In both cultures, the dead were buried in overground tombs with entire inventory of artifacts useful in the afterlife. We all know the pyramids and this is their Korean equivalent: tumuli.
For a real testament to Korean history that it is, Gyeongju first stroke me as particularly un-Korean. When we arrived there by bus from Busan on a Saturday night, the city was deserted. I could hear the echo of our footsteps, as we were walking down the dim-lit and empty streets in search of some guest home we randomly booked over the phone an hour earlier. Passing by low houses hidden behind thick walls with little lighting, I felt out of place- perhaps already too used to those tall apartment buildings and the omnipresent neon glow of big Korean cities like Seoul or Busan.
Expecting the usual budget guest house, I was quite surprised to discover that we will be, in fact, spending the night at a traditional hanok guesthouse – which my friend sneakily forgot to mention. Maybe not entirely without reason. Truth be told, the idea of sleeping on a floor in a small room without “proper” doors sheltering us from the chilly weather outside seemed quite disturbing to me. However, I soon realized that the yo (padded quilts and mattresses) provided, together with the odol (the underfloor heating system), would actually more than suffice to keep me warm and cozy.
Gyeongju (경주시) became the capital of the Shilla dynasty around 57BC. This was at the start of the Three Kingdoms period in which the ancient kingdoms of Goguryeo, Baekje and Shilla ruled over the Korean Peninsula and parts of Manchuria. The Shilla Kingdom unified the Peninsula around the 7th century AD, but eventually was defeated by the military strength of the successor state of Goguryeo known as Balhae. As I read in the guidebook: “Shilla and Balhae confronted each other hostilely much like southern and northern halves of a partitioned nation”… oddly familiar, isn’t it? The Shilla dynasty was eventually conquered, but the ancient capital of Gyeongju is still known to be one of the most fascinating destinations.
On a sunny Sunday morning, when the town looked a lot more friendly, we ventured out to see the Bulguk-sa (불국사) – the magnificent temple representing the full glory of Shilla architecture, which was also put on the Unesco World Cultural Heritage list. I fell in love with the quiet and peaceful ambiance of the temple located on the slopes of Tohamsan mountain (토함산) among gnarled pine trees.
I was truly impressed not only with the meticulous woodwork of the buildings (note the mastery of the rooftop edges!), but also with their vivid and joyful colors (love the turquoise!).
Closer to the city center, we stopped by the Anapji Pond, that used to be a pleasure garden commemorating the unification of the Korean Peninsula under the Shilla dynasty in the 7th century. “Small mountains were created inside the palace walls, beautiful flowers were planted, and rare animals were brought in to create an exquisitely exotic garden fit for royalty” – even now, in wintertime, without the blooming lotus flowers, the place proves to be a charming spot.
I left Gyeongju a lot richer in knowledge of the historical context of Korean heritage… and a little envious about hanok’s supreme floor heating solutions!