Asia | Korea, Republic of – In Search of World Class Heritage
When you have two UNESCO World Heritage sites sitting almost on your doorstep, its really rather rude not to visit. Im surprised its taken me so long, but Ive been waiting for the lovely autumn colours to arrive.
The temple of Bulguksa, and the grotto sitting high in Mt Tohamsan above, are in Gyeongju; just an hour away from Daegu by bus. Its another twenty minutes by local bus to the car park at the foot of the mountain. Autumn brings out the crowds, so I skirt around the queue at the ticket office and follow the incline up the hill towards the grotto. The path is blissfully quiet and shaded by overhanging trees in the most stupendous colours. With the afternoon sun shining through, the leaves glow red, orange and yellow.
The path is steep all the way, but even taking my time (often to stop for an obligatory cough or sneeze as I have a stinking cold!) I reach the top in around 45 minutes. Koreans have such lovely cultural and historic sites, but always seem to spoil them by having great big, ugly car parks right outside and stalls of Buddhist ‘tat’ at the entrance. Avoiding the crowds, I make my way down a winding path towards Seokguram grotto.
Ive heard much about this place, and seen many pictures, so I am a little surprised to find the grotto to be much smaller than I had imagined. Inside a small hermitage lies a granite cave perhaps 12 metres long and several metres wide. Inside sits a large stone Buddha in the lotus position, with a jewel in his forehead and a halo of lotus flowers on the wall behind. Although his eyes are closed in deep meditation, he faces in the direction of King Munmus underwater tomb, located a few hundred metres off shore in the East Sea.
The surrounding walls are adorned with the sculptures of four Heavenly Guardians and eight ancient Indian Gods. Two fearsome temple guards stand in front of the pillars at the entrance of the cave. No photos are allowed inside, despite the treasures being locked behind a protective window of glass.
The view from the hermitage is spectacular; looking out from the mountain to the valley below. The clear blue skies of this November day provide excellent visibility. Theres a shuttle bus leaving for the temple, but I had enjoyed the forest colours so much on the way up, that I decide to follow the natural path back down the mountain to Bulguksa. Its always so much easier and quicker going down, although hell on the knees. Many Koreans walk downhill backwards to avoid the strain!
Bulguksa is possibly one of Koreas most famous temples. The walk from the entrance gate to the main temple buildings is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful I have ever seen. Hidden behind a flush of red leaves is a small lake over which the Haetalgyo Bridge crosses. The autumnal leaves reflect in the still waters and the sun casts a gorgeous glow over the vista. Passing by the four Heavenly Kings (who let goodness pass, but deter evil from entering the temple), and over the Panya wisdom bridge leads you to the main compound.
The temple buildings are all inside a walled promontory. A staircase, actually named a bridge, leads up to the main Daeungjeon Hall, although visitors actually have to enter through gates at the side. The staircase, named Blue Cloud at the bottom and White Cloud at the top, forms 33 steps in total reflecting the 33 levels to Buddhist heaven. The bridge is very photogenic and many Koreans pose in front for the classic Bulguksa picture postcard.
The main courtyard houses the Daeungjeon Hall and two pagodas. The Seokgatap Pagoda is a simple three-story tower whilst across the grit and stone slab pathway stands the majestic Dapotap Pagoda which features more elegant sculpture and is much more pleasing to the eye. Both are very famous; Seokgatap for once housing the worlds oldest wooden-block paper print and Dapotap is proudly displayed on the Korean 10 Won coin. Brightly painted beams and pillars form corridors that line the edge of the courtyard. Behind lurk various other small hermitages with gilt Buddha statues and a Sarira Stupa, which houses the remains of a famous female monk.
The site is indeed breathtaking, but with Koreans swarming all over the buildings it makes for a difficult task to appreciate the temple as much as it deserves. For me, the autumnal colour of the surrounding forest steals the day anyway!