Gyeongju is described as a day trip from Busan and one of the best places to visit if you want to learn about Korean history. We had some time before we needed to be at the pig farm where we were planning to WWOOF, so we decided to spend a few days there.
We arrived at the bus terminal in Gyeongju and walked to Doobaki hostel. As soon as we arrived, we could tell we were going to like this hostel. There was a kitchen and a friendly couple preparing lunch. We noticed they had the same backpack as Eric, so we chatted with them for a bit. We could not check in yet, so we dropped our bags and went out in search of food. We bought a Korean street pancake and thought we would find more street food for lunch. As we turned the corner, we found a street market and thought we were in luck. Most of the stands were selling fresh fruits and vegetables, not street food, but that was ok as we were also in the market for groceries for dinner.
The produce was all stacked up in these red basket bowls. Jess has seen these bowls in Busan with signs in front of them that said ₩5,000, and she was pretty sure the idea was that you bought the whole basket. We stopped at one stand that had shiitake mushrooms and asked for six mushrooms. The woman selling the mushrooms looked at us a bit funny, but gave us six mushrooms for ₩2,000 ($1.69). Fresh off that success, we stopped at a stand that had heads of garlic and asked for two. The woman put three in a bag and charged us ₩1,000 ($0.85). So far so good. Then we stopped at a stand that sold onions. There were at least six onions stacked in each basket, but six onions seemed like more than we needed, so we asked for two. It seemed like we were getting somewhere when the woman put two onions in a bag, but then she put in a third… and a fourth… and a fifth…. We said, “no, no, too many!” She stopped and looked at us strangely. Eric took out his phone to translate, “we only want to buy two onions”. She started speaking Korean in what sounded like a gruff tone and took the onions out of the bag one by one. It was clear we were not buying onions here. We were a little confused by the number system. We thought it was clear when we held up one finger that we wanted one item, but we were starting to realize it could mean ₩1000 worth of the item, or even one basket full of the item. We tried for the onions at another stand but were turned away in a similar manner by two upset Korean women who seemed not to like that we were messing up their system. After a while we gave up trying to obtain any more produce and wandered off to visit the tombs.
Gyeongju is known for being the capital of the ancient Silla Kingdom for almost 1000 years between 53BC and 935AD, and most of its tourist attractions date to that period. One of the major attractions in town is the Daereungwon Tomb Complex. Entering the park where the royal tombs are located costs ₩3,000 ($2.54), but you can see multiple tombs for free on a stroll around the city. The tombs are these huge mounds of grass which contain a wooden chamber surrounded by a stone mound built between the mid-4th century and the mid-6th century. The ruling class of the Silla Kingdom were interred here. The free tombs do not give any indication of what the tombs looked like inside. We have been led to believe that one of the tombs in the Tomb Complex has been excavated so you can see what the inside looks like, but we did not go in. After strolling around the free tombs, we ran into the couple from our hostel again, Rory and Gen, and decided to wander around with them for the afternoon.
We walked through a pretty field of flowers and found ourselves at Cheomseongdae, the oldest astronomical observatory in East Asia. It was built between 632 and 647 during the reign of Silla Queen Seondeok. The observatory stands roughly 18 feet tall in multiple layers. The first twelve layers are filled with soil and pebbles. The next three layers have a square opening through which it is possible to climb to the top. It does not look like much of observatory today, but 1400 years ago, it was probably pretty impressive.
A little bit past Cheomseongdae, we came upon a garden with lots of beautiful flowers. In one section, there was this amazing purple grass. Rory and Gen suddenly realized some friends of theirs had been there and had shared a photo from that spot. They decided to recreate the selfie and send it to their friends. We decided to take our own photo for our friends to recreate… we’ll be waiting patiently to receive it.
On the way back to the hostel, we stopped at a convenience store to pick up some noodles to supplement our mushrooms and garlic. Somehow on our wanderings, we had not found a grocery store. We decided noodles with a mushroom and garlic milk sauce (we could not find cream) would do for dinner. Rory and Gen, perhaps smartly, stopped at a vegan restaurant for dinner on the way home.
The next morning we packed up our stuff again. Even though we were staying in Gyeongju for three nights, we only stayed in Doobaki Hostel for two nights. Doobaki is the most highly rated hostel in Gyeongju, but it was sold out on Saturday night because of a Korean rock concert. Every single one of the hostel’s 62 beds was full! We had decided Doobaki was so good that we would sleep there Friday and Sunday nights and move to a different hostel on Saturday night. Doobaki even told us we could use the kitchen to cook on Saturday evening, even though we were not staying there, proving how great it was. We made plans with Rory and Gen to cook together that evening. During the day, we left our bags at Doobaki and went out to visit Bulguksa Temple and Seokguram Grotto.
