Old town prizes its past glory

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 March, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 March, 1994, 12:00am

NESTLING in a valley in southeast Korea is a green, lush country town oozing with history.

For 1,000 years, Kyongju was the capital of the Shilla kingdom, which united the three ancient cities of Korea, and became one of the greatest cultural centres of the world.

Today, it is a fascinating place for visitors, and, quite literally, has a treasure trove of tourist attractions.

Kyongju is known as a museum without walls and everywhere one can see tributes to its glorious past.

High on the agenda for visitors is Pulguksa temple, first built in AD 535. It is Korea's best known Buddhist temple and a monument to the skill of the early architects.

Over the centuries, parts of the structure have been rebuilt and enlarged, but its two famous pagodas, Tabot'ap and Sokkat'ap, are original.

Nearby is Kwaerung tomb, said to be the grave of the 38th Shilla ruler, King Wonsong. Statues line the path leading to the tomb, symbolising the military officials in attendance to the king.

A drive along a winding road through a beautiful forest on the outskirts of Kyongju leads to Sokkuram grotto, a prime example of East Asian Buddhist art. The grotto was built about the same time as Pulguksa temple, and stands above it on Mount T'ohamsan.

It is home to a huge granite Buddha, a serene, seated figure gazing out to sea surrounded by Bodhisattvas and guardian deities. The domed roof is another remarkable feat of engineering.

Tourists can no longer circle the Buddha - as the shrine has been surrounded by a glass wall to protect it and preserve its treasures - but they can still go to the entrance and contemplate the image.

Other Buddhist artifacts and stone sculptures, along with Shilla gold crowns and intricate pottery, can be seen at the Kyongju National Museum.

It is easy to lose track of time and wander around for hours simply taking in the magnitude of the Shilla heritage.

The legendary Emille bell, made in 771 for King Songdok, is one of the largest in Asia and stands in the museum grounds.

The 3.5-metre-high bronze bell, weighing 23 tonnes, is famous for its unique tone, which is said to be the cries of a tragic child who was thrown into the molten metal when it was cast. The name of the bell is derived from the child's calls to its mother''Emi . . . emi . . . lie!'' Palaces, ponds, and pleasure pavilions of Shilla royalty abound on the edges of Kyongju.

Panwolsong fortress was the main residence and known in its heyday for its vastness. It was suggested that it was so large that to walk around it all would wear out a pair of straw shoes.

While at the fortress, stop and admire the ice-house in its grounds, built with more than 1,000 stones.

Anapchi pond was temporarily drained in 1974 and alongside statues and jewellery a fully preserved royal barge was discovered, all of which are now on display in the museum.

Tumuli park has numerous royal burial mounds. In 1974, the Heavenly Horse tomb was excavated, revealing more than 10,000 treasures, including a golden crown, girdle and painting of a heavenly flying horse which are now in the museum.

It is a fascinating place to visit because the tomb is open for viewing, enabling tourists to see how it was constructed. The park itself is also a peaceful beauty spot for a leisurely stroll.

Ch'omsongdae observatory, a seventh-century bottle-shaped stone tower, is Asia's oldest observatory and another interesting site.

Recent research has revealed that the tower was built according to complex mathematical principles.

The 12 stones at its base apparently represent months of the year, and the 30 layers the days of the month. There are 366 stones in all, symbolising the days of the year.

East of Kyongju is the popular Pomun Lake resort, which has four super-deluxe hotels, a convention centre, a marina, extensive shopping and dining facilities, a casino, a championship golf course, pleasure boats, bowling alleys, tennis courts and all types of modern conveniences.

The resort makes a good base for tourists, blending comfort and recreation with cultural activities.

Frequent shuttle buses and taxis connect guests with downtown Kyongju and regular guided tours of the historical sites are available.