I’ve done a lot of travelling while I have been in Korea, especially when I was writing travel articles for The Korea Times from 2002-2005, but some of my more memorable trips around the nation were those I took the first couple of years that I was here.
What I remember most about arriving in Kyongju, ancient capital of the Silla Kingdom, was that I had a good buzz going from the whiskey and that I was hungry.
After Ken roused me from my slumber (I couldn’t get that Paul Anka tune “Diana” out of my head), our first objective was to find some place to stay for the night and then have something to eat. Our plan was to get up early and spend a day in Kyongju before we headed on down to Busan.
“I know this great little yogwan not far from here,” Ken said, as we stumbled off the bus.
In Korea, a yogwan is a multi-purpose tourist hotel, immediately recognized by their familiar signage, which resembles heat waves rising up from stones (also used for saunas). Found everywhere in Korea, they are the cheapest accommodations you will find and often serve another purpose as “love hotels.” Unfortunately, Ken couldn’t remember where he stayed the year before, so the first one we came across that looked halfway decent was good enough for us.
We stowed our bags and then set out for the business district for some dinner and more alcohol.
Arriving in a strange place at night can be a little daunting if you don’t know your way around, but that wasn’t the case arriving in Kyongju—with or without a buzz. Kyongju might have been one of the more famous tourist destinations for foreigners visiting or living in Korea, but everything seemed like I was still in Seoul or Daegu.
“Everything pretty much looks the same, doesn’t it?” I quipped, noticing the familiar, ubiquitous blue roll-up doors, which were found on most small shops.
“Get used to it, Bro,” Ken replied.
We stopped in the first restaurant that looked appealing and had something hot and spicy to eat. Korean food, especially some spicy chigae (stew) tasted better when it was cold outside. After we stuffed ourselves (as much as you could with chigae and ban chan—the side dishes of kimchi and other pickled delights, which are served with all meals) we still had room for a few beers.
Although it was bitterly cold that night, the chigae did the trick of warming us up as we scoped out some place to have a drink. The first place we stopped in seemed okay—there was a large sign outside that read “saloon”—but once inside, we quickly realized when we saw some of the women sitting at the bar, that this was not a western-style bar. Instead, it was a “room salon,” a place where you’d pay a couple hundred thousand won for some women to pour your drinks, light your cigarettes, and “entertain” you. Obviously, someone did not know how to spell salon and added an extra “o.”
We hightailed out of there and found a real “saloon” down the street where we tossed down a few more beers, complemented with a large plate of greasy french fries before calling it a night.
“Ah, this is the life,” said Ken, taking a sip of his beer and soaking up some ketchup with one of the last fries. “This is what it’s all about, being in a foreign country, taking a road trip, having some beers and taking in the sights.”
Ken was a seasoned traveler, who spent a number of years knocking around Asia traveling and working, which included a stint working in a hotel in Pakistan as a beverage manager before settling in Korea to teach English for a year or two. He was one of those expats who “found” Korea while traveling and had done quite well professionally and personally since arriving a little over a year ago.
He sort of took me under his wing not long after I arrived and became one of my best friends at the language institute. One night he asked me if I wanted to go to the airport. I thought he meant Kimpo, but actually, it was a bar called “The Airport” near Kangnam Subway Station. Inside there was a section of a plane’s fuselage that you could sit in.
That same night we stumbled into this other bar I swore was like something you would have expected in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks TV series. The décor was this funky red-crushed velvet, dimly lit and there was—I kid you not—a pint-sized doorman who reminded me of a similar little person in an episode of Twin Peaks, the one when Agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) had this bizarre dream about Laura Palmer. Later, I would find out that the place was a “stand bar” a kind of bar where you would pay a set price for beer or whiskey and have your own private hostess to pour your drinks. Some of these stand bars even featured leggy go-go dancers who would get up on small platforms and dance to 60’s and 70’s pop music.
“Yeah, I know what you mean,” I said. However, in my alcohol-induced euphoria, I was unable to punctuate the evening with anything cerebral or memorable. “It’s cool taking a road trip.”
The next morning, we were up early and back at the bus station. We stowed our bags in a locker as we were going to catch a bus later that day to Busan. The bus station was as good as any place to get started on our day-tour of Kyongju.
Kyongju is to Korea what Kyoto is to Japan, what Luang Prabang is to Laos, what Siem Reap is to Cambodia, and what Ayutthaya and Sukhothai are to Thailand. It is literally a “museum without walls” (as one tourist guidebook called the city). There is a lot to see and explore in Kyongju and at the top of the list would be Bulguksa Temple.
Without question, it is one of Korea’s more famous tourist attractions and definitely lives up to all the hype. It was here where Buddhism and the arts flourished during the Silla Dynasty, one of the most important periods of Korean history. Built in 774, the temple is classified as Historic and Scenic Site Number 1 by the Korean Government and is famous for two stone pagodas: Dabotap and Seokgatap as well as Cheongu-gyo (Blue Cloud Bridge).
