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Time travel is easy in Gyeongju, a city with a population of 264,000, just four hours southeast of Seoul. From this ancient capital, the Silla Kingdom ruled Korea from 57 BC to 935 AD.

Bulguksa Temple
Bulguksa Temple
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

One-quarter of Korea's historical treasures are here, in an easily explored area of ten square kilometres. (Thirty-six per cent of Gyeongju is a national park.) Because of its wealth of historical buildings and treasures, it's called "a museum without walls."

Laws prohibit construction of any structure greater than three stories. Those that are built must be in Silla style. Homes, grocery stores and even gas stations masquerade under tiled pagoda roofs.

Monks, incense and pilgrims

Our driver-guide, Park, brought us to Bulguksa Temple, built in AD 535. Two hundred years later, it was one of the largest Buddhist temples in existence, with more than 80 buildings. The Japanese invasion, in 1592, destroyed much of the complex. Today, 100 monks live in the restored structures, nestled in a grove of twisted pines.

We peeked into one building and time-travelled back a millennium. A grey-robed monk knelt on a red silk cushion, in front of a gilded Buddha. He rang a tiny silver bell and tapped a hollow drum with a wooden stick, in rhythm with his chanting. Candles burned in brass holders on the altar, casting their flickering amber light on the Buddha and the monk. A scented, hazy gauze of incense enveloped them both.

Pagoda in Bulguksa Temple
Pagoda in Bulguksa Temple
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Looking up, we time-travelled fast forward to the 21st century. A security video camera, mounted on the ornately carved and painted ceiling, scanned the room.

As we followed a group of pilgrims through the temple buildings, we were awe-struck by the green, gold and red eaves, depicting abstract designs, Buddha images and fanciful flowers. "It's called tanchong," said Park, "the traditional Korean art of painting beams, eaves and ceilings."

UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Tanchong-painted eaves
Tanchong-painted eaves
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Park drove us up a series of hairpin turns to Seokguram Grotto, near the top of Mt. Tohamsan. The 3.8-metre-high granite Buddha, inside, has gazed serenely at the sunrise over the East Sea for more than 1200 years. Surrounding him, 38 larger-than-life bas-reliefs of disciples and guardians line the grotto walls. UNESCO includes Seokguram, along with Bulguksa Temple, on its World Heritage List.

The mountain air sharpened our appetites. Park brought us to a restaurant that specialized in Gyeongju-style bulgogi (barbecued beef, marinated in garlic, soy sauce and sesame oil). As the beef sizzled, Park showed us how to place a romaine leaf in one palm, top it with kimchi (pickled, spicy vegetables), garlic and beef, then wrap it all into a neat packet. The combination of flavours, tastes and aromas was infinitely more delicious than the individual parts.

After lunch, Park drove us to Seochulji, a willow-swept pond famous for its lotus. In July, white and red blossoms accent the jade leaves covering the pond. We meandered around the circumference, photographing a wooden pagoda-roofed building, overlooking the water.

Our next stop was equally peaceful. Tumuli Park contains 20 of the 200 royal tombs found in the city. The ancient Silla emperors rest beneath grassy burial mounds up to 23 meters high. We strolled on pathways that curl like ribbons around the base of the pregnant knolls.

Korea's King Tut

Cheonmachong (Heavenly Horse Tomb) in Tumuli Park
Cheonmachong (Heavenly Horse Tomb) in Tumuli Park
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

All the tombs are unexcavated except one. Cheonmachong, or Heavenly Horse Tomb, is named after a five-colour painting of a flying horse on a white birch bark saddle guard, found inside. Cheonmachong is to Korea what King Tutankhamen's tomb is to Egypt. More than 10,000 royal ornaments, weapons and equestrian objects were discovered when the grave was opened in 1974.

The most impressive relic is the tall Silla crown. Its gold antler-like prongs support comma-shaped pieces of jade, which may be vestiges of the claws and fangs once used as amulets.

Inside the dark earthen chamber, we peered behind a glass window into a wooden replica of the king's coffin. The bones have long since decayed, leaving only a gold-linked belt and a gilded crown. Other windows revealed a sword with silver fittings, a tri-legged bronze vessel, iron arrowheads and a jade and gold ring. Most of the remaining artefacts are now in the Gyeongju National Museum.

World's oldest observatory

Cheomseongdae, a seventh-century bottle-shaped structure, is within walking distance of Tumuli Park. From here, early astronomers watched the stars, predicted eclipses and helped farmers determine planting times, according to movements of the moon. The tower contains 365 stones, stacked in 27 tiers, to honour Queen Seondeok, the 27th Silla ruler at the time it was built.

We couldn't leave Gyeongju without visiting Mt. Namsan, a sacred mountain, considered to be the spot where Buddhism originated in Korea. Although Mt. Namsan is only 500 meters high, it spans eight kilometres north to south, and 12 kilometres east to west. Forty deep valleys slash Mt. Namsan, creating slopes for waterfalls, which materialize on rainy days. Amid this picturesque backdrop, 100 temples, 78 Buddha images and 61 stone pagodas emerge from the rocks.

Missing noses

Hiking along paths through the giant art gallery, we noted that many statues lacked noses. Park explained that, centuries ago, women chipped them off as guarantees of fertility. Nowadays, the figures rest in peace, surrounded by Buddhist inscriptions, stone stelae and pink azaleas. "You could climb to the top in 2.5 hours," Park told us, "but it would take three days to see all the rock carvings on Mt. Namsan."

As we admired the tranquil surroundings, it was easy to see why UNESCO called Gyeongju "one of the world's ten most historic sites." For us, it was a window to the past, and yes, a museum without walls.


Korea Tourism Organization

More information on Korea:

Guide to Korea

Jeju-do - Seafood Divers, Sunrise Peak and Stone Grandfathers

Korea - Where East Meets West

Korean Food - Dining and Drinking in Korea