Once again, big thanks for the comments I got on last week’s post. It was a big day for me, and I’m so glad you came along for the ride!
Moving on! While there is no rest for the wicked, neither is there rest for the active traveler. Day Four of our trip we meet our newest ally, a Korean man named Steve, who leads us on a journey, braving both cold, wind and rain deep into the heart of Gyeongju, the ancient seat of the three kingdoms.
That’s right, we’re about to go full saeguk on your asses.
Early we rose from our boards cleverly disguised as beds and peered out our windows. Drat. Rain. And it wasn’t a Colorado rain where it rains through the sun, or where you wait five minutes, and it’s gone. No, it was bitingly cold, rain moving back and forth from a drizzle to a full pour, and the wind guaranteed we were going to get wet no matter how careful we were. Which was perfect as this was our big trip to Gyeongju. Sigh.
Now, if you’re not familiar with Busan, or ancient Korean history, here’s a wrap up from Wikipedia:
Gyeongju was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Silla (57 BC – 935 AD), which ruled about two-thirds of the Korean Peninsula at its height between the 7th and 9th centuries, for close to one thousand years. Later Silla was a prosperous and wealthy country, and its metropolitan capital of Gyeongju was the fourth largest city in the world.
Ie, a must see for all those interested in Korean history, K-dramas, or anyone wanting a full 8ish hours with an adorable Korean tour guide. While there are ways to get there yourself via public transportation, it was recommended, since everything is so spaced out, if you really want to get the most sights for your seeing, you want to hire a tour guide.
SaraG placed herself in charge of finding us a tour. We thought about doing a public one, as it seems a bit extravagant to hire your own tour guide, but, with 4 of us there, the pricing was pretty reasonable. It included a van, an English speaking (and from the website very personable) tour guide, all entry fees, and lunch, with the total was about $690, so about $170 each for an entire day of touring. Not a bad deal.
Even knowing we were going to be driven from location to location, we couldn’t help but whine over the weather, especially me as, mentioned before, I didn’t really pack appropriately with my lightweight coat. Oh well. The stalwart traveler doesn’t let a little inclement weather get in their way! After a quick breakfast of triangle kimbap and coffee brewed by the space-aged looking coffee maker at the Airb&b. (Not kidding, I wish I’d taken a picture of it, It was a red circle.) We bundled into coats (I again wore two. Please keep this in mind when you look at pictures of me and wonder “Why does Stephanie look exceptionally sausage-y today?”) grabbed our umbrellas, tissues and cold medicine (poor, poor Miss Leila, such a trooper!), our can-do spirit, and made our way outside to meet Steve and his van. There he took us on a trip, we saw some old stuff, ate some food, made some obscene monster hot dog jokes and in general had a good time. The end.
HA! Nice try, my friend!
Let’s introduce Steve. Throughout our time together, we learned Steve is a professional tour guide, has been for several years. He is also part owner of a BBQ place in Beef Square. Beef Square he kept telling us. You haven’t been to Beef Square? Beef Square is the best for tourists! You should definitely go to Beef Square. Hmmmm….a square dedicated to just beef? Yeah, you don’t need to twist our arms, we would totally be putting the Square of Beef on our to-do list…and not just because we wanted to please the delightful Steve.
Spoiler alert? Not Beef Square. Biff Square. And it wasn’t just me that heard Beef! We had a good chuckle at ourselves afterward. But again, as we learned on or treck, Trust In Steve. Biff Square was actually, delightful!
Back to Steve. Turns out he went to the US when he was a kid as an exchange student in Kentucky and ended up just staying with his host family, who became his second family. He remained there through high school and college before going back to Korea to do his service. (Explaining his Kentucky accented English.) He actually ended up serving right in Busan, which he said was a pain because he could actually see home, but couldn’t get there.
He was astounded of the extent of our musical knowledge and he and SaraG instantly bonded over Crush, Dean, and DPR Live.
Funnily enough, a great side story he told us was about his brother, who did Steve a favor and took one of the girls from one of his tours to the airport, they got talking, and — surprise — they just got married! Let’s say it all together. Awwwwww…..
