In all my time in Korea, Koreans have frequently recommended I visit one city: Gyeongju. After three years, finally, I have a chance to visit the ancient city during the Chuseok holiday.
My alarm wakes me at 5:00am or so. I must get ready and get to Seoul. I had a bus to catch at 7:50am.
In the elevator of my building.
The streets are eerily quiet and empty.
And the subway station is near empty.
I jump on the subway already waiting for me. In an hour, I will be in Seoul and at the bus terminal. I try to nap but sleep doesn't come easily.
Seoul - Express Bus Terminal
I take the wrong subway exit, and it takes some backtracking to find the main terminal area, but I find it.
Inside, it's bustling with travelers, most of them heading to their hometowns to visit family.
I then use one of these kiosks to get my ticket.
It's really convenient. Reserve online. Put your bank card in the machine at the station. Printed ticket comes out!
With time to kill, I have breakfast at this busy corner restaurant:
Ramen with mandu (dumplings).
Eventually it's time to board the bus...
Onward to Gyeongju!
I'm the only foreigner on the bus. A woman in her 30's takes a seat next to me. She makes a call. I don't know why I eavesdrop, but she tells someone she's "coming home". The way she speaks Korean, it's slow and easy for me to understand.
I eventually fall asleep as the bus jumps on the highway.
The bus makes a pit stop at a rest area. I feel I've slept on the bus forever already and that we should be halfway.
I turn on my phone and my GPS. We haven't even reached Daejon yet! We're just under a 1/3rd of the way there after two hours.
I step outside and use the bathroom. Might as well stretch. The women's bathroom has an enormous line. I pity them.
It's a typical Korean pit stop. Tons of people, 99% of which are Korean. Many quick hot food items and impulse buys for sale.
I jump on the bus. The woman gets back on and sits next to me. I have a small urge to strike up a conversation with her, tell her about my trip to Gyeongju, and ask her what she does in Seoul. I like meeting people. I don't say anything though.
The bus starts up again, and I fall asleep.
Another two hours later, the bus makes a second pit stop at a rest area. I've never been on an express bus ride that made two stops.
I do the typical pit stop things: use the bathroom, stretch, breath air, and then head back to the bus.
The woman makes a call again. She tells whoever she's calling that she's at Chilgok, and she's arriving soon.
I fall back asleep for the final two hours.
I'm sure as heck not in the big city of Seoul anymore...
I don't have time to take a pic, but the bus passes by tons of ancient look structures. I'm excited.
Finally, we arrive at the bus terminal.
On the phone, the woman says "she's just arrived". We all get off, and she disappears forever.
There are tons of people around and surprisingly, tons of foreigners. It feels like a third of the people around Gyeongju are foreigners. And they're mostly from non-Western countries from places like south and southeast Asia, the middle east, Russia, and a few Chinese.
Time is money. I have to find a motel.
Walking around the area, I got this old, small town vibe.
You shouldn't judge a book by it's cover, but you can judge a motel by it's building and even more so by it's lobby. The nicer the lobby, the nicer your room will be.
The first motel I stumble into is 100k a night. Way out of my budget. The next is 50k. Getting better. I then find 40k. Not bad. But the place is 100k for the whole weekend. Too much. Despite rejecting all the prices, everyone is so friendly to me.
I then stumble upon this motel.
Hotel Byeol. It means "Star Hotel". The building is not the best or the worst I've seen. I enter. The lobby looks pretty good so I inquire at the counter. He tells me 40k for one night. I ask about two nights: 80k. Deal!
I originally planned to spend 30k a night. I guess I could waste an hour trying to find that deal or pay 40k and save the hour.
As for the room...
Excellent. Not the best Korean motel room I've stayed in, but it is very good.
And naturally the counter gave me the essentials: you know, toothbrushes, cotton swab, a razor, and of course, condoms. lol.
I then head to the bus tour agency.
I confirm my reservation and the location of the bus pickup spot. I now had a few hours to kill before the 6:30 pm night tour.
