GYEONGJU, South Korea– Tumuli. They're fun to explore, these giant rounded burial mounds popping up all around the city. The tumuli (not to be mistaken with the naturally formed tumuli like those found in Australia) are those left behind by the Silla Dynasty (??), who, for a majority of the first millennium, ruled a bulk of what would later become the Korean peninsula. Hundreds of these tumuli still sit scattered in and around Gyeongju. The mounds are just one part of the Gyeongju Historic Area, a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site since 2000.
While the tombs are sacred resting places, one named Cheongmachong (???), or “Heavenly Horse Tomb,” is open for visitors to have a look around. Once inside, it's dark and cool, and disconcerting to see I'm inside a pile of rocks about fifteen feet deep (5m) that’s then covered with earth ten feet deep. Also, although the well-lit artifacts might give the impression of a tiny museum, I’m really standing inside a grave.
In the tomb, my family and I eye up a few of the more than 11,500 relics that have been excavated from this tomb alone. There’s a fragile golden headdress and an uncomfortable-looking wooden saddle, the very saddle that Cheonmacheong was named for. The saddle’s flap bears a famous painting of a flying white horse, or Cheonma.
Back outside, the path through Tumuli Park leads us through a stretch of knotty pines and oaks. Because of the rain that’s just passed through, the park is nearly empty and very still. The air smells fresh and mossy and I feel like I'm in a children's storybook. We walk on through Gyeongju’s green stretches.
After a bit, we reach a place I recognize from my Korean students’ textbooks. I'm standing in front of Cheomseongdae (???), the oldest astronomical observatory in East Asia. It looks like a pudgy chimney. I'm the only one in our group who takes a picture.
Besides this not very interesting landmark, the open, wide expanses of Gyeonju's historical section are serene and calm and beautiful—and impress me all the more.
From Cheomseongdae, we roam across a field toward another wooded area, which a sign tells us is Gyerim Forest (??). The sign goes on to explain that this is the place where a gold box was found hanging from a tree, a rooster crowing beneath it, and in that box was a boy whose heirs would later rule the Sillas.
Later, after walking through the rapeseed field, past the red and white hollyhocks, under the gourd and zucchini vine-covered tunnel, and after taking turns sticking our faces through a painted board that made it look like we were the Silla princess in a pink hanbok riding a horse sidesaddle, we make it to the lotus flowers complex that lies nearby Anapji Pond’s (???) western edge.
I've never seen so many or such huge water lilies and lotus flowers. The leaves are twice as wide as my outspread hand. I’m so taken with this bit of the city that it wouldn’t be until much later, looking back at my worn tourist map, that I realize that we’ve actually missed Anapji itself, which was once the site of a palace complex. Nonetheless, by the time we finish walking up and down the pathways bordered on both sides by blossoming aquatic plants, we're tired and ready to head toward the intercity bus station.
To get there, we walk down Hangover Soup Street. Hangover soup, known as haejangguk (???), is a traditional stew made from ox or beef bone broth, soybean paste, sprouts, radish, green onions, and sometimes ox blood. Each of the hangover soup restaurants is nearly identical, and each is empty, save for the proprietors swatting flies away from giant silver pots. I guess that by 3:00 in the afternoon, the hangovers are done for the day.
During the short trek to the bus station, we walk along the northern edge of Tumuli Park. After only a day of exploring Gyeongju by foot, I know the city still holds an abundance of sites for me to discover. I leave the city already thinking about my return.
You can read Roselyn McNulty’s blog, Soju Cocktail here.