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The LKL Korea Trip 2009 pt 5: Bulguksa and Seokkuram

Sunday 19 July 2009

Gyeongju tombs
Gyeongju tombs

More World Heritage points today.

Haejang Guk
Haejang Guk

Hangover Soup mapThe Samgyeopsal from last night is still sitting heavily on my stomach and I don’t feel like breakfast. The 9 am KTX from Seoul Station, and the connecting train from East Daegu, went without a hitch, and bang on time. Just before I arrive in Gyeongju I get a call from my friends to say that their car had broken down and they didn’t know when they could get to me. So I was on my own for the forseeable future. I thought I’d stroll around a bit before taking the bus to Bulguksa. I was intrigued by a little street on the tourist map labelled “Street of Hangover Soup Restaurants” near the station. I didn’t have a hangover, but felt like a soup, so headed off there. I couldn’t find a place that was advertising seolleongtang, so took the first restaurant which had a bit of English in the title (how shallow is that?) and had a very good haejang guk. This particular version seemed to be based on acorn jelly with all the familiar side dishes including dried anchovies – 4,000 Won.

Hangover Soup Street
Gyeongju’s Hangover Soup Street

Lotus flowersPetrol StationA bus ride to Bulguksa was easy (Bus 10 or 11, going from just where the Lonely Planet said they’d go from, costing 1,500 Won), though there is also a stop just opposite the railway station. The lotus flowers are out, and people are out in the lotus fields having their photos taken. Even the petrol stations seem conscious of the heritage of the place, having authentic Silla-dynasty rooves.

The bus passes through fertile green plains. I resisted the temptation to get out at Bulguksa Station, and for a while wondered if I’d been wise, but ten minutes later the bus arrived unmistakeably at the Bulguksa temple car park. A quick stroll past the ajummas selling snacks to the ticket office (4,000 Won) and I then prepare to do battle with the hordes. But actually, it wasn’t as crowded as I had been expecting, although it was very difficult to take any photos without getting visitors in them. As the rain became more persistent the people thinned out.

Bulguksa front

Returning to the car park I visit the tourist information kiosk to find out about transport to Seokkuram. Miss Bae speaks excellent English, and I’m soon fixed up with the hourly bus which climbs the steep hill to the famous grotto. Steam is rising from the woods as we ascend the mountain road, or maybe it’s thick low cloud. More accurately, it was probably a combination of the two. Seokkuram, another 4,000 Won, was rather too busy with tour groups. The grotto itself, sealed off from visitors by a glass screen, can only be viewed from a small antechamber. The mass of humanity pressing to get in rather reduces the real sense of magic inherent in the place. On a fine day it is said that you can see the East Sea from the grotto, but today only clouds were visible.

View towards the East Sea from Seokkuram
View towards the East Sea from Seokkuram

Seokguram BuddhaIn most of the photos of the statue of Buddha in the grotto it looks huge – excluding pedestal it’s 3.5 metres high. From behind the glass screen, the majesty and mystery is somehow reduced, even though the site has been lovingly restored. Visitors are not permitted to take photographs inside the grotto, so we are dependent on the publicly available images. Paradoxically, it’s a photo of the grotto when it was being restored in 1913 which gives the best idea of the scale of the grotto as it feels today for visitors, behind the screen: somewhat diminished in size. If you are patient, though, you can maybe get a few minutes in the grotto on your own, in between tour groups, and say a quick prayer before heading back.

Seokkuram in 1913Descending back to Bulguksa by the woodland path rather than waiting for the hourly bus is a pleasant alternative, taking around 30 minutes. Only the most penitent pilgrim should attempt the journey the other way round, particularly in such steamy weather, but nevertheless some hardy souls were struggling up the slopes.

Seomyeon, Busan, at night
Seomyeon, Busan, at night

The Kim sisters, who were intending to join me in Gyeongju, never managed to get their car fixed, so returned home to Busan. I catch the train south to meet them and am treated to the interesting (and very tasty) experience of Turkish food cooked by genuine Korean-speaking Turks in the Seomyeon area of Busan. The streets were still bustling with stylishly-dressed youngsters at 11pm on a Sunday night. I find a motel for the night (only 40,000 Won) and, once I figure out the Korean keyboard on the room’s PC I settle down to catch up on a long overdue blog post about the Living Heritage show at the KCC: the room has a computer with internet access as well as all the other mod cons.

Bulguksa is Historic Site #502. It contains several Treasures and National Treasures including its bridges, a pagoda and two gilt-bronze seated Buddha statues. Seokguram in National Treasure #24


Index of the 2009 Travel Diary:

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