Upon exiting the central train station in Gyeongju, a city on the South-eastern coast of South Korea, my wife and I find ourselves in its “finance centre”, as the area is referred to by locals. This consists of two seven-storey bank offices – the tallest structures in town. We turn into the Street of Fashion and chance upon an arcade where teenagers are fishing for plush toys with claw machines. I am lulled by K-pop melodies sounding from the shops when I notice, ahead of us, a huge form jutting slantwise.
As we walk towards it, the view opens up into a landscape of bowl-shaped hills (above) that continue into the distance, topped only by a backdrop of mountains. What we are looking at, covered with sere grass this time of year, are Silla Dynasty burial mounds – some of which have been there for more than 2,000 years.
One of the Three Kingdoms of Korea in ancient times, the Silla Dynasty unified the Korean Peninsula for the first time in AD 668. It ruled the kingdom until its collapse in AD 935, when almost all of its capital, Gyeongju, was flattened by a series of invasions.
More recently, though, destruction of a more constructive nature has taken place in the city. “There used to be a lot of walls, but the local government took them down a couple of years ago,” explains local Jeon So-won. “This has given the city a wide-open feel, and many more young people have been coming to visit since then,” she says.
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Inspired by art
For lunch, we head to Domi Kitchen Pub (17-2 Nodong-dong; below), lured by beer taps that can be glimpsed through full-length windows. Little more than half a year ago, this narrow two-storey building was a sink salesroom. Seeing an opportunity, its new owner Yeo Ji-woong turned it into a gastropub with a one-of-a-kind view. Sinking into low chairs, we order pints of Taedonggang pale ale and the gambas (Spanish-style shrimp) and camembert cheese set, while contemplating one of the biggest burial mounds in South Korea – right across the street.
No one knows what treasures lie within Bonghwangdae (261 Nodong-dong), a 22m-tall giant. Gnarled trees rooted along its slope seem to protect it from prying shovels. Quenched and inspired, we continue our journey to the crowning glories of Silla civilisation – the Bulguksa Buddhist Temple and Seokguram Grotto, which can be reached via a bus ride out of town. The royal city was pillaged as early as AD 927, and its Wolseong and Donggung palaces are long gone. But the supple artistry of Silla’s craftsmen remains captured within the temple’s stone, which has withstood all manner of shocks. Remarkably, Bulguksa’s (below) twin pagodas were almost unaffected by a 5.8-magnitude earthquake last year.
The approach to Bulguksa’s main hall is stunning, with the walls looming above tall and thick ancient pines, and the grounds abuzz with devotees. Peering into the hallowed halls and discovering one national treasure after another, I admire turquoise sliding doors and cream-yellow panels illuminated by the late-afternoon sunlight, and breathe in incense-spiced air.
To process the day’s celestial sites, we head to the popular Cafe 737 (189 Wonhwa-ro, above). Sitting at one of the tables constructed by its owner Kang Jae-june, we admire objets d’art while sipping peppermint tea. About 10 years ago, it would have been difficult to find a restaurant that stayed open after 9pm here. That has all changed, thanks in part to a new batch of creative, worldly entrepreneurs such as Kang.
Though he has carved whalebones in Canada’s far north and held a solo exhibition of watercolour paintings, his cafe is decorated with works by fellow Korean artist Kim Min-ho. The Memento Mori motifs, including a warped skull stamped on layers of silk, seem fitting in this city of tombs.
New lease of life
Just as cafes have proliferated in Gyeongju, so have tasteful guesthouses such as Doran Doran (165-10 Cheomseong-ro; below). Not too long ago, travellers could choose only between motels in the city centre, and resort hotels a long distance from historical sites. Doran Doran is a far cry from both. Rather, it’s a hanok (traditional Korean house) tucked away in a set of narrow alleys.
“The roof was almost caving in when I bought the property four years ago,” says its owner, Lee Min-sook. “But we had it totally rebuilt. I couldn’t resist the location since I’ve always loved Cheomseongdae. It’s only a minute’s walk from here,” she adds, referring to an ancient stargazing tower that’s a symbol of achievement.
At the forefront of Gyeongju’s rejuvenation is the Hwangnam-dong neighbourhood. Entering the area, we pass the boarded-up remains of seedy bars and the dens of shamans decked with lotus-shaped lanterns and bamboo poles. Believed to be able to communicate with spirits, they offer everything from exorcism to advice on changing your name.
The complexion of the street changes suddenly with the appearance of a souvenir shop called Baerisamneung Gongwon (1083 Poseok-ro),which sells locally designed postcards (above) and candles shaped like Gyeongju’s monuments. Adjoining it is Awesome (1083 Poseok-ro), a homely restaurant that specialises in hearty Korean comfort food.
Our exploration comes to an end a few doors down at No Words cafe (1085 Poseok-ro; above). We step into the stripped-down interior and order a latte and flat white. In front of us, a brewing station rests on a dais.
Looking up, I see that layers of the ceiling have been removed to reveal the crude constructions of a bygone era – planks and sticks tied together. But the cafe, it turns out, is only a month old. Though coffee franchises from South Korea and beyond have arrived in ancient Gyeongju, small, independent cafes continue to thrive. Their signage is modest, and they are positioned conveniently between historical sites.
Sipping my well-crafted coffee, my thoughts wander back to our stroll earlier in the day along Gyeongju’s South Stream, and a small headstone we came across in the middle of the path. I was puzzled by the inscription, which read “grave of respected flower”, until I noticed the branches of a cherry tree that hung above it. Before long, blossoms would fall to the ground. The marker is a reminder that all things must pass – cherry blossoms and great kingdoms alike – to make way for something new.
– TEXT BY MATTHEW C. CRAWFORD
PHOTOS: SOO IM JUNG
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.