Gyeongju: an ancient capital, a museum without walls, a national treasure of mountains and valleys and faith.
You don’t exactly know what is so special about Gyeongju when you step off the bus at the main station hub. It looks like every other Korean city, minus the plethora of skyscrapers. The coffee shops and corner stores are littering the road, and cars are blaring their horns in standstill traffic. You see more bicycles than usual, and soon enough you’re on one of your own. The tour guide gives some general directions, but at this point, you’re just guessing as you hesitantly cross traffic without a helmet, trying to remember exactly how to change gears and not hit pedestrians. You follow the trickle of other foreigners weaving in and out and next to traffic until you see the pale pink flowers of the cherry trees. Thinking this is going to be the main event, you spend ten minutes meandering and taking pictures, ever so artfully attempting to crop out the other people taking selfies. “This is so pretty,” you think mildly as you ring your bell to announce to the gaggle of young school girls that you’re about to run them over.
You emerge from the blossom-lined side street to find more standstill traffic near the entrance of a large park complex. Hundreds of colorful kites wash out the sky as you make your way to the ancient observatory. You stand for a moment and ponder exactly what stargazing must have been like thirteen-hundred years ago and wonder if any of that old light still burns. But then a gathering of old trees in the distance catches your eye and you are riddled with excitement to see something so old and natural, to walk where ancients walked and marvel at the exact same thing.
The forest feels old, not quite ready for another year of bloom, but will get there eventually. The trunks are hulking and twisted, somehow graceful even with the man-made supports. It is when you pass the small shrine and walk along an empty path that you realize the trees are dancing, and have been weaving and bending for over a thousand years to the same song. And all you ache to do is touch one, just one, to try and listen, to become part of that song.
But there is more to see, and you have only a limited number of hours before needing to meet up with the rest of the tour group, so you set off toward a hill. You know well enough from the look of it that it was man-made, a fortification of some kind, but you don’t bother pulling out the pamphlet that’s been in your backpack since you started. You don’t like maps or brochures, not anymore. You want to feel your way around, guess the possibilities of a place, then see later if you were right. It’s a game you play, and it never gets old. You crest the hill and are greeted with a green, open expanse to your left and a wintry forest of flowers to your right. The choice is an easy one. Your wheels greedily ravage the fallen leaves before finding a place to park, and then your feet take over the crunching. You step into a fairytale. You step into Narnia. You step into a place where time is non-existant, where everything is covered in a warm cloud of snow, and you want to stay there forever.
Several photos and a few selfies later, you make your way toward the complex at Anapji Pond, hoping you’ll be able to navigate exactly where you need to go for lunch. The map on the pamphlet is everything except to scale, so you decide to trust your phone’s usually accurate GPS. Falling in with some other foreigners from your group, you bike your way alongside the exhaust-heavy road, walk up the inclines, and coast into a more modernized section of the city for lunch at a kimbap shop. You wait half an hour before heading to the meeting site, where the tour guide mentions you are free to head for the hostel. You go with her general directions, they haven’t been wrong yet, and leave the noise behind to greet the smells and sights of a quieter Korea.
Once the handful of cars that come careening down the road disappear, you settle into an easy pace, thinking the rattle of your gears is oddly pleasant. The rice paddies are not entirely ready to be harvested, the dogs are eager for new company, and the adjumma you wave to gives a surprised smile in return. You could be anywhere in the world like this, and parts of it remind you of the backroads in Texas, the fields in the Midwest, or the farms in France. The old hanok houses have been in the family for generations, and the woman in the yard could have tended that same garden all her life. How do you share something like that? There is still 3G access in the middle of nowhere, which greatly impresses and amuses you, but there is a piece of you that wants to keep a sense of purity to the place, at least in your mind. So you ride on instead of stopping for all the photos you could take, because it’s those simple things that make memories so special.
When you arrive at your hostel, unload your gear, and have a brief moment to lie down upon your spot of the floor, you cannot even entertain the possibility of riding your bike tomorrow. The mere mention of it makes your backside ache. Everyone is tired and achy during dinner, thankfully only a bus-ride away. We return to the large park complex where we had begun the day to see everything lit up for the evening. After stopping by Coffee Talk Talk for the purportedly best hot chocolate in town, you meander back to Anapji Pond. The place is filled with people doing their best to take night selfies without losing the integrity of the colorful buildings when the camera flashes. It is cold for the beginning of April, colder than anyone was really expecting. You wish you’d bought two helpings of hot cocoa – one for each hand.
