gyeongjuvirtual museum without walls
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Gyeongju: virtual museum without walls

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Taking South Korea's own bullet train, we reached Gyeongju after a three-hour journey from Seoul. Enhanced by its distinct identity, Gyeongju is a magnetic tourist destination in eastern South Korea. Numerous low mountains, outliers of the Taebaek Mountains, are scattered throughout the city. Gyeongju is considered an important center of Korean Buddhism as well with several notable temples and shrines. Well-maintained historic sites abound within this city, making it a virtual "museum without walls." Today, Gyeongju has a population of nearly 300,000 but retains a small-city feel and is fairly easy to get around. Not many foreigners make it here. Consequently, us, tourists, drew some attention from the locals, but when we approached them openly, we felt rewarded with lots of interesting and positive interaction. Gyeongju is the former capital of the kingdom of Silla, which ruled most of Korea in the seventh to the ninth century, our guide tells us. Due to a history of more than 1,000 years as the residence of Korean rulers, it holds a rich heritage of sites and remains of that period. "The city undertakes a lot of effort to preserve that heritage," she said. Getting around, Gyeongju is connected to nationwide rail and expressway networks, which facilitate both industrial and tourist traffic. We found it an easy city to maneuver, as we could conveniently travel between these sites. Gyeongju doesn't have its own airport, however. The nearest are in Busan (Gimhae) and Ulsan, both an hour away by express bus. There is a bus service between the airports and Gyeongju's main terminal that runs on an hourly basis. Gyeongju is also well serviced by intra-city buses. An inter-city bus leaves directly from the Incheon International Airport near Seoul. Service from Daegu, Pohang and Busan (depending on terminal) leaves at least every twenty minutes and every 40 minutes between Gyeongju and Seoul. Travel time from Seoul is about four hours, and from Daegu, Pohang and Busan is around 40 minutes to an hour. There are seven direct trains daily from Seoul, however these can take up to five hours. Another option would be to take a KTX and transfer to a Saemaeul at Dongdaegu, which should take just over three hours including transfer time. Because of its location off the central train lines (Gyeongbu Line) to Daegu and Busan, daily train service to other parts of the country is limited or indirect. For example, going between Gyeongju and other cities will usually be routed through either Daegu or Busan. There is, however, train service to Busan, Daegu, and Pohang connecting riders to more extensive rail services as well as to the KTX. In addition, there is extensive commuter train service to surrounding communities. KTX (Korea's high speed train), which started on Nov. 1, serves Gyeongju directly, although this is to an entire new station that is located outside the city center called Shin Gyeongju. Gyeongju-si (si meaning city in Korean) was on our list to visit since arriving in Seoul. There are many World Heritage sites in Gyeongju-si and one of them is the Tumuli Park, which contains numerous mound burials of kings and queens from the Silla dynasty. The Silla dynasty began in 57 BC and continued until the eighth century when it was defeated by the Goryeo dynasty. The ancient Silla civilization is a heritage that holds as much fascination for native Koreans as for us and other overseas visitors. Gyeongju is a treasure house for the jewels of Korean cultural history. Those seriously seeking to understand "the heart of Korean culture" will find time spent in Gyeongju immensely rewarding.  The peak of Buddhist culture in Korea is on display at the museums, archaeological sites, and temple compounds in and nearby Gyeongju. Three important cultural transformations are recorded in Gyeongju: pre-three kingdom period, three-kingdom period, and unified Silla period. Those three periods also display the impact of Shamanism — Buddhism from China — and Seon Buddhism — a unique Buddhism developed in Korea. "Today, Gyeongju is a typical medium-sized city, having shared in the economic, demographic, and social trends that have shaped modern South Korea. However, amid these trends the city has retained a distinctive identity. In tourism, it is one of South Korea's best-known destinations. In manufacturing, it profits from its proximity to major industrial centers such as Ulsan," said a local resident. The majority of the over 10 million visitors who patronize Gyeongju every year come to see the attractions of Gyeongju National Park. The park contains a slew of Silla landmarks, altogether unknown on the national landscape before the last century. Many of the spectacular showcase treasures to have been found here are on display at Gyeongju National Museum. One other UNESCO World Heritage site is the Cheomseongdae — an astronomical observatory built by a ruling Silla queen in the seventh century and one of the oldest scientific structures in the world. Surrounding the observatory is a beautiful park with flowers and a large frog pond. Across from Cheomseongdae Park is Anapji Pond — a tranquil and beautiful palace of red lacquered wood pillars, clay roofs and ornate ceilings of turquoise, blue, red and gold in Korean motif style. It is surrounded by a man-made pond, which was built in the seventh century. During the reconstruction of the pond, many artifacts were found and are now on display in many of the open buildings. The site was especially beautiful at night and was extremely busy. We saw many school children visiting there. Gyeongju-si depends heavily on tourism — its main industry. Next, we visited Bulguksa Buddhist Temple and the Seogram Grotto of Buddha. Avid interest in archaeology in the early 20th century unearthed a treasure trove in Gyeongju, most notably in the form of Buddhist worship by the Silla rulers. Two sites in the area — the grotto of Seokguram and the temple of Bulguksa — became the first Korean inscriptions on UNESCO's World Heritage Sites list. The most familiar characteristic of hyper-modern South Korea is perhaps the robust Tiger economy whose supersonic rise between 1961 and 1997 gave birth to the term "Miracle on the Han River." With heavy emphasis on high technology, robotics and petrochemicals, the progressive country has a functional education system that introduces a copious stream of knowledge workers into the economy with each new generation. South Korea has become a tourist curiosity. More and more people visit Seoul and Busan, the nation's second city and 2020 Summer Olympics hopeful, every year. Far from the gloss and shine of these visionary metropolises, however, is the relative calm of Gyeongju.

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