One of the places about which my guide book is unusually enthusiastic – unusual because it is decidedly luke-warm about places like Daegu – is Gyeongju, a city about an hour away from Daegu which served as the capital during the Silla Dynasty, including during the first years of a unified Korea. The place is jam-packed with historically important buildings and artefacts and relishes it’s ancient past.
As luck would have it, however, this weekend’s adventure was joined by a wonderfully congenial group of people and so turned into a day more devoted to simple pleasures and good company than the awe of historical grandeur. I’ll definitely return at some point and satisfy my somewhat singular desire to explore the past but yesterday (Saturday) was an absolute blast and I’m so glad it worked out as it did.
We met at Dongdaegu station at 10:45. Unlike the route between Daegu and Seoul or Busan, there is no KTX that runs from Daegu to Gyeongju. In fact, even the medium speed ‘express’ train only runs a few times a day. There is the option of taking the bus, but that seemed like a mission when we’ve all just figured out this train system. This meant that it wasn’t possible for us to leave at 10am, which had been the original plan. Instead, we got onto an 11:17 train, which was – oddly – running almost 10 minutes late. It still amuses me that 10 minutes late is such a big deal anywhere in the world.
On the trip out to Gyeongju we were scattered throughout the carriage because the train was quite full. People listened to music and slept. I watched a late autumn world pass by. The seasons here are definitely changing as autumn rapidly fades into winter. It was glorious to see the sun for the first time after a week of Daegu rain.
Gyeongju Station is a little different from the others I have seen. My guidebook informed me that this little city fell out of favour with the rulers of the country after the end of Silla rule, around 935 AD, but was restored by the autocratic president in the 1970s who, among other things, prevented any skyscrapers from being built and saw to it that many of the buildings retained their traditional character. As a result, the station looks and feels like a very old building, complete with the distinctive traditional roof.
Once outside, we headed off to find some coffee and take a proper look at the map we’d picked up at the tourist information booth. It a few blocks to determine that Gyeongju is apparently not dotted all over with coffee shops as in places like Daegu. After a few blocks Tim, who had been struggling to read the map and walk at the same time, suggested that we take a right.
And then we spotted a collection of stones near a wall, which looked sufficiently historical to be interesting. Sure enough, there was an information board indicating that this was the Gyeongju’s walled fortress. Unfortunately, this walled fortress was not on our not-very-helpful map.
Fortunately, we spotted, just a little further down the road, a bicycle-rental shop. One of the things the guide-book and all the websites mentioned was that in Gyeongju, unlike most Korean cities, it is possible to rent and ride around on bicycles. We were all quite excited about the idea. Nothing was in English but the more adventurous members of our party were not at all daunted and got right down to making plans. We all picked out bikes, including one tandem for the two guys in the group, one of whom somehow avoided the (for the rest of us) standard childhood passtime of learning to ride. Two of the girls also considered a tandem but decided it was not a good idea and so were the last to choose and ended up with pretty girls’ bikes complete with baskets. The bikes cost us 7000 won each to rent for the day, to be returned no later than 7pm.
All saddled up, we headed off to explore. While the rest of us had been dithering over choosing and becoming familiar with (and stable on) our bikes, the guys had gotten us directions, so we headed towards the river, alongside which we would find a long, lovely bicycle track running all the way from the city centre area to Bunum lake, a few kilometres away.
There is something delightful about riding in a group along a well-maintained bike trail beside a river. We found ourselves pedalling furiously and coasting down hills, ringing bells and remembering childhood moments. The river danced over rocks and weirs, sparkling in the sunshine and occasional breaths of wind rippled through the tall, dry grass. We passed tennis courts, a mini-driving range and an exercise park. Along the path, we met up passed families walking and people riding in the other direction. Surveyors were measuring something on the river bed.
We rode for a long time. I’m not particularly fit and I haven’t been on a bicycle for a long time, so muscles I haven’t used in a while began to protest. Riding with others is a great incentive to keep going. It was worth it. The ride was delightful. Just the feeling of being outside in the crisp late autumn air and the freedom of being on bicycles was precious. Lauren’s bike had a basket in the front and we spent some time wishing we could find her a baguette and some onions and cheese to complete the picture. The guys, on their tandem, were slower than the rest of us, but they managed to keep up and eventually we found ourselves leaving the bike trail and riding along the pavement beside busy road.