Now that you’re introduced to the official fifth member of our crew (we adopted him, it was a lovely ceremony) let’s get back to the tour. It took about an hour to get to Gyeongju from where we were in Haeundae. Everything was cold and grey (so much for those wishes for a fast weather turn around) though Steve assured us, though it might be uncomfortable, bad weather wasn’t necessarily a bad thing in the world of touring as it meant most tourists were going to be chased away and we’d have the run of these places.
He wasn’t wrong.
Our first stop was to GyeongjuPalace and Wolji Pond.
It was us, Steve, and the woman who ran the gift shop. That was it. Pretty cool. It was just as awful as we’d anticipated being outside, and my squeaky sneakers got instantly soaked (this is an important note, I promise). He got us tickets as we headed into the bathroom.
Which is probably a good time to talk to you about a significant portion of our trip. Bathrooms. We were a group of 4 ladies. There was never a time that one of us didn’t have to go to the bathroom. A good thing to know? Korea, unlike many US cities, is filled with many public restrooms. I think there were only one or two times where we had to buy something in order to use a toilet, and I believe even then was more because the habit is ingrained into us rather than what is expected of you. You’d think the bathroom stops every half hour or so would get irritating, but it was actually the opposite. We’d see a bathroom and pause. “Who has to go now?” and giggling, we’d be off.
I’d heard a lot about the Korean toilet system before I went. Had experienced some pretty gross ones in K-town in NY. So I was pretty much expecting the worst. But, I think that as many things change in South Korea, the bathroom system is one of them. There were only one or two times where we had to grab toilet paper before we went in. Most places had signs posted, telling people to put used toilet paper into the toilet and not the garbage can beside it. There was a mix of sitting and squatting toilets, mostly clearly labeled on the outside of the stall. Yes, in a pinch, I even used one! (It worked out just fine.) In many places, the toilets were electronic with so many bells, whistles and water sprays it blows the mind.
Remind me to tell you my adventure with the toilet at MNET Countdown.
Steve got us our tickets, and we sat down to watch a video on the history of the site before we were set off on the property.
The remains sat out in front of us, surrounded by a small pond. Steve explained the history of the location and walked us through the artifacts listed. The best moment, hands down, was when he pointed out the hilarious bias in the signage. In this wooden game, he explained the English translation says they aren’t entirely convinced what the small wood game was for. Their best guess it had something to do with music. Awww…. Makes sense, right? Hahaha. Turns out? Steve explained the Korean said, yeah, that was a total lie, the thing was a drinking game. Spin here, do this, spin this do that.
The grounds and buildings were beautiful. I wish I knew what everything was called so I could explain everything better to you, but I guess pictures are just going to have to help me here.
He pointed out where they were still excavating the area and explained that this was part of the reason that Gyeongju wasn’t as built up like other parts of Korea as construction companies never knew when they were going to come across some sort of ruin that would ruin their plans. Heh.
From there, being the eager tourists we were, hit the gift shop. No lie, this was one of the best gift shops I was going to come across in Korea. Great products, great prices. If I’d known I totally would have picked up more. As it was, here is one of my favorite pieces from my time there. I love it so much I’m actually worried for when I eventually break it and kick myself for not buying a matching pair. (It will be my first regret of many for things I didn’t buy, or eat, or see.)
I’m fairly certain everyone supported the local economy before stepping outside, picked up our umbrellas and were off for the next location!
Which, turned out, was right down the street.
Cheomaeongdae starts out with another video and a mural made to look like a photograph of what the area would have looked like during the Silla, or reign of the three kingdoms. We were here to see the still standing astronomy tower built by the first queen, Queen Seondeok, while she was still a princess.
Cheomseongdae means star-gazing tower – dates back to the seventh century and while mainly small and unassuming, it was a symbol of her power and strength of rule.
Steve told us of a drunk college girl who got into trouble for climbing up to the top of it. (Its the little stories that make the guided tour really worth it.)
From there, wet and cold, feet drenched and now covered in sand (again, important for later), we climb back into the van for our next stop, Daereungwon Tumuli Park.
We passed a tiny little coffee shop run by an artist, her art clearly written over the walls, which brought to mind our other constant, coffee.
