Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Beautiful Gyeongju (Conference pt. 3)

"Beautiful Gyeongju" is the cheesy English moniker adopted by the historic city of Korea. (See related: "Colorful Daegu", "Dynamic Busan", and... "Changwon: Environmental Capital". Yeah.)

There's no denying, however, that Gyeongju lives up to this name. It's a small city but its boundaries are wide; the best word that I can think of right now to describe it is uncompressed. Unlike Seoul, Daegu, and Busan, there's so much room to breathe. And there are trees everywhere, all on the verge of changing colors -- the phenomenon known as 단풍 (dampung) in Korean. On a sunny, crisp, almost-autumn day, the tour we took around the city's historic monuments from the Silla Dynasty was more calming and relaxing than I could have imagined, thanks to our slow pace and the gorgeous sights at every stop.
A small hut selling memorial tiles; you can buy one to write an inspirational message on. I was most interested in the wooden rooftop, though; there's not only moss but small trees growing on it!
The first stop was Seokguram (석굴암/石窟庵), a Buddhist shrine located on the top of a tall mountain. Fortunately, our bus drove to the top, and we didn't have to hike for more than five minutes to arrive at our secluded, peaceful destination. Although there were tons of tourists, they didn't seem to bother the worshipers inside the shrine, who were also separated by a thick glass wall that said "No Cameras". Inside was an enormous ten-foot-tall statue of the seated Buddha, imposing yet peaceful. From the outside, you could see the beautiful farms and fields far below us in the valley, although the morning mist obscured it some. Seokguram is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
A very awake Ginger and Nina jump up in front of Seokguram Grotto (built into an artificial cave!).
Down by the parking lot, we passed by a long row of ajummas (아줌마) selling fruits and roasted chestnuts. Mmm, chestnuts. It was a nice surprise for me that chestnuts (밤, bam) are a common autumnal snack in Korea. They remind me of France (where they're called châtaigne).
This is literally a dozen sellers of the exact same product. You have to wonder what the market competition is like.
After Seokguram, we hopped back on the bus to go to Bulguksa Temple (불국사/佛國寺), Korea's "Historic and Scenic Spot No. 1" and also a UNESCO World Heritage site. Some of the historic treasures located within the temple complex included stone pagodas (탑), famous bridges, and, of course, statues of the Buddha. While we were at the temple, we were supposed to follow a tour in English, but the tour guide mysteriously never showed up (I found out later that she was just very late), so most of us just grabbed a map and wandered around the huge grounds on our own.
Me in front of Dabotap (다보탑/多寶塔), the pagoda of many treasures, built in AD 751. Its partner pagoda just a few meters away, Seokgatap, was under heavy construction at the time. (Photo taken by Susie)
For the average tourist (aka, me), it seems as if once you've seen one Korean Buddhist temple, you've seen them all. I wish I knew more about Buddhism (불교; bulgyo), though; I took only one course in college that covered Eastern traditions, and it only skimmed the surface of what there was to see and learn at Bulguksa. One neat little corner of the temple was covered with hundreds of small cairns -- piles of flat stones stacked neatly atop one another -- that made me feel like a giant in a Suessian wonderland, sans the vivid colors. I wasn't sure what their function was, having been told, when I saw similar structures at Muryeung Valley, that they were used to mark hiking trails. I found out later that they were for making prayers or wishes.
Build a cairn, make a wish! This one is about as tall as a soda can.
All around and behind me are hundreds of small cairns, carefully constructed by thousands of the faithful. (taken by Brittany)
And that's about it for Seokguram and Bulguksa! Two of Korea's most famous historical sites and tourist attractions, check! Then, it was lunchtime (맛있는 불고기!) and off to more beautiful places plus a museum, which I'll get to in a later post. Stay tuned!
The main gate of Tohamsan (토함산/吐含山), the mountain where Bulguksa is located. I spy thirteen -- no, fourteen! Fifteen? -- Fulbrighters!