Tuesday, October 15, 2013

KR&JP 2013 Travelogue Day 5: Millennium of Silla in Gyeongju

My "Renaissance motel" (L) and early morning in Gyeongju (R)

My final KTX trip took me from Daejeon almost across the width of the country to a transit station near the eastern coast, at which I caught a local train to Gyeongju. I found a rather odd-looking motel and headed to bed, because I had a packed day coming up -- the very reason I came here in haste, instead of staying in Gongju.

Gyeongju, like Buyeo and Gongju, takes much pride in its status as a Three Kingdoms capital, with iconography from this history showing up everywhere you look.

Gyeongju's status as the only capital of Silla, which itself existed for almost a thousand years, makes it the longest-lasting capital of the Three Kingdoms period. That means you can't wave a stick without hitting history. Nowhere is this more evident than in the massive clusters of Silla mound tombs (tumuli) at Nodong-ri, Noseo-ri and Hwangnam-ri (top left, top right, bottom left); I actually came across these purely by accident. These are all well-maintained and clean, and all within a stone's throw from each other. Some even merge together; I read that this is for king-and-queen tomb pairs. Silla tumuli are also very large -- much larger than the ones I had seen in the Baekje capitals. Of these, only Cheonmachong (bottom right) was open for public entry, the inside having been cleared and turned into a small museum.

Not far from Hwangnam-ri is the tomb of King Michu, Silla's 13th ruler, who was known for his benevolence towards the commoners, as well as for being the first of the Kim line of Silla kings. As I walked eastwards, I passed by even more vast fields of tumuli.

In a large field, near the remains of some pillar bases of what must have been a very large structure, stands the Cheomseongdae (top left), an icon of Gyeongju and of Queen Seondeok. Built on the orders of Seondeok, one of (and the more famous of) Silla's two queens regnant, it incorporates mystical symbology and numerology in its construction. A short walk south is the Gyerim Forest, which is regarded as the legendary birthplace of Kim Alji, whose descendants, starting with the aforementioned King Michu, took over the crown from the Park and Seok clans, and ruled Silla until its fall. They also founded the Gyeongju line of Kims, from which a significant number of people with last name "Kim" are said to be descended. A couple of stelae can be found there, including one (top right) marking the place where Kim Alji is said to have been born (found, rather, as per Korean legendary hero tradition). Finally, around the same area, I located the tomb of King Naemul (bottom), who imported significant Chinese culture into Silla, fought off a Japanese invasion, and was the first Silla king to be recognized by a Chinese imperial dynasty.

Another place I came across by accident was Anapji, a pond with pavilions built as part of the palace by King Munmu of Unified Silla. Now part of Gyeongju National Park, and hosting exhibitions for Gyeongju National Museum, it is also a good place to relax, enjoy nature, and watch the carp.

Gyeongju National Museum (top left) was open, but parts were undergoing renovation. Fortunately, there was still much to see in the parts that were open, such as models of old Silla (top right), exquisite gold crowns and regalia (bottom right), and the great bell of King Seongdeok (bottom middle), among many other artifacts. At an interactive display here, I noticed that 

As I exited the museum and headed for the tomb of the aforementioned Queen Seondeok (left), Korea decided it was time to make up for the lovely sunny weather I had been enjoying thus far. The light drizzle of the early afternoon turned into a full-on downpour, driven right through my clothes by powerful winds. Through this storm, I trekked my way through the mountain forest (most conveniently, Seondeok's tomb was the only one on my itinerary that was built on a mountain) and finally reached the tomb. 

Soaked to my skin, I caught a bus back to the city, and ambled about the wet market (which was actually relatively dry, as its lanes were covered by roofing) until the worst of the storm was over; it actually rained or drizzled for the rest of the day. Looking at the rest of my itinerary, and seeing the significance of the places I had yet to visit, I resolved that inclement weather was not going to stop me from at least attempting to finish it, and took a cab to the Oreung Tombs. The tomb complex includes various shrines (top left and right), and contains the tumulus tomb of Bak Hyeokgeose (bottom left), the Bak-clan founder of Silla, who, like Kim Alji, was said to have been supernaturally found rather than born. He is also the ancestor of all Koreans with the surname Bak/Pak/Park. Four other tombs are in the complex as well (bottom right), including Hyeokgeose's queen, son, grandson, and a later Kim-clan Silla king.

My final royal tomb was that of King Muyeol, the last king of Silla. In his early days, Muyeol, then Prince Kim Chunchu, was chummy with Prince Li Zhi of Tang-dynasty China, who would later become Emperor Gaozong. So when Muyeol's Silla was under attack by a Baekje/Goguryeo alliance, Muyeol sent his Sinophile son, Kim Inmun, to request assistance from Gaozong. Inmun returned to Korea with 130,000 Chinese troops under the command of the famous Su Dingfang, and the Silla/Tang alliance destroyed Baekje, and finally brought Goguryeo down during the early reign of Muyeol's son, King Munmu (whose tomb is, unfortunately for me, off the coast and under an island). The tomb complex, located across the river and southwest of the city, includes Muyeol's mound tomb and a tablet honoring him as a "Taizong/Taejong" (top left), and a bunch of tombs for Muyeol's relatives (bottom), all in a neat row. Kim Inmun's tomb is in a nearby field (top right).

Neither Seondeok, nor Muyeol, nor Munmu would have gotten very far if they had not employed the military genius of the occupant of this final tomb: Kim Yushin. With him in command of the Silla army, Baekje was repulsed and finally defeated, and Goguryeo was taken down, leaving Silla as the last standing member of the Three Kingdoms club. The tomb is on a hill west of the city; delayed by the weather conditions, I reached it with minutes to spare. The tumulus (top) is encircled by a stone fence, and its based is clad with unique carvings of anthropomorphic zodiac animals (bottom left). It is flanked by a couple of memorial stelae honoring this legendary general (bottom right).

Japanese food is popular in Korea. I tried takoyaki, the octopus-filled wheat balls with takoyaki sauce and shavings of dry fish, among other toppings. It's very caloric, but soft and tasty, a bit like the Emirati snack luqeymat. I also went to a Lotte burger place, and had a rice bun burger. Finally, I had a proper meal in the evening: bokkeumbap, a fried rice dish, which I cooked on a tabletop stove. Oh, you also get amazing side pickles in Korea.

Happy-looking So Won poster (L) and recyclable material sorting bins at a fast food restaurant.

If I have the time while traveling, I like to watch a local film at a local cinema hall, so I chose SoWon, which, based on the poster, looked like a nice, happy film. It was actually quite sad, but since Korean film-making is among the best in the world, it was a good watch nonetheless.

Addendum: The tomb of Seok Talhae -- the first Seok king of Silla -- is in Gyeongju National Park to the west. It's not too far from the city; worth a visit if you have the time.

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