24 April 2011

The Museum Without Walls

This weekend I traveled to Gyeongju ( 경주 ), which was the capital of the Silla Kingdom from 57 BC until the fall of the kingdom in 935 AD.  It turns out that serving as a capital city for almost one thousand years provides quite a few tourist attractions.  Gyeongju is home to 31 national treasures, 35 royal tombs and 2 Unesco World Heritage sites.  As far as tourist destinations go, it packs a pretty powerful punch for a city of only 260,000 people.  The sites in the city itself are all within walking distance of each other and the sites outside of the city are easily accessible by bus.  It certainly lives up to its reputation as the "museum without walls".  Unfortunately, it's a pretty expensive museum as you have to dish out a couple thousand won for almost every site (the museum itself is actually one of the only things you don't have to pay for).

Gyeongju is only about an hour bus ride from Daegu, so I ended up arriving at my destination around 10:30.  I started my touring at Bulguksa ( 불국사 ), which is one of the most famous temples in Korea and is considered to be the best example of Silla architecture.  The temple was completed in 774 AD and is still a functioning temple.  The temple is on the Unesco World Heritage list, is home to seven national treasures and is arguably the most well-known temple in Korea. 

The gate is called Anyangmun ( 안양문 ), the upper half of the stairs is Chilbogyo ( 칠보교 ) and the lower half is called Yeonhwagyo ( 연화교 )
From left to right: Seokgatap ( 석가탑 ), Daeungjeon ( 대웅전 ), and Dabotap ( 다보탑 )
Gwaneumjeon (관음전 )
Remains of Beohwajeon ( 법화전 )
I spent about an hour or so wandering around Bulguksa before I decided to begin the 2.2 km hike from Bulguksa to Seokguram Grotto.  Seokguram Grotto ( 석굴암 ) was placed on the Unesco World Heritage list along with Bulguksa and is home to an extremely famous Buddha statue.  Seokguram was also completed in 774 AD and was built without the use of mortar.  Instead, the stones are simply held together with rivets.   Unfortunately, I couldn't take a picture of the Buddha statue, but it's pretty impressive and you can just Google it if you're interested.  On the plus side, I had the good fortune of finding the place decorated for Buddha's birthday.   

Lanterns for Buddha's Birthday
Bell Tower outside of Seokguram
After checking out the grotto I reversed course and hiked back down to Bulguksa.  From Bulguksa I caught the bus back to downtown Gyeongju and got ready to check out the sites within the city.  Although the sites in the city have not been individually named to the Unesco World Heritage list, they have collectively been placed on the list along with the historical sites on Namsan (which is right outside of the city). 

Outside of Bulguksa
Flowers in full bloom
Now it was time to check out Tumuli Park ( 대릉원 ), which is home to 23 tombs.  Silla buried their dead kings and nobles in huge earthen tombs.  Some of the tombs approach 50 feet in height and are pretty impressive when all grouped together.  The most famous of these tombs is Cheonmachong ( 천마총 ), which was excavated in the 1970s and provided the only known extant painting from the Silla era.  

Pond and one of the earthen tombs
Next on the agenda was Wolseong Park.  The oldest surviving astronomical observatory in the East Asia is the main draw to this park.  The observatory is called Cheomseongdae ( 첨성대 ), which appropriately means "Star-gazing Tower", and dates to the 7th century AD.  The 366 stones used to make the tower are supposed to represent the length of a year (I guess they round up), the 27 layers of stones are supposed to honor Queen Seondeok, who was the 27th ruler of Silla, and the 12 base stones are meant to represent the months.  The observatory does not look like an extremely functional building, but I guess it served its purpose in the 7th century.  After checking out the observatory I headed to the middle of the park where a performance was taking place.  I was befriended by an old Korean man who attempted to tell to me about the festival and invited me to drink some tea with his friends.  I had a hard time understanding too much of what he was saying, but I did find out that the performers were wearing traditional Silla attire and that one part of the festival displayed the tea-making process.  He then brought me over to the mochi making exhibition.  Mochi is made of glutinous rice and in Korea is usually used to make ddeok ( 떡 ), which is a rice cake.  The traditional tools for making these consisted of a wooden bowl and a large wooden mallet.  As you might be able to assume, the mochi is placed in the bowl and then hit with the mallet.  I got a couple of swings at it.

