As someone with Korean heritage, it’s hard to avoid getting questions from some of my friends about traveling to Korea (of course, when I say “Korea,” I mean South Korea). They talk about the kimchi, the bibimbap, the galbi and the hot-pots (read: good food) — the kpop, the Korean drama series and their hopes to bump into some pretty-faced boy band member in skinny jeans. When I announced that I would be visiting Korea this summer, I wasn’t too surprised to have ended up with a long list of skin food products to bring back for my girl friends. But what I didn’t tell them was that I planned to spend most of my time in Gyeong-ju instead of the modern and shopping-crazy Seoul that everyone outside of Korea hears about.
Although not as widely known worldwide as Seoul, Gyeong-ju is actually one of the major tourist destinations in Korea with millions of Koreans and foreigners visiting each year, mainly because of its historical significance as the capital of Silla kingdom. Many relics, tombs, temples and other sites have been maintained by the Korean government, and I was surprised to hear (uncle proudly showing off his knowledge of Korean history) that some of these sites are included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. Indeed, during the 20-minute drive from the train station to my uncle’s house, my mom pointed out historical sites and buildings non-stop, and started giving me a lecture on Korean history and why I should know it. We also drove past Cheomseongdae, an astronomical observatory now considered a national treasure, which even I, the not-very-informed-about-Korean-history daughter, recognized immediately.
I gotta admit that while I’m not the biggest fan of history, what I loved most about Gyeong-ju was just simply how quiet it was, in contrast to the busy streets of Seoul. Sure, I love the clean and convenient ways around Seoul, but living in a big city comes with stress, particularly in Seoul where all the women in the streets are clicking around in heels with their pretty outfits and impeccable makeup — y’know what I mean? The tall, shiny buildings of Seoul don’t exist in Gyeong-ju; they have houses and roofs with tiles. The air is clean and it has a distinct smell that I would call a blend of trees and grass and rain. Oh, and the place is not too hot or humid throughout the day, so I didn’t need to worry about coming back home dripping with sweat, which actually happens quite often when I’m in Seoul.
At the same time, though, Gyeong-ju wasn’t completely all about nature ‘n’ trees either. There were shopping areas that pretty much looked like those in Seoul where I managed to cross out some cosmetic names from the list that my friends composed for me. I also stopped by many clothing boutiques, but they were rather pricey so I had to restrain myself and console myself with a cup of iced chocolate, a drink that is never in the menus of the cafes in NorCal.
On my last day in Gyeong-ju, my uncle gave me a box of “Hwangnam bread” (apparently it’s just called “Gyeong-ju bread” among the tourists — haha, noobs) as my family was waiting to catch the train. Forget how Hwangnam bread was first baked in year XYZ and how it’s one of Gyeong-ju’s specialities and whatnot — I loved how the simple mixture of pastry and red bean was representative of Gyeong-ju and could almost imagine its people sitting in a wondumak (a wooden hut on stilts) late at night, eating Hwangnam bread, enjoying the cool night air. I get jealous for a split second that they could lead such a peaceful lifestyle, before getting on the train. Oh, air conditioning, how I’ve missed you.