September 30 GyeongJu, South Korea

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Outside of the Seoul, South Korea new KTX train station

The Seoul train station is the primary terminus for the KTX  express train service to Busan. We began our second day in South Korea at the train station, as we were taking an express (high speed) train to GyeongJu, South Korea.

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Can you imagine a honor system like this anywhere for express train tickets?

The Old Seoul Station, originally named Gyeongseong Station, sits next to the Seoul KTX station. This red brick building was finished on November 1925. The old station was designated as an Historic Site, so  a restoration project of the old station began on September 2007. In August 2011, the station was reopened as a culture complex with its original exterior, after a two year of restoration. Unfortunately, we could not go inside, because it was closed on Mondays.

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Tree in a courtyard at Bulguksa r

Because the Old Seoul Station was closed, they were setting up for a political rally outside of the station. This made it rather difficult to walk around!

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Set up for a political rally outside of the Old Seoul Station

Gyeongju was the capital of the ancient kingdom of  Silla, (57 BC – 935 AD) which ruled about two-thirds of the Korean Peninsula. A vast number of archaeological sites and cultural properties from this period remain in the city. Gyeongju is often referred to as “the museum without walls”. Among its historical treasures are  Bulguksa temple and Yangdong Folk Village, which have been  designated as  World Heritage Sites by UNESCO. We went to see both of them.The many major historical sites have helped Gyeongju become one of the most popular tourist destinations in South Korea.

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Tumuli (mound graves) in Gyeongju, with mountains in the background and rice fields in the foreground

The early history of Gyeongju is closely tied to that of the Silla kingdom because it was the capital of the Silla kingdom. Gyeongju originally was called Saro-guk. It was established in 57 BC, when six small villages in the Gyeongju area united. In 668 AD, Gyeongju became the center of Korean political and cultural life. The city was home to the Silla court and the great majority of the kingdom’s elite. Many of Gyeongju’s most famous sites date from this Unified Silla period, which ended when the Goryeo Dynasty came to power (918–1392).

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Jeff is standing in front of the UNESCO World Heritage Site rock near a site with many of the tumuli grave mounds

There are 35 royal tombs and 155 tumuli (tomb mounds) in central Gyeongju, and 421 tumuli in the outskirts of the city.This is the tomb of King Muyeo. They do not know who is buried in most of the tumuli mounds. But they do know that he is buried inside this tumuli, because there is a stone monument standing next to the stone offering table with his name engraved on it.

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The tomb of King Muyeo

One of the tumuli  that was partially excavated. so that people could see what what the inside looked like. We were not allowed to take photos inside, out of respect for the Silla ancestor who was buried inside. The person was buried in a grave dug into the ground. Above him or her many, many rocks were piled to about 15 feet in height. Then a thick layer of dirt was put on top of the rocks. Eventually grass would grow on the dirt.These tumuli are difficult to excavate without all of the rocks collapsing, so most of them have been left alone (not even raided.)

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Jeff is standing in front of one of the tumuli, that was partially excavated.

Artifacts from the tombs that have been excavated are good examples of Silla culture. We saw many of them inside the museum when we went on the following day.

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Th tumuli site is part of Gyeongju National Park. And most of it did feel like a park, with pretty scenery along with all of the tumuli mounds

Some Korean family clans trace their origins to Gyeongju, often to the ruling elites of Silla. The Gyeongju Kim family clan claims descent from the rulers of later Silla. (North Korea’s Kim family? No wonder they act more like a dynasty and not like communists!) The Gyeongju Park and Gyeongju Seok clans trace their ancestry to Silla’s earlier ruling families. These royal clans have played a strong role in preserving Gyeongju into modern times.

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Jeff and Ann are sitting in front of a golden dragon and stone monument explaining about the Silla Dynasty.

The Cheomseongdae observatory is one of the oldest surviving astronomical observatories in East Asia. Cheomseongdae was constructed during the reign of Queen Seondeok (632-647) near the capital of the kingdom.Cheomseongdae means “star gazing platform”.

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Cheomseongdae observatory in Gyeonju

The tower is built out of 362 pieces of cut granite which represent the 362 days of the lunar year. It has 27 circular layers of stones, which is thought to correspond to the 27 constellation of stars named by the Silla. There are 12 large base stones set in a square, with three stones on each side. These sets of 12 may symbolize the months, and seasons of the year. The tower is 5.7 meters wide at the base and 9.4 meters tall, and filled with earth up to the level of the window. If you go inside the tower through the window (using a ladder to climb up), there are markings which align  the sunlight on the equinoxes and solstices every year.

Here is the cute photo of the day-the silk bug tram! Silk beetles are unique to this area, and look like small, well, small colorful beetles. The tram is definitely “Korean cute”

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Silk beetle tram in Gyeonju

Yangdong Folk Village is a traditional village from the Joseon Dynasty period. The village is located about sixteen kilometers northeast of Gyeongju, along the Hyeongsan River. Mt. Seolchang can be seen to the north of the village.

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Jeff is standing in front of the entrance to a house in Yangdong Folk Village in Gyeongju

The village was founded by Son So (1433-1484). The household of the Wolseong Son clan was placed on an auspicious site according to Korean theories of pungsu (astrology). Son So and his wife, the daughter of Yu Bok Ha had a daughter who married Yi Beon of the Yeogang Yi family. The marriage produced one of the eighteen sages of Korea, Yi Unjeok.

