Thursday, February 26, 2009

Gyeongju: "Old Capital of Shilla Dynasty"

Gyeongju is one of Korea's tourist highlights. It is near the east coast of Korea, and took us about 3 hours to get there by bus. We visited this interesting city on the 27th and 28th December. Things have been kind of busy since then, what with skiing and Philippines holidays (oh DEAR!) that I am only getting round to posting a report about Gyeongju almost 2 months later. This is definitely one of thise 'time flies when you're having fun' situations!

Anyway, so, Gyeongju. Gyeongju and Sangju were once upon a time the joint capitals of Korea: this was during the impressive Shilla dynasty which ruled Korea for 992 years (from 57BC-935AD). To quote our Gyeongju guidebook : "A land where the rising sun lays its first rays, Kyongju [romanised spelling of Korean words is frustratingly variable!!] was the ancient capital of Shilla Dynasty where the splendid culture of Shilla was flowering for 992 years (Kim Yong-Nam 2008)." Sangju, the lesser known baby sister of Gyeongju, has since the Shilla dynasty sadly fallen into obscurity, that is until we stumbled upon it of course...

But Gyeongju has a number of impressive historical treasures. According to the UNESCO website "The Gyeongju Historic Areas contain a remarkable concentration of outstanding examples of Korean Buddhist art, in the form of sculptures, reliefs, pagodas, and the remains of temples and palaces from the flowering, in particular between the 7th and 10th centuries, of this form of unique artistic expression."
Two of these are recognised by UNESCO as world cultural heritage sights, and Gyeongju has itself has been designated "as one of the world's ten most historic sites for its abundant cultural heritages that have stayed in one place for more than two thousand years" (Kim Yong-Nam 2008). I daresay, these cultural heritages would be that much more intersting to me if they had up and left and not stayed in one place for more than 200o years...I can just picture the Buddhas, temples and royal tombs prancing around the countryside! How unruly!

Nonetheless, we had a really interesting time in Gyeongju. We managed to see both Bulguksa Temple and Seokguram Grotto, which are the UNESCO highlights of Gyeongju. The temple itself was not that different from other temples we've seen but the sheer size of the complex was certainly impressive. Seokguram on the other hand really was amazing and had a wonderfully peaceful atmosphere to it.

Seokguram Grotto is a cave in the mountainside where a large carved stone Buddha stands. He is surrounded by 'guards' and 'lesser gods' who protect him as he looks out over the East Sea: the sun is said to shine onto the Buddhas face at sunrise and "such structure creates a myserious but splendid spectacles" (Kim Yong-Nam 2008)

The walk up to the grotto was also really beautiful: it had recently snowed in Gyeongju and the beautiful brightly coloured lanterns which were strung between the trees made for irresistible photo opportunities! Jules, Emily, Shirley and myself certainly had a great time there! The other sights of interest which we managed to take in during our visit were the Tumuli Park where all the Shilla kings and noblemen are buried in huge tombs, the Chomsongdae Observatory tower and the Gyeongju National Museum.

Tumuli park was quite a sight: it is the centre of a vast number of burial mounds which are up to 22m high and have a dimater of up to 82m [This habit of quoting exact measurments of cultural and historical structures is one which I have inadvertently picked up from plaques and signs which accompany such sights - the guidebook is of course also full of them!] These tombs/mounds are scattered all around the city and really bring home to visitors how important this city is in Korean history. Of all the cities we've visited in Korea, Gyeongju definitely feels the most well-preserved in terms of traditional Korea: it seems to have blended modern high-tech buildings and so on quite well with its rich historical architecture and treasures.

The Chomsongdae Observatory tower was, well...cute. And a bit overrated. It looks like a tubby milk can made of stones. It is said to be the oldest observatory still standing in east Asia, and was built in 647AD. I guess this is very long ago for people to have been observing the night sky...but a quick google search verifies my thoughts: the Germans were at it 7000 years ago...take that Korea! Anyway, it is a cute little tower and is made of 361 stones, the number of days in the lunar calendar, which is a nice touch! According to Kim Yong-Nam (2008): "Chomsongdae itself is a very scientific construction and every stone holds all the symbpolic meanings." Nice. We took a photo of it nonetheless!