Making mochi
 After my cooking lesson I moved onto Anapji ( 안압지 ).  Anapji is an artificial pond ("ji" means pond) that was part of the palace complex and was constructed in 674 AD.  The pond is particularly famous for the incredible number (around 33,000) of historical relics that were excavated at the site in the 1970s and 1980s.

On to my last stop of day: Gyeongju National Museum.  This is a pretty spectacular museum that I personally found to be more interesting than the National Museum of Korea in Seoul.  In comparing the two museums, let's start with the architecture.  Seoul's museum is housed in a modern building that, while beautiful in its own right, doesn't quite do justice to a museum based on Korean history.  Gyeongju's museum on the other hand, does an amazing job of meshing traditional Korean architecture with modern building materials.  Honestly, I really couldn't think of a more fitting design for the museum.  As for the historical artifacts, the Three Kingdoms Period is my favorite time period in Korean history, so having a museum solely dedicated to one of the kingdoms certainly wasn't a problem for me.  With that said, someone who is looking simply for a broad overview of Korean history may be better served by Seoul's museum.

The museum consists of four separate exhibition halls as well as an outdoor display.  The halls are as follows: Archeology Hall, Art Hall, Anapji Hall, and another one that I believe changes its theme from time to time.  The fourth hall is currently showcasing items from the Vietnamese Nguyen Dynasty.  The museum apparently houses over 80,000 relics, of which only 2,500 can be displayed at any one time.  The most famous item is the Emile Bell.  The bell, also known as the Divine Bell of King Seongdeok, was cast in 711 AD and weighs in at a whopping 18.9 tons, making it the largest bell in Asia.  The name "Emile Bell" comes from a legend that when the bell was first made it would not ring so it was melted down to be recast.  The head priest then threw a child into the molten pit and when the bell was finally recast the sound it made was "Emi, emi, emi, emile", which means "Mommy, mommy, mommy, for your sake".

Emile Bell
Replica of Dabotap and Art Hall
Seokgatap, Archeology Hall, and Dabotap

Special Exhibition Hall
Vietnamese throne

Art Hall
Bhaisajyaguru Buddha - 8th century

Archeology Hall
Silla crown
Daggar and gold scabbard - 6th century

Anapji Hall
Roof tile
I took another stroll through Wolseong Park on my way back and got some pictures of the Rape fields.  Ya, I was a little perplexed by the name too.  The word "Rape" refers to Rapeseed, which is a plant that produces bright yellow flowers. 

Sun going down over the rape fields
On to Day 2.  Not quite as exciting as the first day, but interesting nonetheless.  For one, I got completely lost, so I spent a little time exploring the "real" Gyeongju as I guess people would call it.  But I finally found my way to my destination, which was Bunhwangsa ( 분황사 ) and its neighbor, Hwangnyongsa ( 황뇽사 ).  Hwangnyongsa is only ruins, but there were Rape fields covering a lot of the ground around the temple and that, along with the beautiful mountain backdrop, made for some good pictures.  The main attraction at Bunhwangsa is Bunhwangsa Pagoda ( 분황사석탑 ).  This is the oldest dated pagoda from the Silla Kingdom and while today it is only three stories, it is believed to have been between seven and nine stories tall.

At Hwangnyongsa
Bunhwangsa Pagoda
And that about wraps it up.  I ended up catching a bus home around noon.  There is still a lot of stuff to see in Gyeongju and I'll be heading back at least one more time.  I would like to hike around Namsan (mountain) and I would also like to visit King Munmu's underwater tomb.

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