Struggling to sleep thanks to the odd feeling that I was being watched by a cartoon dog, I eventually dosed off, and woke well after my alarm.
Freaking out, I ignored the call of the luxurious bath tub and ran to the ticket office at the train station. The queue was packed with other disorganised travelers and looked something akin to the picture below. Somehow, I managed to get a standing room ticket and I even found a piece of wall to rest on!
Arriving in Gyeongju, it occurred to me that I had hours before I was due to check in at the temple; I had no idea where I was going; how far away anything interesting was; or what to pick.
Taxi driver to the rescue!
Clearly prepared for idiot tourists like myself, he took one look at my confused face and pulled out a poster with pictures of places to choose from. I pointed at a pretty looking lake thing, he nodded his approval and away we went. On arriving, he got out of his car and walked me around for a couple of minutes showing me where I should go – have I mentioned that I love taxi drivers in Korea? I really do, not enough to marry their sons (I’ve been proposed to by proxy a couple of times), but enough to be very grateful they exist.
It was a perfect Spring day, the sun was high, the sky was blue, the grass green. It seemed I had chosen to visit the area hosting the Anapji Pond, Royal Tombs and the Cheomseongdae Observatory. These sites all date back to the Ancient Silla dynasty of Korea (57 BCE – 935 CE). Anapji, originally constructed in 674 CE and restored in 1974, was the palace of the Crown Prince away from the main palace. Cheomseongdae, meaning “star gazing platform”, is the oldest known observatory in East Asia. Interestingly, it is made of 362 pieces of cut granite, representing the number of days in a lunar year. Known as tumuli, the Royal Tombs are dotted all around Gyeongju covered in green, green, grass. I made a joke when I was travelling that I was in the shire, but really it was more like walking around the burial site of Rohan. I wish I had a better way of describing just how calming and peaceful this place was. Or at least, it was until a young woman let out a shriek, because a squirrel had decided to join for lunch! Perhaps I should let the pictures speak for themselves:
Eventually I made it to Golgulsa temple. I’ve got to admit, I just wasn’t in the mood. I was full of adrenalin after touring ancient Korea, and well, I just wanted to keep moving. However, I had made a commitment to give this “temple stay” idea a try and so I went. It didn’t start well, the (stunning) taxi ride was about 20,000won more expensive than the temple had lead me to believe and I was short on cash to pay for my stay. Luckily they did have the card facilities they had purported not to carry, but the mid-30’s British girl who works at the temple, was quite simply awful, and dripping with false niceties. Maybe I’ve become used to Korean hospitality but it just seemed like every question anyone had was bothersome. Hmmf.
Anyway, I found my room, a large hall which fit probably around 30 sleepers; put on my uniform; and went for a wonder through the temple gardens. The weather was starting to cool off, birds were chirping, lanterns were strung around the complex to celebrate Buddha’s birthday. That night I met the other guests for dinner. Following Buddhist practice, women sat separately to men, and the meal was entirely vegetarian. As a special treat there was watermelon – watermelon costs around AUD$20 in Korea! After dinner we were given an orientation to the chanting and meditation practices at the temple, and then we had a Sunmudo lesson! It was so fun! I felt like I was back at dancing without stretched toes and if there was an academy in Suncheon I would be sure to enroll.
The next morning, after waking up at 4.30 am for prayer (the stars were awesome!) and a ceremonial breakfast, we were given the option to head out on an excursion. I decided that that was exactly the plan I wanted and I took the tour bus to Girim-sa Temple in Mount Hamwolsan. It was a small temple, but full of interesting things. In fact, the detail on the temple roofing was probably the most detailed I’ve seen, and also, oddly, the most pastel. This was followed by a trip to the coast to see a pile of rocks in the ocean that apparently held an underground tomb. I appreciated the idea rather than the site itself, there wasn’t much to behold.
Going back to the temple, a couple of other guests were talking about leaving. Realising that this may be my only chance to share a taxi back into town, and getting fed up with meditation, I decided to trek back into town with them. The frustrating lady in the temple office claimed that there was no taxi available. However, catching a bus wasn’t an option because one of our number was nursing a back injury. Curiously, on asking a man at the kimbap shop down the road, we managed to get a taxi within 20 minutes. Hah!
I made some lovely friends on that taxi ride, a German lady living in Tokyo, her sister, and a young Mexican man living in Saudi Arabia as an engineer. (Thanks for the postcard Rod!)
I was sad to leave Gyeongju, but I had decided that it was time to hit the big city of… MWHAHAHAHAHA!!!! (Tomorrow, I swear – but 1000 words is quite enough!)