Monday July 23, 2018

Tales from my feet: the Gyeongyu in my Mind

GYEONGYU, a Unesco World Cultural Heritage City, is located in the North Gyeongsang Province of South Korea.

About 370 kilometers southeast of Seoul, we took a five-hour bus ride to get there straight from Incheon Airport.

Relatively unknown to foreigners, compared to the more popular destinations in the country, it is a local tourist destination, as it once was the capital of the Ancient Kingdom of Silla between the 7th and 9th centuries. Many of the historical treasures of that prosperous era remain intact until now. This is why Gyeongyu is often referred to as a Museum without Walls.

We decided to try out an Airbnb experience for this trip and found a perfect host, Jinny, who spoke English, was very gracious, and even enlisted her father as our private guide for sites much further than the central district. By the time she met us at the bus station, we were off to an exciting start.

The afternoon we arrived, we set out on foot armed with a map and instructions from Jinny to turn the corner and walk straight ahead. The first thing I noticed from a distance was the presence of mounds of earth peeking out over the low-rise structures that dotted the busy street. Everywhere one looked, there were these little hills that the city seemed to build itself carefully around. One of the photos you will find in this article is a page from a guidebook so you can visualize what we saw. For most of us familiar with the Chocolate Hills in Bohol, theirs were quite similar. While not contained in one area, they were spread over a vast expanse of land, sharing space with modern structures, and yet, it worked out just fine. There was harmony between the old and the new.

As we approached the Gyeongyu Downtown Area, we got confused. Looking up at the road signs, arrows pointed in all directions, so we just turned right and entered the Daereungwon Tomb Park.

The Unesco Protected Areas of Wolseong, Daereungwon and Hwangnyongsaji are comprised of about 10 sub-areas with many more historic site listings under the sub-areas, so it was all quite overwhelming! By early evening, aside from the first tomb park we entered, we had also visited the Cheonmachong Tomb, the Cheomseongdae Observatory and saw Mt. Nangsan at a distance. We had barely scratched the surface, but we also needed to rest.

The next day, we set off on a private tour that took us to three historic sites outside of the downtown area. Our first stop was the Bulguksa Temple Region, where one can find the National Government’s number one historic site and scenic spot – the Bulguksa Temple. An architectural masterpiece of Buddhist Temple Art, it is the palace of Buddha where the ideal of a Buddhist nation is expressed through harmony and balance. In front of the Daeungjeon Hall, there are two prominent pagodas. The Seokgatap Pagoda (a tower that never casts a shadow) and the Dabotap Pagoda (a tower that proves the Sutra of the Lotus) used to have four stone lions on its raised platform. During the Japanese invasion, three of the stone lions were plundered, thus the remaining one was the object of curiosity for most visitors.

In another part of the Bulguksa Temple Region and a little further uphill, one can find the Seokguram Grotto, a stone temple constructed with stones piled into a dome-like structure then covered with dirt, making it look like a cave. It is a long, winding, uphill walk from the gate and once you reach the grotto entrance, photos are prohibited. Inside is a massive granite Buddha, behind a thick wall of glass designed to protect it from visitors and harsh weather. Called the Bonjonbul, this renowned statue is one of the most outstanding pieces in the history of world religious art.

Confucian culture

After a delicious Korean barbecue lunch, we journeyed on to our next destination – Yangdong Village, where the Confucian culture of the Joseon Dynasty can still be felt today.

This village consists of about 150 time-honored, tile-roofed, and thatched-roofed houses. Considered a typical noble village in its time, it has been designated as a cultural property by the government. Founded in the 15th century by Son So, the grandfather of Yi Unjeok, one of the 18 sages of Korea, it has thrived by continuing sacred traditions until the present. Even the arrangement of the houses, have been carefully preserved, from high to low ground. One can identify the lower-class homes by their thatched roofs and location.

By late afternoon, we were headed to the popular sunset spot - the Donggung and Wolji Pond (Pond). We got there about half an hour before sunset, just as crowds were beginning to gather. It was a mixed group of families with children, couples on dates, a bunch of photographers, women dressed in traditional Korean costumes waiting for the perfect photo-op, elderly locals out for a walk and very few foreign tourists. In A.D. 674, King Munmu of Silla had the pond dug, added some plants and raised rare birds and animals around the area. In later periods, this area was used for entertaining royal guests. Originally called Wolji (Pond of the Moon), it was renamed Anapji as geese and ducks flocked to this site. In 1975, the original shape of the pond from the Silla era was restored after dredging and excavation. After sunset, when the lights on the pond come alive, it takes on a different vibe. It is a sight that takes your breath away as the water reflects the architectural genius of those born so long ago. You look around and imagine what life was like back then and say a prayer of thanks that places such as these have been preserved for us to experience.

As we took the train back to Seoul the next day to fly home, we had decided to go back to this paradise called Gyeongyu. To explore this city at leisure is still on our bucket list.