Being in Gyeongju was an interesting transition from being in Seoul. While Seoul is the heart of modern Korea, a symbol of technology and innovation, Gyeongju was the heart of ancient Korea, and the site of many important historic landmarks. Having seen both, I feel like I have a deeper understanding of Korea, both what it is and what shaped it to become this way.
We started off the day by visiting the royal tombs. In ancient Korea, when a member of the princely class died, they weren’t necessarily buried, but a large mound was erected upon the body. The body was placed in a wooden coffin within a wooden room. The room also contained everything that person might need in the afterlife: gold, treasures, teapots, and sometimes the body of a favorite servant, killed in order to accompany the master into the afterlife. Around the wooden room were piled heavy stones, fitted together to form an almost impenetrable barrier (in fact, our guide told us that on excavating they had found the bodies of modern tomb robbers buried in the rock). On top of the rock was a thick layer of clay, smoothing the rough surface of the rock into a smooth mound. And on the clay grass grew, an unintentional but beautiful addition to the exterior of the mound. Depending on the power of the person, the mound might be bigger, the treasure more lavish, the number of servants sacrificed higher. It runs in interesting parallel to the Egyptian pyramids, and it was really great to get to explore.
After the tombs, we wandered through the Gyeongju museum, which had the treasures unearthed in the area on display. Maybe most notable was the pegasus painting unearthed in the largest tomb, leading the tomb to be named Cheonmachong (flying horse tomb). There was also a huge amount of gold: in horse saddles, in bells, in earrings, in shoes, and most glamorously in a huge gold crown.
We finished up our historical tour by touring the royal gardens, the old town of Gyeongju, eating lunch, and setting off on the second leg of the day.
Next we drove up a mountain to Bulguksa Buddhist temple. We were actually super lucky in that 364 days of the year, the temple isn’t open to visitors, instead blocked by a layer of glass. That day, however, was Buddha’s Birthday, so we were allowed inside. It reminded me a lot of Jogessa temple, with a similar layout and color scheme. I found it a really interesting peek into a religion I’m less familiar with. After touring the temple, looking a few statues, bathing baby Buddha, and rubbing a gold pig, we were on our way again.