Friday night, I packed my bags and hopped the subway into Seoul. The bus we were going to take to Gyeongju left from Seoul (we couldn't find a direct one from Uijeongbu) and the express bus terminal just so happened to be nearish to Kondae, a neighborhood I'm a little bit familiar with—familiar enough to know that there's a jjimjilbang nearby. With a little bit of navigational help from a friend, I stripped down, washed up, and crashed for the night just two subway stops away from where I had to be in the morning. Efficiency win.
I woke up at seven, relatively well-rested and relatively clean. I got my shit back together and hopped on the subway to Gangbyeon, where I met Maddie. Or rather, where she randomly found me as I was bumbling my way through the exit corral.
The bus terminal was right across the street. To our dismay, the 8.10 bus was sold out (booking tickets in advance being an impossibility for us foreigners, thanks Korea!) so we bought three tickets on the next bus out—at 9.10—and wasted the next hour or so at Tom & Tom's. Breda found us, we shot the shit, and then we piled on the bus to Gyeongju.
A word about buses in Korea:
The only comparable bus trip I'd ever taken prior to this was an epic, multi-day Greyhound odyssey out to Chicago to visit Exegis right before I came to Korea, involving misinformed bus drivers, missed transfers, spaced-out pill-poppers, laid-off truckers, and sleeping on the floor of the Cleveland Greyhound station. An experience I wouldn't necessarily mind repeating...but certainly not an entirely comfortable one.
The bus to Gyeongju left right on time. There were fewer seats than in your typical Greyhound-type coach, which meant room to (almost) fully recline in the back and extend the leg rest in the front. Despite getting a decent night's rest at the jjimjilbang, I passed out almost immediately. Sleeping is my number one favorite way to pass long trips: by car, by bus, by plane...whatever. Man, I love sleeping.
The cost was also significantly less than my Greyhound trip (about $37 there and back; it was probably about one-third to one-half the distance, but even adjusting for the difference in distance the price was a steal). It seems also that Korean bus companies don't do overbooking, since you had the option online to select your seat and the ones that were already sold were grayed-out. Then again, this is hardly peak travel season so maybe that'd be different during, say, Chuseok.
Anyway, we rolled into Gyeongju at about ten past one in the afternoon. Our first order of business was to find lodgings, which was pretty easy to do since the bus terminal was in the middle of a sea of motels. We chose a place to stay based on "what looked the sketchiest" and snagged a room at a 여관 (yeogwan):
We dropped off our bags and set off to wonder around the historic section of Gyeongju, the most notable of which seemed to be a large park on the edge of town, with loads of artifacts everywhere, and places where things had once been but were no longer, like Banwolseong, a Silla-era palace. All that's left are a few short walls and an ice storage house (National Treasure number 66).
People on rented ice sleds on a pond near Banwolseong.
Banwolseong sits on a large hill that overlooks a big, kind of flat field that's mostly just one big park—and cemetery. Tombs dot the landscape and they're rather hard to miss:
We also wandered by the oldest observatory in East Asia, Cheomseongdae. It's kind of a big deal; they even feature it on the cover of the Gyeongju tourist maps.
Korea doesn't really do historical presentation well—generally speaking. There was little presentation or explanation of anything aside from a sign with a brief explanation. (Supposedly there was a video playing in a small building next to Cheomseongdae, but I didn't see it and it wouldn't have been much good to me anyway). The tombs weren't really marked or explained, they were just...there. The atmosphere was less "here's a bunch of really important, historic stuff" and more "here's a park and there just happens to be a bunch of old stuff in the middle of it." Families were running around, eating snacks, carousing about on ice sleds (that I mentioned earlier) and, since it was a windy day, flying kites.
We stopped at a cafe for a quick pick-me-up of coffee (or strawberry juice for me) and toast, and did an about-face to check out Gyeongju National Museum. Lots of archeological excavation was done in Gyeongju by the Japanese, for better or for worse, and a lot of the artifacts ended up in the museum...eventually. Some may still be in Japan, even. I don't know.
There was no entrance fee, surprisingly. We killed some time outside the museum, investigating some of the outdoor pieces and taking pictures.
One of the two buildings that make up the Gyeongju National Museum.
National Treasure number 29: the Divine Bell of King Seongdeok the Great. Supposedly, you can hear it ringing from over forty miles away. You can't ring it to try out, obviously, but they have a recording you can play. Someone pressed the play button while I was farting around taking pictures and it scared the bejeezus out of me. But 성덕대왕신 종 was only the first of many bells we would see in Gyeongju.
Gyeongju National Museum is actually a really modern and well-put-together museum, with more information, better organization, and better presentation than the other museum I've been to in Korea—but apparently Gyeongju National Museum is considered the best in the country, so there you have it. Unfortunately all of the pictures I took of the stuff inside turned out kind of crappy; besides which pictures of Buddha statues and pieces of Buddha statues tend to blur together after a while.
