After an exhausting day on Bukhansan with Sun-mi and a refreshing call from Seong-a to confirm our meeting next Wednesday instead of Thursday, I dragged myself into a taxi in the chilly morning to catch the third KTX train to Daegu East, where I transferred to another small train to Gyeongju.
Gyeongju does not look like Kyoto, although I have never been to the latter. Gyeongju feels like Luoyang, both ancient capitals of splendid kingdoms with a long history of a millennium and yet have now lost their grandeur to the fast-growing modern cities like Seoul and Beijing in the north. Strolling on the quiet streets, however, enables visitors to give a second thought to the past glamour of these cities that is still lingering in the air.
Having arrived at the hostel in Gyeongju around noon, at the recommendation of the hostel owner I had a quick lunch of "galbitang", which means a set meal of beef soup, steamed rice and side dishes, and caught a No. 10 bus to Bulguksa. The journey took about 45 minutes and the colourful slopes decorated with maple leaves were already packed with visitors.
Bulguksa was first built after Silla kingdom in the southeast unified the Korean Peninsula for the first time in history. However, it was destroyed during Mongolian invasions and was not completely restored until 1973, when former dictator Park Chung-hee was in power. I was told that Gyeongju has been largely restored during Mr Park's reign, who was said to have risen to power from Gyeongju or somewhere nearby in Gyeongsangbuk-do. Whatever the case may be, and despite his dictatorship that might have caused many people to suffer, Mr Park deserves a credit in the restoration of historical sites in this ancient capital of Silla kingdom for more than 1,000 years. As I told Sun-mi yesterday during our walk on the Yonsei University campus, it was unforgivable for someone to destroy his/her own country's heritage out of ignorance and political complications.
After visiting all the halls in Bulguksa within an hour, I jumped onto another No. 10 bus to return to Gyeongju Station, where I bought a return ticket to Seoul on Wednesday. Then I walked along the main road and visited a number of Silla royal tombs before returning to the hostel. It took about 30 minutes to walk from the east, where Gyeongju Station is located, and to the west, where my hostel is. And this is about the size of downtown Gyeongju. Most shops were closed, perhaps because it was Sunday. In the outskirts, for example, on the way to Bulguksa, there were large paddy fields glittering under the golden sunshine, awaiting to be harvested. In addition to a strong sense of relaxation and quietness, Gyeongju just reminded me of what Luoyang looked like in the frosty winter more than 10 years ago.