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The area around Gyeongju was by far the most historically significant area I visited in all of South Korea. The capital of the ancient Silla Kingdom, it is obvious to anyone who chooses to poke their head around this corner of the peninsula that the monuments and sights in this area stretch back incomprehensibly far.
Take for example the region’s most popular attraction, the stunning Bulguksa Temple. Exquisitely renovated and serene in its surroundings, the temple has been standing ot these grounds since the 8th century AD. That’s nearly 1300 years! The temple was officially finished in 774, and has stood in this very spot ever since, minus the brutal burning by Japanese invaders in the late 1500’s. An understandably popular attraction, the Bulguksa Temple is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site and as the one of the top cultural attractions in all of Korea.
Other spots on the heavily trodden Silla trail are Anapji Pond and Daereung-won Tumuli Park. Constructed by the Silla king in the 600’s, Anapji Pond is a massive artificial lake that houses a temple in the center, and wasn’t formally reconstructed until the 1970s. The pond was designed so that you may never view the entire pond while standing in one location, and strolling the perimeter of the pond on a crisp autumn day makes for an afternoon well spent, despite the bus loads of camera-toting Korean tourists. While the pond was built by Silla royalty, the mounds at Tumuli Park actually hold the remains of Silla royalty under their bulging green frames. Appearing as nothing more than massive grass-covered mounds erupting from an otherwise flat field, these massive tombs house the remains of numerous kings and queens, and a few of the tombs have been excavated and are accessible for viewing purposes. Absorbing the moist air of an ancient tomb inside of a big green hill is always a novel way to pass some time, and while not overly exciting, the complex is a unique destination that merits a visit while in Gyeongju.
While visiting the “usual” cultural destinations in the Gyeongju area was well worth the price of admission, the most worthwhile and exhilarating experience while I was in town was definitely a mountain bike ride through the Mt. Namsan section of Gyeongju National Park. A vast section of foothills and dirt trails, the park is many times referred to as an “open air museum” due to the high concentration of Silla remnants casually found scattered amongst the hills. It was such a sublime moment to be riding alone through forested hills of the Korean peninsula, with millennium old Buddhas and ancient monuments poking their heads out of the trees. What made the experience so great is that there are no signs, no lines, no little placards explaining the monument in front of you–just nicely preserved artifacts existing in their natural element as they have stood for over a thousand years.
While screaming down the dirt trails on the other side of the mountain, I passed by a a large group of schoolchildren on a fieldtrip who, predictably, all ran after me wanting to practice their English. I spent the next two hours or so biking between groups of young kids, having the same “My name is Kyle, what is your name?” conversation, until I finally happended upon a natural spring bubbling up from the mountain where I could get some much needed water. For anyone ever making a visit to the Gyeongju section of South Korea, a mountain bike ride through the Mt. Namsan wilderness and countryisde is an absolute must, as it is the best way to really feel the pulse of the heart of this ancient Kingdom.