Steve promised us a refueling before our next stop, be it here or the Starbucks down the street. Normally, I’d throw my nose up at being offered a Starbucks, instead of going local, but Steve explained, in this historical area, all of the buildings were made with the requirement of blending in, so even gas stations built with the fancy rooves, and he thought we’d want to see a Starbucks made styled after the classic Korean style….and he wasn’t wrong.
Off to the Daereungwon Tumuli Park! We wandered down the paths, watching the mounds get closer and closer. Tumulis are ancient burial mounds, big lumps of earth in the middle of a field. Which, talk about reminding me of things, this totally reminded me of a movie I’d completely forgotten about, Gyeongju with Shin Min Ah. When I lived in New York, I’d been lucky enough to be offered a ticket to a viewing of it during the Korean Film Festival and got to hear the director speak on the film.
Unlike the pyramids of Egypt, the Tumuli are mostly unopened due to the fragility of the mounds. There was one we were able to go into, which is probably as close as I’ll ever get to being in one of those pyramids. Inside the considerable mound was a fairly empty cavern, showing the remains (items not bones) of some unknown hire up. The regalia he had been found in was pretty amazing, and luckily for me, due to the rain, I wasn’t the only one squeaking my way through.
We wandered the grounds, and Steve showed us the promised, thicket of black bamboo.
He’d talked about the black bamboo for a while, telling us how in demand it was, people using it for various purposes from making toothpaste, to flavoring salt. There are supposed to be some sort of medicinal qualities to it. All I can say is I did actually find some salt later on during our trip, bought some, and managed to get myself flagged by US security for my unknown white powder.
Time to move on! But first? Warm caffeine! We ended up stopping into that tiny little coffee shop, each getting various warm beverages, Steve translating for us when necessary but mainly just chatting to the locals huddled around the tables as if he knew them all. (Though as many tours as he leads it’s entirely possible he does.) As we stood there, waiting for our orders, checking out the decor of the small rooms, I noticed the music that was playing over the speakers? Straight from the Pasta OST. WOOT!
Fortified, off we went on what Steve promised was our last location before lunch. I believe it was during this leg of the trip, we mentioned, if possible, our desire to stop at a rest stop at some point during our treck. At his incredulous look, we had to explain to him how we’d heard how cool Korean rest stops were. (We said we’d learned about them from dramas, but in all honesty, I wanted to experience one as they had been mentioned in many of the fanfics I’d read. Actually, so much of Korea reminded me of this or that fanfic, I may have crafted a whole new one in my head to the coffee shop barista you’ll meet once we head north again to Seoul.) Anyway, he laughed at the idea and had no problem doing this for us, then proceeded to tell us all about the delicacy known as the Monster Hot Dog, a staple at rest stops, essentially a corn dog with french fries mushed into it.
Our last pre-lunch stop was the Gyochon Traditional Village. Funnily enough, this is situated directly next to a filming local which, unfortunately, had gone bankrupt. I wonder if we’d pushed harder would we have been able to get Steve on board for sneaking in. He seemed agreeable to our other eccentricities, why not this one?
Back to Gyochon Traditional Village, which is a traditional Hanok village. We wandered the grounds popping into a shop (unfortunately, due to either weather or it technically being a weekday offseason, there weren’t a lot open.)
This is where I got intense Sungkyungkwan Scandal flashbacks. Throughout the village, in various places, there were people in period costumes reenacting life back in the day of the original Choi Clan.
Then, around a corner, there was an archery range with a dais. Remember that episode? Swoon!
I was excited to see the first signs of spring, happy to accidentally check off: See Cherry Blossoms from the list.
At the end of the park, Steve led us to the Woljeong Gyo Gyeongju Bridge. It’s a replica of the original bridge (which was destroyed at various points in history) and took 5 years to create, finally opening to the public in 2018.
The bridge was so pretty, and we took plenty of time (Steve running back to grab the van, promising to meet us on the other side) trying to perfect those selfies despite the laughter of the few other visitors on the bridge.
On the other side of the bridge, we obediently piled into the van where Steve took us to our next adventure — a Korean buffet. Here he dropped us (after walking us through our various options) and disappeared on what I’m sure for him was a much-needed break. (Later on we found out he was watching TV in the van. It delighted us.)
We love you, Steve!
