Spa for the soul

Teeming with natural and cultural attractions, the coastal city of Gyeongju stands as a shrine to South Korea’s fascinating historical heritage

By Neeta Lal

Published: Fri 11 Nov 2011, 7:44 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 3:08 AM

After the whirligig of Seoul — the South Korean capital with its vertigo-inducing skyscrapers, a sensory overload of concrete and glass and the crush of 10 million people — Gyeongju felt like a soothing salve, a spa for the soul — cleansing and rejuvenating.

Located in southeastern South Korea, the city’s landscape is leavened with lush parks, stunning temples, gardens, lakes and sundry other eye candy which justifies its UNESCO heritage status. Also known as a “museum without walls’, the city is peppered with tombs, pagodas, Buddhist statuaries, palaces and castles.

Despite its small size, Gyeongju has contributed to, and benefited from the economic and social trends that define modern-day South Korea. But in spite of this give-and-take, the city retains its own distinct identity. In tourism, it is one of South Korea’s best-known destinations while commercially, it profits from its proximity to major industrial centres such as Ulsan.

South Korea’s robust tiger economy — whose spectacular rise in the sixties and seventies gave birth to the term ‘Miracle on the Han River’ — is bolstered by industries like information technology, robotics and petrochemicals. Due to this, the forward-looking country has increasingly acquired geopolitical heft and has also become a tourist curiosity. More and more people are visiting South Korea, particularly Seoul and Busan — the nation’s second-largest city and 2020 Summer Olympics hopeful.

But having visited both these cities, my vote still goes to Gyeongju. And a three-day media sojourn was just perfect to help us soak in the multifarious flavours of this charming city. Apparently, the city was the political capital of the artistically-inclined Shilla Dynasty, which ruled South Korea between the seventh and ninth centuries.

Even so, it retains a small-city feel and is easy to navigate. Our explorations begin with the eighth-century Bulguksa Temple, a sprawling venue that seems to leap straight out of a picture postcard. As the city’s foremost attraction, it draws visitors in tsunami-esque proportions. Ergo, we get bumped around ruthlessly and have to wait with Zen-like patience to click photos or use the washrooms. But in the end, it seems worth it to visit this masterpiece of Buddhist art.

The temple, incidentally, was razed to the ground by the Japanese in 1593, but Bulguksa resurrected itself — Phoenix-like — in the seventies to its current glorious avatar. It has now been anointed a UNESCO world heritage site.

You could spend hours here, soaking in the temple’s gentle contours. Or admire the mist-swathed mountains in the distance. Trees exploding with a staggering colour palette — auburn, russet, copper, orange and everything in between — add to the place’s allure. In front of Bulguksa’s sanctum sanctorum are two stone pagodas — Dabotap and Seokgatap — both national treasures.

A few kilometres’ hike up from Bulguksa and we get to Seokguram Grotto — another architectural jewel — which showcases the exquisite Shilla architecture. It is renowned for its gargantuan Buddha-in-a-meditative-pose statue flanked by a posse of royal guards.

Grotesque as it may sound, I found Tumuli Park (grass-covered burial mounds) to be the city’s most fascinating attraction. Well-rounded and ensconced in verdant grass, the mounds are the city’s most conspicuous sights. We stroll through the park crisscrossed by beautiful, albeit labyrinthine, pathways. The space is serene, almost meditative.

Gyeongju began its cultural renaissance as early as the former half of the 20th century with frenetic preservation and restoration work. Hike Namsan Mountain, a spiritually significant mountain and a stone’s throw from downtown, is a wonderful specimen of that endeavour.

The mountain is replete with historical Buddha reliefs carved into rocks and boulders as well as dotted with ancient pagodas and temples. It has a grotto behind a panel of glass to protect it from the onslaught of visitors’ breaths, which, experts say, can adversely impact its ageing rocks. Photography is also prohibited for the same reason.

On the second day of our visit, we arrived at the Shilla Millenium Theme Park bursting with all the enthusiasm of 10-year-olds. But we were crestfallen to note that there are no wild rides with screaming adults here. No Disney parades or fast food joints to tickle our westernised palates.

Apparently, the park is meant to showcase traditional Shilla architecture in all its glory. It also has a vibrant theatre which stages plays based on the lives of putative Korean emperors. Think amphitheatre, costume drama, Oriental martial arts sequences and galloping horses, all of which make for a riveting show.

Next stop, Anapji Pond. A stunningly crafted palace of red-lacquered wood pillars, clay roofs and ornate ceilings of turquoise, blue, red and gold in quintessential Korean motif style, stands surrounded by the seventh century man-made pond. Legend has it that many a miracle has transpired here. During the pond’s reconstruction, many artifacts were found which are now showcased in its interiors.

Culturally well-endowed Gyeongju has a rich gastronomic tradition as well. It is renowned for its rice wines, particularly Gyeodong Beopju, a mild wine that pairs well with white meats, rice and pasta. Although the drink is concocted from glutinous rice and spring water, locals believe that a boxthorn or Chinese matrimony vine growing near the source of its water imbues the wine with therapeutic properties. It is therefore administered as a panacea for all kinds of ills.

Gyeongju’s old-fashioned eating joints or hanoks (small, traditional wooden homes) are an extension of its charming culinary culture. They are a popular dining venue to explore a spectrum of Korean dishes. Low-seating arrangements here offer a central cavity at all tables filled with glowing charcoal. Punters can cook their choice of meats over the fire and eat them piping hot.

Our culinary feast begins with the intense kalbi (grilled marinated beef) and the flavourful kimchi, a spicy cabbage traditionally fermented in huge jars dug into the earth and then sexed up with multifarious spices. This is followed by japchae (cellophane noodles stir-fried with sliced beef and veggies). A yummy concoction of bean paste, tofu and meat and fried fish spiked with vegetables is up next. In other words, tens of dishes in tiny ceramic bowls are unleashed upon us by an army of waiters at a bewildering pace. The dishes may have had unpronounceable names but they remain unforgettable as they exploded with taste, colour and flavour.

For a foodie like me, Gyeongju had hit just the right spot!

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