I’m a sucker for “Best of” lists- Best Books, Must See Movies, Favorite Products, etc. For some reason I put a lot of value in these and love to dutifully following along what others recommend to me.
Several years ago, Jared and I had looked through a book detailing all the UNESCO World Heritage sites. (There are over 1,000. See the complete list here.) This was before our move to Asia, and we had barely traveled outside of the United States. I had longed to be able to visit just a portion the places on this list. The UNESCO list combines my love for lists with my love for travel and cultural. I know that it is impossible to visit every UNESCO site in the world, but this Korea-only challenge is attainable. I feel like I owe it to the girl who flipped through that book and dreamed of adventure several years ago.
I was not deterred by our visits to Seokguram Grotto and Bulguksa Temple; I was actually more determined to follow our itinerary and visit three more UNESCO sites. I had planned this little adventure, so I had to follow through on it for the sake of my pride. Plus, the previous day had reminded me how much I liked collecting my little stamps.
The first two sites were very close to our hanok, and after a hearty breakfast at McDonald’s we set off for Cheomseongdae Observatory. This stone structure was constructed between 632-647 AD, and is considered to be the oldest observatory in the East. Apparently it was built to honor the reigning Silla queen. There’s a little speculation about how functional it was though. First, it was built on a flat field. Not a mile away on top of a mountain, but in the middle of a field. One of the reasons given for this is that the Queen wanted to to be close by so that she could get reports to the palace quickly. Also, it’s very small. Maybe two stories high, and it is reportedly very cramped at the top, which would have made observing in the observatory very difficult. Some historians speculate that it was more a monument than a functional observatory. It is lit at night, and we visited it both during the day and the night.
Our second destination was just a quick walk away, the Daereungwon Tomb Complex. Gyeongju has 155 tumuli- tomb mounds. Daereungwon has 23 tumuli and a tree lined path wandering through these massive burial mounds. The mounds are estimated to have been built between the 4th and 6th century. I assume that 1,000 years should have worn the earth down considerably, so I wonder how much larger they were originally. They make an interesting landscape, because the ground around them is flat, and then these mounds pop up quickly. The tombs were either for Kings, Queens, or high-ranking individuals. A person was buried with their possessions piled on top of them and then loads of dirt on top of that. It wasn’t like an Egyptian pyramid with rooms. The entrance was sealed with rocks and mud, because of their construction style, it was very difficult for grave robbers to enter. There is one tomb that visitors can go in and see replicas of the treasures found inside- crown, jewels, belts, goblets. However, the most interesting thing we learned about these tombs was in our UNESCO guidebook. One of the tombs contained a king, along with his bone fragments was found the bones of a 15 year old girl. She was a victim of sunjang “burial of the living with the dead.” It was clear to us whether this girl got her own coffin or shared one with her dead king, but we were horrified at this thought.
Our final destination on this day was Yangdong Village. It was about a 30 minute drive outside of Gyeongju, and completely worth it. Out of the five sites we visited in Gyeongju, this was my favorite. Yangdong is a 600 year old traditional village, which replicates the lifestyle of the yangban, or aristocratic class. There are still residents in the village, who preserve the traditional culture. It was neat to see the old style houses with clothes hanging out to dry, or kimchi pots sitting next to satellite dishes. The village was quiet and set on a hill. It was easy to wander up and down the streets and explore this little piece of living history. Our guidebook called it “a photographer’s dream,” and I have to agree. One of my favorite ways to spend the day is to wander around somewhere new and take pictures with Jared; Yangdong was perfect for one of our photography dates. I would love to visit it in the spring or fall, rather than the dead of winter. It’s the one place that we visited in Gyeongju that I would happily return to.
I know that I’ve mentioned how I was a little disappointed in some of the sites on this trip. It saddens me that some of the adventure of our time in Korea has become routine. I know I will miss 600 year old villages and 1,000 year old temples the moment I leave this country. We are so blessed to have the opportunities to visit these places, and I’m so happy that I’m able to share them with you!