Saturday, October 20, 2012

Cycling through Fields of Gold: a Visit to the Ancient Silla Capital of Gyeongju Day 1

A few weekends ago, I took advantage of the fact that all of my friends would be out of town or otherwise busy and snuck out to explore the ancient Silla capital of Gyeongju (경주) on my own. While I wouldn't have minded company, it was probably better that I had no one else with me - it allowed me to engage in some hard core archaeophilia without doing so at the expense of anyone else!

A Silla-style pot sits in front of one of the many ancient burial mounds of Gyeongju.
I'd previously heard mixed reviews of the city, and it may be the archaeologist in me coming out, but I absolutely loved it! Fairly small for such a famed city and located nearly on the coast, four hours east of Gwangju, Gyeongju was home to the Silla Dynasty, which lasted from 57 BC to  935 AD, and ruled a unified Korea from the 7th to 9th centuries AD (after conquering the western Baekje Kingdom in 660AD and northern Goguryeo in 668AD). Because of this, Gyeongju is, unsurprisingly, home to a great many Silla Dynasty Treasures - chief among these (in my opinion at least) are the burial mounds.

Hwangnam Daechong (황남 대총), a double tomb likely containing both a king and queen,  located in Gyeongju's Tumuli Park (대룽원 - Daerungwon).

The Tumuli are scattered all around the city, and many of these can be visited for free. The best concentration of these, however, lies within Tumuli Park (entry 1500won, open 9am-10pm). The park is located in the city centre and beautifully landscaped with atmospheric music played on speakers throughout. This is not what makes it worth visiting, rather, it's the access to Cheonmachong (천마총 - or Heavenly Horse Tomb), the only tomb in Korea that visitors are permitted to enter. Named for the design on one of the artifacts found (and now displayed) inside, the tomb likely belonged to a 6th or 7th century king. I know I may be a bit biased, but it is definitely worth it. The reconstruction of the burial as it was found, as well as the richness of the artifacts on display are wonderful. It's also worth visiting if only to get some idea of just how astonishingly big these tombs are inside!

The entry into Cheongmachong. No pictures of the inside. I was far too distracted by the actual contents and it felt a bit disrespectful to be taking any. Definitely worth a visit though!
As many of the city's main sites are located within a 3km2 area (and the not-so-main-ones within 10km2), the best way to visit them (in the spring summer and fall at least) is on foot or by bike (available for rent at the bus station for 7000won/day or south of Tumuli park for 5000/2hrs or 10,000/slightly longer day).  There really was loads to see but, rather than overwhelming you with photos of (some might say far too many) tomb mounds, farmers fields, museum displays and archaeological sites, I figured I'd only post a few.

Possibly one of the most famous sights in Gyeongju, Cheomseongdae (첨성대) is an astronomical observation tower built during the 7th century reign of Queen Seondeok and located in what is now Wolseong Park. It is lit up particularly nicely at night.
The tree covered rise in the background is all that remains of Banwolseong (반월성 - literally Half Moon Fortress) or Wolseong Palace. The hill is now home to lovely walking and cycling paths and not much else - well, except for the ice storage celler which has mysteriously survived.

The Emille Bell at the National Museum. Known as the Bell of King Seongdeok, this bronze bell weighs at least 19 tons  making it one of the biggest not only in Korea, but the world. It dates from 771 AD and legend has it that when it was first cast, it wouldn't ring - or at least not until it was melted down alongside the body of a young girl and the mixture recast. That's why, when rung, the bell makes a sound like 'emille' (pronounced like Emily), the word for mother in the Silla dialect.

Two of the Museum's workers wander the grounds. A picture of archaeological delightfulness I just couldn't pass up - I don't ever recall dressing like that :P.
The remains of a Silla necklace. Silla could easily be renamed the golden kingdom. This is nothing compared to the many pure gold crowns and other pieces of jewellery housed at the museum. There is also a wealth of pottery (including duck shaped pots!) and weaponry there from a period spanning nearly a millennia.  
For all my gaming friends: Why, yes, this is in fact an ancient oak D14! With six square and eight hexagonal sides, this dice was used by nobles in ancient Silla to play what we now call drinking games. Each side contains a command to be performed by the die caster. Check out the commands below. 
Command translations for the die above.
While there is no dearth of sights in the city centre, there were a number of less important, but interesting sounding sites further to the south at the base of Namsan (the montain to the south of the city) that I also wanted to visit. Thus, armed with my trusty steed of a girly pink bicycle (complete with front basket and streamers) and directions secured from the gate keeper at the National Museum - who assured me that it was very far for a girl to cycle at 5km away through many farmers fields - off I went.

Fields of goldenly-ripe rice! One of the reasons I wanted to see the sites of Gyeongju in the fall.

Harvesting the rice! This is a sight to be seen just about anywhere across Korea at the moment.

Rice! With an ancient Pagoda in the background. Cycling the narrow paths through the rice paddies was truly a delight (even when the sky opened up and I got rained on). The only problem was trying to watch where I was going and not veering into the fields looking around me - something that nearly happened more than once...
One of the many smaller sites, Poseokjeong (포석정 -Stone Abalone Pavilion) provides further proof (as if any was needed) that Koreans (past and present) really like their drinking games. Once an Banqueting Villa for the Silla Kings, all that remains is this this 6 meter long trench. In times past it was filled with running water and one person placed at each end. The person at the head would come up with a line of poetry and place a drink in the trench at their end. If the cup got to the other person before they came up with a suitable second line, they were required to down said drink. Sounds like a pretty solid game to me!

More fields. It's silly, I know, (and probably marks me as a city girl as well), but I somehow never clued in that ripe rice would be golden in colour. I always just envisioned it as green!

After finishing my rounds and dropping off my bike, it was time to check out Anapji (안압지) pond at sunset. Here is what I encountered on the way.

What I believe to be the Lotus Flowers Complex at Anapji.
A closer view of one of the hedge flowers.

A Heron! (or is it a stork?) There were a number of these alongside ducks in this part of the park.
The fields at dusk. 
Anapji at night. The reflections just make this look too cool!
A man-made lake first designed by King Munmu in 674 AD to reflect the shape of his kingdom after unification, the location was also the site of the breakdown of the Kingdom as it was here that King Gyeongsun later handed over power to the founder of the Goryeo Dynasty in 918 AD. 
Once a much larger complex, and called Wolji at the time, three reconstructed pavilions are all that remain. Anapji is located directly west of Banwolseong and has provided a host of archaeological treasure, most of which are housed in a special building at the National Museum. 

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