Betty and I returned from the North Korea/South Korea Demilitarized Zone earlier in the day than expected, so I had around four hours to kill until my train back South to Busan. But rather than meeting up with Ming-Kyeong and Yun-Yeong, I decided to head out on my own for the first time since coming to Korea. It’s been nice to have travel companions for so long, but I wanted to do just a small bit of traveling at my own pace as well.
So I took a two-hour round trip across town to see the World Tae Kwon Do Federation as a personal favor to Noz. Remember that comment he posted nearly three weeks ago asking that I go and take some pictures for him? That’s how behind these posts are 🙂
The cross-town trip and a quick bite at Mc Donald’s killed just the right amount of time until I had to board the KTX to Busan. I know, you’re probably saying “Why is he eating at Mc Donald’s in Korea?
Well, to be honest I find it interesting to see all of the different weird burgers they come up with for their international stores. In Japan, it’s the Mc. Teriyaki Burger. In Europe, they had a Greek Mac. In Korea it’s Bulgogi Burger and something they call a “Crazy Hot Chicken Folder.” What they mean is “Mildly Spicy Chicken Wrap.”
My KTX didn’t arrive at Busan until midnight, so after meeting Chie – whose rash was thankfully almost healed – I crashed almost immediately. Better that I be rested up for our day trip to GyeongJu.
My Lonely Planet guide led me to believe that GyeongJu would be a Kyoto-like city: old and beautiful, but very touristy. I had an image of thin, old streets tightly packed with wooden houses and family shrines. I was pleasantly surprised to find something entirely different – not because I don’t love Kyoto, but because it offered me yet another brand new experience.
When the rickety old train pulled into GyeongJu station I had no idea we’d even arrived until the many high-school students started to get up and put on their winter coats. Chie told me they were all heading there just to hang out on the weekend, like someone from inland California might drive out to the Santa Monica beach during a day off from school. From where I was sitting, we appeared to be in any old countryside town. There were no big roads, no shopping malls, and no subway stations. Just a lot of wide-opened space with clusters of old houses every here and there. And although it took me about three seconds to find the first enormous sightseeing map right outside the station, it really felt like an untouched city.
Even the people themselves were all Korean, so whether or not they were tourists it didn’t spoil the authenticity of the place whatsoever (for me at least). It somehow just had an unmistakably “real” feel to it.
Of course, I wouldn’t doubt that the feel of the place would be significantly different had I not gone during the dead of winter.
To enable ourselves to cover as much ground as possible in the one day we had there, Chie and I rented a pair of mountain bikes in front of the station and headed out. I don’t think she really approved of my travel style at first – even if I’m in a place that’s completely unknown to me, I rely very heavily on my sense of direction to get me where I want to go. I tend not to worry too much about things like getting lost.
She was therefore a bit thrown off when I turned my bike off the main street almost immediately, telling me that we had to go straight if we wanted to get to our destination. But it didn’t take long for me to prove to her that I could get us where we needed to go – and that we’d see a lot more interesting stuff if we left the main roads.
We made our way across town for a couple of hours, popping into small temples, riding through huge rice-fields, or stopping to slide rocks across a frozen lake, until we started to realize how behind schedule we had gotten. At this rate, we’d have virtually no chance of making it to our main destination and back in time for the last bus to Busan.
So we locked our bikes up on the side of the road and hopped in a cab. I was a bit reluctant at first to abandon my much anticipated “exercise-travel” day, but I have to admit that it felt pretty nice to get out of those sub-zero temperatures.
Via this taxi we toured two of GyeongJu’s most famous sites: Bulguksa and Seokguram.
Bulguksa is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, an ancient Buddhist temple originally built in the year 528 and a fantastic sight to see. Even though it was still as cold as ever, we were fortunate that the clouds had passed making the area a bit easier to take in.
Seokguram is another World Heritage Site, a stone grotto with a carved Buddha statue, located up Mt. T’oham from Bulguksa. It’s considered by many to be one of the most fantastic pieces of Buddhist art in the world. Unfortunately, all photography was prohibited. Instead, I offer you this picture of a frozen bucket!
With these two sites we wrapped up our (too) quick day trip to Gyeongju. I could tell from the brief taste that it’s a city I would’ve loved to spend some more time in, but because it was our last day in Korea Chie wanted to make sure she’d have enough time to say goodbye to her family and friends before heading back to Japan.
So we rode a surprisingly luxurious bus back to Busan, spending most of the trip accepting the curious stairs from a trio of Korean kids sitting in front of us. They just couldn’t seem to get enough of me. When I first arrived in Busan and saw all of the Russian sailors cruising around the port area I had the impression that Korea was a country full of foreigners, but apparently this is far from true – they seemed to be even rarer there than in Japan.
We arrived with just enough time to wrap up our vacation with a fantastic family dinner of Sukiyaki followed by beers with two of her best friends before the one-hour flight back to Kyoto.
Now it’s one night’s sleep in Kyoto before heading off on my next trip: Kyushu.