Ancient reflections in Gyeongju
In the blue-tinged twilight, I make my way to the back of the park. The ticket office is not yet open. The gates are wide, and the morning wind rustles the leaves. How many people have heard this sound before? As the sun crests the horizon and shafts of light spill between the burial mounds, a sense of awe fills me. I am walking the path of kings, a path lined by ancestors and walked by descendants. Here lie the leaders who unified Korea. I walk through the park, nodding my regards to the occasional early riser, before leaving, humbled.
Gyeongju rises as I make my way through the house-lined streets around the park. The occasional car or moped reminds me I’m still in modern times. This is not enough to spoil my reverie, though. The chips and cracks in ancient roof tiles start me wondering about the structures I pass. Some are modern and well maintained. Others were built long before the town; the winding roads I walk were simply built between them.
I am lost in a daydream, one in which the streets are filled with market stalls, men dragging carts of freshly harvested barley, women steaming corn and the raucous laughter of makgeolli drinkers. It could almost be back then. Things were simpler then.
The sun is midway up when I see an old sign: Dosolmaeul. I had read about this restaurant before and now I had finally found it. Passing through the gate, a tendril of smoke stings my nose.
Folks in hanbok scuttle left and right. The compacted soil beneath my feet is a welcome relief from the paved roads of the morning.
After a bowl of “sungnyung,” a drink made with water and scorched rice, my lunch arrives. It’s spread across the polished-wood table by well-practised hands. I see some familiar dishes: kimchi, tubu-jeon, the usual chicken and fish in gochujang. Then there is the house speciality: tofu wrapped in steamed cabbage leaves. This left me wanting more. The wait staff are gone as quickly as they arrived and peace fills the air. Light filters through wall-to-wall windows while the drone of a heating unit buzzes, another reminder of the times.
Squinting back into the daylight, I walk left down the road. I’m back in the dream world of single-story shops, hole-in-the-wall stores, and endless streets.
The painted gates of a temple are wide open. I step in for a change of pace. The resident bhikkhuni bows deeply before returning to her tending of the temple grounds. I spend some time investigating the statuettes littered around the entrance and the weathered tiles of the path. I round a corner and find hanging laundry. Deciding it impolite to continue, I wander out and start my walk to Anapji – Gyeongju’s ancient royal pond. As I step over the rope fence (like everyone else) to get a closer look at the pond, it strikes me that like so many things in Korea, Anapji is part restoration. Originally built during the time of King Munmu – who now lies in the water tomb to the east of the city – Anapji has been restored to represent the glory of the Silla Dynasty. I step onto the banks of the pond and the perfect reflection of the sunset chases all thoughts from my head. I stare at a scene that must have left the kings of Silla just as speechless. Nobody speaks; the soft clicks of camera shutters are the only sound.
After the sun goes down, a short stroll across the road takes me to my final destination before catching the train back to Seoul: Cheomseongdae. Although it is lit by artificial lights now, by staying far enough away, I was able to experience what it was made for.
Gyeongju may be taking on parts of modern Korea, but it is still one place where the stars whirl overhead.
How to get there: The KTX departs from Seoul Station every 30 to 60 minutes. Buses from Express Bus Terminal leave every 30 to 40 minutes. Commuter trains are infrequent but leave from Seoul and Cheongnyangni stations.
• Use the early morning or sunset times to avoid the crowds.
• Get a map and walk within the city limits.
• Eat – Gyeongju Bread and Dosolmaeul (Address – Gyeongju, Hwangnam-dong 71-2)
• Transportation required – Bulguksa (the temple with the pagoda from the 10-won coin), Seokguram, the underwater temple of King Munmu.