When I decided to stay in Korea for another year I made a promise to myself to see more of the country. Last week, with sunny skies and spring time temperatures on the horizon, I knew I needed to start making good on that promise. After researching a variety of cities on this peninsula I settled on Gyeongju, capital of the ancient Silla kingdom and city of many cherry blossoms.
Gyeongju is located in the North Gyeongsang province near Daegu, about 350 km south of Seoul. I decided to take advantage of the fact that I now get out of work fairly early and head down there on Friday night. Getting from Seoul to Gyeongju is fairly easy. You can hop on a direct bus at Express Bus Terminal in Gangnam (located on Lines 3, 7, and 9) and be there in about 4-4.5 hours depending on traffic. The busses run every 40 minutes- 1 hour and cost 20,000 won (around $20US) each way. There are also trains that run from Seoul but from my research they were either more complicated or more costly. After arriving in the city I grabbed a room at a motel near the station, of which there are plenty.
Arriving on Friday night gave me the opportunity to make the most out of my Saturday. The first thing I did was rent a bike. Biking around Gyeongju is extremely popular and makes getting to the various tourist sites around the city center easy and fast. You can rent bikes at a variety of shops near the bus terminal and they run around 10,000 won ($10US) for the day. After getting the bike I stopped at the neighboring Tourist Information Office, picked up an English language map, and plotted my course.
My first stop was to check out some of the royal tombs at Tumuli Park. Tumuli are mounds of earth that resemble small hills and can be found all around Gyeongju. The ancient people of the Silla kingdom buried their royalty in ornate coffins and then covered them with gravel and dirt to create these domes. The mounds created and almost otherworldly, peaceful feeling.
I then set out to find Anapji Pond, part of an ancient Silla palace complex. I got a little lost on the way due to my poor map reading skills, but my misstep turned out to be for the best as I was soon found myself on a street lined with hundreds of cherry blossom trees. Tiny pink and white petals were fluttering down from the trees creating what looked like a snow storm of flowers around me as I rode down the narrow brick sidewalk, a kind of spring shower I could actually enjoy. And as luck would have it, when I got to the end of this street, signs directing me to Anapji Pond appeared.
This artificial pond was created in 674 by King Munmu and though it had been destroyed, it was completely reconstructed using in the 1970s and 1980s. Today it is part of Gyeongju National Park and is a nice place to take a relaxing stroll and snap a few photos. There is an admission fee but, like most places in Korea, it is not expensive at 1,000 won ($1US).
As the afternoon was winding down I decided to ride back to large park I’d passed earlier and relax in the sun. I grabbed a few refreshments and sat next to a Buddhist temple at the edge of a burial mound and enjoyed the first warm weather of the year in a completely Korean way.
When the sun finally set I ventured out to take a look at the cherry blossoms at night. The road leading to Kim Yu Shin’s tomb is know to be the best place to see them after dark, so I headed in that direction, along with the rest of the people in about a 100km radius. Don’t try to drive or take a taxi (you’ll probably be refused by the driver anyway), instead, take the short walk over the river and meander slowly down the lane. The street is so narrow that the trees on either side actually touch each other creating a tunnel of flowers. The trees are backlit with lights of various colors creating a magical feeling and highlighting the beauty of the flowers. If you are in town during cherry blossom season this is not to be missed.
Gyeongju is a great weekend destination for those looking to get away from the big city. As a warning, Gyeongju is a fairly small town. Don’t expect an all night bar scene, an Outback Steakhouse, and a Caffe Bene on every corner. Expect small restaurants, most of which close fairly early, and a few small shops. Come for a weekend of ancient Korean history. Come for the natural beauty. Come for a break from the constant craziness of Korea’s bigger cities.