His leaving was probably for the best as we didn’t need any witnesses for what we were about to do. Hey. If they are going to have a wide assortment of general Asian foods, we’d both seen and not seen before, we were going to eat a wide assortment of general Asian foods we’d both seen and not seen before. Sitting there, warming up, finally able to remove one of my layers, it was around then I realized we were amongst the most normal Korean people I’d seen yet. Do you know the people who go to buffets in the states? You’re going to see the same Korean version here. It was very homey.
Once we ate our full, passing on the self-serve ice cream (I didn’t need any help being cold) Steve collected us, and we were on our way. Unfortunately, while we were inside, the weather took a turn for the worse, and there was some concern we’d have to turn back from our next stop as Steve was driving us far, far up the mountain with small twisting and turning roads. If the visibility he explained, he’d get a call from HQ.
Luckily, (as it ended up being a cool stop) and unluckily (as the road was a little offputting) we were able to make it all the way to the top.
With a groan from both us and our wind-tortured umbrellas, we started hiking a muddy, winding path down the side of the mountain, the trail marked by a length of lanterns.
Side note: Our trip coincided with the lantern festivals and all of the Buddhist temples were being decorated as such. Steve actually recommended to us as to do option (besides Beef Square) what he described as a large temple in the heart of Busan which should be decorated entirely with lanterns at that point. Spoiler alert? We went the next day and let me tell you, Always Trust Steve.The path twisted and turned Steve joked for us to b careful as he didn’t want to be known as the tour guide who lost someone down the mountain…it would just make him look bad to his other tour guide friends.
The trail he was leading us to was to Seokguram Grotto essentially a hole in the mountain where a huge ancient budda stood. Why after all this build up is there no picture? Just like Kpop concerts nowadays, they would prefer us not to take photos. In the words of Steve: Just Google It.
I told you Steve was one of us.
He did tell us that one of the reasons the Buddha remained all these years, making it through the Japanese occupation? Turns out the monks actually picked up the giant statue and hid it.
This sadly was a theme during our time not just with Steve, but during our entire Korean stay. “This was stolen by the Japanese” or “This was destroyed by the Japanese.” It was sad, and you can tell it is something that still burned brightly for them.
Temple/Shrine/Budda visited, we climbed back up the mountain, back into the now muddy van (sorry Steve) and were off to our final stop. While I don’t want to say he saved the best for last, let’s just say Steve really knows how to end a show.
Bulguksa is comprised of various buildings, various national treasures, and is completely beautiful and takes you back to another time.
It had huge wood carvings and the Dabotap and Seokgatap pagodas which were built around 751 AD.
We were allowed to wander, and we instantly scattered, remembering all of the lessons from throughout the day, such as don’t climb the center stairs, take the case on either the left or the right sides.(Heaven forbid we do something that would shame Steve.)
Both Alix and Leila approached one fo the lantern booths and managed to communicate with the lady enough that they could purchase one fo their own lanterns to be hung. (It was 10,000 won. I decided I’d rather have that money in my pocket…unromantic I know. What can I say? It’s the New Englander in me.
I loved seeing all the lanterns hanging everywhere and was, for once, thankful for the breeze as seeing the bright colors swaying softly all around added completely to the atmosphere.
Steve explained to us that Bulguksa is still a very active temple, popular with mothers praying for their children’s good grades during exam time. As seen here by the tiny rock towers perched on every available flat surface.
We reluctantly left, having a fantastic day we wouldn’t soon forget. Definitely a major highlight of our trip.
But we’re not done yet!
As promised, Steve took us to a Korean Rest Stop! YAY STEVE!
While they didn’t have the Monster Hot Dog, I could not go to a rest stop and NOT get a Hot Dog (what they call a corn dog) and an Americano as girlfriend was COLD!
Steve was excited to offer up dropping us off wherever we’d like in Busan (an extra service not to just take us back home). We agreed that the big shopping mall he suggested was a great idea.
Honestly though? Once he dropped us off, we realized we’d agreed we just agreed to his suggestion as we hadn’t wanted to disappoint him. Weird, I know. So instead of shopping in the big fancy mall wet, tired and covered in mud, we decided to just go home.
Without dinner. Yes, we were that tired.
TLDR? Go to Gyeongju, if possible, go with Steve.
Because I can’t resist, here’s a gallery of my pics.