…Gyeongju, City of the Ancient…

Industrial civilization, which worships convenience and speed, has left dark shadows in its wake: climate change, environmental degradation and rocketing stress level. Sometimes, it seems the only solution is to get back to the past, when things seemed slower and more innocent. If that feeling overcomes you in Korea, the first port of call should be the city of Gyeongju. Here, visitors can find the beauty of life lived in slow motion, in a setting that thrived a millennium ago.

Is it winter or fall? Spring or summer? To be sure, people at this time of year store crops they harvested in previous months, while trees drop their foliage. Birds leave their homes deep in the valley, fleeing the cold weather. For the traveler, it is the perfect time to walk alone and get lost in thought on the read along Bomun Lake.

Yet as I look at the cherry blossom trees flanking the lakeside promenade, I am transfixed by the idea of how they must have seemed in April in all their colorful pomp. The still sky reflected on the lake’s surface reminds me how full of life it is before the clouds of winter approach. True essence is rarely visible to the naked eye, but man, who struggles to see even seconds into the future, must constantly be reminded that it exists.

Speaking of what you can see, there are few cities in Korea with such clear attractions as Gyeongju. Located in the south-east of the peninsula, the city was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Silla for 1,000 years, wielding national and even international influence until its downfall in the year 935.

Visitors to the city, after arriving by train or bus and having a look around downtown Gyeongju, can see numerous royal tombs that have been there since the days of the great Silla kings. The Silla Dynasty’s 56 kings, all burried in Gyeongju, contributed to the one of the most sophisticated cultural and political systems of its day. And this culture continues to dazzle visitirs, since the dynasty came to an end.

BULGUKSA: A THOUSAND YEARS OF HISTORY
As if calmed by the passage of time, the historical relics of Silla stand completely silent today. The remnants of the people who lived then are mostly gone, and only purple Korean daisies tilt in the wind. To learn more about the true colow of our ancestors, I decide to visit Bulguksa Temple, on the slopes of Tohamsan Mpuntain, and the Seokguram Grotto.

One of the most famous temples in the country, Bulguksa Temple is known to all Koreans, most of whom will have been there at least once on a school trip. I, too, visited this place when I was in middle school, so this marks the first time I have returned in close to 30 years.

There are two different records of the origins of Bulguksa Temple. One has it that the temple was established by Youngje, mother of KIng Beopheung, in 528. The other says that it was set up by Adohwasang, a monk during the reign of King Nulji (?-458 AD). Whatever the truth, Bulguksa Temple was definitely expanded by Kim Dae-seong, the prime minister during the reign of King Gyeongdeok (?-765 AD).

Though the entire temple is, quite literally, designated UNESCO’s World Heritage Site, its greatest highlights are the four bridges that come into view just beyond the Cheonwangmun (Gate of Four Guardians), and the two stone pagodas in the front yard of the Daeungjeon Hall.

The Yeonhwagyo (Lotus Flower Bridge) and Chilbogyo (Seven Treasures Bridge) in the west, and the Cheongungyo (Blue Cloud Bridge) and Baekungyo (White Cloud Bridge) in the east, are almost identical, but slightly different in scale. Steeped in holy symbolism, the bridges are not mere conveyances for people on foot, but reserved for those who are already on the true path to enlightenment. Because of this, visitors must receive permission from the monks before stepping foot on these bridges.

Two renowned stone pagodas can be found here: Dabotap, whose likeness is carved on the back of the 10 won Korean coin; and Seokgatap, also known as Samcheung Seoktap (“three-storied stone pagoda”). In 1966, during restoration work, the Seokgatap was found to contain the Mugujeonggwang Great Dharani Sutra, the world’s oldest extant woodblock print, thought to date from around 700 AD.

I’d love to while away several more hours here, but there’s still the Bonjongsang Statue, in the Seokguram Grotto, to visit, so I head for the peak of Tohamsan Mountain.

According to scanty historical evidence, Kim Dae-seong, King Gyeongdeok’s prime minister, also oversaw the construction of Seokguram. The grotto is renowned for its strikingly ambitious architectural beauty: the fact that an artificial stone cave was built high on a mountaintop is surprising enough, but the spatial composition of the cave, a mixture of curves and straight lines, is nothing less than awe-inspiring.

The benign gaze of the Buddha, pointing down toward the underwater tomb of King Munmu in the East Sea, is a beguiling sight in itself. After treading down the Sinjakro road, I jump in my waiting car and take the windy route down the mountain. The roughness of the road surprises me, the beauty of the landscape astonishes me.

To see these ancient historical remains properly, you have to spare a good bit of time. It take two full days to appreciate both Bulguksa Temple and Seokguram Grotto, and even a week might not du justice to the numerous royal tombs and historical sites. I have only two days to see everything. So with someone reluctance, I decide not to visit the sites within Gyeongju itself, and head for the nearby Bomun Lake Resort.

LAKESIDE LEISURE
Completed in 1963, Bomun Lake Resort is a tourist complex centered around the manmade Bomun Lake. It includes hotels and condominium, theme parks such as Gyeongju World and Gyeongju EXPO Park, and leisure facilities such as a golf club and boat rides.

Perhaps the resort’s biggest draw is the Shilla Millennium Park, which opened in March 2007. Spanning 180,000 sqm multipurpose, leisure and educational facility themed around the Silla Dynasty. Among its many attractions, Emile Polis has restored, Silla-era dwellings from 1,000 years ago, and studios and workshops offer lessons in using traditional dyes and making earthenware pottery. Elsewhere are a 990 sqm main stages and a 1,980 sqm floating stage. During my visit, the stages are providing the setting for The Secret of the Heavenly Chest, an effects-laden performance about an elite young Silla man called Misirang, who defeats Silla’s foreign enemies using 300 treasures handed down from the heavens.

Taking my leave, I head toward Bomun Lake while looking over Gyeongju EXPO Park and the Gyeongju Tower, gleaming in the afternoon sun. Take an elevator to the top of the 82-meter tower and you’ll be rewarded with a panoramic view of tower’s windows at night, is said to be spectacular.

While you’re here, be sure to visit the Artsonje Museum, located near the resort entrance. In the museum’s outdoor sculpture park, located along the promenade by the lake, the artworks of global artists such as Alexander Liberman are exhibited in a bamboo grove, making it feel like you’re unearthing long-lost treasure. More beautiful artworks are also on view in the museum’s main building and second exhibit hall.

The slow life has another home in Gyeongju, in a place also renowned for its traditional Korean architecture: Yangdong Folk Village, located 30 minutes by car from the Bomun Lake Resort. After resting for the night, I visit the village in the morning, when it’s tile-roofed and straw-thatched houses are tinged with a seductive sunlight.

This village has existed for 500 years, thanks largely to the tireless efforts of the Gyeongju Son family and the Yeogang Yi family, whose have lived here for generations. Though the village once had 350 houses, just 160 or so remain. Of those, perhaps 140 are still inhabited today.

Traditional homes for nobility, hanok. such as Gwangajeong and Hyangdan, are very well preserved here, making Yangdong the perfect destination for anyone seeking a genuine taste of the Korea of yore. The promise of authentic Korean even brought Britain’s Prince Charles to the village in 1992. In recognition of its historical value, UNESCO added the village to its World Heritage List this year.

Tall earthen walls connect to create roads here, and travelers and villagers follow those roads as people have done for centuries past. As they stroll around these remnants of a disappeared time, the idle afternoon sun of Yangdong Folk Village descends slowly.

Source : Korea People & Culture Magazine, December 2010

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