A bus ride from Busan, on a dull overcast day and we were in Gyeong-ju, known as the ‘museum without walls’ due to the number of tombs, temples, rock carvings, pagodas, Buddhist statuary and palace ruins that exist there. It is also a UNESCO world heritage site. Apparently you need a few days to explore Gyeong-ju, we were there on a whistlestop 22hrs and our first stop was not to whistle but to get clean as the proverbial at a spa in town.
For a tenner we got spa towels, top and bottoms in baby pink, with XXL for the lardy and access to 4 floors of the 5 floor spa (one floor is for the men, and we wouldn’t be wanting to go there). After a shower we then had access to the 3 pools at various temperatures – frickin’ hot to the point of wooziness, frickin’ cold to the point of shivering and goosebumps, and ambient perfectness. I plumped for ambience complete with jets aiming to remove the knots in my upper back. There was a sauna but lounging in a pool seemed perfect, and required minimal movement. From there I could observe other ladies being brought refreshments. Others were scrubbing areas of their bodies that should never be aired, let alone given a vigorous going over with the equivalent of a brillo pad, it was DIY hammam-ing at its finest.
I could have stayed in the pool for the remainder of the day but didn’t have a book to read and my look for the day wasn’t going to be wrinkled prune, so after 45mins of wallowing I forced myself out of the pool. Deciding against the human Dyson dryer that you could stand on and get blasted dry, I opted for the traditional towel, and once clothed and feeling about 10lbs lighter having removed a few layers of dirt, we headed upstairs to the resting space. Here you can lie down on mattresses, or head into the cinema room where you get to sit in a comfy chair and watch a film of your choice, or else you can pay a couple of quid and get yourself practically strapped into a ‘massage’ chair and have pieces of metal that are barely covered in material try and force their way into your soft body tissues. CC fell asleep during the torture, I aimed to put into practice some mindfuless and acceptance that pieces of metal inserting themselves into fleshy parts was ok, whilst simultaneously screaming silently and counting down the minutes till the chair released its steely grip.
Suitably knackered and time against us we binned off the trip to a UNESCO protected temple (always next time, right?) and headed out for a late lunch at a nearby restaurant Sukyoung Sikdang, which turned out to be the second favouritist restaurant in Gyeong Ju, according to TripAdvisor.
A tiny little lady served up the food to us, as we sat (or rather I lolled) on tatami mats. The set up was traditional with the low tables, and underfloor heating, and small cushions to sit on.
The bibimbap was amazing, as evidenced by the ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures. After stuffing ourselves senseless I utilised what was quickly becoming my standard escape approach of roll, release legs, revert to vertical and we headed off to our guest house via a local bakery. Not just any local bakery though. This was the first red bean paste bread (hwangnam-ppang) bakery to be set up in Gyeong-ju. The bread was invented in 1939 and is a famous speciality of the town. The bakery is family run by the Choi son of the founder.
CC stocked up for friends and family. Each day fresh batches are made on tables by hand behind the serving counter, using the original recipe. Often the queues are out the door but as we were there at the end of the day we got lucky and were in and out pretty quickly.
Our next stop was the guesthouse, which we got to just as the heavens opened and it started to chuck it down. Our beds were set up the traditional Korean way, with a blanket on the mattress and a thicker blanket (no sheet) to sleep under. We got a bonus with electric blankets too and a heater in the room. Woo hoo – happy days!
Our day was not yet done, on a promise of chicken and beer with other guests for when we returned, we headed out into the rain to go to Donggung Palace. The palace is supposed to be a great example of Silla architecture. Gyeong-ju was the capital of Silla, the ancient empire that lasted from 57 BC to 935 AD. The palace was a secondary palace used by the Crown Prince, with the main palace of Wolseong located nearby. In the centuries after both palaces were destroyed and it was only in the early 20th Century when archaeological excavations were carried out were the ruins of these palaces discovered.
It was beautifully lit up, and even the rain couldn’t dampen the view, as we wandered around the artificially created pond that sits in front of the remains of the palace.
Unfortunately we weren’t going to get the opportunity to revisit it the next day as we were leaving before midday, however just being able to see it at night made up for that. As did the little shop that was open on our street that was selling the tastiest rice flour and almond powder biscuits. The various flavoured biscuits were each cut into the shape of a particular historical artefact from Gyeong-ju, whether it was the astronomy tower, or images from famous tiles or artefacts found during the archaeological digs.
Managed to inhale a couple of these puppies before dinner….they were definitely a winner for me.
The next morning we left fairly early to get back to the bus station, and to have some breakfast beforehand, as the guesthouse offering was somewhat sparse. None of the shops appeared to be open until after 10am, but we got to see the town and the architecture as we wandered our way back to the centre.
All around the town are various mounds, which turned out to be tombs of all the various leaders of the Silla empire.
With coffee inside me and finely waking up we were homeward bound to Seoul and for the last couple of days of my visit. Shopping and eating awaited.