After visiting Busan, I decided to make another stop on my way back to Seoul in order to briefly check out Gyeongju. It’s a coastal city in the South-East of Seoul and is most famous for being the capital of the ancient Silla Kingdom. The Silla Kingdom was one of the three kingdoms of Korea. As such, Gyeongju is one of South Korea’s biggest tourist destinations as it contains many historical treasures from that era.
First off: Watch out when going to Gyeongju by train. There are two main train stations. Gyeongju station, which from as far as I can tell is the original main station and is located near the city center, and Singyeongju. The latter was built exclusively for the KTX trains as they cannot serve Gyeongju station. It seems to be located in the middle of nowhere and it takes about half an hour to get to the city by bus. So you have to be a little bit careful which station you choose. The online ticket service booked me on a train to arrive in Singyeongju, but I was to depart from Gyeongju. I did not notice this myself, and it would have made for an interesting surprise. Luckily, this was pointed out to me at the counter and I was able to change my reservation. Koreans are so nice (more on that later).
Also, the station is not that big and pretty remote. There’s a convenience store, a coffee shop, and a restaurant, so you’ll be fine, but there isn’t much to do while waiting for a train. It might also be a good idea to bring a bunch of cash with you, as the single ATM at the station refused to take my credit card.
Since I only had about ten hours before my departure, I once again booked a seat on a tour bus so I could see as much as possible.
City Tour hijinx:
The website of the city tour bus is all in English, but still managed to confuse the hell out of me. It’s probably crystal clear in hindsight, but was quite puzzling at the time. You can (and should) reserve tickets online, and have to enter your credit card information when doing so. Hence, I figured that I had already paid for them. But as it turns out, I did not. They expect you to pay in cash. Cash which I did not have on me since the ATM didn’t work. With no way to get my hands on said cash, I wasn’t quite sure what to do. And again, I still wasn’t entirely sure if I hadn’t already paid since the language was just vague enough to leave room for interpretation. Maybe they only accept cash from people who hadn’t reserve a seat online? Who knows. Anyway, I figured I should just get in line and then figure it out. The staff quickly identified me as I was the only foreigner on the bus and waved me in. Alright, I guess I’m good to go. They wouldn’t just wave me in and start driving if I hadn’t paid already, right? Well, after about ten minutes of driving, they started to collect the cash. Ruh-oh. So yeah, their operation was a little bit confusing to me. But they were very kind and forthcoming about my issue (‘uh…ATM later’).
Anyway, on to the sights:
Tomb of King Taejong Muyeol
Honestly, I can’t say much about this. It’s the burial ground of a silla king. These Korean tombs are covered up, leaving behind only a grassy mound. Neat little place, but nothing special to me as the historical significance was lost on me.
Daereungwon Tomb Complex:
Another set of tombs. This was more interesting as it is a bigger complex housing 23 tombs in total. I think you could actually enter one of the tombs, but the lines for that one were massive, so I had to skip it.
We also had a lunch break here, so I walked around a bit exploring the area and trying to find an ATM (unsuccessfully). It’s located directly next to a bunch of houses built in a traditional style, which is also quite a nice sight.
This is a palace in a park with an artificial pond. It’s nice.
Folk Craft Village
The Folk Craft Village is composed of a bunch of traditional houses that are ‘home to craftsmen and artisans who have successfully preserved the spirit and craftsmanship of their ancestors’.
You can visit all of these shops to look at and buy goods that are produced with the techniques of the Silla kingdom. There’s also a small museum. Definitely a very cool and unique place to visit.
They definitely saved the best for last. Bulguksa is a large Buddhist temple located in the mountains. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, hosts seven national treasures of South Korea, and is classified as one of the nation’s most important scenic and historic sites. So yeah, it is kind of a big deal.
And you can tell that it’s a big deal, because it’s busy as hell (me being there on a holiday probably didn’t help matters). I guess that kind of hurts the peaceful and quiet atmosphere you normally find in these temples, but it adds a different layer and really drives home that this is a pretty special place. And boy is it pretty.
Obviously, no great trip would be completey without me losing my mind. Since I was the only foreigner aboard, the guide always quickly told me when to meet up at the bus again in English. This was never a problem as the bus usually just stayed in the same spot. However, Bulguksa is pretty damn big. The bus kinda just stopped on the side of the road when we arrived, so I just went back to that spot, and there was no bus. So I waited around, then went back to the entrance to see if I could spot somebody else, then went back, waited around some more, and so on. No bus. What I did not know is that the Temple has multiple parking spots, and the bus was apparently waiting on the other one. Maybe the guide told that to the others in Korean and neglected to tell me, maybe I should’ve just come up with that on my own, but whatever. I was stranded. Being socialized in Germany, I was sure that the bus would depart not a second after the departure time without me, so that was a fun thing to contemplate. Especially since the temple is kind of in the middle of nowhere, I had almost zero cash on me (remember the ATM?), *and* I had left my credit card on the bus since they needed to make a transaction due to my lack of cash. So yeah…there I was, contemplating how I would make it back to the train station (a solid hour bus ride) with approximately 4 euros of money on me. And well, things got pretty bleak there for a bit.
Of course, I then stumbled onto the solution ass backwards as I usually do. I finally decided to check out the other parking spot, noticed a bus of the same company, and kinda just got on hoping nobody would notice me (nobody there seemed to speak English anyway, so I couldn’t really communicate with them anyway). But they did. Suddenly the driver comes in, starts talking to me in Korean, then points to a girl who could not have been much older than ten, who then translated in perfectly fluent English that I was on the wrong bus and needed to get off. I was too perplexed to say anything. And when I got out, my bus just stood there and took me back in (mind you, I was about 30 minutes late at this point, so people were facing some serious delays). Nobody on the bus said anything, even though I can only assume they all wanted to kill me. Once again, Koreans are way too nice and I do not deserve them.
After that, the way home was a piece of cake. Woosh.
Overall, I had a good if (needlessly) stressful time in Gyeongju. I’m glad that I made the trip. I’m sure there is a lot more stuff worth checking out that I missed, but oh well. What I saw was pretty cool, so I can’t complain too much. And bonus points for not getting stranded!