Chuseok in Gyeongju – Part 3

This morning, we woke up early. We checked out of the motel and got breakfast at a nearby Paris Baguette. After, we took a taxi to Bulguksa Temple, which is the head temple of Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism. It was about 20 minutes outside of downtown, but well worth the trip. The paint on the temples looked brand new and you could smell incense while people knelt for prayer. It was hard to believe that the complex was hundreds of years old.

Bulguksa.

Bulguksa.

There were actually many temples to walk around, each with its own beautiful representation of Buddha inside. There were also various sculptures and incredible architectural features everywhere. I am a huge fan of dragons, and I had to take pictures whenever I saw them.

Dragon and Bulguksa.

Dragon and Bulguksa.

When we were done exploring Bulguksa, we took a cab to Seokguram Grotto, which is technically part of the Bulguksa Temple complex, but about another 15 minutes east and in the mountains. As we ascended, it became cool and breezy. The view down the side of the mountain was incredible. To get to the grotto, we had to walk through the forest and climb many stairs. Photographs were not allowed of the beautiful Buddha sculpture inside, but if you are ever in Gyeongju, it is absolutely worth a visit.

Seokguram Grotto.

Seokguram Grotto.

After, we took a cab back down towards the Anapji area. Our next goal was to find a ssambap restaurant for lunch. Ssambap is a traditional dish of Gyeongju, and it is a type of Korean barbecue served with rice and various leaves (lettuce, cabbage, etc.) to wrap your meat and banchan (side dishes) in. Our meal came with so many banchan (including a whole fried fish) and everything was absolutely delicious!

Ssambap for lunch!

Ssambap for lunch!

I had an incredible weekend in Gyeongju. My calves feel like they are going to explode and I definitely have shin splints, but it was so worth it to see all the things this beautiful city has to offer. I definitely want to go back to this museum without walls because there is still so much more to see there!

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Chuseok in Gyeongju – Part 2

Trying to find our way back downtown proved to be a struggle. Once again, we had no map, no WiFi, no point of reference. Nothing. Pretty much completely reliant on guess work and sheer luck. I could feel blisters starting to form on my feet. I was terribly hungry and thirsty. But we walked. And walked.

Finally, I recognized some of the large mound tombs. We were somewhere in the general vicinity. After making our way closer to the shops and restaurants, we saw a naengmyeon (cold noodle) shop and absolutely had to stop and eat. I got naengmyeon with chicken breast, Steve got spicy noodles, and we shared an order of mandu (dumplings).

My chicken naengmyeon.

My chicken naengmyeon.

Following sustenance and water, we were feeling much more like humans again. The next order of business was trying to find a place to sleep for the night. We checked two guesthouses that were seemingly closed. I was getting frustrated. After the third closed guesthouse, a Korean woman saw us struggling and tried to help. (Side note: she was cycling with a partner and visibly bleeding from the shoulder, and still insisted on helping.) She spoke very little English, but took out her phone and pulled up a map. I took a picture of the map with my phone, and we thanked her profusely. Her kindness was so unexpected, but greatly appreciated.

We walked around for another 20 minutes and still could not find a place to stay. All of a sudden, we saw a Western couple turning the corner, looked at each other, and immediately ran across the street to talk to them. They were from Norway and gave us detailed directions back to the downtown area and bus terminal, where there are many motels.

We thanked them and successfully made our way back downtown. We settled on a place called Motel Icarus, solely because the name was Greek. It cost 50,000 won ($41.00) for one night and it was actually really nice. Not like fleabag motels you find back home. I regret not taking any pictures because the walls were literally covered in images of Santorini. Bizarre. But cool.

We left our things in the room and headed back out to Anapji Pond, which is located in Gyeongju National Park. It was part of an ancient Silla palace complex. When we arrived, there were masses of people making their way around the pond. It was a surreal and beautiful experience.

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Anapji Pond.

After leaving Anapji Pond, we walked down the main road and passed many different street food vendors. Everything looked good, but it was a perfect night for ice cream. So that’s what we got. We walked around for a bit, and Steve spotted Cheomseongdae, which is the ancient astronomy observatory. I had been wanting to see it, so we made a little detour. It was all lit up at night, which made it extremely striking.

Cheomseongdae Observatory.

Cheomseongdae Observatory.

Then, we walked some more and came across a little strip with shops and eateries. Steve got a tornado potato at one stand and we noticed the vendor was making something. He told us it was an ancient royal candy. It is called kkultarae and it is made from honey, maltose, and a nut filling. He was so friendly, I just had to buy a box from him. I haven’t tried it yet, but I am really looking forward to!

Man making kkultarae candy.

Man making kkultarae candy.

We were so exhausted after this, so we went back to the motel and called it a night.

Chuseok in Gyeongju – Part 1

Chuseok (추석) is a national holiday celebrated in Korea. It is a harvest festival which falls around the autumn equinox, on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar. From what I’ve been told, Chuseok is most comparable to American Thanksgiving. Koreans spend this holiday with their families in the towns of their ancestors and eat traditional foods.

During this time, it is also customary to give gifts. For the past few weeks, I have been seeing many different gift baskets and specialty items popping up in the supermarkets. Some of the most popular ones I’ve seen include Spam (yes, that Spam), oil, and soy sauce. I’ve also seen stations set up selling what I think are little sweets (rice buns and something that resembles a brittle).

Chuseok also means that I get a four day weekend.

So, Steve and I decided to take a short trip to Gyeongju on Sunday, which is roughly an hour by bus north of Ulsan. However, it took nearly three hours for us to get there because of all the Chuseok traffic.

Steve and I on the bus.

Steve and I on the bus.

It was hot and uncomfortable, but we made it there in one piece. Our first order of business was to visit the Gyeongju National Museum and after jumping in a taxi, we quickly learned that the city sights are very spread out. We arrived at the Museum and, to our delight, there was no admission fee. There were also games set up for children and their families to play because of the holiday.

We weren’t there for ten minutes when a Korean man asked us to take a picture of him and his children. After, he asked where we were from and even asked us to take a picture with his kids. His English was very good and he said that his children have never seen foreigners before, so it would be nice for them. It was actually quite cute.

We parted ways and went on to explore the Museum, which was made up of several large buildings (with lots of stairs) and galleries. Most of the galleries were dedicated to Silla art. The Silla Kingdom was one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea and was ruled for nearly 1,000 years.

Buddha sculpture at the Gyeongju National Museum.

Buddha sculpture at the Gyeongju National Museum.

Below the main complex, there was also a beautiful structure surrounded by a lovely little pond. We took a walk down there for a closer look.

At Gyeongju National Museum.

At Gyeongju National Museum.

After the Museum, our plan was to visit Bunhwangsa Temple, a temple from the Old Silla Era. However, we might have had a hard time trying to find a taxi. So we walked. And walked. And it was rather hot out. Finally, we saw a taxi approaching and we waved it down. Too bad it already had passengers and they waved and laughed as they passed. With no map and no WiFi, Steve and I had absolutely no idea where we were. So we just kept on walking.

In the distance, we saw a bridge. As we got nearer, we heard music. We couldn’t tell if it was a recording or live, so we just followed it until we stumbled upon Gyochon Village. Gyochon Village is a traditional hanok village that offers glassmaking classes, pottery workshops, quilting, and tea ceremony training. They were having a festival for Chuseok complete with live music performances, costumed performers, and more games. It was so wonderful! We spent a good amount of time there before grabbing some water at the cafe and trying to find our way back downtown.