Remember my UNESCO passport? Ok, I forgive you if you completely forgot about it, because I mostly did for awhile too.
However, it’s back! And I’m determined to finish my pilgrimage to Korea’s UNESCO sites. A few weekends ago, Jared and I set out to add to our stamp collection. It was Valentine’s/President’s Day weekend and we were unable to go out of the country. I was upset because I had been hoping fora trip to Osaka, but I turned it around and planned a trip to a historic city in Korea. This is really the first time that I’ve taken the initiative and planned anything more than a day trip for us. I planned the days, booked a place to stay, and scouted restaurants. Naturally, it all focused on my stamp passport. I had studied my map of UNESCO sites and noticed there was a convenient clump of culture in Gyeongju, a city in the southeast of Korea. This is how I planned the trip:
That was it. My UNESCO packet and my Lonely Planet; do you really need anything else? We set out early on Saturday morning, and 3 1/2 hours and a couple of corndogs later we were in Gyeongju. (I still can’t get over that you can drive across this country so quickly). Gyeongju is characterized as an “open air museum.” It was once the home of the Silla dynasty (57 BC- 935AD) and is littered with monuments and historic sites. City ordinances prohibit buildings from being too high, and even the the Starbucks and 7-11 have traditional Korean peaked roofs. It was quiet, clean, and so much calmer than Seoul. It was worth the visit just for that!
We started our visit in Gyeongju National Park at Bulguksa Temple. We went to this temple because it is one of the UNESCO sites. It is registered because it is both “representative temple of Korean Buddhism” and it “possesses a unique architectural beauty that is relatively unmatched, even throughout Asia (UNESCO).” However, it didn’t seem any different than the numerous other temples and palaces I’ve visited in Korea. I’m a little sad to admit this. It was the same style roof. The same beautiful motif painted on the ceilings. A courtyard similar to others. A famous stone pagoda that did not seem that unique. Was it beautiful? Yes! Was it the same beauty we have seen a dozen times over? Yup. Whatever, I got my stamp.
We left Bulguksa and headed up the mountain to Seokguram Grotto. Seokguram is the only manmade stone grotto in the world! It was founded in 751 AD and has 40 statues, including one giant Buddha. Ancient Koreans used spring water flowing under the grotto to maintain a perfect temperature year round. The pictures of the grotto that I’ve seen online are incredibly impressive, so I was excited to see this place. The grotto was built by stacking stones to create a cave and then covering that with earth. From the outside it looks like a big hill with a building in front. That was the only picture I was able to capture because photography is forbidden inside the grotto. Not that it would matter because there is a huge glass wall up so that you can really only see the antechamber and the Buddha. It’s impossible to see the rotunda or anything to the Buddha statue’s left or right. The internet pictures completely misled me. I was incredibly disappointed. I had my stamps, but so far the trip had not been worth it.
We drove into the the historic center of Gyeongju where our hanok is located. We stayed at Sarangchae, a 120 year old home. One of my tutoring moms knew about our trip and when I told her that we were going to Gyeongju, she asked if we were staying at this hanok. It’s apparently famous; it’s also very difficult to find. Once we arrived, we entered through the main gate and walked into a traditional courtyard. The rooms were on the left and right side of the courtyard and the main offices and kitchen were straight ahead. We check in and were shown to our room. As I was feeling extra fancy when I booked our stayed, I had paid an extra five dollars for a bathroom. I knew that we would be staying in an ondol room, but- wow. Ondol is the fabulous method of Korean heating, where the floors are heated and central air is unheard of. You pile blankets on the floor and snuggle up. Our sliding door was made of paper and wood, and there was a pile of bedding in one corner. I started to question the adventure aspect when I noticed that none of the bedding matched or looked to have been made within the 2000s. It was really cold when we went to sleep, but in the middle of the night the floor turned up and it was very hot from the floor to about five inches about the floor. The ambient air was rather cold still, so sleeping on the floor was more of a challenge than I expected. The bathroom did not have ondol floors or apparently insulation; there was a foot of space between the sink and the wall that featured a shower nozzle. It was so freakishly cold in there that we didn’t shower all weekend. Let me remind you that this was Valentine’s day. The fact that Jared puts up with me booking a place like this is incredibly romantic.
I’m glad we stayed there. We like adventure. We like saying that we’ve tried something. We like exploring the culture. It’s not happening again. So, in the first time that I take the reins on a trip, we sleep on the floor, don’t shower, and visit two crummy UNESCO sites. It wasn’t the best start to the vacation, but I still had three more stamps to collect!