When people, particularly tourists, think of Gyeongju, they think of the ancient Silla Kingdom. This makes sense, since it’s the Silla heritage which sets Gyeongju apart from anywhere else in the world. However, Gyeongju also existed during the Joseon dynasty, and it still exists today.
One area in downtown Gyeongju has a substantial number of hanok (traditional Korean wooden houses). I don’t know when these houses were built. The hostel I stayed at in Gyeongju, Homo Nomad, is inside a hanok (you can see photos of Homo Nomad in this post – it’s the third guesthouse described).
Park Chung-hee, who was the “president” (de facto military dictator) of South Korea from 1962 to 1979, and is the father of South Korea’s current president, Park Geun-hye, was very interested in Gyeongju and its historical heritage. I would occasionally stumble across monuments he set up in Gyeongju. He praised the hwarang (elite male youth groups of Silla who eventually became militarized) and said that Silla’s unification of Korea by conquest was an inspiration and model for Koreans today. I suppose Kim Il-sung (leader of North Korea) agreed since he tried to unify Korea by military conquest himself.
A bit south of downtown is a … folk experience village? I don’t quite remember what it’s called. It seemed a teensy bit like a tourist trap, on the other hand, I don’t think anyone was trying to sell me anything, in fact there weren’t many people there at all.
Anyway, both the hanok area and this folk village were my introduction to non-Buddhist traditional Korean architecture. Gyeongju was the very second place I visited in all of South Korea, and I hadn’t seen any kind of Korean village before, let alone a ‘folk’ village. This was all new and fresh to me. Even after having gone to quite a few of these ‘folk’ villages, including famous ones such as Hahoe, I still think these old Korean-style buildings in Gyeongju look nice.
During my wanderings around Gyeongju, I found a Confucian academy which was established during the Joseon dynasty. It was probably the first Korean Confucian academy I visited.
Right across the street from the Gyeongju Express Bus Station is Kong Story, a small vegetarian eatery which specializes in falafel (this blog has more details about Kong Story). I told the owner that she makes the best falafels in all of South Korea. She then asked me if I had eaten falafels anywhere else in South Korea, and I admitted I hadn’t. In any case, I ended up going to Kong Story about once a day when I was in Gyeongju, and when I was travelling from Gimhae to Andong and needed to change buses in Gyeongju, I found time to go to Kong Story again.
The owner of Kong Story that the economy in Gyeongju was not doing too well. Earlier that year (2014) the Sewol ferry had sunk, and most of the passengers, as well as most of the dead, were schoolchildren and their teachers on a school outing. After that disaster, school field trips throughout South Korea were drastically reduced. Gyeongju’s economy revolves around tourism, and the steadiest source of tourists had been school field trips. The owner of Kong Story said that before the ferry disaster, Gyeongju was always full of schoolchildren from all over South Korea. Now, there’s very few schoolchildren, and many businesses which depended on the school trips are in trouble. I asked how Kong Story is faring, and she said that since most of their customers are foreigners and there are as many foreign tourists as ever in Gyeongju, that their business is doing OK.
I went to another vegetarian restaurant, Baru, a few times. It’s not in downtown, but it is only a 20-30 minute walk away from downtown if you don’t get lost (hint: go to King Muyeol’s tomb, and once you’re at the tomb park’s entrance, stick to the main road, and proceed about another 300 meters – Baru will be on your right). Baru specializes in traditional Korean Buddhist temple food – i.e. the kind of food prepared by/for Buddhist monks. To get an idea of what a meal at Baru might look like, check out this blog. The bibimpap at Baru is tasty, filling, and good value for the money. The other dishes are a bit expensive, but how often do you get to try gourmet Korean temple food? Besides, this kind of food costs double in Seoul.
Baru restaurant is located in Seoak village, which I overall thought was a charming little village. Some of the nice hanok photos in this post come from Seoak village. As I said before, this was my very first taste of Korean countryside, and it left a good first impression.
This particular post is a bit all over the place – local business conditions, 1970s military dictator, Joseon-era Confucian academy, vegetarian food, etc. – and that’s the point. Yes, the remains of ancient Shilla are special, and fascinating, but I remember Gyeongju as being much more than that. I remember talking to the owner of Kong story while eating falafel, I remember looking through a book on Gyeongju archaelogy in the common room of Homo Nomad Guesthouse while I was waiting for the internet to start working again, and I remember asking for directions when I got lost in Seoak village from someone who didn’t speak English. I didn’t just visit Gyeongju, I was literally living there for a few days.