Believe it or not, Korea had, once upon a time, been one unified country instead of the current North and South divisions. For nearly a thousand years, the Silla (신라) dynasty (57 BC – 935 AD) ruled over a unified Korea after vanquishing the Goguryeo (고구려) and Baekje (백제) kingdoms in 668 AD during the reign of King Munmu (문무). And Gyeongju was her capital.
Today, Gyeongju is a forgotten capital. And perhaps, (whispers) even a forgotten city. Lonely Planet generously dubs Gyeongju as the ‘museum without walls’. True, in the sense that much of the landscape is littered with royal tombs or tumuli (대릉) that appear as dome-shaped grassy mounds. There’s also the regal Anapji Pond (안압지 연못), which yielded thousands of ancient Silla relics. However, much like the lone standing Cheongseongdae (첨성대) – which could have been an astrological marvel during its time but nothing more than an anachronistic totem today – in the city centre – these royal ruins are mere remains of Gyeongju’s glorious past, and like the rest of the city, risk being forsaken, and forgotten.
The real gems are actually tucked away in the outskirts of the city centre. Bulguk-sa (불국사) and Seokguram (석굴암) are Buddhist temples built during Silla times, and designated UNESCO World Heritage sites. However, if you’ve had your dose of temples and regal ruins, it’s possible to just while away the whole day in a nondescript café and appreciate the tranquillity of the city. On top of that, your latte comes served with freshly plucked (and peeled) persimmons. LS