Part 2: Kyungju

Back to Part 1: Seoul

Thursday, 10/11

We took an early (and sadistically wild) taxi ride to the train station, leaving the bulk of our luggage behind in Seoul, and hung around until our train to Kyungju arrived. Kyungju is a city of about 250,000, ancient seat of the Shilla kingdom, with lots of temples and natural beauty. It's about 3.5 hours from Seoul by train, through miles and miles of dense suburbs (where everyone still lives in apartments) and then some very pretty rural scenery. Well into the rural areas I kept seeing driving ranges. Apparently Koreans like to practice their drives a lot. Rice fields were everywhere, and some other crop with one great big leaf that we decided was probably lotus. Train to Kyungju

img_1028 At Kyungju, we caught a taxi to our hotel, which was off away from downtown in a small developed area near Bulguksa Temple. This area is sort of temple-themed, even the gas stations. The hotel had been set up ahead of time by a family friend, who had paid the whole thing in advance and warned them that gringos were coming. However, when we got there, the place was nearly deserted, and the one person who was around seemed to have no idea how to deal with us. She held up 5 fingers and kept saying "five", so we deduced that we'd have to come back at 5PM. Not too big a deal, though it was annoying to have to keep all our stuff on our backs all day.

So, full backpacks and all, we tromped back up to Bulguksa. It's a big sprawling place laid out on a steep hill. Something had been bothering me until now, and I finally figured out what it was. We'd seen all these tour buses, but no one at all around. When we got to the temple, we saw them: kids. Dozens, scores, hundreds of kids. They were swarming in groups of 30 or 40. Apparently we had chosen to visit on National Kids-Storm-Bulguksa Day. Kids or no, though, the temple was big and pretty.

Laura at Bulguksa img_1040 Happy Bulguksa pig

To try to get away from the throngs, we hiked a couple miles up a steep path to Seokguram Grotto. Along the way we ran into several old people making the trek. Korean old people are very serious hikers -- we kept running into small groups of them as we hiked around.

Seokguram is an enclosed grotto (built under a big mound) that houses a big Buddha. At the entrance there was a big parking lot with a cool old building housing a big bell, lots of tour buses, and, you guessed it, dozens of schoolkids. We fled the kids, saw the grotto quickly, and then headed up another little trail to Tohamsan peak, with great views of the surrounding area.

img_1049 Flowers at Seokguram Tohamsan peak above Seokguram

Next, we headed back to our hotel to check in, as it was after 5PM. We encountered fierce resistance. The lady from earlier kept saying "five" again until I finally realized she meant that a room was 50,000 Won per night. That's nice, I thought, but we're already paid up. Fifteen minutes later, I had still failed to convey this thought. Realizing we were at an impasse, we hiked back up to the tourist info place and had them call the hotel and explain things. Shortly after, the hotel lady arrived at a gallop and took us back to the hotel -- they had found our friend's credit card payment and now they were all apologetic.

We still had a little energy left, so we took a bus into central Kyungju for dinner. We decided on a Japanese restaurant right near a tumulus (see below); nice place. Then we searched for tea and found a cute little upstairs tearoom that seemed really traditional but also seemed to be popular with young people. It was difficult to communicate much, so we had a nice standard green tea. Note the insulated "coffee" pot used for keeping water hot at the table. img_1059

Friday, 10/12

This day was our big day to hike around Namsan (lit. "South Mountain" -- there's one in Seoul, too), a national forest south of Kyungju. We caught a bus into town, and then took another bus ride out to Samneung Grove. Actually, "bus ride" doesn't really cover that second one. More like "Mr. Toad's Fever Dream". Everyone else on the bus was at least 65, but the driver had clearly just graduated from stunt driving school and was in no mood to compromise. The old folks just hunkered down and chatted away -- it was amazing.

Samneung, a grove of gnarled pine trees, is the site of several tumuli. These are old funereal mounds for important people (in this case, kings), ranging from several feet up to 25 meters or so in height. They're perfectly symmetrical, but they really evoke the gentle slopes of the surrounding hills.

img_1060 img_1064 Dragonfly, stela, tumulus

We spent a while discovering that our map was completely useless, and then we wandered until we found the well-marked trail and headed up the mountain.

Namsan was a refuge for persecuted Buddhists, and it contains literally hundreds of Buddhist sites -- carvings, statues, pagodas and small temples. Several sites had a metal box containing candles and incense and (fake) flowers. Our fellow-travellers were mostly middle-aged Koreans in fantastic shape. After two kilometers of steep hiking and a big wooden staircase, we arrived at Sangseunum monastery, two solitary buildings with a small shrine. This was clearly a popular destination.

img_1067 Damon on rock, Namsan Sangseunam from above

We continued on, up to the ridge. The views all around were gorgeous -- forest nearby, then rice fields, then gentle hills, then more mountains receding into the mist. Geumosan Peak itself wasn't much, just a stone marker. We blundered around a while, not quite sure where the trail we wanted was. We wandered down to see a giant stone Buddha all by itself on the mountainside.

Namsan Namsan img_1074

Then we hiked farther down to a couple of large pagodas and the Bongjangsaju temple site. It was pretty amazing -- remember, all of these things are in the middle of nowhere on a heavily wooded mountainside.

Namsan Laura on Namsan, tongue deployed Namsan

Then we headed back to make it off the mountain before dark. After Sangseunam we hiked behind a monk in a grey robe. He moved deceptively quickly -- what looked like delicate steps actually covered a lot of ground, fast. He was singing as he went, some kind of regular chant. It was very hypnotic, until he broke the spell by falling on his butt.

We took the bus back into town and eventually decided on samkyopsal for dinner. We chose an open-air restaurant, with six or seven tables with grills in the middle. They put the coals in place and then let the surface heat up for quite a while. They put the super-fatty pork on the grill, which they wiped down first with porkfat. Yum! There was a big variety of side dishes.

Then we went exploring and found another lovely teahouse for more green tea. I tried some soju, distilled rice liquor, at a bar -- rice-winey firewater, not first on my awesome list.

samkyopsal 2 img_1104 Pouring tea, belowdecks

Saturday, 10/13

Our last day in Kyungju. We caught the bus to the Kyungju National Museum. Lots of archeology -- it turns out Bronze Age people were pretty much the same everywhere. We made our way into town, stopping by Anapji pond, an old cave for storing ice, and an ancient bottle-shaped observatory. We stopped for one more meal of sambap, one last cross-legged meal.

Laura at Anapji Pond Observatory Sambap

Then we explored the tumuli park, with about 20 different mounds. You could go inside one of them and see the structure: inner wooden chamber, then piled rocks, then 3 feet or so of dirt. Then we explored the marketplace by the train station -- and explored, and explored. It was huge, and they sold everything -- tea, live eels, octopus, candy, fish, shoes, clothes, fruit -- you name it, a dozen people were selling it. Pig heads, mmmmm. Then we had some more great tea, this time learning the proper ceremony:

  1. Pour hot water into cups
  2. Pour water from cups into bowl, let it cool a bit
  3. Pour water from bowl into pot with tea
  4. After very little time, pour tea through strainer into cups
It was a nice way to end our time in Kyungju.

Tumuli Park Octopus in Kyungju Mr. Pizza... made for women

Which was pretty much the end of our time in Korea. We hopped the train to Seoul, took the subway back to COEX, packed, slept, woke, went to the airport, and that was that.

Observations

Back to Part 1: Seoul