Thursday, February 19, 2009

A Day in Gyongju

Customers' shoes lined up outside their private dining rooms in a Gyongju restaurant--a common site in Korea. This particular restaurant was unique, however, in that instead of each of the many dishes being brought in separately by one or two servers, an entire laid-out table was carried in at once and placed before us!

Gyongju is about a half-hour's drive south of Pohang and is the historic capital of the Silla Kingdom, which ruled from 57 BC to 935 AD. One area contains large royal burial mounds, king-size versions of the ones on top of my hill, which, from one angle, echo the mountains in the background.

Royal burial mounds that echo the mountains surrounding Gyongju

Another relic of the kingdom is a palace retreat called Imhaejon, complete with colorful pavillions, a man-made pond and paths that wind through the forest. I learned from my Korean-speaking colleague that an informational piece stated that Imhaejon was built as a place to entertain visiting dignitaries, but was actually used more frequently as a royal playground, where gentlemen invited young lovelies to frolic in the woods. (The English version left out this tidbit!) Imhaejon, which I dubbed the Silla Playboy Club, sounds more like something a French king would dream up, but I don't recall seeing any hideaways among the manicured lawns of Versailles.
A pavillion at the 7th-century royal getaway, Imhaejon

Brightly painted eaves on one of the pavillions

Gyongju is also home to the National Museum, a treasury of relics from the Silla Kingdom and artifacts dating back to the bronze age. My guidebook tells me that the "human" history of the Korean peninsula goes back much further: neanderthals may have lived on the Korean peninsula for about a half million years. Korea seems like the perfect place for cave men--lots of mountains (70% of the country is covered with them) with lots of caves. I look up at the sky at night here and imagine those ancient humanoids looking up at almost the same thing. For some reason, I see them talking at the sky at the sky talking back.

Gold slippers, remnants from the Silla Kingdom, at the National Museum.

The giant "Divine Bell of Great King Songdok" hangs outside the museum.

This distinctly Korean image, the Bhaisajyaguro Buddha, represents the healing aspect of the Buddha by portraying him with a medicine bowl in his left hand. The inscription on the base of the statue (dating from the late 8th/early 9th century) states that he heals sickness, even the "disease of ignorance."

This Buddha, part of a trio, was originally placed in a carved-out opening on a mountain just south of the city.

Built in the 7th century, Cheomseongdae, or the Star Observation Tower, has become the symbol of the city of Gyongju. It's the oldest observatory in East Asia, with an opening on the top that is believed to be aligned with particular stars. Every piece of the stone structure has a symbolic meaning, such as the 12 large stones making up the base that represent the 12 months/zodiac signs.

Park attendants

Kite flying in a Gyongju park


"Please don't eat me, Mr. Roy!"

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