We stopped to wait for everyone to catch up and the delicous smell of food from across the road taunted those of us who hadn’t had breakfast but we pressed on to the lake. We stopped beside a large map of the lake (which, incidentally pointed people in the wrong direction) and left our bikes chained to a bench. The lake is beautiful. The guidebook mentioned the area as being the haunt of wealthy holiday-makers. The tiny shop we stopped at near the lake was next to a kiddies’ mini-dirt-bike track. We went on to the edge of the water and walked around toward the hotel area.
The afternoon was nippy but beautiful. The sun alternately sparkled on the water and dipped behind clouds. The slopes around the water lay heavy with autumn leaves. We walked along paths between wintery trees and sparkling ripples. Tim jumped down onto the pebble-strewn edge of the water to skip stones.
After a while we reached a boat-restaurant. The rest of the group had recently eaten at Daegu’s airplane-restaurant recently, so it seemed appropriate to continue the vehicular-eating-venue theme. We went inside, raising immediate attention by being loud and foreign, but not really minding because we were all a little cold and rather tired by this point.
Eating at Korean restaurants is a bit of a hit-and-miss exercise, partly because menus don’t always bare all that much relation to what is actually on offer and partly because the same dish may taste completely different from one place to the next. The joys of eating at these places, though, are also significant. Some are simple, such as the fact that water is brought to the table as soon as you sit down, followed by a variety of side-dishes as soon as the order is placed. Another, fairly significant at least in its difference from Western restaurants, is that meals are often shared. We were a group of eight, conveniently settled in two clusters of four around the gas-burners set in the tables – the norm in so many Korean restaurants. We ordered two group dishes. The first to arrive, at the burner I was seated at, was a braised beef-rib stew which was absolutely fantastic. The meat was tender, the thin gravy full of flavour and it all went down beautifully with the side dishes and a bit of the standard rice-on-the-side. The other foursome was presented, not much later, with their spicy duck and vegetables, which was also great – although in this particular situation it was frustrating to have to wait for the duck to cook.
A good, slow-food lunch later, we wandered back out of the restaurant and, after a brief stop at the cafe next door to buy sweets to finish of the meal, headed back to our bikes. By this stage several of us were starting to feel a little sore and the cold hand of winter was definitely sneaking under jackets and dancing in the leaves.
The first part of the ride back was lovely – consisting mostly of coasting down hills – but it got harder as we got closer to the city. The guys on the tandem were struggling more this time. We stopped to wait for them at the exercise park where, of course, we tried out all the machines – not that we needed much more exercise after our long ride but the machines were fun, though.
The ride became quite a bit less pleasant after this. It was flat-to-uphill and a sharp, cold wind blew towards us all the way. The sun was also going down, bringing with it the winter cold. There was some confusion about where we were going, but eventually we all found each other and headed back to the rental shop to return the bikes.
At this point, we could have headed home but a couple of us were really keen to see a few more of the sights, particularly Anapji Pond, which is supposed to be (and is) very beautiful at night. This park was created by the Silla rulers as a pleasure garden where they entertertained foreign dignitaries. Although the area fell out of use in for a few hundred years, it has been restored and is still very beautiful. The next time I’m in town, I will definitely visit it during the day as well. This time, unfortunately, it was rather cold.
We walked around the pond (artificial lake) and then marched on – thanks to the determination of one of our group (for which I at least am thankful) – to see some other sights. We stopped to look at an ice-house built during the Josean dynasty. We also stopped to look at the Cheomseongdae astronomical observation tower dating from the seventh century.
As fascinating and beautiful as all of this was, it was now very cold, so we headed back to the station and caught the 19:15 train back to Daegu. There were plans afoot on the trip for a big night out downtown. We jumped into two taxis and headed to the usual Galbi joints near the Sam-Deok Sobangseo taxi stop. Unfortunately it was apparently a very busy night downtown and nowhere had space for a party of eight, not even the bus-restaurant we tried in the hopes of continuing the vehicular-eating-house theme. We eventually found a Mexican place that was warm and peaceful and fed us lovely food. Three of us split Nachos, Chicken Quesadilla and Beef Tacos between us and may possibly have had the best meal out of everyone.
By the end of the meal, all thoughts of a big night had faded in dreams of home and warmth, so we found taxis and headed off into the night. The weather has really turned cold now and while I struggle to understand a completely unknown temperature phenomenon, I’m encouraged by the fact that the Canadians are feeling the cold too (so clearly it’s not all just in my head). I have a feeling that the weather may restrict the number of adventurous experiences in the next little while, but I’m so glad this one happened and that the memory of racing along bicycle trails beside rivers with friends will be one of those I take with me from my time here in Korea.