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Everything You Need to Know About Ulsan

Time Travel is Possible – Exploring Gyeongju

Words and Photos by Steven Moore

Time travel is possible! And, it costs less than 5000 won. That’s the price of transportation from the present day back into another era, and just an hour from Ulsan by bus;  why not trade Co2 emissions for Silla Dynasty traditions and explore ‘Beautiful Gyeongju.’ The Korean tourist board’s city slogans can often be misleading, ‘Colorful Daegu’ for instance does not reflect the reality of that gray city, but at least it has an adjective…all imaginative Daejeon could come up with was ‘It’s Daejeon.’ Our very own Ulsan’s slogan is cozy and reassuring, reminding us that ‘Ulsan (is) For You.’ However, no promotional savvy was required when my former home-town coined their moniker, as it truly is beautiful. Having previously lived there for a year, I really grew to love Korea’s most traditional city, and as the guidebooks say, the ‘open air museum’ is a must-see for all visitors to the R.O.K. The scenic ride from Ulsan takes you back two thousand years in time, and as you disembark the terrestrial time machine, feel your metabolism slow and let yourself become attuned to the pace of that most laid back of places.

A relaxed day’s itinerary should begin with a short bus ride (#10 outside the Gyeongju Express Bus terminal) to the mystical Bulguk-sa. As you approach the entrance of this important sixth century Buddhist Temple, beware the stench of a million steaming bondegi corpses and behold the splendor of that historically significant UNESCO World Heritage site.

Bulguksa

Bulguksa

Bell at Bulguksa

Bell at Bulguksa

Bulguksa Pond

Bulguksa Pond

Warrior Gate

Warrior Gate

Buddhas

Buddhas

After admiring the vast complex, with its stunning pagodas, intricate architecture and fine Buddhist paintings, hike the snaking 3km trail up to Seokguram grotto. The scenery is reason enough for the effort, but the grotto shelters what many scholars consider the finest example of a stone carved Buddha anywhere in Asia, and its magnificence demonstrates both stone mastery and ingenuity aplenty. For the lazy or hungover, just grab a bus to the top from the entrance to the temple.

Back in downtown Gyeongju, stroll around the surreal Tumuli Park. If unfamiliar with the giant Silla burial mounds, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled into Tele Tubby land. But La-La-laughing aside, the unique grassy hills for the venerated dead are not to be missed, and dating back almost two millennia, they pay tribute to a glittering royal past.

Tumuli Park

Tumuli Park

On a more somber note, right in the heart of downtown is the largest of all the tombs, and connected to it is a macabre story to say the least. Under Japanese occupation, young Korean women were subjected to a miserable life of subservience, in some cases even sexual slavery. They were forced into menial labor and used as playthings for the high-ranking Japanese officers, but rather than suffer the humiliation that such a stigma brought, many of those girls took their own lives by hanging themselves from the tree. When you lay your eyes on the tree it’s easy to imagine the terrible scene, and the way that the large branch arches down from the side of the tomb, as if baring the weight of a hundred tortured souls, seems to qualify the sad story.

The Hanging Tree

The Hanging Tree

HangingTree1

After meandering from Tumuli, ease into Wolseon Park and visit seventh century Cheomseongdae, allegedly Asia’s oldest observatory. Close your eyes and imagine if you can how the ancient night sky may have been perceived before Hubble et al began to enlighten us regarding its mysteries.

Cheomseongdae

Cheomseongdae

Wolseong Park at Sunset

Wolseong Park at Sunset

The sun sets over a pond at Wolseong Park

The sun sets over a pond at Wolseong Park

GeuRim Forest

GeuRim Forest

Next, weave your way through the sunlit Geu Rim Forest with views reminiscent of the verdant English countryside, and visit the exceptional Gyeongju Museum. Housing so many national treasures, the interesting juxtaposition of ancient relics within the modern contemporary space is well worth some time.

Hop across the highway and soak up the regal beauty of Anapji. The picturesque pond hints at an aristocratic past, and a tranquil thirty-minute amble around its passive trail affords lovely photo opportunities. Pretty by day, Anapji is positively romantic when illuminated at night, and during summer months, concerts are a regular Saturday night offering. Also check out the neighboring Lotus ponds, spectacular until late in the summer.

Anapji by Night

Anapji by Night

Lotus Ponds in Bloom

Lotus Ponds in Bloom

If time allows, either hike upon or cycle around Nam-san, an ultra important mountain both historically and spiritually. You’ll find myriad carved Buddhas, small temples and fantastic vantage points from which to gaze out over the green, shimmering region of rural Gyeongju.

Bike Ride

Bike Ride

Rural Pagoda

Rural Pagoda

Rural Gyeongju

Rural Gyeongju

View from Namsan

View from Namsan

Those are just a few of so many fascinating sights to visit in that culturally rich area, and most are within an easily navigable walk of each other. Renting a cycle or even a tandem is also a fun and effective way to get around town. Though a quiet city, there are also plenty of busy bars and restaurants in the Sung Gun Dong downtown area.

However, if you’re ready to roll back to the future, do yourself a favor and steal a few extra minutes sucking in the refreshingly clean air, snaffle a box of the city’s delicious trademark bread, and zoom back to the high rise and hectic hubbub of Ulsan, enlightened and enchanted by ‘Beautiful Gyeongju.’

And tell your friends: time travel really is possible!

To read more of Steve’s work or to see more of his photography, check out his website & blog at: www.twentyfirstcenturynomad.com or visit his Facebook page: www.facebook.com/twentyfirstcenturynomad

 

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