Sunday, November 15, 2015

Gyeongju Tour - 4 UNESCO Sites in One Weekend

The Seoul Hiking Group has been in operation for about eight years and I never knew. Was browsing Facebook and bumped into a "4 UNESCO Sites in One Weekend" tour, which immediately got my interest, especially as it included a night in the traditional Yangdong Folk village, which was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage along with Hahoe Folk Village in 2010. Both villages are preserved traditional folk villages reflecting various Joseon Dynasty socio-economic statuses, as depicted in the construction of the traditional houses: tile vs straw roofs for the yangban and the peasant classes respectively, large and small courtyards with different numbers of rooms, buildings and construction space (as built in khan) also ascribed to the respective groups. Three other UNESCO sites I had previously visited at least once were included in the weekend, but Yangdong is very hard to get to and I had never been, so I joined the tour!

UNESCO site #1: Yangdong Traditional Folk Village

We arrived around 4am at the village and were assigned rooms -- three people here in this tiny room, four over in that building, five or six over there. The bus load of 45 people was lodged in a number of small pre-designated houses. The next morning at 8am or so, one lady served a huge cauldron of hobak jook (pumpkin gruel) for our large group. Some of the group with their western tastes and expectations for pancakes and eggs for breakfast couldn't hack the stuff, but seeing that there was plenty, I went back for seconds. The stuff had sticky rice balls and beans in it and was absolutely divine! Yes for traditional healthy home-cooked food!

We wandered the village for an hour or two after eating and then boarded the bus and headed on to the historic area in Gyeongju, about 16 kilometers away.

UNESCO site #2: Gyeongju Historic Area

The Gyeongju Historic Area comprises a huge amount of land space, and in its cultural entirety was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000. Namsan Mountain is littered with the remained of Silla Dynasty Buddha sculptures, the remains of temples and palaces are in the valley below and are thought to be from the 7th through 10th centuries, old royal tombs, Buddhist art, reliefs, pagodas, old garden grounds with ponds, and more make the historic area really something to see and explore.

Much of this is traced back to the Silla Dynasty (57 BCE - 935 CE) which ruled the Korean peninsula for nearly 1,000 years. The Buddhist constructions with intricate and detailed artistic form give testimony to a highly developed society with significant cultural achievements.

Gyeongju Historic Area consists of five areas: Tumuli Park Belt, Wolseong Belt, and Namsan Belt (from which example picts are below), as well as the Hwangnyongsa Belt and Sanseong Fortress Belt) which we didn't explore much on this particular trip.
The Tumuli Park Belt consists of three groups of Royal Tombs. Here one cluster is shown. In the foreground are the extant foundation stones of a Silla palace. (By description this seems to be in the Tumuli Belt but by location it seems to be in the Wolseong Belt, so not definite on how to classify these tombs.)
The Wolseong Belt includes the ruined palace site of Wolseong, the Gyerim woodland which legend identifies as the birthplace of the founder of the Gyeongju Kim clan, Anapji Pond, on the site of the ruined Imhaejeon Palace, and the Cheomseongdae Observatory (pictured).
Cheomgseongdae Astronomical Observatory - the ancient study of the stars, constellations and their movement and how they foretold the rise and fall of kings fascinates me! Astronomy mixed with astrology. Don't underestimate the Silla Dynasty on their astrological beliefs. Their knowledge of astronomy was incredible!
Beautiful Anapji Pond in the Wolseong Belt.
This place is one hot place for photographers to come and get their stellar shots. I'm pretty proud of my shot here with my little PhD (push here dummy) pocket-sized Canon. But how can a person take a bad shot in such a gorgeous setting?!
A beautiful bridge recently constructed in the Joseon architectural style. Opposite the bridge is an area being developed for cultural tourism. The area is comprised of modern hanok functioning as restaurants, tea houses and elegant places to sleep and places to have cultural classes/experiences.
A line-up of headless Buddha images along one wall of the Gyeongju National Museum. As one story goes, the images were beheaded when an unknown group (late in the dynasty or after its fall) invaded and desecrated the statues in a symbolic attempt of removing the kingdom's spiritual iconography. The statues were in modern times found buried but without their heads. Another story from Southeast Asia (e.g. Angkor Wat) that may apply here also is that statues were highly regarded as tourist items but since many stone statues were too large and heavy to transport, their heads were removed and taken to the tourists' home countries. 
The historic area includes the holy Namsan Mountain

