotto on Mt Tohamsan are a 30-minute bus ride from the city. I take bus 11 to Bulguska and then bus 12 up to the grotto which is a cave shrine with monumental Buddha sitting serenely on a lotus pedestal.
Bulguksa is believed to be Korea’s oldest existing temple. Built on the mountain’s western slopes, it has several courtyards set around a main hall that houses a gilt Buddha triad.
The most significant structures are two stone pagodas, one simple in design, the other more elaborate, that have stood side-by-side for 1200 years.
Restoration work here in the 1960s uncovered a long, narrow scroll printed between 706 and 751AD. Called the Dharani Sutra and now kept in the Chongju Early Printing Museum, it’s believed to be the world’s oldest printed document.