Discovering Ancient South Korea – Andong and Gyeongju

The beauty of Asian fall, a traditional folk viallage as well as the ancient capital of Gyeongju with it’s many Heritage Sites made me appreciating South Korea much more.

Highlights:
  • Food at Andong market
  • History in use: Hahoe Folk Village
  • The ancient capital of Gyeongju with it’s dozenz of tumuli and great History Museum
  • The Heritage Site temples Bulguk-sa and Seokguram set inmidst beautifully colored woods – and the little hike between them

From Seoul Maria and I made it to Andong, a medium sized city in central South Korea. The bus station we left from in Seoul reminded me a lot of the bus stations I had been to in Central America, especially in Mexico. Thus I felt immediately at ease when we arrived there by metro and walked to one of the many tickets booths in the main hall. We were surprised to see how little the trip was about to cost: For a couple of Euros one can go through South Korea by bus.

Upon our arrival in Andong we found cheap accommodation quickly and made into the center right away. To our surprise it was filled with hundreds of shops and restaurants. More and more I realized how crazy South Koreans are about having dinner out of home – as well as about shopping. We had no idea how to choose a restaurant and finally walked to the market area where we found a nice place to eat. We sat down cross-legged on the floor and were asked “how many people?” – that was all the waitress wanted to know. We wondered what would be our dinner, guessing it would either be absolutely wonderful or terrible, when a huge platter of chicken and noodles arrived. We tried our best, actually I think we were outstanding – but we could just not finish it although it tasted quite delicious – and was a famous delicacy as we found out later.

Next morning we caught the bus to Hahoe Folk Village, around one hour west of Andong. Being a World Heritage Site, it is famous for its untouched character and historic houses with tiled and thatched roofs. It is a really small community that has survived the extreme modernization of South Korea nearly untouched. Besides some cars and scooters standing in the driveway and modern sneakers on the (literal) doorsteps, the village still looks like from the nineteen hundreds – or even earlier. In the center of the village stands a 600-year old tree which is worshipped as the “Shrine of Three Gods”. Besides its’ sheer age it is impressive how many prayers – written on small white note papers – hang from it. Maria and I added our wishes right away… On my way out of the village, I saw two elderly ladies preparing kimchi the very traditional way in big clay vessels.

Our next stop on the way South was Gyeongju, known as the “museum without walls” and the former capital of the far reaching Silla realm that once ruled over all of the Korean peninsula and lasted nearly 1,000 years – how many kingdoms can make that claim…? We arrived there well after dark but had booked a hotel (Silla Guest House) ahead this time – and were quite lucky. Run by a young Korean couple it was brand new, empty and therefore yet quite cheap. We chose the Korean style rooms, meaning again mats on tatami floor which was somehow very comfy. As nothing else was open when we searched for food, our only choice was McDonald’s where I got the local specialty: Bulgogi Burger. Brrr….

Next morning, we started our visit through the city which I liked immediately. One could see it’s rich history in many places, for example Asia’s oldest star observatory made of 365 stones… Most distinctive were the tumuli (grassy barrows). They rose everywhere in the center and around, dozens of them. Kings and queens were buried here long ago and since then some single trees had settled on some of the hills, giving them some kind of mystical character as if dropped out from the Lord of the Rings, when the hobbits stumble upon the Barrow-downs. One was just waiting for Tom Bombadil to come around the corner. Being there in fall was very nice, the hills being covered in colorful leafs while the trees stood bare naked. Besides the barrows maple trees stood absolutely beautiful, mostly bright yellow and deep red.

We also visited Gyeongju National Museum in order to see some very neat pieces of Silla history, for example delicate big golden crowns and belts. It was wonderful to see such craftsmanship but I was somewhat amazed that not many more major pieces were left from such a long lasting culture.

Next day we took a bus a little outside of the center in order to reach Bulguk-sa, one of Korea’s major temples and another World Heritage Site. It’s nestled on the mountainside in beautiful woods – walking there we were simply amazed by the colors of the season. The woods were a beautiful ensemble of green, yellow, and red and made the whole place quite magical. Also the many different temple buildings, all with their own Buddha, were of course very interesting. But it would only have been half the fun without the colors.

I loved wandering on the edge of the woods and while Maria was going back to Gyeongju, I decided to spend some more urgently needed time in nature and hiked up the mountain to Seokguram, another religious Heritage Site. Reaching the mountain peak, I beheld a huge bronze bell – everybody was invited to strike it. I did not leave that opportunity aside.

Seokguram is a famous grotto where a big Buddha carved from stone looks over the valley below. Sadly the temple was under reconstruction when I visited but the most important thing – as a Korean guide told me – were the Buddha’s features. Being about 1,250 years old, it looked untouched, as if carved out of the stone just some years before my arrival. It is hard to keep tracks of all the Buddhas in Asia, but this one was surely quite a distinctive one.

After a huge bibimbap that night, we left Gyeongju the next morning and made for the port city of Busan in the South.

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