When we had our fill of the museum, we hopped a cab back to the Express Bus Terminal on the other side of town, so we could buy return tickets and find somewhere to eat. Buying the tickets proved to be easy; finding somewhere to eat (since we were set on ssambap, a regional specialty) was less so. Gyeongju is a coastal city fueled mostly by tourism, and in the chilly off season of January there weren't many tourists to be found. Everywhere seemed closed or getting ready to close. Asking people to give us directions to a ssambap restaurant—any ssambap restaurant—proved rather fruitless, probably because in part we knew enough Korean to ask about ssambap's location, but not enough to understand the answer. After fruitless inquiries at nearby motels and convenience stores, we pulled the "jump in a cab and tell him what you want" trick. Fortunately for us, it worked out perfectly.
Our cab driver looked puzzled for a minute, then his face lit up. He said something in Korean, which I'm sure would translate to something like, "Ssambap? I know just the place!" and off we went.
The ssambap place he took us too ended up being rather near where we had been earlier in the day—we might have found it on our own while wandering there. We paid the fare, said our thank yous, and sat down to some good eats.
Ssambap is a regional specialty, though like with any regional specialty you can probably get it anywhere in Korea (kind of like you could get Philly cheesesteaks at the campus diner at Hamilton)—in fact, you definitely can, because there's a ssambap restaurant across the street from my apartment building here in Uijeongbu. It's nothing too terribly complicated: just rice and a plethora of banchan.
Backpedal: banchan are the side dishes you get with any and every meal here in Korea, usually you get three, four, maybe five.
The banchan are in those beige dishes in the middle of the table. There are two "sets" being split between the five of us: four banchan.
Ssambap you get...a lot more.
That's it. You wrap them in lettuce leaves or sesame leaves with some rice, like with samgyeopsal, and chow down. It's basically like having a meal of nothing but garlic bread, buttered rolls, and coleslaw. My personal favorite was the sweet potatoes. They also served us a jjigae (stew) of some sort—I forget which—which was excellent when mixed with rice.
We had a long, leisurely dinner that lasted about an hour. For the vast majority of the time, we were the only customers in the restaurant: earlier point about Gyeongju being a ghost town reinforced. Indeed, as we had been walking around town that day, Breda commented about how quiet it was and how few people there were. The emptiness hadn't particularly struck me then, since there were still buildings and traffic and an urban-looking landscape and, from time to time, other people, but being the only customers in a restaurant—at dinnertime—made it painfully clear. This was a town that would shrivel up into little more than a one-horse village without all of the Shilla-era leftovers lying around.
Eventually we worked up the inertia to leave—just as a couple of families came in to eat— and hailed a cab back to our yeogwon. It was dark, by now, and chilly. We didn't want to do anymore outdoorsy things today. But it was still Saturday night, and Saturday night is a night for drinking in Korea—especially since all of us had foregone our Friday night drinking in order to be up on time.
There was brief discussion of going back downtown, which seemed relatively lively and bustling—or at least with enough neon signage to feign liveliness—but none of us wanted to go back out in the cold. We compromised by going to the nearby FamilyMart for soju, makgeolli, and cards, and spent the next few hours drinking and playing Bullshit and Egyptian Rat Screw. The latter we all remembered playing as kids, but we could only half remember the rules and Maddie had to look them up on Wikipedia for us...with her Kindle.
Between the cold outside and the warm floor and getting up early that morning, we all dozed off at around 11 or midnight. And let me tell you: sleeping on a mat on a heated floor with a big fluffy comforter on top of you is pretty much the most delicious thing ever. It's like sleeping in a warm fluffy cloud, or a womb. When the next morning came, I didn't want to get up.
But get up I did. A quick shower, breakfast at Ye Olde Paris Baguette, and we took the bus out to Bulguksa. The bus stopped at the bottom of the hill, where ajummas harassed us and tried to give us business cards for their restaurants. We waved them off and started the walk uphill, since of course you're not going to put your big important Buddhist temple anywhere but on the top of a giant hill.
Your reward for surviving the climb? Cheap trinkets made in China!
Bulguksa was built in honor of Prime Minister Kim Daeseon's deceased parents. There's some legend about a dream he had, where he saw a dragon flying around the site with a bead in its mouth, and so there's a lot of "dragon and bead" imagery:
Bulguksa is still a functioning temple. I could hear the woodblock's signature beat droning on while we were visiting, a sound I knew well from going to the zendo back home. You could see people bowing to the various Buddhas, even, and no photography was allowed.
