This weekend we went on an adventure.
Adventure though, I’m coming to realize, was somewhat killed by the invention of the smart phone. Because while yes, we were sitting in a cafe in a rural city in Southeast Korea not sure where we’d be sleeping that night and not sure where exactly the train terminal was, that sense of excitement and uncertainty lasted exactly as long as it took for us to connect to wifi and then promptly check the train schedule and book a hotel via the web.
But regardless of semantics, this weekend we went on an adventure.
I’ve had exactly two weeks in Korea and my friend who I’ve been staying with has been studying for the GRE the whole time. But weekend she was finally going to give herself a little break. So decided that we’d go to 부산 Busan, a port city in the south, for the weekend and stay with a friend of her’s there.
So roughly 9:45am found us in the bus terminal all packed and ready for the weekend only to be told no more busses were leaving for Busan until that evening. We had checked the schedule the night before but apparently the weekend busses to the South fill up rather quickly.
So we looked at each other for a moment, and then my friend said,
“Let’s go to Gyeongju.”
And I said. “Okay.”
And that was the beginning of the adventure.
경주 Gyeongju, she told me, was a historical, traditional city in the South that many many years ago had the been the capital city of Korea. I had absolutely no idea what to expect and it turns out that is absolutely the best mind-set to have at the beginning of an “adventure.”
Before we left we ate a quick breakfast of Kimbap and Ramen.
Side note I haven’t eaten a typical western breakfast since I’ve been here and it hasn’t killed me. In fact I’m starting to wonder who told us that bread, cereal, and eggs were the only things you could eat for breakfast.
After getting something in our stomachs we got on the bus and drove south for about 4 hours.
As soon as we arrived I knew I was going to love the city. The moment we stepped off the bus I could feel how different it was from Seoul. The buildings were all short and most with the traditional Hanok style roofing.
It wasn’t until arriving here, where the sky was big and blue and beautiful, that I realized how grey Seoul is.
Yes, thats a McDonald’s in the background. Unfortunately this is 2016 not 935 when Gyeongju was the capital of the Silla empire.
And yes I took this photo of a Starbucks.
I like to tell myself that I’m the kind of person that doesn’t take photos of Starbuck’s in other countries but here we are. And come on, it’s the most beautiful Starbucks I’ve ever seen. If there’s a way to do a chain coffee shop in a traditional Korean city, it’s like this.
So with no real plan we got on a city bus that seemed to be headed in a good direction and the random stop that we got off on ended up being one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen in Korea so far. That kind of became a theme of this little adventure. Not sure where to go –> head somewhere on a whim –> some how everything ends up working out perfectly.
We followed this little path for a while through the most beautiful flowers completely stunned by the fact that we had stumbled upon this accidentally.
After walking through the field and becoming completely drenched in sweat, it’s still roughly a million degrees and 100% humidity here, we decided to break for lunch.
And again with no real idea of where to look for a restaurant, we started walking through some of the smaller streets.
And after a little while we found a restaurant advertising “Buddhist Monk food.” I still don’t exactly know that means but from my perspective it just seemed to be vegetarian. And it was incredible.
We took out shoes off at the door, sat on the ground at low tables and it was exactly the traditional Korean style meal I was hoping to get to try while I was here.
After lunch we headed off in search of a coffee and wifi to solidify our plans for the night.
We deliberated what to do for a long time and settled on continuing with the Busan plan. I really wanted to see Busan while I was here so we booked a hotel, and tried to figure out train schedules.
The guy who worked at the cafe was so nice and helpful when we asked about directions, he even ended up calling the train station for us because neither of us had cell service. So if you’re ever in Gyeongju please check out the Rice Cake and Coffee cafe. We recommend it.
And conveniently it was directly across the street from where we wanted to go.
As we walked out of the cafe we were greeted by the cool beginnings of what I could feel was going to be a beautiful sunset.
We walked over to a park to see a famous tower and accidentally found some kind of small community event. There was live music, lotus tea, and a photo booth.
All the while the sun continued to set and the feeling of the whole place became more and more surreal.
Maybe it was because I had no expectations coming into the day, but the whole time I kept feeling like I’d accidentally fallen into someone else’s life. The event in the park felt so homey, there were families everywhere, people sitting on blankets in the grass, and the music made it feel like a scene from a movie.
My childhood memories of summer nights, running around my neighborhood under a dimly setting sun as the heat of the day started to wear off, were not so different from this. Summer nights should feel like youth and freedom. And this night, in a traditional city in South Korea, was not an exception.
The program that I’m hoping to come here to teach with in February asks for your preference of where you’d like to live. I listed Seoul because all of my friends live there. But after our day in Gyeongju I’ve started to question that.
The slogan of the city is, “Gyeongju is Korea.” And I think maybe I can understand that just a little bit now. Seoul is Seoul, and it’s impressive and exciting and I think it would be a relatively easy place to live.
But if Gyeongju is Korea then maybe I should live in the country side. I don’t want to miss out on the real Korea while enjoying the comforts of living in a big city.
Once we’d lost the light we started to walk towards the train station and I finally got to see some of the street food Korea is famous for.
We even happened to accidentally see a gorgeous full moon that I tried, and failed, to take a good picture of.
Eventually we found our way to the train station and plopped down very tired for the hour or so ride to Busan.
The spontaneity of the whole day left me feeling like I’d won some kind of prize, like Gyeongju was a secret that I had discovered. It was an absolutely perfect day.
If you come to Korea don’t just stay in Seoul. Seoul is Seoul, but Gyeongju is Korea.