This post probably won’t win me any awards from the Korean Tourism Organization, but once upon a time I was a Fine Arts student. So after the last few weeks of beautifully blossoming cherry trees, please forgive me if I’m in the mood to post something a bit more urban and gritty. Here’s the first part of a slideshow of I’ve put together of Gyeongju, so you can scroll down or click on the photos for the slideshow viewer. I wanted to break in my new Nikon D5100 last month and went for a stroll downtown, so most of the photos here are from that shoot. Also I’ve thrown in a few older pictures that, for some reason or another, haven’t made it up on the blog yet.
Looking through this slideshow, you might get the impression that downtown Gyeongju is a bit grungy, run down and still stuck back in the 1980’s. I’ll admit part of this is my personal aesthetic. My photographer’s eye is attracted to things with a bit more character, history and grunge, so I’ve left out the shiny and new cell phone shops, fashion boutiques and pasta restaurants that litter Gyeongju’s downtown. That said, the other reason my photos might give this impression is that much of downtown Gyeongju is, in fact, a bit grungy, rundown and stuck in the 1980’s.
I don’t mean to offend local pride, but I’ve heard numerous visitors, Korean and foreign alike, comment on how surprised they were with the state of Gyeongju’s downtown, especially considering Gyeongju is such a big tourist destination. Compared to the glitz, glamour, hustle and bustle of pretty much every other big city in Korea, Gyeongju’s downtown definitely looks a few decades behind the curve. Now this would be alright if that meant that the streets of downtown were lined with traditional “Hanuk” style wooden houses and ceramic tile-roofed tea shops. Instead with their pseudo-avant garde concrete architecture, hole-in-the wall restaurants, tangled electrical wires, and peeling signs some of the streets downtown could easily be mistaken for back allies in Bangkok or Tokyo circa 1983.
Of course there are reasons for this incongruity. For one thing, the Gyeongju’s older neighborhoods reside smack on top of key historical sites dating back to the ancient Silla Dynasty. By law, any new construction project in downtown Gyeongju has to conduct archeological excavation before it can build anything. On top of this, it would seem Gyeongju is one of the few cities in Korea with zoning regulations concerning the height of its buildings. In central Gyeongju, buildings cannot be above five stories tall so they don’t block the views of the ancient tombs that are scattered around (Of course, developers do sneak on a few extra stories now and then). However, both these things tend to scare away the high rolling developers from investing in Gyeongju’s downtown and giving it a big budget face lift.
Then, of course, there is Bomun Resort. For better or worse, during the last few years of the Park Chung-hee’s dictatorship in the 1970’s, the government decided to build the lion’s share of Gyeongju’s tourist infrastructure around an artificial lake 5 km east of the city. This way the developers could build their mega-hotels, theme parks and shooting ranges while avoiding the restrictions I mentioned before. This works from a preservationist angel as it kept the mega-hotels and shooting ranges from being built on top of ancient ruins or towering over to Anapji Pond. However, this also means that the lion’s share of all that tourist money is funneled out to Bomun Resort as well. Sure, the bus tours and weekend trippers all visit Gyeongju’s tombs, Anapji pond, and Gyeongju National Museum. But most of them ship off to Bomun for their (overpriced) hotel rooms, dinners and drinks, leaving the downtown shopkeepers, hoteliers and restaurant owners to pick up the scraps. The sad fact is downtown Gyeongju is dead as a doornail after 7:00 pm.
So I have a bit of sympathy for downtown Gyeongju, even if it’s a bit rough around the edges. In fact over the years I have come to find it quite charming. Visitors can still discover a lot of secrets downtown if they aren’t afraid to explore the back streets. There are still a few of traditional “Hanuk” houses hidden away on the back streets of downtown, some of which do in fact host restaurants and tea shops. Not to mention, there has been a bit of urban renewal on the main streets over the last few years. For example a slew of funky café’s have opened around the edges of Bonghwang Tomb that make great places to relax after an afternoon touring about.
The city has also made a big push to revive Bonghwang-ro Traditional Crafts Street. Gyeongju’s answer to Insadong, Bonghwang-ro is a perfect spot for those looking to indulge in traditional Korean pottery and crafts or to spend an afternoon browsing through the shops. Then of course, there are those weird back street gems like the legendary Hitler Mural. (Sorry, the picture’s not included here. I can’t give away all downtown’s secrets, after all. Still if you’re curious, it’s a few blocks up from the train station and currently hidden behind a banner for cell phone shop.) But enough of my ramblings; I hope you enjoy the rest of the photos.