Although the temple’s finer historical and cultural significance would take some time to sink in for this traveler (and a few more trips to Kyongju to gain a deeper appreciation for this important temple). What was not lost on this first trip was how captivating it was, at least for me, to be experiencing a part of Korean history and its Buddhist heritage for the first time.
We were not finished yet. After we posed for our obligatory photos in front of the main entrance to the temple, Ken wanted to climb a mountain.
At the top of a small mountain, overlooking the East Sea was the Seokguram Grotto, which housed a beautiful granite Buddha image. It is another one of Korea’s National Treasures and no trip to Kyongju would be complete without paying a visit to hermitage and the seated Buddha image inside. The only problem was getting up there. As far as we could tell, there was no bus service from Bulguksa Temple to the top of the mountain. We couldn’t see any taxis either.
“Last year I was going to walk up this mountain,” Ken said, “but I thought it would take too long, so I waited for a taxi. What do you think? Climb a mountain for Buddha?”
Although there were still a few more places we wanted to visit before catching a bus to Busan later that night, walking up the mountain seemed like the thing to do at the time; something that we would talk about long after we returned to Seoul. I was definitely up for the climb.
“Let’s climb a mountain for Buddha,” I said.
It wasn’t much of a climb; after all, there was a well-traveled path and even some steps carved out of the rocky terrain. Not that anyone could scamper up the mountain; it was still a steep climb and we needed to rest along the way to catch our breath before continuing the four-kilometer hike to the summit.
Koreans have a fondness for mountains, no doubt, because so much of the country is mountainous. Almost everyone you meet in Korea enjoys some mountain outing and although they might mistakenly call hiking in the mountains, mountain climbing, there is no dearth of enthusiasm for heading off to Korea’s rugged, rocky edifices and craggy peaks. Most Koreans might tell you that their national pastime is football (soccer) or baseball, but I think it’s hiking in the mountains.
Thanks to the well-traveled path, it wasn’t too tortuous of a climb. The mountain blocked out most of the wind, but every so often, there would be a gust of cold air rushing through the treetops rustling leaves. High overhead a magpie screeched and cawed. The sky was deep azure and clear.
“We just climbed a mountain for Buddha,” Ken said, as we reached the summit, which turned out to be a large parking lot next to a pagoda-like structure.
“Yeah, that’s something, huh?” I replied, trying to catch my breath. “It’s something to write home about.”
I was definitely going to have to work on my Millerisms if I was ever going to have anything memorable to write home about.
Once at the summit, we still had about another mile to walk to the Seokguram Grotto, but first we wanted to have something to eat and warm up. It was bitterly cold at the top of the mountain (even though our climb up warmed us up a little) with the wind whipping and howling across the cragged peak. A bevy of bundled-up, middle-aged Korean women sitting on the cold ground selling withered, wild herbs and other plants made us feel colder.
First things first: we needed to warm up. There was a small restaurant, down a flight of steps on the other side of the summit. Tourists could buy instant noodles, microwavable burgers, and mandu—a kind of Korean dumpling filled with ground pork. Ken had noodles; I had a burger.
“Buddha Burgers,” I smiled, chomping down on the burger, which turned out to be a dried out pork patty covered by shredded cabbage and ketchup. Hopefully, once we saw the Seokguram Buddha, getting down the mountain would be a lot easier than the way that burger was going down.
After we warmed up—sitting around a kerosene heater in the middle of the drafty restaurant—we ventured back out into the cold to buy our tickets to the Seokguram Grotto. That was when we ran into Hae-jin.
“Hey, it’s Hae-jin,” I said, pointing to a young Korean woman at the ticket booth.
Hae-jin was one of our colleagues from school (a Korean-American from Portland who came to Korea to teach and hopefully meet the right Korean man) and had come down to Kyongju for a few days with one of her students, who Ken and I both knew. They rented a taxi for the day and just arrived at the top of the summit when we ran into them. After we got our hellos and “what are you doing here?” and “how long are you going to stay here” out of the way, we combined our sightseeing forces and became a foursome when Hae-jin suggested that we join them in their rented taxi.
After walking along a winding path for another thirty minutes, we finally reached the Seokguram Grotto. Completed in 774, the grotto contains one of Korea’s most famous Buddhist statues—a white granite Buddha statue, three-and-half meters high that represents the Buddha at enlightenment. Seated on a lotus throne with his legs crossed, the statue of the Buddha is noted for its serene expression of meditation.
Just standing there in the small and cozy chamber viewing that awesome statue made our own nirvana-like pilgrimage and climb up Mt. Toham all the more worthwhile. We were lucky: the cold weather had kept away a lot of tourists so the inside of the grotto was cozier and quieter.
(I’ve journeyed back to the Seokguram Grotto five times since 1991 and each time it was overrun with tourists. Additionally, after that first visit the interior of the grotto can only be viewed through a glass wall to protect it from the hordes of tourists.)