After spending more than a week surrounded by friends, I decided to spend a few days alone in Gyeongju in order to find a quieter side of Korea. The history is what attracted me to the place (the city is more than 2000 years old). However, there isn’t much I want to write about concerning the historical sites except for a recreated wooden 14-sided die used for drinking games in the Silla Kingdom. To my amusement, I learned that the original had survived, only to be accidentally incinerated by a curator during a preservation procedure.
I saw plenty of warmth when buying food in Gyeongju. At a donut stand near my hostel, the proprietor, noticing me stuffing my face with a sugared creation, invited me to sit down in her shop, gave me a potato donut free of charge, and even brought me cups of water and coffee. Another time, when walking through a traditional Korean market, a lunch counter worker motioned me over when I was exploring and I ended up learning the proper Korean way to eat rice and kimchi (in a lettuce burrito with spicy sauce) while enjoying a huge lunch for less than six USD.
Bulguksa Temple, a famous World Heritage Site, was big but didn’t produce any ‘wows’ – the other places I’ve seen spoiled me, I suppose. The Seokguram Grotto was 2.2 km up a mountain from the temple according to the guide signs so hiking there sounded fun. The 50 minutes that they said were needed to get to the parking area seemed overly conservative …until I made it there 50 minutes later. The stone Buddha with twelve attendants, a Korean National Treasure, was impressive even behind glass.
What really captured my attention was another small building down the hill. The room, with its dark wood floors, well worn and partially covered by white rugs, was filled with shelves and shelves of small golden Buddhas with yellow Christmas tree lights in front of each. A large golden Buddha sat centered along the back wall – hence, it wasn’t appropriate to take pictures.
TRIGGER WARNING: DISTURBING IMAGERY
A painting in the room caught my attention for a few minutes. There were three horizontal divisions. On top were seven seated Buddhas, each with a different pose and all looking content as they floated above a stage surrounded by monks hitting a large drum and performing devotions. Orange smoke separated the middle division, with a host of earthly ills – Samsung smartphones, with an army of gray zombies below with each stooped looking at his or her own; a small mountain of pills and other drugs; a F-16 dropping bombs; Kim Jung Un smiling in sunglasses next to a large gun on wheels; a warming Earth being held above a fire; men drinking and fighting at a table; a group in a boat looking content and engaging in debauchery; a white guy with a scruffy black beard and jeans trying to poke an orange cord from his iMac into his arm as if it were an IV with his jaw going slack in ecstasy; and a boy being paddled. On the bottom was a background of gray smoke with two scary looking demons in the center. On the left were two rings of fire. In one ring, several naked men and women were lying face down in a bed of spikes as they were being whipped. In the other ring were men and animals being forced to work by a demon. On the right side of the large demons was another ring of fire where several demons had hung a man by his long hair on a horizontal bar held up by two sturdy wooden posts. The demons were clearly enjoying stabbing the man in the abdomen with a long sword as the man screamed in agony with his bright red blood splashing all over the ground. This painting was so unlike anything else I’d seen in Buddhist temples on my trip here that I found a seat under a canopy made of rows of red, blue, yellow, pink, and green lanterns and immediately started writing my thoughts lest I lose them complaining about the hike (or the bus I could have probably taken) on my way back down the mountain.
END TRIGGER WARNING