Dawn had yet to break when our bus came to a stop near the summit of Mt. Tohamsan. It was still very dark outside, and when the doors opened we were greeted by the windy, blustery cold. Having spent nearly seven hours on the bus with practically no sleep the jolt to the system was both intense and strangely refreshing.
We watched the sun rise as we marched toward Seokguram Grotto. Of all the historical monuments in Gyeongju, this was the one I was most looking forward to seeing. The statue of Buddha was a bit smaller than I expected (in the promotional photos it appears larger than life), but it was still very impressive nonetheless. Photography was prohibited but several of us managed to snap a few pictures with the flash turned off (a necessity in any case as the shrine is encased in glass). Eventually the guard got wise and that put an end to the photo opportunities.
Because it was so early in the day we were the only large tour group there. It was a good time to visit this important historical site as I understand it can become very congested with tourists later on.
We wound our way back down Tohamsan to take a stroll through the grounds of Bulguksa Temple. The leaves have all turned brown and fallen to the ground in most of the wooded areas around Seoul, but the autumn colors were still on display in Bulguksa. The air temperature gradually became warmer as the sun rose higher.
Next we hiked up Namsan - a different mountain from the Namsan in Seoul, obviously. There was a vast network of trails stretching up the slope of this mountain, all of which were absolutely peppered with Buddha shrines. Several of the Buddhas unfortunately had their heads lopped off. I learned that people construct shrines of Buddha with a particular wish in mind and the finished work is supposed to help the wish come true. The act of removing the head has the effect of canceling the wish, or reversing it if it has already come true. It is essentially a mean-spirited thing to do but evidence on display indicates it happened quite frequently.
After a bibimpap lunch we went on a tour of Gyeongju City. We took a look at the 23 tombs of Tumuli Park. I've seen many royal tombs in Korea, but this was the first time I was given a glimpse of their infrastructure. Very interesting.
Other sites of interest we took in included Anapji Pond, Cheomseongdae Observatory, and Gyeongju National Museum. Many of the artifacts at the museum are similar to what you can see at the National Museum of Korea, but since that museum's temporary location closed its doors in October you may not have the opportunity of seeing them until the new location opens sometime in 2005.
By the time we got to the museum, the sleep deprivation from the previous night was starting to catch up with me. Luckily we checked into our hotel next. There wasn't much time for rest, however, as we went out for a pork BBQ, where many shots of soju were downed along with dinner. More beer was on tap at a local hof afterwards, and several members of our party engaged in a drinking game called "Titanic" with a neighboring table of Koreans. I gather they went out to a noraebang afterwards. Needless to say, some people made it back to the hotel later than others.
Sunday turned out to be warmer than Saturday. Our first destination was Mt. Juwangsan National Park. It being the dry season, the trails to the peaks were closed. The walking was level but very scenic and enjoyed by all. Yesterday's trek up Namsan was more difficult for some people. The trail terminated at a collection of wooden buildings where living conditions have remained unchanged since the Korean War.
After a lunch of hot tofu soup, our next stop was Jusanji Lake. This body of water's claim to fame was its use as a shooting location for a prize-winning Korean film - the title of which translates into English as "The Four Seasons."
We hit traffic on our way back to Seoul. We were fortunate in that our bus was barely a month old and came furnished with a flat, wide-screened TV. "Hidalgo" was the entertainment selection of choice. It crapped out halfway through and had to be re-started from the beginning, the multi-media system being brand new and unfamiliar to those of us seated near the front.
The time we'd been away amounted to little more than 48 hours, but because we'd seen and done so much many of us agreed it felt more like a week. I'd like to thank Seokjin and Adventure Korea for another memorable excursion.