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A house courtyard in Yangdong Folk Village

The village of Yangdong has continued since its auspicious beginning in the 15th century.The Gyeongju Choe and Lee clans from this village can trace their ancestry to the Silla elites. Choe Jun was a wealthy businessman who established the Yeungnam University. A contemporary notable figure from the Gyeongju Lee clan is Lee Byung-chull, the founder of Samsung.

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This section of homes was still being lived in

Although some of the village is unoccupied today many houses are still inhabited,  The overall the village has over 160 tile-roofed and thatched-roof homes built throughout the forest. Fifty-four historic homes over 200 years old have also been preserved. The village preserves folk customs as well as traditional buildings of traditional Joseon Dynasty architecture. The Ganghakdang village school and historic bridge are also notable historical structures.

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Ganghakdang School in Yangdong Village

The size, degree of preservation, numerous cultural assets, traditionalism, and beautiful natural setting all contribute to the importance of Yangdong Village. It is also a fine example of the Korean aristocratic lifestyle and Confucian traditions. The village is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site.

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Historic bridge over the river near Yangdong Village. We could not use the bridge because it was under restoration

Bulguksa Temple and the Seokguram Grotto are part of the Bulguksa  Temple complex.  They are located on the slopes of Mt. Tomahum,near Gyeongju. This Buddhist temple is classified as Historic Site number 1 by the South Korean government, and in 1995, Bulguksa was added as an UNESCO World Heritage site.

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Jeff is standing next to another rock proclaiming that Bulguksa is an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The temple’s records state that a small temple was built on this site under King Beopheung in 528. The current temple was constructed in 751, begun by Prime Minister Kim Daeseong to pacify the spirits of his parents. The building was completed in 774, after Kim’s death, and given its current name Bulguksa, which means “Temple of the Buddha Land.”

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Temple guardians at Bulguksa Temple entrance. I like the one on the left who looks like he just caught a mischievous small dragon!

During the war with Japan in 1592,  the temple was burned. In 1604, reconstruction and expansion of Bulguksa Temple began, and the temple underwent about 40 renovations until 1805.

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Seokguram Grotto near Bulguksa Temple

During 1910-1945, when the Japanese occupied Korea, many known treasures disappeared from the temple.

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Seokguram Grotto near Bulguksa Temple

After World War II and the Korean War, a partial restoration was done. After an extensive archeological investigation, a major restoration was done between 1969 and 1973, bringing Bulguksa Temple to its current condition. The famous stone structures from the original Silla construction are preserved. The temple is considered as a masterpiece of the golden age of Buddhist art in the Silla kingdom

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Blue cloud and White cloud stone stairway in Bulguksa Temple. Tourists are no longer allowed to walk on the staircase in order to preserve it.

The entrance to the temple,Sokgyemun, has a double-sectioned staircase and bridge that leads to the inside of the temple compound. The stairway is 33 steps high, corresponding to the 33 steps to enlightenment. The lower portion, Cheongungyo (Blue Cloud Bridge) is 6.3 meters long and has 17 steps. The upper portion,Baegungyo (White Cloud Bridge) is 5.4 meters and has 16 steps. The stairway leads to Jahamun (Mauve Mist Gate).

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Seokgatap Pagoda was apart and inside this building undergoing restoration when we visited the temple

There are two pagodas on the temple site, which is unusual. The three-story Seokgatap Pagoda, at 8.2 meters high, is a traditional Korean-style stone pagoda with simple lines and minimal detailing. Seokgatap Pagoda is over 13 centuries old.

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This is a replica of Seokgatap Pagoda at the museum

Dabotap Pagoda, the “Many Treasure Pagoda”, is 10.4 meters tall and dedicated to the Many Treasures Buddha mentioned in the lotus Sutra. In contrast to Seokgatap Pagoda, Dabotap Pagoda is known for its highly ornate structure.

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Dagotap Pagoda

Dabotap Pagoda, the “Many Treasure Pagoda”, is 10.4 meters tall and dedicated to the Many Treasures Buddha mentioned in the lotus Sutra. In contrast to Seokgatap Pagoda, Dabotap Pagoda is known for its highly ornate structure.

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Sarira pagoda stone sutra holding the relics of a Goryeo Queen and eight monks

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Temple building holding one of the historic gold Buddha statues

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Historic gold gilted bronze Vairocana statue of Buddha

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More cute looking gold statues of Buddha

Inside of this temple building were some statues of Buddha’s disciples.

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Temple building with Statues of Buddha’s disciples inside

They were very cute, but the silk beetle tram still won for today!

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Statues of Buddha’s disciples in a building at Bulguksa Temple

There was another interesting thing about this temple building. Next to it, in the courtyard, was a tree with many little rock sculptures underneath it. These small sculptures were made from carefully stacked rocks so that they would perfectly balance.

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Tree in a courtyard of the Bulguksa Temple with stacked stone sculptures underneath it

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Rock sculptures under a tree in a courtyard at Bulguksa Temple

There was a LARGE group of middle school students visiting the temple when we were there. There were kids running everywhere! They were respectful of the temple buildings and did not go inside, but they were treating the temple grounds as a giant playground! They appeared to be almost entirely unsupervised. I later discovered that their parent chaperones and teachers were sitting near the temple entrance, drinking tea and talking. I am glad that they were getting to go visit an important site of their cultural heritage, but I wish that they had been better supervised, or come at another time. It was certainly very distracting for us with them running around and yelling to each other. There was nothing quiet, serene, or peaceful about the temple when we were there!

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Korean middle school students on a field trip to Gyeongju. This photo was taken the next day, when we ran into them again at the Museum.

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