Another hidden gem discovered in my travel record: a tourist-friendly open-air museum.
You can distinguish Korean architecture in an instant by watching out for these greenish decorative features.
It’s difficult to kick off the writing of a highlighted location within a trip like Gyeongju, the same applied to my past posts for Meteora or Khiva. It requires a lot of information gathering, photos selection and reflection so as not to miss anything treasured from those impressive journeys. I bet that most of the readers don’t know where Gyeongju (경주) is, as the place is eclipsed by famous spots like Seoul or Jeju, and I’m proud of discovering such a wonderful gem for my collection case.
I had to get up early and check out, then took a cab to Busan Seobu Bus Terminal at Sasang, where passengers could connect to other destinations by intercity bus. This short cab trip via Bosu-daero took nearly half an hour; for comparison, the bus trip to Gyeongju only took one hour. From Sasang, bus to Gyeongju conveniently takes off about every 40 minutes, so no need to worry about missing the schedule. You can also depart from Busan Dongbu Bus Terminal at Nopo, if you stay near the city center. When approaching the ticket counter, I was a bit surprised when the seller pronounced the name more like Kyungju.
There’s some spare time left, so I bought some banana cakes for the breakfast, settled down on the seat and got ready to spectate the mountainous rural scenery of Korea.
Gyeongju bus station is located not far from the city’s tourist information center and faces Namcheon River. My hanok (한옥)-style homestay was just within a walking distance. Until then that I could really see the trees turning to yellow, orange and red, a thing which had been missed for 3 years.
Having some minor difficulty locating the main gate of the homestay, but at the end everything was going well with the hearty welcome from the host, though she barely spoke English. I guess the city is more known to the local, so English may not be frequently used there.
So I started the walking on Geumseong-ro, southwards to the ancient tombs by Poseok-ro. Such a wonderful day strolling by the tranquil streets with traditional architectures in sight, without bustling traffic or glossy skyscrapers. Keep your eyes up and you can see a vast autumn sky over head.
The good thing is those newly-built houses are conforming to the same Korean style and not trying to pop out from the crowd, which spreads harmony across the city.
The most lively street for tourists is Cheomseong-ro - which connects Daereungwon (대릉원) Tomb Complex and Cheomseongdae (첨성대), the two highlighted sites of the city. But just as I passed by the vibrant corner with big restaurants in front of Daereungwon and headed towards the garden around Cheomseongdae, the road transformed into an exclusively ideal place for wanderers - not too many people yet with lovely, accessible route.
That’s approaching noon time and I tried to find a food stall to pamper my stomach, but like a stranger mesmerized by the jungle enchantress, the more steps I made, the more surprises I found along the way.
It’s not difficult to notice bright faces on such a beautiful day. Girls in beautiful traditional hanbok, families, children and their beloved pets, most of them might not sight a shadowed walking man enjoying that rare moment to him.
At the end of Cheomseong-ro is Wonhwa-ro, which runs by Donggung Palace & Wolji Pond (동궁과 월지) and Wolseong (월성) Palace. From this section onwards you have surpassed the city’s inner area and rural fields become the main landscape. There’s no restaurant in sight, so I just continued my walk and enjoyed sighting the fallen leaves until my guts would oppose.
I couldn’t help stopping here and there to gaze at the sunshade made from leaves over the head. A normal thing to people living in the temperate zone, but a wonder to a man from the tropical.
The fields were in harvest season, wrapping the scene in ripe golden colors.
I stopped by Gyeongju National Museum to seek a secluded place to relax, buying some tornado potatoes - hoeori gamja (회오리 감자) and skewers - dak-kkochi (닭꼬치) as makeshift lunch. Some break was essential before my next destination in the afternoon.
I was wondering, ‘Is it good over there on the hilltop?’, and a brilliant vantage point was a reward after climbing to the fortress.
On some random bench in the middle of the pathway, you find a treasure that’s meant to be just for you.
The human, appearing as moving silhouettes in the woods, were so captivating on photos.
To the west of Wolseong, tucked inside the trees of persimmon and pear in their fruit season, lies Historic House of the Rich Man Choi - the head house of the reputable wealthy Choe Clan, a family with long standing legacy of generosity and contribution to Korea. Wandering in the garden, my head played the favorite song Vì Yêu Cứ Đâm Đầu - the melody of autumn travel.
My feet were moving through the traditional village of Gyeongju Gyochon, which had a pretty view towards Woljeong Bridge where I would spend some good time the day after.
Heading northwards on Gyochon-gil, the main destination of the first day was Daereungwon (대릉원) Tomb Complex, inside which sits the Royal Tomb of King Michu, the first king of Kim-clan in Silla. The complex is very well preserved, and is one of a few sites in Gyeongju selling ticket for entrance.
However crowded the site was on that day, it’s still felt so serene strolling under the trees. Even the toilets are subtly blended into the scene that you may not notice them unless paying attention to the sign.
An autumn scene is not perfect without a pristine pond, and there’s one sitting to the north of Daereungwon, fitting nicely in between trees, rocks and houses.
When we talk about a vibrant walking street in Gyeongju, the choice should clearly be Poseok-ro, featuring a variety of lovely shops. The shops are decorated in Korean-style, pastel-painted and gently-lit. I must say the Koreans really love coffee, such that there’s one coffee shop for every few houses passed by. Some may catch more attention than others, with very long queue at front.