Time to explore the city!
On busy Geumseong Street...
Inside the Jungang Market...
I feel like I'm in 1980's Korea.
With all the small buildings, busy streets, and old looking stores, it's like I've traveled back to a time at the start of Korea's economic boom. I would never live here, but I feel great here.
This woman catches me taking a picture of her store. I tell her "sorry". She laughs and smiles.
Everyone is so friendly here.
In fact, the whole street is filled with specialty shops like hers...
That street leads to this charming street...
Which then leads to this magnificent park...
Dongyang Park they call it. And those high hills are actually royal tombs. They seem so unreal; the park looks a level from Mario 64.
And the park lead to these lovely village buildings...
Time for a selfie. =)
This could have been someone's house and yard in ancient times.
Next door is a Buddhist shrine. I'm not sure if I'm allowed in so I don't enter.
And across the street is Daereungwon, which is a park that contains a bunch of royal tombs...
However, that's for Monday's tour so I don't enter just yet.
I feel that I have killed another time and start venture back to the tour agency building. Here are some random sights along the way...
These special Gyeongju bread shops are everywhere. And they only sell the one kind of bread.
Regular people live here!
Actually a modern looking building. I'll be visiting here later. lol
Makes me think of Taiwan.
Huge rental shop.
Nearby the agency and with much time remaining, I decide to finally eat something in Gyeongju. I settle on this simple, small food restaurant...
I love fried rice. This is mixed with ham and vegetables for $6k.
The restaurant is attached to the express bus terminal.
Along the way to the agency, I spot a tourist information center...
...and pick up one of these.
Still more time to kill!
This parking lot reminds me of the parking lot at City College of San Francisco.
I decide the cross the bridge halfway and back...
Another selfie. =) The setting sun is lovely.
Finally, I have killed another time. I enter the agency. They check my name on the list and tell me the bus is outside.
I just rode a bus for six hours. Now I'm riding another!
The seats fill up. The bus departs, and we are off.
The Gyeongju Night Tour
I'm the only foreigner. The tour guide speaks only Korean to everyone. What the heck am I going to do?
We drive around to a bunch of random hotels and stops to pick up some more Koreans. Three young girls sit by me. They seem to be having fun. Of course they are; they understand everything that's going on.
We reach the first destination: Anapji Pond. The driver calls to me and starts speaking English! It feels good. He tells me we should return to the bus in 40 minutes.
I enter the gates. Wow.
I almost feel like I have traveled in time to some magical, ancient garden. However, the crowds of tourists taint the illusion.
I remind myself that I only have forty minutes. I hurry quickly back to the bus. I feel like I'm an astronaut exploring another world with limited time to return to the spaceship.
I make it in time and the bus is off to the next destination. It stops soon after and everyone gets off. Confused, I remain seated. One of the young girls next to me looks at me and points outside. I follow.
Along the path, she shows me on her phone some text from Google translate. I don't understand it as the translation is weird. I then start speaking Korean to her which amazes her. She then explains that we have follow the tour guide.
We reach our destination. So this is Cheomseongdae Observatory.
It's nice. It's big. But it's not THAT big. And after 10 minutes, there isn't really any reason for me to keep on looking at it.
But... we have to stay and listen to the tour guide. I'm sure it's interesting what he's saying, if I could understand it.
Finally, we head to the next destination on foot.
We walk quickly through some pathway that I would have LOVED to explore more deeply. I have no choice but to walk through it.
He gives another speech that I don't understand, and then we finally reach the last destination.
Gorgeous. I love bridges. I wish I could cross it.
We continue walking through an area called Gyochon Village.
I feel like I don't have freedom to explore and must walk fast to keep up with the group. He gives us one more speech and then we board the bus to conclude the tour.
The tour was fifteen bucks (15k won). I later find out that I could have explored these places by myself easily through public transportation (and not to mention, more freely). I think the tour is worth it to Koreans who can understand the tour guide and learn about the history. But to foreigners, it's a waste of money.
