Here’s my brief description of Gyeongju: an ancient city full of royal tombs.
That just makes the city sound creepy, but in reality it was the highlight for Awesome Husband and I. We love history, culture and serenity, and Gyeongju offered all that.
We fell in love with the destination the moment we alighted from the train at ShinGyeongju station. The open-concept station platform let the chilly winds through and the surrounding mountains with their enchanting autumn foliage lent a majestic background.
From the station, Hilton Hotel was a 30-minute taxi ride away. Unlike in Japan, taxi rides in South Korea are absolutely affordable. Our ride cost us about US$29, only slight pricier than what we’d pay for in Singapore for the same distance.
Titus fell asleep during the ride and that gave us the chance to enjoy a leisurely lunch at the hotel.
I had a beer (of course!) and a gorgeous meal of Seolleongtang, a clear oxtail soup that goes so well with steamed rice. That very meal inspired my love affair with soup and rice throughout the trip.
I’m hardly a rice person, and would only eat half a bowl of it if I had no other options. But on this trip, I chose to have rice for every meal and would clean out a full bowl and more each time. Bizarre.
We quickly freshened up in our room, put on an extra layer and then headed out excitedly.
With extra time in Gyeongju, I was determined to cover at least the Wolseong Area of the UNESCO Heritage Site Gyeongju Historical Area. The complete area houses more than 50 ancient landmarks and artefacts, while Wolseong Area is home to Gyerim Forest, Donggung Palace and Wolji Pond, and Cheomseongdae astronomy observatory.
Well, Wolseong Area is sprawling although it looked tiny on the map. With quite a distance to cover on foot and with a fidgety toddler strapped to me, we were only able to tackle Donggung Palace and Wolji Pond, and Cheomseongdae. Not too bad, I say!
Donggung Palace and Wolji Pond harks back to the Silla dynasty era, built in 674 CE. A lot of the original buildings are gone but some are being rebuilt, and relics are still being excavated. You can even see archaeologists at work!
What’s truly lovely at Donggung Palace and Wolji Pond is the park surrounding Wolji Pond. Maple and ginkgo trees were shedding then, turning the ground into a beautiful carpet of red and gold.
Titus had so much fun picking up leaves and rolling about the ground. Poor, deprived city boy!
We spent a good hour there, mostly because Titus refused to budge. LOL.
But with sunset beckoning, I urged the boys to leave and we walked on in search of Gyerim Forest and Cheomseongdae.
It was a lovely walk, with so much nature around us and a pleasing autumn chill. Autumn is truly my favourite season for travels.
Unfortunately, we were not able to find Gyerim Forest. Perhaps we took the wrong turn or missed a wayfinder. We ended up at Cheomseongdae and by then, the sun has set and it was useless to seek out Gyerim Forest.
Cheomseongdae is said to be the first and therefore oldest astronomy observatory in East Asia. It is a simple structure which one would only appreciate if one had read up on it beforehand.
But benches and shady trees encircling the tower make it a lovely spot to sit, rest and reflect on Gyeongju’s historical role in ancient Korea.
We shared a snack and hot drink before heading back to the hotel for dinner.
The next day, we slept in later (Titus had a latenight meltdown which exhausted all of us; he was probably homesick) and then walked to Shilla Millennium Park, about 15 minutes from Hilton Hotel.
The theme park is a replica of the Silla dynasty, with fake ancient houses and palace buildings to provide endless joy for selfie fans.
Shilla Millennium Park has obviously seen better days. It was deserted that morning and some of the special attractions, like a pottery village where visitors could make unique souvenirs, were shut and dilapidated.
Even so, the park kept up its scheduled performance of horseback stunts. We and a young couple were the only ones in the audience. The performers were young boys and they carried on with a smile on their faces, slowing down often in front of us to wave and bow.
It made me cry and hope that the money I paid for admission would go into feeding them and the horses.
We walked around and entertained ourselves by taking selfies until it became too cold.
We took a taxi to a restaurant cluster within Bomun Lake District where our hotel was. There were many restaurants there to cater to tourists, and our hotel concierge recommended Metdol Sundubu for the best spicy tofu stew in Gyeongju.
She was right. The seafood sundubu there was awesome, the soup rich with the taste of shellfish and full of silken tofu.
In the day, Metdol Sundubu serves only two dishes – the spectacular spicy seafood sundubu and a bland and forgettable white sundubu for those who cannot handle spice. Both cost ₩9,000, which makes the seafood version a far more worthwhile buy.
We walked off lunch calories at the East Gardens across the road, then spent the rest of the evening back in the comfort of our hotel room.
We were due to depart Gyeongju at noon on Nov 18, and used the morning after breakfast to stroll along the scenic Bomun Lake.
Again, Titus found joy in rustling dried leaves under his feet and collected some pretty leaves.
What a lovely area Bomun Lake is! If we ever return to Gyeongju, I’d stay again at Hilton Hotel and I’d find that elusive Gyerim Forest. I’d also make a day trip to Yangdong Village, a real life village that once housed aristocrats and now regular folks. We had to skip Yangdong Village this time because it was an hour’s car ride away and Titus was too cranky for that.
Bye now! It’s Seoul next!