Taking a high-speed KTX train north inland for 30 mins puts you in Gyeongju – or rather the new Singyeongju KTX Station where a 20 minute bus takes you into the heart of Gyeongju, famous for its history. The problem with it being inland is the excruciating heat, reminding us of some of the not so easy days in China. Busan and its sea breeze has spoilt us. We decided to take it easy in Gyeongju given this heat, this was our day off after all. We got up late and headed towards a famous bakery for breakfast.
Our route to breakfast went through one of the many parks containing large mounds covered in grass. These are actually burial tombs for old Kings and other royalty from the Silla era (57 BC – 935 AD). They have found over 100 of these mounds and number 44 is an archaeological site contained in a round building with a tent-like roof. There was a sign on the door which said “Lunch 12:00 – 13:00” in English. We peered in, it was 12:45. Suddenly a man appears inside, opens the door, takes the sign away and gestures us inside. This is not the first time on this trip we’ve had a museum to ourselves.
Everything was in Korean. But there were lots of photos on the walls of the archaeologists discovering, unearthing and working on the mound. And there was the unearthed tomb itself in the middle of the circular building. Walking around the edge high above we could see the archaeologists tools had been left out but we never saw the people themselves – it was lunchtime, or just a display.
The breakfast was a bit of a disappointment in the end (ok we did get up late, it was technically lunch). Excited by a new range of oddly sweet breads and maybe even the chance of pastry our eyes dropped when we realised the bakery only sold one special Gyeongju delicacy – hwangnam ppang. Soft almost pastry encasing a ball of smooth, silky red bean paste. I have learnt to avoid red bean paste, it’s used a lot in China as something sweet (it’s not sweet) but I’ve never grown to like it. Picking out unknown bready street food in China was always a “fingers crossed it’s not filled red bean paste” moment. It didn’t happen as much as surprise pork in a seemingly vegetable-only dish though, but still often enough to be frustrating. Anyway, we ate them and they were one of the better red bean paste things tried in Asia so far. I think the pastry helps. I miss pastry.
Tumuli Park was 2000 won entrance fee – museums are either free or very cheap, it’s wonderful and I think the right thing to do as they’re for educating people. I learnt what a cross-section of a burial mound looks like by being able to go in Cheonmachong tomb. Another mound had been cut in half showing the open wooden coffin complete with bones and trinkets, the wooden hut it’s contained in, then the large stones on top and finally the dirt and the grass on top.
South of the park leads to an area where an old palace previously existed containing more open archaeological pits. Next to this is a small old traditional folk village which was home to the Choi Clan (Important Folklore Material No. 27). We didn’t taste Important Intangible Cultural Asset No. 86-3.
From here it is easy to reach Cheomseongdae astronomical observatory through a nicely curated park filled with lillypads, large open archeological pits and a forest at one end. Despite it being easily walkable (the whole city is), there is a comically designed bug bus to take you round.
At the obversatory we spotted yet another group of young people (this makes me feel old) wearing matching outfits. In my western eyes this feels very odd and very uncool – but here, there is a societal pressure to fit in and be trendy. This results in a lot of young people wearing the same current fashion and styles with not much variation at times. Even couples will wear matching or very similar outfits. I have to admit Mischa and I gave in to this conformity and bought matching brightly coloured cheap board shorts which greatly amused our fellow western workawayers.
Another reason to me make feel old is that my Korean age is higher than my international (real) age. I was ID’d in a bar but I’d forgotten my ID, it didn’t feel good trying to persuade them my age in their eyes is 30. They made me nip home to find proof.
Wolji Pond is part of the old Wolseong palace where three of the buildings have been reconstructed. With a nice wooded path on one side of the pond and the buildings high above the other, it was easy to take beautiful photos. The place was postcard worthy but we were told it’s better to come at night time when they light up the whole area. It was enjoyable to sit in the trees viewing the decorative buildings and perfect lillypads.
Makkeoli and pajeon (rice wine and pancakes) is a winning combination but attempting to find a popular restaurant failed – we found a new shop in its place instead. This meant only one thing – a trip to Jungang night market for endless street food for tea instead of just snacks. Spring rolls filled with vegetables, some with bananas (it actually worked really well), mung bean pancake, vietnamese-style cold spring rolls, different flavoured fried rice and of course, beer. A delicious way to end Gyeongju.