July 15, 2014
By Pamela Vergara and Jane Hong
Our day started at Seoul Station, where we caught the 9:00AM KTX to Gyeongju. Though we had taken the subway multiple times, it was a new experience being able to ride a major Korean railway. The station was filled with businessmen and families alike, all ready to start their weekends on the other side of the country.
Korea’s public transit has definitely been a blessing throughout this trip. Not only is the country’s system incredibly organized, but delays are a rare happenstance. The ease of getting around with such foreigner-friendly transportation will surely be one of the most missed advantages of studying in Korea.
Daereungwon (대릉원) would be our first stop in Gyeongju. Dating back to the Silla kingdom, this place is known for its grass mound-style tombs, called tumuli. We were still amazed that these hill-like structures housed both relics and coffins belonging to royal Silla figures. To us, they were just another part of the picturesque scenery in Gyeongju. Knowing that thousands of relics were unearthed in one tomb, it is incredible to think just how much is left in the hundreds of others scattered throughout the city.
After a morning exploring the sights of the old Silla kingdom, our class opted to take a walk to our last destination instead of boarding our tour bus. It was surely one of the better decisions of the day.
It was here where we slowly came to realize Gyeongju’s appeal: its relaxed countryside. The city’s tourism slogan (which was plastered throughout the town in a multitude of scenic spots) is “Beautiful Gyeongju.” Our walk through some simple dirt paths and a lone lotus pond proved this statement to be true. What the city lacked in trendy eateries and massive department stores, it made up for in rural charm.
The next morning, we made our way to one last Gyeongju destination: Bulguksa Temple. Unlike the previous Buddhist temple we visited in Seoul (Bongeunsa), Bulguksa had a very different ambiance. With more open area and less confinement from the towering high rises of Seoul, it was easy to feel at peace in this palace-like location.
Our tour guide told us that “a mountain is a mountain, and a river is a river” is an example of Buddhist thoughts and beliefs. To those who practice Buddhism, it reflects their personal philosophy–it is their way of life. To others, something so simple-sounding may be difficult to comprehend. And while a few of us had trouble understanding it as well, stepping into the confines of the Bulguksa temple and hearing nothing but the sounds of the nature that surrounded us that early morning, we came a little closer to understanding the Buddhist life of peace.
Next up, Busan! We took a bus there right after visiting the temple. Our hotel overlooked the beach, so we didn’t waste much time heading straight to the water!
Along the same theme, the group went to the Busan Fish Market next. It was previously known as “Little Pebble Market” but now it’s a major Busan hotspot. Most of the workers there seemed to be in their late 60′s, and the shops were all completely family-owned. The workers were all from a much older generation that continued their work there because the younger generation has a hard time committing to the “3D” jobs (dangerous, dirty, and difficult). Korean culture highly values education, so there is a stigma against laborious work similar to America. Jobs are similarly viewed as a statement of social status and intelligence regardless of the income. All of this, along with a low birth rate, contributes to an aging labor force that remains unsupported by the younger generation.
At the fish market, we had live octopus! Actually it wasn’t alive, but the tentacles would still move and the suction cups made it very hard to get them off the plate.
Our last stop in Busan was DongBaek Island (동백섬, dongbaek means “camellia” in English). Actually, it’s no longer an island because enough sand collected to build a road, but it’s still called an island for old time’s sake. It was named that way because of all the native dongbaek trees that can be found there. The island also houses an impressive building with bullet-proof windows all around. This is where the 13th APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) Summit was held. The building itself stands as a memorial of that important meeting and is now open to tourists. During the meeting, 21 world leaders from countries such as the U.S., China, Peru, and Australia discussed common issues such as copyright protection and avian flu defenses. After the meeting, all the leaders dressed in Korean traditional clothes (hanbok) and took a picture by the shoreline.
Together, Gyeongju and Busan showed us a life outside of the fast-paced Seoul. We were used to bumping shoulders on the subway, the noises of city nightlife, and power-walking from one Seoul street to another. Yet upon arriving in the two southern cities, a change in atmosphere was almost instantaneous. Here, life seemed to be a little simpler. Whether we were walking through Gyeongju’s lush scenery or strolling along Busan’s humble coastline, the beauty of Korea’s southern peninsula was more than obliging.
As our first long-distance trip, Gyeoungju and Busan set the bar very high. We thoroughly enjoyed our time at the “outdoor museum” and “sea-life paradise!”