Bulguksa Temple and Seokguram were the first Korean sites to obtain UNESCO World Heritage designation. They were very easy to reach using the number 10 and 11 buses from the bus stop right outside Doobaki Hostel for ₩1,300 ($1.10) each. We panicked and got off the bus a bit prematurely, but we still found our way to Bulguksa. Bulguksa Temple is revered as a masterpiece of Buddhist art from the Silla Kingdom. It is a beautiful temple and the temple buildings represent a number of South Korean national treasures.
After visiting the various temple buildings at Bulguksa, which costs ₩5,000 ($4.23) per person to enter, we walked up the path to Seokguram. Bus number 12 runs from Bulguksa to Seokguram, but we thought the walk sounded nice. It was also a good way avoid the bus fare which starts to add up after a while. We had mistakenly not purchased a T card when we arrived in Busan thinking it was good only in Busan and we would not be there long enough to warrant it. It turns out the T card is good for the whole country – perks of a small country! Having the T card saves you a small amount (~₩100 [$0.08]) per fare, but more importantly means you do not have to hoard small change. Since we did not have T cards, small change was very precious to us, so we walked to Seokguram.
The walk takes roughly an hour and is uphill the whole way. There are lots of long shallow steps. On the way up we crossed through a cloud layer and everything became very misty. It was hard to see more than a few feet in front of us. We had read something about a great view from this hike, but it was grey the whole way up. The trees looked really cool in the mist though. As we were walking up, we could hear this sort of eerie gong sound wafting through the clouds. At the top, we found a huge bell that you could pay ₩1,000 ($0.85) to ring. Eric did was pretty excited about that opportunity as he had been thinking to himself that it would be cool to ring a big bell sometime. The ring of the bell is a very low frequency, so it might be hard to hear in the video, but you can still see Eric’s reaction.
We debated paying the ₩5,000 ($4.23) per person entrance fee to Seokguram since it was so cloudy and we would not be able to see the temple well. We ultimately decided we should go see it since we had hiked all the way up there. Seokguram was built between 742 and 751 by Kim Daeseong. In Korea, the natural environment is not conducive to the Indian tradition of carving Buddha into natural caves, so Seokguram is an artificial grotto made of granite. The Buddha statue at Seokguram is 10 feet tall and is highly regarded as an exemplar of Buddhist art. Unfortunately photos are not allowed. Both Bulguksa and Seokguram were built after Buddhism was made the state religion in the Silla Kingdom. Since the Buddha statue is inside, the concern about not being able to see it through the mist was not an issue. It did however mean there was no view down to the sea which is a popular reason for coming up here.
We walked back down to the entrance to Bulguksa Temple and went in search of food which we found at a nearby restaurant. There was an English menu, so we did not have any trouble ordering. Afterwards, we caught the 10 bus which would take Eric back to the hostel and Jess to the Gyeongju National Museum. Entrance to the museum is free, and Jess wanted to learn more about the area and the Silla Kingdom. The Silla Kingdom dates to the 4th century when it began to form as a centralized state, although Silla existed as early as 57 BC. The hill tombs around Gyeongju are the burial grounds of the ruling elite from the Silla Kingdom. Silla is known as the kingdom of gold crowns as six gold crowns dating to the mid 4th century were found during excavation of the tombs. In the early- to mid- 4th century, Buddhism was adopted in the Silla Kingdom where previously people had worshiped mountain and river deities. King Beopheung made Buddhism the official state religion in 527. The Silla Kingdom was successful in causing the fall of other nearby powers and becoming the first unified state in the Korean Peninsula in 676AD. This unification resulted in a period of refined culture until the 8th century when the state was weakened and ultimately fell to Wang Geon in 935AD.
After exploring the museum, Jess discovered that Donggung Palace and Wolji Pond were just across the street, and she did not want to miss the opportunity to see them before getting on the bus. The entrance fee costs ₩3,000 ($2.54). Donggung Palace and its artificial pond were built in 674 AD and the palace was used by the crown prince as a secondary palace and as a hosting ground for important visitors. The site is particularly beautiful to visit as it is getting dark. Luckily, Jess was there at the perfect time and was able to see it in the daylight and at night with the artificial illumination. Once it was dark, she caught the number 10 bus back to Doobaki hostel. On her way home she discovered a nearby grocery store, much better than huge dishes of onions or convenience store noodles.
