The group of grassy, strangely globular hills in Gyeongju looks like an oversized playground without slides and climbing frames. It is a rather unique sight, which we immediately remember from when we first visited the Royal Tumulus Park on a previous journey in 1992. Meanwhile, the Gyeongju Historic Areas has been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list and we have come back to have another look.
On our journey on the fast KTX Train from Busan, we had a taste of the Korean high-tech shift in the past 25 years: We had reserved seats, but the train conductor never looked at our tickets. He just walked past, looking at his tablet, checking the taken and free seats. No need to disturb the passengers if everything appeared in order. Later we found out that an even more developed system worked when travelling on highway buses.
From the Gyeongju Train Station, we shuttle quickly to the central sightseeing area on a local bus, and proceeded to explore the UNESCO-listed Gyeongju Historic Areas. The route recommended by the tourist office was about 6 km. Many travellers rented bicycles, but as we had nearly the whole day we decided to walk – which worked out fine for us.
Closed until the 1970s
Until the 1970s, the tumulus tombs were still overgrown with grass and untouched – although it was obvious that the hills contained important tombs, the archaeologists were reluctant to open the tombs of previous kings. When they did eventually, they found a wall painting of a flying horse and golden crowns from the Silla period (around 6th c AD). The Cheonmachong Tomb is now open for visitors, with a small exhibition of replicas from this find.
The sightseeing route then leads us to an ancient astronomical tower – a small stone structure from which you wouldn’t see any star in South Korea’s bright night sky today – to some more tumulus tombs, and to an old Confucian Temple near the Woljeonggyo bridge. This section is rather a relaxed countryside walk without amazing highlights. We cross the huge excavation site of the Wolseong Fortress – we cannot make out the trace of fortress buildings, but a bunch of Korean archaeologists we meet assure us that they are going to discover more foundations and figure out where the actual castle was. They seem rather confident that there will be a reconstructed fortress here in a few more years.
For some more visual stimulation we make a detour to Anapji, a garden around Wolji Pond. Between Lotus flowers and fields, a number of open pavilions (now called the Eastern Palace, or Donggung) are strewn around a meandering pond. This makes for a nice stroll garden and some good views, although we are, as often during our Korea trip, not sure how much of this is really old and original.
The National Museum
One of the highlights of our sightseeing day in Gyeongju is the National Museum at the edge of town: There’s much more to it than the golden crowns from the Royal tombs, but also a lot more golden grave goods, intricately decorated 5th century pottery, and fantastic Buddhist statues. We also like the bird-shaped vessels from 3rd century burials – people used them in the funeral rites, and presumably the deceased then hoped to fly to heaven with them.
Are the Gyeongju Historic Areas worth visiting?
Definitely yes! The strangely shaped tombs are really unique and it is fascinating to imagine the old Silla culture thriving during the 1st – 10th century. It might be a good idea to start with the National Museum though, in order to acquire sufficient historical background for your walk.
***NB: Our 10-day visit to Korea was not sponsored or supported in any way; all expenses were paid for by ourselves. ***