But again, it’s not recommended for some lonely traveler remaining there for long, as the street is an ideal place for couples and groups.
Enthralled by the sunset horizon, I continued my strolling along Poseok-ro, then turned to Geumseong-ro and Gangbyeon-ro by the river to explore the suburb of Gyeongju, where paddy fields dominate the landscape. The river was pretty dried up in this season. Wrapped in tranquillity, the scenery boosted me to complete the last section back to the homestay, meanwhile my legs were exhausted.
The two spotlights for the second day in Gyeongju were the sacred Buddhist temples located around Gyeongju National Park - the mountains to the east of the city. The first one is Bulguksa (불국사), which encompasses six national treasures of South Korea and is a typical representative of Silla Buddhist art.
Traveling to Bulguksa was such a breeze, as there’re frequent direct buses from the city center to the site, with the stop located at the front car park. For 12km, you’d have a break time for yourself on the seat and admire the rural aspect of this modern country.
Let me warn you first that the next photos may contain popping colors - the photos of autumn approaching its prime time.
Once arrived, you will need a short climb up the temple complex. Red and yellow foliage engulfed the site, and there seemed to have photogenic spots at every corner.
After admission, the first beautiful sight to behold is a pristine pond, and more will be unveiled later.
To enter the main hall, you may step across the bridges which are Korean national treasures. However, it’s pretty crowded inside so you may not particularly find this a zen place to break away from daily life.
It’s such a treasured moment walking under the lanterns carrying the wishes of visitors, and to contemplate about impermanence in this life.
What impressed me the most were the intricate patterns on the roof (giwa), they typically represent Korean decorative style - turquoise-ish/greenish with orange highlights - the distinctive feature separating them from Chinese or Japanese roof.
It’s time to leave for the next destination - Seokguram Grotto. There’s only one bus every hour, so you may need to plan your schedule wisely to visit both sites. The exit way down the hill is a wholly different experience, and I found it such a chilling walkway.
First thing first - remember to stand at the correct bus stop to hop on bus 12 to the grotto, which takes half an hour for a 4km uphill trip. Seokguram Grotto (석굴암) is listed in UNESCO heritages and a national treasure of Korea as well. The Buddha sculpture was first constructed in the 8th century then went under several renovation efforts, overlooking Korean East Sea.
You need to walk up from the main entrance to reach the temple, but believe me, the stroll is such a wonderful chance to get immersed into the nature.
I myself found the temple more picturesque than Bulguksa, despite having slightly less visitors. The visitors were not only going for sightseeing, but for religious purpose as well.
At this season, the maple leaves were showcasing its most glorious costume in the party, so never forget to stop a while to admire them with bare eyes.
The clouds had been cleared as I started descending back to Gyeongju center, signaling a great time ahead for photography.
The bus carried me back all the way to the familiar Wonhwa-ro street, and I stopped by Gyeongju National Museum. The museum houses a large number of artifacts specific to the Silla kingdom, and from my own experience, the arrangement and exhibition is nearly flawless, storytelling the visitors about a glorious old era. The ones displayed to the public are just a small part of a larger collection of discovered artifacts though; all prove the craftsmanship at the time as well as the kingdom’s favor of splendid ornaments - especially those made from gold.
Exited from the hall, and I got ready for sunset hunting mode.
That was a perfect time to walk westwards for the sunset. From the museum I just kept sauntering on Iljeong-ro, while the street was empty most of the time.
I had planned to wait for sundown for 2 hours, and for every decision, I’m glad I made it.
The Woljeong Bridge (월정교) dates back to Unified Silla period, but was burnt down at the time of Joseon dynasty. The current rebuilt version was finished in 2018, blended harmoniously into the natural surroundings. There’s also a stone path to cross the river, which is safe and may give you some exclusive viewpoint for pictures.
Either by walking through the inner pillars of the bridge structure or by admiring the stunning beauty as sun goes down, you will have a great time there to enjoy at your own pace.
For this time I could focus on a series of night street photographs depicting another aspect of the city: a modern vibe breaking out from the usual open museum concept. The streets were mostly empty, but the warm light exuded from the nicely decorated shophouses balanced the gloom out.
Any party should come to an end, and that was a happy ending. I had just thought of a wander to meet the wonders one last time, but it turned out to be the most delightful autumn morning ever.
Each second passed by was a treasured moment that shouldn’t be let slip through easily.
So, just stand and appreciate the sunlight penetrating through the leaves.
The ancient tombs appeared in their greatest festive dress, showcasing the attractive bald curvy lines.
Surprise after surprise, I took a different course towards Cheomseongdae, and a vast muhly grass field greeted me with an endless sight of pinkness.
And the last touring around Woljeonggyo and the tombs by Poseok-ro, which were the superb desserts fulfilling a hearty feast of autumn.
As I rushed back to the bus terminal for Busan, I knew I had brought back a memory collection that would seem so hard to fade.
This post is a part of the South Korea series.Written in May 2023 © Zuyet Awarmatik.
Zuyet Awarmatrip is a subsidiary identity within the personal ecosystem of Zuyet Awarmatik, focusing on travel and photography.
A Vietnamese usually regarding himself as a carefree solo Eastern backpacker, alongside with his main profession as a UX engineer. Neither being a freelancer nor a digital nomad, this website is built for the purpose of recording his life experience and happenings instead of letting them go into oblivion. He hopes these photos here shall always deliver the colorfulness of this worldly reality.
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