In the meantime, Eric had made plans with Rory and Gen for a vegetable pasta dinner. Rory and Gen had had a similar experience to us at the market and had acquired a silly number of tomatoes for two people. While those three went grocery shopping, Jess ran over to Santa Guesthouse to check in. Santa, the owner, seemed a bit confused why Jess did not have any stuff, was leaving right after checking in, and wanted to know how late she could return to the hostel and still get in (12am). We all met back at Doobaki and prepared a delicious dinner. Rory and Gen are really fun people. They are traveling indefinitely and have been on the road for almost two years exclusively in Asia. We really enjoyed chatting with them and swapping silly stories from our adventures. After dinner, they introduced us to a new game: the Monopoly Deal Card Game. It was pretty fun. We stayed up late playing the game, drinking beer, and chatting. It was so nice to have friends again. Aside from Ben, our South Korean friend, we did not make many friends in Vietnam.
While we were playing, the owners of the hostel Kaze and Poco explained that Poco wanted to cook Korean food for us the next night. We have not been at many (correct that: any) hostels that have wanted to provide us a free dinner, so we did not really believe it at first. Gen and Rory have some dietary restrictions, so they confirmed their restrictions would not be a problem. It sounded like Poco was going to prepare us a special meal the next evening. What a generous offer! We chatted with Kaze and Poco a bit more about running the hostel, which they have been doing for nine months, and their plans to travel to Vietnam during the winter season when tourism quiets down. At 11:45, we decided we better hustle over to Santa Guesthouse so we did not miss our curfew. We left our big bags at Doobaki and walked over with our pajamas and toothbrushes.
Jess still had to do her 30 minutes of Japanese, so she sat in the common space of Santa Guesthouse speaking Japanese to herself quietly at 12am while Eric found his bed in the 10-person dorm. Eric must have shared his bed with a spider because when we woke up early the next morning he was covered in big, itchy welts! We left Santa Guesthouse and headed to meet Rory and Gen right away in the morning. Our roommate on Friday night had mentioned that the Namsan hike was pretty cool and was also easily accessible by bus, so we had suggested it to Rory and Gen as an activity for Sunday.
Mount Namsan is sometimes described as the “museum without walls” because it has a series of statues and carvings, many of which date back a thousand years or more, along the hiking paths. Before we started up the mountain, a group of Koreans kindly shared some chestnuts and peanuts with us. One of them showed us how to break into the chestnut with his bare hands, which none of us could replicate. We could crack the shell with our teeth and peel the rest of it away. One Korean woman helpfully showed us how use the same technique on peanuts… which we probably already knew how to do. Ready with our handfuls of chestnuts and peanuts, we passed through the entrance where we were given a map and a guide to the “museum” exhibits.
We passed a headless Maitreya Buddha statue, ancient carvings of Buddha in the rock face, and other carvings. We were mostly focused on the hike and our discussions – have we mentioned how much we enjoyed having friends? We were also distracted by the elaborate hiking gear all the Koreans had. They were all wearing what looked like brand new outfits from head to toe, and we mean hiking boots, hiking pants, long-sleeve windbreakers, backpacks with everything you could need for a hike. We had read that Koreans were serious about their outdoor gear, but we had never seen so many people who looked like they were from a hiking magazine in one place. Meanwhile, these same Koreans were flabbergasted by Rory and Gen’s shoes. Rory and Gen wear the same sandals everywhere they go, including on hikes, but in Korea it looks like they forgot to take off their house slippers before going outside. And the Koreans notice! They were not shy about pointing at the feet of these two strange foreigners and then laughing.
The hike took us a few hours including a stop at Geumobong peak to eat our packed lunches. The view of Gyeongju from the top was pretty. We hiked down the other side following the signs for Tongiljeon. At the bottom, we were able to catch a bus back to our hostel.
Rory and Gen had some things they needed to take care of: they work one day a week for a start-up company a friend of theirs runs, they do yoga every day, and there was a rugby World Cup game on, so we agreed to meet up with them for the dinner Poco was preparing for us at 7pm. We spent some time blogging, napping, learning Japanese, and programming and came to dinner in time to discover that dinner had morphed into a huge affair.
Apparently Poco had originally thought she was offering to cook for the four of us and maybe one or two other people, but in the meantime more people had shown up at the hostel for the night and she now had to cook for 16 people! She prepared a veritable feast with scallion pancakes, beef bulgogi, rice, a vegetable noodle dish, and bok choy with onions. It was all delicious. After a while it got a bit loud downstairs, so we moved upstairs with Rory and Gen to continue chatting and play a round of Monopoly before bed.
The next morning Rory and Gen were heading off to a coffee shop to catch up on some work. We were planning to catch a train to Daejeon to make our way slowly to the pig farm, so we said goodbye and exchanged information so we could meet up again in Tokyo. We took the #60 bus to Singyeongju train station, bought a ticket to Daejeon, and arrived there roughly one hour later. We spent the night in a tiny Airbnb before catching an early-morning bus to Janghowon.