From Seoul, I took a train across the country to the city of Gyeongju. Since South Korea was my second last country, and I had been asking random travellers along the way for advice on any countries they’d been to, Gyeongju was a must see for me because of how frequently it came up as the must visit place here.
During the Three Kingdoms Period, the Korean peninsula was dominated by the kingdoms of Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla. The capital of the Silla kingdom was Gyeongju, which is why it is now a centre for ancient Korean culture. The mounds I saw everywhere while walking around are called tumuli, and they are the burial mounds of the Silla kings.
I was here in late November and felt like it was the perfect time. The weather was nice, and the colours on the trees were amazing.
From looking at a map, I had a vague idea where some of the interesting sites were, but didn’t expect how varied and beautiful the walk would be. My day began with burial mounds, followed by a walk through trees with vibrant autumn leaves, which opened up to what looked like a wide open plain.
The most interesting amongst a number of curious buildings was the Cheomseongdae, which turned out to be the oldest astronomical observatory tower in Asia, and possibly the world. It was built during the 7th century by the Silla empire.
Past the observatory the plain gave way to hills which was, you know, very exciting. My hope in continuing my walk was that the trail would keep me content enough to not bother finding anything else I might have to spend money on.
With just a little elevation you can appreciate how picturesque Gyeongju is. If you like travelling to learn about ancient cultures, or to enjoy the natural scenes various places have to offer, Gyeongju has you covered. The days I spent walking around the city were peaceful.
Sure enough, from this vantage point I could see enough of the Imperial Something that I was satisfied and didn’t feel like paying admission so instead continued walking.
After the Silla period, Gyeongju was still the cultural centre when the peninsula was unified under the kingdom of Goryeo. Gyeongju became one of the largest cities in the world at the time.
Like every other country I’ve been to this year, there were more places I would have liked to visit given more time. In particular, if it was easier (cheaper) to get to, I would have gone to Jeju Island to see the dormant volcano and the large lava tubes.
I walked back to my hostel at sunset and got something to eat at a cafe. I got the item with the most fruit and vegetables possible, because travelling for a while can see those disappear from your menu a bit too much.
The next day I remember I took the morning to relax in my hostel for a bit. It was the need for coffee that eventually got me out. From my walk the previous day I saw a side of the city that I wanted to explore when I was up in the hills. I looked on my map app and saw that there was a pagoda of some variety to be seen that way, and that was good enough for me.
Part way there I stumbled upon one of South Korea’s “National Treasures”: Bunhwangsa. Formerly one of the Silla empires 4 main Buddhist temples, the pagoda is the oldest Silla era pagoda there is.
I paused for a moment, wondering if I would be walking back in the dark and whether I could find my way or not since it was an hour walk each way, and decided that this is a must see pagoda. I was having a great time anyways, I was listening to music, enjoying the sunset, and thinking about how great it would be to see my friends back home again.
That’s when cuteness struck.
Suddenly I had a friendly animal guide to bring me to the pagoda. It was actually nice that he showed up because while the pagoda was indeed a “three storey pagoda,” I didn’t quite expect what I found.
I asked Señor Doggo if he was messing with me or if this was the real deal, which he assured me it was.
He then escorted me safely back to the path and returned home to prepare for the next wandering traveller.
At the hostel, the girl working told me of a local restaurant that serves the best Gyeongju food, so I went and had some sort of fish soup. The next morning I hopped on the train to Busan.
I’ll be honest, a lot of my time in Busan was just me being excited about going to Japan in a few days. Nevertheless, I enjoyed my time there and saw some cool stuff. It’s definitely way too big a city to be covered in a few days.
One reason I like to listen to music as I explore is that the music can bring back the sensations of what it was like there at the time. I was listening to the David Bowie album “Diamond Dogs” on this walk, so “1984” is playing in my head as I write this.
Even if I’m in a city for two or three days, I can usually find a coffee shop I’m happy with by the end of the first day. In Busan that was a bagel shop that had different flavours of cream cheese displayed like ice cream. I sent my sister pictures right away to make her jealous.
As South Korea’s second most populous city, and the 9th busiest port in the world, I had a lot of ground to cover. Hyunjun had recommended that I check out the Gamcheon Cultural Village. From where I was staying that was a bit of a mission, so I dedicated a day to it. My metro card from Seoul worked for Busan too, which is fantastic, but the metro could only get me so far, and I soon realized that he had sent me on a walk up a mountain.
After a bit of walking I could already see the tops of houses, but it hadn’t been too bad yet. Then I got to this intersection that looks like a launch ramp to shoot cars straight into the ocean.
I found the implied optimism of this colourful heart at the top difficult to stomach through my laboured breathing.
This turned out to be a fairly touristy area, which I was not used to in South Korea so far. There were a few popular spots in Seoul, but otherwise I felt mostly on my own. The little village area at the top was fun to explore, as it had mysterious narrow alleys and led to a view of Busan on the other side of the mountain. All it cost me was my legs’ will to live.
I wouldn’t say I’m a connoisseur of decorative spoons and colanders, but that looked like as nice a display as any.
I stopped for coffee after this little adventure and then dinner before returning to my hostel. Since this was my last night both of South Korea and solo travel I decided to not get too hung up on the prices.
I found a non-english speaking place closeby, made it clear somehow that I was fine with whatever they brought me since they didn’t have English menus, and somehow wound up with the fancy celebratory dinner I was looking for. It was a multiple course Korean dinner complete with kimchi and culminating in a huge bowl of sashimi.
Just like that, I’m done with South Korea, the 44th country of this yearlong trip, and eagerly heading to the airport. My airport terminal had a piano, which was awesome and helped me kill the time, and soon I was on my way to Osaka, Japan, where I would be seeing many old friends.