-The Motorcycle Diaries
Che Guevara, I am not. But like Che, I have an endless desire to get out of the city and see parts of the country firsthand. I maintain that the best way to see any country is by motorbike, because traveling is just as much about the journey as it is the destination. While traveling by KTX is fast and convenient, there’s a lot of Korea to see between train stations. Even if you do not have a motorbike of your own, many of Korea’s tourist cities offer them for hire. The goal of this feature is to serve as a window into some of the more remote locations in Korea you can get to by “autobike”. First stop – Gyeongju.
Gyeongju, Korea’s “museum without walls,” seemed like the perfect destination for my first road trip. It was back in January, which is pretty cold on a motorcycle, so its proximity to Daegu where I live was the main attraction. Gyeongju was once the capital of the Shilla Dynasty and is a popular destination for tourists because of its rich history. There’s an endless supply of tombs, temples, and other national treasures within the confines of this medium-sized city, and it’s pretty easy to get around. Gyeongju, like the rest of Korea, has English road signs for all of its historical sites. There are also buses running to most of these, and the city’s size makes renting a bicycle a very feasible option. In a city like Gyeongju, you can see quite a lot with nothing more than your own two feet.
Departing Daegu at about 9:00am with road atlas in hand, I estimated I could get there well before noon. Gyeongju is only about 1.5 hours from Daegu, but nearly half of this time is spent just trying to get out of city. If you live in the eastern part of the city, you can shave off a considerable amount of time. Gyeongju is a pretty simple drive, Route 4 (the airport road) will take you all the way there. Once outside the city, I was traveling at 80 kph the whole way, with mountains on either side of me. In a country the size of Korea, this much open road is a rarity, so it’s nice to escape the hustle and bustle of civilization for awhile. After stopping a few times to check my progress (and to warm up my hands a bit), I arrived in Gyeongju at about 11:00am.
My first stop in Gyeongju was Hanjin Hostel.
Just a short walk from the bus terminal, Hanjin is the most popular place to stay among foreign backpackers, and it’s easy to see why. The friendly owner, Mr. Kwon, speaks fluent English (and Japanese), and offers his own maps of the city for free. This place is somewhat of an unofficial tourist information stop in Gyeongju. I paid W25,000 per night for 2 nights, and this got me a room with a private bath. Mr. Kwon offers all the amenities, including internet access. There’s also a gathering place on the roof for guests that would be a nice place to sit out and enjoy the weather in the summer, but not so much when I was there. After some suggestions from Mr. Kwon, I decided to head off to the Gyeongju National Museum.
The museum (bus #11, 600, or 603) is about a 10 minute drive, turning off Route 4 and onto Route 7. Admission is free, and the museum is host to countless Shilla-era artifacts.
It would be easy to spend a couple hours here, and that’s just what I did. Don’t miss the outdoor exhibitions, like the Emille Bell, one of the largest existing bells in Asia. Just down the road from the museum is Anapji Pond, a Shilla pleasure garden and pavilion.
Very little of the pavilion still exists, but a walk around the pond is still beautiful and peaceful, even in January. Many of the artifacts at the National Museum were recovered here when the pond was drained in 1975. A little further on are Wolseong Fortress and Seokbinggo, an ice storage house. Both are worth a look. On the way back toward the city, I stopped at Tumuli Park, or Daereungwon (bus #42 or 70, get off at Daereungwon). Although there are over 700 tombs scattered all over the city, Tumuli is unique in that one of the 20 tombs there, Cheonmachang, is open to the public. After a couple hours walking among the tombs, my drive had caught up with me, so I decided to grab a quick bite and head back to the hostel.
My one full day in Gyeongju started early, and I only had one destination in mind – Bulguksa Temple (bus #10 or 11, every 30 minutes). About a 20 minute drive down Route 7, the English road signs are very easy to follow. Bulguksa is considered by many to be Korea’s most impressive temple, and I agree. One could easily spend an entire day touring the temple complex. Built in the 8th century, Bulguksa is also home to two pagodas, Dabotap and Seokgatap, both national treasures in their own right. A short hike up the mountain will take you to Seokguram Grotto, a stone temple built to house the Bonjon Statue.
After spending half a day at Bulguksa Temple, I headed back to the city, and stumbled across Bunhwangsa Temple (bus #10, 11, 15, 17, 18, or 277). While the temple itself is unimpressive, the stone pagoda there, Mojeon, makes it worth the trip.
Mojeon is the oldest known pagoda in Korea. By this time, I had about an hour of daylight left, so I decided to make my way to Cheomseongdae Observatory (bus #70, get off at Daereung-won), which I had missed the day before. Cheomseongdae is the oldest existing astronomical observatory in all of Asia. You would never guess its purpose without already knowing, Cheomseondae stands only a little more than 9 meters high.
I spent most of the morning visiting some of the other tombs in the city, and not straying too far away from Route 4. You could easily spend a week in Gyeongju and not see everything. There are numerous smaller sites in the surrounding national park that I never even had time to check out. Most of the major sites in Gyeongju are located in the southern portion of the city, with the northern half being very much a modern area, and home to Gyeongju University.
Feeling like I had accomplished most of what I had set out to do, I said goodbye to Gyeongju and hit the road to Daegu.
From Seoul, the fastest option is to take a train to Daegu, then hop on an express bus to Gyeongju. Express bus from Seoul (W16,300), 4.5 hours.
From Daegu, express bus (W3300), 1 hour.
From Busan, express bus (W4000), 1 hour.
Once in Gyeongju, you can rent a bicycle just about anywhere, most notably around the bus terminal and train station, for W5,000-7,000/day. You can also rent a motorbike near the bus terminal for around W40,000/day.
Besides Hanjin Hostel, there are numerous “love motels” around the bus terminal.
It’s mostly Korean fare in Gyeongju, but there is a 24-hour McDonald’s, and a pretty good fusion restaurant called The Terrace.
View Gyeongju, South Korea in a larger map
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