Our final visit in Gyeongju was to the National Museum. This is a very large complex at which one could spend days learning all about Shilla history and Korean history in general: but the rather poor English translations would certainly make this a rather tedious task! I really find it a pity that one of Korea's premier museums could not track down a single native English-speaker to smooth over the English in the explanatory notices which accompany most displays in the museum. The information contained in these notices was also a bit disappointing and not very informative: once again we noticed a heavy emphasis on dimensions and measurements and dates, and we were often left wondering what the significance of certain artifacts was. Anyway, the museum did enlighten us a bit in the glorious history of the Shilla dynasty and how and why it came to be so important to Korea (go there yourself to find out!)

So all in all we really enjoyed our visit to Gyeongju: we had our fill of sights and tourist attractions and had lots of lovely photo opportunities! Koreans certainly are proud of their history (no surprises there!), and rightly so: they have some magnificent treasures and I think Gyeongju was a great place for us to get to know these treasures a little.

One last rather amusing note: we have picked up a very strong pattern of anti-Japanese sentiment during our touristy visits around Korea. And of course from people we have met; one cannot deny how strongly the Koreans dislike the Japanese. These two countries have had innumerable wars and conflicts, and the jury is out as to who suffered more: The Koreans of course say they suffered much worse at the hands of the Japanese than the Japanese did at the hands of the Koreans. I'm sure the opposite is said in Japan. Either way, almost every temple, statue or other significant structure we have visited in Korea was at some stage burnt down or damaged by "a Japanese invasion" and later re-built by the Koreans. It's frightening, but for us it's got to the point of being a little amusing too: "If the Japanese didn't burn it down, it doesn't exist!"
The Japanese even managed to harm the Buddha in Seokguram Grotto which stayed perfectly preserved for so long: "According to many records of the past, there had been no significant deterioration until 19th century. However, during the Japanese occupation period, deterioration started. Shilla people's scientific and architectural genius [of course!] was so profound that some unexplainable principles had protected the structure from natural deterioration by humidity. But the Japanese attempt to reinforce the structure by applying cement rather worsened the situation by absorbing the humidity. Repair work by Japanese 1913-1915."

Now for the photos:

Bulguksa Temple:
This view of the temple is one of the most famous and adorns most postcards of the complex. So I can't claim this photo. But you would've figured out that I couldn't have taken it as the leaves are red and autumny (i.e. it was taken at least 2 months before we got there when things were rather wintery and brown...) and also, big giveaway: there are no tourists in the photo! Whoever took this photo must have had some clout and managed to clear away the hordes!

Jules and our lady friends on the steps in front of the main hall at the temple (Emily from the UK on the left, Shirley from Sangju - originally Canada - on the right)

Seokguram and the snow and pretty lanterns:

One is not allowed to take photos of the Buddha in the grotto, so this is another borrowed photo. (I'm sure way too many photos were taken during the Japanese invasion and did irrepairable damage to the Buddha! haha!) (That's if they had cameras back then of course :))

This is ths view from the Seokguram Grotto out over the countryside with the East Sea in the far distance.

After Seokguram, Jules and I decided to walk down to the bus stop at Bulguksa (About 2.5km down the hill). This was a beautiful wlak through the forest with a lovely golden wintery sunset. I must confess this was a bit of an 'aah' moment for me in Korea: it was the first time I felt like I was really IN nature and away from the otherwise rat-race-ish feeling that one generally gets in Korea (bigger, better, faster, smarter etc. etc.)

Tumuli Park

One of the many explanatory plaques - I hope you can raed it (click to enlarge) - it is so typical of the language used in these notices!

Chomsongdae Observatory

A donkey and cart statuette from the Gyeongju National Museum "it measures...and is xxcm from left to right...bla bla etc". You get my drift. Anyway, the donkey is made from clay and seems to have had a decorative purpose once upon a time. cute hey.

After all that sight-seeing a bit of candy floss was the order of the day!


EEbEE said...

Once again, amazing architecture. The detail in those buildings really impresses me. I would just stand there for hours and hours just taking it all in (I hope you had the time to do the same)

Jessica Jane said...

Wish I had eebee, but sadly now: being a tourist is always a bit of a rush! (One shoudl fight it, I know) Thanks for being my most loyal blog follower and commenter. I love You. :)

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