Back on the bus, the helpful girl sits next to me instead of her friend. We have a nice chat. I find out her name is Hye-Bin, and she actually lives in Gyeonggi-do which is just outside of Seoul. We wish each other a good trip and part ways. While they're probably in college, her and her friends look as young as high school students.
The Seonggeon Nightlife
I rest back at the motel.
I'm a little hungry so I snack on convenience store food...
I go for something unique: instant ramen with rice and watermelon soda. They're both decent.
Everyone tells me Gyeongju is a countryside city, and that I'm not going to find anything in terms of a good nightlife. But I'm determined to find it.
My internet research tells me to head to the Seonggeon district towards Dongguk University. In Seoul, if there's a university, there's an active nightlife by it. I head outside and head north.
First, I must get through the strip of love motels.
After the motels, it becomes deserted and quiet for a LONG TIME.
What if I had taken a job here when I first came to Korea?
The streets are so dead and empty. I begin to wonder if any nightlife could really exist.
A famous night club chain. Dead.
Passed the last main intersection, I start to see more lights and some people. The further north I walk, the more crowded the streets become.
It's becoming livelier and livelier. And then I spot it...
One turn in and I'm there. Nightlife.
This place is what fills the street with exciting club music.
Even in the countryside you can find nightlife.
And even in the countryside you can find nice cars...
And even in the countryside, you can find REALLY nice cars...
I don't see it too often in Seoul, but I do notice a lot of riced up cars in Gyeongju. And in that way, I am reminded of California.
I must find a bar or club, somewhere I could socialize or at least, get a drink. I finally spot some foreigners hanging outside some bar. This could be my place. As I walk closer, I hear they're all speaking Russian. The sign outside is in Russian too. This is not my scene.
Half of them look Asian but speak perfect Russian. They must be Korean Russians. Suddenly, two start yelling at each other. Before I know it, a fist fight breaks out.
The police eventually come, and I go back to wandering the streets.
After walking a short block, the sounds of hip hop music draws me down this street.
It's coming from the 349 Lounge. It's pop hip-hop, the kind of dance-able beats you hear in Seoul bars and clubs. I search for it on the internet. There isn't much information, but I find a pic that shows a filled bar. Good enough for me.
I decide to enter.
The venue looks pretty sweet. Although there aren't many people, this place looks like it has potential. The music is bumping, and there's enough space to make a dance floor.
The bartender, who is wearing a red racing jacket, greets me with a smile and hands me the menu: a tablet.
I start off with just a Budweiser which he serves to me in a tall glass.
Seeing that I'm alone and the bar not very busy, he asks me where I'm from. We then have a chat. He's really friendly, his English is not bad, and I'm enjoying the chat with him. He tells me there aren't any clubs in Gyeongju, and I'd have to go to the neighboring cities of Pohang or Busan for that.
I order Blue Hawaii and start to feel a good buzz going on.
349km far from Itaewon. Funny. I wish I was there. That Seoul neighborhood has tons of bars and clubs.
"Where are you from?" a woman suddenly asks me in Korean. She had sat at the bar a few stools away and noticed my conversation with the bartender. She's maybe in her late 20's with a flowery top and somewhat strong makeup. We start having a chat. It's actually a bit awkward at first, but we try. The conversation starts to get more comfortable and good, but she suddenly says "one moment" and walks away.
She then talks to these other guys by the darts. I don't know if she knows them, but I think not. Does she just talk to random people in bars? I drink my cocktail. I look at her seat and wonder if she'll return. 10 minutes pass. I finish my drink. I'm not going to wait for her. I leave.
On the way to the door, we pass each other. I give her a polite smile and wave goodbye. She gives me a nice smile and wave. It's probably my imagination, but the look on her face was as if she was expecting to continue our conversation but wasn't expecting me to leave so soon.
I walk back to the motel.
A full moon is out. A supermoon in fact.
The first day in Gyeongju was something. I definitely feel like I am back in time, at moments in the 1980's and at other moments, in ancient Korea.