One of the buildings with people bowing and praying; I think this one also hosts one of the two seated Buddha statues that are considered National Treasures.
It's actually something like the regional headquarters for the Jogye sect in Gyeongju, and to call it a temple is kind of misleading. "Temple" implies one building. Rather, it's a collection of assorted buildings and shrines, with sections walled off and stairs and paths leading this way and that, with lots of nature incorporated and involved.
Drinking fountain by the front gate.
Of course, the architecture is beautiful too; hence Bulguksa's UNESCO World Heritage listing. Unfortunately, much of Bulguksa "is" wooden and thus was prone to damage by things like termites, rot, fire, and so on. Much of it had been destroyed or fallen into disrepair under Japanese colonial rule and so what you see today is reconstructed.
Close-up of a roof tile
Another National Treasure: the stairs to the entrance of Bulguksa. They're supposed to represent enlightenment.
Another bronze bell. One of the unique features of Korean bells, according to what the signage in Gyeongju mentioned, is the dwangja: the striking point of the bell. In Korean bells, these are ornately decorated and constructed. as you can see here. I make no guarantee of the veracity of said fact, based on my poor memory and the good chances of a bad translation.
Dragon on top of the bell.
One of the many little alcoves we chanced upon was devoted entirely to stacking rocks, which is apparently somehow related to good luck?
Caught in the act!
And by some miracle they stay stacked, and while I'm sure sometimes people bump into them, everyone seems to respect the work gone in to making these little piles. A small boy getting his picture taken made a gesture as if to knock them over, but it was clearly intended as a joke.
Eventually we finished at Bulguksa and hopped on the shuttle bus that does nothing but run between Bulguksa and Seokguram. You have the option of hiking between the two, as well, but it was cold out and, as it turns out, the hike would have been pretty much uphill the whole way. Yeah, I don't think so.
Now entering Seokguram.
Yep, another bell. Also, minor aside and point of interest: all of these bronze bells might look familiar. Korea sent one to L.A. back in the day, referred to as the Bell of Friendship. Years later, it was featured in the background of a few scenes in The Usual Suspects.
It's a medium-long walk from the "entrance" of Seokguram to the grotto itself. The path hugs the side of a rather steep hill, without any walls or safety railings. I guess Korea figures that if your sense of self preservation isn't strong enough to keep you from falling off the edge of the path, your genes are better off eliminated from the pool.
Seokguram as it is today is fairly well preserved, sealed behind glass and out of the reach of grabby tourists, mold, moisture, and other things perilous to rocks. Apparently there were quite a few goofs during reconstruction attempts, and that it's here today at all is no small matter. No pictures are allowed inside (less for preservation concerns and more out of religious respect, I think) so I raided the Internet for this part.
Though this one is my own; people have the option of hanging paper lanterns from the ceiling, I guess with some kind of wish or prayer attached to it. I ninja'd this pictures with some mad freaking skills.
I'm not entirely sure what Seokguram was used for; my guess would be a private space for the royal family to worship. Anyway, it's beautiful and it's too bad that you can't get up to see it firsthand. A wooden building was constructed around the entrance to the grotto some time before they put the glass up; with the glass you don't really need the building anymore but they haven't gotten around to tearing it down. So it's a bit cramped and hard to see (even though this is hardly peak travel time).
After we all got an eyeful, we milled about the area outside Seokguram a bit. You could pay ten thousand won and write something on a tile for future visitors to see—lots of international languages here, with Russian and Danish and Spanish as well as English—but ten thousand seemed a bit pricey. I picked up some postcards (since I couldn't take pictures myself) and we wandered back down the path, the way we came.
Our original plan had been to check out the market or tea house in downtown Gyeongju after Bulguksa and Seokguram, but we were all pooped—Maddie and Breda were feeling a bit under the weather—so we checked out of our yeogwon, had a quick meal at a gimbap restaurant near the station, and milled around until our bus back to the 'bu. Maddie and I bought some Gyeongju Bbang (Gyeongju Bread—pretty much some dough around a bunch of red bean paste) for the crew at Sherlock, and soon it was time to go.
Despite sleeping long and well the previous night, I passed out nearly as soon as I put my seat back on the bus. Like I said, I love sleeping. The ride back up to Uijeongbu was only four and a half hours, which was blazingly fast (considering that it was four hours from central Seoul, and that it usually takes a full hour to get Seoul from Uijeongbu).
Nonetheless it was still pretty late when we rolled back into the dong, 10.30 PM or so, a full forty-eight hours after I had originally left for the weekend. Forty-eight hours jam-packed with adventure. So much adventure, in fact, that I've been sitting on this damn blog entry for two days (and change!). How Maddie and Breda managed to put together write-ups in half that amount of time astounds me. You go girls.
“next bus outta here”
2 years ago