The following morning, after an indescribably huge blueberry muffin, everyone gathers onto the bus and hugs the curves of the mountains as we make our way to Seokguram grotto and Bulguksa temple. You think it is far too early for this.
When you get to the top of the mountain, you make your way along the path to the temple. The world up there is not yet in bloom, but the animals are alive, helping it along. There is construction happening at the temple, and although you end up gazing upon one of the treasures of Korea’s history, the marvel of it is diminished by the plated glass that separates you from it. And again, you wonder what it would have been like centuries before, when the world was a little newer and a little more innocent. Did Buddha wake every morning when the sun came over the horizon to settle on his face and illuminate his dark resting place? Was it like the ancient druids at New Grange during the solstice, where that one glimmer of light in complete darkness can illuminate more than the stone walls around you? You hope so, with all sincerity and quietness of being, you hope so.
The ride down the mountain to Bulguksa temple takes all of ten minutes. You are eager to visit this place, hoping the pictures you have seen of it have been captured accurately. The structure is immense and unique compared to the temples you have seen before. Even though renovations are underway, it is still beautiful. You walk through each section slowly, drinking in the architecture, the colors, the cracks, the little details of the place. And everywhere you go, every plaque you read tells you the same thing, “Originally destroyed” so many years ago by the Japanese invasion. “Rebuilt” some time in the 20th century. You want so much to connect with these historical and culturally rich places, and it saddens you that you can only stand on the original site rather than walk through the original buildings. But once you leave the temple grounds, you discover a hill covered with cherry blossom trees, and you cannot believe how these seem to be more beautiful than the ones you saw yesterday. Families pose for generation photos, children run in circles, and everyone is trying to capture the perfect spring moment. You breathe in the sweet air and imagine how often monks must come to this beautiful place before everyone else is awake. It is breathtaking.
The bus drops off the bike riders at the hostel. You turn your bike over to the tour guide, eager to be driven back to the area you had spent all of the previous day exploring. Picking up some snacks from a local market, you debate whether or not to buy a kite and spend the day seeing just how high it can fly. Instead, you cross the grass to sit next to a tomb for lunch. You know it would sound crazy if you brought it up in casual conversation, but classes of school children run amok over, around, and beneath them without getting in trouble. So you take the opportunity to languish several feet above an unknown ancient, hoping that their life was as full of wonder and amazement as today is for you. The sun is high in the sky and the wind is playful.
You have four hours left until the bus returns to Seoul, but you do not feel like wandering about the city. Instead, you choose to explore Daerungwon, where pathways wrap around ancient tumuli mounds and wind weaves through the grass. You still find yourself astounded at the beauty of this city, and the peaceful way it rests so contently in the middle of modern life. You fall in love with a tree and do your best to forever burn its image onto your retina, for this moment will never come again. This meeting between two points is the first and the last. You will love it eternally just for that.
The Heavenly Horse mound is the only tomb open to the public. You go in not expecting much, as the original artifacts have been relocated to a nearby museum. You are wrong. It is small, it is dark, it is not overly extravagant, and nothing at all like Tut’s tomb, but it is glorious in its own quiet way. Artifacts behind display cases remind you of university, remind you how thoroughly you enjoy the unique perspective and passion of archaeologists, remind you that there was never really any other option for a major when you were in college. You cannot help but gaze lovingly at the Cheonma, a flying horse, painted upon a saddle flap. The artistry and brush strokes hold your eyes as if you had been enchanted.
Making your way back to the observatory and the ancient fortification, you take your time to walk the ramparts. Nothing remains there but raised earth, the replica of a cellar, and a second old forest. You walk along the paths in that direction, taking every opportunity to trek around what was once the outer wall. What did people see from here so long ago? What have these trees heard over the centuries? How long has it been since anyone stepped off this path? The sound of your footsteps is grating once you decide to go where no one has walked in possibly ages. You touch a handful of trees, caress their bark, and think of all the things that have happened since they took root.
Promising to never forget a place is a powerful thing. It marks you under your skin and against your ribs where the feeling nestles close to your heart. When you look for the spring again, you will always see Gyeongju. You will always breathe in that sweet smell of ancient beauty, because in that moment it is eternal.