Namsan Mountain, a mountain literally littered with Buddha images, is a holy mountain and reflects the strong Silla culture with Buddhism at its religious center. In a three-hour hike, we must have passed about 11 Buddha images, some as free-standing carved images and some as relief in sheer rock walls, but basically all of them were huge and impressive!
UNESCO site #3: Seokguram grotto - a sunrise hike

When traveling with the Seoul Hiking Group, just plan on an early morning hike. Of course it's optional but why miss out on a spectacular view that Warren, the leader, has planned?! He's an avid hiker and he knows some spectacular routes. One glitch in this hiking plan, however, was that the entrance gate to Seokguram grotto seems to no longer open early in the morning for those wanting the sunrise hike. Poor Warren. He wanted us to experience the beauty of the mountain top and the holy grotto with the first touches of the rays of the sun. Ah well. We had to wait until the new gate opening time of 7am before we could continue our hike, an approximate 45 minutes up to Seokguram from the gate. We missed the sunrise but caught it when we were almost there. Golden and beautiful on the dead branches. Very visually warming on such a cold morning!
Just a pavilion of recent construction built between the Gyeongju youth hostel
and the hiking trail leading up to Seokguram grotto.

Feel the power of this massive 3.5 meter high rock-carved Buddha housed in a grotto of silence and respect. Initially this deep, lightless construction didn't exist but in the process of preserving the Buddha from mildew the sun no longer hits the jewel of the Buddha at sunrise. At the height of its glory the jewel on the forehead of the Buddha was touched by the first rays of the rising sun in the morning. The jewel has long since disappeared, although the Buddha at presents wears another. [I'm not sure if researchers even know which kind of jewel the Buddha initially wore.]

In 1962, the grotto was designated as Korea's 24th national treasure. In 1995, the grotto was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage. The Seokguram Buddha is an example of some of the best Buddhist sculpture in the world.
Picture by E. Riviera
UNESCO site #4: Bulguksa temple

Bulguksa Temple, along with Seokguram Grotto, was designed as a UNESCO World Heritage in 1995. The picture immediately below is the iconic picture of Bulguksa with its Cheongun-gyo "blue cloud bridge". The Korean government classifies the temple as Historic and Scenic Site Number 1, and indeed, it's very hard to get a picture without tons and tons of other people vying for the same picture by pushing in front of your camera or just ambling without goal or thought other than to take a picture around the beautiful temple grounds. This scenic site, in my opinion, gets too much attention (and people taking thousands and thousands of selfies everywhere drive me insane!)

I last visited this temple in 2008, and the cultural tourism was starting to really take off, but then this temple has been heavily visited for years, and back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Gyeongju and the temple were the "in places" for honeymooners to travel to. Gyeongju definitely has changed because of the modern-day ideas of cultural tourism. Since my last visit in 2008, this place has lots more people and, like everywhere else, tries to attract people with material things, such an anti-Buddhist concept! So the temple grounds features forms of "entertainment" now - snack and coffee stands, little shops for silly keepsakes and souvenirs, just things to purchase or things to do. I was surprised to see so many people actually eating on formerly "holy" temple grounds, something I didn't see before. More places for kids to do crafts or play games ... temples were formerly respected. Not now evidently.

Under one of the roofs of a temple building. I don't understand this imagery but it does captivate the imagination.
When I understand the iconographic message, I will be sure to share!
 Seoul Hiking Group

A collage of some of our group members climbing up the holy Namsan Mountain.

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