Cherry blossoms? Who gives a damn? I’ve been to Seokguram. I’ve seen Bulguksa a thousand times. I’m going to have a seizure if I even glance at the tumuli again. The idea of wandering inside the Heavenly Horse Tomb fills my heart with bile. To hell with Gyeongju! I’ve seen everything worth seeing! I’m going to Japan!
There are already green buds on the trees here, and warmth is flowing through the air: the cherry blossoms are coming, and when they arrive in the first few weekends of April the city is going to be so mobbed with Korean tourists you won’t be able to stick out an arm without knocking off someone’s poker visor. On top of that, you’ve probably already come here a few times by now, and you undoubtedly think you’ve extracted every last drop of fun from the palpitating fruit that is the city of Gyeongju, but you couldn’t be more wrong. As one of my friends said, in Gyeongju, there’s so much to Gyeong-do!
Here follows a list of Gyeongju’s numerous and worthy off-the-beaten-path attractions, where you’ll find few if any tourists:
1. Baekryulsa, pronounced Baek-nyool-sa (백률사)
Located right beside a highway that’s at least a five-minute taxi ride from the bus station, Baekryulsa is not only home to a spectacular thousand-year-old statue of multiple Buddhas, but also happens to be the (supposed) final resting place of Ichadon’s flying head, which was severed with much gusto from his ready, willing, and able shoulders some fifteen centuries ago. A small temple is located at the top of a stone staircase that winds up through a grove of creaking bamboo, and while the architecture there is really not so remarkable, the temple’s foundation dates from the Silla period (the stones supporting the structure are noticeably older), and there’s a nearby bell which depicts Ichadon’s remarkable martyrdom. More wonders are apparently to be found by hiking up the mountain, but I can’t vouch for them personally.
2. Geumjangdae (금장대)
One of the newest additions to the city is located right above what must be its oldest relics: a series of petroglyphs that were carved into the cliffs at least two thousand years ago. Reconstructed last summer, Geumjangdae is a large Korean gazebo in the traditional style, and commands a gorgeous view of the Elder Mountain River, or the Hyungsangang, as well as the city of Gyeongju itself. A peculiar sign out front states that it was once the favorite meeting place of Joseon court poets, guerillas fighting against the Japanese, and UFOs. This is a perfect location to relax from the madness of the tourists; you can see it on the right as you pass over the bridge to the Dongguk University Hospital.
3. Schumann & Clara (슈만과클라라)
This cafe is, to my very limited knowledge, the nicest in Korea, and although you should be prepared to shell out five thousand won for a cup of coffee here, and while you’ll also have to endure the presence of at least a few of the ubiquitous and idle bujammas (buja, rich + ajumma = bujamma), the interior is filled with classical music records, and the speakers in the cafe’s walls are probably the only ones in the country that are not playing KPOP. Located maybe fifteen minutes’ walking distance from the bus station, just to the left of the bridge facing Dongguk University.
4. Yeonhwa Baru (연화바루)
This is Korea’s vegetarian mecca, a restaurant that will serve you five, six, or seven courses of unbelievably delicious monk food for the rather appropriately high price of eighteen thousand won per person. The women who run this place couldn’t be nicer and are used to serving foreigners who got sick of samgyupsal years ago. The restaurant can be found just above the tomb of King Muyeol (무열왕릉), five or ten minutes from the bus station, and you may have to explain that to your taxi driver, as it’s so out of the way that they sometimes don’t quite know where it is. Another (mostly) vegetarian restaurant, Pyeong-sa-lee-ga-neun-gil (평사리가는길), can be found in nearby Chunghyo; except for a few thin slabs of pork on a single plate, their multiple-course and multiple-orgasm menu is meatless.
5. Jinpyeong’s Tomb (진평왕릉)
The large grass hill which possibly belongs to illustrious King Jinpyeong of the Silla Dynasty is located way out in the Bomun countryside, and is really excellent for all of those weary souls who are desperate to escape the mountains of garbage and the constant honking of the Korean megalopolis. Rice fields extend deep into the blue mountains, and frogs can be found in the grass. If you don’t have a car, make sure you get the number of a call taxi company so you don’t get stranded out here.
6. The Hanja School, or Hyang-gyo (향교)
Lots of traditional weddings take place at this ancient structure, and they are all apparently open to the public. Last summer my wife and I randomly wandered into this place and were treated with free bam, or chestnuts, as well as shikay (식혜), a very tasty sweet malt rice drink. Follow the village musicians clashing their gongs through the Gyerim Forest, just past Chumsungdae (Asia’s first astronomical-observatory-cum-bread-oven), to get here.
7. The Gyeongju Cultural Center (경주문화원)
A collection of administrative buildings from the late Joseon period, when Gyeongju was Gyeongju-Eupseong, they later became Gyeongju’s first museum under the Japanese. Two enormous gingkos in the back are five centuries old, and there is also a tree that was planted a hundred years ago by the Crown Prince of Sweden, who visited the city and apparently discovered one of the Silla Crowns. The best Jeongshik restaurant in the city, Chung-ha Hanjeongshik (청하한정식) is located directly across from the entrance, where a very decent pescatarian meal can be had for six thousand won; if you wander around the neighborhood in the direction the train station you might also find the old city wall, which is connected to Gyerim Elementary School (계림초등학교). One of Korea’s only remaining colonial-era Zen temples is also nearby, as is our favorite traditional noodle place. Gooksheecheep (국시집) can be found across the street from Hungmoo Elementary School (흥무초등학교). The noodles there are both cheap and excellent, but the Park Chung-hee calendars on the walls are even better.
There’s at least a day of activities here, and you can enjoy all of them without being ogled, greeted, or catcalled by the crowds of bored Korean schoolchildren perennially getting dragged around to each of Gyeongju’s massive cultural sites. I lived in Busan for two years, and with the exception of Haeundae and Nampo I think that Gyeongju has a lot more to offer in a much smaller space.