A two-hour high-speed train brought me on Saturday to Gyeongju. It is known as “the museum without walls”, as ancient tombs, temples and palace ruins are scattered throughout the city and in its surroundings. After I’ve arrived, I’ve had a first walk through the city to see the ancient Tumuli tombs which were close by. While they look like small hills from the outside, they are in fact tombs from the Silla kingdom, where Silla royalty and elites were buried. Silla was one of the three kingdoms existing on the Korean peninsula around 57 BCE and 935 CE. After having visited the temples from the Joseon dynasty, it was clear that I’ve made a further step back on the time scale.
As I wanted to plan the next day and was a bit confused on what was where, I decided to head back to the hotel and ask at the lobby. My first plan was to visit the Bulguksa temple and the Seokugram grottes by public transport and maybe doing a small hike between them. However, I knew that Sunday would be very hot. Furthermore, after having used the Kakaomap app for a couple of days (Google maps is not the best in South Korea), it was still not clear to me when exactly the busses depart at a station. In the city this is not such a big issue, as there are plenty of busses with little waiting time in between, but going outside of the city there might only be one bus per hour. (The question still remains, when exactly the bus departs and where, but I blame this on my inability to read and write Korean.) So, I went and asked at the lobby. The staff was very friendly, but they did not speak a lot of English and I was still struggling with the 3 basic phrases “Hello”, “Thank you” and “Goodbye” in Korean. I did understand, that his recommendation was to do the “World Heritage Tour”. I believed to having understood that there will be some comments in English. I was still a bit in doubts, but as it would be very hot and the tour covers all the places I want to see, why not giving the tour and the air-conditioned bus a chance?
In the lobby I also met somebody from Serbia, who has been travelling through South Korea together with his friends. They invited me to join them for dinner and it was a fun night with some Japanese Yakitori, Beer, Soju and at the end again some beer with fried chicken.
So the next morning it was a bit hard to get up, but I managed and left the hotel, as I still had to buy the ticket for the tour. I found the ticket office surprisingly fast and while talking to the lady, who spoke a little bit more English than the man at the hotel, she informed me that it will be a tour in Korean only. I was a bit puzzled, but as it was already 10 am and I did not prepare going out and about by myself, I’ve decided to still go for it – and it was the best decision that I could have made! The tour was completely in Korean, but the lady at the office, who was also the tour guide later on, was amazing. She handed me brochures in English for every sight we were going to visit at the beginning of the tour. She made sure I would find a place I could have something to eat during the one hour lunch break. At the different sights she always showed me where and when the pick-up points will be. For one of them she even gave me a little post-it note with a drawing of the pick-up point. Everybody else on the Tour was from Korea, but also they were very nice to me. During lunch I was sitting next to a couple who also attended the tour, and they very kindly shared some of their soup and Korean beverage with me, which I’ve found very generous and came as a surprise to me. I’m grateful for all these small acts of kindness and caring, they really made my day.
Before leaving Gyeongju the next day, there was one more place which I wanted to see: Donggung palace and Wolji pond after sunset.
Truth be told, I ended up in Gyeongju by mistake. For my last couple of trips I’ve always used the lonely planet travel guide, which to me is a great source of ideas and recommendations. So naturally, I had also bought the one for Korea. The lonely planet travel guide does not contain a lot of photos, usually only a few at the beginning. However, there was one which was quite appealing to me, and, which also sort of matched the description of “the museum without walls” (or at least, did not contradict the statement). However, it turned out that on the page with the lovely photo I had read the wrong caption. This was of course discovered upon arrival, as Gyeongju looks a bit different than Suwon’s Hwaseong Fortress (see for example this link). Same same but different. I had a great time, so I didn’t mind. 😉