Monday, April 19, 2010

Weekend in Gyeongju

Early Saturday morning I headed out to join ten friends for a weekend trip down to Gyeongju, Korea.  The city is about four hours South of Seoul, and it is one of the first times I've actually left Seoul for a tour of the "country."  Korea is not the most aesthetically pleasing nation, but there are some places that I do need to see before I leave in only four short months.  Gyeongju is famous for several Korean landmarks including Bulguksa Temple, cherry blossoms,the Cheomseongdae Observatory, and several royal tombs including the tomb of Queen Seondeok.  We planned our trip, however, around Gyeongju's 13th annual traditional Korean alcohol and rice cake festival.  Our Korean friend Sanggoon (aka Leo) is from Gyeongju, and he graciously offered to take us down to the festival and show us his hometown.  Not only did he rent us a large van, but his family offered to cook us a traditional Korean meal upon our arrival to the city.  (Koreans really are the most welcoming people - their hospitality never ceases to amaze me).  

Leo's mom cooked us a traditional meal including rice, kimchi (all different assortments!), bulgogi, chicken, kimchi pancakes, all the side dishes (including roots and seaweed), fruits, vegetables, and sauces.  It was amazing!

Leo and his parents!  They made me miss having parents around -- after we ate lunch, they loaded up our van with sodas and cookies and sent us on our way.  

After our amazing lunch, we headed to the festival grounds to sample some rice cake and traditional Korean drinks.  We started with the liquor booth area.  After purchasing a 1,000 won ($1) sampling glass necklace, we could go to any booth and have a small sample of their alcohol.  We got to try everything from traditional ginseng drinks to mushroom wine.  Following our drink samples, we spent the rest of the afternoon eating rice cake (one of my favorite foods!).  After some delicious rice cake samples and watching rice cake being made (lots of rice being beat to a pulp. Literally), we headed back to our van and to our hotel for the evening.  We stayed at a traditional Korean accommodation called a minbak.  We had reserved two rooms that both opened into a large garden and courtyard area.  When you walk (or climb in our case), into the room, it is just an empty room.  Folded in a corner or in an armoire are mats and blankets and pillows.  The minbak rooms have heated floors (like my apartment the heat comes from the ondol.)  Sleeping on the floor isn't fantastic, but it isn't as bad as you might imagine either.

A sign on the wall at the festival.  So typical.

Sunday morning we woke up early and headed to Bulguksa Temple.  The temple is a UNESCO World Heritage sight, and the temple as well as the surrounding area is really beautiful.  The grounds leading up to the temple were packed with cherry blossoms and vegetation combined with vendors under colorful umbrellas selling visitors everything from postcards to tasty larvae snacks (gross, I know.)

The grounds leading up to Bulguksa Temple

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju

The grounds at Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju

Inside Bulguksa Temple

After we saw the temple, we headed to another area of Gyeongju that was bursting with colorful flowers.  There was a huge rapeseed flower field and plenty of cherry blossoms.  The entire area was amazingly beautiful.  We explored for awhile, took way too many pictures, then headed to lunch (at a famous Korean tofu restaurant) and the tomb of Queen Seondeok before our trip home to Seoul.

Streets of Gyeongju outside the rapeseed field

I definitely hope to travel more outside of Seoul in the following months.  I have a few more weekend trips planned, and I am excited to see more of the Korean peninsula.  Seoul is so big I never get tired of exploring it, but I know Korea has so much more to offer.  Have a good week!

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