My last full day in Gyeongju was marked by a sharp contrast between the hundreds of primary school students who packed the National Museum of Gyeongju and the loneliness in history at the site of the former Hwangyongsa, which was meant to be a palace of Silla kingdom in the first place.
About 9:30 am I arrived at the National Museum of Gyeongju after a 10-minute ride on a No. 600 bus. Surprised to see a dozen of jumbo tourist buses at the car park, I didn't realise they were carriers of hundreds of primary school students for official visits led by teachers. The children just yelled and laughed and chased after each other in almost every single corner in the vast courtyard of the National Museum, and even inside the exhibition halls. They really drove me mad and I couldn't help taking a break in the video room with the hope that some of the long queues could be gone soon.
When I went into the first exhibition hall about the magnificent Silla kingdom, I met the Swiss couple who were also staying in my hostel. All of us were very pissed off at the "little monsters" who made the National Museum no less than a wet market where hawkers were yelling at the top of their voices. From another perspective, however, it would be good to see so many youngsters were visiting museums as part of their school programmes. Although Hong Kong has also introduced similar requirements over the last couple of years, it has never been so enthusiastically received as it should have been.
After browsing through the exhibition galleries, I had a quick lunch at the canteen before setting off for the site of Hwangyongsa and Bunhwangsa. Before that I had a quick walk in the Anapji, which was a resort of Silla kings and part of the residence of the crown prince. It was also recorded in Samguk Sagi that the founder of Goryeo Dynasty had been invited to a feast at Anapji, then known as Wolji, by the last king of unified Silla. The buildings were destroyed long ago and only three have been restored so far. The site looked a bit empty but still deserved a visit for history buffs.
Following the instructions of my Lonely Planet, it took about 30 minutes from Anapji to the site of Hwangyongsa, which is just to the opposite of Bunhwangsa. Now surrounded by a couple of paddy and vegetable fields, the site of the former palace-turned-temple was incredibly huge. Only foundations and pillar stones of some of the main buildings were left after the devastation by the Mongolian invaders during the reign of Gojong of Goryeo Dynasty. Despite the blinding sunshine in the south, chilly winds were blowing hard from the northwest. Standing in the middle of a path and looking around in all directions, I couldn't help giving a sigh of regret to what could have been one of the most magnificent structures in the world. Remoteness in time and proximity in geography again stirred up some sort of interesting retrospective inside me.
I was told that Bunhwangsa has been closed for renovation at ticket purchase, but on my way back to the road that divides the site of Hwangyongsa and Bunhwangsa, the free English guide came to me and initiated to take me tour around inside Bunhwangsa. Regrettably her English was incomparable to those in Andong, Suwon and Seoul and I could barely understand her. In any case, it was also good to see the three-storey pagoda built during the reign of Queen Seondeok of Silla shortly after the unification of the Korean peninsula. The square-based pagoda was guarded by two lions facing the east and two seals facing the west, reportedly guarding against the invaders from China and Japan. While it is understandable to have lions as guardians, it was the first time I have come across seals as seen in the Ocean Park as guardians that were comparable to ferocious animals such as lions and tigers. My speculation runs that there might be some sort of implications in terms of Silla's perception towards China and Japan...
The English guide invited me for a cup of tea in her small kiosk before I took a taxi to go back to Banwolseong, literally "the half moon city". It was the site of Silla palaces, and was re-built as a fortress during Joseon Dynasty. A stone ice storage was built during the reign of Yeongjo at the southern tip of Banwolseong. A 15-minute walk along the densely vegetated fortress brings visitors to the entrance of the park, near where Gyerim, the legendary birthplace of the founder of the Kim clan of Silla kings; as well as Cheomseongdae, the oldest surviving observatory in East Asia built during the reign of Queen Seondeok of Silla. Admissions are required to these two historical sites despite its small size and one can always have a view from outside the fences.
To the northwest of Banwolseong across the road is the so-called Tumuli Park, now renamed Daereungwon. This is where more than 30 imperial tombs of Silla kings, including a dual tomb of a king and a queen, as easily noticeable by the dual peaks covered with grass. Another one excavated and opened for public visits is Cheonmachong, located near the north exit of the park. The unique shape of a gold crown, characterised by strips of gold that looked like the Chinese character "shan" (hills or mountains) or deer horns at the front and both sides, was one of the most astonishing artefacts unearthed at the site.
After visiting the landmark historical sites, I strolled along the quiet streets and alleys to the north with the hope to find Silla Department Store, but unfortunately to no avail. It seems that Gyeongju has lost its grandeur to the cities in the north that the residential areas are disappointingly rugged. Shops are closed and abandoned. Houses are worn and torn. I wonder if the municipal government has some sort of redevelopment plan in place to revitalise the past glory of its magnificent capital of the best times in Korea's history.